Saturday, April 17, 2021

Oddington, Gloucestershire

Doomsday, 1

Medieval wall paintings are among the most fascinating and tantalizing works of art. The fascination comes often not from the quality of the drawing but from the fact that virtually every English example is damaged, faded, and fragmentary. This is a result of iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries, when images in churches were destroyed, often by covering with whitewash. Nearly every English church wall painting has been recovered from beneath at least one coat of whitewash, and the art’s condition depends on the damage done by this overpainting and the skill of the restorer or conservator, as well as the effects of time, damp, and modifications to the building.

Even so, medieval wall paintings can be extremely powerful. Visiting St Nicholas’ church, Oddington – which entails a trip down a long lane to a spot far away from houses and wonderfully quiet – makes one unprepared for the surprise on opening the south door. The enormous 15th-century doom painting stretches over virtually the entire north wall of the church.

The doom or last judgement is the event that takes place when, at the end of time, the souls of the dead are allotted their final place in Heaven or Hell. The events are complex and doom paintings are crowded with figures. As the light in Oddington church isn’t ideal for photography, I’ll describe what I think is going on in this one.§ At the top sits the figure of Christ (slightly to the right of the centre in my picture), with his feet above a disc, symbolising the earth. On his left and right sides are disciples. On either side of the world-disc are angels, and they are probably blowing trumpets to waken the dead and announce that the last judgment will take place: it’s possible to discern a narrow pale line coming from the mouth of the right-hand angel: the tube of a trumpet, I think. Next to the left-hand trumpeting angel stands a figure with a crown: St Peter. Groups of the righteous and repentant are welcomed to heaven by more angels, clearly recognisable by their spread and feathery wings. Heaven itself is, of course, architectural – there’s a slender tower with crenellations on top, linked by a wall (with more crenellations) to what is probably another tower on the far left. The celestial city had a wall, naturally, as any medieval city would do. One of my favourite touches is the small angel on top of the tower, who seems to be helping a soul into Heaven (or is it a bad soul trying to get into the city without authorisation and being pushed away?). On the right is Hell.* Yellow flames are discernible towards the bottom right. A horned devil fans the fire with a bellows. Other devils, dressed in striped garb, round up sinners and get on with the business of torturing them. Further touches: a person hanging from a gallows and another figure kneeling as if begging for mercy. Gruesome stuff, but it would have looked even more dreadful when the paint was new.

The fact that the colour has faded and so much of it has gone is perhaps what makes these paintings so moving. We can only look at them at all thanks to the lucky accidents of discovery and conservation, and their distressed state seems to lengthen the distance between our time and the painter’s. If medieval worshippers trembled with awe at the fate of the lost souls, we are more likely to be awed by the connection this art helps us make with their distant world. We don’t travel back in time or indulge in some ‘virtual medieval experience’ when we look at these paintings. We’re forced to confront another harsh reality: the power of passing time.

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§ Clicking on the image to enlarge it may make it easier to see the details. 

* The whole lower part of the painting has two different background colours. The right-hand half has a red background: this is hell; the left-hand section has a grey-looking background which maybe was once blue: it’s the heavenly realm.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stanton, Gloucestershire

More curves

Bear with me, patient reader, as I indulge my interest with yet one more bit of corrugated iron. The key to the material’s success, from the time of its invention in the 19th century to today, is how the corrugations give this thin, lightweight material strength. Another of its virtues is how it can be bent during the building process, to make roofs that are inexpensive, strong, and curved to shed the rain effectively. Hence its widespread use in barns and sheds – as long-suffering regular readers will know from various past posts.

Here’s another use of the curving process. The photograph was taken some years ago at a plant nursery tucked away in the Cotswolds. The owner was then using several corrugated iron sheds and Nissen huts for work and storage, and where two sit together, whoever erected them has improvised a broad gutter between the two to take the rainwater that runs off. This entailed merely bending a sheet of corrugated iron into a semi-circle. It’s disarmingly simple, and could be made to fit the gap, which is a little wide for a single conventional gutter. Of course, like any gutter, it needs cleaning out, otherwise plants will grow in it, as they have begun to do here. But it’s an ingenious bit of bricolage, to which I raise my hat.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Ryall, Worcestershire


Somewhere in rural Worcestershire, on a road I use quite often when there are no restrictions on travel, these pleasant curves pop up near the roadside. They’re one of the rural landmarks that tell me roughly where I am, how near I might be to one town or another, and they take their place in the ranks of field barns, outlying farms, lone pines, lonelier pubs, and telephone boxes on corners as my personal markers. I suppose I first noticed these buildings because they’re pale in colour, standing out from but harmonising with the surrounding landscape, as they harmonise with the cow parsley blooms in this view, taken when I finally stopped to take a better look.

They confirmed my liking for corrugated-iron buildings with curved roofs – the barns, railway sheds, Nissen huts, and other structures I’ve noticed here from time to time. And they confirm too that corrugated iron can look good in colours other than the usual green or the railway liveries now seen mostly at preserved or ‘heritage’ stations. I think they probably show the material’s adaptability too. I don’t know how these sheds began life – I’d not be surprised if they were built for agricultural use, given where they are. But they now seem to be used as some sort of automotive body-repair shop. They can’t be a bad fit for this use: they are spacious and provide plenty of headroom for vehicles much larger than the chunky classic Land-Rover in the foreground. The shelter and space are no doubt useful for paint jobs too. A good honest working building: so often, that’s just what’s needed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Flexible friends

I’ve done several posts in the past featuring new uses for redundant red telephone boxes. An art gallery in a creative dialogue with the art in Henry Moore’s former house nearby, a village information centre, the vibrant planters in central Bath – these have been the stars. There are also telephone boxes where coffee is served or defibrillators housed, boxes housing miniature libraries, and, in a gloriously self-referential bit of recycling that I wish I’d photographed when I last passed it before lockdown, a business offering mobile phone repairs. Here’s one very close to where I live; or rather, here are six, because these K6 boxes on The Promenade, Cheltenham’s main shopping street, are a throw-back to the time when phone boxes congregated together in groups. In my teenage years I remember making a call or two from one of these boxes. In fact, I remember queueing outside them to make a call, so well used were they in the days before everyone had a phone in their house, let alone a mobile in their pocket. On this street, on a broad stretch of pavement near what was once the General Post Office, there’s this group of six and, a short distance away, another clutch of four.

These six were for a while a sort of outstation of The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Museum and Art Gallery. They have housed various art installations that have entailed peering through the glass at items variously rich and strange. When I last passed, the display was bolder and attached to the windows themselves. It was like a combination of gallery and advertisement: a 3D billboard for a group of artists, with samples of work and contact details. It was part of a project called Art in YOUR Quarter, curated by the Cheltenham Trust and showcasing art created in the community during lockdown and its colourful, bold work had to be able to hold its own in the uncompromising red frame of the glazing bars, and to work across the eight large glazed panels of each outward-facing wall or door.*

If to outsiders this might seem a trifle brash for leafy Regency Cheltenham, that may true only up to a point. In recent years, the town has made a bit of a name for itself as a place that hosts an annual festival of street art. This means that, each summer, a group of artists descend on the town and apply themselves diligently to an agreed stretch of wall. The chosen sites are often tucked away in unregarded corners – unlovely end-walls on street corners, boundary walls in car parks, subways that frankly need brightening up, and so on. It’s a form of sanctioned graffiti that has won over many, including many sceptics. This display on the telephone boxes is not part of the festival but its aesthetic and its street location are compatible with it, yet also on a scale that works better in its town-centre setting. I for one am grateful that it has been brightening up a world that in these times can feel dull, or worse.

And another thing. For many of us, art is an important, even necessary, part of life. You don’t have to be a painter or sculptor to look at it that way: you just need eyes. But not everyone feels that art is ‘for them’. Putting it in phone boxes is one way to make art more visible to more people. And adding the contact details helps too. It’s not just that people might want to buy work from the artists, or to commission them. If these are local artists, it reminds people that art isn’t just in London galleries, isn’t only on rich people’s walls. It’s here, now. And importantly, you don’t need to take a train ride to London to find it. Now more than ever, that’s a message worth remembering.

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* The six boxes featured: illustration by Luna Lotus, photography by Danielle Tipton, illustration by Jose Casey, collage by Ross Morgan, illustration by J.P McCrossan, illustration by Emma Evans, illustration by STISH, illustration by Tom Graham, illustration by Martha Kelsey and illustration by Art Lad.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Malvern Link, Worcestershire

Art and nature

Malvern Link is an area to the north and east of Great Malvern, adjoining a swathe of land called Link Common. Development began after the railway arrived in the 1850s, and continued through the second half of the 19th century into the 20th. Along the main artery, Worcester Road, many of the houses , especially those near or overlooking the common, were built as substantial middle-class homes; there were also several hotels catering for Malvern’s role as a fashionable spa.

This is an example of the former, an attractive house of the very late-19th or early-20th century, glimpsed through the trees and bushes fringing the front garden. Attracted by the winning combination of red brick, white woodwork, tiles, and windows with small panes in the upper sashes, I began to think of Bedford Park, the west London garden suburb that was a product of the 1880s and hugely influential. I think, from looking at old Ordnance Survey maps, that these are slightly later, but in a similar mode.

My eye was drawn especially to the ornamental panels running across the middle of the bay. The subject is stylised foliage and flowers of a fairly standard sort, of course: just what you’d expect on a house of some pretension in a prosperous area. Often such panels are in terracotta, a material popular during the fashion for ‘Queen Anne’ architecture from the 1870s onwards. Architectural ceramics companies had a repertoire of foliage, flowers, curlicues, and various other ornamental details, and builders drew on them widely. Terracotta was usually brick-red but was also available in a less common buff shade that resembled stone. Often it is hard to tell the difference between stone and terracotta, and I am having this difficulty with these Malvern Link examples. But whatever their material, they provide a pleasing touch, now complemented by the living greenery, which, having arrived more recently than the house, seems to be imitating art.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire


Tracing the lines, tracking the curves

I rather admired the tracery of this window when I first saw it – the large east window of a rather small church in Herefordshire – but part of me wished it wasn’t there. Allow me to explain. This church is one of the few that was built in the 1650s, in the Commonwealth period, this country’s brief go at being a republic. However, it was restored twice in the 19th century, at which time the originally rectangular windows were replaced with Gothic ones and most of the 17th century fittings were removed from the interior. Part of me thinks this is a shame, as such interiors are rare. And yet I don’t dislike this east window, attributed to J. S. Crowther of Manchester, the architect of the second restoration in 1887–8.

The tracery design of this window is interesting because it doesn’t seem to conform to one of the standard patters beloved of Victorian church restorers who wanted to bring a ‘correct’ form of Gothic to an earlier church. By this, they usually meant a fairly straight-laced version of one of the three main varieties of English Gothic – Early English with its lancet windows; Decorated typified either by repeating patterns of quatrefoils or by more flowing, curvilinear tracery; or Perpendicular, in which the vertical mullions extend right into the top of the window. In this window, there are some full-length mullions, but these are combined with four quatrefoils and a pair of sexfoils, the six-lobed relatives of quatrefoils. It’s a pleasant variation (tagged by Pevsner as ‘Dec-Perp’), and those sexfoils do give a sense of the decorative to the sometimes rather plain and repetitive patterns in medieval Perpendicular windows.

What I also like about this church is that the churchyard is partly bounded by the most curvaceous hedge I’ve ever seen. It goes on and on, marking the boundary of the nearby big house, for hundreds of yards, forming lumps here, bumps there, curving around a corner, periodically tucking in what looks like a monster’s rear end or poking out a snout and undulating away into the distance like a living abstract sculpture – which I suppose is what, in the hands of someone wielding hedge-trimmer and shears, it has become. I hope to return to this place when the church is open, look inside, and see if this living thing has evolved.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Coleford, Gloucestershire

Writing the Forest, 2

Tom Cousins’ second Forest of Dean mural is on one the side of a former pub in Coleford. It shows three more writers, all linked with the local area, who put the place into their work – or for whom the place lies at the heart of their work. Joyce Latham (1932–2007) grew up near Berry Hill. She wrote poetry and memoirs about her childhood in the Forest. She’s not widely known now, but in her time was a much loved Forest figure. F. W. Harvey (1888–1957) was a poet of the First World War. He was one of the important group of poets of that war who served as private soldiers, unlike many of the most famous war poets who were officers, and like one of my favourites, Ivor Gurney, who was a close friend of Harvey’s. Both wrote movingly of the wartime lives of the troops, and although Gurney is the greater poet, some of Harvey’s works, including the famous ‘Ducks’, still appear in anthologies of war poetry. Harvey spent much of his life as a solicitor, but continued to publish. He also wrote a prose memoir of his time in a PoW camp, which was praised when it came out just after the war. As a young man, Dennis Potter (1935–94) produced one of the best books about his local area, The Changing Forest. He wrote it having left the Forest to go to Oxford and to begin a career in television (he also covered the area in a TV documentary), and could write about his home territory from a special combination of intellectual detachment and deep emotional involvement. He became famous for writing a string of television plays and serial dramas – Stand Up Nigel Barton, Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective, for example – that were controversial and changed the medium. This work was often criticised for both its subject matter and its frankness, but was, rightly I think, very widely praised too. Several of the series and plays were at least partly set in the Forest and in some cases filmed there on location. He never left the place emotionally and lived in later life not far away from it in Ross-on-Wye. Like all the writers celebrated in these murals, the Forest stayed with him,* and he took the place into the consciousness of so many more.  

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* It remained with Potter until the very end of his life. The memories of the Forest in his last interview with Melvyn Bragg, just a few weeks before his death, were for me the most moving sections of that most moving of interviews.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Cinderford, Gloucestershire

Writing the Forest, 1

The Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire’s least known part, is perhaps also the least easy to know. It is long stretches of achingly beautiful woodland – a rich mix, with notable stands of oaks and hollies, to name two of my favourite species; it is also sites of abandoned industry, from Roman ironworking to 20th-century coal-mining. It is mostly rural – even the mining was rural – but there are towns too. If the countryside is visually gorgeous, towns like Cinderford and Coleford are apparently unprepossessing, the kind of places any guidebook with gloss over, or simply pass by. Tourists are directed to the rural Dean Heritage Centre to learn about the area’s history and for refreshments too – and in normal times they’ll be nurtured well there, in both ways. The comedian Mark Steel, arriving in the Forest, asked the whereabouts of the local bookshop, usually a good place to find out more about an area that’s new to you. ‘Bookshop?’ they said. ‘You’ll have to go to Monmouth for a bookshop.’ And Monmouth is in Wales.

But there is always a but, isn’t there? There’s much of interest in these places: medieval and Victorian churches; nonconformist chapels, some repurposed, some still in devoted and devotional use; a town hall or two; other incidental pleasures. Foresters are proud of their history, and some, at least, are proud of their buildings. And of those who’ve written in and about the Forest, which is where the mural in my photograph comes in.

In 2018, an organisation called Reading the Forest commissioned two murals – this one in Cinderford and another in Coleford – from the artist Tom Cousins. Each mural bears portraits of three Forest writers. The idea of the murals was both to celebrate the local literary heritage and to encourage and inspire local young people who might have an interest in writing themselves. The three writers in the Cinderford mural, the first to be painted, all lived in the town, and all their work features the Forest in one way or another. The poet Leonard Clark (1905–81) worked as a teacher and then an inspector of schools. He wrote prolifically, and a lot of his poetry was written especially for young readers; he also edited collections of poetry for children. Quite a lot of his poetry reflects on the life of the Forest and its people, and the area also plays a key part in his autobiography. Winifred Foley (1919–2009) came to fame when her stories of her youth in the Forest were broadcast in BBC Radio’s programme, Women’s Hour. Her stories, collected in such books as A Child in the Forest and In and Out of the Forest vividly recount her young life as the daughter of a miner (who was killed in a mining accident) and her time ‘in service’, performing the expected domestic drudgery for families in London, Gloucestershire and Wales. These books still find readers and are still fresh, decades after they were published. Jack Beddington (1901–86) focused his work single-mindedly on Forest life, to the extent of writing most of it in Forest dialect. Living in Cinderford for nearly all his life, he knew the place inside out (he wrote for the local newspaper for years). If the popularity of his stories and anecdotes was limited mainly to the local area, his plays reached a wider audience, as did his radio appearances.

None of these people were world renowned celebrities. But that, in a way, is the point. Writers like Clark, Foley, and Beddington deserve commemoration on their home patch. At a time when young people in deprived areas face difficulty in finding any job, let alone one that takes them into faraway worlds, the fact that people like this, from families like theirs, could make it as writers, ought to be cause for hope – that writing can be a life, and that pride in your local area isn’t a bad thing.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Edmondthorpe, Leicestershire


This blog is, of course, supposed to be an account of my encounters with buildings, but I’ll include something else occasionally if it seems to me buildings-related or has an architectural quality to it – gate piers, pillar boxes, milestones and the like have all featured here. Hence this village pump, which caught my eye for its obelisk-like form, its puzzling inscription, and its impressive dragon spout. The pump is made of iron – cast iron for the casing and spout, wrought for the handle, I believe.

Whose idea could it have been to erect such an eyecatcher for the village water supply? Presumably the bearer of the initials W.A.P. who, according to an online source, was William Ann Pochin (1844–1901), Lord of the Manor of Bourne Abbots, although he lived in Edmondthorpe Hall. He is said to have restored a number of houses in the village. The houses remain, although the hall burned down in 1943. As to the striking design of the spout, the Pochin coat of arms is the sign near the school just behind the pump, and I couldn’t see anything resembling a dragon in it. However, makers of pumps and those who channel natural springs do sometimes make spouts in the form of such beasts – I’ve seen dragon- or serpent-heads before with water rather than fire spurting out of them. The people of the village were no doubt pleased to have a reliable water supply. This passer-by was delighted to come across such a visual amenity.

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* This structure is a listed ‘building’ and the listing text confirms the material. Foolishly, I did’t strike it when I was there, to see what sound it made. It’s often worth tapping or hitting structures as the dull sound of wood is very different from the knock or ring of metal. Beware, though – if you hit too hard you can come off badly in the endeavour!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Clothes from the Butcher

This is a special sort of shop in Aldeburgh, a business that has been in the town since the 19th century with a fine shop front dating to the 1930s. It’s an old-fashioned Ladies and Gentlemen’s outfitters. Not a clothes shop, or a boutique, or a purveyor of leisure wear: an outfitters. The sort of place where you could buy a proper waxed jacket, or a tweed overcoat, or just a pair of braces. Traditional clothes that will last for years – and when they do start to wear out, you can mend them, or even send them to be mended. There’s much to be said for such places although it also has to be said that these days, they’re mainly the preserve not simply of the old, but of the rich.

But, to the architecture. I like this shop front because it exemplifies something that was once the latest trend in retailing: the deep lobby. The idea was that there would be a broad opening along which you can walk, but instead of reaching the front door immediately, you’d pass more display windows, showing yet more goods to tempt you. There might even be a central island display, fully glazed, in the middle of the lobby, around which you’d be forced to walk, seeing yet more tempting goods as you went. All of which meant that the further you went in, the more likely you were to push the door and enter the shop proper and spend money.

Marvellously, at O. and C. Butcher’s of Aldeburgh all this is still here, and it culminates in separate doors for Ladies and Gentlemen, so that the former can cut straight to the chase without getting tangled up in shirts and braces, while the gents can avoid thinking about ‘foundation garments’ and find what they want with ease. The lettering in stained glass above the doors is Art Deco and very characterful, both the slightly stretched capitals of ‘Shoes’ and the pleasant mixture of ramrod-straight uprights and generous curves on display in ‘Gentlemen’s Outfitting’. It really was almost enough to make me blow my savings on a tweed overcoat.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

 A convenient place of refuge

I was born in Lincolnshire, and therefore know what it’s like to walk along a beach in winter in a howling easterly wind, when you have mixed feelings if the top of your ice cream is blown away because the weather was really too cold for you to be grazing on such delights. A cup of good hot strong tea is more to the point. East-coast seasides need some shelters, so you can drink your tea or just get out of the wind, and they know this just as well at Aldeburgh, Suffolk as they do in Skegness, Lincs (famously ‘so bracing’) or anywhere else.

This shelter is not far from the Moot Hall in my previous post and that bit of patterned brick nogging, low down between the timber uprights, is a sort of homage to genuinely old buildings like the Moot Hall. I suppose this shelter is 20th-century – maybe it was built in the interwar period, although the nogging, with its pristine pointing, looks like a recent repair, and the whole thing could be post-war.* But its age doesn’t matter. It’s not unsightly, incorporates public lavatories, and provides a useful refuge. Good enough for me.

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* However, looking at old photographs, there doesn’t seem to be anything on the site of the shelter in 1910. Another image labelled ‘interwar’ includes it.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Being moved in Aldeburgh

The couple of times I have been in Aldeburgh, I’ve wished the sun was on this side of the Moot Hall, better to show off the beautiful timberwork of the staircase – and I’ve resolved to return another time, earlier in the day, when this west-facing wall would be in better light. The next time was to have been November 2020, but Covid put paid to that. So when I look back at my Aldeburgh photographs, they have a special poignancy and bring with them thoughts of ‘maybe later this year…maybe next’.

The Moot Hall has other resonances for me. First, built in c. 1520 and altered in 1654, it’s a glowing example of Tudor and Stuart timber-framing, stonework and brickwork. There was a restoration in the 1850s, when a lot of the brick nogging* was replaced (the lower floor nogging and the gable end are mostly Victorian, the upper floor 17th century). The external staircase was restored in the 19th century too – but very much as it would have been. It’s not hard to imagine the people of Tudor or Stuart times holding their market downstairs and having town meetings in the upper room. Back then it would also have been even more of a local landmark than it is now, a village hub right on the beach, as close to the sea as the lives of nearly every Aldeburgh citizen would have been.

The Moot Hall is also one of the settings of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, the work that marked his comeback to Britain after a spell in the USA – and which changed the direction, decisively and beneficially, of English opera. The opera’s Prologue is set in the Moot Hall and the work’s plot and music are soaked with the sea – the fate of Peter Grimes and his doomed apprentices is bound up in the sea, and Britten’s music resonates with it, evoking storms and calms alike.† The composer himself, an Aldeburgh resident for much of his life, must have seen the sea most days, looked at it, listened to it, swam in it – and it shows in his music.

A building like this must have many meanings for those who look at it. I’ve simply described what it means – personally, architecturally, musically – to me. They’re the reasons, if you like, why it moves me. Ian Nairn, one of England’s greatest writers about buildings and places, said that in writing his book about London he wanted simply to record, ‘what has moved me, from Uxbridge to Dagenham’.§ That’s one of my aims, when I write this blog, though one can only dream of matching Nairn’s aim with his insight.

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* Nogging is the architectural term for brickwork that is used to fill the spaces between the wooden posts and beams of a timber frame. The bricks are sometimes laid in an ornamental pattern, as they are here.

† One way to appreciate this sea-music, especially if you don’t like opera, is to listen to the four orchestral Sea Interludes (‘Dawn’, ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Storm’) that are played during the opera and can be performed separately from it. There are performances on YouTube, including this one.

§ One of my blog posts on Nairn is here.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Stanton, Gloucestershire

Neighbouring sights

One more post from a trip only a mile or two from home, to remind us all that even the shortest journey can yield up wonders.

Stanton is one of the most picture-postcard beautiful of Cotswold villages. It takes it beauty from an outstanding collection of limestone cottages kept in beautiful condition. They got to be so immaculate in the early-20th century because the village acquired a new lord of the manor, and one rather different from usual. He was Philip Stott, an architect from Oldham, who bought the village in 1906 and devoted most of the rest of his life to restoring its houses, ensuring they were well maintained, and seeing through public works such as the digging of a reservoir to provide a proper water supply.

Stott seems to have been one of those people influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, who cared deeply about keeping buildings maintained using traditional materials and methods, while also realising that people need the basics of modern life like a village hall and clean drinking water. His legacy has lasted many decades since he died in 1937. This house is typical of the region: stone walls, stone slates on the roof, stone mullioned windows, stone chimneys. It has both varieties of dormer windows that are seen hereabouts: two small ones set quite high in the roof and a larger, lower one with a front wall that’s a continuation of the wall below. Both types set a challenge to the roofer when the dormer roof meets the main slope at an angle. This can be managed either with careful slate cutting and installation of leadwork beneath, or with bespoke angle tiles at the join.

The village cross, in shadow but unmistakeable on the left, is a mixture, no doubt put together by Stott. The base and shaft are medieval; the block that tops the shaft and holds a sundial is 17th-century; I’m not sure about the ball finial and cross. Whatever the answer, pains were taken in the 20th century, but the result looks timeless. We were privileged to have this view to ourselves, the day we passed through. The people who live here are likewise lucky, though on sunny summer days when the place fills up with admiring tourists they may reflect that their luck has its price. Such are the drawbacks of paradise.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Columns in the sun or The Architecture of Looking Sideways 

Chipping Norton’s Town Hall seems oddly planned when you first look at it. The big portico is not in the end wall, which faces the Market Place and is where, on the face of it, you’d expect the door to be. Instead it’s on one of the long sides, facing a narrow street. One reason for this is that the ground slopes quite steeply, falling away from one side of the plot to the other, meaning that the end is on the slope, meaning in turn that an end with a grand portico and big central entrance would be a challenge. So you go in through the side, the part visible in my photograph.

The architect of the hall was G. S. Repton, son of the more famous Humphry Repton, of landscape gardening fame. G. S. Repton had trained with the elder Pugin. He had also worked in John Nash’s office, which must have given him a good grounding in classicism and in working in a busy office to tight schedules. By 1842, when this Town Hall was built, he was in practice independently, and designing this building with its very plain Tuscan portico must not have been a challenge. It’s a very simple, neo-Classical frontage, with plain stone walls punctuated by a couple of niches and the big central portico, which gets its effect from size and discreet mouldings.

Sunshine also adds hugely to the building’s impact, bringing out details and casting deep shadows. Here as so often this kind of neo-Classicism works best in strong warm side light. Even better, looking at it slightly side-on – which the narrow street encourages us to do – makes the effect still stronger. The great designer Alan Fletcher encouraged us to cultivate ‘the art of looking sideways’,* by which he meant applying lateral thinking to visual matters. Here, looking sideways in the literal sense seems to work too.

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* See Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon Press, 2001)

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Badsey, Worcestershire


I’ve always been vaguely aware that the Vale of Evesham had more than its fair share of those marginal buildings that people categorise as sheds, shacks and huts, buildings that are small, often made by their owners, and constructed of a cheap, easy to work material such as wood or corrugated iron. I first thought of this kind of building looking at roadside shacks and stalls from which fruit and vegetables were sold in season. The Vale of Evesham was one of England’s foremost market-gardening areas and driving out there in summer, one would often see makeshift signs advertising strawberries, plums, or ‘fresh local grass’ – that being West of England shorthand for asparagus. Much fruit and many veg are still grown in the Vale, but the advent of ‘pick your own’, the disappearance of many small farms and smallholdings, and the growth of supermarkets has made these stalls less common than they were. They’re still there though and still a good place to buy whatever it is that’s ripening.

But there’s another building type, similarly modest, home-made, and unsung: the hovel. A hovel (or ‘ovel’ in the traditional parlance) was a shed that a market gardener would build on his land, where they could store produce, keep tools and other equipment from canes and stakes to sacks that was needed from time to time, and shelter if the weather turned bad. Hovels were small, but a bit bigger than many garden sheds. Growers were often tenants, but would build such a structure on the land they rented because of a tradition that allowed one to the right to claim compensation for improvements made to the land while you were cultivating it.

Growers needed a shed or hovel because they usually lived in a village some way away from their land. So they needed storage and somewhere to sit down for a rest and a packed lunch. These days, when every small farm has a car or a van or both, hovels are less useful, and many have been left to rot and rust away. But a few survive like this one in Badsey. It was always a rather superior example, being built in part of durable brick, but with an addition in corrugated iron and another add-on that I think is mainly wooden. A few buildings like this are being restored, preserved, and used to show people something of the history of this important local agriculture. Eritage ovels? A little self-conscious perhaps, but if it helps impart some historical awareness, by no means a totally bad thing.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Swindon, Wiltshire

Mighty delicate

If you think of Swindon as a railway town, which, as the location of the GWR locomotive works it certainly became in the 19th century, you’d expect it to have at least one water tower. It still has more than one, and this is my favourite. It’s on the edge of the railway works site, and is extra tall so that it could provide water at high pressure, for fire-fighting. It was built in 1870 using components of cast iron and the strength of the ironwork and its bracing is enough to create a tall structure bearing what must have been a prodigious weight of water in the tanks on top.

The delicacy of this structure, which reminds me of the appearance of the iron frameworks around gas holders, tricks the eye somewhat. There are four stages to the tower, marked by a succession of cast-iron girders, and each is far bigger than a single storey of a conventional house – it’s roughly 75 feet tall all told I think and the tanks are about 2 metres high. By 1870, Victorian engineers were very good at building iron framework structures. After all, they’d had lots of experience, constructing bridges and making load-bearing frames for factories. It might have been easy for them, but, seeing a frame exposed like this – and beautifully preserved too – still impresses me, mightily.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Swindon, Wiltshire

Whatever next?

Whatever can that be? This was my first thought on encountering The Platform, now a venue for music and educational work concerned with the arts, in Swindon’s Farringdon Street. The spires made me think of a church, but the part to the left, with its small windows over several storeys, did not seem to fit with that, unless this was a very well appointed Victorian chapel, with additional hall and meeting rooms. Surely not?

The building is on the edge of the railway village, built by the Great Western Railway from 1840 onwards to house staff at the locomotive works that stands nearby. Many of the workers, who arrived in Swindon from all over the country, were single men, and Brunel saw the need for accommodation suited to them – somewhere to lodge for people who did not need or could not afford a whole house. So he built this, a ‘model’ lodging house, designed to house about 100 men and to provide kitchens, a bakery, and day rooms (the individual mens’ rooms were small, with space for a bed, drawers and a chair, so residents needed somewhere to relax when they weren’t working). Construction began in 1847, but immediately stopped because of a recession, to be resumed again in 1853–55 to a revised design.

The result was certainly impressive, but the hostel wasn’t popular with those who lived there, who mostly preferred to find traditional lodgings with local families. Locals took to calling the place ‘the Barracks’ and apparently the residents found it institutional. One can’t blame them. Buildings made up of scores of similar rooms usually do have that feeling to them. In the early 1860s, the company converted it to small flats, to house an influx of Welsh ironworkers who were hired when they built new rolling mills, but even these men and their families were soon accommodated in proper houses added to the railway village. After a while the building became a Wesleyan Chapel, then in the late-20th century a museum of the GWR, then, after 2000, was given over to its present use. Now, presumably, it languishes in lockdown, and one hopes the current users will be able to return soon and bring life to this lively piece of architecture.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Well connected 

Hailes is a tiny, remote place I’ve featured here several times before. It gets my attention often because it’s close to where I live, indeed the church was one of the last I visited before the current lockdown. It’s one of those with medieval wall paintings, images that have faded and that put the modern viewer in a combined state of fascination and puzzlement. The paintings in the chancel – the detail in my photograph is a tiny fragment of three walls full of fragments and fading wholes – must have been very lavish. Large areas beneath and between the windows are covered with square and diamond grids contain heraldic symbols. If nowadays it seems odd that such a small and isolated place should display so much aristocratic symbolism, it’s because in the 13th century the church acquired a new neighbour, the large Cistercian abbey of Hailes, founded by Earl Richard of Cornwall (King of the Romans* and younger son of King John of England) to house a relic said to be the blood of Christ, which was to attract pilgrims from far and wide. The little church by the abbey appears to have become of the gate chapel of the larger foundation. The decoration in the church reflects this rise in the building’s status. 

The heraldic devices on a display include a large pride of lions rampant (visible here) and the occasional spread eagle: both are devices used by Earl Richard. Most of the other heraldry is said to belong to Richard’s wives – he had three, two of whom predeceased him. In the upper areas of the walls, above the windows, are scenes that are difficult to decipher possibly portraying the death of the Virgin, plus saints and Apostles. Another feature of these upper areas are grotesque and mythical beasts, such as the pair in my photograph. On the left is a dragon-like creature: its reptilian wing has faded but is still there in outline. On the right is another winged beast with a rather canine head. I’m really not sure what these creatures are doing here. There are plenty of explanations for images in this vein in sacred spaces – they’re survivors of pagan religion, they’re apotropaic images, meant to keep out evil spirits (often placed at ‘vulnerable’ points like doors or, as here, windows). But we can’t be sure, and scholars like Professor Paul Binski, who has been studying medieval imagery for years, advised in a recent lecture† that one should beware of overthinking them. Images like this, he argues, could just as likely be bits of fun, like the marginalia in Medieval psalters. And that is precisely what the Hailes images resemble.  

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* This medieval title means, in modern terms, king of Germany. 

† In a recent lecture for the Churches Conservation Trust in their excellent series of online talks; most can be found on YouTube at the time of writing.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Ledbury, Herefordshire

Putting up a front

In the same street as my two previous posts is this building, one that has caught my eye before as I’ve driven past. It’s very much the kind of facade that makes you want to do a double take. On foot, this was possible, and the photograph is one result. It turns out to be a former Wesleyan Methodist chapel, built originally in 1849 but upgraded in 1884, when this elaborate frontage was added. It’s quite a statement in a sort of free Romanesque style: twin towers that decide to become octagonal partway up (they contain stairs to internal galleries), big windows, a really large rose window, yellow brick dressings contrasting with the red. A hundred years on from the refronting, the central part of the ground floor was altered – a pair of exterior staircases to the upper level were taken out and the rather dull central doorway block substituted. That was no doubt practical but seems to have been unfortunate visually. Now to make matters worse the whole building seems to be empty.

I don’t know more of the chapel’s history, but it’s very grand for a small town. However, judging by the large 19th-century houses further up the same street, Ledbury was clearly prosperous in that period. It’s in a rich agricultural region (lots of hop fields, together with mixed farming) and the town must have benefitted from the railway link. Ledbury was linked to the West Midlands Railway in 1861 and a branch to Gloucester was added in 1885. Some of the town’s Methodist population may have benefitted from the town’s new opportunities and put some of their profits into the church. What they built reminds us how bold some nonconformist architecture could be, and how the design of some of these buildings could draw on the variety of styles available during the most eclectic periods of the Victorian era.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Ledbury, Herefordshire

TA very much 

This is one of a row of four shops that make up the ground floor of a large timber-framed building in Ledbury, not far from the door canopy in my previous post. The building was once quite a grand town house, built in the 17th century and altered in the 18th. I often wince when I see more recent shop fronts inserted into ancient buildings, sometimes with little or no regard to the structure above. An example in Banbury that I posted a couple of years ago is an example. But times and needs change. Towns evolve, and buildings are altered in turn – I don’t want to pursue a Darwinian metaphor too far but the evolution can enable the building to survive.

And then, looking a little closer, I find that there are actually things to admire in the later additions. The blue and white shop front next door has a good frontage. It’s a hardware store, hard to see architecturally when the shopkeeper’s wares spill out on to the pavement, but the shopkeeper is more interested in making a living than in my impulse to clear gardening equipment or bedding plants out of the way so I can admire the architecture. But, briefly, there’s some unusually shaped panelling and a nice curved console bracket, its flutes picked out in white. A Victorian carpenter must have been pleased with that 150 years ago.

But it’s the shop front next door that my picture shows more fully. It’s plainer, but it’s nicely dentilled. There’s jazzy black and white tiling just visible beneath the doormat by the entrance, and I wonder if those upper panes of glass are the size of the originals (maybe – plate glass got quite large after 1851). The wall of the entrance porch looks as if it has been ‘done’ in faux timber-framing, but even that has its charm and is black and white, to match the building as a whole. More than this, recent owners have made something of the frontage. There’s some pleasant gilded lettering in the lower part of the window and the painted sign up in the fascia is very well made, in attractive serif letters (even if the small numerals in ‘1966’ are a little squashed for my personal taste).

Established 1966: it doesn’t seem that long ago. I can remember 1966. But hang on – if I can remember it, it doesn’t mean it’s recent, I’m sorry to say. A business that has continued for 55 years is something to be proud of these days. Especially when the High Street is expected or obliged to reinvent itself every five minutes and is threatened by online competition, out of town malls, and lockdowns. In summary, the signs both look good and tell us what we want to know – that it’s a fruit and veg shop, that the proprietors’ names are MA and TA Jenkins. I hope they can carry on much longer. TA very much.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Ledbury, Herefordshire

A word in your shell-like 

Walking along the main street in Ledbury during a past pre-lockdown trip, I chanced upon this small gem. It was an example of having the chance to look slowly at part of a street I’d previously only driven along, and the subject of my photograph was one of several small pleasures hereabouts. It’s a door canopy marking the entrance to an otherwise unexceptional looking house that had been made over to a retail use of some sort and happened to be on the market when I passed. I couldn’t find out anything much out about it but the front seems to be that of a small early-Georgian house, four windows wide with a dentil eaves course and two dormers in the roof. The brick has been painted white.

This shell-like door canopy is the stand-out feature. It’s a kind of design not uncommon in the early-18th century, in which the canopy over the door is fashioned like a ribbed scallop shell. The ribs converge at a central feature, in this case a tiny head (more often it’s a scroll of some sort). The ribs in this example have been ornamented with rows of protruding hemispheres that diminish in size as the space gets narrower towards the centre. A dentil course runs around the outer edge of the canopy and the whole thing rests on scroll brackets. I’ve seen similar ones dated 1720, and mounted on rather bigger houses than this one – it’s a delightful and rather swanky adornment to an otherwise modest house.

The canopy and the brick front are maybe an addition to a much earlier house. The building next door, which also has a brick frontage, apparently has an old timber-framed structure hidden behind and Ledbury has many Tudor and Stuart buildings. But who knows? It’s enough for me that it yielded this charming Georgian door canopy to admire on a dull morning, helping to make a short trip more pleasurable.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Leiston, Suffolk


Back in November 2019, the Resident Wise Woman and I made a trip to Suffolk to visit the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, look at some old buildings, visit Sutton Hoo, and gorge on some very good fish and chips. Orford Castle, which I featured in my previous post, was one place on my itinerary. Quite early on the Sunday, before the poets started reading, we visited Leiston Abbey to wander among its 14th-century ruins and enjoy a little of the seclusion that the medieval canons who lived there must have enjoyed or endured as they followed the regime of prayer, study, and work that was imposed on them by the Premonstratensian rule that they lived by.

The abbey was founded by Ranulf Glanville, justiciar of Henry II, in 1182 but the original site proved impractically swampy. So they moved to the location of the present ruins, taking some of the materials of the original building with them when they built anew. This, together with the austere values of their rule, may account for the fact that the architecture that’s visible on the ground is mostly very plan: round piers, arches with very simple mouldings.† This is the kind of architecture that can be seen in the view from a transept through a chapel to the sanctuary in my photograph above. If there were any more decorative details from the 14th century, they’ve gone, although there’s a littler ornate Gothic ornament in some brickwork from a later repair.

We had the ruins to ourselves on our visit, but the abbey did not feel quite as secluded as I expected because there were people in residence. At the dissolution the building passed to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who built a farmhouse along one side of the nave; some of the monastic buildings were used agriculturally. The house was refronted in the Georgian period and is now the quite substantial home of the Pro Corda music school. As we walked around, peering through arches and working out where we were in terms of the monastic layout, the air resounded with fragments of Brahms from a clarinettist and something mellifluous but unidentifiable† on the violin. An example of what I call ‘accidental music’, that’s to say, music that I encounter by accident, which for its unexpectedness is often some of the most enjoyable of all.

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• On the hand, it is probably also the case that some or more decorative stones were removed after the dissolution. 

† I mean unidentifiable by me – there was nothing wrong with the playing, just a gap in my musical knowledge.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Orford, Suffolk

Keep safe 

Stuck indoors the other day, I found myself looking something up in The English Buildings Book, a volume of nearly 400 pages that Peter Ashley and I created for English Heritage about 15 years ago. It impresses me now that Peter managed to produce photographs of more than 700 buildings, ranging geographically from Alnwick to Penzance, in well under two years (while also doing other work) and that I wrote the text for the book in the same time span. While Peter scoured the country, getting scratched by prickly hedges as he backed into them to find the best vantage point for tall churches, or endured a stiff talking-to from a police officer because the building he was photographing was a little more sensitive when it came to security than either of us had realised, I worked my way through all kinds of sources, from obscure items in English Heritage’s library and archive in Swindon to my very familiar and much-used volumes of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series and standard works such as Colvin’s Dictionary. As I thumbed through the book, I happened upon the section on castles, and the sight of the photograph of Orford Castle’s great tower reminded me that I’d been there late in 2019: another pre-lockdown memory.

Orford Castle was built for Henry II in the 1160s and 70s, and the size and solidity of the great tower is a sign of how important this structure was to him. The design is outstanding too. It’s very different from the square towers like Rochester and Colchester erected for the earliest Norman kings. It’s polygonal in shape, but the polygon is complicated and strengthened by three large abutting towers, big enough to contain a sizeable room on each floor. It looks the part, and that was certainly the point – Henry built it as part of his assertion of power when he came to the throne in 1154, just months after the end of the civil war that marked the reign of Stephen. Orford Castle helped him keep control of a part of the country that was home to barons who’d taken the opposing side in the war. In addition, the caste gave Henry’s garrison a vantage point over Orford’s harbour, a potential landing place for enemies holed up in France. When the barons rebelled under King John in 1215, their allies from France took Orford. However the tower survived (a surrounding stone curtain wall has long gone) and still stands to give externally an impression of the building that faced these conflicts. For my money, it’s one of the most impressive of all medieval English castle towers.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Sticklepath, Devon

Rustic Gothic 

Here’s just the sort of thing for a mid-19th century garden-owner to relax in after a few hard hours digging or weeding. It’s a thatched wooden summerhouse designed in a sort of picturesque rustic Gothic.† Based on a tough wooden framework filled in with boards, the decorative effect has been enhanced by adding further narrow strips of wood arranged in patterns of diagonals and chevrons. Round the pointed Gothic windows these patterns go, and across the panels below them, and up the posts as well, to produce something much more striking that the off-the-peg tongue-and-groove board that wooden garden buildings usually have to show for themselves today. The thatched roof tops the design, suggesting the charming octagonal thatched cottages and gate lodges so popular at in the late-18th and early-19th centuries as the influence of the Picturesque movement spread across the country. It must have looked at home at a time when stumperies* were fashionable (the late-1850s onwards) but would work in a modern garden too. 

Who created this modest extravaganza? So often, with small buildings like this, we simply don’t don’t know. But in this case we do, thanks to a helpful notice inside. The summerhouse was built by Thomas Pearse, serge-maker of Sticklepath, for his garden, where it remained for about a century. In 1974, a member of the Pearse family, Mrs C. N. Jeavons, presented it to the Finch Foundry, and it was moved to its present location between the foundry buildings and the Quaker burial ground. Pearse, a local worthy from a nonconformist background, bought the burial ground for the village when its Quaker owners wanted to sell it, and set up a trust to run it. It became non-denominational and Pearse himself is buried there. How fitting, though, that this public-spirited man should have this additional memorial, a useable and attractive shelter that marks a bit of village history – and also exemplifies a stage in the history of architecture and design. 

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† I posted about a similar summerhouse, glimpsed over a garden wall, here.  

*A stumpery was an ornamental garden feature rather like a rockery, but with chunks of tree stump, root, and other pieces of wood instead of rocks. The first recorded stumpery was installed in the garden at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire, in 1856.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Dartmouth, Devon


Summer days, 4

For my final post in this short series about seaside buildings, here’s a very different structure on the Quay in Dartmouth. The hotel has been a vital feature of coastal towns since seaside holidays became popular in the 19th century, but many coastal hotels have a longer history, as stopping places for travellers and visitors alike. This one, far older than the 19th century, has the pale coloured walls of my previous coastal buildings, but there the resemblance ends.

The Royal Castle Hotel began life in 1639 as a pair of merchants’ houses. They had timber-framed fronts, although some of the cross walls are stone. By 1736 one of the houses was an inn, called the New Inn, and later during the 18th century the two houses were combined to form a single property, by now called the Castle. There was a major remodelling in 1840, with internal upgrades and a renewal of the front that faces the water. This was probably when the timber frame was plastered over – it’s still there underneath, as shown by the fact that the first and second floors both protrude slightly from the storey above, a fashion that was popular in 1639 but had died out by the following century. The elaborate faux fortification – crenellations and turrets – that make up the parapet may well date from the time of the remodelling and there may or may not have been something similar there when the inn was renamed the Castle.

At a quick glance, the Royal Castle Hotel looks very much of a piece – white facade, sash windows, battlements, gilded lettering. But it’s actually the creation of several separate phases of building and upgrading, over nearly 400 years. Like so many old buildings that look as if they’ve been the same for centuries, this one has been – in architectural terms at least – continuously changing to meet seaside and wider needs and fashions, metaphorically on the move.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Dartmouth, Devon


Summer days, 3

On one of many recent days stuck in doors, the Resident Wise Woman reflected that it was fortunate at least that we’d managed a trip to Devon and another to Aldeburgh late in 2019. The virus couldn’t take those memories away from us, even if it has deprived us of the trips we’d planned for 2020.† Drifting around the streets of Dartmouth was one of the pleasures of the Devon trip. It’s a town full of architecture pleasures, but here’s one of the more incidental ones: a house near the water and another exemplar of that seaside style I’ve been exploring in my previous two posts.

Well, partly. Actually this is a bit more sophisticated than the pretty but random-looking houses on the front at Lyme. This is Regency sophistication, and plenty of it. The house has the pale blue finish that one could find near the sea at any coastal town. But in other respects we’ve moved away from architectural casual wear and got into high fashion. That pattern of glazing in the window, with narrow panes near the edges (and there are several more of them in the storey above) is classic early 19th century. What you can’t see in my photograph is that the window also has a curving top, enhancing the Regency feel. Also very much of its time (1820s or 1830s) is the cast-iron balcony with its pattern of crosses. This balcony is an interesting combination of solidity – the ironwork looks very substantial – and fragility: the floor is thin timberwork and the brackets, as so often, seem very modest; indeed, diagonal iron rods have been fitted so that the ironwork is fixed to the wall higher up (one of these is just visible among the foliage at the left).

Then there is the doorway. This is a show-stopper. The doorcase alone is special, with its diagonal grooved decoration up the sides and across the segmental top; then a bat-wing design with oval medallion carved between the segmental curved and the fat hood. The door is also impressive, with its pattern of studs. This may be a terraced house, but its doorway make one feel as if to go in would be to enter the home of a person of consequence. For the mere passer-by it at least had the effect of lifting the spirits, something that all good seaside houses should do,.

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† Not to mention any plans we might have had for 2021. Old Czech joke: Q: How do you make God laugh? A: Tell him your plans.

* Pevsner calls this ‘an unusual pattern-book doorcase’. Well, provincial builders did indeed lift their designs from pattern books, but wherever it comes from, this example is certainly unusual.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Southwold, Suffolk

Summer days, 2

This bit of seaside domestic architecture made me pause, and took me back. It’s years since I saw the film Mary Poppins (in fact, I was a child when I saw it), but I seem to recall that near the beginning there’s an old telescope-wielding sea captain watching the clouds from a balcony high on the roof of his house. ‘The wind is changing,’ he says, and the wind soon brings to our eyes Mary Poppins herself, floating on her umbrella, to create enjoyable disruption to the ordered life of the Banks family. An old sea captain who liked watching the clouds of the ships could do a lot worse than a balcony like this.

It sits atop a house near the sea at Southwold, and would be ideal for such a character. I’ve no idea how it got there – whether it was a perch for a ship-owner or merchant of days gone by who needed to keep an eye on the traffic out at sea, or a watchman’s post, or simply a modern jeu d’esprit, a place to sit out or admire the view. However it got there, it’s a diverting bit of seaside architecture that sums up the way in which coastal houses often celebrate the meeting of indoors and outdoors. Balconies, verandas, terraces, look-out points, big windows or French windows from which you step straight out of your living room into the garden or even on to the sea front – all these things abound at the seaside. If spas like Cheltenham are the places for cast-iron balconies, seaside towns are the place for wooden railings, painted white or in pastel shades, whether simply designed like the ones here or with more complex timberwork.

There’s a sense, in making ornate railings or in having a balcony at all in a place where, as here, you need a special staircase to reach it, that builders and owners have made that extra effort to make the place really special. And that life is lived partly on show – we can see you up there, almost as clearly as you can see us – so the building at least is good to look at. Oh yes: people go to the seaside for the sun, the sea, the fresh fish, for sailing (even for crazy golf). But also for things like this.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Lyme Regis, Dorset

Summer days, 1 

As the sleet came down in late December, I found myself looking through my files of photographs and came across a number taken near the English coast when the sun was out and the sky was blue. In one way it was good to look at images of summer days at a rather bleak moment, though in these times of confinement it’s not easy to imagine being able to jump in the car and decide, spontaneously, to head to the coat and visit somewhere like Lyme Regis. Looking at the photograph above, though, also reminded me how the houses in so many coastal places have a recognisable ‘seaside look’. What does it mean to say this, and how is it expressed, architecturally? It’s a combination of things, not all present in the picture, not all constant, for seaside houses as much as the homes in an inland town are built for different people with different needs, priorities, and budgets. But a few features of these Lyme houses can point the way to an answer. 

One thing is colour. A lot of seaside houses are finished in stucco or other render that’s painted, either white or in pastel shades. Here there are pale pink, green, and blue houses, along with the ubiquitous white. There might be several reasons for this. A lot of seaside houses were built in the 18th and, especially, 19th centuries as stays beside the sea became fashionable, first for the leisured classes, then for poorer people. Sometimes these houses were built quickly, and stucco was a way of hiding rough masonry beneath a civilised surface. This sort of finish was anyway popular in the late-Georgian and Regency periods, when many such houses were built. Lyme developed as a spa in the 18th century and was still popular when Jane Austen visited in 1804. A lot of Lyme still has a late-Georgian or Regency feel to it and these houses reflect that. As well as walls with a pale finish they have another typical seaside feature: bow windows. These curvaceous windows were very much a Regency fashion – there are lots of them in the Prince Regent’s favourite town, Brighton. They’re used at the seaside because they let in lots of light and offer good views. I think there’s also a ventilation benefit. If you want some air, but there’s a stiff breeze blowing, some part of a bow window may well be out of the line of the wind, so you can get some ventilation without having all your papers blown off the table – most advantageous to writers, as I have found.*  

So far, so practical. But it may simply be that the reason for these features, along with such elements as the fancy ironwork around the porches and the elegant fanlights with their nicely curving dripstones, is that they look good, and look good in a celebratory way. They’re meant, I think, to make you smile, to lift the spirits. This is informal beauty, too. The houses make a virtue of being asymmetrical – it doesn’t matter that they’re not the matching, carefully proportioned Georgian boxes or terraces that you might see in the ‘best’ streets in London or Bath. Again asymmetry was popular in the Regency period more general, but add all these features together and I don’t think it’s fanciful to see this as relaxed, kick-your-shoes off architecture, where sitting outside on the pavement in front of your house is acceptable, and where you won’t be scorned if you’re engaged in the idle enjoyment of summer days. 

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* Of course, you might be a ship-owner and have more than a passing interest in the vessels in the bay; a good view is useful for you too.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Frampton-on-Severn, Gloucestershire



If the Herefordshire farmyard in my previous post presented a pleasant contrast between timber and brickwork, this large barn near the Severn at Frampton is a tapestry of materials: timber framing, basket-weave infill, weatherboarding, brickwork, a stone base, a shingled roof. It’s not unusual in the Vale of Severn to see in one glance several different building materials, though it is surprising to find such a mix in one building. It’s not difficult to imagine how it happened. The different materials were probably added in stages, as repairs and changes became necessary. Stone is not present close to the site, and transporting stone is costly (even though the river makes transporting heavy goods straightforward), but it’s worth getting stone for the base. On top of that you put a strong oak frame, filling in the gaps at first with wattle and daub, with perhaps some sections of woven, basket-like infill to give good ventilation. At some point the wattle and daub needs replacing. Brick is now made locally so that’s a good, durable material for infill, so some parts get brick ‘nogging’. Then you extend the barn, now all in brick, on a lower stone plinth. The weatherboarded end may represent another repair at some stage. All this is pure guesswork, of course, and it could have happened in other ways, but the effect is one of effective and pragmatic bricolage. 

There’s something visually satisfying about the resulting patchwork (or patch-up work). Maybe that’s because most of what’s there has been there a long time, and the building looks as if it has grown old gracefully. In addition, the barn has been carefully repaired in recent years so that it’s sound, as well as beautiful. And there’s also the fact that all this variety makes up the distinctive sight of a characterful and ancient great barn, giving it a noble, indeed monumental, appearance. This is, in essence, an industrial building, made that way because its original users knew it would work that way. But it is a world distant from the structures put up on most farms now, let alone on most industrial estates. Frampton – and the world – are better places for such things. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Happy New Year

Living off one’s fat

‘Are you living off your fat?’ No, that’s not a remark about over-indulgence at the Christmas dinner table. It’s a question a friend asked me in a Zoom session the other week. He was referring to a comment of my own about how I was coping with the restrictions placed on us all by Covid 19. I said that I have been coping quite well, but it’s frustrating not being able to get out and look at buildings so much, and that this poses limitations on blogging. As a result, many of my 2020 posts have been about buildings in my immediate neighbourhood, while others feature photographs from my archives that had been set aside for possible use one day – in other words, yes, I’ve been living off my fat.

There’s quite a lot of material to choose from, but how will I approach this blog in the coming months, which promise to be at least as uncertain as the last few? I’ll aim to carry on in the same vein, I think, because enough people tell me that they enjoy the blog, and because writing at least one post a week (actually, it more often turns out to be two posts) gives me some satisfaction. John Naughton, who writes about the internet in The Observer, mentioned in a recent column a remark of Dr Johnson's that resonates with journalists and authors generally: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’ Maybe so. And yet high-profile writers like Naughton and less widely known authors like me carry on blogging for the simple reason that we enjoy doing it. 

Putting aside such selfish reasons, I’m more aware than ever that putting information and images online that give people pleasure and help them appreciate the visual qualities of what is around them is worthwhile in times when the internet is filling up with bile, wilful misinformation, or anxiety. Much as I sympathise with the anxious – sometimes I share their anxiety – I feel I’m one of those who can offer something different. I can’t do this as effectively on Twitter or Instagram: their platforms don’t quite fit the format of three or four paragraphs of text plus one or two images that I find natural.* So blogging, for me, continues to seem worthwhile. 

Onwards, then, into 2021. May we all look forward, as this new year goes on, to better, safer, and happier  lives than most of us had in the last one.

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* I do have an Instagram account, however. So if you would like to see a few more of my pictures, go to Instagram @philipbuildings

Photograph Porcine portrait in ceramic tiles, Jesse Smith, Butcher, Cirencester, Gloucestershire