Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire


Not quite doomed

We know it’s all fleeting now, don’t we? In these times of pandemic and climate change we know that things we’ve taken for granted are no longer the certainties we thought. To mourn the demise of long-distance air travel or petrol cars might seem trivial when human life itself is so fragile or when swathes of houses and alas their occupants succumb to floods and mudslides in Germany or wildfires in Australia or North America. But briefly, and because I came across it the other day, here’s a building that seems to be symbolic of the loss of a kind of ‘motoring’ that’s already long gone. It’s a garage on one of the roads into Much Wenlock, a structure of wood and corrugated iron that cannot have cost much to build but must have serviced cars and small commercial vehicles for decades.

The main body of the building is a large workshop, with glazed sides to admit plenty of light – at the front it has a bright blue door to the right, behind the furthest petrol pump, big enough to admit a car or largish van. This side of the door is a lean-to containing a small shop full of old cans, oily rags and Ferodo fan belts, and next to the shop, also under the lean-to roof, is a trio of petrol pumps. These represent three generations of pump: an early slender-topped pump,* a later tall one with an analogue, clock-face style dial probably dating to the 1940s or 50s, and in the centre one (of the 1970s perhaps) with a mechanical digital display in which slowly turning numerals register the amount of petrol and the cost. None of these have their globes to show the brand of fuel on sale, and all have flaking paint but look restorable.

From the well painted but slowly vanishing lettered sign to the humblest rusting file inside, this garage is a bit of motoring history, testimony to thousands of fill-ups, oil changes, and repairs. Clearly, as the paint flakes and the corrugated iron on the roof acquires another layer of rich iron oxide patina,† its decline continues as it becomes another vanished thing people once took for granted. And yet. The day after I took this photograph I passed by again to discover that someone had come along and wrapped those three pumps in a protective tarpaulin. To what end? To help preserve them in situ ahead of a restoration job? Or in preparation for a move to a place where they’d be cared for? I don’t know. But perhaps it’s a lesson not to assume too much. Not quite everything that seems to be going is necessarily rotting away. Let’s cling on to that.§

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* I’m not sure of the exact dates of these pumps; I’ve seen ones similar to this early one dated to the 1920s.

† Iron oxide patina. Yes, that’s rust to most of us.

§ The best book on the architecture of motor vehicles is Kathryn A Morrison and John Minnis, Carscapes, (Yale UP, 2012); for a brief treatment of the small out-of-town garage see also Llyn E Morris, The Country Garage (1985, Shire)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Made to measure?

Wall boxes are quite a common feature of Britain’s streetscapes. They’ve existed since the 1850s and provided the Post Office with an economical way of providing letter boxes in places where a smaller capacity than that of the familiar free-standing pillar box was sufficient. Country road junctions, small rural Post Offices, and town sites away from the busy centre are all places where one still sees wall boxes, some, like this one in Much Wenlock, survivors from the Victorian period. There are various designs, mostly very simple, featuring the monogram ‘VR’, a lockable door with a plate for displaying collection times, and a slot for the letters. According to Jonathan Glancey,* many Victorian examples have had their slots widened to accommodate the larger envelopes that came in during the 20th century – this one may have a widened slot, although any tell-tale joins have been masked by generations of red gloss paint.

What struck me about this box was the way it’s set into the wall. Rather than being flush with the brickwork in the usual way, it sticks out and is framed by neat, curved bricks. I assume that this is because the wall is not thick enough to fit the full depth of the box, which would stick out into the interior otherwise.† If the building were a Post Office, space might be made inside, but this one isn’t, so the brickwork makes space on this street side. A robust solution, ensure that the people of this part of Wenlock could get their letters in the post with a minimum of effort. And judging by the recent ‘Priority Postbox’ label beneath the slot, presumably they still do.

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* Jonathan Glancey, Pillar Boxes (Chatto and Windus, 1990)

† If anyone knows better, I’d be interested to hear.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

A house in a day?

This house in Much Wenlock is called Squatter’s Cottage. The implication is that it was built by a squatter, who put up a dwelling on common land, taking advantage of a right that a person had to erect a house on a common, provided that the building could be constructed in a day. There was a condition to this right that was no doubt designed to limit the take-up: your completed 24-hour house had to include a working chimney. So while it was possible, at a push, to put up a wooden house in a day, adding a safe masonry chimney in the same time-frame was difficult. But not, it seems, impossible. Typically, the body of the house would start timber-framed, but in time, once the builder had settled in, would be rebuilt or enlarged in brick or stone. Perhaps, too, the chimney regulation was interpreted loosely, so that a timber-framed house with a ‘smoke bay’ at one end was accepted, so long as there was a fire burning there within 24 hours.

However these feats of construction were achieved, there is plenty of evidence of squatter’s cottages being built in both England and Wales. They are often found in small clusters on commons – I’ve already posted about an example of this at Hollybush, near Malvern in Worcestershire. Shropshire, it seems, had its share. This one is on the edge of a town and the visible part at least retains in its stone structure the compact simplicity that must have prevailed from the beginning. There might have been two rooms on the ground floor; there clearly is a room in the roof space too. And a solid brick chimney does its vital work at one end.

Such cottages were a result of rural poverty in its many forms. The enclosure movement, which saw landlords dividing up big open fields and common land into smaller fields and taking them over, deprived many country dwellers of the land they needed to grow crops and pasture an animal or two so that they could feed themselves. Squatting and taking over a small patch of common land offered a solution for many. It could offer independence: a place to grow food, a route out of reliance on a landlord to charge an affordable rent, and a way of avoiding the wage labour under appalling conditions that faced many country people who migrated to the city in search of a job in a factory. Such houses might seldom be noticed today, but in the period of social upheaval that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries, they could be a lifeline.*

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* See Colin Ward, Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History (Five Leaves, 2002) for a good account of the history of the squatting movement.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Gothick delight

I caught sight of this house on a late-afternoon walk in Much Wenlock. I’d already noticed one or two other examples in the town of this kind of architecture – early-19th century Gothick, in which pointed windows with Y-tracery set off the facades of quite modest buildings, often in combination with other features – pilasters, pediments, curved gables – that aren’t associated with the medieval Gothic style at all. This house is a good example of the decorative mélange that can result: pointed windows in pointed recesses, pilasters running up each side of the frontage,. a sloping cornice rather like a broken pediment above the central door and its accompanying windows, and, topping it all, a striking rounded gable that steps halfway down to turn from a convex to a concave curve. All this fronts what is otherwise quite a modest structure of rubble masonry and brickwork, all painted white.

The effect of the facade belies common misconceptions: that Georgian Gothick is filigree and delicate and that ornate gables like this are confined to eastern England, where the Dutch influence on English architecture was strong. So this building has left behind the delicate filigree Gothic of Walpole’s house, Strawberry Hill, rebuilt back in the 1740s, for something that’s frankly chunky and more suited to the abilities of a provincial builder; no doubt it was also to the taste of the owners of small houses in late-Georgian Shropshire. As for ‘Dutch’ gables, they were popular in coastal Lincolnshire and East Anglia a century and more before this house was built, and were by now another idea that had become assimilated. Pointed windows and curvaceous gables were, it seems, a matter of local fashion and choice. I’m glad those choices were made here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire

Staggering architecture

This is a building that startled me in two distinct ways when I was looking at the wonderful 18th-century clothiers’ houses in Trowbridge the other week. Jammed into a corner between two of these classical almost-palaces, this building is constructed of the same creamy limestone and is also in a classical style. But look at the detail! At the top, a triangular pediment with a cornice that sticks right out from the main wall, producing deep shadows and emphasising the very large dentil blocks that punctuate its lower edges. The bottom of the triangle is interrupted in the middle to make room for swathes of carved ornament that hangs deep down on either side of a window and extends upwards into the triangular space made by the pediment. In the middle there’s a blind oval with four exaggerated stones – one at the top in the position of an arch’s keystone, the others matching it on the bottom and sides, like the cardinal points on a compass. Lower down this end wall run pilasters with deeply cut blocks of stone, each pilaster topped with more carved ornament.

So what was this highly ornate building that caught my attention and made me rush across the street so that I could examine it more closely? At first I took it to be an especially showy example of a clothier’s house, the residence of someone who had more of a taste for the baroque that the apparently more classically minded neighbours on either side. It was, of course, something quite different and much later: the imposing offices of Ushers Brewery, built in 1913 to designs by local architect W. W. Snailum in a style sometimes called brewer’s baroque. Thomas Usher had established their brewery in the centre of Trowbridge in 1824 and by 1913 the firm must have been doing well. By the mid-20th century, they had expanded hugely but were no longer so profitable and were eventually taken over, like so many provincial brewing firms, by a larger company, Watney Mann. When the baroque office building was put up in 1913, Usher’s must have been growing and optimistic of further success: the architecture seems to reflect that.

I began this post by saying that this building startled me in two ways. What was the second surprise? It was more sudden, and less pleasant. When I crossed the road to look at this extraordinary architectural confection more closely, keeping my eyes on the stonework and not on the ground beneath my feet, I tripped on a metal bar meant to stand upright to define a parking space but actually hinged down, parallel to the ground, and fell flat on my face, my smartphone and my dignity slipping from me instantly. The Resident Wise Woman, crossing the road more slowly than I, was soon behind me, and a passer-by was also offering help. I was, thankfully, able to climb to my feet unaided, and although I was bruised on my knees and chin (the main points of impact), I sustained no lasting damage. It has, though, made me warier of looking up without watching where I put my feet, not wishing to repeat what happened when I went to look at this doubly staggering building.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

King’s Lynn, Norfolk


Maritime Lynn, 2

As well as the Pilot Office for people managing the shipping in the harbour and its approaches, the other prominent architectural feature of King’s Lynn’s maritime life was the Customs House. This stately classical building is one of the most famous coastal structures in East Anglia. It is well sited right on the northern bank of the inlet called Purfleet Quay. It’s a tall building and its neat wooden turret with cupola attracts attention to it.

Anyone who knows the town centres of England will recognise this building’s architectural ancestry. Its form, with arched lower story, upper floor with large windows, and roof turret, is similar to that of many of the structures that combine the functions of town hall and market that make the centrepiece of many English towns. Its style is proudly Wren-like, like a smaller version of the magnificent town hall at Abingdon. The semi-circular arches, pilasters, hipped roof with dormers, and roof turret are just the kind of thing one sees on late-17th century buildings – both town halls and country houses like Ashdown. This one is not by Wren, but was designed by a local man called Henry Bell, who had clearly absorbed the essence of this style and brought it to his home town when Lynn was still a prominent port. Anyone inclined to think of Lynn as a backwater should think again: the port was a very busy one at this time. Indeed Bell himself was a merchant whose goods went in and out of Lynn harbour; like many architects in the Stuart period, he was an amateur, and picked his commissions carefully. He’d been to Cambridge, and had gone on a grand tour that included time in Holland, where the buildings clearly made an impression on him.

This building was commissioned by Sir John Turner, a local MP, who also served as the town’s mayor and made his money from his business as a wine merchant. This trade was one of the mainstays of Lynn’s harbour, and Turner would have been as aware as anyone of the usefulness of a building in which the local merchants could do business. Hence the structure’s resemblance to a market house. When opened in 1685, the lower floor of the structure (then with open arches) was used as the merchants’ exchange; the upper floor was let to the Collector of Customs; in 1717 the whole building was sold to the Crown and was already known as the Customs House. It remained in the care of HM Customs and Excise until 1989 and when I lasted visited it was used by the local council and housed the Tourist Information Centre. And maybe that’s not totally inappropriate. King’s Lynn no longer gets its main income form its port; tourism is more important to the town today and the Customs House is a perfect architectural signpost and information point for visitors.

Monday, June 28, 2021

King’s Lynn, Norfolk


Maritime Lynn, 1

This brick octagonal tower poking up near the bank of the Great Ouse in King’s Lynn was built in 1864 as part of the Pilot Office of the town’s port. It’s essentially an observation tower, allowing officials to keep an eye on shipping. Adjoining are workshops and a store for explosives,* as well as the remaining part of the town’s first public baths, which had been put up during the previous decade (and was partly converted to the offices of the King’s Lynn Conservancy Board in the 1980s). This is an important structure historically because it represents the prominence of the town as a port, which was the busiest in East Anglia for much of the Middle Ages, when it was a centre for the export of wool and cloth and the import of wine, timber, and other goods. The port remained a major one for several centuries afterwards, with corn from eastern England becoming the main export commodity as the wool trade declined. In the mid-19th century it was still busy but had begun a slow decline.

As well as ample windows, another requirement of the people keeping watch was a good idea of the wind direction. This is provided by the weather vane on top of the tower’s roof. The shaft of the vane is connected to a compass inside the building, so those working there can read the wind direction without going outside. This ingenious arrangement looks like a typical bit of Victorian wizardry, but the idea goes back further – for example, Thomas Jefferson’s classical country house, Monticello, has a similar arrangement. I don’t know if Jefferson invented it – he was highly inventive and the house has several other ingenious bits of 18th-century technology – but in King’s Lynn it was more than a rich man’s clever toy. No doubt it was well used.

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* For signalling flares, apparently.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Little Comberton, Worcestershire



As I recalled in my previous post, we didn’t manage to get inside the church at Little Comberton the other day. But we could see the interior of the north porch, where we admired the doorway and looked at a small collection of incised graffiti on the right-hand side as we entered. Carved and scraped graffiti was once the bane of church visitors and worshippers. ‘How could they deface the building like this?’ we would murmur, and some people added disbelief to outrage when it became clear that many of the marks on walls, pillars, and even magnificent effigies, had been made in the medieval period, the so-called age of piety. Many of us now see these things differently, wanting to understand more about these marks – what they might mean, who might have made them, and why.

The marks in this porch are fairly easy to see* and apparently simple: the outlines of hands, a pair of initials, a date. Hand outlines have one of the longest traditions in art – there are prehistoric examples, and when it comes to church graffiti many date back to the Middle Ages. These are later, however, being in a porch that bears the date 1639 and they include the initials WD and a date inscription of 1733. Medieval hand graffiti (and also shoe graffiti) often seem to have been done by pilgrims visiting shrines – there are examples in Canterbury cathedral and also in churches on popular routes to notable shrines, where pilgrims might stop to pray or attend divine service en route. These 18th-century graffiti were made long after the age of pilgrimages in England, and they seem to be more akin to the initials and other marks made in the early modern period on effigies in churches. Many of these, although we may see them as marks of vandalism, were carefully made, with attention to the form of the letters and the shapes of fingers and thumbs.† They seem to record visits to the church, perhaps visits when a particular prayer was said that had specific importance for the person concerned. If to some they seem little more than the thoughtless scars left by modern tags or reminders that ‘BILL WOZ ERE’, for the graffitist, they may have had greater, and perhaps more reverent, significance.§

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* I have increased the contrast in the photograph a little to make the marks a little clearer.

† Some hand graffiti appear to have been made by tracing the outline of the maker’s hand, as if uniting person and building.

§ For the best recent general account of church graffiti, see Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti (Ebury Press, 2015), which I reviewed here.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Little Comberton, Worcestershire


Reading the entry in the (excellent) Pevsner volume on Worcestershire did not make me especially keen to visit the church at Little Comberton, a village I’ve passed through several times. But the other day we paused in the village anyway, and although the church was locked, found several things of interest. This is a buidling that was heavily restored in the Victorian period by an architect called William White.* White was not in the front rank of Victorian church architects, but was prolific: some 250 church projects are attributed to him, and he also designed many parsonages and schools. Like other more famous Victorians (Butterfield and Teulon, for example) he was interested in the architectural use of colour, and this is reflected here in the bands of dark red stone used around windows, up buttresses, and in quoins.

My photograph shows a tiny window in the Norman style, a partial replacement by White of an original Norman window. Even this small opening shows the effect of contrast produced by the different coloured masonry, laid out symmetrically. But at the top, symmetry is broken and White preserved the original Norman stone that forms the rounded head of the window, complete with the band of cable ornament that runs around it. If the result is more Victorian than medieval, it could be seen as an effective compromise, which preserves the most ‘artistic’ part of the old window, while renewing the remainder in a way that fits in with the style of the other windows in the restored church.

It’s also revealing about 19th-century attitudes to restoration. Literally, ‘to restore’ means to put something back, to return the building to the state it was in when it was new, or at some other ‘ideal’ time in its past. In practice, the Victorians often used restoration as a way of ‘improving’ churches, of making them more ‘correctly’ Gothic or ‘properly’ Romanesque than the often hybrid or mongrel or unevenly proportioned buildings that the Middle Ages in practice produced. Victorian architects were also of course at pains to make ancient buildings suitable for 19th-century worship, which would also mean architectural and decorative changes. Here, this fragment of 12th century carved ornament shows that White did not want to sweep away everything, that he was happy to respect the art and craft of his ancient predecessors while also introducing a different visual approach, which was very much his own.

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* William, White (1825–1990) was great nephew of the naturalist Gilbert White.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Pershore, Worcestershire


Pershore beasts, Pershore plums

I’ve noticed the former church of St Andrew near the abbey in Pershore several times, and my photograph of the medieval carving on the tower is not actually the first I’d taken of this curiosity, although it’s the first in which strong sunlight picks out the details. Admiring this carving, and wondering exactly what the beast it depicts actually is, made me look closely at its bared teeth, bulging eyes, and bushy tail. Hitherto, peering up at it (it’s quite high up) in poor light, I’d wondered if it was Jesus’ donkey with a palm tree in the background. A better look at the teeth through a zoom lens made me inclined to think it might be a muzzled dog. But in that case, is that really a tree behind it? And is that the faint impression of a face, popping up above the creature’s back?

No reference book I have seems to throw any light on this carving. Pevsner mentions some ‘grotesque carvings’ and moves swiftly on. The listing description says that the grotesques adorn buttresses, which is true, but says no more. Maybe there’s not a definitive solution to this question; many such carvings are the result of artistic whimsy.*

Curiosity did at least make me look up the history of the church. In the 1060s the crown gave much of the land in Pershore to Westminster Abbey. The abbot of Pershore refused tenants of Westminster the right to worship in his abbey, so the church of St Andrew was built to give these people somewhere to worship. After the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, the monks’ church became available to the locals and the two churches continued side by side. Nowadays the parishioners worship in the abbey church and St Andrew’s is used as a parish hall. The abbey rents the land on which St Andrew’s stands for a very small sum, and one that speaks of one of the drivers of the local economy. The annual rent is one pound of Pershore plums. Truly they are plums beyond price.†

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* However, see the update, below. Nevertheless, to make a general point, I was pleased to hear no less an authority than the medievalist Professor Paul Binksi refer to medieval grotesque carvings in this way in a recent Zoom lecture I attended. He sees such church carvings – grotesques, sheela na gigs, and the like – as equivalent to the whimsical marginal illustrations in some medieval manuscripts, in which images, sometimes apparently outrageous or even erotic, appear in the margins of serious, often sacred texts.

† I have only an online source for the ‘pound of plums’ story. I do hope it is both true and still current.

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Update One of my readers suggests that the carving represents a wolf with the head of St Edmund. This is almost certainly correct and I am kicking myself for not having picked up this allusion. St Edmund was killed by Viking raiders, who shot so many arrows at him that he bristled, then cut off his head. The king’s men heard cries, and found the body and head guarded by a wolf. When they put the head back on the body, the parts fused together. Miracles were attributed to the king, and he was made a saint. His tomb is in Westminster Abbey, and the links between Pershore and Westminster make this interpretation of the carving very likely indeed. I am indebted to my reader ‘Per Apse’ for this suggestion. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire



The other day I found myself in Trowbridge, strolling around the town centre looking at the rich mixture of industrial and domestic buildings that contribute so much to the visual character of this town. The industry was cloth-production, and I’ve already posted an example of its architecture – the Handle House for drying teasels, with its remarkable pierced brick walls. Here’s an outstanding domestic building, one of the palatial clothier’s houses built in the 18th century. I like this one in Fore Street, built for Nathaniel Houlton in the early-18th century, for its baroque features. What I mean by this is the quirks of design that take it beyond the highly satisfying but straightforward classical ‘box with sash windows’ that gets its effect mainly from its pleasing proportions. I’m thinking of the banded pilasters, the heavy string course and cornice, and above all the handling of the central part of the frontage. This breaks away from the standard window sizes with narrow, round-arched windows on either side of the doorway and central window. The whole central bay steps forward from the flanking bays, and then the central section of this bay is emphasised with columns (Tuscan on the ground floor, Corinthian above), above which the cornice and strong course break forward still more than the rest of the bay. Much effort has been put into all these design details, and they’re set off to advantage in glorious ashlar limestone masonry. The facade is one of many quiet triumphs in this town.

On my recent visit to Trowbridge I did not have with me the new edition of the Pevsner volume for Wiltshire, which is published this week. I see it covers this house and many more, pointing out details that will no doubt send me back to the town, looking again and finding buildings I’ve missed before. I plan to review the book some time during the next few weeks, but I’m already finding it both useful and absorbing.

Endnote My apologies to the 40 readers who saw this post when it was headed Trowbridge, Worcestershire. Trowbridge, of course, has never been in Worcestershire and for it to be so would entail a boundary change that is unimaginable, even in the context of the mess that has been made of county boundaries in the past. Call it a slip of the finger, or a brain in neutral.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Elmley Castle, Worcestershire

Here comes the sun

When you’ve visited as many parish churches as I have, you get used to finding odd things in churchyards, from bee shelters to bone holes. Sundials come fairly low on the scale of oddity. Time is after all a familiar religious theme, whether in terms of knowing it’s time for divine service or in terms of thoughts about human mortality (‘You’ve had your time’) or a person’s best use of their time (‘Redeem thy precious time’). Before the era of church clocks with faces everyone could see, marking time was a matter of bells to call one to church (or to indicate that the solemn moment of the elevation of the Host at Mass had arrived. Or it was a matter of sundials. But these sundials in the churchyard at Elmley Castle are exceptional. There are two, and each has many separate dials, facing in different directions, and set in different ways, in part to catch the sun at different times, and in part for reasons that experts on sundials may know much better than I.

No one seems certain about the date of thee dials, although there’s a consensus that they are 16th or 17th century. Some writers link the dials to the visit of Elizabeth I to the village in 1550, when she may have consulted them. The decorative carving, making up an unusual concatenation of moldings, is not incompatible with these dates. Whenever they were made, they are much worn and in spite of the restoration of the gnomons in the 20th century, some of those have already disappeared again, as if the dials seem determined to remind us of the relentlessness of the passing time they are designed to mark.

One dial bears the coat of arms of the Savage family, lords of the manor from the mid-16th century on, in the form in which it appears on a monument inside the church to William Savage, his son Giles and Giles’s wife Catherine, who died in 1616, 1631 and 1674 respectively. It’s likely that the dials were made in the time of the Savages, and owe something to their culture and scholarship, or of that of the vicar in charge of the parish in that period. Someone in the village was certainly a sundial enthusiast, probably someone who had knowledge of and interest in the science of telling the time when clocks were generally inaccurate and the sun, even in England, was the most reliable source of time we had. Like a rich man with a Rolex or a Breitling Chronograph today, they wanted the best, and no trouble was spared.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Altarnun, Cornwall

The hard stuff

In the list of English building stones most familiar are the sedimentary rocks, such as limestones and sandstones, that are so widely found and widely used for building. In the Middle Ages, when so many of the country’s churches, castles, and other notable buildings were constructed, these stones were widespread, plentiful, and widely used. Many of them were also sympathetically yielding to the carver’s chisel, and whether for the hunky punks of Somerset or the glorious Romanesque carvings of Herefordshire or their contemporaries in many other places, often just as stunning, masons and carvers used these materials enthusiastically. But there are other stones with very different qualities. One such group are the granites of parts of Cornwall, Devon, and Lancashire, igneous rocks that are so hard they rapidly blunt any tool that one is rash enough to use on them.* Early builders were sometimes thankful to find ‘field stones’, chunks of granite that they could pick up and use with little or no chiselling. An entire church built of granite is a testimony to a lot of very hard work.

Such a church is St Nonna’s, Altarnun, in Cornwall. Not for this building are the glass-flat blocks of ashlar stone that we see so often on the limestone belt or in the sandstone country. The surfaces, though well worked, have a roughness that gives them a character of their own. My photograph shows a detail of the superb Norman font. There’s a carved head at each corner and in the middle of each side, a roundel with a six-petalled ‘flower’ motif, embraced by a some kind of two-headed serpent. It’s simply detailed – getting fine detail into this stone is a real challenge – but wonderfully strong. It would have been further enhanced with coloured paint, of which traces remain – a hint of red on the cheeks of the face and a little grey to suggest hair. Whoever carved this has not been cowed by the hard rock, but has gone with an approach that suits the quality of the stone. A lesson in making the best of a material, something that ancient craftsmen did magnificently.

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* I once tried to drill a hole the granite wall of a house, to fit a curtain rail. My good quality hammer drill was defeated: once through the plaster surface, the tip of the bit just danced about on the surface of the rock, knocking away more and m ore surrounding plaster as it did so. We called in the professionals, who had a machine the size of my arm that did the job.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Stone and angels

As a follow-up to the jeweller’s shop window in my previous post, here’s another rich bit of symbolic decoration, spotted in the same town on the same afternoon. The Angel and Royal Hotel is one of Grantham’s most famous buildings. It’s among England’s most celebrated inns, a stone structure in the form of a gatehouse, with a central archway. Before the Norman conquest, the site was occupied by a manor house belonging to an Anglo-Saxon queen; it was subsequently a hostel of the Knights Templar. When the knights’ order was dissolved in the 14th century, the hostel was rebuilt as an inn, and there was a further rebuilding in the 15th century, plus numerous additions in later eras. Quite a lot of the frontage is from the 14th and 15th centuries – the central flattened pointed arch is said to be 14th century.

Among several bits of medieval secular Gothic detailing (stone parapet, string courses and hoodmoulds, for example) is this carving, over the central arch. It’s testimony to the way in which Gothic, a style seen most obviously in churches, was also adapted for secular use. For this is very much a Gothic detail – a carved Christian symbol – adopted for secular use as the identifier of an inn. Back then, houses in towns and cities were often known by carved or pictorial symbols near the front door. When no house numbering system was in place and few people were literate, it was the obvious thing to do. Innkeepers, who were in the business of welcoming strangers, found this as useful as anyone, and the custom of calling inns with a name that could be represented by a sign has continued.

What is now the Angel and Royal was originally the Angel, tout court. It had a long history of royal connections, starting with that Anglo-Saxon queen and continuing with numerous rulers (from King John to Charles I) who put up there, journeying southwards or northwards on the Great North Road. More humble travellers on the coaches that went along the road in the 17th and 18th centuries also stayed here, increasing its popularity. But it remained the Angel until the visit of the future king Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales in 1866. Only then was ‘and Royal’ added to the name. The Great North Road (aka the A1) bypasses the centre of Grantham now, but the Angel and Royal remains, its angel glittering as effectively as the jeweller’s glazing in my earlier post.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Bling and beer

Grantham when I last passed through (a few years ago on a summer evening), was as closed as it must have been recently: hardly any shops open, St Wulfram’s church closed, nowhere much opening hospitable doors. Drifting along the quiet High Street, I spotted this, above a shop door adjacent to the facade of what was once the George Inn, a building mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby and bearing a plaque to Grantham’s most famous son, Sir Isaac Newton. The front of this building looks much later than the George. It seems to speak of the fashion for small paned bow windows and restrained classical fancywork that was popular at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The shop window below fits with this but with more ornate detail including foliate carving and some eye-catching glass.

Back in the Victorian or Edwardian period, then, this place was a jeweller’s and one keen to display its upmarket credentials. ‘Goldsmith’, one panel says, while another declares ’Silversmith’. What more could an Edwardian with an appetite for bling require? Diamonds, naturally, and the glass panel in my photograph, directly above the door, reassures us that this is the place to get them. This kind of effect is made by either etching or cutting into the glass to create the lighter areas. The glassworker can then grind the surface to make it opaque, and then add gilding or colour to help the etched lettering stand out.* The result is redolent of the ideas of brilliance and the skilful working of hard, bright surfaces that’s common to diamonds, both glitzy and well made. It’s impressive, to be sure, although not perhaps as upmarket as it seems nowadays. But we get the jeweller’s message, especially when the glazing is backlit by the lights inside the shop so that it glitters invitingly. Who can blame later owners of the premises for retaining the panel?†

And yet this sort of decorative-informative glass was not so exclusive in the 19th century. It’s just the sort of thing we’re apt to find on the most loudly decorative of Victorian pubs, saying ‘Public bar’ or ‘Ales and stouts’ and often garlanded with etched images of flowers, foliage, and even songbirds. How appropriate, then, that this building was recently in use as a Pizza Express and glittering not with diamonds or best bitter but with the fizz and amber glow of Italian beer. Alas! I read online that this branch of the restaurant chain was closed permanently last year. Quiet again.

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* For more on these glass techniques and their use in 19th-century public houses, see Mark Girouard, Victorian Pubs (Yale Uinversity Press, 1984).

† The building seems to be listed as part of a group with the George, but the shop front is not mentioned specifically in the text of the listing.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Broadway, Worcestershire



Approaching the village of Broadway (one of those places periodically named as ‘Britain’s most beautiful village’) on the road from where I live across the border in neighbouring Gloucestershire, it doesn’t take long before my pleasure sensors are being tickled, figuratively at least. As the road called Lower Green curves gently, a view of this charming structure opens up, a shapely gazebo with views out on to the road and the other way into the private garden of the house to which it belongs. The building is designed very much to look good on this roadside aspect: there’s a curvy gable bearing a carved quatrefoil and topped by a chimney with a generous flared cornice; two pairs of lancet windows, their glazing bars displaying a design of intersecting tracery; and a ground floor with a blocked ogee-arched doorway and two small blocked lancets.

It’s clear even from the angle of my photograph that the gable is all for show – the actual roof has a much shallower pitch – and that the builders weren’t really kidding anybody when they constructed it. But whoever created this gazebo had two things in mind. The building contains a well lit upper room reached from the garden by an external staircase, no doubt an ideal space for relaxing, entertaining, and viewing the garden itself. That’s the practical side of things, if you like. The other side is making a good-looking sight on the roadside – hence the gable, ogee arch, and all the rest. You could call it showing off, but it’s also a what one might think of as a ‘visual amenity’, something we can all admire and derive pleasure from as we pass. So while the occupants eat, drink, or gaze from the gazebo on to their garden, we gaze at the gazebo. And everyone’s eyes can feast.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire

House of holes

A while back I wrote a blog post about Herefordshire barns with walls of pierced brickwork to provide ventilation. Imagine my pleasure, then, when on a recent visit to Trowbridge in Wiltshire I came across this, a structure that looks like a patriarch among pierced brick buildings, a house of holes. It is a legacy of Trowbridge’s cloth manufacturing industry, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the town was known as ‘the Manchester of the West’. The pierced brick structure, squeezed into a space near a former woollen mill – it’s actually built on a bridge over the River Biss – is called the Handle House and its use requires a little explanation.

One of the finishing processes in the manufacture of woollen cloth is known as ‘raising a nap’. The nap is the furry finish that makes many cloths soft and pleasant to the touch. A traditional way to raise a nap was to stroke the fabric with the seed heads of the teasel plant, which bear dozens of naturally barbed or hooked spikes. The spikes catch in the fibre and pull it up, producing the nap. A number of teasel heads were mounted on a wooden handle and dragged across the cloth – at first by hand, later using a machine. The process was generally done when the cloth was wet, because its fibres are less prone to damage then. But the teasels would get soggy and soft when they became damp, and so were less effective. So they have to be dried. One way to do this was to suspend them in a building like this, when the cross-draught would dry them, restoring their strength.†

That’s where the Handle House came in. It was probably built in the 1840s and is very impressive indeed. There must have been quite a few buildings like this, but this is only one of a very few left (some sources say there is only one other in the country). The pierced walls must have made them very difficult to use for anything else once they were no longer required for their original purpose; additionally, the way they’re built hardly makes them the most robust structures in the world, so some examples probably fell quickly into dilapidation. This one is hanging on, and being very unusual is listed at grade II*, a testimony to the ingenuity of the woollen business that has long since left the town.

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† I once blogged a heated building for teasel-drying here.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Bath, Somerset

Matters of taste

Kingsmead Square seemed to be the perfect spot for a socially distanced cup of coffee on a recent visit to Bath. Our seat was also a good place from which to admire the entrance front of Rosewell House, named for the person who had it built, one Thomas Rosewell. Rosewell’s architect was Nathaniel Ireson of Wincanton who developed part of this square in the 1730s – there’s a carved datestone inscribed ‘1735’ at the very top of the house’s facade. By this time, John Wood Senior had already set the style for Georgian Bath with developments such as the grand, palace-fronted Queen’s Square. But Wood’s style was less reliant on ornament and more on proportions than this house. Ireson’s mode was more akin to the lively baroque of the beginning of the 18th century – so there’s plenty of carving, more curves, more elaboration.

You can see this wherever you look. The windows all have fancy surrounds – the first-floor ones with carved busts in the keystones, the big central windows even more elaborate, one with a surround of curves and scrolls, one flanked by upright figures. There are lots of pilasters dividing up the frontage and book-ending it, those on the ground floor with banded rustication. The whole is topped by a deep cornice and segmental pediment that contains the carved datestone, which is concealed behind a tree branch in my photograph. Presumably the ground floor would originally also have had sash windows, but the spaces now accommodate shop windows.

I find all this detail fascinating. It’s even more elaborate than the beautiful stone facades in a smaller Georgian town like Stamford in Lincolnshire, another place where the provincial taste for baroque elements lingered longer than they did in more ‘progressive’ and ‘sophisticated’ cities like Bath. John Wood, in the vanguard of sophistication, did not care for this sort of thing, which he referred to as ‘ornaments without taste’. Well, Wood built some fine houses, and I have some respect for him as an architect, but I’ll happily look at this example of what he saw as bad taste all day. There is more than one way to design a classical town house, and Bath has room for several different approaches.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Temple Guiting, Gloucestershire


Tradition and the individual

This chunky tower had me scratching my head when I first saw it standing out across the fields. The tower’s position at the church’s west end and its diagonal buttresses are just the sort of thing seen time and time again on Cotswold churches. Usually these towers were added in the 15th century, when the region was prospering from the wool trade. But few of the other details look much like 15th-century Gothic. In particular, the collection of openings – the very plain semi-circular arched doorway, the odd squat pointed window just above it, and the rather more elegant two-light opening near the top – did not seem like typical medieval work. Neither did the very stubby pinnacles with their almost pyramidal finials.*

Seeing it up close, appended to the small church of Temple Guiting in the Cotswolds, it made a little more sense. Temple Guiting was a medieval church: the village name reveals an ancient connection with the order of the Knights Templar, but this is not evident in the architecture and as far as the tower is concerned is a red herring. The history of the tower begins much later. It seems to have been added to the church in the 17th century and is thus an example of the survival of Gothic architecture into a time when Classical styles had become fashionable. This is not at all unusual, especially in rural areas where masons carried on building in a version of the style that had been passed on from master to apprentice, father to son, through the generations. So it’s an eclectic mix of motifs from here and there, and no less charming for that, and for the sense that the structure shows the sort of originality that can emerge when a 17th-century provincial mason blends what he has learned from tradition with the strength of purpose to go his own way.

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* Pevsner has a go at this part of the tower, sneering at the ‘clumsy top stage, naive gargoyles and big square pinnacles’. But I don’t mind either the rather bulky pinnacles or the gargoyles – aren’t most rural gargoyles naive, and isn’t this part of what makes them effective visually? 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Cropthorne, Worcestershire



Cropthorne lies in the orchard-rich country around Evesham, an area full not just of fruit trees but also of houses built with frames of oak. Some have thatched roofs, often with attic windows peeping out under ‘eyebrows’ of thatch, like the ones on the house to the right in my photograph. Thatch lends itself to these sculptural forms, and also to the roof feature that caught my eye in the house on the left: the catslide.

A catslide is a roof that sweeps down almost to the ground over a single-storey extension. If you add a room on to the side of a building, the thatcher can continue the slope of the main roof at the same angle in one continuous run. You end up with a much lower ceiling height inside, but often this did not bother the occupants – people’s average heights were shorter in past centuries, and if you were going to use the room mainly for storage, or for a bedroom, headroom was not the main requirement. The advantage of this type of roof was mainly an economic one. If you’d built the side wall to full height, to keep the same angle of slope you’d need a higher ridge for the whole roof, meaning more money spent on roof timbers and more thatch on the other side of the house too. So many people favoured the catslide.

The name is wonderfully evocative. One can imagine a roof-climbing cat losing its footing, sliding down the slope to the eaves, and falling only a short distance to the ground before walking off with typical feline nonchalance. As satisfying for the animal as for the thatcher completing a smooth continuous slope, capping the whole roof with ornately cut reeds on the ridge, and standing back in admiration.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest, 2: Delivering the good news

The idea of the Christian minister travelling around and preaching wherever he went is as old as St Paul. It was a practice taken up enthusiastically by John Wesley, who travelled widely and often preached outdoors, to large and appreciative crowds. No wonder, then, that many other Methodists followed in his footsteps and did the same. One way to travel was to use a wagon, caravan, or living van – call it what you will – pulled by a horse, which could act as mobile dwelling, means of transport, platform for preaching, or even tiny, mobile church in which to teach or preach to small groups. The Methodists (both Wesleyan and Primitive branches) used these vehicles in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and called them ‘Gospel cars’.

This one is in fact a replica that has found a permanent parking place near the boat dock at the Black Country Living Museum. It is painted dark blue, from which numerous blessings and Christian maxims painted in white stand out. Along the bargeboard at the front is emblazoned the name ‘Ebenezer No. 11’ – it’s one of a series, then, and calling it Ebenezer is a way of implying that it’s a much a chapel as any bricks and mortar building that bears the same name – a popular one among the Methodists in the 19th century.*

Inside, the gospel car is neatly kitted out with a stove, seating that can turn into bedding at night, and, in true chapel fashion, an organ. Or, I should say, a harmonium, an organ of a very particular sort, with reeds instead of pipes, and an air supply provided by the player as they pump away at a couple of foot pedals. In my childhood I remember seeing the inside of quite a few chapels (maybe some of them were ‘Ebenezers’ – I’m not sure), and before I was born, my mother played the harmonium in her small Methodist chapel in Lincolnshire. So maybe that’s why I didn’t feel at all alienated by this chapel on wheels and why I felt some sympathy for the person ‘on a mission’ and preaching to a handful or a crowd from the platform – framed by roof brackets carved with crosses – of a horse-drawn ‘Gospel car’.

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* A while back I had an email exchange with an old friend who’d been speaking to someone who thought that, because of his name, Dickens’s character Ebenezer Scrooge was Jewish. Brought up among nonconformists, who often called their children such names as Isaac or Leah, this had never occurred to me. There’s nothing in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as far as I can see, that says Scrooge is Jewish. To someone like my mother, descended from both Jewish and nonconformist ancestors, such names were both ‘Jewish names’ and ‘Biblical names’, available for use by followers of either faith, and so were names like Salem, Zion, and Ebenezer, when used, as they were frequently, on Methodist chapels. 
Thanks to one of my regular readers (see Comments section) for reminding me that Ebenezer means ‘Stone of Truth’, in commemoration of a memorial stone set up by Samuel to mark the victory over the Philistines. Among other common chapel names, Salem means ‘Peace’, Bethel ‘House of God’, and Bethesda ‘House of Mercy’ or ‘Healing pool’. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest,1: Immortal Diamond

A memory from a visit to the Black Country Living Museum in 2019. Diamond is part of the museum’s fine collection of canal boats. The museum is crossed by canals that belong to the Birmingham Canal Navigations and on a small branch of this network the museum has built a boat dock populated by vessels that were once common on the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country. Many of these are day boats – designed to take cargoes such as coal, iron, limestone, and clay over short distances that you could cover in a day. Among their number are one specific type – the Joey boats, steerable from either end, that I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post.

Diamond is not a Joey boat, but an impressive composite narrow boat (with metal sides and a wooden bottom). She was first registered in 1928 and was built by John Crichton & Co of Saltney, Chester, for the Midland and Coast Canal Carrying Company of Wolverhampton. She was no day boat, but had two cabins, making her suitable for long journeys between the Black Country and the Mersey. She was damaged in an air raid on Birmingham in 1944, and rebuilt, after which she was renamed Henry, under which name she had 16 years carrying coal, after which she was sold again, rechristened Susan, and continued to work until the museum acquired her in the 1970s.

The fact that a narrow boat could be built in the 1920s and see the best part of 50 years’ service before being ‘retired’ to a museum reminds us how long-lasting canal transport was in Britain. Canals began before the railways, survived the coming of rail, and were only really killed off by the inexorable rise of road transport.* So boats sporting the delightful paintwork of Diamond – both the bright colours of the exterior and the lovely images of castles and flowers that appear when the folding doors are opened – had a long innings. That we can still appreciate these beautiful boats is due largely to the canal revival, spearheaded by campaigners such as Tom Rolt and bodies like the Inland Waterways Association in the postwar period. Museums like the BCLM have also played their part. Thank heaven they did, so that such things can still be appreciated and enjoyed, and so that, in these confined times, I can remind my readers of the richness of colour, historical interest, and folk art that’s available online. 

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* For a vivid account of the lives of those working and living on narrow boats in the 20th century, see Sheila Stewart, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story (OUP, 1993)

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rochester Row, London


Built to last?

When I first passed this piece of 1960s concrete sculpture in London’s Rochester Row, I’d no idea who created it. A while later I found out about the sculptor William Mitchell, who made a specialism of creating abstract sculpture out of concrete. I’ve since encountered his work in Coventry and elsewhere. However even then I didn’t make the connection because it slipped my mind that I’d taken this photograph (I got carried away with a nearby fire station, not to mention the famous Blewcoat School just up the street.) Much later, looking for the image of the fire station, I found this picture next to it in my files, and thought, ’Surely, that must be by William Mitchell.’ And so it proves to be.

What the image shows is actually only part of the artwork, which is too long to photograph in one go because it stretches all the way along the concrete beam that links the building’s main structural columns. So I photographed a bit that I particularly liked. Even when I found the picture again, I didn’t realise its full significance. William Mitchell told a friend: ‘This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced.’ It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. ‘I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete,’ said the sculptor.

Now William Mitchell’s work is better known, in spite of the fact that much of it has disappeared because it forms part of buildings that have fallen out of use and been demolished – like the northern part (about one third of the whole) of this very building. I think that’s a shame, and I hope plenty of Mitchell’s remaining sculptures do survive. I think they often enliven streetscapes and buildings that are otherwise dull, and that they show a true artist responding to a 20th-century material in creative ways. They are very much of their time, but also, in my opinion, deserve to outlast their time. I’m glad the work of William Mitchell is appreciated at last.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Salisbury, Wiltshire


Doomsday, 2

The painting of the Last Judgement in the church of St Thomas, Salisbury, is the largest of medieval ‘doom’ paintings and one of the clearest. It is, one could say, the rich cousin of the faded doom at Oddington that featured in my previous post. Details of costume suggest that it dates to the last quarter of the 15th century. Like nearly every English medieval church wall painting it was covered with whitewash some time after the Reformation, rediscovered (when traces of colour were noticed during cleaning) in the Victorian period, and restored. It doesn’t seem to be known for sure how much of the rich detail in the painting survives from the 15th century and how much was added by the Victorian restorers, but the overall effect is impressive – indeed, overwhelming – and when a visit is possible, I’ll be able to see has changed since the most recent restoration a couple of years ago and whether the process of conservation has yielded any more information about what the Victorian restorers did or didn’t add.

Meanwhile, even in my photographs, it’s a feast for the eyes. Christ sits at the centre, on a rainbow, with his feet resting on another rainbow. Beside him stand angels holding the instruments of the Passion (cross, crown of thorns, pillar, spear, sponge), and nearby are the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Beneath the lower rainbow stand the 12 apostles. To the left, angels blow their trumpets to waken the dead, who climb from their tombs, some naked, some in shrouds, one with a hat on, another with a bishop’s mitre. Angels guide these righteous souls towards Heaven, the architecture of which awaiting in the background. To the right, devils chain up a group of souls and drag them towards Hell. Hell, as is common in such paintings, has the fearsome mouth of a monster, in which flames are licking the souls who have already been pushed inside.

Even if some of the detail may be attributable to 19th century restorers, this doom painting takes one back to the 15th century with a jolt. It’s a colourful scene (medieval churches were colourful of course), it teems with figures, it’s at home with symbolism, both the symbols of the Passion and the symbolic headgear of some of the participants – mitres and royal crowns are visible among both Heaven-bound and Hell-destined souls. This painting lacks the faded atmosphere of Oddington, but repays lengthy scrutiny in its details – where both God and the devil reside.
St Thomas, Salisbury, Heaven

St Thomas, Salisbury, Hell

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.