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. 

- - - - - 

† 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,.

- - - - -

† 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. 

- - - - - 

* 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.

- - - - -

* 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