Sunday, February 28, 2021

Badsey, Worcestershire


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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Swindon, Wiltshire

Mighty delicate

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2021

Swindon, Wiltshire

Whatever next?

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

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

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


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Well connected 

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 15, 2021

Ledbury, Herefordshire

Putting up a front

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

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

Ledbury, Herefordshire

TA very much 

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Ledbury, Herefordshire

A word in your shell-like 

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

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

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

Monday, February 1, 2021

Leiston, Suffolk


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

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

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

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

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