Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire


Tracing the lines, tracking the curves

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

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

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

Friday, March 26, 2021

Coleford, Gloucestershire

Writing the Forest, 2

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

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Cinderford, Gloucestershire

Writing the Forest, 1

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 22, 2021

Edmondthorpe, Leicestershire


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

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

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

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Clothes from the Butcher

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

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

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

Monday, March 15, 2021

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

 A convenient place of refuge

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

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

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

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Being moved in Aldeburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

§ One of my blog posts on Nairn is here.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Stanton, Gloucestershire

Neighbouring sights

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Columns in the sun or The Architecture of Looking Sideways 

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

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

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

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