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.