Saturday, July 31, 2021

Buildwas, Shropshire

Well floored

Buildwas Abbey, where the Resident Wise Woman and I were pleased to find ourselves on our own in an atmosphere of almost monastic quietude recently, is an enchanting monastic ruin. It’s best known for the almost intact ruins of its church, built in the second half of the 12th century in a transitional style that bridges Norman and Early English Gothic – chunky round stone piers, arches that look semi-circular at first glance but which actually come to a very subtle point. The other glory of the place is the chapter house which, with its more slender columns, seems to be moving still more towards the Gothic.

If the columns and vaulting of the chapter house are admirable, even better to my mind is the collection of medieval tiles that paves part of the floor. These are not I think in their original place, but have been brought here and arranged in a pleasing jumble after excavation elsewhere on the site. Some of these tiles are fragments, some have been broken and pieced together, some of them are whole; all are faded. Yet even in this condition they have a serene beauty and as one looks across the floor one can see an engaging range of decorative touches and motifs – birds, flowers, leaves, grotesques, abstract designs from roundels to chequerboards, and elements such as the fleur de lys.

A few of the tiles give an idea of the richness that the colours must have had when they were new: strong terracotta ‘flower-pot’ reds, darker reds, rich ochres. A reminder that if the lives of the Cistercian* monks at Buildwas were austere, the visual stimulation they enjoyed was not only a matter of the natural beauty of the nearby countryside or the sight of an occasional richly illuminated manuscript. Even when their eyes were cast down, they had something interesting to look at: art and craftsmanship, indeed, to look up to.

- - - - -

* Buildwas began as a Savignac foundation, but like its ‘mother’ house, Furness, Lancashire, it became Cistercian in 1147 when the two orders merged.

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.§

- - - - -

* 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 (Shire, 1985)

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.

- - - - -

* 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.*

- - - - -

* 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.