Sunday, August 29, 2021


For filling up

A recent visit to Buckingham, en route for a destination further east, saw us taking a stroll along Well Street, a way I’d never gone before. It wasn’t long before we passed this building, which I immediately wanted to photograph, although this was not easy because the street is not very wide. It’s a facade that’s wearing at least part of its history with pride. The building has most recently housed a restaurant, although this business seems now to have closed. The preservation of a pair of petrol pumps shows how the restaurant took its name and branding from the previous use – it was a garage and the restaurant was called The Garage. They even changed the globes atop the pumps to a pair bearing the letter G, specially made for the change of use, no doubt.

But the garage business cannot have been here much before the beginning of the 20th century; more likely it dated to some time after 1900. What was it before? The design of the front, with its symmetrically arranged windows and plain but decent brickwork, suggested to me a nonconformist chapel and that’s what it originally was. It looks early-19th century and a little research reveals that the structure was first a Presbyterian Meeting House. Although the frontage is Regency, the building behind it actually dates to 1726, with numerous further alterations in the 19th and 20th centuries. At some point after it ceased to be a chapel, it housed a school, before the wide doorway was fitted, no doubt part of the conversion to a garage. I’ve seen a chapel converted to a garage before (there’s one, for example, at Upton-on-Severn), but not one quite as elegant as this – the central doorway, though large, far from ruins the visual effect. Even the changes to the ground-floor windows do not completely destroy the symmetry.

In recent years many garages have closed, especially small town ones where a street-side site can make filling up with petrol an activity that holds up traffic. Country filling stations have been closing too as the profit margins are so narrow and the trade is now so dominated by the supermarket chains. So a few years ago this one closed and the restaurant arrived. Now it appears that the building is on the market again and conversion to residential use is one the cards. I hope its new owners will not erase the layers of its history that are still on show.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Sherborne, Dorset

Surprised in Sherborne, 2

Sherborne’s Cheap Street is a very attractive jumble of architectural styles – from late-medieval timber framed structures to stone buildings from virtually every later date: a hotch-potch, mostly with recent shop fronts, but much of it given unity by the glowing stone. Even in this good company, the bow-fronted building above is outstanding. Living near Cheltenham, I’m used to stucco-covered Regency buildings decked out with classical cornices, columns and iron balconies, but even so this one made me pause. It’s small, with just a single window on the upper floor of its curvaceous facade, but what a window – the full Venetian, with a pair of rectangular sections bookending a round-topped central portion, the whole surrounded by elegant mouldings and highlights picked out in white. A neat cornice and parapet, balustraded in the centre, complete this upper floor, which rests on four stone Ionic columns that frame the modern shop window. The iron balcony is the finishing Regency touch, vital for the safety of those inside who want to open the big window, which extends down to the floor.

As with the shop front in my previous post, I wondered what this building was used for when it was first put up in the early part of the 19th century. The upper room looked to me like the spacious drawing room of a middle-class house, the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Brighton. But there was no clue to what was originally where the modern shop window is now. The answer turns out to be that the building belonged to the Sherborne Savings Bank, who erected it in 1818. 

This was the formative period for savings banks in England. These banks were set up to provide banking facilities for poorer people – those who were not normally the customers of the established banks, whose accounts did not normally bear interest at this time. Savings banks welcomed small investors, including those who could save only intermittently, as their incomes were unreliable and varied according to the seasons or the availability of work.* Although savings banks did not help the very poor, who found it impossible to save any money at all, they were attractive to those such as artisans, small farmers, shopkeepers, and domestic servants, among whom were many who had a little money to save and who liked the idea of self-help. Savings banks were not perfect: in an era before elaborate state regulation of financial institutions, some folded as the result of fraud or incompetence. But for many they played a useful role.

Whoever designed the Sherborne bank’s building did their best with what was clearly a confined site. Ideally, the sweep of the bow front should stick out over the pavement area, so that it can make an impression whichever way you approach it. But the building to the right already sticks out, so this wouldn’t have worked without invading too much pavement space. So here it sits, standing proud of one neighbour and slightly in the shadow of the other, making its impression nonetheless.

The delicate architecture of this frontage is not what I normally associate with banks. The banks I’ve admired on this blog in the past have been rather chunky buildings, with the kind of solid-looking masonry that suggests strength and security. They seem to tell you that your money will be safe here. This building is very different. It’s impressive, but in a gentler, more domestic way. Its columns and the overhang they make possible offer shelter from the rain and seem inviting. ‘Come in,’ they say, ‘and you’ll receive a warm welcome.’ The effect seems wholly appropriate for a savings bank set up for those not previously used to dealing with the estanlishged banks or money markets. It still works its charm, on one passer-by, at least.

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* Small investors could also entrust their money to Friendly Societies, but these had regulations – often requiring members to deposit money regularly, that did not suit those with irregular incomes. Savings banks did not have such rules. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Sherborne, Dorset


Surprised in Sherborne, 1

Ever since I wrote a book linked to a television series about the history of Britain’s high streets, I’ve been interested in the architecture of shops, and when I visit a town I’m often agreeably surprised to find old shopfronts still intact and fronting valued local businesses. This frontage in Sherborne was one that caught my eye. It looked to me late Victorian and the array of paired columns, wooden panelling, generous overhang, and slightly Gothic gablets poking out on top seemed to be from the more showy end of the retail spectrum. What could it have been, I wondered to myself: a high-class grocer’s, or maybe something more outré such as an oil and colour merchant or a specialist in well made leather goods? A sign painted on to the glass above the door gave a clue to a business that had been here once: ‘The Old Cycle Shop’. Could that have been the original business?

Not at all, it turns out. The other clue is above the doorway to the right, with its sign saying ‘Tavern Cottages’. A place of refreshment, then? Yes, but not the alcohol-selling place one would expect. This building began life in 1881 as the Sherborne Coffee Tavern. The late-19th and early-20th centuries saw a vigorous anti-alcohol movement. In churches and chapels there were sermons warning against the effects of the ‘demon drink’, campaigners and some nonconformist preachers persuaded people to ‘sign the pledge’ not to touch the stuff, and both campaigners and canny business people founded places where pub-goers could find alternative entertainment – from temperance billiards rooms to coffee taverns.

Coffee had been widely drunk since the 16th century and had gradually evolved from the costly luxury chosen by a few to an inexpensive drink enjoyed by many. Back in the 18th century, coffee houses had been popular among the professional classes in Britain’s large cities. Lawyers, medics, and even writers had their coffee house of choice, where they’d go to drink coffee, read the newspapers, meet friends, and discuss the day’s news. But coffee taverns were never as popular as their ancestors of the Georgian period, perhaps because they were mostly started by middle-class reformers who wanted to encourage the working class to stop drinking and give up the unruly habits of the drunk. The intended customers weren’t keen, and many coffee taverns closed after a few years.

Sherborne’s coffee tavern was bought in the 1890s by a local man, Edwin Childs, who moved his bicycle sales and repair business there. Childs prospered – this was, after all, the heyday of the bicycle – and by the early-20th century was also repairing cars. As the car business expanded, he first converted the shop, removing the big windows, and eventually put up a purpose-built garage elsewhere in the same street. Subsequently the attractive 1880s shop front was restored, and it still looks well in its dark red paint with details picked out in gold, an asset to Sherborne’s rich and varied streetscape and a survivor in an age when a liking for both wine and coffee no longer seems some kind of contradiction.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Hughley, Shropshire

Wood works

The church at Hughley looks charming from the outside – it’s very small, without any architectural separation between nave and chancel, and has a wooden medieval porch and one of those timber-framed bellcotes that nearly always make a small church look picturesque. None of this compares one for the building’s great treasure: the internal division between nave and chancel is effected with a wooden screen of great craftsmanship and beauty, a work of art more delicate and sophisticated than one would normally expect in such a modest building.

The panelled lower section is topped by bands of lace-like carving below the row of larger openings. Above this is more lacework in wood and at the very top of the coved section that would have once supported a rood loft. This curving support is carved with a pattern of radiating ribs in imitation of stone vaulting. Looking at all this more closely (below), one becomes aware how much fine detail there is in the carved portions. The central parts of the ‘vault’ are carved with ornate quatrefoils. The openwork sections a little lower down have tracery like windows, and the horizontal carved bands at the top of the screen and lower down feature more quatrefoils, tiny arches, fleurons, and even one or two faces in roundels. It’s outstanding workmanship and has survived well since it was made in c. 1500, albeit with a few small breakages and missing bits.

Pevsner’s Shropshire volume tells us that this remarkable high-class screen has siblings in three churches in the adjoining counties of Cheshire, Denbighshire and Herefordshire. More churches beckon, then, to pursue the work of this fine carver (or group of carvers), who in a time when many people traveled hardly at all, worked their way up and down the English-Welsh borders doing marvellous work that’s familiar mainly to specialists now. It deserves to be known more widely.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

On tap

On my previous visit to Bishop’s Castle I saw much to catch my attention, but I missed the Three Tuns Brewery, a stone’s throw from the town centre. I was pleased to find it when we returned to the town the other day because it’s a nice example of a small late-19th century tower brewery. There are still quite a few Victorian breweries around,* but many smaller ones like this have disappeared, prey to takeovers and the large-scale corporatisation of Britain’s brewing industry which was turned from one of small-scale local distinctiveness to one of big business greed – a change which also entailed a sorry deterioration in the quality of the beers served in many of the country’s pubs. Already in my late teens I was cottoning on to the fact that there was something better than the ubiquitous Watney’s Red Barrel and appalling ‘lager’ that was only made remotely drinkable with the addition of lime juice. Surely there was something better than this. A friend was was a member of a local Morris side† and a consummate folk fiddler, took me to one side and pointed me in the direction of a pub that served Wadsworth’s 6X: proper beer. I was converted.

Thankfully, some small provincial breweries have survived these upheavals and still brew decent beer with its own distinctive character. Three Tuns is one such, and its origins go back far beyond the Victorian period. The first brewing licence was issued here in 1642, making this, so it’s said, Britain’s oldest brewery – architecturally too, since part of the structure is 17th century.§ The tall central section that now dominates the site was the result of an expansion when the Roberts family bought the business in 1880. In the Victorian period the tower became the standard form for a brewery. As the brewing process demands shifting the liquid from one container to another through several stages, it makes sense to hoist (or pump) the ingredients to the top, start the brewing there, and let the force of gravity do the lion’s share of the work involved in moving the beer from one vessel to the next.

I didn’t realise until I looked at the company’s website that in the early 2000s the brewery was in difficulties, with a proposal to convert the site to housing. But it’s now refurbished and very much alive and kicking, and the tower is resplendent with its hand-painted sign. I didn’t sample the goods in my recent visit to the town,¶ but in line with the times its beer is available not only in the adjacent Three Tuns brewery tap, but also in a number of pubs in Wales and the English border counties, as well as via the brewery’s online shop. So now there’s no excuse.

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* See, for example, most posts about Hook Norton, Lewes, and Devizes.

† Morris dancing, of course, often takes place near pubs. For obvious reasons.

§ There is, of course, more than one claimant to this distinction.

¶ Too much driving to be done.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Upton Cressett, Shropshire

At end of the road

Frustrated at driving miles along a narrow windy lane, negotiating a tractor towing a long trailer and opting for the purgatory of scratched paintwork to avoid the ditch of despair and damnation, only to find Upton Cressett church firmly locked and no one, apparently, around to open it up, we consoled ourselves with a partial sight of Upton Cressett Hall and a slightly closer view of its beautiful gatehouse. The Hall is one wing of what must have been a large house of 1580 in glowing Tudor brickwork. The gatehouse, shown in my photograph, is of the same material and probably the same date. Looking from the lane, one can glimpse the symmetrical entrance front – the entrance itself obscured by the bushes and a flank wall. At the far left of the picture is an octagonal corner turret, one of a pair on that side, which is on the ‘inside’ of the gatehouse, suggesting that these turrets are more ornamental than defensive.

Indeed the entire effect of the gatehouse is ornamental: there’s diapering (two-coloured brickwork laid in lozenge patterns) between the two rows of windows on the entrance front, and the windows themselves and framed by nicely moulded bricks. The chimneys lack the frenetic spiral brickwork of some Tudor designs, but are still attractively set at 45 degrees to the stacks. Pevsner speculates that the turrets, which now have little roofs of tile, were once topped with ‘something shapelier’ – ogee cupolas, perhaps.

The effect of the whole, surrounded today by trees and foliage, the bricks now turned pleasantly pale – probably due to lichen – is certainly handsome. The owner commemorated with his initials on painted panelling inside the house, Richard Cressett, local lord who served a term as Sheriff of Shropshire, must have been proud of his home.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Going wild in Bradford-on-Avon

I recently had a walk around Bradford-on-Avon, admiring the architecture, scaling the town’s sometimes precipitous slopes, and quenching my thirst with copious amounts of tea. I did of course admire much of what makes the town famous – churches, houses, mills, the lovely bridge with its tiny chapel – but found things to make me think that weren’t architectural: how well, for example, the place was handling social distancing and how people expressed their thanks when one gave way on a narrow pavement or moved aside a shade more than usual on a wide one. Nobody made this feel like a chore and everyone I came into distanced contact with was welcoming.

Another non-architectural thing I admired was flowers. Walking round to the bit of the town that contains both Holy Trinity church and the small Saxon chapel of St Lawrence, I found that wildflower planting was in evidence in places where I might expect lawns. One such is in Holy Trinity’s churchyard, so that one could look towards the chapel of St Lawrence across the colourful swathe of glowing ox-eye daisies shown in my photograph. I thought this miniature meadow looked really good, and raise my hat to those who made it possible.

There’s a lot to be said for wildflower verges and other patches of these flowers in towns. They can encourage bees – as well as other insects and invertebrates in need of a niche, they can be colourful additions to the local scene, local authorities like them because they don’t have to be cut every five minutes like lawns. Ecologically, it is best if they contain only native species – introduced species can be colourful and quick-growing, but are sometimes invasive and attract fewer beneficial species. Native plants attract a greater variety of insects; they may take a bit longer to establish, but they’re worth the effort. Bradford-on-Avon’s Holy Trinity church has made caring for the environment part of its mission. Part of its work as an eco-church is ‘managing the churchyard to optimise nature conservation and biodiversity’. There’s a lot to be said for that too.

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* The ox-eye daisy, native to this country and to Europe generally, is considered to be an invasive species in some countries where it has been introduced. It does dominate here, but in reality this patch of ground does host a number of wildflower species alongside it. Is it an ideal plant to include in a selection in this kind of context? It’s better, surely, than a manicured lawn in which nothing is allowed to flower.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Battlefield, Shropshire

More tiles, Maw tiles

In the great transformation in church buildings that took place during the 19th century, a key element was the revival of medieval architecture, especially Gothic architecture. Although Gothic buildings had been erected in every century since the end of the Middle Ages,* the Gothic churches of the mid- to late-Victorian periods were Gothic in more thoroughgoing and self-conscious ways. The style became part of the movement to make churches more visually attractive, more moving, more full of symbolic meaning, more redolent of what members of the high-church Oxford movement referred to as the ‘beauty of holiness’. Central to this was the encouragement of church art – carving, metalworking, mural painting, and ceramic tiles. Architects and designers studied the tiles in medieval churches like the ones in my previous post about Buildwas abbey, and copied them or designed similar ones.

Among the companies that made these tiles, combining different coloured clays ands glazes to often beautiful effect, were Minton, Godwin, Craven Dunhill and Maw. Maw and Company started in Worcester but moved to Benthall in Shropshire (not far from Ironbridge) in 1852 and were soon one of the biggest tile-makers.† Maw’s made many of the tiles laid when the church at Battlefield near Shrewsbury (originally built after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403), was restored – indeed virtually rebuilt – in 1861. It had originally been a grand collegiate church in the fields, very near to the site where the battle was fought during the Wars of the Roses. Now its 19th-century wooden roof timbers, carved stalls, stained glass, and tiled floors give it the atmosphere of a grand Victorian college chapel.

These tiled floors combine secular and religious symbolism – coats of arms of numerous English kings, motifs such as crosses, and heraldic symbols of the Corbet family, one of whose homes was in a nearby castle (now vanished) and who paid for the church’s restoration. The tiles in my photograph feature charming squirrels, not just a favourite of those who like English mammals but also one of the Corbets’ heraldic beasts. A squirrel forms the family crest – the beast at the top of the coat of arms, just above the shield. Here on the floor of the Corbet chapel in the church at Battlefield, squirrels sport in quartets, occupying roundels made up of four tiles. This use of four tiles to make a roundel was a medieval trick, and the little crosses in the corners of the tiles and the cross-like motifs that abound in this floor were also drawn from medieval sources.

If the imagery has a distinctly medieval feel to it, the crispness of the tiles, their deep colours, and the hard, complete surfaces make them unmistakably Victorian. So does another feature that we do not usually see in medieval work – the name of the tiles’ makers, ‘MAW’, in beautiful ornate lettering, the ends of the cross strokes of the ‘M’ and ‘W’ elegantly looped, the strokes terminating in not a bifurcated but a trifurcated shape, and the ends of the word filled out with curlicues. The company’s pride in their work is understable, I think. Our Victorian predecessors, painstaking and brilliant when they were given scope to shine, deserve to be remembered.

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* For convenience, I take the Middle Ages to end in 1500. Another date used is 1485, when the Wars of the Roses ended and the first Tudor king, Henry VII, began his reign.

† With Maw and Company at Benthall and Craven Dunhill in nearby Jackfield, the encaustic tile industry was strong in Shropshire. Craven Dunhill still make tiles in their works at Jackfield, where the factory and the adjacent tile museum can be visited. The museum is a cornucopia of tile history and visual delight.