Friday, October 22, 2021


Happy pigs

Walking along a street in Hereford, a city I’ve visited a number of times, I saw this tile panel, clearly one produced for a butcher’s shop, that I’d never previously noticed. How can I not have seen this before? I have walked along this street more than once, on at least one other occasion noting the features of other old shop fronts hereabouts. Could it possibly be that this tile panel was covered by some later decoration, and has been revealed relatively recently? Maybe. But whatever its recent history, it’s now visible, delightful, and an asset to the streetscape, even though the premises no longer belong to a butcher, having been made over to the business of selling boots and shoes.

I find the panel charming – and charm, I’d say, is a quality that is appropriate for retail architecture, the object being to charm customers so much that they go inside and buy things. So here, five happy-looking pigs chomp and root away by a stream, while a sixth seems to have decided to lie down in contentment. The foliage of the trees is not depicted realistically, but made up of a series of impressionistic shapes and splodges in various shades of green and brown, a style that looks more 20th century than Victorian. The chequered border and angular lettering point that way too – I wonder if the tiles were designed and made in the 1920s. I couldn’t find anything about them in my favourite tile reference book, Lynn Pearson’s Tile Gazetteer. So for now I’m left to speculate and admire.

Entering the shop, I found one more tile panel (below), showing another group of pigs just inside the door. This time they seem to be in a farmyard setting, and this, together with the fact that the pigs are depicted in more detail, has given the artist a little more scope to be realistic. The grey wall in which the tiles are now set has a surface slightly proud of the panels, and this may well conceal a tiled border. The adjacent display of wellington boots, perfect for the well dressed farmer or swineherd, made me smile. It’s a while since I’ve seen such good butcher’s tiles, and these are rivals to my local favourites, which adorn the shop of Jesse Smith and Co, butchers of Cirencester. There they have attracted me inside to buy a pork pie. Although I didn’t buy any shoes in this Hereford shop, I may well return – tiles are still, for me, a powerful attraction.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Bridport, Dorset

Chapel in a garden

Bridport’s Unitarian chapel was built in the 1790s after a group split from an existing independent congregation in 1742. The then minister, Thomas Collins, refused to affirm the divinity of Christ, leading some 200 people to leave and set up their own congregational chapel elsewhere in the town. Those who remained continued under Collins’ ministry, and in 1974 they agreed to build a new chapel, then called the New Meeting, the building that survives today.

The building is a standard 18th-century chapel, with symmetrical front, round-headed windows, hipped roof, and central porch, the latter given a touch of elegance by its semi-circular shape and Ionic columns. But the most distinctive thing about it today is its position, set back from the street and fronted with greenery and flowers. It’s hard to imagine a better setting for a chapel in the middle of a town. The congregation invites passers-by to sit and enjoy the green space, where they can find rest, relaxation, and, perhaps encouraged by the gentle cooing of the doves, spiritual enrichment.

The doves have their own miniature building, which can be seen on the left in my photograph. It’s ornate, octagonal, and painted the same white as the bricks of the chapel’s facade. The occupants perched obligingly and eyed me as, taking welcome relief from Bridport’s busy main street, stopped to take the photograph. Christians have long used the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Unitarianism rejects the Trinitarian notion of the deity, so have no place for that symbol. However, doves have long been linked with peace and purity, and few, in this tranquil setting, would take issue with that.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Sudeley, Gloucestershire

Hidden treasure

A few miles from where I live, hidden in a wood on a slope of the Cotswolds, lie the fragmentary remains of a Roman villa. The site was excavated in 1882, when some mosaics were uncovered, the remains of a few walls were noted, and the plan of a courtyard villa, which had developed from an earlier corridor-based structure, was made out. The ruins did not fare well in the years after the excavation. Damage due to frost, burrowing rabbits, and visitors occurred, and Emma Dent, the owner of the land on which they stood, removed one of the mosaics to her home, Sudeley Castle.* She had part of the site protected by wooden sheds to help preserve it, but those sheds have long rotted away and most of the remains are now all but enveloped in undergrowth and concealed by trees. One mosaic is protected by a low shelter roofed in corrugated iron. By bending down into the shelter and peeling back some sheeting held down by stones, one can see the mosaic, fragmentary but beautiful, its patterns of loops, curves and diagonals standing out in the gloom.

It’s not known for sure how old the villa is. Coins of the 3rd and 4th centuries were found on the site, and I’d guess that the building goes back well before that. That this much has managed to survive in its isolated and quiet location, in spite of animals, weather, and the removal of tesserae by ignorant 19th-century visitors, is heartening, and to me at least, somewhat moving.

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* She justified this removal because it was necessary to protect the mosaics from locals, who walked up to the site and removed handfuls of tesserae. A panel of the mosaic, having been removed to the castle, was apparently subsequently lost: its present location is unknown. A mosaic from another Roman site that Miss Dent removed had a happier fate: she had it restored and reinstalled in its original position.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

Light the lights

The facade of the Ritz cinema in Burnham-on-Sea looked somewhat the worse for wear when I passed it the other day – but, no matter, the place is still open and still showing films, on three screens now I believe, unlike the single screen that it had when it opened in 1936. It presents to the street a very plain front, rendered in cream, with a central section breaking forward slightly and accommodating three simple rectangular windows and the sign bearing the name above. It’s Art Deco, in other words, of the most pared-down kind.

The lettering in the sign is pretty simple too. Four capitals, with all the strokes more or less equal in width and all the characters very square-looking, including even the initial R, which has been made to do some rather alien things in order to eliminate its usual curves. It’s not the most pleasing of letters, this R, but in the context of the plain, simple, rectilinear building it makes sense. Imagine the neon tubes of the sign lit up at night, as one must with such a cinema building, and the whole thing works – even though we lose what caught my eye on the sunny Sunday afternoon I was there: the lucky similarity between the colour of the lettering and the blue of the sky.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Daventry, Northamptonshire

Genuine imitation

This building is nicely sited at one end of Daventry High Street, facing up the street. Its frontage therefore acts as an attractive focal point as one looks towards it, and the white stucco finish draws the eye. What I thought I was looking at was the 18th-century idea of a Tudor-period gothic house front. The battlements, octagonal corner turrets, friezes with quatrefoils, and windows with dripstones and ornate glazing bars all point to this. Even the white stucco feels right: Horace Walpole’s famous faux-gothic house, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, is similarly white – he called it his ‘paper house’, referring both to the white finish and the fragility conjured up by the style. This example, more four-square and turreted, doesn’t look particularly fragile, but is no less striking, and a pleasant surprise to come across among the modern shop fronts and market stalls.

But there’s a twist. According to the description in the listing entry of this house, the core of the building actually is 16th or 17th century. So there’s a genuine Tudor or Jacobean house lurking underneath this handsome sham. Little do the ’Tiny Uns’ who attend day care here today realise what a cradle of history they occupy.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

West Camel, Somerset

The joys of the wriggly stuff

Up there in the list of my obsessions are various things that are not strictly architecture, but which are adjuncts to architecture and often make buildings interesting or give them interesting contexts – lettering on buildings, three-dimensional pub signs, post boxes, wooden shacks, obsolete petrol pumps, and, somewhere near the top of the heap, corrugated iron. Aficionados of this versatile but low-status building material often refer to it as ‘wriggly tin’, which is a misnomer as far as the ‘tin’ goes, but is amusing enough and highlights its salient quality, the corrugations that both make the stuff strong and give it its characteristic appearance, helping it to look good when the sun comes out.

Wriggly tin is cheap, lightweight, easy for low-skilled people to build with, and highly versatile. If you hit the term ‘corrugated iron’ in the tag cloud in the right-hand column, you’ll find posts about barns, a house, a boat house, Nissen huts, workshops, and even churches built of the material. Here in West Camel there’s a multiple whammy of corrugated iron – not just a modest green-painted shed but a row of houses with great curving roofs with a corrugated covering. If the houses resemble Nissen huts, there’s a reason. They were built by John Petter and Percy J Warren, who took their inspiration from the Nissen huts designed by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen. The pair of architects set up a company to produce the houses and acknowledged their debt to Nissen by calling their firm Nissen-Petren Houses and appointing Nissen to the board of directors.

The idea was to market the houses to local authorities, who were building homes in the 1920s in the wake of the First World War. The return of soldiers not only increased the demand for affordable housing, but caused a shortage of materials and skilled labour, and the design of the Nissen-Petren houses was a way of overcoming these problems by creating structures of non-traditional materials that were straightforward to erect. The houses had a steel frame, concrete end walls, and a roof covered with corrugated steel. They could be built much faster than brick houses and the hope was that the cost would be slightly lower too. However, the houses weren’t taken up widely – there were concerns about the cost, the appearance of the houses, and that fact that some roof leaks were reported. A few were built in the West Country, but not enough to make the Nissen-Petren company viable and it closed in financial difficulties. The row in West Camel, visible from the A303, are, as far as I know, the largest group to survive.