Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Market Harborough, Leicestershire


Feel free to admire

Sometimes the purpose of this blog is just to point out things that I like – and I don’t necessarily have much more to say about them than that. This is an example, a former fire station that I passed one morning when walking through the centre of Market Harborough. It was built in 1903 (and then extended, hence the asymmetry of the sign’s position) by Johnson and Coales for Market Harborough District Council and they did a pleasing job on the street frontage. The segmental arches to admit the fire engines have a satisfying curve that’s mirrored in the form of the four upper windows, which must front some beautifully light rooms. The combination of good looks and practicality – the green tiles above a granite base combining toughness with a wipe-down surface, the mix of green and red colouring – is also admirable.

The structure has been converted to a café, and it’s good to see that the building has a useful future now no longer needed by the fire service. And that, from shiny red doors to gleaming green tiles, it’s still looking good after almost 120 years of use. And there’s a bonus across the road: an ambulance station by the same firm of architects with black tiles, white lettering, and a Diocletian window of enormous proportions. The emergency services of early-20th century Market Harborough seems to have been very well provided for.

Friday, November 19, 2021


What a cheek, or, Odd things in churches (15)

My occasional series, Odd things in churches, is dedicated to showing that it really is very surprising what one can find inside the places of worship of the Church of England. From instruments of punishment to fire-fighting equipment, items of whimsy to testimonies to obscure traditions, they’re all to be found, left behind by our ancestors and now regarded with a range of attitudes from indifference to notoriety. Today’s example is the embodiment of notoriety. Sometimes the more notorious features built into the fabric of churches can seem to us distinctly odd, nowhere more so than the numerous grotesque and rude carvings that seem to have been tolerated in medieval places of worship. Perhaps the most famous of these are the female figures known as Sheela na Gigs, but there are also male exhibitionists, like this man, carved high up in an aisle roof in Hereford’s medieval church of All Saints.

The All Saints exhibitionist has raised quite a few eyebrows in recent years – in part because he’s now more visible to the public since the church started serving coffee and provided seats and table in an upstairs gallery below the roof from which he moons down on us. He’s unusual in all kinds of ways. Although grotesques, even obscene ones, are not uncommon on medieval churches, they most often occur on the outside. When they do appear inside, they’re usually above doorways, arches, or entrances, and for many, this helps to explain their presence: they’re there, it’s said, to ward off evil spirits attempting to enter a sacred space. They do this, it is argued, by means of a kind of homoeopathy perhaps best summed up in the phrase ‘like cures like’. This kind of protective notion does not explain this figure’s presence high in the roof. Neither does another theory, that they are there to dissuade us from the sins they represent – before the construction of the gallery the exhibitionist was very difficult to spot.

Many like to suggest that he’s simply a carver’s joke. In one corner of the roof, he could have been done as the carver was finishing his work, and the scaffolding swiftly removed before the priest or the parish bigwigs had had the chance to inspect the roof too closely. We’ll never know whether this was the case. To modern eyes he just seems to be attracting attention of a particularly saucy kind. Something to ponder over the next cappuccino and cake.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021


Pigs in blankets

Strolling around Hereford cathedral the other week, once again impressed by the richness of detail almost everywhere, we came across a monument consisting of a recumbent effigy set in a niche. The style of the arch and the ballflowers decorating it suggest a date somewhere in the first half of the 14th century, but the ballflowers are outnumbered by tiny carved pigs – sixteen of them – each wearing on its back a heraldic blanket and each snuffling its way towards a carefully carved acorn. These contented swine suggest that the monument commemorates a member of the Swinefield or Swinfield family. There was a Bishop Richard Swinfield, successor to the famous and saintly Thomas Cantelupe and a man who successfully prepared the case for Thomas’s canonisation. But it’s not this Swinfield: he has his own monument elsewhere in the cathedral.

The monument of which I show a detail is said to belong to John Swinfield, who died in 1311 and was the cathedral’s Precentor. Clearly a member of the bishop’s family, he may have been one of Richard’s nephews, real or metaphorical. The precentor was the member of the chapter responsible for overseeing the musical side of worship.* He was thus a very important figure in the daily life of the cathedral, and could also deputise for the dean on occasion.§ Swinfield’s position, then, certainly merited a monument as large and prominent as this one. Few monuments, though, have such charming details as this. 

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* And, sometimes, for wider respsponsibilities in the organisation of worship in the cathedral.

§ The heraldry on the pigs relates to the arms of the Deanery.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ely, Cambridgeshire



This bomber is flying over Ely Cathedral in a memorial window in that building commemorating the contribution of Bomber Command during World War II and remembering the airmen who were lost. Lincolnshire and East Anglia were the home to many squadrons of bombers during the war, and even when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s the landscape was punctuated by control towers and fenced-off airfields. Hangars and a windsock can be seen below the cathedral in the window, representing the bases to which the airmen hoped to return.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Leominster, Herefordshire

Incidental pleasures, 2: Old news

The things we have lost. In the increasing list of things that have vanished or are vanishing as the world becomes ever more reliant on digital media, communications, commerce, and the rest are local newspapers. Long ago, when I was growing up, my parents took a national newspaper in the morning and a local newspaper in the evening. There were lots of national papers to choose from, but there was also a choice of locals – not just our town’s own paper, but one from the neighbouring city too. Even small towns had a newspaper of their own, containing a mix of local news plus advertisements, announcements of births, marriages and deaths, the results of the local sports matches, and announcements for forthcoming meetings of every local group from the Young Farmers club to the Literary and Philosophical Society. Most of these publications have gone, some completely, others to some sort of online presence.

Often, they’ve vanished without trace. Occasionally there are small, fragile traces, like this door (now belonging to a shop), glazed with engraved glass bearing the words ‘Leominster News’. That, plus another nearby, is such a trace of what was once The Leominster News and North West Herefordshire and Radnorshire Advertiser, a paper that covered not just the Herefordshire hinterland of this small market town but also the neighbouring Welsh border county of Radnorshire (itself another thing long gone, having been absorbed in the 1970s into the large county of Powys*).

This kind of engraved glass is the sort of thing I associate mostly with pubs – used for windows advertising a local ale or the availability of ports and sherries.† But it works just as well for a printing or newspaper office. Both would have doors that were beacons for people, and engraved glass with a light behind it was a good on-street advertisement. In the evening, through such doors local reporters would rush with their latest copy about a council meeting or some unexpected police report that simply had to be squeezed in somewhere. Out in the early hours of the morning would come weary printers, pleased to have got the latest edition printed and sent on its way in waiting vans to take the news to Herefordshire apple growers and Radnorshire sheep farmers. Later in the day, in would go members of the public wanting to place an ad or insert an announcement. Such places were at the heart of the community, and the light behind a door like this a sight that would be taken for granted.

From a little research online, this newspaper was around in the late-19th century and still going during World War II. How much longer did the light behind the door bring to mind the light shed on people’s breakfast or tea tables and the illumination brought by local news? Just the incidental pleasure of an old sign now, but back then, an essential part of life.

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* The name lives on, though, to denote the district of Radnorshire, the ‘Radnorshire part’ of Powys.

† There is much about engraved, embossed and other ornamental glass in Mark Girouard’s excellent Victorian Pubs (Studio Vista, 1975; Yale UP, 1984).

Monday, November 8, 2021

Leominster, Herefordshire


Incidental pleasures, 1: Fan mail

Are you are a fan of fanlights? I’m sorry, but the pun seems to want to be made.* I have always admired the semi-circular fanlights of the Georgian period, noticing the satisfying, cobweb-like layout of their glazing bars, dividing the little window in a way that justifies the name. And also reflecting how the entrance hall of a house can be its darkest area, and that a generous fanlight can help bring in some welcome natural light. So I’ve done posts about fanlights more than once before.

Scrolling through my pictures looking for something else, I came across this small gem. Not semicircular at. all, and not fan-like either, but more interesting than the simple rectangular windows that were often inserted above Victorian doors. The cue for the shape comes from the door’s canopy, with its shallow segmental curve, giving the fanlight a curved top too. And the pattern of the glazing nods towards this curve with four straight glazing bars radiating outwards, forming shapes that look as if they have been inspired by the tracery in Gothic stained-glass windows. So the shapes are all ogees and cusps, making a contrast with the simple, straight-sided panes of glass in the door below.

It’s modest, but visually satisfying. I have my doubts about how much light it lets into the interior, especially with the canopy producing shade as well as shelter. But if your front door faces directly on to the street, it’s pleasant to offer the street a bit of visual uplift, something to warm the heart of the observant passer-by.

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* If it seemed so to me at least, perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a paranomaniac at heart.