Monday, June 27, 2022

St Neots, Cambridgeshire

Caught on the hop

Seeing this building first from a distance, I thought it must be an old bottle kiln – after all, there were potteries everywhere, not just in the ‘potteries’, the towns of Staffordshire once famous as the centre of England’s ceramics industry. However, the louvre at the top made me doubt this, and a little research revealed that it actually began life as an oast house. For those who don’t know, an oast house is a different kind of kiln, one used in the brewing industry to dry hops or barley. 

This oast house was built in the 18th century by one William Fowler and is best known to history as part of Day’s brewery, the business of John Day, who acquired and ran it, together with a complex of other brewery buildings, now mostly demolished, nearby. On the ground floor of the oast there would have been a fire to provide the heat source. Above this, was a floor made of wooden battens with spaces between them, covered with cloth; the ingredients to be dried would be spread on the floor. When the fire was lit, warm air would travel upward through the cloth to dry the hops. Moist air escaped through the vent at the top. Oast houses are most often seen in Kent and Herefordshire, both important hop-growing regions. In the case of these areas, the hop growers processed the hops before selling them to brewers. This oast, however, reminds us that they were built in other places, and by brewers too.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Didbrook, Gloucestershire


I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have long been a fan of the work of the great English photographer Edwin Smith. Among the books I have that are illustrated with his photographs is English Cottages and Farmhouses, a large volume with text by Olive Cook published by Thames & Hudson in 1954, which includes a photograph of a cottage in the village of Didbrook, just three or four miles away from where I live.* I don’t often go through Didbrook, which is tucked away off the main road, but the other day I made a brief diversion. My photograph shows the cottage today, partly concealed behind the branches of a tree, but not much changed, when seen from this angle anyway, from what it was like in Smith’s photograph.§

What attracts me to it – and the reason for its inclusion in Olive Cook and Edwin Smith’s book, is that it is an excellent example of a cottage built using cruck frames.† Crucks are the pairs of massive timbers that are set together at an angle to form an inverted V-shape. A cruck building has a pair of crucks at each end, and, depending on the structure’s size, may have several others placed at intervals between. Other cross-pieces and braces add to the frame’s strength, and further bits of framing are added to give the building straight, upright side walls. By looking at an end wall, one can see how the cruck structure is put together.

The cruck frame is an ancient architectural form that was especially popular in the West of England. This cottage has been dated to the 15th century, and although it has been modified several times in later centuries, its roof is still supported by the paired oak beams that have been there for perhaps 600 years.

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* The Royal Institute of British Architects holds Smith’s archive of photographs; his image of the Didbrook cottage is here.

§ In Smith’s time a small porch protected the front door; this has now been removed.

† There’s another post showing a cruck-framed house here.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Highley, Shropshire

Any excuse…

…for a bit of corrugated iron and an old advertising sign. Yes, they’re things I am particularly drawn to. I like corrugated iron because it’s adaptable, can take colours well, and can form the material of serviceable, attractive working buildings. I like old signs because I’m fascinated by the visual effects of their colours and letterforms, and also because they recall historical products and businesses, many of which have not made it into the 21st century. Both wrinkly iron and old signs are in abundance on preserved railways lines, notably the two closest to where I live, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway and the Severn Valley Railway.

This shed is at Highley Station on the Severn Valley Railway, where it is used, I believe, as a workshop. The line was once part of the Great Western Railway network, so the shed is painted in the GWR’s usual muddy light brown. The enamel sign running along the top is a particularly large and handsome example of the sort of metal sign popular in the early decades of the last century. The deep blue background was often used on enamel signs and works well with white lettering, as here. The letters in the name are both bold and well proportioned, and well spaced too: I’d say it was a very effective sign.

It comes from the factory of Charles Taylor of Birmingham. Taylor’s made things like lathes and machine tools. Taylor’s started in 1860. The founder died in 1899 but the firm continued through the 20th century. The excellent Grace’s Guide records them as being prosecuted for keeping a dirty factory in 1874. However, a series of advertisements through the early-20th century suggests an increasing range, so that by 1937 they list lathes, chucks, cutting machines, jigs, vices, and sawing and bending machines among their products. They also introduced new innovations: they filed patents for improved chucks and pedal mechanisms in 1920 and 1954. Their factory was finally pulled down in 1999 and the sign was rescued and has ended up here, where the railway mounted it on top of this workshop building. It’s just the place for it to catch the eye of travellers and tourists on the Severn Valley Railway, an audience very likely to appreciate the bit of engineering history that it evokes.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Rousham, Oxfordshire


Dashing for the post

I always make a point of looking at old post boxes. The post (‘snail mail’) has always been a major part of my life. Before email (and its precursor, the fax) I was always always popping round the corner to the local post box, or dashing to the post office to get some urgent missive or piece of text dispatched. So it was not unusual that I paused by this wall box close to the big house at Rousham. A Victorian box, I thought. Nothing unusual about that – there are quite a few of these wall boxes, well over one hundred years old and bearing the ‘VR’ monogram of Queen Victoria, still in use, often in remote locations. But then I looked a little closer and saw that this one was a slightly different design from those I’ve seen before. It’s quite tall in relation to its width and instead of the Queen’s monogram being right at the top, it’s further down, beneath the inscription ‘Post Office’ (at the very top, just about visible) and ‘Letter box’ (just below the slot). In addition, the words ‘Cleared at’ appear below the monogram, acting as a heading to the label below, which gives the times at which the box is emptied. A further touch: the box is topped with a triangular pediment – most wall boxes are simple rectangles.

All this is so much fine detail, which is not interesting to everyone (are you still reading?). But it reminds us that many different designs of post boxes were produced and that preserving such valuable and useful bits of street furniture isn’t simply a matter of counting (‘We have n-hundred Victorian boxes, does it matter if we lose one?’); it’s about checking the details, and making sure we don’t unknowingly let go of something unusual or unique. Looking at images of similar ones online, this one may be a National Standard No 2 Small Wallbox* design, which goes back to about 1859.

Hanging on to this kind of thing is also about respecting the histories of the people and firms that made them. Cast into the metal at the bottom of this box is a manufacturer’s name. Alas I can’t make it out, because it’s encrusted with layers of paint, but the final word is ‘Birmingham’, so that’s where the makers were based. Names associated with this kind of box include the Eagle Foundry and Smith & Hawkes, both of Birmingham. Next time I go to Rousham, I must look again at the name on this box, armed with these names, and see if one of them fits.

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* The very name suggests that it’s one of numerous different designs of large and small wallboxes in use alongside a further variety of free-standing pillar boxes.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Pershore, Worcestershire


You can’t beat an old brick wall as a boundary to a garden. The pleasant, variegated colours of old brick, the feeling of warmth, the shelter, the sense of seclusion – all of these things can be fostered by an English brick garden wall. But for something even more special, how about a crinkle-crankle wall, one that undulates like this one in Pershore?

Crinkle-crankle walls have been around at least since the 18th century. They’re unusual, and more common in Suffolk than anywhere else (‘crinkle-crankle’ itself is said to be a Suffolk dialect term meaning ‘serpentine’). I have read that people built them because a sinuous wall can be built soundly with only one thickness of bricks, saving materials. A straight wall built this way would easily fall down – you need a double thickness, and sometimes buttresses too, to give it strength. A curving wall can stand up on its own, its curves providing rigidity, like the corrugations in corrugated iron. With a serpentine wall the total length is greater, but not double that of an equivalent straight wall, so you need fewer bricks. On the other hand, the wall also needs more land.*

Another reason to build such a wall might be that it’s aesthetically appealing – many people find curves more pleasing to the eye than straight lines. Yet another might be that a crinkle-crankle wall, oriented correctly, is good for growing fruit against – the indentations provide a bit of shelter from the wind, and if the wall is south-facing, it catches the sun and makes pockets of warmth. This brings us to the town of Pershore, in the part of Worcestershire (the Vale of Evesham and nearby) which is traditionally a fruit-growing area. In this region there are numerous fruit farms and commercial orchards (and were once many more); Pershore itself is famous for its pears. Private gardens had fruit trees too, so the town’s crinkle-crankle walls could be part of this story. For those of us who appreciate these things, it is not just Pershore’s impressive Georgian houses where bricks have born attractive visual fruit.

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* Money-saving might possibly a factor that became more important when bricks were taxed.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Stocklinch, Somerset

The lion and the unicorn, 2

Here’s my second royal arms, this time the version relating to the first three Georges, a form of the arms in use between 1714 and 1801. It is painted on boards and displayed in the church at Stocklinch, Somerset. George I and his two successors included the heraldic symbols of their family, the house of Hanover, in the fourth quarter (i.e. the bottom right part) of the shield. Although this example is not in pristine condition and is anyway the work of a no doubt local artist somewhere in the Ilminster area of Somerset, the painting of the lion and unicorn has a charm that gives at least one viewer pleasure.

This Hanoverian version of the coat of arms is now the most common form to be seen in English churches, although later rulers’ coats of arms are still found too. By the twentieth century, displaying the latest arms in church was less widespread, and there are few from the last hundred years. I know of only a couple of examples of Elizabeth II’s arms in churches – an indication that the practice of their display in an ecclesiastical context had fallen out of fashion, in spite of this monarch’s long-term commitment to the church.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

The lion and the unicorn, 1

The practice of displaying the royal arms in churches became widespread during the reign of Henry VIII, after the king broke with the pope and the Roman church and appointed himself as the leader of the church in England. Royals arms were put up in churches (often under the chancel arch, where the Rood had formerly been) under Henry and his son Edward VI, although the Catholic queen Mary I ordered them to be removed. They were brought back under her successor Elizabeth I, often destroyed or removed under Oliver Cromwell, and restored once more with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Many remain from these periods and from the later Hanoverian rulers, although generally not beneath the chancel arch but in some slightly less prominent place inside the church.

These coats of arms are often worth a good look. Though most are painted on boards, there are some on canvas, as well as carved wooden ones and examples moulded form plaster. Often they reveal work of character by a talented local artist (most are unsigned). The skill with which the animal supporters on either side of the shield are depicted is often telling – they’re heraldic beasts, so don’t have to be realistic, and the lions, especially, are often strikingly painted or carved. The artists could also show their skill in the depiction of the scrolls, leaves and flowers that are included.

My photograph shows one of my favourites. It is of carved wood and it is huge – it occupies the entire space beneath one of the curved arches between nave and aisle in the parish church at Wisbech. The arms are those of James I of England, who, as James VI of Scotland united the two kingdoms under one criown. His heralds added the Irish harp and Scottish single lion to the shield, in addition to the three lions that had been used on the English royal arms for several centuries. Since I first saw it, I’ve admired the characterful faces of the two beasts and the vigorous portrayal of their bodies. The scrolling foliage around their heads is also impressive.

The arms of James I are just one example of several that I have admired during my years of blogging. Those interested in such things might like to seek out my posts on the arms of James at Abbey Dore and those of Edward VII at Onibury. Together they are a timely reminder in this Jubilee year of the commitment of British monarchs to the church over a long timespan. Like the one at Wisbech, both of these are carved. I have a painted one in mind to post here soon.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Hastings, Sussex

Palace of the people

When I saw this building a bell rang in my memory. I’d noticed it before and admired it, but had forgotten for a moment what it was. The lettering on the front quickly reminded me: ‘Brassey Institute’. This time I let my eyes linger on its architectural details. I also tried to look at it as a whole, but this isn’t easy because the Victorian gothic pile is so crowded around by other buildings, and on such a narrow street, that it’s difficult to take in, and hard to photograph.* But here’s an image of much of the street front, to give you an idea of its mass of gothic detail – pointed arches, loggias, a landmark tower, and enough windows to make at least some of the rooms inside pleasantly light in spite of the densely packed buildings round about. And what is it for? Victorian institutes were usually multi-purpose buildings with some kind educational and community use. The Brassey Institute was built in the late-1870s to provide a library, assembly room, and school of art and science.

The name comes from the man who founded and paid for the building, Thomas Brassey. Brassey was the son of another Thomas, who amassed enormous wealth from the railways. Beginning as a surveyor, the earlier Brassey was involved in the construction of vast parts of Britain’s (and indeed the world’s) railway network and in the building of everything from steamships to sewers. He began to put up a palatial house near Hastings, but died before it was completed, leaving his son Thomas to complete the project. Thomas Junior, later Sir Thomas Brassey, became MP for Hastings and a notable philanthropist. His first wife Annie was a pioneering photographer, whose work is now being appreciated after being in the shadow of the achievements of her male relations. The Brassey Institute is an example of the way many of the Victorian newly rich put some of their money back into the places where they lived.

The architect Brassey commissioned for the institute was Walter Liberty Vernon. Although not one of the most famous Victorian architects, Vernon was clearly a man of great ability. Several features of this facade show the influence of the Gothic style of Venice: the large windows, the design of some of the arches, the small balcony on the left, the loggia on the upper floor – all are ‘Venetian’ features. Venetian Gothic was much in the air in the late-19th century. John Ruskin had published The Stones of Venice back in the 1850s and two decades on, the style was favoured by some Victorian architects as a form of Gothic they could adapt to domestic and civic buildings (leaving English or French Gothic for churches), lending a palatial aspect to public buildings. Vernon showed himself at home in the style, and he would be better known in Britain if he had not emigrated to Australia (for his health – he had athsma) in the 1880s. He produced for Hastings a building that is still used and valued, as the home of the town’s main public library.

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* The church in the left is Holy Trinity, designed by the Victorian architect S. S. Teulon, and the windows visible in my photograph give a hint of his ornate style.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Hastings, Sussex

Ragged girls

Before the 1870 Education Act, education for children in England was patchy. Some areas had free schools run by charities or by the church, but many did not, so those who could not afford to pay for education saw their children missing out. One notable movement of the 1840s aimed to address this problem by providing free elementary schools for children aged between five and twelve in areas that lacked provision. These schools were aimed specifically at poor families and the people who set them up provided additional help such as food and clothing for families who were in the most desperate financial straits. Because of the worn clothes in which many of the pupils turned up, these charitable free schools became known as ‘ragged schools’; the name stuck.

Probably the first body to use the term ‘ragged schools’ officially was the London City Mission, which founded five schools in East London in the 1840s. I passed the one in my photograph when I was in Hastings recently. Although its Gothic architecture, with pointed windows and fancy bargeboards, is far from untidy, it was apparently a girls’ ragged school founded in 1863. It was opened on 29 October that year, a boys’ school having been established elsewhere in the town about three months earlier. The school was designed for 80 children, although the average attendance was closer to sixty – an indication probably not so much of a shortage of poor children as of varying attendance in families in which one crisis or another prevented children from going to school every day. After the 1870 Education Act, the ragged school would have continued, eventually being absorbed into the system of state-funded schools.

No longer used as a school, the building seems to have recently been restored and the sign at the entrance repainted. I have not been inside, but through the window I could glimpse the large, high schoolroom in which children would have sat in rows, often divided into groups under the supervision of ‘monitors’, older pupils who were sometimes charged with overseeing a group of younger ones while they completed tasks. I hope someone has found a use for the building, so that this bit of architectural history can remain.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Winchelsea Beach, Sussex


Boxes by the sea

Not far from the railway carriage bungalow in my previous post, I admired a number of houses that displayed very different but equally distinctive designs. One, a large white box, struck me as something out of the UK television programme ‘Grand Designs’. My host and guide to this bit of coast immediately told me that that was exactly what it was. It was built in 2004 by Tom Watkins, former manager of the Pet Shop Boys and featured in that very programme. Only a couple of doors along from that one is the house in my photograph, a far smaller box, this time a box on legs.

Curiously, this more modest building called to me in a way that the more recent white box did not. Maybe exactly because it’s more modest. Perhaps also because it intrigued me with its demonstration of so many of Le Corbusier’s ‘Five Points of Architecture’. In the interwar period, Le Corbusier was a proponent of these five features: building the house on columns, which he called pilotis; strip windows; roof terraces or roof gardens; the ‘free facade’, meaning a facade that puts features like doors and windows where they work best, not where they need to be because of the constraints of structure or convention; and a ‘free plan’, in other words a floor plan that allows a flexible use of space not a plan that was drawn up to some standard predetermined idea of what should go where. Looking at this house from the outside, it certainly seemed to conform to several of the points – although one could only determine the plan by going inside.

So was this, unlike its recent neighbour, a genuine 1930s, Bauhaus period house, or a later recreation? Again, later, I was told – but from the 1950s or 60s rather than the noughties. While most 1950s builders were putting up buildings that looked less ‘modern’ (pitched roofs, brick walls, more restrained ‘modern’ elements), a few people still adhered to the old 1930s ways, as much because of what they looked like as anything else. Boxes like this, with flat roofs and many windows, can take a lot of maintenance to keep them weather-tight and pleasant to live in, but some think this is a price worth paying. After all, the sea views and balconies must come into their own in good weather. Even putting the main structure on stilts, in the light of recent coastal floods (and no doubt more to come), makes new sense of Le Corbusier’s love of pilotis. Maybe we’re not done with the 1930s quite yet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Winchelsea Beach, Sussex

The Wild East

‘Show me shacks and houses made from old railway carriages!’ I said to Mr W, my host in Sussex the other weekend. And soon we were speeding towards Winchelsea Beach where it is still possible, he explained, to glimpse such things. The southeastern coasts of England, and some in Eastern England too, were once festooned with a host of such opportunistic self-built dwellings, which represented an escape from London for many families who otherwise could not hope to afford a home of their own. Landlords would sell off unproductive farmland and bits of terrain vague, and people would buy up a site, camp on it, and eventually build themselves a house using cheap materials such as wood or corrugated iron. Meanwhile, railway companies were selling off old rolling stock for a song, and redundant carriages were sometimes hauled to these sites and turned into houses. This was mostly in the 1930s, before modern planning legislation had developed and plotlands, as these settlements were called, were frowned on by planners, architects, and those who wanted to preserve their local view. The likes of Clough Williams-Ellis (creator of the outré Italianate Welsh village of Portmeirion and author of preservationist books such as England and the Octopus) inveighed against them, lumping them together with ribbon development (‘bungaloid growth’), corrugated iron garages, and general untidiness. While I’d not want the whole of England covered with them, I admire plotland buildings, cherishing the ingenuity and effort their builders and owners put into them.

So I was pleased when Mr W took me to Winchelsea Beach and showed me such sights as this. Surrounded on at least two sides by verandas that look, with their braces and palings, like something out of the Wild West, this is a wooden house that seems to have at its core a trio of carriages, the curving roofs of which are visible when you look at the building from a slightly elevated viewpoint, as in my photograph. I recalled a colleague telling me about someone he’d been working with who lived in a house made up of a U-shaped configuration of three linked railway carriages. Perhaps this was something similar. A little online searching* brings up a suggestion that in this case the carriages are actually tram bodies, perhaps originating on the Rye and Camber Tramway, an old narrow-gauge railway connecting Rye and Camber Sands, not far away.† Whatever the source, I can’t help admire the mix of inventiveness, opportunism, and hard work that must have brought this dwelling about. My admiration extends to those who own and look after such gems rather than tearing them down and replacing them with more conventional brick bungalows, which to my mind would be bungaloid growth indeed.

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* There are more pictures on this website, which is my source for the theory about the tramway origin of the rolling stock.

† The tramway closed in 1939.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

St Mary in the Marsh, Kent

On the marsh, 2

Of the many churches on Romney Marsh, St Mary in the Marsh is now one of my favourites. Standing alone except for a pub and a small group of houses, it signals its presence with a lovely splay-footed spire, on which the shingles make the transition from the the upper steep slope of the spire to the lower splay with a satisfying curve. From a little nearer one can see a small church of grey stone and the red roof tiles so common in Kent and Sussex, mostly built in c. 1300. On either side of the porch, though, are two large later windows each with two round-headed lights and a dripstone in the shape of a shallow arch – the hybrid form of design is a feature of that late Gothic (but without pointed arches) that antiquarians used to sneer at and call ‘debased’. These two windows are said to have been inserted in around 1800. On making their acquaintance, I was inclined to ignore the antiquarians’ sneers and to like them, and to reflect that their clear glass should make for a pleasant, light interior.

And so it proves. Inside, the church is whitewashed, paved with quarry tiles, furnished with box pews, and topped with crown-post roofs. These elements suggest that there has been no Victorian restoration and that nothing much beyond discreet repair has been done to the building since the insertion of those two large windows. The arms of George III, vigorously painted on canvas, no doubt by a local artist, adorn the north aisle. The result is both beautiful and, as we stood there on a quiet spring afternoon, it exuded an atmosphere of spirituality that made one happy to be present.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

New Romney, Kent

On the Marsh, 1

Driving across Romney Marsh in Kent, near the border with Sussex, you cross a flat landscape, characterized by pasture, occasional drainage channels, and isolated, scattered settlements. Here and there the emptiness is relieved by a small medieval church and here and there you spot tiny buildings in fields, like stone or brick sheds. Too small to be houses or barns, they’re lookers’ huts, a unique phenomenon of the marsh, and one that might have vanished completely had it not been for the interest of a few enthusiasts.

The lookers owed their existence to the economic changes that occurred after the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The plague killed a vast number of people (estimates vary between a half and one-third of the population), and the remaining landlords on the marsh bought up small landholdings that no longer had owners or tenants and combined them into larger estates. Here they ran sheep in extensive flocks, and they employed ‘lookers’ to tend them. Lookers worked over a large area, and needed a base where they could store equipment and food, and that would sometimes provide a bed for the night. Hence their huts, which were basic in the extreme (one window, a door) but also had a chimney so that the looker could keep warm in the winter. The lookers’ huts that survive today are not as old as the 14th century – I’d guess most of them are 19th century.

The huts were useful all the year round and vital during the lambing season, when the sheep needled to be constantly checked and cared for, and during shearing, the shepherd’s other time of intensive hands-on work. By the early-20th century, agriculture and then transport were transformed, and there was no longer a need for lookers or their huts. Although robust, many of these buildings, left to decay, have now gone. Around 20 remain, some well maintained, others in ruins. The example in my photograph is a reconstructed looker’s hut at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, outside New Romney. It’s there to explain the story of the lookers and their buildings and, as long as a few huts remain in situ, to answer the inevitable questions of observant tourists, who want to know why these tiny structures were sited in the middle of Kentish fields.

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For an account of the similar ‘hovels’ of Worcestershire, see my earlier post, here.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Hardham, Sussex

Ribs, bellies, pointing fingers…

Andrew Graham-Dixon, in a recent talk I heard, engaged enthusiastically with English medieval art. He pointed out that 99 per cent of it has been lost, as a result mainly of the various depredations of the Reformation. But he quickly encouraged his listeners to look at the quality of what’s left. His energetic praise for astonishing remnants of large-scale medieval woodcarving (the Abergavenny Jesse, the Cullompton golgotha, both staggering) was infectious. I hope it made people want to make immediate pilgrimages to Gwent and Devon. And the wall-paintings, faded and defaced, are still there in their faint and sometimes barely distinguishable scores. They make one strain to make out details, and marvel.

There’s a marvellous group of churches in Sussex in which frescoes survive in surprising quantity. Occasional details emerge from them to give us an idea of their quality too. One of the best is the small church at Hardham, near Pulborough. I’d been meaning to go there for years, and was glad I visited a few days ago. It’s surprising, if you’ve not read about it, to come across this tiny church in which both spaces, nave and chancel, are full of wall-to-wall frescoes, and that these paintings date from around 1100. They’re very faded, but some of the subjects – a Flight into Egypt, an Annunciation – are not hard to identify.

One of the very best is the temptation of Adam and Eve, not least because the two main figures are bounded by strong outlines, enabling their graphic impact to hit us in the eyeballs. Ribs, bellies, pointing fingers, and Eve’s hand with which she is taking the apple, are all beautifully clear. Only the area around Adam’s groin has been defaced – the Puritans, no doubt, were here. Satan, a fat, coiled serpent, is less clear at the tail end, but has wings (well delineated) and passes the apple from his mouth to Eve’s hand. She points to the apple with her other hand, as if to encourage Adam.

It’s easy to become so carried away with some details that one misses others, some of which are very surprising. Above the painting of the Annunciation and the Visitation in the nave, for example, is an inscription in Latin, a hexameter, and in Lombardic capitals too: ‘VIRGO SALUTATUR STERILIS FECUNDA PROBATUR’ (The virgin is greeted; the infertile woman is shown to be fruitful’*). It’s wrong to think of medieval wall paintings as the unsophisticated products of an illiterate culture. Few medieval people could read and write, but some could, priests (generally) could do so, and would have explained to others what the words meant – as they would also have explained the stories behind the pictures,† whose quality need not astound us – though their preservation is a cause for wonder.

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* I think. I have very little Latin and less Greek.

† It’s generally thought that sermonizing was not a major part of early medieval religion and the notion of their being ‘the Bible of the poor’ is, I think, only one aspect of wall paintings’ significance and use. But explanation, reflection, and literacy for some provided the key to meanings at which many, for all their literacy, have to struggle to understand today.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

The Worm

Years ago, when I started this blog, Great Malvern station was one of the buildings I wanted to include. Its combination of impressive sandstone masonry, typical of its architect E. W. Elmslie, and ornate ironwork makes it one of my favourite stations. But back then, there was one feature of this station I did not know about. My recent photograph shows the view towards the tracks from the railway bridge in Avenue Road, close to the station. Next to the tracks, and curving away from them, is a structure of masonry, wood and corrugated iron. It’s a walkway linking Platform 2 with the building that was the Imperial Hotel, on the other side of the road.*

This extraordinary passage – which as far as I know is unique – was a concession to visitors, because you do not come to the West of England for the weather and there is a good chance of getting rained on if you leave the station and cross the road to your hotel. It’s wet here in the West, so if you were more hoity-toity than hoi polloi, you could get straight off your train and walk the short distance to your hotel without getting wet. This direct route is also quicker than going out of the main entrance and doubling back before crossing the road. Exclusivity, comfort, and convenience, Great Malvern Station offered it all.

The locals would look down from the bridge (as visitors travelling through it did not) and marvel at the elegance of its corrugated iron roof, with its slight curving dip towards the eaves. With its clever use of the flexible quality of corrugated iron, combined with the ornate cresting on top and the ornamental supporting framework beneath, it might have made them proud. But they had a sense of humour, and coined a nickname for the posh passengers’ pathway: they called it ‘the worm’.

It must be at least 50 years since the worm has been used, during which time the hotel closed, its building taken over by a school. Rusty and largely unregarded, the structure clings on, amid periodic schemes to restore it. It’s listed, so there’s hope. Long may the worm wriggle.

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*The hotel and bridge are by Elmslie too.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Bridgnorth, Shropshire


Tribute bands

It’s easy to be dismissive about this sort of thing: a pattern of faux-timber framing painted on to a brick wall. ‘It’s not real,’ people say, hinting that it’s such a complete fake that it hardly exists at all. It’s the sort of thing you see quite often in counties such as Shropshire and Worcestershire, where there’s a long tradition of genuine timber-framed buildings. You’ll enter a ‘black and white’ village and stand at one end, admiring the view. Then you walk slowly forwards, realising as you go that, while many of the timbers are real, structural wood, a few are of this painted variety…and that there might also be some that are indeed genuine timber but are merely ornamental, tacked on to make the building look old.

There’s another ‘authenticity’ issue to consider when looking at this kind of thing. The familiar and much loved ‘black and white’ pattern of timber-framed buildings is itself something not quite original – most such buildings were constructed of oak that was left untreated, so that it aged to a beautiful silvery grey; infill panels were sometimes coloured with some natural pigment. Pink and grey, anyone? You can find this combination right across England now, from Tewkesbury to Lavenham.

So painted timber framing on a building like this one in a corner of Bridgnorth is obviously fake. And yet I’d not always want to remove it, to reveal the colour of the brickwork in a gesture of architectural ‘honesty’. Why? Because fake timber framing is itself now part of the history of many buildings. It is, one could argue, as much a part of the story of vernacular architecture in the West of England as oak beams and cruck frames. And it speaks of many things – an interest in history, or a respect for and tribute to the appearance of genuine timber frames, or a desire for a building to ‘fit in’. I’d not want every building to be like this, but I’m happy to find them here and there, wearing their artificial struts and showy braces with pride – and making some of us smile as we realise what’s going on.

Sunday, April 17, 2022


Interesting old rubble

Back in November last year, the Resident Wise Woman and I made a trip to Hereford, with the aim of revisiting the cathedral (see my post Pigs in Blankets from back then) and doing a little early Christmas shopping. One of the joys of exploring once more a building of the size and age of a medieval cathedral is that there’s always some detail to find that one hasn’t spotted before, or that had escaped one’s memory – the joy of rediscovery is almost as great as the wonder of a totally new find.

I can’t remember seeing this pile of architectural fragments before. They’re kept in a passage off the cloisters, and are testimony to the sort of change and upheaval that is very much of the essence of large medieval buildings. All the great English medieval cathedrals, with the partial exception of Salisbury, are the fruit of centuries of extension, rebuilding, and design alteration – much of which took place before the Reformation brought its own cataclysmic transformations. Usually this history of change is perfectly clear from the fabric of the building – changes of architectural style from one part to the next, joins in the walls that don’t quite match, differences in the design of windows and vaults, and so on and on. Occasionally though, there’s another kind of evidence, in the form of preserved fragments like these.

All too often pieces of stone that came from a demolished or altered part of the building were reused or simply discarded as so much old rubble. Here some have been kept as a miniature museum of architectural oddments. A lot of the Hereford fragments are carved capitals from the Norman or Romanesque period. Whoever put them here clearly admired the artistry of their carving, even if they no longer felt they were worth actually keeping in situ. Among them are quite simple scalloped capitals, quite a bit of vigorous interlace design, and the occasional monster. But there are also other gems of medieval carving – a bird, a small capital from a shaft with some stylized Gothic carving, a foliate head with tongue sticking out flanked by leaves, a beast with exaggeratedly spiralling horns.

Who knows who put these carvings here, or when? Hereford cathedral suffered many vicissitudes between the 17th and 19th centuries. It was damaged during the English Civil Wars, repaired after a tower collapse in the 18th century, and comprehensively and somewhat drastically restored in the 19th century by Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, his son (also Nockalls), and George Gilbert Scott. Major alterations to the west front were done in the early 1900s by John Oldrid Scott, George Gilbert Scott’s son. Any of these could have been responsible – part of the work of ‘restoration’ was ‘correcting’ what was seen as uncouth non-Gothic medieval work with fabric in a style of Gothic that the Victorians thought better. We can be thankful for the small mercy of these preserved blocks of stone.

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Long ago I did a post about another collection of medieval fragments, here.

Monday, April 11, 2022


The Golden Minster

Dominating a small patch of green space by St Oswald’s Road in Gloucester is a piece of wall with a story going back more than one thousand years.

In around 900, Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great, built a large church, known at first as the New Minster, in Gloucester. It became a shrine when Æthelflæd and her brother Edward led a military expedition into Lincolnshire, which was then occupied by the Vikings, and brought back a number of holy relics. Amongst these were the bones of St Oswald, who had been king of Northumbria, a keen supporter of the spread of Christianity in the North of England, and bringer of St Aidan to his kingdom to preach the Christian faith. Oswald’s saintly life – both his encouragement of Christian missionaries like Aidan and his selfless support of the poor – led people to revere him, and after his death miracles were said to take place at his grave. It was said too that miracles occurred at his shrine in the church at Gloucester, to which so much wealth flowed that it become known as the Golden Minster.

After the Norman conquest the minster became an Augustinian priory (one of several priories and friaries in the city) and the building was extended to provide domestic quarters for the monks, to create accommodation for guests, and to upgrade the church. However, in the 16th century the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and the church was partially demolished. Part of the building survived as a parish church but by 1656 this had been replaced with another building and soon just this wall was left.

The surviving hotchpotch is not much, just part of one wall of the nave, but even this shows several different phases of the building. The semicircular arches are early medieval; the pointed arches represent the later extension of the priory church to the west, and the walls that infill the spaces beneath the arches date from the period after the dissolution when the building was reduced in size for use as a parish church. It’s a rather sad ruin, in a little visited part of the city, probably mostly just glanced at by motorists as they whiz past on a nearby ring road. A reminder of the ways in which this large city changed over the centuries, from a religious centre to an industrial and trading one, of how much has been lost, but of how many traces of the past remain for those with the time and the eyes to see.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

East Wittering, Sussex



Passing through the Witterings, I was prepared to expect West Wittering to be the interesting one and East Wittering to be the preserve merely of modern houses and shops, hardly worth a glance. But I should know by now that nearly everywhere I go, there’s something to make me pause. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, among the residential streets and get-rich-quick property developments, this popped up: what’s left of East Wittering windmill.

It doesn’t look much on the face of it:  the sails and cap have gone, the rendering that once covered the brickwork has partly peeled away, the stump of the tower mill sits quietly on a piece of private land. But it’s a reminder that once there were mills everywhere, grinding corn to make bread – watermills where there was a river or stream to power them, windmills where the terrain is open enough for the sails to catch the wind and turn. East Wittering is near the sea and the wind, as I soon discovered, can blow strongly there.

It’s not known how old this structure is – probably 18th century. It is known to have been working for most of the 19th century,* until the sails were removed in 1896. Perhaps it soldiered on under another power source (many windmills had oil engines installed), but it seems to have spent much of the 20th century derelict.† Nowadays the flour for our bread is as likely to be imported as to come from local fields. In many countries today, and in Britain in particular, foods such as bread are part of international trade networks and prices will increase as the effects of the war in Ukraine are felt more widely. This old mill is a timely reminder of how much agriculture, industry and trade have changed.§

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* Online sources give 1810 as the date of the first written record of the mill.

† If anyone has further information about the mill’s later history, do please let me know via the ‘comments’ button below.

§ Although Britain imports very little wheat from Uklraine (the UK produces over 80 per cent of the wheat it uses), the war is affecting prices because globally the supply is reduced.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Chichester, Sussex

Spread generously

‘What is home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?’ reads Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘Incomplete. With it an abode of bliss.’ It’s a fictional slogan, apparently, this jingle that he spots in his newspaper, although the product itself was a real one. Companies like Plumtree’s, Prince’s, and Shippam’s made large amounts of money making preserved and potted meat and fish products – everything from Galantine of Wild Boar’s Head with Pistachio Kernels to humble fish and meat pastes. Shippam’s was started by Charles Shippam, a grocer who set up shop in Chichester and added pastes and spreads to the usual grocer’s range of butter, cheese, eggs and bacon. Shippam’s began in the 18th century in West Gate, Chichester, but by 1851 they were in new premises in East Street (their factory was behind this building), which is the very site where the sign in my photograph still hangs.*

The sign is in a tradition of shop signs that lasted through much of the 20th century, consisting of the business name combined with a clock. It was a canny advertising move – if you looked up to check the time, you were reminded of Shippam’s brand and you might even pop in a pick up a jar of your favourite meat paste. A number of familiar UK companies have used clocks as signs – Marks and Spencer were particularly fond of them. The fact that clocks like this also protrude from the wall helps customers pick out the shop from a distance too. And what’s that hanging down from the base of the clock? Yes, it’s a chicken’s wishbone, or a sculpture one of one, hugely magnified. Shippam’s processed thousands of chickens and kept the wishbones, prized as a symbol of good luck, for any customer or passer-by to collect. A little bit of fun along with your meat-paste sandwiches. And well, you never know…

When I was growing up in the 1960s, Shippam’s meat pastes were a familiar feature of the table. British people liked to spread them on their sandwiches and in those days many people took sandwiches to work to eat at lunchtime – there were far fewer of those handy sandwich bars that became a feature of working life for so many in the 1970s and 1980s. Meat pastes were inexpensive, easy to spread, and kept well in their air-tight jars. The latter quality also made them especially appealing in the age before every home had a refrigerator. But changing fashions brought changes to Shippam’s fortunes: a succession of takeovers led eventually to a move of production to different premises. The brand at least remains, even if not everyone feels that it brings the domestic bliss attributed by Joyce to its rival Plumtree’s.

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* For more on the company’s history, see Chichester’s Novium Museum website, here.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The way to do it

The Punch Bowl in Chesterfield is a pub, like the White Horse, Chichester in my last post, that uses coloured glass in its decoration. It was built by Chesterfield Brewery in 1931, in a period when street alterations led to a number of new buildings in the town centre. Quite a few of these are half-timbered and the Punch Bowl has a large timber-framed window and gable above its stone ground floor.

But the coloured glazing in a couple of the windows was what really caught my eye. My favourite is this pub sign in glass, a depiction of the traditional glove puppet Mr Punch lying inside a shallow bowl, a personification of the pub name that I’ve seen on the painted signs of other pubs called the Punch Bowl, although I’ve not seen the image done in glass elsewhere. In this window, Punch’s protruding nose and chin, his pointed hat, and his legs and feet are all discernible. Legs and feet are unusual in a glove puppet – the ‘glove’ that conceals the puppeteer’s hand usually renders them irrelevant or inconvenient. Punch always has legs, however, and they hang in front of the glove and if the puppeteer is skilful, he or she can make Punch wave them around in suggestive or amusing ways. Colour and the varying textures of variopus kinds of glass distinguish the different parts of the image. It would be even more striking if there was a strong light behind it – perhaps this was the intended effect when the building was lit up at night.

As more and more pubs close, or modernise away their old decor and character, pub glass gradually disappears. But there are still numerous examples of both coloured and engraved glass in the windows of pubs and former pubs. I hope building owners don’t trash it all – what’s left enlivens our streetscapes, enhances pub interiors, and reminds us of a time when pubs were brasher and often more colourful than they are today. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Chichester, Sussex


Don’t look up!

I’m always telling people to look up in towns – look at old facades above shopfronts, look at windows, look at old signs, look at roof lines, and so on. But what I should really say is ‘Look everywhere.’ In other words, one is liable to make a mistake if one becomes too preoccupied with looking in a single direction alone. I was reminded of this when walking along South Street in Chichester and admiring the White Horse, once a pub, now a Prezzo. Of course, I’d noticed that the brick frontage of the upper storeys looked Georgian (the building turns out to be much earlier, having been refronted in the 18th century). As I was taking this in, the Resident Wise Woman prompted me: ‘Have you noticed the glass?’. I had not, because I was looking up. From yet another era come the late-19th or early-20th century windows, with coloured glass used to delineate white horses.

This use of glass to decorate or advertise the name of licensed premises was quite common in the late-Victorian period and just after.* Coloured glass was also used to advertise the drinks available – sometimes you can find ‘Beers’ or ‘Wines and Spirits’ picked out in coloured glass lettering. Here it’s just white horses, in various depictions – here, on the move (trotting perhaps) in the fanlight; elsewhere at full gallop, or stationary. There are also white horses with flared legs, to indicate they’re shire or ‘heavy’ horses; there are even horses’ heads in some of the windows. They’re all in a white, almost opaque glass, but are mostly surrounded by patterns and scrolls in a mix of colours including amber, dark red and deep blue: the windows must lookl very appealing when the interior is lit up at night.

So when you’re walking along an urban street, by all means look up, but also look sideways, straight ahead, and down. And try not to do this while on the move – it can lead to pedestrian collisions, and worse! And if you start colliding, people might think you’ve had one or more too many at the White Horse…

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* Pub architects also specified elaborate engraved glass. For an example of this, see a post I did a few years ago, here.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Othery, Somerset


If I’d been a member of what was called in my youth the Boy Scouts, perhaps I’d be more mindful of their once much quoted motto: ‘Be prepared’. As it is, I am quite capable of being unprepared to the extent of not putting the relevant volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series in the car when I set off on a trip. I made this very omission when going to Somerset the other day. The trip was not concerned primarily with observing or exploring buildings, but wherever I go, architectural observation is inclined to take over, and so it was when, with time on my hands, I stopped to look at the church in the village of Othery, set on the Somerset levels. The building, at least, didn’t seen difficult to grasp: a cruciform church with a tall central tower, not as flashy as many in Somerset but with attractive openings in the upper stage where the bells are and below that some statues in niches – Christ enthrones and Saint Mary, Saint John, and Saint Michael, to whom the church is dedicated.

But when I got inside, the furnishing got me baffled. Other church contains a striking collection of wooden benches with carved ends. Carved bench ends are speciality in Somerset. Some churches have outstanding ones, dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries, carved with depictions of symbols, animals, plants, saints, even satirical depictions. Anyone who likes church woodwork should visit Somerset.* Othery has some excellent bench ends, but they struck me as varying somewhat in style. Some looked medieval, some exhibited a certain formality or treatment of details that made me wonder if they were Victorian reproductions. Some were carved with vigour and had slight and not disagreeable roughnesses of surface, some were much smoother. In the end I abandoned speculation and enjoyed the carving for the visual feast it offered – multiple portrayals of foliage, tracery, curious beasts, King David playing his harp, grapes on the vine, a saint or two. The latter include more than one depiction of St Michael the Archangel dispatching the devil, who takes the shape of a dragon.

Back home, with the Pevsner Somerset: South and West volume in front of me, I read: ‘BENCHES. A confusing collection because of the interventions of the antiquary William Stradling of Cholton Polden in 1848–50. Some are C15–C16…Many are Victorian…by William Halliday, Stradling’s carpenter. Stradling copied originals, including some with small figures (St. Margaret, St Michael) that seem of separate provenance.’ In other words the church contains original medieval carvings by at least two differing and distinguishable hands, as well as Victorian ones by Stradling. An article in the useful essay collection, Pews, Benches & Chairs† agrees, and points to the image of St Michael in my photograph above as one of the medieval originals (there’s a contrasting Victorian one, below, with a much more detailed, scalier dragon). There’s just enough detail in the medieval one: the saint’s angelic form standing astride the creature’s back, the dragon’s neck curving upwards to suggest that it still has life in it, but not much strength, the canopy with its crocketed finials topping the image and filling the available space above. It’s a slightly naïve bit of work, but there’s still much to like about it. What I take to be the later version is much more artful.The devil is part dragon (with a tail that curves beautifully) and part human (with torso, head, and arms). The saint’s sword is poised; his wings fill the space above artfully; much work has been put into capturing the drapery of his clothes. There’s a lot of action in this carving. I wouldn’t want to express a preference for one over the other. It’s good that the church has them both.

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* See, for example, an earlier post, here, about bench ends at Brent Knoll.

† Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown (eds), Pews, Benches & Chairs (Ecclesiological Society, 2011)

Monday, March 14, 2022

Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex

Drying not dying

A building like this has a very special effect on me. It’s large, but in a way it’s insubstantial because there are no walls: just oak posts and a roof of tiles. It provides a lot of shelter from the rain – but for what, or whom? The answer takes us back to 1733, when it was built in Petersfield, Hampshire. It’s a shelter for stacking newly moulded bricks, so that the clay could dry and harden before the bricks were taken to the kiln for firing. Bricks in this raw state are known in the trade as ‘green bricks’, although their colour at that stage would be the hue of the clay of which they’re made. And the story of this building’s use takes us back to the 18th century, not just because of the date of this particular example, but also because by the 19th century, hand-made bricks were starting to die out, to be replaced by mechanically made bricks, which could be produced in vast numbers and at speed.

This brick-drying shed at the Weald and Downland Museum was reconstructed on this site in 1988. Hand-made bricks did not completely die out in the 19th century. The one in Petersfield carried on until World War II, there still being demand for good quality hand-made bricks in contexts where the locality or building requires something with the look and texture of traditional local brickwork. Petersfield itself has many Georgian and later buildings that it would be sacrilege to repair or add to using hard-edged, standard-issue mass-produced bricks from somewhere outside the region; so the demand continues. But some traditional brickworks could not compete with the cheap prices of the big producers, while others closed during the war because the blackout demanded their open-topped kilns, burning through the night, showed no light. That was the case with the one at Petersfield.

About 80 feet long, the drying shelter is big enough for the brick-maker to set up his bench at one end, so he could shape the bricks, one by one, before an assistant (often a family member in the old days) could stack them nearby. Today, the museum uses the bulk of the space for an exhibition about brickwork, surely a good use for this modest but large-scale structure that stands among the other working buildings, from the carpenter’s ’shop to the pug mill, on the site at West Dean, which for my money is one of the best collections of vernacular buildings anywhere.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex

Wooden buildings for woodworkers

The UK is fortunate to have several open-air museums that preserve old buildings, usually structures that have been dismantled and re-erected on the museum site, that would otherwise have been demolished. Some of these museums have large collections of dozens of buildings, gradually amassed and preserved over decades, and one of the best, in my opinion, is the Weald and Downland Living Museum, a few miles from Chichester in West Sussex, which preserves many buildings form Southeast England – mainly Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. They do an excellent job, and should be supported and visited now they are open again after the various lockdowns and restrictions that we’ve been living through.

Following on from my previous post about a plumber’s workshop, here are two more small working buildings from the Weald and Downland. The larger of the two is a joiner’s workshop originally from Witley, Surrey and the smaller structure is a carpenter’s ’shop, from Windlesham in the same county. Both have the generous glazing typical of such working buildings and they’re both made mainly of wood and built more for practicality than looks.

The carpenter’s ’shop belonged to a Mr Dale, who like many in his time traded as both a carpenter and an undertaker. It was reconstructed on the museum site in 1980, but I don’t know how old it is – the museum’s website doesn’t give a date, so perhaps its age is unknown. It’s very simple, with a wood-framed structure covered with boards and tarred to protect it from the weather. Mostly the carpenter’s materials and finished work came in and out of the door although there’s a small opening above the central window, through which he could insert and remove his ladders.

Inside, the tools left in the ‘shop when it was finally vacated are preserved. Saws and large drill bits hang from the roof beams; chisels, bradawls, and other smaller tools stand in racks; planes wait on the bench. There are pots and bottles of liquid, perhaps preservative oils. When it was still a workspace, there might have been a pot of glue on the go too. You could move in here and start working with wood, with only a few additions if you were able to work with traditional hand tools alone.

It’s very atmospheric and reminds me how accurate some of the 20th-century depictions are of such carpenters’ ’shops. I’m thinking particularly of the one by Edward Bawden in the King Penguin book Life in an English Village, which I blogged about here, mentioning my father’s boyhood memories of another carpenter’s workshop in rural Lincolnshire. Even the humble buildings need celebrating, something I try to do on this blog, and something open-air museums like the Weald and Downland do brilliantly.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex


Call in the plumbers

These days when something goes wrong with a tap, or there’s a leaky pipe, or a ballcock, we call in the plumber. Plumbing is one of those trades that has been with us since ancient times and form the Romans to the early-20th century, water was carried in lead pipes. So plumbers were skilled in the working of lead – they could make lead pipes, mend them, install them. And they also got involved in trades in which lead was used – in glazing, for example, when panes of glass were set within strips of lead, as in the ‘leaded lights’ we still talk about when discussing windows in some churches or old houses. That’s what ‘plumber’ means (coming from the Latin plumbum, lead), a person who works with lead.

So here’s the plumber’s workshop at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. It’s a wooden building with large windows to provide plenty of natural light, and fitted with generous work benches. It was probably built in the late 1880s and was originally sited in Newick, East Sussex. It belonged to the long-established firm of W. R. Fuller, who were plumbers and decorators, another two trades often combined, and came to the Weald and Downland Museum after it was dismantled in 1985. It’s just the kind of building that’s at home in an open-air museum, and like some of the best working buildings that end up preserved, it came with a large selection of tools – for cutting lead, measuring it, and for forming and bending pipe. The museum has a large collection of artefacts used in various building-related trades. Many of these are in storage, but it’s good that some of them can be displayed, to give visitors an idea of how tradesmen worked.

And we need such an idea, because plumbing changed radically in the 20th century. When scientists realised that lead pipes could be harmful to human health, there was a changeover to pipes made of other materials, from copper to plastic. The trade changed, and workshops like this became a thing of the past. There must have been thousands of such workshops; now leadworking is a specialist craft, restricted to areas like the decorative leadwork sometimes seen on rainwater goods, and the repair of windows that have leadwork, so plumders’ workshops of this kind must be rare as hen’s teeth. Thanks to the Weald and Downland Museum, one at least has been preserved to throw light on a bit of a much-changed building trade.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Petersfield, Hampshire

Reading matters

Even though I no longer use them very much (having more than enough books of my own to read) I am very much in favour of public libraries. It’s partly that I’m thankful for the way my local library helped me when I was a boy hungry for knowledge growing up in a household with few books. There all the books were. There seemed to be books about everything, and all the classics of English literature (and other literatures). And it was all free. Paradise.

Today, arguably, it’s different. Everything’s online, isn’t it? Well, no. And anyway not everyone has access to a computer. And not everyone knows how to find information. And for all kinds of good reasons many people still prefer to read a novel in a real volume with paper pages. One of my nieces worked for a while in a small branch library here in the Cotswolds and was amazed how many people needed her help to find things out – everything from the biographical details of an English poet to how to apply for a council tax rebate. ‘I’m a social worker, too, apparently,’ she told me. Libraries are still essential.

But what did people do before 1850, when the British Parliament passed an act enabling local authorities to levy a rate to pay for public libraries? Here’s one answer. They went to privately run libraries, which were owned by local businesses (or, less commonly, by private organisations such as the still wonderful London Library, where you pay to be a member, as I did when I lived in London).

Most towns did not have a vast bibliographical treasure house like the London Library but they often had a private library run perhaps by a local stationer, where they could pay to borrow books. Boots the chemist had libraries in their large shops, too. And many of these privately run libraries survived well into the. last century because people liked them and they might have different books form those at the local public library. Here’s a ghost sign in Petersfield, advertising a local stationery business owned by one Llewelyn Bradley. Alongside the writing materials and newspapers there were also reading materials that you could borrow. Bradley was born in 1877 and probably sold up in the 1930s, after which the business – still with its library – was known as Austin’s.* An online source refers to a picture of c. 1955 but after that the trail goes cold, so I don’t know how long it survived. But there it was, another bit of history for which we have to thank a ghost sign, which, on the building at least, is the only bit of reading matter now offered hereabouts. No doubt the people of Petersfield were thankful for it, while it lasted.

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* Austin’s, with its books, toys and ‘fancy goods’, is said to have been the inspiration for the children’s book The Little Wooden Horse, by Ursula Moray Williams.

Thursday, February 10, 2022



Not too distant

‘Decay is a kind of progress’, says Dorothy in Alan Bennett’s hilarious and thoughtful play People. It’s a play with an old building in it, and it’s one I often think about. That particular line comes into my mind mind sometimes when I look at ghost signs, those now-redundant bits of advertising that hang on, flaking but evocative, to walls in our cities. They’re bits of the past in the form of hand-painted lettering and they evoke past businesses and past times. As the paint grows less distinct and wears at the edges, they’re more evocative somehow, and oddly attractive – ‘pleasing decay’ as John Piper called it.

Something happens, though when, like Dorothy in the play, one reaches a certain age. You realise that the signs were advertising companies, brands, and products that are part of your own history. Here’s a personal example. I can remember Boselli’s ice cream van visiting streets in Cheltenham in the 1970s, when I was a teenager. No doubt the van was even more familiar in nearby Gloucester, where Boselli’s were based. The company vanished from my view at some point in the 1980s, by which time in any case, I’d moved away, first to university, then to London.

But there Boselli’s were, for a while, in my past. Better than nationally known brands like Wall’s (also made in Gloucester, as it happened). And now here’s their sign, now a familiar landmark for me as I drive past on a route near the city centre. And the sign is starting to decay, the background going, the lettering a bit frayed around the edges. And I’m its contemporary. It’s something that makes me pause, that’s all.

Meanwhile, I’m pleased to be reminded of Boselli’s, and pleased that ghost signs are not all for the great universal brands that we all know – Bovril, Hovis bread, Bass beer, Boot’s the chemist – but also for those small local businesses that can come back to life in the minds of locals who pass them. They’re messages from the past, and we should notice them while we can.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire

Past times

Here in the UK as the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne is being marked, I thought perhaps, as I do like a public clock, it was time to post this timepiece commemorating a past jubilee. Nowadays public clocks are almost superfluous – we all carry time around with us, displayed on watches,* mobile phones, and so on, and rarely have to look up to find out what time it is when we’re walking along the street. But such features as Victorian or early-20th century clocks, if of little practical use to most people, can be something that makes an old building special, and they can be highly informative about past times and values.

So here’s a clock of 1897, on the Tolsey, a former market building, in the Gloucestershire town of Wotton-under-Edge. The clock was installed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Its clear faces with Roman numerals are looking good after a restoration in 2015, and the gilded scrolls, fleurs de lys, and dates, not to mention the portrait of the queen herself and the flags with which the clock is surmounted, are still standing proud and catching the eye.

In its symbols, traditional face, and use of gilding, this clock is as typical of its era as an angular, monochrome timepiece would be of the Art Deco period, or a smart watch is today. It’s unlikely that a rash of clocks will appear on our streets to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. But I hope those who are keen to mark such events can think of something as beautiful, useful and well made as this clock was when it was bolted on to the brick upper wall of the Tolsey in 1897.

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* Men’s pocket watches were first mass produced in the second quarter of the 19th century; wrist watches, at first worn almost exclusively by women, were produced in quantity at around the same time or slightly later. Widespread wrist watch-wearing by men began in the military and became generally common after World War I.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Curry Rivel, Somerset

No gauze here

One of my favourite sketches featuring the comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore takes place in an art gallery. Among the pair’s most memorable remarks is something Peter Cook says about paintings of naked people in the Renaissance: ‘Of course you don’t get gauze floating around in the air these days like you did in Renaissance times. There was always gauze in the air in those days.’ Meaning that many Renaissance nudes have tastefully placed pieces of diaphanous material draped about those parts of their bodies that might otherwise cause offence, as if the gauze had just floated to rest there by accident. Indeed they do, although in some cases, the gauze was added later, as opinions about what was acceptable in images – particularly images in churches – changed.

And this was my observation when I looked at the figures on the canopy of the tomb of the brothers Marmaduke and Robert Jennings (died 1625 and 1630) in the church at Curry Rivel, Somerset. There are actually two of these reclining figures, one on each side of the coat of arms that tops the canopy so that they act as informal supporters of the arms. Their real pupose, though, is not heraldic but to hold hourglasses, symbolic of passing time and the end that hastens towards us all.

Many people are surprised or even shocked by such displays of human flesh in church. My grandparents, who would have countenanced no ‘graven images’ of any kind in any chapel where they worshipped, would have looked the other way; some Victorians would have hated such secular and classical excesses; and puritan iconoclasts of a little later in the century when this monument was built would not have liked it, although their destruction seems to have been aimed mainly at images of saints, bishops, and Jesus himself, representations that they considered ‘Popish’. My mind is broader, but that is my point: tastes and ideas change.

And that is one of the best things about so many English churches. Having been there for centuries, they bear the marks of changing tastes. It’s a shame some of those changes have brought destruction, but every remaining fragment, every surviving piece of 17th-century oddity, tells us something about altering and enduring attitudes and about where we have come from. These fragments of our past mark time – as the naked ladies of Curry Rivel are meant to do with their hourglasses – and tell us something about what we have been, and who we are.