Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Still busy

The beehive has been a powerful symbol for centuries. For some it has represented ‘the winged republic’, where society runs in an equitable way, with each individual playing their role to general benefit of the whole. For others, it has stood for industry and productivity. Perhaps the latter train of thought was behind the adoption of the beehive as the symbol of Lloyd’s Bank in 1822. It was the bank’s sole symbol until they took over Barnett ’s Bank in 1884, when the company also began to use Barnett’s emblem: the black horse. Both symbols were used by the bank until the 1930s, when the hive was phased out and the black horse remained.

But the occasional Lloyd’s beehive survives, like this one on a hanging sign in Bury St Edmunds. Since sign and bracket alike have clearly been carefully designed and made with some skill, it’s understandable that no one wanted to throw it away. The sign has a dome shape at the top to accommodate the hive, which is itself cut out from the background and coloured the same gold as the lettering. The bracket is shaped to follow the contours of the hive, adorned with curlicues and finials, and braced with a diagonal strut; it’s fancy, but not distracting because the clear lettering and symbol make the sign very easy to read: I’d say the combination works very well. No doubt that fact that the building it’s attached to is still branch of Lloyd’s means it’s still effective too, alerting anyone who doesn’t know to the bank’s location as they approach along the pavement. It was, I’d say, a good investment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bishops Cleeve, Gloucestershire

The Madonna of the Butterflies with Saints Michael and Jerome

Something a little different for my Christmas picture this year. Fortunate is the church that has a piece of modern art that works as well as this altarpiece, painted in 2018 for the church of St Michael and All Angels, Bishops Cleeve by the local artist P J Crook. P J Crook’s works range widely and are exhibited in galleries all over the world. For this altarpiece, she worked within the traditional framework of the triptych, filling the work with symbols that are familiar to anyone who had looked at a lot of Christian art. Yet the imagery is also unmistakeably of its time and of its painter: the directness of the way the faces are painted and their deceptively simple range of skin tones, the teeming detail, and the way in which the imagery spills out on to the frame are all typical of the artist.

The triptych shows the Virgin and Child with Mary’s head surrounded by butterflies and angels; saints Michael and Jerome are portrayed in the side panels; the base bears an image of the Last Supper. The butterflies, with their metamorphic life cycle (there’s a caterpillar, by the way, at the bottom of the picture), stand for resurrection, renewal, and the release of the soul from the body. They are just one of an array of symbols: rosemary represents remembrance, the lily of the valley is also called Our Lady’s Tears, the poppy indicates that the altarpiece was painted at the time of the anniversary of the end of World War I. The dove to which the infant Jesus points is a symbol of peace, but also represents the Holy Spirit.

There are also local allusions. There are minute figures of the Magi on horseback (their mounts a reminder that Bishops Cleeve is a stone’s throw from Cheltenham Racecourse). St Michael (battler with the devil, weigher of souls in heaven) is there in part because of the church’s dedication – and that dedication gives the presence of angels in the altarpiece further relevance; there’s a small image of the church above the saint’s left shoulder. The female figure entering through the door beneath the dove is Margaret Whitehead, a local school nurse who was killed in a car accident. She is also seen in the background in her nurse’s uniform, with a group of children. A painting of the infant Christ can also look forward to his crucifixion and resurrection, and this triptych deals with mortality in several ways. The images of Margaret Whitehead represent one way; St Jerome’s contemplation of mortality (symbolised by the skull) is another; the presence of a fox, symbolising King Herod, who ordered the massacre of the innocents, is another; candles stand not only for the light of God but also for remembrance of the dead.

The complexity of this altarpiece, then, reaches the depths, but the directness of the imagery is powerful too and the way in which its art enhances life is, in my eyes, a triumph. I hope that all my readers have an enjoyable and life-enhancing time over the coming days of celebration. Happy Christmas – and season’s greetings, whatever your beliefs.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Daglingworth, Gloucestershire

Under snow and in hiding

The heading above could be about me. Gloucestershire has been snowbound for days, the temperatures have dipped to new lows, and I’m hardly venturing out at all, let alone looking at buildings. So I thought I’d find an appropriately chilly photograph: one from some years ago of the church at Daglingworth, near Cirencester, seems to fit the bill.

Looked at in passing, there seems to be nothing unusual about this little building. Apparently it’s a medieval church with a short version of the plain and simple west tower so common in the Cotswolds, and a later chancel, which turns out to be a Victorian rebuild of 1850–51. Look closer, however: long and short quoins and a doorway with a semi-circular arch of great simplicity suggest that the nave is Anglo-Saxon. Inside is a Saxon chancel arch and a group of four carved reliefs – two Crucifixions, a Christ in Majesty, and a St Peter – that also look pre-conquest.

The better preserved of the Crucifixions is the most striking of all. Set in the nave very close to a south-facing window, it’s difficult to photograph at all well, but the image above will give you the general idea. The crucified Christ wears a loincloth and his head is surrounded by a circular nimbus with a cross. On either side stand two Roman soldiers, one with the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, one with the vinegar-soaked sponge. Scholars argue about when and where it was carved – the late-10th or early-11th century seems to be the most likely guess for its date.

What’s certain, however, is that this relief and two of the others spent years hidden from view. They were only discovered when Victorian workers took apart the nave’s east wall during the rebuilding of the chancel. They found the stones reused in the masonry, their carved faces turned inwards so that they could not be seen. Were they hidden during the iconoclastic period of the Reformation, their images concealed by someone who revered them too much to destroy them? The Victorians had other ideas, removed them from their hiding place and displayed them on the walls. Although damaged, the carvings are still strong and moving images and although the church has been empty whenever I’ve visited, I’m sure people come many miles to see them. Historians of early medieval art and church-crawlers certainly know about them. Others should too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Southwold, Suffolk

Going Dutch

We didn’t get the chance to go inside Southwold Museum on our recent visit to the town. But I spent a few minutes to admire its modest but lovely exterior, which was built as a house in the late-17th or early-18th century, and was converted to a museum in the 1930s. I have a weakness for this kind of thing: small buildings on which a bit of extra effort has been expended; curvy ‘Dutch’ gables; the combination of brick and pantile; odd-shaped windows.

By 1933, when the building was left to the town on the condition that it was made into a museum, this small house was in a dilapidated state. According to the museum’s website, much of it had to be rebuilt, and the brickwork of the walls does seem to be of various dates. The restorers maintained the overall design of the street front, with windows of the same size, shape and position, although the side windows got longer to give the interior more natural light. Structural strengthening was needed too – the ends of tie rods can be clearly seen on the street front and the side wall.

Today, the building is full of charm. It doesn’t worry me that that Venetian window is oddly proportioned, or that it interrupts the horizontal band of bricks that marks the eaves level. I’m happy that the building is there, and represents a small example of that kind of brick building, Dutch-inspired and curvy-gabled, that can be seen on the east coast of England, notably (for me) in my native county of Lincolnshire. It’s a bit of local distinctiveness that seems entirely right for a local museum. I hope my next visit is not in the winter so that the museum is open and I can look inside.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Wild east

I’ve posted here before about the wonderful wooden buildings of Thorpeness, the holiday village in Suffolk built by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, mostly in the years after World War I. The signature looks of Thorpeness are black weatherboarding and black-and-white timber framing, but there are brick structures here too, and houses with walls rendered in pale colours. Some of the brick buildings were already in the small settlement (then called Thorpe) which was here before the holiday village was begun. I have also read that at the beginning of the 20th century, people started to build houses that looked on to the beach, most of them in pale painted wood. Here’s an example of such a house – it may well have been renewed since the early days – much of the boarding looks spick and span – but it gives, I think, the impression of what those early houses might have looked like.

In the years around 1910 it was possible to buy a plot of land and build on it with relatively few planning restrictions. Many people constructed cheap houses for themselves out of wood (or even out of old railway carriages), a phenomenon seen in the ‘plotland’ settlements of this period. This bungalow, with its simple boarded structure, low lines, and long conservatory clinging to the sides of the building, is the kind of thing I have in mind. Not all were as elegant as this – some of the the railway-carriage houses, which were once quite common, had the rough and ready bricolage character of pioneer settlements. Something I’ve referred to more than once as the ‘wild east’. This house, with its stripy paintwork and curvy bargeboards, is more civilised than some. But either way the owner could be out of the door, through the gate, and on to the beach in seconds. And that is not altogether bad.

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* Thorpeness Halt, the long-closed local railway station, had recycled railway carriages that were used as waiting rooms. I posted a railway carriage house – in Sussex not Suffolk – here.

Monday, December 5, 2022



Clock and bull story

Like my previous post, this is another Victorian shop facade that caught my eye on a rainy day in Bedford not long ago. Actually it was the clock and its accompanying bull that attracted me first. ‘A fancy job,’ I thought to myself. ‘I wonder if the shop below belonged to a jeweller.’ Jewellers often combined their craft with that of clockmaker and would put a clock on their premises as a way of showing off their wares while also attracting attention. The building did indeed house a jeweller, and was built in 1878. The style is unlike that of Adkin’s building in my previous – Venetian Gothic has been replaced by a version of what became known as Queen Anne – red bricks, terracotta decorative panels, and a lot of fancywork using special bricks to form pilasters, pediments, keystones and other details. The gable is still elaborate, but this time in a classical way, in contrast to the Gothic form of Adkin’s building. There was once a figure of Father Time in the niche above the clock, but he seems to have been overtaken by the very time he represented, and is no more.

As for the clock, it certainly worked for me in that it attracted my attention. The fancy gilded decoration. and the iron scrolls around the edge of the case do the business, as does the golden bull. What is he doing there? Was the building later home to a butcher? Well, the occupant’s name was John Bull, so this imposing creature is a rebus, a symbol of the family name, not an indication that this address was once home to a butcher (although, as it happens, it was). Pevsner tells us that he is a replacement. So someone has been caring for this elaborate bit of street decoration, although not to the extent of getting the clock to show the right time. Accuracy in timekeeping was of course a major concern to clockmakers like John Bull. Apparently there was once a vertical pole set behind the clock, with a ball set near the top of it. At precisely 10.00 am every morning, the ball slid down the pole, striking a bell in the process. The mechanism was activated by an electrical signal from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, thus providing guaranteed accurate time, from which locals could set their watches. Alas on the day I took this photograph, the clock did not display the correct time, but maybe this lapse has by now been rectified.

Thursday, December 1, 2022


Looking up and up

A few weeks ago found me in Bedford in the rain. The conditions were far from ideal for looking up, or looking at anything very much except for puddles and other pedestrians. But another strident modern shopfront sent my eyes skyward briefly and they alighted on this. It’s the upper part of of a Victorian shop, built in a style usually called Venetian Gothic, which is to say that it features rows of arched windows, polychrome masonry (here brick and stone), some fancy carving, and some elaboration of detail in the gable.

This sort of thing was once common in English town centres, but World War II, redevelopment, and the stresses of time have put paid to a lot of it. There are also variations, like the similar ‘Bristol Byzantine’, some of which survives in spite of the devastation wrought on that city by the Blitz. This particular example dates from 1871 and was designed by Bedford architect John Usher for Henry Adkin, who was a gunsmith. The owner’s initials are carved into the upper central window. No doubt Mr Adkin sold high quality firearms, maybe even the sort with chased decoration on the metal parts. If so, his premises had a swagger to match. Best of all, but hard to see in the challenging light, are the two pinnacles that rise up from either side of the gable. They’re carved dogs – gun dogs, of course – and were made by an Exeter sculptor, Harry Hems. Adkin was clearly after the best, and others have agreed. In 1993 the two gun-dog pinnacles were stolen. They were later found in a local car park and put back in their rightful place.

The last member of the Adkin family in the business died in 1952. Soon after the shop was sold to Dunn’s, the men’s outfitters chain, who must have liked the look of the place given their penchant for faux-Tudor or faux-medieval shopfronts. Now sandwiches are there.*

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* Or rather, were there. The premises are now to let, as a reader has pointed out. I was so intent on the brickwork that I failed to spot the sign in the window.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Yoxford, Suffolk

What makes me want to return

Having visited Yoxford, by the time we passed this small gem of a building, the clouds had opened and the sky darkened. Photography was a fool’s errand, so we passed by. This post is provisional, then, and unusually for me makes use of a photograph from another source*. It shows something close to the classic cottage ornée, the type of small ornamental house that became popular in the early-19th century when people – especially rich people – learned to appreciate the visual appeal of ‘Picturesque’ cottages with rustic features.† Such cottages speak of nostalgia for a past that’s viewed through rose-tinted spectacles perhaps, though if well built and decently appointed could also be an implicit call to other landlords to house their workers more comfortably as well as more elegantly.

Cottages ornées are typically, but not necessarily, asymmetrical, thatched, with deeply overhanging eaves that may protect verandahs or shelters beneath; there may also be Gothic windows and doorways, and maybe even unfinished tree trunks holding up the roof overhang. This cottage, built as a gate lodge for Cockfield Hall, has all these features, even the rustic tree trunks. It looks striking even when seen from a car on the A12 and viewed through pouring rain. To a visitor to the hall, or a tradesman arriving to do work or deliver goods, it makes a good landmark. To the resident, one hopes, it’s a cosy little house; to the architecturally curious, it evokes another time but one as determinedly nostalgic as our own can often be.

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* Photograph by John Goldsmith, used under Creative Commons licence.

† Many poor people, on the other hand, who had to live in rural cottages, had to put up with leaky roofs, broken windows, and no sanitation – they’d have appreciated some basic healthy comfortable accommodation, never mind how ‘picturesque’ it looked.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Yoxford, Suffolk

What made me stop and look

Stop and look. This thatched shelter is just the sort of thing I like, and a sight of it from the main road was what gave me the initial prompt to stop and take a look at Yoxford (see also my previous post). Stop and look: what I try and do when I have time, and what I try and make time for when I have less. This time what brought me to a halt was a simple structure, made with traditional materials, that enhances public space and is useful. It’s just a timber framework – four stout posts, some horizontals, some struts – a thatched roof, and two seats. It was built in 1935 to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V, one of several in eastern Suffolk.

Even a small building like this can have a resonance over the years: a facility that I’d guess locals and passers-by have been using gratefully ever since, whether waiting for a bus, going for a walk, or carrying a heavy bag bag home from Horner’s Stores. The shelter also carries a simple message carved on one side: ‘’Love Brotherhood Fear God’. A shame people in Europe didn’t pay enough attention to the first part of that twofold instruction back in the 1930s. We could still do with it today. Stop, look, and think.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Yoxford, Suffolk

Corner shop

I didn’t know what to expect in Yoxford, apart from a picturesque thatched shelter on the main road (the A12), the sight of which encouraged me to stop and have a look round. Whatever I expected, it wasn’t this, a small shop with a split architectural personality of a kind I’d not seen before. To the front is a white-painted brick wall with sash windows above and an attractive bright red 19th-century shopfront below. The Ionic pilasters that frame the shopfront are made of cast iron – a common material for Victorian shopfronts, although less common now – more and more of these symbols of Victorian innovation and pragmatism disappear every year.*

But, having quickly taken my photograph before the Morris Minor roared off, I found it hard to take my eyes off the side wall, which boasts a succession of stepped gables and Tudor-arched windows, mostly in glowing 19th-century red brick but with stone dressings. If this all seems rather grand for a small shop, an odd backdrop for the waste bin, plastic trays and old signboards that keep it company, the reason is not so hard to guess when you’re there. Just to the right of this showy bit of brickwork is a pair of brick gate lodges in a similar style. They form one of the entrances to Cockfield Hall, a grand house just outside the village.† What a pleasant way for a local bigwig to enhance the villagescape – far preferable to the demolition jobs committed by some landowners to rid their neighbourhood of ‘unsightly’ nearby houses, pubs or shops. Long may the shop prosper.

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* This one should not disappear as the building is listed.

† Alas I did not take photographs of Cockfield Hall or the cottage ornée in its grounds, as the weather rapidly turned nasty and sent me on my way. A reason to return.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Wenhaston, Suffolk


Thank you, rain

It’s pouring with rain today and I’m sitting indoors thinking of another rainy day long ago. In 1892, workers reconstructing the east end of Wenhaston church in Suffolk removed a whitewashed wooden panel that blocked the upper part of the chancel arch. They took the panel apart into its constituent oak planks and moved them into the churchyard ready for recycling or a bonfire. That night it rained and the whitewash on the planks began to dissolve. By the morning, parts of several painted figures were revealed.¶ 

The boards were quickly moved indoors for safety and expert restorers cleaned away the remainder of the whitewash to reveal most of a late-medieval Doom painting – the image of the Last Judgement, when the dead rise up from their graves and are sent either to heaven or to hell. This was a poplar subject in church art in the Middle Ages, and numerous Doom paintings survive, in whole or in part, usually on the wall above and around the chancel arch.* Very few panel paintings designed to fill the upper part of the arch now exist, and the one discovered with the help of restoration, good fortune and the weather at Wenhaston is the most clear and complete of these. What’s more, the rebuilt chancel arch was no longer the correct size for the painting, so it has since been displayed elsewhere in the building. It’s now in the north aisle and this position makes it one of the most visible of all medieval Doom paintings.

At the top of the painting Christ, sitting on a rainbow, presides. Facing him are two kneeling figures, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, the two most prominent saints who were said to intercede with God on behalf of human souls. To the right and slightly lower down are two souls of the dead rising from their graves as the Last Trumpet sounds.

The lower level of the Wenhaston Doom contains four main groups of figures, separated by blank spaces in front of which statues of the Virgin Mary, Christ crucified, and John the Evangelist once stood. The left-hand group (the least well preserved) shows figures in front of the heavenly mansions. Next comes St Peter, key in hand, with a group of souls who bore high rank on earth – their headgear reveals them to be a king, bishop, cardinal and queen. Next comes St Michael weighing souls, his work disrupted by a large devil. Finally, on the far right, devils push the souls of the damned into the monstrous mouth of hell. Beneath the imagery run verses from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13, beginning, ‘Let every soul submit to the authority of the higher powers for there is no power but of God’.† 

The low position of the painting on the aisle wall enables visitors to see details that would have been hard to make out when it was in its original elevated position – the faces of the devils with their bent noses and boggle-eyes, their chains and flesh-hooks, the teeth of hell’s mouth, the care with which St Peter’s robe and the hats of the souls meeting him are painted, the shroud of the rising figure on the far right, and so on. It’s astonishing to be able to see all this close-to. Even though the painting fails to show terror on the faces of the damned, as we’d perhaps expect, the power of the image is still palpable. For once, back in 1892, the rain was something to be pleased about. 

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¶ Please click on the photograph to enlarge it.

* I have previous blogged about such a painting in Salisbury.

† These words seem to have been painted over an earlier, now illegible, inscription.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Holt, Worcestershire


Organic architecture

Driving down a quiet lane in search of yet another interesting old church, we came across this, one more delightful unintended consequence of going in search of old buildings and being open to whatever one finds nearby. It’s Holt Castle in Worcestershire and looking at it across its garden wall and lawn, it struck me as a delightful example of a very English kind of house.

The dominant tower was built in the 14th century in sandstone and is the oldest part of the house. The building was extended and modified on numerous occasions in the 15th, 16th, 18th, and mid-19th centuries to produce a pleasing amalgam of styles. The wing to the left of the tower is, I think, in part a 15th-century structure that was refaced in the 18th century, when the sash windows would have appeared. Tudor-looking brick chimneys poke up behind. To the right of the tower is a tall sandstone chimney stack of the 16th century and the end of a large hall, again of various dates. The overall effect is of an architectural mishmash, but lovely.

So this is a building that has grown organically, over the centuries, as needs changed and fashions came and went. This, and the combination of the remains of medieval fortifications* and the lighter, more comfortable ways of later periods, the use of local materials makes the result something I think of as very English – rooted in the locality, organic, asymmetrical, big but not pretentious, proud of its medieval and Tudor touches. And all that, I think, goes some way towards explaining why I like it.

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* Or a tower that looks rather like a fortified structure, although the windows of a true fortified tower would be no more than narrow arrow slits.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Dalderby, Lincolnshire


All roof, no wall

I remember reading about this house years ago and seeing a picture of it in a book somewhere. The description said that the building was no longer there, having burned down in the 1940s, and that this was sad because it was an example of the very first, most ancient type of house type. What the writer meant was a building held up by a simple five-part frame, a pair of upright V-shapes joined at the apex by a horizontal ridge beam. This produces something not quite like the classic cruck frame, which leaves some room for a low wall at each side. The tent-like frame of the house in the picture, it was argued, became the first kind of house, and this fact showed that the building must have been very ancient.

This argument does not stand up at all. We now know that since prehistoric times people have made dwellings in all kinds of ways and that this particular house was probably no older than the 18th or 19th century. It was known as ’Teapot Hall’, from its shape and the fact that from the side the dormer window looked a little like a handle and the chimney could, with effort, be imagined as a spout. The fanciful name is also said to have led to the rhyme, ’Tea Pot Hall, All roof no wall’. One account has it as one of a pair that once acted as gate lodges to a road leading to nearby Scrivelsby Court; others say that it was always a one-off, put up as a curiosity to house someone who could manage with just a single room. It was inhabited until the 1920s and then fell into disrepair. It apparently burned down during victory celebrations in 1945: someone thought its by then untidy assemblage of thatch and wood was one of many bonfires that had been kindled to mark the end of World War II.

The other day I found a book in a charity shop which included the picture above it. I had to buy the book, for sentiment’s sake. And because it contained a lot of other interesting pictures. And because it will help me remember my first bookish encounter long ago with Teapot Hall, all roof, no wall.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Kemerton, Worcestershire

Passing glances

Not far from the house in my previous post is another not far away, up a different lane near the same Worcestershire village. This one was spotted first by the Resident Wise Woman, who’d taken a walk up and around Bredon Hill. When she came home, she told me about this house, built with battlements like a mock-castle, on a lane that led up the hill.

What she had discovered was Bell’s Castle, built in 1825, on the site of some earlier workers’ cottages and incorporating a small look-out tower already there (on the left in the photograph). The client was an Admiral or Captain Edmund Bell. He was said to have been a pirate or buccaneer who, in those Napoleonic times, robbed French ships of booty such as silk, gold and wine, sending the booty from the Bristol Channel up the Severn and Avon, unloading it and carrying it by packhorses to his ‘caste’, where it could be stowed in his cellars. It was also said that he carried on his piratical exploits after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and that his activities eventually led to his arrest and execution.

Whatever the truth of the colourful stories about Edmund Bell, his castle-like house remains a good example of the fashion for fanciful Gothic-style houses in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The architectural aim was to display some of the features of a fortified structure, such as towers and battlements, to give the idea of a medieval castle without the inconvenience of the tiny windows and cumbersome portcullises that an actual fortified building would have had. Although the fashion for such buildings has long gone, this one remains, thanks in part to the Holland-Martin family of Overbury, who owned the building more recently. It is still a private house and is not open to the public, but makes an attractive sight on the slopes of Bredon Hill.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Kemerton, Worcestershire


Distant prospects

One of the themes of this blog is the pleasure to be gained from unexpected architectural encounters – those views of buildings that one glimpses from the road while going from A to B – and so much the better if there’s the opportunity to stop and take a closer or longer look. There’s something especially rewarding about chancing upon something in one’s local patch, a notable building that’s only visible from a road or footpath that one doesn’t normally use. I often pass through the village of Kemerton, in Worcestershire, and even occasionally stop there for a coffee on a quiet morning, but the other day I made a detour, little more than driving around three sides of a rectangle of roads to return in the direction I’d come. It was then that I caught sight of the house in my photograph.

One field separates Kemerton Court from the rural road I was driving along. Even from a moving car I could make out a building that looked special, and it wasn’t long before I returned, walked up the same road, and had a longer look. I saw a Cotswold stone front of the early-18th century, apparently very well built, mostly of ashlar. The window surrounds are quite plain – the keystones are small and not especially showy – and the doorway has a triangular pediment with Doric or Tuscan pilasters running down from its ends. Plain it may be, but the articulation of the frontage is quite sophisticated – notice how the central bay and the pairs of outer bays are set slightly forward of the rest, to give some visual interest, while the round-topped window and the little circular window above it emphasise the central bay. The finials on the parapet (which resemble either egg cups or acorns according to how you see them) and the survival of the small panes in the windows are pleasing touches. There’s also an eye-catching contrast of curves, with the string course below the round window going one way and the curves in the parapet going the other. It’s this kind of contrast that shows the influence of the baroque style on whoever it was who designed this facade. The architect is not known – Smith of Warwick and Thomas White of Worcester are possible candidates.

This facade fronts an older house of the 16th century, and following the road round to the rear of the house reveals a less symmetrical structure. Looking from the road was all I was going to do, though, as Kemerton Court is a private house and not open to the public. I’m grateful, though, that its satisfying west front could be seen, at arm’s length as it were, just one green field away.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Droitwich, Worcestershire



The walk around Droitwich that inspired this and the previous post was only my second visit to this town, the previous one being many years ago. As a result, the building above took me completely by surprise: I didn’t remember it at all, yet surely if I’d seen it I would have recognised it. The reason is that until recently its facade was hidden behind a wall of rendered brickwork: there was little hint that there was a timber-framed structure behind. Recently, this timber-framed building, actually the wing of a much larger house, has been conserved, and the later brickwork removed.

What was left behind the brickwork was not much at ground-floor level: three stout timber posts, which supported a largely complete wooden structure above. The restoration involved building new woodwork to go between the posts and repairing the upper storeys. This work is now largely complete, producing an attractive wood-framed frontage, wholly appropriate to the structure of c. 1420 of which it is part. The transformation is remarkable, a tribute both to the original builders and to the 21st-century architects, craftspeople, campaigners, and funders who made it possible: hats off to all.

The building now visible is the solar wing of the house: that’s to say the wing containing the private living apartments of the original owner. Adjacent one would expect to find a more ‘public’ or formal room, a great hall. What is left of the hall is in the building to the right. It is said to be even older that the wing in my photograph, but is disguised by a later facade, just as the now restored wing was until recently. This building would originally have contained a large, full-height hall, with no first floor, although, as is clear from the frontage today, it now has an inserted upper floor. I don’t know whether there’s enough of the ancient structure to warrant a refurbishment like that given to its neighbour. Such an ancient hall would be more remarkable still.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Droitwich, Worcestershire

Salt and vinegar?

English Buildings: all architectural life is here, from cathedrals to parish churches, even unto the Droitwich Spa Fish & Chip Bar. I took this picture because it seemed to me a very clear illustration of a problem that became pervasive in Droitwich, leading to a major change in the economy in the late-20th century. The problem is obvious enough: subsidence, which occurs when the ground under a building sinks, causing the foundations and also the above-ground structure to move, leading to cracks, sloping floors, wonky walls, all kinds of structural chaos. The cause is less obvious. Subsidence occurred here because of the extraction of brine from the large underground deposits beneath the town.

Beneath Droitwich are large deposits of rock salt. When surface water penetrates the ground it dissolves the salt, producing the liquid called brine. By pumping the brine to the surface and heating it, people produced salt in huge quantities, for Droitwich’s brine contains around ten times as much salt as sea water. So brine extraction became a major industry in Droitwich and nearby Stoke Prior (there are more salt deposits in Staffordshire, Lancashire, and, especially, Cheshire).

Salt-working in Droitwich grew to a large scale in the 17th to 18th centuries, and continued through the 19th. By the 1920s, large-scale working in Cheshire and elsewhere sent the Worcestershire industry in decline, continuing on a small scale. But by this time, the damage to buildings had already begun. The resulting damage was a further nail in the coffin of the salt works, and by the late-20th century, brine extraction in the town had ended. Some buildings still show obvious signs of the damage caused by subsidence but none, I think, quite so clearly and outwardly as this one. It’s drastic, but the building still seems to serve up England’s traditional fast food. Salt and vinegar anyone?

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Bretforton, Worcestershire

The old ways

Finding myself in the Worcestershire village of Bretforton at a few minutes past 12 noon, I decided to take a quick look in the local pub, The Fleece. It’s a pub I knew about already, because it is owned by the National Trust and very old. The timber-framed building was originally constructed in the 15th century as a farmhouse – online accounts call it a longhouse, that’s to say a traditional type of small farm house with accommodation for humans at one end and for animals at the other, although it could just as likely have been fully occupied by the farmer and his family. It’s not clear to me exactly when it became a pub, but it was enlarged in the 17th century and much of what remains dates to that time. The building was still in the same family, the Byrds, and their descendants remained there until the last of the family, Lola Taplin, left the inn to the National Trust in 1977. It was, I believe, the first working pub in the Trust’s care.

The building was nearly destroyed in 2004, when a spark set alight the thatch that then covered the roof. Such a fire can take hold very quickly and destroy a building with a wooden structure. However, no one was hurt in the blaze and a rapid response from six fire brigade crews, from the landlord, from locals who rallied quickly to remove most of the building’s precious contents, and from the staff of the National Trust, saved much of the building’s structure and many of the contents. It was restored, but with a tiled rather than a thatched roof, and hospitality, which had continued meanwhile in the adjacent barn, was restored too.

The building’s exterior still looks striking, with its simple old sign and ancient woodwork, but the interior is even more special. In many ways it doesn’t look as if it has changed much for a hundred years. There are open fires, old furniture including a marvellous curved settle, and a remarkable collection of old objects – copper jugs, pots, andirons, even a set of handbells. There’s also a fine array of 17th century pewter that reputedly belonged to Oliver Cromwell – he is said to have exchanged it on the way to the Battle of Worcester, but I’m inclined to treat such stories with a pinch of salt.

One extraordinary tradition that I’ve seen in no other pub has been kept up at The Fleece: that of chalking or painting white circles in front of the hearths, to protect the building from witches, who were said to enter down chimneys.* If this seems even more unlikely than the storey about Cromwell, I can tell you that such beliefs were prevalent in earlier centuries and in rural areas old traditions died hard. I have a book from the 1940s showing a photograph of a woman adding more whitening to the circles in The Fleece – perhaps it’s Lola Taplin herself. As another drinker observed to me, with a humorous grin, ‘I’ve been coming to this pub for years and I’ve never seen a witch in here, so they must work!’

All in all, The Fleece is a lovely pub, a fine and unique place to while away a little spare time over a pint or I’m told, to come for an evening meal. I have a feeling I’l be back soon.

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* This kind of belief is, of course, a historical can of worms. Prejudice against women who were accused of being witches, often with no grounds at all, sometimes simply because they professed knowledge of traditional healing practices in times before modern, scientific medicine, was rife in earlier centuries.

Saturday, October 1, 2022


At the apothecary’s, 2

The old but restored chemist’s shop in my previous post, with its handsome wooden fittings redolent of the apothecaries of long ago, showed an excellent use for such a shop interior: it’s home to a business selling perfumes, skin products, soaps, and related items, which sit attractively on its shelves. Soon after seeing that shop in Matlock Bath, I stumbled upon another, in Worcester, This time, the shop building and frontage have gone, but the interior is wonderfully preserved, along with a great deal of its stock-in-trade, in the city’s main museum.*

This was once the interior of Steward’s, a chemist’s business started in 1876 and remaining in the same family until it closed in 1973. The beautiful mahogany fixtures were made in London and bought from Charles John’s General Fixture Warehouse, Drury Lane. Well made and serviceable, they were still in use when the shop closed, and no doubt these high Victorian shelves, drawers and cupboards were packed with the latest in pharmaceuticals and related products, with little of the Victorian stock on open display.

But the goods and gear of the Victorian chemist were not thrown away. The contents were kept: everything it seems was preserved, from the glass flasks and carboys to the metal moulds for making pills, from delicate, accurate balances for measuring the ingredients of medicines to a larger weighing machine on which customers could check their body mass in pounds and stones. Rows of boxes and bottles of old patent medicines remain too, testimony to a time when people in England knocked back quinine wine or warded off seasickness with a ‘Seajoy’ plaster.†

None of this would normally have survived in a modern pharmacy business, but it’s part of social history, and it’s both pleasing and educational to see it preserved and displayed here. Museums these days are short of money and a display like this, fragile and full of portable items on shelves and counters, needs constant supervision when open to the public. Therefore the museum can only open this room occasionally to its visitors – at the moment just on the first Tuesday of each month. When the Resident Wise Woman and I turned up the other week, we and the very helpful custodian were the only people there.

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* Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum; see my point about the restricted opening times of this specific display in the final paragraph.

† Quinine is certainly not a substance seen on British chemist’s counters today, although it still has restricted use under medical supervision; I’ve no idea whether ‘Seajoy’ bears any resemblance to the modern equivalents.

Lamp, which originally hung outside the pharmacy, preserved as part of the display

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

At the apothecary’s, 1

While the Resident Wise Woman dived into the Old Apothecary Shop on Matlock Bath’s North Parade, her brain switching automatically to present-buying mode, I stood in awe looking at the shop front and the interior fittings.*

Although this street of shops was first built in 1835, it was made over just after 1900, and the then resident apothecary, Alfred Newton, oversaw the installation of a new shop window and the outstanding shelves, drawers, and counters inside. This was just the kind of interior that would have suited the fashionable pharmacist in the early-1900s. One would expect to see big glass carboys full of coloured liquids on the top shelves, packets of patent medicines in the display cabinets below, and equipment such as pestles, mortars, and accurate balances on the counter. There must have been perfumes too, precious phials and bottles displayed securely in the glass-fronted cabinet: the word ‘perfumery’ still marks it out in carved wooden letters of an ornate and Art Nouveau style.

Such shop interiors are rare survivors, the sort of thing one is as likely to see in a place like the Black Country Living Museum as in a real, working high street. It’s remarkable to find this one, among neighbouring emporia selling beach balls and ice cream, still used for goods related to the ones first sold here.† A multiple pleasure, for social historians, architectural historians, and shoppers alike.

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* This is not the first time I have been indebted to the Resident Wise Woman for leading me into a shop of architectural or historical interest; I am forever grateful.

† Matlock Bath’s ‘retail offer’, as they say these days, seems, for an inland town, remarkably skewed towards businesses that are generally seen at the seaside. There are amusement arcades and candyfloss too.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

High Peak Junction, Derbyshire

Modest monument

A highlight of our recent visit to Cromford was a stroll along the Cromford Canal, taking in canalside views of nature and architecture, listening to (but failing to identify) birdsong, passing the pump house in my previous post, and ending up at High Peak Junction, about a mile from the wharf at Cromford where we started. High Peak Junction provided tea in the shadow of a modest but fascinating building, one of the earliest railway workshops in the world. It’s not much to look at from outside – a small cluster of stone sheds with pitched roofs, festooned with signage that ranges from notices with historical and visitor information to some authentic-looking painted wooden railway signs.

Inside, things get more interesting, with the original inspection pit, engineers’ tools in abundance, a still-working forge, and side rooms for the engineers and railway clerks. Online descriptions of an untouched ‘time capsule’, coupled with period photographs, are a little misleading – there’s a health and safety fence around the inspection pit and a number of large information banners hang from the iron and timber roof trusses. But the place is still packed with interest and objects to linger over, from the files, hammers and anvils of the blacksmith, to metalworkers’ drills, oil tanks, and the London Midland Scottish railwayana in the side rooms. There’s much here to delight the railway specialist and to intrigue the visitor with a more casual interest.

This workshop dates back to 1825–30, which is very early indeed in the history of railways. So early indeed that the first railway items to be looked after here were wagons and rails – there were no locomotives here then, and trains were pulled by horses. Later, when steam engines arrived here in 1833, the entrance to the workshop had to be modified to accommodate their tall funnels. The ’shop was still in use in 1967, when the line closed, and it’s said* that many of the tools that still remain were made in the forge in this very building. So in this sense, the term ‘time capsule’ is spot on.

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* I’ve drawn in this post on the account of the workshops here.
Workshop interior: original inspection pit (and forge with tools in the background); modern heath and safety fence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lea Bridge, Derbyshire

Keeping the water flowing

The Cromford Canal was begun in the 1790s with the ultimate aim of linking Cromford with Manchester, giving a route to a market for the area’s mineral resources. Limestone and the lime produced from it were lucrative potential exports from the area. In addition, Richard Arkwright saw that he might use water transport to service his mills and backed the project, helping the progress of the necessary bill through Parliament and selling part of his garden at Cromford to allow a wharf to be constructed.

In the 1840s, the canal hit a problem. It had filled with water removed from lead mines in the area, but as the miners continued to remove the lead, they dug deeper and opened new underground channels to drain away the water, which no longer flowed into the canal, leaving boats stranded. The answer was a pump to remove water from the River Derwent to keep the canal topped up. But the river provided only a finite amount of water, some of which was itself used by the area’s industry. To stop the river too becoming dry, restrictions were imposed on taking water from the Derwent: water could only be pumped out for the canal between 8 pm on Saturdays and the same time on Sundays, when the local factories were not working. So they needed a pump with an unusually high capacity, to make best use of the time allowed.

Leawood Pump House, which they built to house the pump, is visually impressive. It is constructed of well worked gritstone, with chamfered ashlar quoins, classical windows, and pediment. The chimney is 95 feet high and also of stone, with a cap of cast iron. Inside is the original steam engine, built by Graham and Company of Elsecar, near Rotherham. It’s a big, single-action beam engine, still in working order, and can run at 7 strokes per minute, lifting about 4 tons of water at each stroke. This means it can shift a huge volume of water very quickly, so that the canal company could take the water they needed during the time they were given to do so. The pump house was successful, and the engine ran regularly for almost a century, until 1944 when the canal closed. It is still run occasionally, when visitors can experience the sheer power of steam. When I passed by, all was quiet, but the power of the architecture was clear to see.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Matlock Bath, Derbyshire


Postcard from Switzerland

Arriving at Matlock Bath, I parked in the ‘overspill’ area of the full station car park and waded through mud in this summer of drought, to get out of it.* This found us almost on the doorstep of the railway station, set, like the rest of the place, amongst the wooded slopes of the River Derwent’s gorge. Scenery, fresh air, and healing water brought people here in increasing numbers form the 1770s onwards, and the numbers grew yet again when the railway arrived in 1849. Today, after a period of closure (1967 to 1972), the railway is back, and seems to bring many people in, to add to the crowds coming, like us, in cars and clogging up the car park.

When they expanded the station in the 1870s, the railway company built a Swiss-cottage style station to go with the setting, known to some as ‘Little Switzerland’. For the Victorians of Matlock Bath, the term ‘Swiss cottage’ meant a timber-framed building with patterned brick infill between the timbers, eaves with a big overhang, and wooden brackets. An added touch is a Midland Railway speciality: iron framed windows with striking lozenge-shaped panes. The result is an eye-catcher, to traveller and platform-gazer alike.†

Inside, the station was quiet, but was serving tea and cakes, giving us further excuses to linger. In between sips of my tea, I looked up and took the photograph of the roof, below. A very satisfying start to a short visit that produced still more interest.

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*It was only muddy in the overspill area; the rest of the car park is tarmac-covered and civilised.

† Timber-framed stations in a cottage-orné manner, similar to this but in a different, more ‘old-English’ style, are also to be seen at places such as Woburn Sands and Fenny Stratford on the Marston Vale line in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Cromford, Derbyshire

A bit of a shambles

To begin with, I hardly glanced at the small low terrace of tiny shops, most of them seemingly unoccupied, that runs along the northern side of the market place in Cromford. Big stone blocks filling in the gaps between low doors and rather small windows, plus a space above that seemed rather too large for a shop sign, all below a hipped roof of slate. Even so, the design of this unregarded building seemed un usual, and I wondered… Then I saw a brief account of these buildings and gave them another glance, because I learned that they’re actually – in origin at least – Georgian. This is a tiny Georgian shambles, in other words a row of small shops running near or along the edge of a market place, usually originally occupied by people such as butchers.* They came about when market traders, needing more permanent premises than a temporary stall, built shops either on the site of their old pitch or nearby.

These must have arrived in Cromford during the heyday of Arkwright’s mill, when the town was growing and there would have been a ready market for food such as meat that could not be grown or raised at home. Sadly, they have now seen better days. Nearly every window is different from its neighbours, suggesting that most are replacements.§ Likewise the doors, some of which are boarded up or even, like the one in the foreground of my photograph, replaced with masonry. My picture is not very good – I had to shoot at a an angle to avoid a row of parked cars and vans that would have virtually hidden the shops from view. But it gives one an idea of what’s here†…and perhaps of the potential that could be unlocked if the building were restored.

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* Usually butchers, although fishing ports sometimes have ‘fish shambles’, and Dublin has a Fishamble Street on the site of a former fish market. 

§ Although the small panes in some of the windows, especially the two on the left, do suggest an early date.  

† There was once another row at the other side of the market place.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Cromford, Derbyshire


Mill town, pig town

The idea that a factory town need consist simply of rows of small, unsanitary houses accommodating the workforce of a vast textile mill is belied in Cromford. The attractive workers’ houses in my previous post showed by their upper-floor workshops that not everyone worked in the mill. But structures nearby point in addition to activities still further from the industrial. Pig-keeping was familiar to farm workers in villages, but Cromford too has its share of pigsties, urban porcine dwellings near the backs of workers’ houses very close to the middle of the town. There are allotments and barns not far away, signalling that growing or raising your own food was something available to at least some of Cromford’s population.

Pigsties like this one are almost as substantially built as the nearby houses and have lasted well. They’re not used now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries would have provided a very welcome supplement to the basic working-class diet, especially as the pig will yield products such as bacon that can be cured so that it will keep for some time. When, a young newly married woman in rural Lincolnshire, my mother kept a pig for a few years, she welcomed the rich bounty – not just the various joints of pork, but also bacon, chops, sausages, pork pies, and recherché local delicacies such haslet.

I’m not pretending that life for Richard Arkwright’s employees and their families wasn’t hard. Much of their lives would have been spent in the mill, while other family members might have worked at home at a loom or toiled in garden or smallholding, or in the endless round of ‘women’s work’ that running even a small 18th- or 19th-century home entailed. But it wasn’t all ‘dark satanic mills’ for everyone, as this modest structure confirms.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Cromford, Derbyshire


What about the workers?

A recent visit to Cromford, a place famous for the cotton-spinning mills of Richard Arkwright, the earliest of which many call the first factory, found me drawn to the smaller buildings as well as to Arkwright’s vast premises. Ever since I first heard about Arkwright (probably in school history lessons a very long time ago), I was impressed that he built decent housing for his workers. I’d wondered how true this was, and what the evidence was for the assertion, so here is some evidence, on the ground and still in use. This is part of a row of houses in Cromford’s North Street, among the first houses that Arkwright built in the town.

The row is built of local gritstone, with substantial stone lintels over the doors and windows. The effect is solid and rather plain at first glance. But looking a little closer, it’s possible to make out details that show these dwellings to be a cut above the norm of workers’ housing in 1776, when they were built. The original inhabitants would certainly have appreciated the sturdy construction. But they would also have picked up on subtler things – the fact, for example, that the stones that make up the door jambs are topped and tailed with blocks that give the impression of Classical capitals and bases, the sort of elaboration you might see on a farmhouse or gentry house. The windows are a mix of leaded-light casements and vertical sashes, and those sashes, too, were something of a preserve of the middle classes in the 18th century in Derbyshire.*

Another notable feature of the houses is the top storey, with a row of windows for each house. The upper room behind the windows was a workroom, designed so that some members of the family could work at home (typically as weavers), while others worked at Arkwright’s mill, which was in the business of spinning yarn using machinery powered by large water wheels. As there were not enough local workers to run Arkwright’s mill (later mills), good, practical housing would have helped attract workers from further afield. Today, I’m sure such period houses must similarly be attractive to prospective residents, and pictures of them certainly motivated me to seek them out, down a quiet side street, secluded but not far from the mill or the shops.

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* I’m indebted for these remarks about the social implications of this way of building to the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership’s useful guide, The Derwent Valley Mills and their Communities (2011).

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Sherborne, Dorset

The full nine yards

The interesting variations on Classical capitals in my previous post jogged my memory of something I’d seen last summer in Sherborne, Dorset. It’s a corner building, dating from some time at the end of the 19th century, designed as either s short row of shops or as a single shop. I’m inclined to suspect the latter: one large shop, owned by someone with a penchant for elaborate decoration. It was originally a single-storey structure, but within that limited scope its builder threw the decorative kitchen sink at it. A series of plate-glass windows are framed by pairs of attached shafts, each supporting floral capitals and, above that, a richly moulded entablature with some carving above the capitals. Higher up still are rectangular terminations that would probably have acted as finials before the upper floor was added. The lintels above the windows are carved too.

The capitals are a mass of flowers and fruit – so much of it that the vegetation spills into the middle, completely filling any space between the pair to link the area above the twin columns with leaves and blooms. Most shop owners did not run to anything this lavish carved in stone. Late Victorian shop fronts are more often made of wood, or occasionally cast iron, and these less costly materials can look highly decorative and eye-catching. Whoever built this wanted something a cut – or two – above the average. Later owners preferred a more more modern front on the more prominent end facade of the building, but the long range that faces on to the side street is still there, reminding us of what the Victorians could do when they tried. The full nine yards, as they say – and a little more still.

Note See the Comments section for interesting extra information about this building, which began as a draper's shop before developing into a department store. Thank you to my readers and commenters.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Regency inventions

I must have walked along the Promenade, Cheltenham’s grandest shopping street, hundreds if not thousands of times. On many of these occasions I’ve given an admiring nod to a sequence of houses at the southern end of the street, near the Queen’s Hotel, where there is a short stretch of very large houses, set back from the street, now mostly accommodating hotels and restaurants. Several of these buildings are currently partly invisible behind the extensive tents that have been erected to enable people to dine in the fresh air, a popular feature, especially in times of pandemic, although it does get in the way of appreciating the architecture. A small price to pay, many would argue, for the survival of businesses and the enjoyment of a decent meal.

However, the architectural admirer can always look up, as I did the other week, to be reminded of the unusual capitals on these otherwise conventional houses. One of the buildings features a row of attached classical columns topped with capitals like nothing in any of the Greek or Roman orders and nothing that I’ve seen in the work of John Forbes, the probable architect. Each one has a row of – what – fronds? feathers? topped by an abacus with a simple pellet moulding. The form of the fronds may owe something to the pergamene order, an unusual antique design found at Pergamon in Turkey. However, the description in Pevsner suggests that the design is a variation on the Prince of Wales feathers. The latter are sometimes drawn in the lengthy form of these architectural feathers, especially in the badge of Edward the Black Prince, which is said to be the medieval origin of today’s device, familiar to most British people from its reproduction on the old two pence coin. That seems fitting at least for a Regency or late-Georgian building.

My second photograph shows another capital on a neighbouring house, topping a pilaster in a position on its building similar to the one described above. This too is unusual, though I suppose it is a version of the Composite Order, the Roman design that combines the spiral scrolls of the Ionic with the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian. But here the Corinthian details have been modified, with the acanthus leaves stylized into a single leaf at each lower corner, and the space in the centre of the capital occupied by a large anthemion or palmette form. Whatever we call it, it’s another example of the capacity for invention and variation in classical architecture, a cherishable bit of character above the tents and menus and diners, most of whom, no doubt, have no idea of such niceties….

Monday, August 15, 2022

Beckford, Worcestershire


Marking time, marking distance

For those who thought that the cast-iron milestone in one of my recent posts was not quite architectural enough for a blog called ‘English Buildings’, here’s something with a more ‘built’ quality. It’s a stone mile marker in the form of a column, put up in 1887 to coincide with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in that year. The orb and crown that top the column build this royal commemoration into the design, and there’s an inscription on the base with the date of the celebration too. This inscription was joined in 1953 with the words ‘ELIZABETH II CORONATION’, added when the column was restored that coronation year.

The base also carries mileages to various nearby places – among the losg list of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire villages are larger towns, whose names are picked out with underlining, so that travellers over longer distances can see easily likely destinations such as Gloucester, Cheltenham, Evesham and Pershore. These are not that clear unless you look closely – I don’t know whether the names were originally picked out in darker paint, or if the passing rider or coach driver was expected to dismount or alight and give the stone close scrutiny.

This small bit of village design is thoughtfully put together and whoever conceived it had to adapt traditional architectural forms to accommodate the inscriptions – you’d normally expect the column to be taller in relation to the base. The result is oddly proportioned, but it works as both loyal salute and durable waymarker. And you’ll have to go a long way to find another like it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022


Surprise, surprise!

Walking along Friar Street in Worcester, we were drawn to a timber-framed building opposite Greyfriars by a sign advertising second hand books. Greyfriars is an impressive timber-framed medieval merchant’s house on a site close to a medieval Franciscan friary and is now owned by the National Trust. Into the building opposite we went, to discover that the National Trust has installed a shop here, convenient for visitors to its property across the street.

Although on this occasion there seemed to be nothing for me in the stock of books on display, I was pleased I entered the building because of the chance to see two panels of painted wall in an upstairs room – I had no idea they were there. These roughly square patches of scrolling stems have probably faded a good deal, but they still give the lie to a common assumption – that houses a few centuries ago had rather dull interiors with just a few sticks of furniture to enliven the living space. Of course, there would have been huge variation in the quality and quantity of decoration. This is building, now number 14 Friar Street, was once part of a larger house, its other half now comprising the neighbouring number 16. It was the substantial residence of someone with some disposable income – an artisan, or merchant, perhaps.

The paintwork was discovered when the building was restored in 1956, and a proud if somewhat intrusive inscription records this fact. However, knowledge of painted decoration has built up since the 1950s and authorities now think the date is more likely to be 16th century; for another example of 16th-century wall painting (still more elaborate than this), see a post I did about a room in Ledbury, here. Apparently, the Worcester building was home in the early part of that century to one John Watters, ‘paynter’, and may have been built for him in c. 1526. The owner’s trade opens up the interesting possibility that he may have done the decoration himself. Back then it would have been admired but hardly exceptional. He’d probably be surprised to know how much it is cherished now. 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Compton Beauchamp, Oxfordshire*

For the birds…and the rest of us

One of the incidental benefits of church crawling is the other buildings one encounters on the way or near the destination. Before I’d even entered the church at Compton Beauchamp I’d already glimpsed the neighbouring big house (too private to photograph) and as I walked up the path to the church, this little building met my eyes almost at the same time as the pale chalk walls of the church itself. It’s a wooden dovecote, and is best appreciated from inside the churchyard, where it sits on the edge of its own small enclave, behind a yew hedge, in a part of the churchyard apparently set aside for one or two secluded graves. There’s even a nearby bench on which to collect one’s thoughts.

Weatherboarded walls, a roof of stone ‘slates’, and a tiny structure on top, too small to be a turret, too slight to be a cupola, too open and louvreless to be a louvre. Pevsner assures us that the nest boxes are still within, and one would be tempted to introduce a dove or three and see if they took to it. It’s said to be 18th-century, and what my picture above doesn’t show is that it is raised on staddle stones, those mushroom-like structures usually used to raise granaries away from the ground and impede the progress of rats and other grain-eating rodents.

Albeit unoccupied now by birds, this building is a small delight. If it’s a reminder of an unsentimental time when people removed the young doves or pigeons (known as squabs) for the cooking pot, it’s also a testimony to a way of building that could make even a modest structure pleasant to look at. We’d do well to have a bit more of that today. 

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* Formerly in Berkshire, while as a devotee of the old county boundaries I fell compelled to mention; also because it is still included in the Berkshire volume of the Pevsner Buildings of England series.

Staddle stone supporting dovecote, Compton Beauchamp