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.