Thursday, July 28, 2022

Leigh Brockamin, Worcestershire


Marking the way

Milestones go back as far as the Romans. The invaders who did so much for us erected a marker stone every 1000 double paces, or 1618 yards, the standard Roman mile, along their principle roads both to delineate distances between towns and to promote the name of the emperor who paid for them – milestones had political as well as navigational importance. However, there was a much later heyday of the milestone in the 18th century, when turnpike trusts were set up to build and improve roads as long-distance coach travel became more widespread. Turnpike trusts began in 1706 and lasted until the late-1880s (by which time signposts similar to those we use today were becoming more common) and during this period thousands of milestones were erected on Britain’s roads.

‘Milestone’ is the name used for any roadside distance marker in the form of the short, vertical stone or post and not all are made of stone. The one in my photograph, which I happened to see when visiting the medieval barn in my previous post, is by the side of a quiet rural road in Worcestershire and shows distances to Worcester and Bromyard. Helpful pointing hands (manicules) indicate the direction of these two places. The form of this iron milestone is quite a common one – it’s triangular, with a sloping top so that the name of the location can easily be read by a passing rider or coachman looking down on it. I rather like the fact that it provides this additional piece of information. I had no idea that I was in a place called Leigh Brockamin – I’d seen it marked on a map as simply ‘Leigh’.

Reading that unfamiliar name, I was reminded of being lost years ago and pulling up by a remote rural post box. Getting out of the car, I read the name of the box’s location on the label that showed the collection times. Once I knew where I was, I could orient myself, and confirm that I was heading in roughly the right direction. Post boxes no longer show this useful information. Many milestones used to do so. Now they are disappearing. The Milestone Society* estimate that around 9000 may be left in the UK. They’re worth preserving, and worth more than a passing glance.

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* They aim to identify, record, research, conserve and interpret for public benefit the milestones and other waymarkers of the British Isles’. See their website, here.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Leigh Brockamin, Worcestershire

I still seem to be recovering from covid, which has left me easily exhausted and the victim from time to time of something I can only call brain fog. However I am now making small trips out, and plan to continue here with occasional short blog posts. This one describes a building only about 30 miles from where I live, but far, far away in terms of its architecture and structure from what we are used to in these postmodern times.

Cathedrals of wood

The great medieval barns of England are cathedrals of woodwork, and Leigh Court Barn in Worcestershire is one of the best. Its exterior a charming mixture of brick, weatherboarding and wattle with a big tiled roof, does not quiet have the grandeur of stone barns like the magnificent Great Coxwell, but the sheer size of the structure, with its pair of vast cart entrances and that sweeping roof, prepares us, up to a point, for the interior.

When we step through the door, the sight is breathtaking: a succession of eleven enormous trusses, each made of a large cruck frame held together by horizontal beams and diagonal braces. Crucks, the pairs of long timbers that form an inverted ‘V’, are normally made by splitting the trunk of a sizeable oak tree in two. Here, each side of each cruck was made with a single tree, to give thew maximum size and strength. The effect is awesome, and all the more remarkable for its early date – it was erected in the early 14th century.

This makes it one of the earliest extant cruck-framed buildings, and also the largest in Britain. It was built for the use of a farm belonging to Pershore Abbey and the walls were originally covered with wattles (panels of woven laths, looking from a distance like basketwork). Most of this original cladding has gone, and is mostly replaced with boarding. This is vernacular architecture, done by local craftsmen using local materials, to supply a practical need. But what a vivid demonstration they gave of how this ‘humble’ kind of building could produce an effect as magnificent as a great cathedral, larger in scale than a manor house. John Betjeman used to say that some churches made him immediately want to knell down in prayer. This building had a similarly humbling effect on me.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Meysey Hampton, Gloucestershire

I am under the weather at the moment, because the 21st-century plague has struck me at last. So here is a reprise of a post from some years ago, showing a church monument to a doctor, who lived at a period when plagues were a constant threat. If you click on the image it should appear in a larger and clearer form...

A practised classicism

According to the way the history of English church architecture is usually written, there were relatively few churches built between the point when Henry VIII dealt his knock-out blow to the old religion by breaking with Rome and the rise of Classical architecture, which, although it had a brief flowering under Inigo Jones in the Jacobean period, really only got going with Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The churches that were built in the years in between these two watersheds are often in a kind of hybrid style that isn't always easy to classify – a mix of Gothic, Classical, and vernacular – that means they're not 'good examples' of any one style, and so they get overlooked or glossed over.

But if there's not much church building, there's certainly a lot of church architecture from this period. How can this be? Because the architecture is not for the living but for the dead: it is the architecture of church monuments. Here's a wonderful example, from the church at Meysey Hampton in Gloucestershire – it's worth clicking on the picture to reveal some of the detail. It's the monument of James Vaulx (c. 1580–1625), a physician, and his two wives, Editha (on his right) and Philipe (a Jacobean Phillippa, presumably, on his left). The portraits of the three are charming – Vaulx in his doctor's gown and pointed beard, resting his arm on a skull and leaning towards his first wife, whose head is slightly inclined, in turn, towards him. Philipe stares ahead, by contrast, looking life in the face. She has no skull and carries a protective pomander: she survived her husband and lived to marry again. I find these figures rather moving and the nuances of pose that the sculptor allowed himself (or was allowed by eldest son Francis who commissioned the monument) very English in their restraint. Below them are tiny images of the children, Editha's twelve (how those women worked at childbirth) and Philipe's four; some, shown in bed, presumably died before their father. Above amongst the pediments at the top of the monument are figures of the virtues. 

And then there is the architecture. Look at the way the sculptor has invoked the panoply of Jacobean classicism – pediments variously shaped, scrolls, composite columns, panels, keystones, cartouches, cherubim with winged heads, niches – to frame and display his subjects. He was able to add colour too, reminding us that even in the supposedly retrained phase of the English church, things were brighter and more vivid than we sometimes think. It all adds up to a grand monument but in a rough-hewn provincial manner. Perhaps this is right for its subject. Vaulx was eminent but didn't make it to the top job of royal physician. When King James asked him how he knew how to heal, the doctor replied that he had learned through his practice. 'Then by my saule thou hast killed money a man,' responded James. 'Thou shalt na'practise on me.'