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

Monday, August 1, 2022

Sharpness, Gloucestershire

A port with no sea…but lots of wood

Sharpness is on the River Severn and in the early-19th century was the starting point of a canal that took large ships to Gloucester, then a busy inland port dealing in goods from all over the world. Gloucester’s on the Severn too, but the river is far less easily navigable higher up, hence the need for the canal. Indeed even downstream, the river is not a straightforward one – although wide, it varies greatly in depth and its tidal range is the world’s second largest.

Today, the huge Victorian warehouses at Gloucester docks remain, but they’ve been converted to other uses – a museum, shopping, offices, apartments – because the docks were going into decline from the later part of the 19th century. The main reason for this was that ocean-going ships had become too large to use the canal, but they could sail up the Severn as far as Sharpness. So Sharpness, originally used mainly as the entrance to the canal, became a port in its own right, playing host to ships carrying timber, coal and above all grain.

The two most impressive structures at Sharpness are the two extraordinary wooden piers that stretch out into the river. Seen at the low point in the Severn’s vast tidal range, their remarkable framework of wooden uprights and horizontals can be seen quite clearly, although, when the place is deserted on a Sunday (the best time to get a good view) it’s hard to appreciate their actual scale. The tiny red marks on the top in my photograph are life belts and the pier’s uprights are some 11 metres in length. They are made of greenheart (Ocotea rodiei), a timber of huge density and immense durability, with acid qualities that repel fungi and insects. Some of these timbers are original, from the 1870s, although a programme of repair and replacement keeps the piers in usable condition.

For me these are structures that represent extraordinary construction skill, especially the northern pier, with its gentle curve. Standing by the riverside, near a patch of grass designated as a picnic area, but occupied only by two couples, getting close to one another on benches at the far end, and so quiet not even a gull seemed to be calling, I simply stared. Only Gateshead’s much longer Dunston Staiths rival it in my opinion. Looking at them, one’s first thought is that it’s amazing anything made of wood can last more than a few years in this place of such brutal tides. But of course the piers’ very openwork structure is a hidden strength: the tide runs through it, rather than battering against it. As so often, Victorian builders and engineers knew what they were about, and today’s shipping companies, albeit in smaller numbers now, still benefit.