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