Sunday, April 30, 2023



Turning point, 2

In contrast to my previous post, here is another rather different industrial building from Birmingham. It dates from 1913, just like the almost functionalist structure about which I posted a couple of days ago, and part of it also has pale walls. However, here the resemblance ends, because the entrance facade of this part of Manton’s, silversmiths and cut-glass manufacturers (the works later made everything from powder compacts to bells for cats’ collars), is highly decorative, with a distinctly Art Nouveau flavour. The building, which was known at different times as the Union Works and the Gwenda Works, was designed by William Doubleday, who was based in Birmingham and he must have been encouraged to do a job that was elegantly decorative.

Art Nouveau is a style associated with rich decoration – highly curvaceous forms (in everything from drapery to typography), and the use of imagery from plants, flowers, and trees. The style generally eschews the historical revivalism evident in much 19th-century architecture – hence the ‘Nouveau’. Here we see a band of foliate carving, together with two roundels also adorned with foliage, and very curvy numerals in the dates set two-thirds of the way up. The other lettering is more sober, but elegant and legible. All this is done in faience, a form of glazed ceramic that was popular for a wide range of commercial buildings, from factories to shops, prized for its decorative qualities as well as for the fact that its smooth surface means that dirt stands less chance of sticking to it, and what does stick is generally removed by the rain. This whole entrance building is covered in faience and very effective it is too. The plainer part of the works, to the left, is of red brick, but the windows are surrounded with faience, to give some unity to the design.

This pleasant building is in an unregarded bend in the road in Legge Lane, in the heart of what’s now known as the Jewellery Quarter. Its stylishness was no doubt a good advertisement for the company that was based here, as well as a generous helping of visual delight in what is now a quiet corner.

Thursday, April 27, 2023


Turning point, 1

This is a surprising building for its date, which is 1913: one of the first in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter that’s broadly functionalist – in other words, it combines minimal ornament with features that – in theory – express the function of the structure, which contained large, light workshops on the upper floors and small offices on the ground floor. In addition, the building is designed along the lines then becoming fashionable in some parts of mainland Europe but still very unusual in Britain – box-shape, white walls, concrete beams, metal-framed windows, roof that at least gives the appearance of being flat (there are shallow pitched roofs behind the parapets). The first picture shows the side that faces on to Key Hill. The picture below is the Hockley Hill elevation,. which the owners no doubt regarded as the front – there’s a little bit of ornament here, but it is limited to baroque details at cornice level, where the building’s date is inscribed.

So what was the function of this functionalist building? It was the premises of Ginder and Ginder, diamond cutters and polishers. People in such a decorative trade might have been expected to opt for a more ornamental factory, but for some reason they didn’t. Maybe they wanted to look up to date. Maybe the structure was inexpensive to build. This may well have been a priority, since one of the firm’s selling points was that the cost of diamond-cutting in Birmingham was less than it was in the main European centres of the trade, Antwerp and Amsterdam. Modernity also seems to have been part of their ethos – they tooled up with the latest machinery from the USA when they set up their new factory. A number of Belgian refugees who came to the city during World War I increased their capacity, and there must have been a ready market back then for their stones in the factories of the jewellery quarter. There’s more about the company here. Their building is no longer part of the jewellery trade – at least some of the premises, when I passed a short while ago, was given over to a clothes business. But its architecture, stunning or stark according to your tastes, is a memorial to past glories and, arguably, to a company’s image of itself over a century ago.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Evesham, Worcestershire

Abbey fragments

My awareness of what’s left of Evesham’s once-great abbey was limited in the past to a few fragments. First, the impressive free-standing bell tower, the work of Abbot Lichfield and completed in about 1530, just a few years before the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII. This tower is to the right in my photograph. Little else remains apart from the Great Gateway and the Almonry, which now houses a museum that contains, among much else, some fragments of carving from the old abbey buildings. What I’d missed until my visit the other day was this arch, which originally led from the abbey’s cloister (to the left in my photograph) into a passage that led beneath the monks’ dormitory into the chapter house – in other words, it formed the approach to the second most important space in the monastery after the church itself.

This arch is much older than the bell tower, and was probably built in around 1290. There are two tall niches at the bottom, from the top of which the arch springs into a curving form decorated with figures in canopied niches. These figures are discernible although very knocked about and worn. Through the arch the spire of the adjacent church of St Lawrence, one of Evesham’s parish churches, is just visible. The arch must have been magnificent when it was new and protected from the weather. Entrances to monastic and cathedral chapter houses are often beautiful pieces of masonry – think of the one at Wells, up its glorious stone steps, or that at Southwell Minster, with some of the best stone carving of the 14th century. This one must have been impressive too.

Work is currently underway on the cloister site to the left of the arch, with much levelling and earth moving going on; the to the right is a well used public park. One hopes that when the work is done and the various temporary security fences are taken away, we’ll be able to appreciate this bit of medieval masonry again and that, for all its decay, it will have a setting worthy of its quality.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Evesham, Worcestershire

Off piste in Evesham, 1

Sometimes, when I have time on my hands in a familiar place (or a place I think of as familiar) I give myself the simple task of walking around and trying to find some feature of the townscape or architecture that I’d not noticed before. Often, small gems are to found down alleys or in side streets I have no other reason to visit; sometimes it’s just a question of going a little further along a main street than I’ve done previously; and sometimes, of course, it’s a matter of looking a little harder in places I’ve been many times before, because we all miss things and we’re likely to overlook even the obvious when we think we know a place well.

In Evesham the other day, I decided to try some side streets, and it wasn’t long before I found this stone sign in a brick wall on a corner in Bewdley Street. The small building to which it’s attached doesn’t look industrial – I’d easily have mistaken it for part of a house. But clearly there was once a brewery here, a local concern that closed some time during the last century. The invaluable Brewery History Society website doesn’t say much about it, apart from noting the sign and adding that the other brewery buildings have been redeveloped.

I fancied I saw the remains of a polychrome brick tower not far away, with a factory-like building nearby: could this have been part of the old brewery? I think, looking online, that these buildings actually belonged to another company, probably brewers Sladden and Collier’s. Like many towns, Evesham had several breweries, all of which have gone, prey to takeovers or closed for some other reason. I cherish signs like this, faded and damaged but still in situ, as reminders of these forgotten industries, and of times when many trades were largely locally based. One of the cheering things about modern life (yes, there are a few!) is that parts of the brewing industry have again become more localised and diverse. Long may this last.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire



It took me many visits to the Oxfordshire town of Chipping Norton before I came across the former hall of the Oddfellows, a philanthropic association that dates back in documented records to the 18th century and which still exists, in various forms, across the world. When I saw it, I was immediately struck by the street front with its segmental curved doorway, the shaped gable above, and especially the carved lettering and coat of arms. Somebody took pains to make the public face of this small hall special, and Pevsner tells me that the architects were a Birmingham firm called Hipkiss and Stephens. The building dates from 1910–11.

I could find little else about the history of the hall and was content to admire the way the lettering’s base line follows the curve of the doorway and how the coat of arms likewise fits the shape of the gable above. Another source of admiration is the carving of this relief, especially the images of care and what I take to be Christian charity that stand on either side of the arms. The stone and the Arts and Crafts idiom of these details sit well with the hall’s home in a small Oxfordshire town.

Web research led me in one other interesting direction. According to the excellent website Cinema Treasures, the Oddfellows in Chipping Norton were showing movies from about 1910, and by 1919 this hall was renamed the Picture House. It remained a cinema until it closed in May 1950, before reopening as the Norton Hall. It is now used by a private company offering post-production and media facilities and looks to have been the subject of a sensitive, caring conversion to meet the needs of the business. One feature of the conversion is that the current occupant’s signage does not mask or overshadow the old Oddfellow’s carved sign and arms, so there’s no barrier to the sort of architectural appreciation that I – and my readers – enjoy.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire

Endangered species

The White Bear in Shipston-on-Stour is one of those old inns with large bay windows and an elliptical arch to one side, leading to a yard where there would have been stables for patrons’ horses, or for horses to draw coaches if the inn served the coaching trade. It’s not, perhaps, one of the most outstanding of such buildings, but it occupies a prominent position in the middle of the town and it’s memorable to me for having this three-dimensional sign, a characterful carved-wood bear, who at the moment is placed on ground level, near the door to welcome guests. The bear no longer does duty as the sole identifying sign: the Donnington Brewery, who own the premises these days, have seen to it that the building also has one of their ‘house style’ black-and-white painted signs too. The old wooden bear stands as a memorial to the time when a simple wordless sign was the best advertisement an inn could have.

As far as I can remember over the years I’ve been passing through Shipston or pausing in its High Street, the bear has spent time out of view, and also time outdoors in a brown, unpainted state. Pavement level is a good place to appreciate the deeply cut lines of his carved fur, and the purposeful pointed cut of his snout. However, he seems to have got knocked about a bit, and I hope his owners find a way of looking after him before he loses more legs, paws, or other appendages. It must be worth conserving him, because a sign like this is still a good advertisement, as well as the kind of thing people like me, who appreciate old buildings, their distinctive details and the folk art that produced great pub signs, both two- and three-dimensional. And because carved animals like this are now an endangered species.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire

For vigour

What’s this, in the park of the 18th-century house of Lydiard Tregoze, near Swindon? Not a sheep wash. Certainly not something for cleaning mud off the wheels of carts. It is, I’m reliably informed by the adjacent interpretation board, a plunge pool for humans, and it dates to about 1820, when Sir George Richard St John was Lord of the Manor. Although by this time the technology for piped water certainly existed, most country houses did not have such a convenience. What did the upper classes need piped water for, when they had a large staff of servants to bring the stuff to where it was needed? So water for washing and bathing was brought to your room by hand, and most country-house owners were happy with this arrangement.

Some houses, however, had plunge pools, either out in the open like this, or undercover in an outbuilding. Plunge pools, as the name suggests, were not for wallowing. The idea was to plunge in and out quickly and the reason for doing this was not primarily for washing, but because a dunking in cold water was deemed to be good for your health. Some went to Bath or other health resorts, some, increasingly, went to the coast to bathe in salt water, but many held that immersion in fresh water – here supplied from the nearby lake – was just as good. Madness, rickets, leprosy and asthma were among the disorders said in the Regency period to be helped by a course of plunge-pool treatments. Maybe some bathers thought that a daily dash down to the plunge pool and back would bring them increased vigour, in the same way as a cold morning bath at boarding school was supposed to do.

So it was perhaps a case of going down the steps as quickly as you could manage, ducking in a few times, and then dashing back up the steps – even faster, and shivering no doubt – and rushing indoors to be dried. Invigorating? I hope so.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Broadway, Worcestershire

Quirky things in quiet corners

I begin blogging again with this eye-catching little building, which is in the showpiece village of Broadway. Broadway is in Worcestershire, but it feels like an exile from Gloucestershire, being right on the northern end of the Cotswold Hills. Much of Broadway, true to this Cotswold location, is built of limestone, with stone ‘slates’ on the roof as well as the classic ‘honey-coloured’ walls* that help make the region so well known. But this structure, tucked away in Back Lane behind the Lygon Arms, not much more than a few yards from the manicured glory of the main street, is rather different. It’s a pleasing mélange of stone, brick, timber, and thatch. I thought it was a house, but someone said (and Pevsner confirms) that it was built by the owners of the hotel to accommodate staff – but the said staff were too busy, on the day I last visited, to answer queries of this kind.

I see it as probably a bit of architectural whimsy in a style that evokes – on the surface at least – the late phases of the Arts and Crafts movement. The thatched roof, with the ‘eyebrow’ window interrupting the thatch, is very much in the Arts and Crafts mode. So is the use of traditional materials. Except that the way some of those materials are used is to put a Tudoresque spin on the building. That timber framing at the front, with its brick infill in fancy herringbone pattern, isn’t really integrated into the structure of the whole building – it’s acting mainly as a screen to conceal and shelter the entrance steps.† The weatherboarding, too, seems simply to be a picturesque covering to perfectly good brick walls with stone quoins. There’s nothing wrong with this approach – I think the result is attractive and it makes me smile. It’s just not the ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of building that the followers of William Morris advocated.

But quirky and unusual are qualities that I like, and that I’ve been highlighting in this blog for around 15 years. As I resume, I resolve to feature at least a little more of the same.

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• Honey-coloured? Well that’s the usual cliché, although the reality is that Cotswold stone comes in a range of hues, from grey to yellow – with a bit of brown in the mix on some areas too.

† The corner post does, of course, help to support the roof above, and so has a partly structural role.