Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Sudeley, Gloucestershire


The small church of St Mary, Sudeley is unusual in that it is both a parish church and the chapel of nearby Sudeley Castle. It’s an easy walk from where we live and from where the Resident Wise Woman grew up, and partly as a result of that, we hardly ever visit the historic castle, let alone its little church. In fact until the other day, the last time I set foot inside the church was in September 1985 when the Resident Wise Woman and I were married. It was wonderful to tie the knot in such beautiful and historic surroundings, pleasant for guests to be able to take a look at the gardens on the way in and out, and delightful to have the wedding reception in the castle afterwards.*

The beauty of the place is obvious enough, I hope, from my photograph, and the architecture – standard late-medieval-style window tracery with the added touch of a delightful bell turret corbelled out so that it overhangs the west front slightly – clear too. The history is that the shaping force behind the church was Ralph Boteler†, (c. 1394–1473), 1st Baron Sudeley and Lord High Treasurer of England under Henry VI. He rebuilt the castle and the nearby church, both of which owe much of their architectural character to him, although both were severely damaged during the English Civil Wars. After a period of neglect and dereliction, both castle and church were restored for the Dent family, who bought the castle in the 19th century and employed Sir George Gilbert Scott and his master perspectivist (later an independent architect) John Drayton Wyatt to undertake the restoration.¶

It’s thought that Scott and Wyatt took the church back to very close to its 15th-century appearance externally, renewing the tracery of the windows, preserving or recarving the gargoyles and other carvings, and restoring the bell turret. The church was refitted inside, with new woodwork and stained glass, and Wyatt designed a new tomb to house the remains of Katherine Parr, the last queen of Henry VIII – she lived at the castle after she married its then owner, Thomas Seymour, after Henry’s death. The result is a delightful little church which could not have been better for our small wedding.

Another of Scott and Wyatt’s additions was what I assume to be an underfloor heating system, with warm air emerging through grilles in the floor. As we left the building the other day, one of us stepped on the grille by the door and it made a loud clanking noise. Straight away, I was back in 1985, waiting for the bride to arrive. Suddenly, the silence was broken by a clank, and she and her father made their way up the nave towards where I and my best man waited. Vows, music (Thomas Arne, Henry Purcell), speeches, cake, and the chance to talk to our closest friends and relatives ensued: much of this is all a blur now. But I do remember smiling a lot. I’ve smiled a lot since.

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* Back in the 1980s, weddings in country houses and castles were not the big business they are now. The church was not licensed for weddings when we got married and I had to go to a Church of England office next to Westminster Abbey and swear oaths to the effect that I was who I said I was, which allowed me to obtain an elaborate ‘special licence’ for the occasion. Today, people get married in the castle often, although I’m not sure that, even now, church weddings take place here. ‘I think it’s mostly blessings,’ a guide said, when we looked around the castle.

† Usually pronounced ‘Rafe Butler’. He was ‘one of a line of rather distinguished butlers,’ as my school history teacher said, even longer ago than the events I’m recalling here.

¶ Wyatt and Scott also designed a school and almshouses in nearby Winchcombe, which were funded by Emma Dent, then owner of the castle.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Banbury, Oxfordshire


Brush up your Shakes

Some time ago I remember wondering why a shop in Parsons Street in Banbury had a bust of Shakespeare above the window. On my most recent visit, I wondered again, while also smiling at the lucky combination of an old sculpture of Shakespeare next to a sign saying ‘Sheila’s Shakes’: shakes, clearly, without peer.

The answer to my question is the obvious one: there used to be a pub here and it was called the Shakespeare. And so this bust of the bard is added to my collection of three-dimensional pub signs, along with all the White Harts, Swans, Lions, Elephants and Sugar Loaves I’ve noticed over the years. There’s not much to say about the sign. It’s rather crudely made – although generations of paint have probably obscured some of the details, but it has a certain charm about it. And after all, the available early images of the English national poet are hardly great works of art – this one looks as if it has been based on his monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity church at Stratford, a bust which the literary critic John Dover Wilson said made him look like a ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’. The Banbury bust could perhaps do with some of the care and attention lavished on the one in Stratford.

One can trace the pub through various 19th-century directories and census records, which list the innkeeper’s name and mention additional jobs as well as that of publican. For example in 1871 the main occupant was William Reed, stonemason and beer seller; in 1881 it was John Sole, coach builder and innkeeper; in 1901, Maurice Horan, beer house keeper and groom. This range of activities may be an indication of 19th-century Banbury entrepreneurship, but is more likely the result of this being a small pub or beer house, not a big enough business to support a family. One hopes that the business of ’shakes’ is a more prosperous one.

Monday, May 22, 2023


Gardener’s delight

Imagine you’re the owner of a small business in an English town centre in around 1860, say a grocer or a cabinet-maker. You sell goods from your premises on the High Street and you and your family live above the shop. Out the back is a small yard, devoted to storing items related to your business; there is no garden. You’d like a garden, but maybe you can’t afford to buy a house away from the centre of town – or maybe you don’t want to. What do you do?

The Victorians had an answer: a detached garden, somewhere in town, an easy walk away from where you live. A landowner would set aside an area of land, divide it into plots, and let the plots to locals; sometimes plots were also available to buy. In the 19th century most English towns had these garden plots – for growing flowers and relaxing in, not the still-familiar allotments, which are mainly for growing fruit and vegetables. Now there are hardly any left: the move to the suburbs in the early-20th century made them redundant. But one English town, at least, has hung on to a set of detached gardens, and they’re now run as a visitor attraction. This is Hill Close Gardens in Warwick.

Hill Close Gardens fell into neglect and dereliction in the 20th century, and the local council bought the land, hoping to build on it. But many people thought that it would be worth restoring the gardens and opening them to visitors and school parties, so that people could learn about this almost forgotten kind of gardening. A group of volunteers set about clearing up the site, restoring the garden buildings, replanting plots, and pruning trees – and raising money not just to help the restoration but also to fund a visitor centre and build a greenhouse to raise more plants. Hill Close Gardens is now a small gem, with about 15 plots, cultivated as they would have been over 100 years ago, several with their original brick summer houses, where the owners would relax and admire the flowers or the blossoming trees. The hexagonal summer house in my photograph was here by 1866 and may have been built by the first person to buy this plot, the publican of the White Swan in the town. The summer house has been beautifully restored, with replacement windows following the design of the originals (using evidence including pieces of broken glass on the site). It’s topped with a charming weather vane, which also reminds us where we are.

The gardens themselves display a variety of flowering plants, herbs, and many old fruit trees (about 70 varieties of apples, pears and plums, apparently). As well as the horticultural delights, some of the sheds and summer houses also have displays of the kinds of tools that would have been used by the original owners – spades, rakes, ingenious Victorian cultivators, lawnmowers like the Suffolk Viceroy and the Ransome’s Lion. When the lawn was mowed, the apples picked, or the latest specimens planted out, the owners must have found Hill Close Gardens a beautiful and relaxing place to spend an hour or two. It still is.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Leominster, Herefordshire

Wine, offline

On one of my past visits to Leominster I noticed a glazed shop door containing a pane of glass etched with the name of the Leominster News, a defunct local newspaper. When I wrote about the door I lamented the passing of local newspapers, victims of a market in decline as readers have moved to online news services. The internet of course is a rich source of information and for well over 25 years I for one have been using it – and for the last 15 years or so I’ve also been contributing to it, via this blog among other ways. And yet, as I said back in 2021, I believe something has been lost through the decline of print media, and the local press especially – local newspapers once provided a valuable service for local communities.

Something similar could be said for a host of local small businesses. I was reminded of this the other day when passing through Leominster once more and noticing another piece of etched glass, this time on a shop in the High Street, once the premises of E. V. Gunnell, wine merchant. What a lovely design. The lettering is stylish, with exaggerated variations in the stroke widths and some sharp, pointed serifs. I’d guess it’s very late 19th century. The name sits within a panel with sides that curve outwards towards the edges of the glass, looping around the border of the pane in a triangular form. Standard, stylized foliage forms contribute more decoration above and below the name. There would be nothing exceptional about any of this in the late-Victorian period. The glazier would show the client a catalogue of samples with fancy lettering, foliate ornament, and so on, and would order the glass from a specialist manufacture, who would produce it to the required dimensions. But it shows a tendency to take pains with architectural detail and craftsmanship that’s in short supply on the High Street today.

It’s not just about design and craftsmanship, though. The supply of wines, spirits, and ales was once a local affair. The wine merchant was someone you’d get to know, and who would get to know their customers and their likes and dislikes. A shop like this would be as important a part of the local High Street as the butcher, baker, and grocer. Not many businesses like this survive these days. The selling of wine has become the preserve of supermarkets and, increasingly, of online wine merchants. On the face of it, wine seems an unlikely product to buy online. It’s stored in fragile bottles and the bottles and their contents are heavy, making packing a challenge and shipping costly. But it has caught on, both because of the huge potential range of stock and the economies of scale that come from buying and storing in bulk. And so, local wine merchants go the way of so many other small retail businesses, from fishmongers to ironmongers.

Like so many of us, I am part of this problem. I shop in supermarkets, and buy things online. I’ve even bought wine online from time to time. But part of me looks at this door and laments the disappearance of these local connections. Mr Gunnell – his name turns out to have been Edward – cared enough about presenting his goods and his business effectively to commission this lovely door glazing. What a shame we can’t see the rest of his shop front, with his name at the top and a tempting display in the window to entice us to sample his wines, spirits, ales and porters – for such, according to Kelly’s Directory, was the range of his stock.. A glance at the 1879 directory for Herefordshire reveals he lived in the town and served as one of its aldermen. He was part of the community. But hope is not lost. There is still a wine merchant in Leominster’s High Street. We should buy things locally when we can if we value such local assets.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Moreton Pinkney, Northamptonshire


Small but significant

Sometimes on a road apparently in the middle of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of a village, you come across small houses next to gateways – the lodges that guard entrances to the grounds of manor houses and country houses. They’re part locator landmarks, part boundary markers, part home for the estate worker, part of whose job it is to close the gates at night or, in some cases, to keep watch ands open the gate for those who are welcome to enter.

Their style of these buildings varies, and I’ve featured a couple of handfuls on this blog with a range of looks from domed classical to timber-framed Tudoresque. The example I’m posting today is one of a couple (many miles apart) I have passed quite often, never taking a photograph because in one case, the lodge is on a busy main road with nowhere to park and in the other, there’s nearly always a car parked right outside. This is the latter one, and the other day, car or no car, I decided to stop and take a photograph anyway. The gate lodge is in northern Northamptonshire, on a corner in the village of Moreton Pinkney and guards the entrance to Moreton Pinkney Manor, a 17th-century house that was rebuilt in 1859, probably incorporating some of the older fabric. The village is on the belt of butterscotch-coloured ironstone that’s prevalent around here and helps to make this building attractive. The gateway has a segmental arch with a panel above that was designed to frame coats of arms of the Barons Semphill, the 19th-century owners of the manor, The gateway and lodge are said to have been built at the same time as the main house, and the mullioned windows and steeply pitched roofs reflect those of the manor itself. The round tower, however, is the stand-out feature, the thing that catches the eye and gives the little building a sense of importance: small but significant.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Banbury, Oxfordshire


Things like dips and feed

I remember when visiting Banbury many years ago as a teenager that I was struck by a shop with an abundance of painted signage on the upper floors. Back then, I’d never seen a building with so much writing on it. Even now, I’ve seen few to rival it, all repainted and spick and span as it is. Was it still functioning as a seed and forage merchant when I first saw it in the late-1960s? And what was its history?

Looking online, I drew a blank at first, but then I caught a glimpse of a name…which rapidly disappeared behind another screenful of information. The name was Lamprey. Surely this was the word I saw on the shop long ago, a name that reminded me then not of agricultural suppliers but of eels slithering along in the River Severn, near where I lived. And yes, Lamprey’s were in business in the late-1960s, and were using a mill on another site as a warehouse in 1969.*

So Lamprey was the name, John Lamprey and his son William, who were supplying a large hinterland of farmers who needed seed, animal fodder, and the like. Perhaps they had a rep who travelled around the farms, like the speaker in Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Livings’ (‘I deal with farmers, things like dips and feed’). Banbury was an agricultural centre, and Banbury market became one of the largest livestock markets† in the country. This building is at one end of the market place, an ideal position. But the Lampreys did not stop at dealing in seed and feed. As their building’s inscriptions proclaim, they were also coal merchants. They had lime kilns near the canal, hence ‘LIME’ among the repainted ghost signs on the wall. They had a brickworks nearby too. They must have been Victorian go-getters, keen to be involved in any business that would make them money, whether related to the burgeoning building trades or to the prevailing agricultural markets. Their wall of advertising suggests they weren’t about to let anyone forget what could be bought from their premises.

From memory, the painted signs were rather worn when I first saw them. Clearly they have been repainted recently, and have come up looking fresh without losing all of their character, with the widths of the letters adjusted freely so that the words fit between the windows. Not quite genuine ghost signs, left faded but old, but still a lively bit of townscape that helps remind us of what this place was like once. The kind of agribusiness I could buy into. It’s gone now, and the building is occupied by very different concerns – a recruitment firm and an estate agency. I’m not sure how long the seed and feed business lasted, but, to paeraphrase Philip Larkin, perhaps it was time for change, in nineteen sixty-nine.¶

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* I’m indebted for this information to an article posted by the Banbury Museum, here

† Perhaps the largest.

¶ See ‘Livings’ in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber and The Marvell Press, 1988)

Thursday, May 4, 2023


Turning point, 3

For the third in this sequence of three Birmingham buildings, I return to Hockley Hill to look at a close neighbour of Gem Buildings, posted the other day. This is a retail building, originally the premises of Harry Smith, ironmonger. It survived as an ironmonger’s until relatively recently and the lettering of its signs, including those of the adjoining shop, is still clear. An old-fashioned ironmonger could function in any kind of shop, provided there was plenty of space to house the bewildering variety of stock. This embraced virtually anything made of metal and much that was not. Locks, cutlery, and tools, of course; but also buckets, pots, and pans; stoves and kitchen ranges; knobs for doors and drawers; bell systems for calling one’s servants, or for responding to the ringing command if one was a servant – all of these things were the preserve of the ironmonger and might well have been on sale here in 1913, when this building, like my previous two, was erected.

So if you think this building stark, if you prefer the traditional shop next door with its sash windows and conventional shop window, I sympathise, but pause for thought. Harry Smith might well have wanted to look up to date – or to want to combine the traditional virtues of good service and reliability with the latest in household convenience, c. 1913. What’s more, the plain facade in its heyday would have been, I suspect, little more than a picture frame for the lively composition of goods, from brooms to incinerators, that would have spilled out on to that broad pavement. Personally I still find something to admire in the frame, even now the picture is no more.