Sunday, October 29, 2023

Walford, Herefordshire

Not so primitive, 2

Spotted on the same day as the chapel in my previous post, this building is in Walford, between Brampton Bryan and Leintwardine in far northwest Herefordshire. It’s another Primitive Methodist chapel and, like the one in Weobley, it’s a brick building with a pitched roof and stone dressings around the windows and doors. And yet it looks very different from the Weobley chapel because it’s in the Gothic style – all the openings are pointed and those at the front have some extra elaboration in the form of carved terminations to the hood moulds over the windows and doorway. There’s also a charming quatrefoil-shaped opening in the gable, the frame of which contains the inscription, ‘Primitive Methodist Chapel 1866’.

The wing to the right was built as a schoolroom. Its glazing bars have a simpler pattern than those at the front of the chapel, but are still probably original. Both roofs are enhanced by curvaceous bargeboards of a kind I associate more with large suburban villas than Primitive Methodist Chapels, but why should the devil have all the good carpentry?

As can be seen from the signage, the chapel, the building is not longer used for worship, housing instead a gallery where drawings are exhibited. Chapels can make good gallery spaces, and this seems a dream use for such a building that is no longer required for its original purpose. Someone said that the latest art galleries, designed by starry architects and filled with works that are designed to shock or awe, are the cathedrals of our time. But I appreciate this chapel-gallery too.*

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* See the gallery’s website for information about The Drawing Gallery and its exhibitions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Weobley, Herefordshire

Not so primitive, 1

Following on from my previous post, here is another building in Weobley that I missed on my first visit. It’s the Methodist chapel, built in 1861, originally for the Primitive Methodists. The Primitive Methodists were a group founded in the early-19th century, who sought to focus on the core ideas of Methodism, which they felt that many Methodists were ignoring. They stressed in particular the role of the laity, worked to preach to the rural poor, and did not shy away from the political relevance of Christian ideas; they also adopted simple forms of worship and, often, of chapel architecture.

My mental picture of a Primitive Methodist chapel is a very plain building, perhaps built of brick, with a front comprising a pair of windows and a central door, topped with a hipped roof. However, the Primitives were not above a little architectural sophistication. This chapel has the simple brick front with two windows and a door, but this is elaborated with stone quoins plus rusticated stone blocks around the windows and doorway. These details succeed, in my opinion, in lifting the building above the mundane without indulging in what some of its early worshippers might have seen as Gothic flights of fancy. I find the result visually pleasing, and it’s pleasing, too, to see that the windows have retained their original glazing bars. No doubt the light they let in is a real asset when it comes to reading hymn books and Bibles – the chapel still used for worship, unlike at least two others I spotted in Herefordshire on my visit the other day.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Weobley, Herefordshire

An educational legacy

I’d been to Weobley, one of Herefordshire’s best ‘black and white’ villages, before, but I’d somehow managed to miss the street that contains both the Methodist chapel and this, the Old Grammar School. This was a major omission on my part, for this building alone. It was erected in 1659 to accommodate a grammar school for boys that was founded in the same year by William Crowther, who left in his will not only money to build the school, but enough for an annuity to pay the master’s salary.

The building would have had one large room on the ground floor, where the lessons took place. Upstairs was a dormitory in which the pupils slept (there were 25 of them in the early-18th century), plus rooms for the master. It’s well built, with the vertical timbers set close together (a design known as ‘close-studding’) and plenty of pleasant touches – carved brackets, a couple of decorative heads (see the photograph below), turned shafts in the openings on each side of the porch, and the founder’s coat of arms above the entrance. The quality of the work has led some to suggest the renowned Herefordshire carpenter John Abel as the builder, although this, so far as I know, is speculation.

The building had a long life in educational use, which only came to an end in 1888. At this point it was sold as a house, which it still seems to be. So no more schoolboys intoning Latin declensions, no more the noise of 20-odd pairs of feet making there way upstairs to bed or downstairs to the schoolroom, no longer the experience (novel to us) of lessons in the building made of wood, wattle and daub. Just another timber-framed house of which Weobley can be more than proud.
Detail of carvings above the doorway, Old Grammar School, Weobley

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Chaceley, Gloucestershire

Worse things than serpents, or, Odd things in churches (17)

Finding this drum in a corner of St John’s church, Chaceley, made me wonder: was it some military relic,. put in the church for lack of anywhere else to keep it? Such an explanation seemed unlikely, in spite of the patriotic Hanoverian royal arms painted on the side of the instrument. The information available in the church offered a more likely story: that the drum was simply one of the instruments used in church music – it would have been played as part of an instrumental band that accompanied the singing of psalms, hymns, and the occasional anthem. Such bands were common between c. 1750 and c. 1850, before organs, harmoniums, and barrel organs started to become popular in parish churches. A common ensemble would consist mainly of stringed instruments (mainly violins and cellos), plus one or two woodwind – a clarinet, flute, and bassoon, perhaps. But such combinations were not fixed. In a small village especially, the church would get by with whatever and whoever was available.

This kind of instrumental accompaniment is sometimes called West gallery music, because the instrumentalists often played in the gallery at the west end of the church. The most famous literary evocation of such music is in Thomas Hardy’s novel Under the Greenwood Tree, in which the singers and musicians of Mellstock church (Mellstock is Hardy’s name for the real Dorset village of Stinsford) decry the coming fashion for harmoniums and barrel organs. Most of them agree that strings are best for church music, and some will admit that woodwinds have their place, even the unwieldy-looking bass instrument called the serpent (‘Yet there’s worse things than serpents’ as Mr Penny says). And drums? ‘Your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker – good again,’ as another of Hardy’s characters puts it.

So if drum was available, a keen ‘bowel-shaker’ might well have been welcomed into the band. Even someone making a martial noise was better to the traditionalists of the 19th century than an organist or a player of the harmonium (‘that you blow wi’ your foot’). Bang on!

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Croome, Worcestershire

A glance into the past

Early on in the history of this blog, I did a couple of posts about Croome Court, the 18th-century house of the earls of Coventry. What especially interested me was the number and variety of buildings in Croome’s landscape garden and the surrounding countryside, from the classical ‘Temple Greenhouse’ by Robert Adam to a circular panorama tower. Croome is a place I’ve been meaning to revisit for a while now, and I planned to do a post about the house and its 18th-century architecture but, as usual, something unexpected caught my eye. So, much as I enjoyed looking at the Georgian architecture of the great house, designed by Capability Brown and with interiors partly by Robert Adam, here at the heart of this 18th-century building is, of all things, a bit of timber-framed wall.

The 6th Earl built Croome Court as we know it, an elegant Palladian house with corner towers and a central classical portico, in the 1750s. But the central part was actually a rebuilding of the family’s earlier 17th-century brick-built house – the architect, Brown, rebuilt it using the old foundations, facing it in stone, laying out new rooms inside, and adding the corner towers and portico. The 17th-century house, however, had an even earlier, timber-framed house at its core, and it’s a fragment of this that I noticed as I walked around the building’s basement. One of the National Trust’s helpful guides, seeing me looking at this, pointed out details on the floor that showed the lines of early, long-demolished walls among the floor tiles.

And so Croome Court, so classically perfect, turned out to be a bit of an architectural jigsaw, as so many buildings do when you look carefully. I don’t know if it was a member of the Coventry family or one of the house’s later owners* or the National Trust who now run and maintain the building who left this small section of timber-framing exposed. But I was pleased that they’d done so, because it made me think of the house in a different way, one more true to its complex history.

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* The ownership history of the house has been varied since the 1940s. Sold off by the family after World War II, it became successively home to a school, to the UK headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, to a property developer who planned to turn it into a hotel, and to another developer who lived in it for a while. The Croome Heritage Trust then took over the house in tandem with the National Trust, ensuring its survival.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

The angular meander

Is there a pattern that says ‘Greece’ louder and more clearly than the ‘Greek key’? This motif takes the form of a continuous line that bends back on itself through a series of right-angles, before bending again to resume its forward course. It’s sometimes called the Greek fret, sometimes the meander, and some say its form derives from the Greek River Maeander (or Meander). It was widely used in the architecture of the Greek revival, a style popular in Britain during the decades on either side of 1800.

Here it is in the iron supports of the veranda that runs along the front of the houses in Lansdowne Crescent, Leamington. They were built in the mid 1830s to designs by local architect William Thomas. The uprights with their Greek key design ensure that the canopy above the veranda is held up securely, while also proclaiming the classical heritage of these town houses. The verandas were not so much for sitting out on – they are quite narrow – but more to provide shade for the almost south-facing rooms while also ensuring that if the floor-to-ceiling window is open, no one absentmindedly steps out and tumbles into the area below.

Soon after the residents moved in, Queen Victoria was on the throne and the fashion for elegant middle-class houses would turn from the classical to other styles – Italianate, Tudor revival, or Gothic. But the people who lived in Lansdowne Crescent in the mid-1830s (whether they were permanent residents or visitors who rented a house for the ‘season’, in order to make use of Leamington’s spa) must have delighted in their homes, which were both chic and Greek, courtesy of the angular meanders of their exterior ironwork.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Tea in the park

Visiting Leamington Spa recently, I was particularly struck by the decorative ironwork on many of the buildings. Much of this was from the town’s Regency heyday – the iron balconies that resemble those in Cheltenham and Brighton, although in many cases with different designs. One example from a later period, however, stands out: the ironwork that makes the Aviary Café in Jephson Gardens so special.

Several of the structures in this beautiful urban park have a serious memorial purpose. This paragon of ornamental park structures is different. It was built in 1899 simply to house tea rooms – there’s an Edwardian-looking photograph online showing elegantly dressed people relaxing in front of the café amid a small copse of umbrellas that shade outdoor tables from the sun. At some point in the 20th century, the café closed and was turned into an aviary, but by the last decades of the 20th century this had closed and the building fell into disuse and disrepair. As part, I believe, of a millennium project to enhance the park, it was restored and turned back into a café, in which form it still seems to be thriving.

At the front, the roof is held up by slender iron columns, allowing it to overhang and shelter a narrow porch or veranda, which now houses several small café tables. Look up, and you see the splendour – several metres of intricate iron latticework filling the spandrels, cornices, and the space beneath the central gable. Look closely, and you see multifoil arches, patterns of circles and scrolls, and iron finials at the ends of the eaves and at the gable’s peak.

The whole thing is a showpiece of the Victorian metalworker’s art and the epitome of the ornamental public park building of the period. It’s up there with the best bandstands and other pleasure buildings, with decoration that at once enhances the view and catches the eye, beckoning us in to sample the delights within. To my mind, it’s a small architectural triumph.