Monday, November 20, 2023

Launceston, Cornwall

Music for a long while

On several occasions when exploring English buildings I’ve come across ancient carvings of musicians. Blog posts from years ago have featured a bagpiper in Cornwall and a player of a medieval woodwind instrument called a rackett in Gloucestershire. Some years ago in Cornwall again, visiting St Mary Magdalene’s church at Launceston, I found a whole band of musicians carved into the stone of the outside walls.

Launceston church, like many in Cornwall, is built of local granite, one of the hardest of all stones and difficult, for that reason, to carve. Yet the stonemasons of Launceston, rebuilding the church in around 1511, were determined to decorate it as ornately as any other. In fact I can’t think of another English parish church so richly encrusted with carvings – Pevsner says that the building is decorated with ‘barbarous profuseness’. I’d not use such loaded language. I find the carvings fascinating, and I’m awed by the masons who could carve this intractable material, even though the granite’s hard surface means that they could not carve with the depth or detail that they might have achieved in, for example, limestone.

Amongst the decorative profusion – leaves, ferns, roses, thistles, pomegranates, heraldry – are several relief carvings showing musicians (in the upper left part of my photograph: click it for an enlargement). In the photograph are a fiddler, a lutenist, and a harpist, forming a kind of procession led by an official or cleric with a chain around his neck. Other panels show a bagpiper and a shawm player. Some or all the musicians are probably members of a group called the Confratrie Ministralorum Beate Marie Magdalene (the Brotherhood of Minstrels of Blessed Mary Magdalene), and so were almost certain to have played in St Mary Magdalene’s church.* Some scholars believe that, this being the case, the carvings of the instruments would have been quite realistic, unlike carvings of instrumentalists on gargoyles, for example, which were more likely to have been caricatures, and unlike angels carved in roofs, where ‘realism’ has to be aided by imagination and where the instruments may be generic. Alas! the wear and tear of time, together with the granite’s toughness, have scuppered our chances of making out much detail today.

Nevertheless, one of the joys of visiting old churches is the evidence they give of the activities of the past generations who built and used them. It’s good to find these musicians here and to think about the kinds of sounds they might have made in a market town in Cornwall some 500 years ago.

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* St Mary herself, resting with her pot of ointment, is visible to the right of the musicians.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Clean-up time

Beside the street opposite Chipping Campden’s 17th-century almshouses is this unusual feature. It now looks like a stretch of paved road that dips below the normal street level and it was originally full of water. This is a cart wash, and it dates to the early-19th century. Back then, mud could build up badly on cart wheels – not only on carts that had been in the fields, but on those hauled along rough and sometimes rutted roads or tracks. So the idea of a public cart wash was to enable carters to clean the mud off their wheels before entering the centre of town.

There was another use of the cart wash and this was to stand the vehicle in it for a while, to give the wheels a good soaking. Old-fashioned horse-drawn carts had wooden wheels protected by metal tyres around the rims. If the wheels got too dry, the tyres could loosen and fall off. Soaking the wheels was a way of making them expand a little, to tighten the tyres and keep the wooden wheels properly protected.

The world of horse-drawn carts and their maintenance seems remote now, but it’s not that long ago. I never knew my great uncle, whose business involved carting goods around rural north Lincolnshire, although my mother remembered him fondly. Just over a century ago, such people played an important role in rural communities, as did the men who built and repaired their carts. The Wheelwright’s Shop, George Sturt’s evocative 1923 account of this world of craftsmanship and toil, is well worth reading. Seeing Chipping Campden’s Cotswold stone cart wash brings it all back.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Ledbury, Herefordshire


This beautiful sign in Ledbury has a special resonance for me, because I had a much-loved relative who was a confectioner. R, a cousin of my mother’s, could do the lot, from chocolate work to making boiled sweets, from seaside rock to luxurious coconut ice or fudge. For a while he had a shop next to a venue – a combined cinema and theatre – where famous stars performed. Many of them dropped in for something sweet and some came back whenever they were performing next door. The demise of live gigs there was a blow, and he moved on.

His wares were good enough to sell without advertisement, and his shop didn’t have a wonderful glass sign like this. But what a joy it is.* That graceful lettering with its gradually widening and narrowing stroke widths is a delight: how difficult it must have been to do that in glass. Just as good is the crazy-paving style background, made up of glass so richly coloured it reminds me of Fruit Gums.¶ I know, I know: there weren’t blue Fruit Gums. But the raspberry red, lemon yellow, lime green, and orange seem to fit the part.

Not knowing for sure the date of this glazing, I’m going to suggest a vague ‘early 20th century’. I like to imagine glazing like this lit from behind on a dark night, so that the colours glow. Bulbs placed behind the sign could also shine their light downwards, to illuminate the goods in the window, drawing the eyes of passers-by, making their mouths water, and luring them inside. Delicious!

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* It will be even clearer if you click on the picture to enlarge it. 

¶ Rowntree’s Fruit Gums: fruit sweets that were part of my childhood and which turn out to be still available, in the UK at least.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Strand, London

Tea break

The last few months have seen me wind down my paid work as part of my preparation for retirement. This process has involved saying farewell to my time as a teacher of courses – I did my last in August – and I have just done what is probably the last of my various talks and lectures. I’ve enjoyed this activity hugely. One of the drawbacks of life as an author is that writing is a solitary activity. Getting out and speaking and teaching means I get out and meet people, mostly people I’d never have met otherwise. I’ll miss that, but I’ll not be sorry to give up the travelling. In the past, driving to a venue to teach or speak has had the bonus of taking me to new places and countryside too. But increasingly it is feeling like hard work.

My last talk happens to be one I call ‘Great British Brands’, a brief introduction to the history of a number of famous food and drink brands, a subject that caught my interest when I wrote a book about the history ofd shops and shopping, years ago. Among the companies featured in the talk is Twining’s, one of the most celebrated British tea brands, which has been going strong for more than 300 years, albeit these days as a part of a larger conglomerate. So here’s a picture of the entrance to Twining’s premises in London’s Strand, the site where the founder, Thomas Twining, set up Tom’s Coffee House in 1706.

Tom, who was from a family of Gloucestershire weavers, came with his family to London to find work, did his weaver’s apprenticeship, but decided that he’d prefer to work for one of London’s merchants instead. The merchant was handling shipments of tea, and Tom eventually went it alone in the tea trade. He succeeded because tea was newly fashionable and because he sold dry tea to women, who were not allowed into conventional coffee houses in London, which were men-only. This doorway is later than the original coffee house, and was built for Tom’s grandson, Richard Twining, in 1787. The two men in Chinese dress refer to the source of the tea and the lion symbolises Twining’s dry tea and coffee shop, which was known as the Golden Lion.

And so you see even a talk on food brands has been an excuse to show people memorable bits of architecture and design – from Cadbury’s factory at Bournville to shop signs advertising Hovis bread. For now, I’m not retiring from sharing similar things on this blog, for those who are interested enough to look and read about them over a cup of tea, and, I hope, go and see for themselves.