Saturday, January 27, 2024



Magic flutes

A few weeks ago I found myself talking to another author about the demise of second hand bookshops (victims of internet sales and the now-common shops that sell used books for charity) and the similar disappearance of music shops. Since we were near Oxford at the time, we spoke of a couple of music shops in the city that had disappeared. As I’d forgotten their names, my interlocutor put me right. ‘There was Taphouse’s in Magdalen street, and Russell Acott in the High Street,’ he reminded me. ‘And even a stall selling second hand records in the covered market,’ I added.

Later, I remembered that I’d actually taken some photographs of the shop front of Russell Acott’s in the High Street, because of its charming carved decoration.* How could one not taken a second, or third, look at carved musical putti blowing flutes† and playing other instruments such as the horn or the lyre? Especially when some of them are accompanied by tiny scrolls inscribed with the date of the frontage: 1912. And when they are surrounded by crisply carved foliage. And when the carver has made the putti more animated and distinctive by giving them a strong three-dimensional quality – look how the knees are set forward, the hands stick out from the surface of the carving, and the feet break out of the space between the arches.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll get the impression that I really like this kind of thing. I particularly admire the quality of the craftsmanship, the way in which the carvings fit the kind of business, the fact that this sort of thing is strictly unnecessary but the shop owner wanted their facade to be especially elegant, and the way in which the carving combines advertising with a kind of generosity – the public street was enhanced by this bit of whimsy. In my opinion, it still is.

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* This shopfront was created by Acott’s, who merged with another music business, Russell’s, in 1950. The company traded from this shop until 1998, when they moved to an out-of-town location. Russell Acott finally ceased trading in 2011, competition from online sellers meaning that when the owners retired, the business closed for good.

† Or are they piccolos?

Monday, January 22, 2024

Lavenham, Suffolk

In plain sight

Back in 2015 I read Matthew Champion’s fascinating book Medieval Graffiti and was alerted to the interesting array of ‘unofficial’ marks and inscriptions in English churches. This has inspired at least two posts on this bog – one on overlapping Vs, said to refer to the Virgin Mary (‘Virgo Virginum’, Virgin of virgns), another illustrating the outline of a human hand and some initials within a shield. A further common motif used in church graffiti is what is now widely known as the daisywheel, a series of arcs drawn within a circle, which combine to create an image resembling a six-petalled flower. When staying in Lavenham, Suffolk, just before Christmas, I was intrigued to come across such a daisywheel not in a church but on a wooden beam above a fireplace at Lavenham Guildhall.

The usual interpretation. of such marks is that they provide protection from evil spirits. In churches they are often placed near doorways or arches, suggesting that they prevent or discourage evil spirits form entering the building. Drawing a ritual protection mark above a fireplace suggests that it stops such spirits entering the building down the chimney.

Fireplaces are of course important places in a building – they’re the source of heat for comfort and cooking, of course, but in addition are focal points and symbols of the house and home, and of the people who live in the building or use it. For these reasons as well as the fact that the chimney offers a potential way in for evil forces, they’re a place to look out for protection marks in secular buildings. The famous ‘witch marks’ I have seen in a Worcestershire pub are also located in fireplaces – in this case on the hearth itself.

While the pub’s ‘witch marks’ consist of white circles made with chalk, daisywheels are usually incised into the wood or plaster. Matthew Champion suggests that they were made using the points of shears, a tool much used in the late Middle Ages when it’s thought many of these marks were made. He has tried making them with shears himself, with successful results. For centuries these marks were unregarded because they are easy to miss when one is not looking for them. Now scholars such as Champion have alerted us to their presence, more and more are being rediscovered, hiding as it were in plain sight.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Fulham High Street, London

Still going on

Writing about Hadleigh’s Coffee Tavern in my previous post brought to mind the host of buildings that owe their existence to the temperance movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Coffee Taverns, ‘pubs’ selling Bovril, temperance billiards rooms. And I was reminded that more than a decade ago I’d done a post on this blog about such a building in West London. I re-read my post and thought it was interesting enough for a repost. It’s about the former temperance billiards rooms in Fulham High Street, London, and here’s what I wrote about it in 2012:

It must have been in the 1970s, when Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse came out, that I first read and was moved by a poem by P J Kavanagh called ‘The Temperance Billiards Rooms’. In it, the poet remembers how he used to walk past the Temperance Billiards Rooms with his wife, who died tragically young. Aged just 33, the poet salutes the Billiards Rooms alone. He makes the building stand for continuity, in this moving poem about carrying on after a disaster: ‘it just goes on, as I do too I notice’. But it’s also fragile (‘something so uneconomical’s sure to come down’) and so is the grieving poet. It’s a touching poem, and Kavanagh’s description of the place, ‘in red and green and brown, with porridge-coloured stucco in between and half a child’s top for a dome…it’s like a Protestant mosque!’ has a melancholy humour.

I wonder if this is Kavanagh’s building. It’s now a pub (The Temperance), is repainted a rather sorry dark grey and is offering special deals on cocktails. There’s still a dome, still bits of stucco decoration, still stained glass in red and green, still the hall to the right which must have contained the billiard tables. If it’s not the building in the poem, it’s one very like it. Designed in 1910 by Norman Evans, it was one of several such buildings, built for Temperance Billiard Halls Ltd in northern England and the suburbs of London. Their art nouveau glass and decoration, and the chance of a game of billiards, were meant to attract punters away from the temptations of the demon drink, part of a movement that began in the middle decades of the 19th century and saw a late resurgence in 1900–1910. As late as 1908 there was a bill in Parliament to reduce the number of licenses to sell alcohol and ban the employment of women in pubs, a bill that was vigorously supported by temperance campaigners, and equally loudly decried by others, especially those, such as the Barmaids’ Political Defence League, who stood up for the barmaids who were to lose their jobs. The bill was defeated in the end, and the temperance movement declined.

This billiards hall, at any rate, is still there, although the dark paint spoils what looks it had. It’s also fiendishly difficult to photograph, hemmed in by road signs, wires, aerials, railings, and continuous traffic along the Fulham High Street. The best I could do was to include one of the most interesting vehicles that went past as I stood outside, a Mercedes Benz 280SL that takes us just about back to the 1960s, when Kavanagh wrote his poem. Like him, I’m glad the building is still there, although I cannot, like the poet, say that there are, ‘for all I know men playing billiards temperately in there’.

To which I’d add that a quick look at Google Earth shows that the building still has its dark grey exterior paintwork. Although the colour is far from ideal as a replacement for the ‘porridge’ of Kavanagh’s poem, at least the new use (yes, still a pub called the Temperance, how absurdly wonderful is that?) means the building is still there. To use Kavanagh’s language, I salute the Temperance Billiards Rooms. I salute those who restore and maintain beautiful bits of machinery like the Mercedes 280SL in my photograph. And I salute those who, like the poet, have suffered a bereavement, find themselves going on, and manage to make art in the face of their loss. I’ll drink to that.

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For more about architecture and temperance, see Andrew Davison’s essay ‘”Worthy of the Cause”: The Buildings of the Temperance Movement’ in Geoff Brandwood (ed), Living, Leisure and Law (Spire Books, 2010).

For P J Kavanagh’s account of his loss, see P J Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (1966)

The picture at the top of this post may be a little clearer if you click on it to enlarge it.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Hadleigh, Suffolk


Anyone for coffee?

One last post from the fascinating Suffolk town of Hadleigh, before I move on…

Having enjoyed seeing Hadleigh’s church, Deanery Tower, and Market Hall complex, we moved on to the High Street in search of a coffee, and found…the coffee tavern. This is a building of the 1670s and, when one pauses to look at it, it’s a stunner. It’s actually timber-framed, but plastered over so that the framework is not immediately obvious. The upper floor, with its magnificent row of original 17th-century windows, together with the dormered and overhanging roof, are typical of the period. The windows especially are outstanding, featuring arched central lights with elaborate leadwork and a carved head in the middle – high-class woodwork and design reminiscent of the more famous Sparrowe’s House in Ipswich. The cornice and series of dentil-like brackets helping to support the roof are impressive too.

The upper floor overhangs the ground floor slightly, and would originally have overhung more. However, in the 19th century a series of new ground-floor frontages were built under the overhang to create the shop fronts we see today. Did the building originally house shops? It may well have done, given its setting on the Hight Street, but today the structure is usually referred to as the Coffee Tavern. ‘Coffee tavern’ is a term usually used for places of refreshment set up in the late-19th century as part of the temperance movement. In an attempt to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed (drunkenness was said to lead to crime and violence), some groups set up temperance cafés, hotels, and billiard halls. Non-alcoholic drinks were served. All or part of the building was used for this purpose in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. One record from around 1900 describes both a coffee tavern and a printing office on the site. At some point the coffee tavern closed, but among the current occupiers are a printer and a coffee shop. The tradition goes on. We enjoyed both our coffee and the architecture.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Hadleigh, Suffolk

Clinging on

I do like an old wall. Walls around the gardens of town houses, kitchen garden walls, churchyard walls, crinkle-crankle walls in orchards. A 19th-century brick wall marks the western edge of the churchyard at Hadleigh. Pleasant enough in itself, this wall seems to have offered the chance for an interesting bit of antiquarianism – two late-medieval stone doorways and some very decayed niches from the same period are incorporated into the brickwork. My photograph shows the doorway nearest to the Deanery Tower featured in my previous post. It has a later, Gothic-style door leading to the land adjacent to the tower and its stone surround is now very worn. Above the arch, one can just about make out a row of seven carved quatrefoils. The arch itself has carefully carved mouldings.

I don’t know where this bit of medieval masonry came from. Was it part of the Deanery that William Pykenham was building when he died, of which the tower is the survivor? Was it a doorway in the nearby church that was later replaced? Did it come from some other vanished structure? Who knows? But I’m glad the 19th-century builders, so often too eager to replace rather than preserve, spared this doorway and the other architectural fragments in this wall.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Hadleigh, Suffolk


This spectacular building of 1495 overlooks the churchyard at Hadleigh, no distance at all from the Guildhall-Town Hall complex in my previous post. Where the latter is a striking timber-framed vernacular building, this gatehouse is a highly elaborate piece of architecture built by someone who wanted to assert their status. That person was William Pykenham, who held the senior ecclesiastical offices of Dean and Rector of Hadliegh and Archdeacon of Suffolk in the late-15th century. It was to be the entrance to a palatial residence which was never completed because Pakenham died shortly after the tower was built. The adjoining building is the 19th-century Deanery House.

Known as the Deanery Tower, Pykenham’s gatehouse is brick-built and the brickwork was produced with the kind of virtuoso craftsmanship that one associates with grand East Anglian buildings such as Oxburgh Hall. The lovely red brick is complemented by diaper (i.e. diamond) patterns in dark, almost black brick, running up the wall on either side of the main windows. The stand-out features of the tower are the polygonal turrets at each corner, adorned with cusped arches, quatrefoils, and very fancy battlements. There are also very showy tall chimneys with spiral brickwork in the Elizabethan style, but these are 19th-century additions. Some of the other adornments have gone – the tower is said to have borne the initials W. P. to identify its owner and carvings of fish – very likely pike – as punning symbols of the owner’s surname. All in all, although at 43 feet tall it is dwarfed by the nearby church spire, it is an outstanding architectural vanity project that wears its age well.*

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* An interesting aspect of the Deanery’s history is that a meeting held here in July 1833 led to the start of the Oxford Movement, which set the agenda for the 19th-century developments, especially in the use of ritual, that shaped the Church of England in the 19th century.