Monday, March 25, 2024

Shaldon, Devon


Shaldon, a small settlement across the estuary from Teignmouth, was originally busier and much more important than it is now – it was a centre for ship-building, but was eclipse by Teignmouth when the Shaldon side of the river silted up. So by the 19th century, Teignmouth was increasing in size, becoming the town it is today. Meanwhile, Shaldon turned into something of a backwater, although popular as a quiet place to which people retired or visited to enjoy the sea air. This new role of Shaldon saw the building in the early-19th century of a number of houses in the. cottage orné style, often with thatched roofs and Gothic windows with ornate patterns of glazing bars.

Houses like this projected an image of a kind of idealised rural life, and were occasionally decoratively over the top. Hunter’s Lodge is an example of this trend. Visitors will be foxed by the sign giving the date of ‘c. 1650’. While there may have been a house on this site in 1650, what we see today looks like a cottage orné of around 1800. The pointed windows and doorway and the elaborate glazing with its pattern of tiny hexagonal and diamond panes, point in that direction. So too do the large quoins, which, like the similar blocks around the doorway are made of Eleanor Coade’s artificial stone, which was popular in the Regency period and lent itself to the production of multiple copies of the same three-dimensional image.

The decorative piece de résistance, however, is the horizontal band with its repeated fox heads (below), which may too be made of Coade stone. I have to say, these fox faces inspired whoops of joy when the Resident Wise Woman and I first spotted them laid out in a row like more traditional architectural ornamental patterns, from Greek keys to medieval ‘stiff leaf’. Whatever you think about fox-hunting — and the views on this subject are diverse – how can one not find these foxes charming?

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*For more about Coade stone, see an earlier post from this blog, here.

Stroud, Gloucestershire


Place and taste

I was recently reading Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst, about the beautiful castle in Kent restored and lived in by his grandparents, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Adam Nicolson is the third generation of his family to live there and its garden, also the creation of Vita and Harold, is world-famous. In the book, I found this very apposite observation about places: ’It is an article of faith with me that a place consists of everything that has happened there; it is a reservoir of memories, and understanding those memories is not a trap but a liberation, a menu of possibilities’.

This is very much how I think about buildings and its truth was exemplified when I saw this ghost sign in Stroud. Actually, it was the Resident Wise Woman who spotted it first, and I expressed surprise that, having been to Stroud dozens (at least) of times, I’d not noticed it before. ‘Pritchard’s delicious home-made what?’ we wondered, fancying that we could make out a hint of the first letter of the missing bottom line – could that be part of an ’S’, and could the answer be ‘Sausages’?

It does indeed seem to be the case that this was the premises of Walter Pritchard, butcher, and his two sons, Arthur and Jack, and that the family opened their business here in 1928, the sons carrying on into the 1960s. The shop front, with its elegant turquoise and cream tiles (a tiny bit of it is visible on the right-hand edge of my picture because the window extends around this side wall of the building), could well have been made for them – butchers often favoured attractive ‘hygienic’ tiles that could be wiped down with ease, though this one does not feature the animal tiles that some butchers went for.

For me, the shop has a more recent memory – it was until a few years ago a second hand bookshop, which always had a large selection of books on film and architecture. Quite a few volumes on my shelves came from here. So if some older residents think of it as ‘the old butcher’s’ and remember its sausages (for foods too are at their best local and distinctive), I remember it as a source of books about architecture. No doubt for some it has yet other associations, accruing to form the reservoir of memories that Adam Nicolson mentions.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Coventry, Warwickshire


It has become almost second nature to me to seek out the atypical buildings in places that I visit – to look for Victorian architecture in Regency Cheltenham, to find Art Deco in Georgian Bath, to keep my eyes open for the unexpected, not just the Shakespearian, in Stratford-upon-Avon. In Coventry, of course, there’s plenty to look at from the post-World War II rebuilding. But the place also has some buildings that survived the Blitz – medieval town gates, Georgian houses, and this, the former Gaumont-Palace, from the golden age of cinema.

It was opened in 1931 and its facade is very much of its time, with its moderne straight lines and a colour scheme combining off-white and eau de nil. Towards the top, there are four capital-like flourishes that bracket what look like stylized palm or lotus leaves with a pair of scrolls. This kind of detail is from the vocabulary of Egypt-influenced ornament that became ultra-fashionable in the late-1920s after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the craze for all things ancient Egyptian. Cinemas, where glamorous decoration was just the ticket, were prime sites for this sort of adornment.

The Gaumont-Palace began as a cine-variety venue. This would offer a combination of filmic and live entertainment. An evening programme of a main feature film, a second feature or B movie, and perhaps a newsreel, would be complemented by a sequence of live acts – the comedians, singers, magicians and the like that were the mainstays of the 20th-century theatrical grab-bag known as ‘variety’. Audiences would get a long and varied night out in glamorous surroundings, for a couple of shillings a head.

Like so many buildings in Coventry, the cinema was damaged during the massive air-raid of November 1940 and there was more damage in another attack the following year. But the building survived and was repaired, and continued to screen films after the war. With further modifications (including the fitting of multiple screens), it carried on as a cinema until the end of the 1990s, being converted in 2000 for the media and performing arts students of Coventry University. It is now named after that great woman of the theatre, Ellen Terry, who was born in Coventry.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024


Over the moat

This is house is another recent discovery for me in a city I thought I knew. It’s called The Fosse, ‘fosse’, meaning ditch, because it was built near the moat of Hereford Castle, itself now long gone. From the outside, at least, it’s a stunning house of 1825, attributed to the architect Sir Robert Smirke. Smirke is best known as a neoclassicist, but he was highly versatile, just as happy with Gothic or Tudor revival, and apparently comfortable whether designing a grand house or a railway station, a prison or the British Museum.

The Fosse has elements of Jacobean (the chimney stacks, the parapet with its circles, the ogee roof to the little tower). The entrance arch has a Roman feel to it. The fancy glazing bars and the conservatory are very much of their time – as, taken as a whole, is the entire mixture. There’s a lot going on architecturally, then, but the building hangs together visually, and that’s what drew me to it and drew my admiration.

Researching the house in reference books and online I came across a rather sad story about a woman who lived there, Eunice Parker, and her love for a young man called Lawrence (Larry) Wilmot, who went off to fight in World War I. He returned, but traumatized by his experience of the war – he was gassed and lost three brothers in the conflict. Apparently he was unable to marry; Eunice did not marry either and lived what must have been a sad life in The Fosse, dying in 1979. War leaves a long shadow.

Saturday, March 2, 2024


Aid for the industrious

Wondering along an unfamiliar street in Hereford, I came across this arch, looking like a Jacobean relic stranded in the modern city. A little research soon revealed that it’s neither Jacobean nor stranded. It’s actually Victorian – the Victorians revived virtually every earlier British style of architecture, Jacobean included and they knew that the flattened arch, scrolls, finials, curvaceous gable and pediment would evoke the kind of architecture popular on grand country houses and other buildings from around the year 1600.

The arch makes a grand entrance to a cemetery, and its grandeur is to commemorate a once-famous Hereford man, whose charitable works helped the city’s poor. Rev. John Venn was vicar of a parish in an impoverished part of the city. Working with his sister Emelia, he founded the Society for Aiding the Industrious. Among the Venns’ and the Society’s projects were a soup kitchen to feed the hungry, a dispensary, and allotments enabling people to grow their own food. They founded a school and a children’s home, and their initiatives to provide employment included a corn mill and a model farm.

The arch harks back to a time – the Tudor and Jacobean periods – which the Victorians saw as a period of British greatness. It was the era when British explorers laid the foundation of the empire that brought the Victorians much of their wealth. So much the better that they recognised the work of a couple who focused on helping those who accrued no wealth or power from the empire, bringing education, nourishment, useful work, and better living conditions to people who needed them most.