Monday, April 15, 2024

Totnes, Devon

Continuity and change

‘How old is that building?’ people ask. And the answer is often: ‘Various ages.’ Most buildings get altered over the years, as fashions, needs and uses change. So while one might be able to say that a structure was first built in a particular period, what we can actually see today is the result of many stages of alteration and renewal. Here are two neighbouring examples in the High Street at Totnes.

The building on the left with its black and white decoration bears a date, 1585, which no doubt marks its original construction. The N.B. whose initials also appear on the front was Nicholas Ball, a merchant, who was mayor of Totnes in 1585. Ball’s house rests on four stone columns at ground floor level. Originally these columns fronted an open loggia, with doors and windows set back – open colonnades are a feature of a number of buildings in this town. However, the open arches on this building were filled in with sash windows in the 19th century, when the door was also moved forward – although the wooden door itself, barely visible in the shadows in my photograph, is actually the original 16th-century one. Above the shallow arches of the ground floor are two further floors that were altered in the 18th century, when large sash windows fitted on both floors. The front was also heightened, probably at the time the upper windows were installed, as can be seen by the way the black uprights at either end stop far short of the cornice. So the building is a typical English mixture, showing alterations from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and is no worse for that.

Something similar can be said for the house on the right. This has an attractive pair of Georgian windows – a curvaceous bow window on the middle floor and a simple sash window on the top floor. The ground floor has what looks like a 20th-century shop window, although the black pilasters at either end and the panelled door to the left may well be older. The other striking thing about this front is that, in spite of the Georgian windows and quoins running up the sides, it’s jettied – in other words the upper floor sticks out. Jetties were a long-standing fashion from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century, and jettied buildings are timber-framed. So beneath the later plasterwork and fenestration is a wooden framework and a structure much older than it appears to the casual glance.

Thus do buildings trip us up when we make assumptions about their date, but also give us clues.

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