Wednesday, March 22, 2017

St John's Wood, London


‘I try the door of where I used to live’

For me, that’s one of the most haunting lines in ‘Dockery and Son’, a poem by Philip Larkin, in which the poet describes how he returns to the university where he studied* and talks to one of the tutors about a near-contemporary he hardly remembers. The poem is famous for being about Larkin’s repudiation of parenthood: the barely-remembered Dockery has a son; Larkin has no children, and prefers it that way. But it’s also about going back to a place that once meant a lot to you and is now somehow remote.

In the middle of these half-memories comes this moment: ‘I try the door of where I used to live’. It turns out to be locked, this door, but the line brings one up short: what sort of nerve has Larkin got, trying people’s doors? Well, one has to remember that this is an Oxford college he’s visiting, and such places sometimes have semi-public doors that let one into buildings, beyond which are the more private doors that lead to students’ rooms. It would be quite in order to try such an outer door.†

But perhaps the jolt that the line gives me is about more than this. It’s also, I think, about the awkwardness of going back to a once familiar place, the discomfort I at least feel when that sense of familiarity is combined with a feeling of distance. In St John’s Wood the other day, walking along a street where I lived briefly over 30 years ago (or more accurately, where I was taking advantage of a friend’s hospitality and sleeping on his floor while I found somewhere permanent), I felt a similar remoteness. It was partly the time gap, partly that this bit of London is even more the preserve of the very rich than when I lived there. Even then, the person living opposite drove a Ferrari. You’d not be walking around trying doors here. These premises are probably alarmed, and so would other passers-by be, if they saw you taking a chance with a door knob.

And in any case I couldn’t try my old door because the entire house was cordoned off: the builders were in, long-term. Instead I contented myself with looking at some of the Regency ironwork a few doors along. The Greek key pattern on the upright (1830s probably, or thereabouts) particularly appealed to me. And the memory of those high windows, that let in so much light, and up beyond them ‘the deep blue air, that shows nothing , and is nowhere, and is endless’.§

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*For Larkin, this was St John’s College, Oxford.

†The older rooms in my own college also had individual outer doors, which you closed if you didn’t want to be disturbed. It would have been forgivable, just, to try such a door, but impolite then to try the inner one. Another explanation of Larkin’s apparent chutzpah is that his visit is in the vacation and the room is likely to be unoccupied.

§Philip Larkin, ‘High Windows’. The poem ‘Dockery and Son’ first appeared in The Whitsun Weddings; ‘High Windows’ was published in the volume also called High Windows.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Village England


Then and now

I have been known to complain that buying books online is never quite the same as visiting a traditional, bricks and mortar bookshop. Online, you get what you search for – and I’m grateful that the search engines, again and again, turn up just what I’m after. In a real shop, on the other hand, you are more likely to browse and make surprise discoveries – and that can be even more interesting and enriching than getting what you expect.*

The other day, however, my expectations were confounded when I received something I’d bought online that was indeed a surprise. Having read a reference somewhere to a publication called The Observer’s Village England (1979), I looked online and found myself a secondhand copy. I expected a book to arrive, but what I got was actually a series of pull-out extracts from the Observer newspaper’s colour magazine, which had been collected together and preserved in a leatherette† binder. It amounts to a book, but the way it displays its origins makes it more interesting and pleasurable to handle.

Each section concerns a region of England, and contains a series of entries on villages and small towns, together with short pieces by various writers, mostly well known at the time, about particular places that they know well: the playwright Ann Jellicoe on Dorchester; the poet P J Kavanagh on Cirencester; the historian W G Hoskins on Uppingham; and so on. The series is subtitled ‘A guide to the best villages and small towns in the country’, and this emphasis on quality plays in its favour. It means the editors could be selective, not trying to include everything but featuring places with something special to offer, whether it was architecture, scenery, a pub, good shops with local produce, whatever. One of the pleasures is the photographs, by people like Roger Mayne§ and Alain le Garsmeur, many of which include people – either the proprietors of notable shops or people going about their rural business thatching or shoeing horses. There is an extraordinary picture of a boy riding a bicycle on the grass in front of Oakham Castle, the greensward populated with wooden chairs – apparently he was practising for an obstacle race. 

It also tells us the state of things in 1979. I’ve not yet read deeply into the collection to see exactly what has changed where, but I’m already noticing differences on my own patch of England – Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. The gorgeous thatched village of Great Tew in Oxfordshire was still dilapidated in 1979, with broken windows and holes in the thatch, even in some of the inhabited houses…just how I remember it back then. Cirencester was still a major centre for the Cotswolds and was a working town then as it is now. Stroud was not singled out as a good place to visit as it would be now. And so on.

Julia Butcher’s cover illustration (above) sums it up. If her image of Village England is idealised (immaculate white houses, cricketers, swans) it also stands for some of the things that are, as the subtitle says, ‘the best’. It’s a beautifully composed image – the reflection of the bridge, the pub, the Jolly Farmer paired with a real jolly farmer (or cow hand anyway) driving his cattle across the bridge. It’s redolent of summer (the swallows and the cricketers, even if they don’t seem to have fielded a full eleven). And it’s fill of interesting details like the windmill in the distance. Village England. I’m glad I found it.

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*I sometimes try to create architectural surprises of a similar nature on this blog.

† The sort of material used back then to encase reprints of the classics, ‘tooled’ in mock-gold. A phrase I remember from the advertising was something like, ‘Bound in luxurious red Skivertex’, stuff that must have been mass produced by the mile, to adorn, of that is the word, sets of Dickens, Russian novels, or the complete works of Shakespeare. Autre temps, autre livres. 

§ Roger Mayne was married to Ann Jellicoe and they created the Shell Guide to Devon together. There’s an exhibition of Mayne’s work currently at London’s Photographer’s Gallery.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Banbury, Oxfordshire


Still hanging on

My recent visit to Banbury threw up one further highlight in the brief interval between rain and more rain. A short-lived shaft of sunlight made me look around me – and look up since the modern shop fronts in the street in which I found myself were generally uninspiring. So up I looked, and saw this bit of history: a house built in 1650 for a mercer called Edward Vivers. In its heyday this must have been a grand building, home and place of work to a successful town trader. In the intervening 360-plus years it has been through quite a bit, and the recent shop fronts, successors to earlier but still intrusive ones no doubt, are not the least of the changes. From street level, it’s impossible to appreciate the rest of the facade unless you step well back.

Above the windows offering coffee and the conveniences of 21st-century life, the frontage is more original, but still has the air of trying to escape through the accretions of the more recent past. But one can still take in the original form: three bow windows jettied out over the street, and, above them, three gables likewise protruding. Framing them is a collection of quite elaborately carved timbers – bargeboards with finials and a wooden frieze with pendants – plus moulded wooden window mullions. Adorning the white infill sections is pargetted plasterwork in bold geometrical patterns.

All this is very much of its time, when what has been described as a sort of baroque began to spread across English vernacular architecture. The pargetting is especially interesting because the received wisdom is that this is a regional craft, found in eastern England, especially Suffolk and Essex. This is true, but not the whole truth – there are pargetted fronts dotted around all over the place. Here a prosperous owner wanted a showy front, and pargetting fitted the bill. It’s a shame that the ground floor is now singing to a different tune. Maybe one day…

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Banbury, Oxfordshire


The same, but different

Striding through Banbury in the rain after my visit to Hanwell, I made a mental notes of the buildings I’d look at more closely and photograph properly on my next visit, which will be, I hope, in drier weather. As the rain abated for a moment, though, I did stand briefly in front of the Olde Reine Deer Inn to contemplate the sign.

I remember this sign from forty years ago. Its wooden bracket was then by far the biggest I’d seen, and on my recent visit I was pleased to see it still in place. Back then I wasn’t so interested in letterforms, so I was agreeably surprised by the inscription on the arm – ‘Hook Norton Ales’ – with its chunky letters and, especially, those Arts and Craftsy interlocking and dotted Os, each one with a slight protrusion at the midpoint.

Looking at the photograph I quickly took before the rain began again, I wished I’d given more of an impression of how the sign stretches right across to the middle of the road. This sent me looking online, where I found an old postcard image, presumably from the late-19th or very early 20th century. This shows the sign in context. It also confirms the early presence of the heavy structure with its curving strut (this plain and unlettered in the old image) and the fact that the hanging sign, back then as now, was all lettering – no image of a reindeer to be seen. The lovely crowning ironwork is present, too.
Parsons Street, Banbury

There was an intermediate period, however, a few years ago, when the sign was pictorial and neither the curving strut nor the fancy ironwork above the sign were there. So the sign’s current form is a restoration. Even if the structure would work without the strut, I for one find it more aesthetically pleasing with it. And any opportunity to advertise the excellent products of the Hook Norton Brewery is, as far as I’m concerned, a bonus worth raising a glass to.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hanwell, Oxfordshire


Over the churchyard wall

Anybody who reads this blog regularly, or who has looked through some of the posts in the archive, will know that I’m a dedicated church-crawler. I visit churches often, and never seem to tire of their variety of architecture or the traces of past lives that they contain. Early on – perhaps when I first visited the church at Stanway in Gloucestershire – I realised that there was sometimes an additional bonus: in the case of Stanway, the glorious 16th and17th-century house you could see over the churchyard wall. Churches were often built next to manor houses, and sometimes the only glimpse one can get of a large house is by standing in the churchyard and looking over the wall.

In the past I’ve been agreeably surprised by such glimpses of the house at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, with its stone-built medieval kitchen, and the 18th-century one at Stockerston, Leicestershire, not exactly over the churchyard wall, but very near the church – without church-crawling, and a friend urging me on, I’d not have seen it. My most recent experience of this kind was at Hanwell, in the very north of Oxfordshire near Banbury, where, as well as admiring the expected medieval carvings around the church, I also discovered this: Hanwell Castle.

The tower, built of a mixture of brick and stone, is a fragment of a larger house built around a courtyard. Most of it has gone, but the tower remains, adjoining later, more modest buildings. The house was built in the late-15th century for Sir William Cope, who was cofferer† to the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. His son, Sir Anthony Cope, a writer and translator, completed the original building. According to the listing description, much of their house was demolished in the 18th century, and the low-rise stone buildings around it were mostly built in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

The remaining tower is a beautiful building. The two octagonal turrets recall some of the grander houses of the time, such as Oxburgh or Layer Marney. But at Hanwell part of the charm is the mix of materials. First, the brickwork. It’s in a mix of bonds, with long stretches alternating several courses of headers with several of stretchers. The turrets mix brickwork with large quoins of orangey local ironstone. Details such as windows and the crenellations are in a paler stone, presumably limestone. It’s a satisfying mix, structurally solid but also good-looking. I’m sure part of the purpose of those ironstone quoins is to offer some contrast to the brickwork (an usual material in North Oxfordshire at this date). A Tudor courtier would be proud to live in a house that looked as good as this.

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† This was an office with important domestic responsibilities in the royal household, but which also brought with it membership of the Privy Council. The holder of the title was therefore a person of political consequence.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Potterne, Wiltshire


Bargeboards and bollards

The Porch House in Potterne’s High Street is a beautiful timber-framed house of about 1480, restored in the 19th century* but with many of its original features intact, including fancy woodwork, such as some of the glorious carved bargeboards. Raised on a plinth of very solid stones, it’s a close-studded frame, meaning that it has many vertical timbers, placed close together – a sign, together with the carving, that the person who had this place built could pay for a top-class timber frame, and a well decorated one to boot.

It may have been built by the church – it was lived in by at least one bishop – and was later variously a brewery, bakehouse, pub (the White Horse), and house again. It has a lot of the features that one is taught marked out the ‘classic’ medieval manor house – a central, full-height hall (where the tall bay window is) flanked by two cross wings, which would have contained private rooms on one side and service rooms on the other. The porch, protruding from one of the cross wings, is placed unusually, and its protrusion now makes the building vulnerable to knocks and scrapes from passing traffic, hence, no doubt, the profusion of bollards, posts, and concrete curbs that seem to have sprung up in front of it.†

The saviour of the house was an artist, George Richmond, who found it in a dilapidated state, bought it, and set about restoring it with the help of the architect Ewan Christian, in the 1870s. Searches were made for missing bits – it’s said that the old front door was found on the floor of a local pigsty, with a pig reclining on it – timbers were repaired, and fragments of old stained glass were installed in some of the windows. So profuse thanks to Richmond and Christian for their good work, and to subsequent owners who have clearly looked after the house. And to those who have attempted to protect it from the dashing objects on the A360 that I had to dodge to take my photograph.

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* Some give the date as early-16th century; there were two 19th-century restorations, in 1847 and 1876.

†Some of which look as if they have been doing their job.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Malmesbury, Wiltshire


A rare flourish

As I was looking at my picture of the street sign in Louth in my previous post, it occurred to me that a while back I’d seen another good cast-iron sign, probably of similar vintage. Now where was it? Casting my mind back a couple of years I found it in a file of photographs of Malmesbury, and I instantly realised what struck me about it.

Yes. Not just the letters but the decoration – the beadwork, as it were, around the edge and the wonderful flourish at either end. That flourish is a version of the palmette motif used widely in Classical decoration, and so is a thoroughly architectural kind of decoration. Back when it was made (in the 19th century I suppose) this detail must have set the sign apart from the plainer ones in other towns. Now signs like this must be really rare.

Looking again at my pictures I was at first rather disappointed with the lettering. It seemed a bit thin and tentative after the bold Egyptian letters of Louth. Then I examined the detail (below) closely and liked what I saw much more. The letters are actually well formed and stand out clearly from the background. They’d do a better job if the sign was cleaned of its rust and repainted. Maybe that has been done by now. I must return and see.