Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Backward glance (1): Beyond the perimeter fence
In this post last year I looked at an aircraft hangar at Hullavington and mused on my boyhood interest in airfields.
As a small boy I was fascinated by airfields. Airfields (not airports, which in the 1950s and 1960s were for the rich to travel from, and therefore out of bounds) were quiet, empty places, mostly, and oddly spacious in a countryside that, even then, was quite intensively farmed. I longed to see aeroplanes taking off and landing, but hardly ever seemed to be there at the right moment. So I had to be content with the purposeful impedimenta of the airfield, most of it unfamiliar to me but not too difficult to understand from its names alone. There was a perimeter fence (chain-link), a control tower (concrete), runways (ditto), grey parked vehicles (various), and a windsock (brightly coloured). For much of the time the windsock seemed to be the most animated thing around. Also occasionally on the move was a long grey low-slung truck, a low-loader in fact, sometimes spotted on neighbouring roads, apparently for moving bits of aircraft around.
And then there were hangars,† long and low, hugging the ground. Some even tried to blend into the ground with their grass-covered roofs. They had broad, sliding doors but these were usually closed and anyway were too distant for me to have seen what was inside. Still, when I see hangars, I’m fascinated by their tantalizing doors and their functional, often ground-hugging form. I’m still very ignorant of their history and complex typology – I see from a Ministry of Defence website that there are at least 56 different types in use in Britain alone, ranging from temporary portable structures to vast warehouse-like sheds that can take airliners or transport aircraft.
This one is a Type E hangar at RAF Hullavington in Wiltshire. Its design was introduced in 1937 – no doubt lots of hangars were being built around this time – and has a curving steel frame supporting a concrete shell roof, covered by the all-important camouflaging grass. It’s huge, and very functional, but also rather elegant, and from a distance it blends into its surroundings so that it seems hardly there at all. Whenever I pass by the door still seems to be closed.
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Looking back at this post, I'm struck by the many different reasons I might have found, even then, to be interested in places like this. Back in c. 1960, World War II was still recent history – it was usually referred to, without ambiguity, as 'the war', reruns of not-so-old war films appeared very often on TV, and war themes loomed large in playground games and parental memories alike. The first airfields I saw, in Lincolnshire, had played a key part in that war, and looking at them, even from the wrong side of the perimeter fence, gave me an insight into this history.
I was also learning about the differences between places. The open spaces and distinctive buildings of airfields, so different from the small garden and tiny interiors of my childhood home, provided a dramatic demonstration of just how varied places could be – in the quality of their architecture, their use, their atmosphere, their sense of space. If this seems obvious, it's worth remembering the shock of the different that a five-year-old child, who'd not travelled very much, must have experienced. The fascination of what 's different, and local, and distinctive, has been holding my attention ever since.
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† Hangar: not a self-explanatory word. Were there lightweight, World War I biplanes hanging up in there? I wondered. No, hangar’s etymology is far from certain, according to the OED, but comes from French (and probably also Germanic) words meaning shelter. Our hamlet has the same roots. The dictionary’s first example comes from Thackeray’s Henry Esmond and has nothing to do with aircraft at all: ‘Mademoiselle, may we take your coach to town? I saw it in the hangar.'
Sunday, May 19, 2013
To the South Country, and then east...
The collection of late Gothic windows along the south aisle of St George's, Brede, proclaims this part of the church to date to the 15th century, though the rest of the building is earlier. It seemed to me to be typical not only of its period but also of its place – the combination of grey stone walls and rich red tiled roof is redolent of Sussex. This happy marriage of building and setting is enhanced further by the fact that the church, set just off the main village street, overlooks a beautiful, broad valley, with views far into the distance. Having this place revealed to me – and by a friend who knows this part of the South Country well – was a great pleasure.
I wanted to share this picture, with its associations of both architecture and place, because it sums up one of my main preoccupations. And a summing-up is appropriate because I want to signal a change, temporary I hope, in my postings. Regular readers will have noticed allusions in my posts to the Resident Wise Woman, who sometimes accompanies me on my trips of exploration, frequently shares her knowledge of history with me, and sometimes comments from the sidelines during her periods of non-residence – for her work, and indeed her predilections, regularly take her far away from the territory of English Buildings to the heart of the European mainland.
It was on one of these trips recently that she was taken seriously ill. After an emergency operation and a stay in hospital, she is now steadily recovering in our half-restored farmhouse in the Czech Republic, and I am there helping her to get better and waiting on her hand and foot. With few new English buildings to share, and precious little time to write about them, I plan to reprise a few of my favourite earlier posts. I expect I will find it difficult to refrain from making additional comments on these recycled posts, but if these comments are sparse, or if my online appearances are less regular than usual, you know the reason. Here's to good health.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
In the shadows, in the sun
Unassuming, isn't it? This utilitarian building, part of a very large industrial complex near the harbour in Lydney, is now at least partly empty. Walking past it on my way to look at the front of Naas House, something struck me about the way it is built, and I wanted to know more about it: above the plywood doors, those concrete walls, the imprint of their shuttering visible on the surface, seem like something out of the 1960s. Industrial Brutalism? They turn out to be earlier, an example of the ways in which the industrial and military architecture of World War II, simply by being utilitarian and hastily built, seems to anticipate what became high fashion later.
This building (I think: I've not found much information about it) is part of a factory, the Pine End Works, built in 1940 to make plywood for the fuselages of the Mosquito aircraft and for the Horsa gliders that were used in the D-Day landings. It was one of a host of factories built around the country, in places off the regular routes of the Luftwaffe bombers, to produce military aircraft (and later other hardware required during the war). These were facilities called "shadow factories" and they were built both to increase production and to guard against problems caused by the loss of existing facilities that might more easily be bombed. The staff, many of whom were women, were ordered to keep secret what they were producing and the outfit running this one, to maintain secrecy, was called simply and enigmatically Factories Direction Limited.
The works was well sited to receive the large quantities of timber required, which came up the Severn from the Bristol port of Avonmouth – Lydney's harbour and canal are nearby. After the war the factory continued to produce plywood, but as far as I know has been empty for a while. It's bleak and unregarded now, but I'd like to think that with some care and attention, the vast spaces inside could again hum with the activity of people making things. Meanwhile, there it stands, to remind us that the least elegant of structures can have an interesting history.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt, Old House Eco Handbook (Frances Lincoln)
A while back, Marianne Suhr (who will be familiar to many British readers from BBC's series Restoration) and Roger Hunt co-wrote Old House Handbook, an excellent guide to maintaining and caring for old houses, from medieval to Edwardian. Now they've followed this up with a new volume, Old House Eco Handbook, which addresses the issue of caring for old houses while also making them sustainable. Like its predecessor, the new book is produced in association with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB).
The book looks at many ways in which to make all kinds of old houses more energy efficient. As well as chapters on general principles and approaches, there are specific sections on roofs and ceilings, windows and doors, walls, floors, paints, and energy and water. The authors start from principles laid down by SPAB, and point out that often these are likely to be "green" anyway – for example, SPAB encourages owners to repair rather than replace, and repairing is likely to use fewer natural resources than wholesale replacement. The authors stress the value of a holistic approach, balancing the benefits of energy-efficient technology with the impact on aesthetics. They embrace reuse and recycling too, while also warning readers to treat architectural salvage with appropriate caution by verifying the provenance of salvaged items.
Old House Eco Handbook is full of useful advice – about using lime, about waste reduction, about selecting types of paint, about minimizing water usage, and so on and on. It contains a lot of information on materials that will be new to many readers – anyone for reed board or insulating lime plasters? It is replete with warnings about approaches that might work on modern houses but are far from ideal in older ones. Again and again, the authors point out that the standard modern approaches to keeping a house warm by hermetically sealing it from the elements simply don't work on older buildings, which have to "breathe" so that moisture is allowed to escape through the fabric of the walls, rather than being trapped inside them.
The books is pragmatic, though. The authors realise that the kind of insulation that works for an old house might not be as efficient as a more modern material. But they show ways of making some improvement in energy efficiency, without compromising the needs of aesthetics or conservation. Their practical solutions have been arrived at through hands-on experience too. And if you don't feel confident to do the jobs they describe for yourself, it still makes sense to get hold of this book so that you can understand the options and talk to contractors and craftworkers from an informed standpoint. Old House Eco Handbook is attractive, absorbing, and packed with information. I'm still learning from it.
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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Encouraged by the lengthening evenings and a really warm, sunny day, I head off for a short walk before sundown. I remember a similar walk some years ago, when the Resident Wise Woman pointed us in the direction of some earthworks that are all that remain of the medieval village of Pinnock, high in the Cotswold sheep country. Leaving the car at a wide place in the road, I walk along the tarmac until I come to a gap in the hedge and find this sunken lane leading downhill towards the earthworks. Here in the country, it's noisy, as usual, but the noises are appropriately rural: larks singing as they rise from a nearby field; the occasional pheasant erupting with a noise of flapping wings and clanking call; the ceaseless baaing of sheep and lambs.
Sunken tracks like this are not unusual. One theory of their formation is that they mark the ancient edge of two landholdings, and that each landowner marked the boundary by an earth bank. Digging the earth to make the banks left a dip in the middle which formed an access track, and, as rainwater flowed down the slope, more soil eroded away and the track became still deeper. Hedges and trees on either side grow until they almost cover the path. Their roots and the stony ground make the way uneven and hard on the feet.
As I come to the lumps and bumps that mark the site of the deserted village I realise that, of course, the light is quite wrong to photograph them. To catch their shadows in the grass I need to point my lens right into the low evening sun. The whole site would naturally be clearer if I could get above it in an aircraft. So as the light begins to fail, I climb back up the sunken lane, thankful at least for the rural tranquility and the glimpse of this atmospheric and ancient route between the trees.
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Just after writing this, I discovered that Robert Macfarlane, superlative chronicler and analyst of all things to do with places and our routes into and through and across them, is about to publish Holloway, about his journeys along sunken lanes in Dorset with late and great Roger Deakin and Macfarlane's subsequent visits to the same places after Deakin's death. I'm sure that Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household's novel in which the hero hides in a Dorset holloway, will loom large in Macfarlane's book. It was also on my mind as I made my own walk, as was another, less well known, novel by Household, Watcher in the Shadows, which comes to its compelling climax in Gloucestershire, a few miles from where I was walking.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
I'm always telling people to look up, but this time the opposite advice is the order of the day...
While photographing some sash windows in Wantage, I catch the eye of an elderly gentleman. 'Interested in photography, are you? There's a camera club here.' I politely explain that I'm not local and anyway, my interest is more architectural than photographic. 'Ah. In that case, you should take a look at the almshouses over there.'
And I'm directed to the Stiles Almshouses: solid, brick, unpretentious, and with a weathered stone plaque telling me that they were built by an Amsterdam merchant,† of all people, in 1680, which makes them the earliest datable brick building in this admirably brickish town. I thank my companion, but he encourages me to look further, to push open the door, and cast my eyes down. And what I see takes my breath away: a floor made partly of sheep's knucklebones, a serviceable if knobbly substitute for stone cobbles no doubt contemporary with the rest of the building.
A similar floor was found last year by archaeologists excavating the site of the Curtain, the London theatre that hosted Shakespeare's company before they decamped to the more famous Globe. In those days they knew how to knuckle down and cobble together a hard-wearing floor.
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*Wantage is now in Oxfordshire, but I use the traditional English counties because they reflect the usage in Pevsner's invaluable Buildings of England books – and because I like them.
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†There's more about the founder of the Almshouses and the plaque above the door in the Comments section – click on the word COMMENTS below.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Talk about purposeful. If ever there was one, this is a building that knows what it's about. Blue bricks as hard and solid as when they were laid in the 19th century. Pointed windows and doorways with arches so slightly curved as to be almost straight – no messing about with the Gothic revival here. Quoins and dressings in a pale brick that looks as hard and forbidding as the blue. Drain pipes rising right next to the front door. Solid little crenellations around the flanking wall. Iron-studded front door that looks as if it would take a battering.
All of this makes it unsurprising that this embodiment of solidity and security is a police station. Oddly enough the name stone above the doorway has some slightly ornamental touches – mixed in with some very plain letters (E and I) are a couple of rather fancy ones (A and O). One can almost see the carver starting to give way to ornament before relenting and signing off with a very plain N and the usual Victorian full point. Soft? Not on your life.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
'Oh ye whales…
…and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him for ever.' The words of the Benedicite (and also those of the Te Deum) are inscribed around the walls of the south transept of St Mary's church, Buckland, forming a key element in a striking decorative scheme. The transept was redecorated in the early 1890s with a stunning mixture of mosaic and opus sectile work (the latter a technique of building up designs or pictures using larger pieces of inlay that the tiny tesserae employed for mosaic). The scheme was paid for by William West of nearby Barcote Manor as a memorial to his wife. The decorations were designed by Henry Holliday, a painter, designer, socialist, women's suffragist, and associate of the Pre-Raphaelites who continued to work in the Pre-Raphaelite vein well after the heyday of the movement.
High up on the walls are mosaics of saints beneath ornate canopies, but at least as eye catching are these diamond-shaped panels illustrating those beings and phenomena – the lightning and clouds, the fowls of the air, the beasts and cattle, and, of course, the whales, that are exhorted to praise and magnify the Lord. Each small picture combines pale stone laid out in opus sectile with glittering mosaic used for the sky. The earth and its creatures are lovingly and carefully delineated, and the heavens are filled in in dazzling gold.
*Buckland is now in Oxfordshire, but I use the traditional English counties because they reflect the usage in Pevsner's invaluable Buildings of England books – and because I like them.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Fit for purpose
I'm continuously humbled and astounded by the beauties to be found in English churches, especially those that are off the tourist trail and off the radar of all but the most assiduous and specialised art historians. Buckland, in the marshy area not far from Faringdon, is a case in point. You could spend a day or more in this building, which has evolved steadily over the centuries and incorporates the work of artists and craftworkers from every period from Norman to Victorian, and still not see everything. For now, I'll limit myself to a couple of details from either end of this vast historical span.
The first you see before you even get properly inside the building. This door dates to the 12th century, making its simple ironwork among the earliest one is likely to find. The metal has been cut quite crudely, but the broad horizontals, the great rounded forms, and the more tightly circling scrolls with which they terminate have been made with a certainty of purpose that no doubt made them as easy to admire in the Middle Ages as they are today. This ironwork has been fulfilling that purpose – multiple purposes rather, to provide hinges, to bind together and reinforce the timbers of the door, and to decorate its surface – for some 800 years. Standing near the beginning of a long craft tradition, it deserves to be far better known than it is.
*Buckland is now in Oxfordshire, but I use the traditional English counties because they reflect the usage in Pevsner's invaluable Buildings of England books – and because I like them.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Embroidery in brick
Although famous for its stone-built colleges and churches, Oxford in the 19th century became a city of brick. Vast brick-built houses – some Gothic, some "Queen Anne" – fill the grander streets of North Oxford. Smaller brick terraces line the streets off the Cowley and Iffley roads in East Oxford. And out beyond the station is a further group of small streets near the river in the area known as Osney. Some of these are built of brick in more than one colour, and here the builder has addressed the issue of what to do with the blank wall at the end of a terrace in a refreshing way.
The effect recalls one of those fabric samplers that young women used to use to demonstrate their embroidery skills. Unlike the multi-coloured samplers, though, the "stitches" are in only two colours, in rows of patterning that continue the strips of red and buff on the fronts of the houses. It's effective, even if the positions of each strip have more architectural relevance on the fronts, where the patterned bands relate to such structural details as the tops and bottoms of windows. The numbers of the date, which start off confidently, run out of steam when it comes to the final 5. But full marks for trying, and for enlivening an unregarded corner with a bold bit of folk art.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
I'm not sure if I'm right, but I associate these large brass shop signs particularly with chemists' premises. They were an elegant fashion of the 19th century, and the curving line of the sign catches the light well. No doubt the resulting glitter reflected that of the various medicine jars that were once displayed in the shop window. The use of brass perhaps also embodies the pharmacist's association with the medical profession. Doctors, after all, traditionally identified their surgeries with a brass name plate (the French talk about a doctor "putting up his plate" when a new practice is established). Whether or not this is the case, brass signs like this are certainly eye-catching, and I was pleased to find this one surviving on a shop long since given over to the purveying of cheese, coffee, charcuterie, and "fine wines".
The letters are cousins of the sans-serif or "grotesque" capitals I noticed here, although they take an outline form and are maybe rather thin and spindly. Their details owe more to the metalworker than the sign-painter or stone-carver. But looked at from a distance, the outline form of the letters makes a clear and stylish impact. Examined more closely, they show the irregular impressions made by the metalworker's tools, as if the letters did not get the way they are without a lot of hard work. This is mark-making with a difference, and the result sets up a lovely counterpoint between the straight lines of the letters and the irregular strokes within those straight lines, between roughness and, what we first notice when the sign catches our eye, sheer polish.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Still here, for now
When it comes to the way I look at buildings, context is everything. Swinbrook is an Oxfordshire village known as the home of the Mitford sisters and famous among church-crawlers for some striking monuments inside the parish church. But before we get inside the church, the place itself. The "brook" in the name is a key clue. This is a place its in a valley that is often flooded and the village is dominated by water. A stream flows through the centre, following the line of one of the roads; a street meets the stream at a ford; one is never far from the sound of trickling water. When I pass within a mile of the village on the A40 near Burford, I always glance down into its valley to see if the fields are flooded.
Swinbrook is also a place of stone, the oolitic limestone of the Cotswolds. There are stone farms, stone barns, a stone pub. People here live in stone houses and when they die, they are buried beneath stone monuments.
Some of the most vigorous stone-carving from the late-17th and 18th centuries is found on these monuments, the chest tombs in this and other churchyards on and near the Cotswolds. These box-like tombs sit above the grave (the deceased is buried in the ground beneath, not in the stone structure itself) and provide five surfaces for the carver to work on. In this area, the chest is often topped with a half-cylindrical upper section. These curved tops have reminded some of bales of wool, and these structures are often known as bale tombs.
The bale tombs in Swinbrook churchyard reveal the work of carvers quite at home with the classical language of mouldings and frames and – as far as one can see, as the inscriptions are very worn now – with classical lettering too. And in and among these classical details are deeply carved cherubs, foliage, scrolls, and skulls. The bales that top the tombs, some incised with a few elegant bands, some carved deeply with spiral ridges, enhance the effect. It's lively work – if that's not a contradiction when talking about tombs, some of which portray symbols of death such as skulls – and one can sense a happy combination of Cotswold stone, artistic talent that can combine classical norms with individualistic details, and local families keen to remember their dead in this striking way.
One reason why these tombs are so moving is because they are no longer in perfect condition. The details are getting blurred, the corners softened, the lettering is hard to make out, and some of the tombs are subsiding into the ground. One feels privileged to see them, their carving rendered all the more effective when the early evening sunlight warms the stone and throws the work of the sculptor into deep relief, in the same way that one is relieved to find that Venice has not yet slipped into the lagoon.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I don't know anything about this relief. Positioned high on the wall of a cinema in a side street in Oxford, it may be by Newbury Trent, who did many carvings for cinemas. Its subject is a cousin of the curvaceous and silvery woman who adorn a former cinema in Cheltenham and who were the subject of one of my previous posts (that Cheltenham building is still empty and yet more unkempt since I posted it back in 2008).
It's not the greatest piece of carving. The hands, elegant as they are, don't quite work for me, and, if you will pardon the expression, the breasts don't repay close examination. But I like her face, which seems to me to be sensitively carved, and the way the film snakes its way around the figure, part frame, part secular halo. The simplified tripartite wave of her hair is perhaps a signal that we should take the whole carving as designed to be looked at from some distance without the assistance of there zoom lens I used to take the photograph.
The relief a relic of a time, the 1930s I suppose, when cinema was the epitome of glamour and modernity and when old established arts like sculpture could be brought to its service. Cinemas of the 1930s – along with contemporary factories and other buildings – were often decorated with this kind of carving. Such decoration forms a reaction to the minimalist modernism of buildings in the tradition of Le Corbusier – and ultimately of the Central European architect Adolf Loos† who declared that ornament is crime – and shows how buildings can be modern and ornamented at the same time. And if buildings connected with the arts cannot be a bit showy, what can?
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† Loos was born in Brno, another of those with Czech origins (think Freud, Mahler, Rilke) subsumed into the all-embracing Austro-Hungarian culture.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Cat on a Doric roof
Writing about the Dying Gladiator in Brigg in a recent post has alerted me to three dimensional inn signs, a phenomenon I've noticed in this blog before. The White Lion at Upton is another inn with a three-dimensional sign, still more striking – although less remarkable in subject matter – than the Dying Gladiator. The White Lion's building goes back to 1510 and the inn now has a classical frontage on Upton's main street. It was the hostelry of choice for Prince Rupert and his followers towards the end of the English Civil War and, while the Royalists were enjoying the inn's hospitality (or sleeping it off) a small group of Parliamentarians occupied the local church, held out until they were reinforced, and sent the Royalists packing to Worcester, where they were defeated by Cromwell a week later, bringing the war to an end.
Among later guests at the White Lion was the novelist Henry Fielding, who has the eponymous hero of his novel Tom Jones put up at the inn. I don't know if the lion above the doorway had been installed by this point. Probably not, as it looks of a piece with the late Georgian or Regency-looking facade, so perhaps the creature has been there, looking down from the top of the inn's Doric porch, his gilded mane catching the sunlight, for just over 200 years.
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There is more about the White Lion here.
For more 3D inn signs, see my posts on the Swan Hotel in Wells and the White Hart at Hingham.