Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire


England and New England

Farmington’s lovely octagonal stone bus shelter, featured in my previous post, has a still more elaborate counterpart on the village green: the pump house. This is another eight-sided structure with a complex tiled roof topped with a little lantern feature with an ogee cupola. This architectural jeu d’esprit was built as a memorial to Edmund Waller, the lord of the manor, who died in 1898. The roof was originally thatched, but the thatch – presumably in need of replacement by the mid-1930s – was replaced with Cotswold stone tiles in 1935. This work was paid for by the people of Farmington Connecticut, to commemorate their state’s 300th birthday.

The Cotswold stone tiles look just as good as thatch on the roof, and are perfectly in keeping with the architecture of the village, making the pump house a double memorial, to Waller and to the links between England and North America. The reroofing was a generous gesture by the people of the American Farmington, and as the leaves turn yellow and orange, this English scene might well remind us of the autumnal colours of New England. Local distinctiveness can also have a global dimension.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire


Distinctive

I think I have mentioned before in a blog post that I once went to a talk by Sue Clifford, one of the authors of the excellent book England in Particular. She illustrated the concept of local distinctiveness with a series of photographs of bus shelters built of different, local materials – it might have been cob and thatch in Dorset, brick and tile in Sussex, limestone in the Cotswolds, that sort of thing. It was a good way of making the point because it showed how even the most modest building could be distinctive and could exemplify local geology and local cultural traditions.

There are, indeed, plenty of limestone bus shelters in Gloucestershire, with walls and roofs of Cotswold stone. But there are few as memorable as this one, a perfect octagon with a neat gable over the entrance in Farmington, a village just off the A40 between Cheltenham and Oxford. Making a building octagonal requires special effort, of course, in both walls and roof. The builders who took this challenge on did so in 1951, to create a small building to mark the Festival of Britain.

This bus shelter must have been very well used in the 1950s and 1960s, when rates of car ownership were still quite low. Today, most households here probably have at least one car and there are few local buses – all I could find after a quick look online were buses serving local schools during term time. But there’s still shelter here for anyone who needs it, and an attractive bit of Cotswold architecture for anyone passing, in car, by bus, or on foot, to admire.

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Stand by for another post on a nearby octagonal building.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire


The Tenbury oval

When I began this blog some ten years ago, the very first building I featured was the extraordinary spa at Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire. When I chose it to start me off, I had some inkling that it provided the kind of qualities – architectural originality and quirkiness, strong colour, striking form, unusual materials, and the fact of being little known – that might be ones I’d be celebrating often in the posts to come, and so it has proved. I had another inkling, that at some point I should return to Tenbury Wells and share another of the town’s remarkable buildings, the Market House, also known as the Round Market, which shares several of these qualities.

So here it is. As with the spa building, it’s quite unlike what we’d expect. Victorian market halls, it’s true, do sometimes use striking brickwork to help them stand out. But you’d have to go a long way to find another quite like this, a ‘round market’ that’s actually oval in shape, with walls of a mix of red and blue brickwork, and a roof, set on brackets, that slopes up to a ventilation feature at the top. It’s a building, what’s more, that uses a delicate form of Decorated Gothic in its window tracery, which combines trefoils, quatrefoils, cusps and arches within a series of rectangular frames.

This original design of 1858 was the work of James Cranston, who was also (surprise, surprise) the architect of the spa building. He seems to have been a Birmingham man who did a lot of work in Worcestershire and Herefordshire (including the usual Victorian architect’s staple diet of schools and church restorations).* In Tenbury, he was given a chance to shine, and took that chance with considerable flair. The town got a building that still, nearly 160 years after it was built, is being used for buying and selling: a good record in these times of out-of-town and online retailing and a tribute to those who have kept it going and to its original architect, unsung but well worth celebrating. 

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*If he’s the architect I think he is, he had a son of the same name who played cricket for Gloucestershire under W G Grace and once made it into the England team to play against Australia.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tixover, Rutland


A church, a meal, a view

Shared experiences, and the common frames of reference that they create, are among the boons of friendship. Sharing particular memories – of an event that happened long ago, a book, a piece of music, a place – with someone else strengthens social bonds and makes vivid recollections brighter still. There are times when the merest allusion can click the connection firmly in place. Mentioning to the right person one surname from childhood, a single line from a book, a specific image from a description, can do it.

Something like this happened chez my friend Mr A the other day. ‘Where haven’t you been, round here?’ he asked, wondering what what architectural delights, in his neck of the woods, he could introduce me to. I replied: ‘You know that bit in The Shell Guide of Rutland where the author, W G Hoskins, says that the churchyard at Tixover is a good place for a doze? Well, I’ve not been there.’* Mr A is the only person I know who would respond to this allusion with instant recognition and approval, so off we went to Uppingham, to buy food, including an excellent pork pie from Culpin and Son,† and made our way through the October sunshine to Tixover.

It is obviously one of those villages that relocated centuries ago, leaving the church isolated and the few houses along a lane a few fields away. So when you arrive in the village you pick up the key to the church from a farmhouse and drive on, through a farmyard, along a track, and across a field. You come to a halt in front of a small church with a squat Norman tower and a nave and aisles with rectangular, Tudor-looking windows.‡ There’s no noise apart from a distant mechanical whine¶ that could be an aeroplane but may also be some sort of farm machinery; other than that nothing, apart from an intermittent, faint tapping coming from one of the trees, as if of a woodpecker who couldn’t be bothered to peck really hard. The ideal setting for an alfresco meal of pork pie, samosas, and ginger beer in the churchyard.

Inside the church we enjoy medieval carved capitals of various dates, a Jacobean monument, and the pattern of quatrefoil windows projected by sunlight on to the walls. And some interesting 17th-century stained glass panels, which we admire and scratch our heads over – they look imported from elsewhere.§ Then the bonus – a view of the church from the other side of the River Welland. This view involves another trip across a field, this time on foot – to appreciate its setting among farmland, trees, tussocky grass, and water. It was all even better than I’d imagined from Hoskins’ description in the old Shell Guide that had set us on our way.

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*If it seems to you eccentric of two grown men to be reading an old guidebook to England’s smallest county, think again. The Shell Guide to Rutland, being by the great landscape historian W G Hoskins is very well informed and well written. Rutland has changed less than most English counties in the last 50 years too, so the traveller can still learn much from this guidebook’s account of the place and its descriptions of its towns and villages.

†This butcher does produce seriously good pork pies. As someone born in Lincolnshire, a county that prides itself on its pork products (especially its outstanding sausages), I know what I am talking about.

‡ There’s a debate about these domestic-looking windows. They could be Tudor or Jacobean; they’re unlikely to be 13th-century, which was the date proposed by the antiquary Thomas Rickman.

¶ It’s rarely perfectly quiet in the English countryside. There’s usually someone not far away driving a tractor, using a chainsaw, or shooting pheasants: people at work, and a good thing too.

§ Pevsner says nothing about them.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hastings, East Sussex


Phoenix

I was delighted to learn last night* that the Royal Institute of British Architects has awarded its annual Stirling Prize for Britain’s best new bulding to Hastings Pier. Going back to 1872, the pier was a popular entertainment venue, but closed in 2008 after storm damage. In 2010 there was a fire, which nearly finished the pier off for good.† But the people of Hastings and its council rose to the considerable challenge of restoring and rebuilding the structure, raising money locally, enlisting the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and finding 3,000 shareholders to buy a stake in the project at £100 a share.

A RIBA design competition was won by dRMM Architects, who have masterminded the restoration and creative reimagining of the pier. The 19th-century structural ironwork, hidden below deck, has been painstakingly restored and strengthened. The surviving Victorian pavilion, one of two buildings on the pier, has been transformed into an open plan, glazed café-bar.

The vast pier deck has been set aside as an uninterrupted flexible expanse for large-scale concerts, markets and public gatherings. The new timber-clad visitor centre building in the centre of the pier has a viewing deck on its roof providing a dramatic space for visitors to experience epic views along the coast and across the English Channel. The architects have used timber throughout the project, much of it reclaimed from the original pier. The reclaimed timber has also been used to create the pier’s striking new furniture, manufactured locally as part of a local employment initiative. It is a cause for celebration Hastings once more has the pier it deserves and that the project’s quality has been recognised by RIBA.
Hastings Pier: new building with reclaimed timber cladding

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* I share this information in part for British readers who may have been distracted from it last night by Hallowe’en or by television (apparently there was the final of some sort of cake-baking programme on).
† I posted about the fire damage here.
Photographs James Robertshaw (top) and Franceso Montaguti (bottom)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

St John's Wood, London


Specific gravity

My photograph shows a representative selection of the architecture of St John’s Wood High Street. In the left background are classical blocks, probably of the 1830s or soon after, of white or yellow brick with stucco details. Then, a bit closer, a red brick and white ‘Queen Anne’ group with the fancy curvy gables and the characteristic square-pane glazing of the late-19th century. There’s a lot of  late-19th century stripy masonry round here, as witness the building in the right foreground, a bank, more classical but still in a contrasting mix of materials, here brick and Portland stone.

In the middle of it all is the pub, the Sir Isaac Newton, standing out like a flashing beacon. This is another late-19th century building (1892, says Pevsner), this time in red brick and orangey terracotta, a combination of colours that means that the bands are there but don’t provide much contrast. Instead, the whole building glows. Like its neighbour, it has ornate gables.
The other stand-out feature is the integral sign on the side wall. This is bordered by rich foliate architectural ornament and within this border is some outré Art Nouveau lettering of the kind that people rejoiced in during the period 1890–1910. It’s a confection of bifurcated strokes, over-the-top spiralling curves (especially the S and C), curious concavities (the N, E and A), and sheer eccentricity (the W). If we associate Sir Isaac Newton with gravity, this intoxicated lettering hardly embodies that characteristic. Perhaps another kind of gravity, specific gravity, comes to mind. Cheers!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Salisbury, Wiltshire


On high

When in Salisbury I always look up at the sign of the White Hart Hotel, a particularly lovely three-dimensional inn sign that stands out against the sky. The building it crowns is a large inn of about 1820 with an enormous Doric portico, but there has actually been an inn here since at least 1635. The use of the white hart as a badge goes back further still – it was the device of King Richard II and that fact accounts for the crown around the creature’s neck.

On this sign the crown and chain look as they have been made of metal and attached to the figure of the hart. The fact that the antlers are a different colour makes them stand out too, as if the sculptor had used a real pair of antlers. although this is no doubt the effect of a paint job.*

From ground level, everything is less distinct than in my photograph, which was taken with a zoom lens at full extension. Most passers-by are therefore unaware of the details of the sign. More often than not in my experience, the creature appears in silhouette, in which form he is still an effective marker, enabling one to single out the building from some distance away and forming a bold effect for an imposing building.

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*I'm not sure of the material used for the hart itself. The rough surface looks stone-like, but this may be the effect of a coat or two of masonry paint, plus grime. Could it be Coade stone?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire


Cornish in Oxon

I thought I knew the Oxfordshire market town of Chipping Norton well but, as so often with places we visit frequently, there’s always another side street or two to explore, and I was delighted to find these 17th-century almshouses in Church Street.* You can see that we’re in the Cotswolds here: those stone walls and the broad gables built as upward extensions of the front wall are very Cotswold, as are the dripstones above the upper windows.

There’s a datestone that tells us that the almshouses were ‘The work of Henry Cornish. Gent. 1640’. Cornish died in 1649 and left these eight houses as dwellings for eight poor widows, together with an endowment providing 20 shillings a year for the building’s maintenance and 2 shillings weekly for bread to be given to the widows. I don’t know much about Henry Cornish, but one source suggests that he was an opponent of the royal taxation that pushed England towards the Civil War and was imprisoned by the royalists for his views and bailed out by his nephew, William Diston, who’s remembered in the name of Diston Street, around the corner from the almshouses.

Of course what attracted me to this building was, as so often, the fact that it’s attractive. The stone walls set back from the street behind a lawn have an air of tranquility. I hope it’s as pleasant a place to live in as it looks from the outside, and that many have benefitted from Cornish’s bequest and the way he acted on the instruction inscribed above the gateway: ‘Remember the poor’.

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* Church Street: yes, I have visited Chipping Norton’s late-medieval church before, but managed to approach it from another angle, without going along Church Street.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Navenby, Lincolnshire


Top Dec.

Seen from across neighbouring gardens, the church almost disappears behind greenery. But the east window still stands out, and I think: ‘Yes! More glorious Lincolnshire tracery.’

Lincolnshire is a county full of churches with elaborate curvaceous 14th-century window tracery. At big parish churches like the ones at Sleaford, Grantham, and Heckington, the tracery curves this way and that in a series of patterns of sometimes dizzying complexity and variety – curvilinear tracery of the most inventive kind. This is a smaller church, but the east window is as wonderful as those of its larger cousins. The tracery pattern here is dominated by two mouchettes – the shapes that look like gigantic skewed commas, their tails pointing down and outwards, their heads nodding towards each other and touching at the centre. Within each mouchette are other shapes – large multi-cusped trefoils in the heads, elongated ‘daggers’ in the tails.
This is all very showy and was designed to hold stained glass which has not survived. The glass is clear now, so the sunlight pours into the chancel, as it was doing on the day I visited recently. And what the light falls on is equally remarkable: a series of niches, sedilia, and a piscina, all surrounded and topped with highly ornate 14th-century carving. Pinnacles, crockets, foliage, figures, human heads – this carving has the lot. A high-class carver has been here and has thrown the kitchen sink at this job. You can see why this style was labelled Decorated Gothic (often abbreviated to ‘Dec.’) in the 19th century.
The niche to the right of the door is what eccesiologists used to call an Easter Sepulchre, which was thought to be a niche used in an Easter ritual in which the Crucifixion and Resurrection were symbolically re-enacted by ‘entombing’ a cross in the niche and removing it on Easter Day. Historians now question this, suggesting that niches like this were more likely used all year round for reserving the consecrated bread and wine. The imagery is certainly linked to the Resurrection – three Maries at the top with an angel, the Roman soldiers at the base. Whichever it is, the the carving is outstanding – it’s suggested that it was done at the behest of William de Herleston, who was rector here in the 1320s and was closely connected to the royal court. I can well believe that this work had such a high-status patron.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lincoln


Pride of lions…and gryphons

It was with difficulty that I restrained myself from lying on my back and purring when I found this beautiful shop front in Lincoln’s Corporation Street. Restraint was a little easier than it might have been because of the number of other people present on the street and because of the poor 20th-century shopfronts on the building’s ground floor – I have spared you, gentle reader, from witnessing more than the merest sliver of these.

The upper part of this building is a gem. It’s a lovely example of the hybrid style of about 1900 – a bit Tudoresque, a bit Queen Anne. In the middle, just above the shop signs and at the bottom of my picture is a carved plaque bearing the building’s name: ‘St Hugh’s Chambers’ and the date 1899. Corporation Street was new in the 1890s, St Hugh’s Chambers must have been built soon after the street was laid out, probably for the two solicitors who are recorded as occupying the building in 1901.*

There is much, decoratively speaking, to like about the facade. The fenestration, with the circular window and the curving glazing of the bays, is good, and some of the leaded lights remain to show how it would have looked back in 1899. The wall decoration with its gryphons, carefully positioned to frame the round window, is a joy. The gryphons are in plaster,† in very low relief, and have been emphasized by the pale blue paintwork of the background; I presume this would have been left white originally.

There’s a niche in the middle of the wall, which would have housed a statue of one of the St Hughs associated with Lincoln.¶ Beneath this bit of Gothic finery is the carving around the name plaque, featuring scrolls, shields, and rampant lions. In spite of being knocked about, this frontage is still of enough interest to be protected by listing. The listing text mentions it as a good example of a Victorian commercial building with decorations that suggest qualities such as respectability and dependability. To which perhaps I would add tradition (the use of heraldic beasts) and also a touch of daring (the sheer size of those gryphons). The Edwardian lawyers who worked there must have been proud of it.

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* ‘Chambers’ is the usual name for barristers’ offices, but solicitors are sometimes based in ‘chambers’ too. The word was also used for apartments, especially ones occupied by single people.

† I have posted another example of this technique, called pargetting, here.

¶ Probably St Hugh of Avalon, the French-born monk who came to England to be prior of the first Carthusian house in England, and was subsequently Bishop of Lincoln. As an upholder of the rights of the Jews, a rebuilder of Lincoln cathedral, and a man who had the strength of character to stand up to that dynamic but difficult English king, Henry II, St Hugh gets my vote.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Lincoln


Untroubled waters

This is one of those architectural miniatures I particularly like. It’s St Mary’s conduit house, built in the 16th century to provide a source of clean water for the people of Lincoln. It’s said to have been built partly out of fragments of from a chantry in an old friary that was dissolved, during the depredations imposed by Henry VIII on the country religious houses, in 1530. By incorporating them into the walls of the conduit house (connected to a network of supply pipes begun by the friars) a few years after the dissolution, the builders gave a new life to bits of tracery and blind arcading, plus some corbels, niches, arch heads, and other bits and pieces.

They also provided an invaluable service to local people. The conduit and others in the city carried on supplying water until 1906, although not the conduit house did not remain in exactly the same positron – it was moved away from the street into St Mary’s churchyard in 1864. When mains water was laid on at the beginning of the 20th century, the supply from the conduits was trusted more than the piped water. I seem to remember that there was widespread suspicion of piped water in the Victorian period, with London water sellers hawking water from bowsers with the cry ‘Pure water! None of your pipe sludge!’ And no wonder, given the disease carried by infected water supplies in the early days. In Lincoln, confidence in the old conduits continued during the  1904–5 typhoid epidemic, so perhaps this attractive facility saved some lives too.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Potterhanworth, Lincolnshire


Bits of history

To Lincolnshire, in search of the Resident Wise Woman’s ancestors. Our journey took us to Potterhanworth, southeast of Lincoln, where her grandmother Betsy was brought up and went to the village school. We took with us the Betsy’s typescript memoirs of her early life in this Lincolnshire village with her grandparents* – her grandfather (the RWW’s great great grandfather), the wonderfully named John George Pepperdine Salter¶ was the first stationmaster at Potterhanworth station. We found the old station house, where they lived, and visited the village school, whose head was very happy with the gift of a copy of the memoirs and rewarded us, quite unexpectedly, with the sight of their author’s name in the school register, inscribed in a copperplate hand in 1901.

The most remarkable building in Potterhanworth is this water tower (now converted to a house). I can’t remember when I last saw such an impressive one in a village. It was built in 1903 with funds provided by Christ’s Hospital (a Lincoln charity with a lasting link to the village); the coat of arms of Richard Smith, founder of Christ’s Hospital in Lincoln are on the side of the turret. As well as supplying water (which it did until the 1970s), the building was a useful public meeting place – the Parish Council and Men’s Institute met in the rooms in the brick tower that supports the enormous tank. Now it’s a substantial house with an unusual history in a place that means a lot to those close to me, and now to me too. 

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* So we are talking about a person born in the Victorian period brought up by her grandparents, who were old enough to remember the early years of Victoria’s reign – a long historical vista.


¶ I have a great fondness for names like this, in which it’s unclear where the forename ends and the surname beings; compare the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Lincoln


First post

Just inside the entrance to the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln is this post box. It was made in 1856 at the Handyside foundry in Derby and installed the following year at Gosberton Bank near Spalding. In 1969 is was moved to the museum, as an example of a very early type of post box – from the time before there was an accepted standard design. A number of the early post box designs were octagonal like this one and like the Penfold, of which a number survive. The Lincoln example, ten years earlier than the Penfold, is rarer still and almost as striking.

With its vertical slot and octagonal shape, it looks quite unlike modern cylindrical boxes and as the red finish wash’t standardised until later, it might originally have been a different colour too. But many features – the royal monogram, the panel showing collection times, and the words ‘Post Office’ are all similar to those on the boxes we use today.

I don’t often feature here items from museums, but there are so few opportunities to see these early boxes on the street that I didn’t want to let this one slip by. And there’s a twist. Although it’s in a museum, this post box is still in use, and visitors are encouraged to post their letters in it – this is Lincolnshire’s oldest working post box. As the first post box appeared on the British mainland in 1853,* it is also one of the oldest in the country. Mr Handyside did the Post Office proud.

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*The Channel Islands got them the year before.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire


Well shod

When it comes to exploring churches, sometimes the fun starts before you even get to the building.

Pausing by the churchyard wall in the Cotswold village of Farmington, you see this: a gate made up of 90-odd horseshoes, artfully arranged. Horseshoe gates are not unusual. I suppose they’re a pragmatic example of recycling – with the added attraction, for the superstitious user, that horseshoes are supposed to bring good luck. But what struck me with this example was that the horsehoes had been arranged architecturally. What I mean is that the central motif, a quatrefoil made up of four horseshoes, is a  piece of architectural ornament, and one often used in medieval churches. I have noticed quatrefoils before, on church fonts, church walls, church windows. The quatrefoil, you might say, is a way of making a horseshoe gate into a fitting entrance to a churchyard.

Or you might just say that it’s a winning bit of fun.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Great Bourton, Oxfordshire


Multitasking

Here’s an unusual and striking combination of functions. At Great Bourton in Oxfordshire the architect William White (great nephew of the naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne) was called in to do an almost complete rebuild of the parish church. Instead of making the tower part of the church building, he built a detached bell tower – and combined it with the lychgate that forms the entrance to the churchyard.

It’s a stand-out feature and really makes a mark in the village street, forming a landmark next to the pub, and making a very dramatic entrance point to the churchyard. The stonework is very plain (look at those austere lancet windows), but it doesn’t need to be fancy: the rich orangey colour of the local stone is attractive in itself. And up above at the top of the tower comes the unusual feature: the bell chamber is an open framework structure of oak, dominated by sweeping arches and a very steeply pitched roof.

The bells must sound out loud and clear from this tower calling people away from their pints in the traditional way. Even if they don’t heed the call and return to their drinks, they have something special to look at. Your good health!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Bristol


Sledgehammered

I was saddened to read about the demolition of a Jacobean plaster ceiling in a building in Bristol the other day. This beautiful piece of craftsmanship, which was neatly 400 years old, was in a building in Small Street which had been a bar and which a developer is converting into student flats. The removal of the ceiling was quite legal, but an application had been made to protect the building by listing it and the destruction of the plasterwork was carried out before the listings officers from Historic England had been able to inspect the building and carry out their assessment.

This sort of thing is not unusual. My mind went back to one of the most famous cases, the Firestone factory in West London, which was bulldozered over a Bank Holiday weekend in 1980, hours before a listing was due to come into force. The Bristol case is different – even if they’d had the chance to look at it, the inspectors may have decided not to list the building – but just as deplorable: 400 years of history gone with a few strokes of the sledgehammer.

There is a way of making pre-emptive demolition more difficult: introducing interim protection of buildings while the listings assessment takes place. Such a system already operates in Wales and in the opinion of many it’s time it did in England too. A petition, supported by groups such as the C20 Society, has been started to urge the government to bring in such a measure. I’d encourage readers who can do so to sign the petition here.

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The picture above comes from the SAVE Britain's Heritage website, where there is more about the ceiling here

Monday, September 11, 2017

Walpole St Peter, Norfolk


It does something to me

A regular reader of the English Buildings blog, or someone glancing at the tag cloud in the right-hand column, would realise quickly that churches are a major interest of mine. I visit churches a lot, and I seem to blog about a church at least once a month. Many things draw me to churches – sometimes it’s their long history, sometimes their architecture, sometimes specific objects or works of art they contain, sometimes what I can only call their atmosphere.

The atmosphere I most eagerly savour is the kind that is summoned up by centuries of accumulated history. It’s what I find, typically, in small isolated country churches that have not been over-restored – churches like Inglesham in Wiltshire, to give just one favourite example. There’s something else I get from churches like that, and it’s signalled perhaps by the world ‘isolated’. In a world that contains, in my opinion, far too much noise, a church can be an almost silent place. I find quietude helpful, even restorative, and value the combination of quiet and atmosphere* found in some old churches enough make a special journey to find it.

But there’s another thing that sometimes happens in churches that is the opposite of silence, and can be equally nourishing: the sudden unexpected performance of music. I have been surprised by music in churches quite a few times, and it has always made my visit memorable. This is not, or not usually, run of the mill organ practice – though I have been captivated by that too (one organ piece I heard, in Gloucester cathedral, stayed in my head for years before I discovered what it was). What I mean is rehearsals for special musical events. From time to time I have come across a trio playing Mendelssohn, a choir singing Handel, a bizarre duet for organ and violin, a Schubert impromptu on the piano, and an unidentified baroque cantata – all of these in old churches. All have given me pleasure, in part because these ad hoc performances have been a total surprise.

It’s not just about church acoustics, which can vary quite a bit. In one of our more beautiful cathedrals I can remember a choral rehearsal in which it took me a few minutes to grasp the fact that the words the choir were singing were English ones – the reverberation was playing havoc with the singers’ diction. After a while the conductor dropped her arms in despair, bringing everyone to a halt, and wailed desperately,’I need to hear the altos!’ Often, though, church acoustics are crystal clear. The setting, conducive to worship, is also likely to be apt for the kind of attention that good, unamplified music demands. And in a small church one can get very close to the performers, lending great immediacy to the proceedings.

At Walpole St Peter in Norfolk, the church offers many of the things I most enjoy – airy, late-medieval architecture with repeating patterns of window tracery, impressive woodwork including screens and pews with carved poppyheads and other details, clear glass that lets the sun bathe the interior with light and warmth. But it was music that was in my mind even before I walked past the notice reminding me to remove the pattens from my feet¶ and pushed open the door. I have a recording of a fine Bach concert by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner that was made in this glorious 15th-century church. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if someone’s playing Bach in here. Imagine my surprise as I opened the door to hear not ‘Wachet auf’ or ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ but a woman singing Cole Porter. There followed a long selection from the American songbook, most of it beautifully sung, a rehearsal for a concert later the same day. The person minding the singers was quite happy for me to wander around, so I tiptoed quietly, admiring the window tracery and the woodwork, and savouring the way the sunlight coming through the clear glass windows illuminated pews and carvings, to the accompaniment of ‘Night and Day’, ‘You’re the Top’, and ‘You Do Something to Me’.

And the whole experience did do something to me, and I was very grateful. I did not resent losing a few minutes’ silence for some good music-making. Music and silence, apparent opposites, are not so far apart after all. There have been whole books written about silence, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read about the subject is the shortest and most laconic, the exhortation of Alfred Brendel, master interpreter of the Viennese piano classics† and revelatory writer about music. He told us simply to remember the anagram: LISTEN = SILENT.§

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* Compare Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’: ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here’.

¶ A notice left over from the 19th century, at least: ‘It is requested that all persons will take off their Pattens at the Church Door’.

† Now retired from the concert platform, but his recordings remain.

§ Alfred Brendel, A Pianist’s A – Z (Faber & Faber, 2013)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, Shropshire

 A view of the bridge

The Darby family of Coalbrookdale were among the greatest industrialists of their time, the people who revolutionized the production of iron. Abraham Darby I pioneered ironmaking in blast furnaces fuelled by coke, enabling the metal to be produced in the quantities needed for industry to expand rapidly. He also developed a way of casting pots using sand moulds that proved very lucrative. Later generations carried on in the business and Abraham Darby III, grandson of the first Abraham, working with the architect Thomas Pritchard, gave us the area’s most famous structure, the world’s first iron bridge.

The Darbys lived in a pair of houses a couple of hundred yards up the hill from their furnace and works. These houses are substantial Georgian middle-class homes, but not at all flashy. The Darbys were Quakers and did not go in for lavish living – the rooms are quite small and rather plain. But look closely, and one sees evidence of their achievements. This fireplace must be one of thousands produced at Coalbrookdale. But they don’t all have an image of the celebrated iron bridge cast into them. Examine the lower arch of this fireplace and that’s just what you see – an outline that’s world famous now and must have been one of the things of which the Darbys were most proud. How like them to mark this achievement so discreetly.
The iron bridge itself has survived over 230 years, a marvel of graceful design. It manages to span the Severn almost transparently, but its outline is instantly recognisable. It’s in need of repair now – ground movement over the years, an earthquake in the 19th century, and stresses that have always existed have caused cracking. A major project is beginning to repair the bridge, so that it can last far into the future as a monument to the skill and ingenuity of the Darbys and their architect.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Broseley, Shropshire


Hurrah for Filocalus!

After the small tiled extravaganza of a butcher’s shop in my previous post I didn’t expect to find any more memorable tiles in Broseley, but then I spotted the mass of brownish brickwork that is the Victoria Hall. Dark and brooding, with arches of blue, rather industrial-looking bricks, this building doesn’t have the kind of look that immediately appeals to me…but then I spotted the tile panels and I looked again. I took the building to be some kind of community hall, built in 1867 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation, but in size and proportions it reminded me of a nonconformist chapel.

The enigma was solved when I looked it up online, simultaneously remembering that the Brethren often call their places of worship halls. This one was put up by the Plymouth Brethren in 1867. It remained in their hands until about 1905, when it passed into wider community use as the Victoria Institute and Assembly Hall. It looks as if they kept the original tiles, which no doubt came from Maw’s works in Jackfield. The ornate lettering contrasts with the sombre appearance of the rest of the building. The date numerals are typical of the kind of fancy figures used on Victorian Gothic buildings. The letters of ‘VICTORIA HALL’, with their bifurcated endings to the strokes, are another Victorian speciality, though one more often seen on flashy shopfronts than places of worship.

This fancy letterform is what the writer and scholar Nicolete Gray* called the ‘Filocalian letter’, after the 4th-century Roman letterer Furius Dionysius Filocalus, who made a number of inscriptions with similar ornate forms for Pope Damasus I. As Niolete Gray points out, the Victorians used this kind of lettering with great freedom and whenever I see it I give an inner cheer for the wonderfully named Roman letterer† and the Victorians who picked up his idea and ran with it.

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*See Nicolete [yes, just the one ‘t’] Gray, Lettering on Buildings (Architectural Press, 1960); a very good book – it’s a shame it’s now so hard to find.

† Ms Gray believed the name Furius Dionysius Filocalus to be a pseudonym and that it ‘expresses the man’s attitude to his work: conscious, devoted and expressionist’.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Broseley, Shropshire


A short trip to tile heaven

With a bit of time on our hands in Broseley, the Resident Wise Woman and I had a wander around, heading in the direction of an interesting-looking spire as rain clouds gathered overhead. Suddenly, between houses, we spotted a tiny shopfront covered with a surprisingly colourful and rather miscellaneous collection of tiles. More tiles, more random still, covered the interior walls, glimpsed through the window. It looked like a butcher’s shop, but ‘M. DAVIS’ seemed no longer to be in business.

It crossed my mind that we might be looking at a recent assemblage of late-Victorian tiles, gathered together by a modern collector, but the condition of the tiles, the shop name, and the interior layout, seemed to suggest that they been there a long time. What could their story be?

An answer came thanks to Lynn Pearson’s excellent Tile Gazetteer (Richard Dennis, 2005). Apparently a local man, Matthew Davis, emigrated to South America in the 1890s, but thought better of it, returned home in short order, and set up as a butcher. He went to Maw’s factory in nearby Jackfield (heaven for tile worshippers), bought up a load of tiles from a heap outside the works, and employed someone to attach them to the front of the shop. The tiles may were no doubt from Maw’s equivalent of the bargain basement or seconds counter and this may explain their somewhat miscellaneous quality. The randomness, it’s said,* was made more random by the fact that the tiler often got drunk.

The result, says Lynn Pearson, is ‘happily eccentric’. I agree. The sight of this colourful shop front certainly improved my mood as the rain clouds gathered.

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* Lynn Pearson credits the archive of Michael Stratton, industrial archaeologist and one-time director of the Ironbridge Institute, for information about this building.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Coalbrookdale, Shropshire


 Showing your wares

In my previous post I focused on the former Severn Warehouse at Ironbridge, an industrial building that was built with an eye to appearances, a deliberate eye-catcher. This time, a rather plainer industrial building not far from the one in the previous post, but one with one particularly eye-catching feature, something that is perhaps more effective as advertising than the Gothic structure of the old Severn Warehouse.

My photograph above shows the building housing the Museum of Iron, which the Resident Wise Woman and I had decided to visit. It’s a fascinating museum, giving us plenty of background on iron and inorworking in general, on the various generations of the Darby family and the great John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson in particular, and on the products of the industry in Coalbrookdale, from fire grates to firearms. All this is housed in a brick-walled warehouse building, put up by the the Coalbrookdale Company some time in the first half of the 19th century. The striking clock tower bears the date 1843, but this is said to be a later addition to an already existing building. Some sources say that the warehouse was first built in 1792, but it’s not shown on a map of 1805. 1838 is the likely year of construction.

Part of the structure is appropriately of iron – there are iron columns inside holding up the floors, but there’s also much wood in evidence: this is not one of those fireproof buildings that many textile mill owners, mindful of sparks igniting wool or cotton, liked to put up. Iron is also in evidence on the outside. The white-painted window lintels and sills are cast iron and the window frames are metal. So too is the clock tower, an elaborately decorative addition to an otherwise utilitarian building. It’s an effective piece of publicity for what you could do with metal in a decorative way, and a signal, perhaps, that as the Victorian era got up steam, manufacturers in Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale would increasingly be asked to produce highly decorative items – kitchen ranges, stoves, tables and chairs, not to mention garden railings and post boxes. There is a lot of this sort of stuff inside the museum. The clock tower is, you might say, exhibit number one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Ironbridge, Shropshire


Industrial eyecatcher

You drive through Ironbridge with the river on your left and suddenly you see a row of brick gables with a pointed Gothic window under each and buttresses sticking out on to the pavement. A little further on, the end of the building reveals its from behind some trees and your jaw drops as a pair of slender turrets – crenellated and with faux arrow loops, but far too small for an archer to stand inside – and an apse-like structure with more crenellations and pointed windows appears. Whatever can it be?

The short answer is that it’s the Museum of the Gorge, where visitors can go to learn all about the  Ironbridge area. But of course it has not always been a museum. It was built in around 1840 as the Severn Warehouse, where finished items from the foundries were stored until the River Severn’s water level, which varied greatly from season to season, was high enough for boats to transport them away. The main block, with the row of gables, was the warehouse; the apse was an office; the turrets conceal chimneys. The architect of all this was Samuel Cookson, who clearly wanted a ‘statement building’, something to stand out and catch the eye: architecture as advertisement. There are other warehouses nearby, but they are quite plain.
Looking at the end of the building, one can see a bit more clearly how it worked. On either side of the office are large doors, through which big cast iron objects could be wheeled on carts down the slope to the river. The paved slope has grooves – plateways – along which the carts would run, down to the sandstone walls of the riverside wharf to the waiting Severn trows.

The ironmasters of the industrial revolution liked to show off the versatility of their chosen material, making furniture, signs, even coffins of iron, as well as the more expected industrial machinery and bridge components. But this area was not just a source of iron, it was also rich in clay, spawning potteries, tileworks, and brickworks. Cookson’s extraordinary building is an example of what Ironbridge’s brick workers could do when they tried.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Farley, Wiltshire


Polite architecture

This charming classical church was the goal of my detour to Farley, where I also saw the village hall in my previous post. I’d read about this church and seen a picture of it in John Piper’s Wiltshire Shell Guide, but as the photographs in the Shell Guides are in black and white, I wasn’t prepared for the beautiful warm colour of the brickwork, which has mellowed in the 400-odd years since it was laid in English bond and is set off wonderfully by the surrounding greenery and the pale stone of the quoins and window surrounds.

If this looks rather a grand church for a small country village, there’s a reason. It was built in c. 1680–90 under the auspices of a wealthy and well connected local man, Sir Stephen Fox, who also founded a ‘hospital’ (actually a set of almshouses) opposite, a while after the previous village church had fallen into disrepair. Fox was a friend of Sir Christopher Wren, the greatest architect of the time, the two having worked together on the hospital for pensioners in Chelsea, and it is possible that Wren advised on the design of the church. The work was almost certainly undertaken by Alexander Fort, Wren’s surveyor; Fort may also have acted as the architect of the building.

Looking at the church, it’s clear that it’s a small but sophisticated building. Although it doesn’t look exactly like the ‘typical’ Wren church in the City of London (no white Portland stone walls, no elaborate steeple), it is quite a remarkable design. The layout of the separate parts of the building – tower, nave, chancel, and the projecting chapels provides visual interest as well as delineating different functions (the protruding chapel in the photograph acts as the entrance and vestry, the one opposite it on the north side of the building contains memorials to the Fox and Ilchester families, with a burial vault beneath). The architectural details – window surrounds, door cases, cornice – are very plain, but well made.* I especially like the round window above the doorway. and the way its curve echoes those of the semicircular-headed windows of the nave and chancel. It’s a polite building in a quiet country setting. The only sound I heard while I was there was that of leather on willow from the nearby cricket pitch. After the intrusion of corrugated iron in my previous post, civilization has been restored.

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*The interior is plain too, with white walls, round arches, and oak pews that have been lowered in height.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Farley, Wiltshire


A twinge of nostalgia

Making a trip to Salisbury the other day, I decided to divert and look at the church at Farley, a rather beautiful bit of rural classicism that I hope to share with you soon. I seem to remember reading an account of it somewhere that praised the church while decrying the ‘ugly village hall’ next door. When I got there, this is what I found.

Ugly? Well, it’s hardly rural classicism, but as a lover of corrugated iron I found something to admire in the simplicity of this structure, which has clearly been serving the local community for many decades. It looks like something a bit more, too, than the standard off-the-shelf corrugated-iron building from one of the many manufacturers that allowed you to order up a church, village hall, or isolation hospital from a catalogue and have it delivered to you local railway station as a kit of parts. The curvy bargeboard is a nice ‘extra’, while the window at the front, which looks as if it wants the angled portions to be glazed but instead opts for more wriggly tin, is an eccentric touch.

There used to be a hall rather like this a couple of villages along the road from where I live. It didn’t have quite the same pattern to the bargeboards, and it certainly didn’t boast such an unusual front window, but the shade of faded green was exactly the same, and the paintwork was peeling in a similar way. It has gone now, and I looked at the one at Farley with just a twinge of nostalgia.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Big house, small details


Holkham: The social, architectural and landscape history of a great English country house by Christine Hiskey
Published by Unicorn Press


At the end of Holkham by Christine Hiskey are two photographs that for me sum up the turns and turns-about in the history of a great house. The pictures show the same room, the Statue Gallery, in the 1960s-70s and the 1980s. In the first picture, the room is dominated by a rather fussily patterned (but very beautiful) carpet and some chairs upholstered in bright red. In the second, the room has been restored to create the effect it originally made in the 18th century, with bare, polished floor boards and chairs covered in blue leather. The evidence for the blue leather on the chairs comes from the earliest inventories of the house and a fragment of leather caught under later upholstery.

This coming together of documentary and physical evidence, this fine detail, characterises Hiskey’s fascinating account of one of our greatest houses, Holkham Hall in Norfolk, from the time it was built in the 18th century under Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, to today, with the 8th Earl (another Thomas Coke) in residence. Holkham is vast, one of the biggest English houses, and very, very grand. It deserves a weighty history and this is what it has got – it’s impossible to do justice in a short review to the 500-odd pages of dense social, architectural, and landscape history in this book. There is so much here and all of it backed up with evidence from the estate’s extensive archives (the author is Holkham’s archivist) and with scores of fascinating illustrations. 

Holkham tells the long story of the construction of the vast house, a task that took the 1st Earl 25 years and was still not finished when he died (his widow saw the building to completion) and involved several different architects, whose contributions are difficult to disentangle. The building of the hall (including the sourcing of materials, the work of the small army of craftsmen, the changes in design) is given a substantial portion of the book. It describes how the family lived in the house, and how the various bits of this vast pile were used – not least in the early years when the Cokes were living in the completed portion of what was otherwise a half-finished building site. It explains the estate, and how the village, farms, and park related to the house. And it chronicles the changes made to the house over the years, often in detail as fine and evocative as that scrap of leather under the chair upholstery.

It covers of course, the Coke who’s best known to anyone with a smattering of English social history – Thomas William Coke or ‘Coke of Norfolk’, who is most famous as an agriculturalist, as well as being a prominent Whig Member of Parliament, staying in office until the 1832 Reform Act was passed. As well as all this he was well liked as a host, and the book quotes several accounts by his guests, who praise his generosity (he seems to have been one of those people who made everyone feel that they were the favourite guest); they also loved his library.

And so it goes on, through the Victorian period and 20th century, to our own. We learn a lot about the vast corps of servants, about relations with tenant farmers and villagers (mostly good – the Cokes were not ones for shifting people willy-nilly or knocking down cottages to create lakes). Then there are the dealings with local tradesmen. The Cokes bought a lot of their supplies locally, and Hiskey has lists of local businesses (apothecary, brush maker, saddler, basket maker, cooper, cabinet maker, druggist, draper, glover…) who sold goods to the house. Even that most important of symbols of country-house grandeur, the servants’ liveries, came not from London but from nearby Holt.

One could go on citing fascinating and animating details – from primitive electricity generators to provision for fire-fighting: before the house was finished, men had to put out a fire in the room of Matthew Brettingham, resident architect, and by 1750 the house had its own fire engine, with leather hoses. Hundreds of such details make up this absorbing account, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest English houses, its builders, households, and owners.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Pix and mortar


The next in my short series of book reviews is a book full of photographs of buildings – and full of information about taking architectural photographs...

Photographing Historic Buildings by Steve Cole
Published by Historic England

One of my first jobs in publishing was editing books that taught people how to take better pictures. I noticed back then, in the days of film and darkrooms, that there weren’t many books about architectural photography (there was a good one by Eric de Maré, but not much else). There still isn’t much, and Photographing Historic Buildings by Steve Cole closes this gap and is written very much for the digital age.

The author is well qualified. He worked for more than 40 years as a photographer in the cultural heritage sector – for the old Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England and for English Heritage. He knows his subject backwards and upside-down, and is able to tell us about it in clear, succinct writing backed up with exemplary images. He’s concerned with using photography to make a record of the built environment. That means he’s less exercised by mood and atmosphere (although many of his photographs convey these qualities) than with the techniques and standards needed to make a faithful documentary record. However, most people who photographs historic buildings, whether for the record or for more artistic purposes, can learn something from this book.

This is a very practical handbook and Cole starts with the most basic practicalities – logistics (getting to the location, obtaining permission to take photographs); equipment (the various virtues and drawbacks of digital technical cameras, SLRs, bridge cameras, and compacts*); digital file formats (JPEG, TIFF, RAW, etc); different lenses and their uses; lighting; colour rendition; and so on. Then there’s a terrific chapter on composition, showing, for example, the importance of selecting the right viewpoint and revealing the pitfalls of distortion that can occur with a wide-angle lens. The composition chapter also covers matters such as photographing interiors, capturing a building’s context, the importance of when the picture is taken, and the sense of scale. There are also useful chapters on light (especially helpful with buildings that are lit unevenly) and subjects (covering everything from staircases to plaster ceilings, industrial sites to stained-glass windows, all of which are challenging in different ways). Much of this information is pulled together in case studies, which show multiple images from four different buildings (a modernist house, a timber-framed house, a nonconformist chapel, and an industrial site) used to build up a complete record (and demonstrating in the process solutions to many of the challenges outlined in the previous chapters). The last part of the book deals with post-production, explaining a range of image-editing techniques from cropping to the correction of distortion, all with practical tips.

I’ve already learned quite a bit from this book. I’m hoping soon that, having read Cole on the subject, my photographs of stained glass will be much better than they were; that I’ll produce better images of interiors; and that I’ll benefit from understanding that my wide-angle lens, useful in tight spots but also prone to produce distortion, is not always my friend. This book, though, promises to be a welcome friend on my bookshelves.


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*I have to say that as a user of a mirrorless camera, I feel slightly short-changed by this section – but not hugely: my camera does most things that an SLR will, and most of what Cole says when it comes to taking pictures is relevant whatever your equipment. My guess is that most readers of this book will be users of digital SLRs.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Oxfordshire revisited

Around this time of year English Buildings becomes a book blog for a week or so, as I cast an eye over some recent books on subjects that I write about here. First, a new volume in a familiar series of architectural guides – but no less impressive for that...


The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire: North and West by Alan Brooks and Jennifer Sherwood
Published by Yale University Press


It’s time to ease the cork out of another bottle of the fizzy stuff in the Wilkinson household when another revised volume in Pevsner’s invaluable Buildings of England series comes out – especially if, as is the case with the latest, Oxfordshire: North and West, it covers an area close to my home. In the original edition, Oxfordshire (written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood) was covered in a single volume, so this is a substantial expansion as well as a revision – it includes the bulk, in terms of area, of the county, leaving the city of Oxford and the southern part of Oxfordshire for another volume.

The revision is by Alan Brooks, who has already revised the two Gloucestershire volumes, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. He did a fine job on those, and doesn’t disappoint with Oxfordshire either. Revising a ‘Pevsner’ is not a simple task. It’s not just a question of bringing the book up to date by adding new buildings and deleting those that have been demolished. It also involves taking in corrections, adding buildings that the original authors missed, noticing alterations to fabric, and, perhaps most importantly of all, incorporating the results of new research. Alan Brooks, for example, has benefitted from recent publications, especially on the vernacular architecture of the county, and is an expert on stained glass, so has strengthened the book’s coverage of that subject considerably. This adding of new detail demands a gentle touch. Brooks has been able to preserve a lot of the wording of the original book, although the words get moved around to accommodate new research and occasional changes of emphasis or modifications of opinion. Alan Brooks deserves congratulations for keeping all these balls in the air while delivering such a wealth of architectural information.

Looking at familiar places with a ‘Pevsner’ in hand is usually a revelation, all the more so in this case, for someone who has been used to using the 1974 first edition of Oxfordshire. Looking at places I’ve visited recently, I notice enhancements and interesting additions everywhere. At Fifield, for example, the architect who did the church’s 19th-century restoration is named, and we are told more about the artists who produced the stained glass. At Hook Norton there’s an extended description of the brewery, a wonderful building given short shift in the first edition. In many places there is more on small (and not so small) houses – at Horton-cum-Studley we are given more on the almshouses, cottages, and a timber-framed house that even merits a diagram. I was pleased to see the inclusion of the occasional bit of background, such as the expanded coverage of the stained glass at Horspath depicting John Copcot, a 15th-century student at the Queen’s College, Oxford, famous, we are told, for killing a wild boar with his copy of Aristotle. This is all about filling in detail on buildings that could have been given better treatment first time round. But there have also been changes in Oxfordshire’s villages. For example, North Oxfordshire’s great set piece village, Great Tew, has been transformed from the sorry state of dilapidation noted in the 1974 edition to the revived and thriving place of today. Brooks notes that ‘much solid conservation work has been carried out by the estate’: how true.

Towns get markedly better coverage. Chipping Norton for example, has much more detail about houses, shops, former hotels, and schools, sometimes with more precise dating than in earlier editions. Visiting the town with the new edition in one’s hand, one emerges with a better understanding of the place’s vernacular architecture, its notable local baroque buildings, and its 20th-century architecture. I’ll be returning to Chipping Norton, to look more closely at various buildings, from the masonic hall to the former workhouse, now converted to flats. Banbury and Burford, to name just two other towns I know quite well, will repay further visits with the new Pevsner. Repeated and redoubled visits, indeed. It will take a long time to drink dry the deep well of information marshalled in this latest Pevsner. Meanwhile, I’ll raise another glass of fizz.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Martock, Somerset


Well provided for

I always think of the Tudor and Stuart periods as the great age of English market houses, which are so often built in a kind of rustic classicism that suggests local pride and modest prosperity. The one at Chipping Campden is a favourite, Abingdon another, on a far grander scale and far from rustic. The stone town of Martock, however, has a mid-18th century one.

It’s quietly classical, with elliptical arches and piers that don’t have capitals but just a continuation of the stringcourse that runs around the building to show where the arch begins. Up above there are sash windows and, at the end, a Venetian window above a row of scroll brackets, and above that a blind niche in the form of a semicircle that, when you look at it closely, turns out to be a vent.  It’s very simple, a local builder’s assemblage of basic ingredients, but a satisfying enough recipe for a small country town.

Next to it is a structure known as the Market Cross or the Pinnacle. It’s a tall Tuscan column (about 6 m in total) that bears the date 1741. It is allegedly a copy of one once at Wilton, but wherever the idea came from, it’s effective enough as a corner feature on this junction. Not that it needs a landmark, with the Market House there too. In this, as in its profusion of stones buildings generally, Martock is well provided for.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Swerford, Oxfordshire


Lumps and bumps

It was only by chance that I came across this place. I was on the lookout for the church, but what I’d taken to be the main village of Swerford, a cluster of houses at Chapel End, is not where the church is – it’s next to another cluster a few hundred yards away. And then, when I did find the church what caught my eye first were various lumps and bumps in the adjacent field. They are all that’s left of a castle: two main raised grassy partly tree-covered areas – the motte or mound and the bailey or courtyard – plus another smaller one that looks like a lesser bailey or outwork. The churchyard cuts into the nearest bump, which you can see in my photograph just beyond the churchyard wall, telling us that the graveyard, and no doubt the church, are later than the castle.

This small fortification was built during the 12th-century civil war between rival claimants to the English throne: Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and Stephen, his nephew. The local lords, the D’Oyleys, were related to Matilda and so on her side; their neighbours, the de Chesneys of Deddington, backed Stephen and threatened to take the D’Oyley lands. This small castle was built by the D’Oyleys to defend the ford over the Swere Brook, a key point on a local route.

The castle would have been built of wood and put up quickly some time after the death of Henry I in 1135, so that a small garrison and their horses could be based here. Twenty years later it was not needed, as the war had ended with Stephen on the throne but an agreement that Matilda’s son would succeed him when he died. That son, Henry II, had the unauthorised castles of the civil war dismantled when he came to the throne in 1154, and this one was probably taken down then. Some of the rubble from the mound may even have been used to build the church, which dates from some time after 1300. Archaeologists say that whether or not this was the case, the site was cleared fairly comprehensively and there have been few finds.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shorncote, Gloucestershire


Viva Maria!

A few weeks ago I injured a leg and for a while could hardly move and was unable to bend sufficiently to get in and out of the car – let alone drive it – without pain. By last weekend things had improved sufficiently for me to take my leg for a test drive, as it were, and, as things went well, I ended up a few miles beyond Cirencester and found myself in a tiny place called Shorncote, where I’d not been before.

The church at Shorncote is very small – just a nave, chancel, small side chapel and porch – but is full of the sort of things that I like: fragments of wall painting, an old timber roof, a tiny Easter sepulchre, a reading desk knocked together out of medieval panelling, and so on. As I was looking round, the sun came out and threw light on all this, and also on something I had not noticed until that point, a carved graffito on a window ledge, made up of a capital W or what this symbol is usually taken to be, a pair of overlapping Vs.
Matthew Champion’s excellent book Medieval Graffiti* is enlightening on this mark, which he and fellow graffiti-researchers have found in many medieval churches. He says that it is widely believed to symbolise the Virgin Mary, and written as two overlapping Vs is said to stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of virgins), though it is also sometimes written upside-down, when it appears as a capital M, so it works that way too. Champion cites at least one place – a church at Fakenham, Norfolk – where the symbol is reproduced formally (i.e. not as graffiti), in the flint patterns on a late-medieval church wall, in association with the word ‘Maria’.

However, the symbol outlasted the Reformation, turning up in all sorts of places, including 18th and 19th-century secular buildings, suggesting that it might have acquired a significance beyond the church, as a kind of sign of good luck. In 20th-century Italy, incidentally, the symbol had an afterlife as an abbreviation for the word ‘Viva’ (long live).† There can be a lot to tease out of a small scratched mark on a church wall.

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* Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, (Ebury Press, 2013). I reviewed this book here. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in these things.

† To go off piste for a moment: The American poet E. E. Cummings gave one of his collections the title VV [ViVa], with the Vs printed to overlap (and often, given the limitations of typography, as a W), in the ancient manner. Cummings liked titles that were unusual or difficult to pronounce. Another of his was XAIPE, which is Greek, and I’m told sounds roughly like ‘chiry’, with the ‘ch’ as in the Scottish ‘loch’ and the word rhyming with ‘wiry’; the meaning is ‘Be happy!’, as witness Lawrence Durrell in Reflections on a Marine Venus: ‘When you see the gravestones from the little necropolis of Cameirus . . . it is the so-often repeated single word – the anonymous Xaipe – which attracts you . . . . It is not the names of the rich or the worthy . . . but this single word, “Be Happy,” serving both as a farewell and admonition, that goes to your heart with the whole impact of the Greek style of mind.’

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bristol and beyond


Small but perfectly formed

Before I return to regular posting, I would like to offer my readers one more selection of past posts, to celebrate this blog's tenth anniversary. This, time, I've chosen a handful of very small buildings. This is in part a reminder that, over the past decade, the English Buildings blog has taken pride in noticing very small structures that many people pass by without a thought. It's also, in a way, a tribute to the great architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner and the colleagues with whom he worked. A very long time ago I bought my first volume in his Buildings of England series: it was Gloucestershire: The Cotswolds, and I added it to my shelves shortly after it came out, in the 1970s. In fact, it was one of the volumes not actually written by Pevsner – the great man was getting old and realised that the only way to complete the series was to enlist some help. So the Gloucestershire volumes were written by local expert David Verey. Be that as it may, they followed Pevsner's lead in including many small buildings among the more obvious churches and big houses.* I was made aware of this when I looked up the entry on a place I knew to find that the most unassuming building of all – a privy – had been singled out for notice. I learned something that day, that even the most modest structure could be worth looking at. I have tried to keep that in mind ever since. So here are five of my posts on small buildings, easy to miss but very memorable...

A public lavatory in Bristol

A Turkish bath in London

A fountain in Warwickshire

A lock-up near Oxford

A churchyard seat in Herefordshire.

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* Now that revised editions of the Pevsner volumes are appearing, with more and larger pages allocated to each county, more and more of these small buildings are included, and a good thing too.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shugborough, Staffordshire, and more


Retrospective (3): Feline tales

It has been said à propos of social media that, having invented the most sophisticated form of communication yet devised by humankind, we use it for sharing pictures of cats. I offer no apologies, though, for this short selection of cat posts, offered as my third retrospective to celebrate a decade of this blog. These, after all, are architectural cats, and the image of the feline form, used as an embellishment on or near buildings, says something about our fascination with these intriguing, beautiful, and sometimes infuriating creatures.* My handful of posts contains cats from the mid-18th to the late-20th century, but which show artistic influences stretching back thousands of years. And that is proof enough that not just our relationship with cats but also our artistic engagement with them is far, far older than the internet.

A sea-going cat in Staffordshire

A church cat in the Cotswolds

A museum mouser in Hereford

A landmark cat in...Catford

The Egyptian-style cats of Mornington Crescent

A ginger tom in Thaxted.

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* The novelist Raymond Chandler referred to his cat Taki as his 'secretary' because whenever Chandler tried to write anything, the creature would drape itself over his notepad or sit on the copy he wanted to revise. I have had this experience with a cat myself and have found it beguiling and maddening by turns.