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 Prospero’s Cell: ‘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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire, and beyond

Retrospective (2): A handful of fragments

As my next short sequence of backward-glancing links to celebrate ten years of blogging, I'm concentrating on fragments – those broken bits and pieces that can tell us so much about history – or occasionally fox us – while also being so evocative. Whether it's bits of medieval stained glass or chunks of old masonry, such unregarded scraps have often surfaced on the English Buildings blog over the last ten years. Here are a few you may have missed...

Tantalising bits of stained glass in Oxfordshire

Old bits of pottery put to architectural use in Northamptonshire

Traces of a mason's yard in Shrewsbury

A revealing broken pinnacle in Somerset

A whole wall of fragments in Gloucestershire.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dungeness, Kent, and more

Retrospect (1): a poetic handful

To celebrate ten years of blogging, I am going to do a short series of retrospectives, each highlighting a small selection of posts on some of miscellaneous themes that have preoccupied the English Buildings blog over the past decade. These past posts are some of my personal favourites, and all but the most dedicated of regular readers will have missed quite a few of them, so I hope the following links will give them another place in the sun.

The sun is relevant to the first of these posts, but the overriding theme here is poetry, and the way my encounters with buildings have reminded me of some favourite poems...

John Donne and Derek Jarman in Dungeness

Philip Larkin and doors in St John's Wood

Thomas Hardy and wagonettes in Worcestershire

P J Kavanagh, mourning, and temperance in Fulham

C P Cavafy and Patrick Leigh Fermor in Gloucestershire

Friday, July 7, 2017

A decade of English Buildings

Oh, pioneers! or, Ten years a blog

At the Amara Awards ceremony* last year, one of the other bloggers I was talking to asked how long I’d been blogging. ‘Over nine years now,’ I replied. ‘Nine years?’ she said. ‘Then you’re a pioneer!’  And now, in July 2017, it’s ten years. Ten years, a thousand posts, hundreds of thousands of readers.

I didn’t feel quite like a pioneer when I started out. The Resident Wise Woman had just begun blogging about our parallel life in the Czech Republic. There were quite a few other blogs around too, focusing on everything from politics to recipes, but not too many design or architectural blogs, and nothing doing quite what I wanted to do. The architecture blogs, for example, were most often about new architecture, and many blogs were just unadulterated opinion, much of it highly critical of whatever the blogger was writing about. I wanted to do something different – to be more appreciative, to cover historic architecture, to highlight buildings that were worth preserving, and to point out things that other people might not have noticed.

So, in a way, yes, I was a pioneer. And in a particular sense, in that I deliberately didn’t model my blog on what other people were doing, just saw that a blog might be a way of writing short pieces about buildings that I liked and that struck me, short pieces that might entertain a few friends and help me to remember some of the things I’d seen.

I am exercised, then, by the desire to preserve, to notice things that are fragile, and make a record of them – not necessarily before they fall down but before my memory of them fades. The poet Philip Larkin wrote memorably about how his main motivation for writing poems was to preserve transient experiences. There is something of that behind what I do. I’m not claiming any other sort of literary comparison with Larkin (for all that a generous friend has called some of my better posts ‘prose poems’), far from it. But I do recognise Larkin’s urge to preserve experiences. My blog posts themselves are preserved, archived for as long as Google is prepared to store them on its servers, and they can all be searched using the search box at the top of the screen, or accessed using the ‘blog archive’ links in the right-hand column.§

And, of course, I want to preserve historic architecture too. At least two architectural features noticed on the English Buildings blog (a striking civic heraldic gate pier and a remarkable Victorian shop sign) have disappeared since I posted about them; another, a piece of relief sculpture, has been carefully moved to save it from destruction. I’m also happy to dwell on memorable examples of preservation, such as the tiny church at Inglesham in Wiltshire (hich only exists at all thanks to William Morris) or the extraordinary Oxfordshire village of Great Tew (much of which was falling to pieces when I first saw it in the 1970s, but which is now thriving and beautiful). 

I’ve written before how I began blogging exactly two years after the July 2005 London bombings, which punched holes in several of London’s underground stations, destroyed a London bus, and killed 52 people, including a valued colleague. July 2007, the month I began blogging, was the month of the great floods in my home county of Gloucestershire, which brought further danger and destruction. People often talk of society’s lucky ones ‘giving things back’ and in a way, this blog is like that, giving back appreciation in the wake of destruction. It’s also, I suppose, giving back in the sense that it’s writing for no payment by someone who makes his bread as an author.

So I began – in Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, as it happens – writing down impressions of what I’d seen and posting them, together with a photograph or two (rarely more than one or two) for each post. I found that what interested me especially were buildings that weren’t ‘great architecture’. Not the big cathedrals and country houses that we mostly read about in architecture books, but the smaller buildings, or the unfashionable ones. Not the ‘good examples’ of architectural styles but the oddities and unclassifiable structures – privies, prefabs, sheds, shacks, small churches, architectural weirdos like Tenbury’s peculiar spa buildings (nineteenth century, prefabricated, and also wonderfully conserved in recent years) shown in the photograph above.

One thing I realised pretty quickly was that I’m not interested in architecture alone. Actually the adjuncts to architecture – carvings, painted signs, terracotta ornament, the crafts (from sculpture to stained-glass making) allied to architecture – these interest me as much as the architect’s work of creating spaces, ‘volumes’, plans, and elevations. And the settings of buildings and how they contribute to the character of a place and are part its history – Pope’s famous lines about consulting the genius of the place are often in my mind. I’m interested in all this, then, but not to the exclusion of architecture. I can get excited about a perfect Palladian facade, a medieval cathedral, or a great Picturesque landscape garden too. But I often try to find an unusual angle, an unregarded detail, or a different approach to such subjects when they appear on this blog. So you will find among my posts not only the beautiful dying gladiator (or dying Gaul) statue in the famous landscape garden at Rousham, Oxfordshire, but also the sculpted sign of the Dying Gladiator pub in Brigg, Lincolnshire: high art and low, nurturing one another and offering food for appreciation, to be enjoyed equally, as I enjoy both claret and beer.

And so it has continued. Roughly two posts a week, on everything from palaces to plotlands, for ten years. As I have work and commitments outside this blog, my blogging has had to be concerned mostly with places that I visit as part of the rest of my life. That means mostly places south of a line from the Humber to the Mersey. I am sorry that the North has had short shrift, but that is how it has had to be if the blog is not to take over my life.

It’s my perspective, then, and the places about which I blog get seen through the sometimes distorting lens of my interests. In Bath I am as likely to admire an Italianate villa or a cast-iron pissoir as the Georgian terraces and crescents for which the place is famous; in Brighton I might seem to ignore the celebrated Pavilion while lavishing praise on, say, some post-war relief carvings. There is more to say about this individual perspective and the surprises it can produce (an effect that I call ‘the shock of the view’), but for now, I’ll add simply that the web is full of images of the Royal Crescent and the Royal Pavilion; I can add to what’s there by concentrating on my more out-of-the-way interests.

What I have done seems to interest many of my readers and give them pleasure. If you’re reading this, you’re part of a much larger bunch than the group of friends I wrote for at the beginning. I feel grateful, because it means a lot to me that people read what I write. I am nurtured by the connections I’ve made with readers and have been nourished beyond my dreams by the information I’ve received via the Comments button and through emails. Over the years I have been pleased to find out more from readers about fin de siècle sculptors, round Norfolk church towers, the locations used in the television series Foyle’s War, shifting county boundaries, and all kinds of buildings, from pubs to petrol stations. There is more to be said about this, too, but the main thing to say, for now, is ‘Thank you’ – to all my readers, whether you have left feedback or not.¶

When I began I had no idea how long I’d be able to carry on. Would I run out of steam after six months, a year, two years? Five years, at the most, seemed enough; I had no thought that the blog would continue as long as it has. For now, I resolve to persevere with it. I can’t promise I’ll continue at the rate I’ve done in the past.† But I hope, if there’s a running-down of energy, that I’ll slow down rather than stop. I’m not ready to toast the next ten years, but I’ll raise a glass (see my picture in the right-hand column) to, in the words of the great Alan Bennett, keeping on keeping on.

Reflecting: your author, reflected in one of the mirrors inside a showman’s living van at Avoncroft Museum

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* I won the Amara Award for the best architecture blog twice, in 2015 and 2016. ‘Do they have term limits?’ asked a friend, thinking of the rules that forbid, say, a US President from serving more than two consecutive terms. Not as such, but Amara have decided to concentrate on their core interests, especially blogs covering interior design, so are not having an architecture award this year. I continue to wish them well, and remain grateful to the readers who nominated me and the judges who gave me the awards.

§ Another way of using the blog is via the links headed ‘About English Architecture’ in the right-hand column. These links take you to very short introductions to the architecture of England in different periods, and from these short texts there are links to some of my posts that act as examples of the kind of architecture of each period.  

¶ A word too of appreciation and gratitude to the friends who have started their own blogs in my wake. I have been particularly inspired, stimulated, amused, and educated by the blogs of three of my friends: Neil Philip’s blog Adventures in the Print Trade (a treasure house of art appreciation and history); novelist Joe Treasure’s reflections on literature and current events (with a transatlantic perspective that’s especially valuable in these interesting times); and Peter Ashley’s blog Unmitigated England, his series of revealing sideways glances at ‘a country lost and a country found’. All these bloggers are published authors who also do other things (lots of other things in some cases), and this shows, in the quality of their writing and the richness of what they say.

† I plan some book reviews and some retrospective posts this anniversary month, then back to the usual stuff, but perhaps at a rate nearer to one post per week than the twice-weekly postings I’ve managed in the past.

Monday, July 3, 2017

From Blackpool to Cowes


I don’t know when I first became aware of the photographs produced by Aerofilms Limited. Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it just seemed that every aerial photograph of a British subject reproduced in a book – a book about architecture or archaeology or scenery or whatever – was credited to the company. Gradually I realised how many they must have taken, and that they stood in a proud tradition. It was a tradition founded by the pioneers of aerial archaeology, the men (they were usually men in those days) who realised that you could see so much from an aircraft (lumps, bumps, crop marks, scorch marks, visual patterns and clues) that could tell you about the archaeology of a place, even about what was underground and could hardly be guessed at from the surface. People like O. G. S. Crawford*, pioneer of field archaeology and aerial archaeology; and Major George Allen, pilot and aerial photographer who thought nothing of taking his hands of the controls of his aeroplane to lean out and take photographs – and then leaning back in and changing the plate in his camera, while still flying ‘hands free’. And later on, people like the writer Ian Nairn, whose experience as a pilot helped turn him into an architectural critic because he wanted to tell people what he could see of buildings when he looked down on them from the sky.

For almost 100 years, aerial photography has been showing us our buildings and landscapes from revealing angles, and Aerofilms played a major part in this work. Three men in the photograph above are Aerofilms pilots and photographers in a De Havilland D9.B in 1919, the year the company was founded: clearly they have enough manpower to leave the pilot in control of the plane while someone else does the camera work.†

The other day I was reminded of all this when looking at something on the BBC website: a fascinating video celebration of Aerofilms’ work. Their early photographers went up in open-topped biplanes and leaned over the side of the cockpit to take images of whatever they could see when the weather was clear – town and country, industry and pastoral, buildings and other aircraft, everything from a cathedral to washing blowing on the line (a good flying day was also a good drying day).

Places and buildings depicted in the video include Blackpool, Windsor Castle, Highclere Castle, Chatsworth, Glasgow, Doncaster, Stoke (with its bottle kilns), Swindon (the GWR works looming large), Bracknell (before it was a new town), Romford (when it was still a market town), Coventry (before the bombing, but with clearances for new development already taking place), and St Paul's Cathedral. There are glimpses of sporting events such as cricket matches, Ascot, Wimbledon, the FA Cup final, and Cowes Week. The Aerofilms aircraft flies over plywood battleships, housing developments, and prefabs. We can see the ghosts of old field boundaries caught between streets of new houses. And the history of aviation, so germane to this project, is there with shots of biplanes, an autogyro, and the aftermath of the Aerofilms plane crashing into a lake.

The Aerofilms archive, which is being conserved and digitised by English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments for Scotland and Wales, is still a priceless resource. Here’s to those magnificent men.

Click the rectangle to play the video 

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*I often wondered what those initials stood for. Osbert Guy Stanhope, it turns out. His life (the life of his mind, especially) is carefully excavated and movingly evoked in Kitty Hauser’s outstanding book Bloody Old Britain: O. G. S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, 2008).
†For more on Aerofilms, see James Crawford et al,  Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above (English Heritage, 2014).
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The photograph at the top of this post is from the Aerofilms archive. The collection can be accessed via the Historic England website, here.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Abingdon, Berkshire*

Entirely satisfactory

Looking for something else in my file of photographs, I came across a couple I took years ago of the Old Anchor pub in Abingon. They reminded me that I must go back and take better pictures, but meanwhile I can’t resist sharing them. The building may have a 17th-century heart (there is some timber-framed construction around the back) hidden by this 19th-century red-brick front. The carved lettering, carefully filled in with black paint, stands out beautifully from the brickwork. It probably dates to 1884, when the pub’s licence was first taken out. The lettering of the pub name is a sans serif (or ‘grotesque’) form with plenty of clarity. Apart from the very short middle stroke to the E it’s unremarkable but very effective.
The italic letters making up the words ‘Morland’s’ and ‘Entire’ on either side are much more distinctive. Looking closely one can see the bevelled cut made into the stone and the delicate way in which the transition between the thick main strokes and the very thin strokes and serifs in handled. Looking on my shelves, I see that this lettering was noticed by designer and writer on letterforms Alan Bartram – he illustrates it in his book The English Lettering Tradition from 1700 to the Present Day. He points out that the source of these italics is in the traditional English letter,§ giving the characters their rich forms and ‘generous curves’. Bartram adds that contemporary ‘modern’ printing type may have influenced the strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.

Then there’s the wording: ‘Morland’s Entire’. When I saw that, I wondered if it was referring to a specific type of beer, or an indication that only this particular brewery’s beer was served here. Wrong. A friend sent me to Chamber’s Dictionary, which gives ‘Entire, noun. Porter or stout as delivered from the brewery.’ I’m not sure you could get that here now, but it seems that they still have Morland’s beer in the bar. They also play Aunt Sally† in the garden. English pubs are full of surprises.

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* It’s in Oxfordshire nowadays, but I persist in using the old English counties and boundaries, for reasons I’ve gone into before, namely my sentimental liking for the old counties, my interest in their history, and the fact that they are also used in reference books such as Pevsner’s Buildings of England series.

§ Which he characterises as a ‘seriffed, varied-weight (stressed) letter’ with ‘a rich full shape, a vertical stress, and a fairly sharp gradation from thick to thin strokes’.

† A game in which sticks or battens are thrown at a wooden figure, traditionally a model of an old woman. The website of the Abingdon and District Aunt Sally Association (‘You know it’s good when you hear the wood’) is here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Artillery Row, London

Call the nymphs and the fauns from the woods

Terracotta panels stretch across English buildings of the late-19th century like a riotous procession of ornament slowly drowning in sunset. The sunset of the gods. And sometimes it is gods, or creatures who live with the gods of classical mythology, alongside the more usual architectural decorations, the strapwork, foliage, and sunflowers that also appear with profusion in this kind of ornament. A lot of this sort of stuff is here, running along the walls of Westminster Palace Gardens in London’s Victoria, to delight the eye and puzzle the mind.

My details show a representative sample: naked nymphs and/or goddesses, including a reclining one with a sickle (perhaps a corn or harvest goddess like Ceres), small childlike figures with hirsute legs (fauns?), one attempting to grab at a passing bird. More birds, some of which merge into the scrolls and strap work that weave in and out of the background. It was towards the end of the day when I last passed, and the roseate burnt clay panels were glowing.  
So that afternoon the panels were beautifully effective, as they have been on such afternoons since 1899, when the block was completed to designs by C J Chirney Pawley. The finishing touch is the ceramic lettering above the entrance, just visible here, using a very clear letterform but with the odd concession to the style of the period, such as the little flourish on the A. The decoration is a winning mix, then, of urban and rural. I’m glad that nymphs and fauns sport a few yards from the bustle and traffic of Victoria Street.

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There are more images on Victorian Web, here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Balham, London

Spreading it around

The stations on the Morden extension of London’s Northern Line were designed by Charles Holden. They were the architect’s first job for the Underground (he later went on to design more stations, including textbook examples of station modernism, such as Arnos Grove on the Piccadilly Line). Balham’s station, which opened in 1926, has two ground-level buildings, both on corners at the same road junction, both clad in white Portland stone, and both displaying the Underground roundel prominently.

The central roundel, clearly visible in my picture, is in the glass of the large window that lights the double-height ticket hall by day and sends light out on to the street at might. What I’d not noticed until I looked closely when taking the picture was the design of the pair of columns that divide the window in three. These are very plain and square except at the top, where something charming happens. Instead of a capital at the head of the column there’s a three-dimensional stone version of the roundel, with a sphere instead of a disc. This ‘3D roundel’ appears on the other Holden stations on the Morden extension too.
No doubt Frank Pick, the Underground director* who commissioned Holden to design the station, appreciated this detail. Pick was the man who masterminded the design of the Underground, making the look of the network consistent – not just the stations, but all the publicity, the signage, the schematic map† of the lines, and so on. Pick made sure that the roundel was used widely – in stations and on platforms, trains, posters, advertisements… This subtle addition to the collection of roundels must have pleased him. 

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* He was Joint Assistant Managing Director when Balham station opened, and still had several promotions ahead of him. Even when a senior director he maintained the interest in design and publicity that he had always had.

† Or diagram, as its creator Harry Beck insisted it should be called. The famous diagram first appeared in 1931.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

A symphony of semicircles

John Piper once wrote an essay called ‘The Gratuitous Semicircle’,¶ in which he noticed the use of half-round or Diocletian windows in English buildings – especially buildings in a kind of ‘country Palladian’ style. I’m reminded of this whenever I go through Moreton-in-Marsh. Stopping there a couple of weeks ago for a brief evening promenade,* the Resident Wise Woman and I once more admired this building full of semi-circles as it caught the evening sun.

It was built as a house in the mid-18th century. It’s topped with a pair of very swanky curved gables and a balustraded parapet. Below is a profusion of the kinds of windows§ that were fashionable then. First, the three-part Venetian windows, which provincial builders of this period like to use for effect, sometimes one in the middle of a frontage, sometimes more,† here on either side of the doorway. Second, the half-round Diocletian windows, which fit well under gables but here are deployed right along the upper floor, not because they fit the space especially well, perhaps just because of the way they look, echoing gracefully the curves of the Venetian windows and the old cart door on the right.

Add that to a grand if narrow doorway with pediment and fanlight, raise the whole thing on a high plinth, add a couple of wings with more semicircular windows and you have a big building with a sense that its creator had the elements of the Palladian style at his fingertips, together with a free and easy attitude towards how to lay them out. Nature, in the form of warm, low, early summer sunshine on glowing limestone, does the rest.

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Architectural Review, October 1943

* This post is another of my retrospective pieces, inspired by a visit to Moreton before my recent injury rendered my leg useless, for even such brief strolls, for the moment.

§ Clicking on the photograph to enlarge it makes these clearer.

† There's a good example of the profuse use of Venetian windows here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

South Newington, Oxfordshire

Adding value

When visiting a place with a specific architectural goal in mind, I usually take the time to have a walk around and see what other buildings I can find nearby. You never know what gems can be hiding in quiet corners, and such discoveries can give my visits added value. So when I stopped in South Newington to look at the wonderful wall paintings in the church, I strolled* around the village and found, among other things, a tiny converted Primitive Methodist chapel (too hemmed in by cars to take a photograph worth sharing) and this building, which is the village hall.

A pleasant bit of North Oxfordshire vernacular architecture, built of the local butterscotch-coloured stone, set in its own grounds: it must be an asset for the village. But it has not always been the village hall. What we’re also looking at here is an early Quaker meeting house, built in the 17th century, set in its own burial ground. There’s even a datestone, to confirm the construction in 1692. It’s not much changed on the outside, except for the 1920s addition of the porch (and perhaps the side extension). Quakers met here until the 19th century. The structure is labelled ‘Friends Meeting House’ on a map of 1875, although by then it was leased to the Methodists, with the Quakers said to be still using it occasionally. It became the village hall in 1925 – a case of architectural added value if ever there was one.
Datestone: The date 1692 is just discernible in the bottom line of the inscription.

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* I wrote this post a few days ago. Shortly afterwards I injured a leg, so strolling will be minimal for a while. Blogging, however will continue: I intend to use the mishap as an opportunity to post some previously visited buildings that I have been meaning to share with you.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Great Brington, Northamptonshire


In the town where I live (population roughly 6,000) the Post Office has closed and we now have a Post Office counter in the town’s branch of the Co-op. The Co-op staff do very well in the small space allocated to this in my view important function, and they open longer hours than the Post Office did, but it’s still not the same.

How refreshing then, to find small villages where the Post Office still functions. Here’s the Post Office in Great Brington, which seems to be going strong, the archetypal village Post Office with stone walls under, thatched roof, and tiny shop window – presumably it was once a cottage but no matter, its central location is the most important thing. Post Offices are local hubs, places where people meet, talk, exchange news, read notices, and network, and this function is nearly as important as the posting of letters and parcels, and the doing of the many other small financial and administrative tasks that Post Offices still perform, even in their somewhat diminished modern form. Perhaps the fact that a bench has generously been provided on the pavement outside reflects this role of the Post Office as a local centre.
Clearly this Post Office has been doing the business for decades. I found a 1922 photograph of it online, with its Post Office sign up and another sign telling customers that the services on offer then included ‘money orders, savings bank, parcel post, telegraph, insurance and annuity business’. That sign has gone, but the worn wooden Post Office sign, also visible in the 1922 photograph, is still there, faded but just about legible. It’s not exactly essential – the letter box (a George VI era wall box) and red sign above the door tell us where we are. But it is pleasing that it’s still here to remind us of the office’s long history.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Guiting Power, Gloucestershire

Brewery plaques (1): The best in the west

People like to know what they’re getting. Most of us read the menus posted near the doors of restaurants. And a lot of us want to know what kind of beer a pub serves, especially if it’s a tied house. One way of making this clear is with a plaque showing the company’s symbol and name, a simple and appealing graphic device that can be just as effective as writing the brewery’s name in big letters across the front of the pub. Several breweries adopted ceramic plaques that could be mounted on the outside walls of pubs, somewhere near eye-level, and which became instantly recognisable.

One particularly effective design is the stylised castle used by the Cheltenham Original Brewery, later Cheltenham and Hereford Breweries, later still West Country Breweries. The name changes came after mergers, and all the companies used these plaques with the castle and the slogan ‘The best in the west’. Plaques from the last incarnation, West Country Ales (see the image below), are still quite common. They were used between 1958 and about 1967, by which time the company had been taken over by Whitbread. But I’ve seen one ‘Cheltenham and Hereford Ales’ plaque, on the former Foxhill Inn in the Cotswolds, on the B4068 near Guiting Power. This plaque, shown in my photograph above, must date to some time between 1947 and 1958, when this name was current. The building no longer functions as a pub, but the plaque is a bit of its history that has been preserved.

These attractive plaques were produced by Royal Doulton of Lambeth in London, whose architectural ceramics I’ve featured several times on this blog. Barley and hops trail around the border of the plaque and the castle or tower design is instantly recognisable. It’s a clear design, easy to spot, and, although the colours vary a bit, the tower usually stands out from a deep blue sky. In Gloucestershire there are still so many of the of the West Country Ales plaques around that we take them rather for granted. But more than a passing glance reveals that the design is a class act.
West Country Ales plaque, Gloucester

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Avoncroft, Worcestershire

Taking its toll

Thinking about the bridge house at Cookham in the previous post reminded me not only of the numerous toll houses I’ve seen by the sides of main roads up and down England but also, specifically, of one at the Avoncroft Museum. This little building was rescued in around 1985 and was resited at the museum, where it has a pleasant leafy site. It was originally built in 1822 at Little Malvern, Worcestershire, for the collection of tolls by the Upton upon Severn Turnpike Trust. Back in the 19th century, anyone wanting to travel along this particular stretch of road in a landau had to fork out sixpence in the old money, but if you brought only your horse, the charge was ‘a penny-ha’penny’, or 1.5 of the old pence.

The house takes the usual polygonal form of these turnpike houses, and although it’s quite a plain brick building, it has the fancy Gothic glazing that was fashionable in the early-19th century. It no longer stands by a roadside, but the people at Avoncroft have put up a gate outside, to give an impression of the original set-up, with passersby stopping at the gate to pay their money before being allowed to pass through on to the turnpike road.
The joy of places like Avoncroft is that they restore the insides of their buildings, and visitors can go inside to look at the spartan but charming interior: a living room and scullery downstairs and two bedrooms above. The ground floor has quarry tiles, an iron range for cooking and heating, and very basic pine furniture. Upstairs there is an iron bedstead, a wooden child’s cradle, and a chest of drawers. Under the bed is the necessary chamber pot. The house had an earth closet in the garden, and when the building moved to Avoncroft, that came too. The life of another era? Maybe, but I remember in the 1960s that my grandparents got by with the same sanitary arrangements in their remote Lincolnshire cottage. Places like Avoncroft remind us that the remote past is not as remote as it seems.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cookham, Berkshire...and Buckinghamshire

Where is it?

It’s odd, said a Czech friend, how many English houses have their chimneys at the end. We were having this conversation in southern Bohemia, surrounded by houses with chimneys right in the middle of the building, where the warmth they generate helps to heat the whole of the house. I was showing him Cotswold pictures, and here every house seemed to have its chimneys at the end, in the gable. I explained that this was partly to do with history – many of these houses had started as timber-framed buildings, with a brick chimney built as a semi-independent structure, to best protect against fire damage. The layout survived the change to stone building.

Of course, end chimneys are not the invariable rule. Here’s a house of an unusual shape, with a chimney right in the centre of its octagonal plan. The building is a toll house, and such houses were often polygonal, so that the person inside could see traffic coming from different directions. With such a building it seems natural to put the chimney in the middle, both for convenience – keeping the fireplaces away from the walls, freeing them up for windows – and aesthetics.

When I saw this small brick tollhouse on the end of Cookham Bridge, I looked it up in Pevsner’s Berkshire volume. There was the entry for the bridge (1867, iron, by Pierce, Hutchinson and Co of Darlington, with quatrefoils on the parapet). So far, so good. But no entry for the tollhouse. Then it dawned on me. Here we are right on the border between Berks and Bucks – the river (it’s the Thames) marks the boundary. The tollhouse is in Buckinghamshire. It’s said to be early-19th century, so perhaps it’s older than the bridge. It still seems to be used as a house, and though the days of tolls for this particular crossing are long gone is still a shining example of usefulness and elegance.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Longleat, Wiltshire

Illustrations of the month: Servants’ Hall

A good browse in a favourite secondhand bookshop the other day threw up a small surprise. I was attracted by a book cover bearing the title Before the Sunset Fades and an illustration of a group of people standing in front of a tent. The author’s name was The Marchioness of Bath. The fact that the purple colour of the cover had itself faded added poignancy to the effect: surely this was going to be a lament for the country house life that declined in the period between the two World Wars, written by one who could remember the days of glory?

Well, yes, in a way. This small work of 1951 is indeed about the life of the great house in its Edwardian and Georgian heyday, but most of the book is actually about the lives and duties of the servants. In its brief 32 pages, it tells us about the life of the kitchen, the stillroom, the butler’s pantry, and the rest of the below-stairs world. It recalls servants’ balls and shooting parties, the jobs of the coachman and the bothy boy and the ‘tiger’. It illustrates the servants’ hall and the housekeeper’s parlour.
Longleat: The housekeeper in her parlour
The illustrations are by Cecil Beaton. Beaton is best known as a photographer. He started in the 1920s and by the following decade was a key man on Vogue, having a long career in fashion and society photography and in the post-war period he was a bright old thing, still active and influencing a younger generation of photographers including David Bailey. He was also a notable stage designer.

Beaton was not a great draughtsman, but the illustrations he did for the Marchioness’s book are charming and do a good job at evoking a world unknown to most people. I like the rather stern-looking housekeeper in her parlour, in which a riot of Beatonian squiggles evokes the rather fussy patterned carpet and wallpaper, or the economy with which kitchen workers are caught at their task. The book and its illustrations also summon up forgotten rituals, such as the ceremonial removal of the joint of meat from the servants’ hall after everyone had taken their fill – a procession headed by the steward’s room footman, followed by the ‘upper servants’.

For an upper-class author to dwell on the work of her servants in this way was quite unusual in 1951, even if the overall tone is one of nostalgia – something, the author says, that was shared by the staff themselves – for the allegedly ‘good old days’. She only occasionally allows a note of regret that the servants’ lives weren’t better, noting for example how arduous was the work of the housemaids who were constantly carrying hot water jugs to bedrooms and moving heavy hip-baths around the place. But to write about this at all was unusual. It was decades before the National Trust began to devote the effort they do now to displaying below-stairs areas in country houses and explaining the lives of the staff in kitchen, pantry, and garden. It’s interesting to see the Marchioness and her illustrator doing this just six years after the end of the war.
Longleat: the kitchen

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

The colours of memory

I’ve gone on before about the stick-on advertising signs that shopkeepers sometimes put on their windows, and how these stick-on signs sometimes stick around for many years. I was reminded of this the other night in Moreton-in-Marsh when I came across this particularly evocative example: a Kodak sign that is obviously quite old, though I don’t know how old.

We’re back in the analogue era here, when most people took their films in to the local chemist to be developed and printed. Digital photography changed all this, of course, and it has been around for decades now – and was becoming popular when the new millennium got going. This Kodak sign goes further back than that, I think. The emphasis on colour and the use of the curve-sided box, like an old TV screen, have a rather 1970s feel. Those were the days, when many people still had black and white TVs, and when colour was something to shout about.

Having taken my digital photograph of this analogue sign and downloaded it on to the computer, I noticed another story that it has to tell. The yellow band of colour on the left is actually not part of the sign. Do you notice how it’s wider than the other bands, and that there’s no white line separating it from the band next door, as there is with the others? It looks as if, having got hold of a sign that wasn’t big enough to go right across the window, the shopkeeper retained part of a previous sign (maybe even a yellow Kodak one of a still earlier era) to fill the gap – and make the whole width of the window glow with Kodak colour.

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Links to other stick-on signs I’ve posted:

Procea bread and the Procea bakerman, in Bromyard and Cheltenham
Atlas bulbs and Wilkinson Sword gardening tools in Ludlow
Every Ready batteries in Uppingham
Tea in Winchcombe
Ariel motorcycles in Frome

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Balham, London

The colours of London

Walking around Balham with a friend and local resident the other week I was struck by the number of Victorian and Edwardian houses built of white bricks. I’m used to thinking of London as built in a mixture of red bricks and yellow London stock bricks – when I lived in London my own house was built of such a mixture. But in some streets in Balham there seem to be almost as many white bricks as reds and stocks. I knew about Suffolk whites, but the origin of the white bricks in London is varied – there are a number of places as well as Suffolk with clay containing the amount of lime that produces the white colour. In this house they’re combined with reds, to decorative and glowing effect.

I also admired the tiled paths in this part of London. This house has a path of terracotta- and buff-coloured tiles, producing an effect similar to the medieval encaustic tiles still occasionally found in old churches. Even worn, like these, they make a beautiful approach to the front door, which clearly has an impressive display of stained glass too. London can be a colourful place, if you stop and look.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Photographers’ Gallery, London

The street where you lived

There are still a few weeks for anyone within striking distance of London to see the current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery of the work of British photographer Roger Mayne (1929–2014). Mayne is remembered particularly for his images of street life – notably of young people – in London in the 1950s and 1960s. He is especially associated with this point in British history, when children still played in city streets, when local communities were tightly knit, and when the first generation to be known as teenagers were making their mark.

His most famous sequences of photographs was taken in West London’s Southam Street, which soon after he made the pictures was flattened to make way for Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. The exhibition shows these images, as well as others taken in Leeds, and a group showing young workers in the Raleigh Cycle factory in Nottingham. Some of the images were used on the covers of Penguin and Pelican books, of which a selection are included too. One can see why Penguin chose Mayne's images: he nails his subjects decisively, time after time.
Roger Mayne, Park Hill Estate, Sheffield 
Photograph © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library

Another group, which appeared in the magazine Architectural Design in September 1963, capture Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, which was designed in the early-1960s as a council estate in one huge building, by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, working in Sheffield Corporation’s City Architect’s department under J. L. Womersley. What’s striking about these images is the way they rewrite the rules of architectural photography. Instead of pristine buildings in a setting empty of human life, Mayne’s pictures have people everywhere – chatting on walkways, sauntering on pavements, playing outdoors. They’re refreshing and lively, in a way that so many photographs of new buildings are not.

The final part of the exhibition contains an installation, a whole exhibition in itself, called The British At Leisure. This was made for the Milan Triennale in 1964 and consists of 310 colour photographs projected on to screens, to the accompaniment of a specially written jazz score and the constant clacking and clunking of five Carousel slide projectors. Here are people playing every imaginable sport from cricket to cycling, people relaxing in parks and cafés, at the opera or art gallery, fishing, gardening, motoring, enjoying Christmas and November 5th, sunning themselves on the beach, sailing model boats, riding, showing dogs, and so on and on. It’s a kaleidoscope of British life in the early-1960s, and I was riveted.

This is a terrific exhibition of work by a man who insisted that photography is an art and who proved it in image after image, who portrayed a time in British history like no one else, and whose work endures for its ability, again and again, to capture decisive moments.

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The images are © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library
The exhibition ends on 11 June.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire


I don’t recall coming across a Methodist chapel so ornately Classical as the one in Burford. The entrance front is in a local version of the Baroque style made fashionable by architects such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh (we’re not too far from Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace here). This is very much not the curvaceous Baroque of mainland Europe, but the British Baroque – a style that makes architecture theatrical with visual devices such as banded rustication (the horizontal bands in the masonry), an emphasis on size or height (the narrow windows help make the building seem higher than it is), big keystones over the windows, and doorways with Gibbs surrounds (the protruding square blocks are the key feature of this sort of door surrounded, popularised by James Gibbs, architect of St Martin in the Fields, London).

It’s an unusual chapel, and that’s because it was originally a private house. It was built for a lawyer called Jordan in 1720–30 and remained a house until 1849, when it was converted to a chapel by removing the interior floors to make a large hall and installing a gallery for extra seating. At this time the urns that decorated the parapet (another Baroque feature) were removed. It's interesting to find a house converted into a chapel: these days, one is more likely to find the opposite – a redundant chapel made into a house. Its rich combination of banded masonry, tall Corinthian pilasters, and all the Baroque features make the chapel’s facade a striking feature on Burford’s main street. Even though it is set back from the main building line, it stands out.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Brodsworth, South Yorkshire

The privy corner of the garden

It’s not long since we had a lavatory on the blog, but these matters have been in the news recently. English Heritage have just restored a garden privy at Brodsworth Hall, Yorkshire, one of their country houses. Brodsworth is a grand Victorian building that has a place in my affections because the architect was a man called Philip Wilkinson, an otherwise little known figure. I don’t know who designed this privy, though, a brick structure that has been submerged in ivy for years but has now been given a new lease of life by English Heritage.

The simple brick building now has a fine pergola-style porch with a lovely concave roof. Inside the wooden seat seems to be ready and waiting. The big house had flush lavatories by the time this privy was put up in 1864, but the owners, the Thelluson daily, clearly felt the need for a little extra convenience in the garden. They clearly valued their garden and spent plenty of time there. The little building is sheltered by a yew hedge and is now surrounded by sweet-smelling plants – roses, orange blossom and so on – to mask any unpleasant odours. 

This privy was for the use of the family and guests. The only time the servants went in (officially that is) was to clean it and empty the bucket.  No doubt the garden benefitted from what was collected. Buckets of congratulations to English Heritage for preserving this special little building.

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The photograph is from the English Heritage website and is presumably Copyright © English Heritage 2017

For more photographs, visit EH’s website here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

Ancient peace

Modern life, even here in the country, involves a lot of noise. Traffic, tractors, chainsaws, guns, the sounds of restoration, the crashes and bangs gleefully made by the people (known as the ‘clanky men’ in our house) who collect the glass bottles we put out for recycling. It’s part of life, and I accept it for what it is – and put on noise-cancelling headphones, or head for the hills. If it’s the hills, you will not be surprised to learn that it’s often some tranquil architectural setting where I end up. Often a church. Churches have more uses than the purely or conventionally religious ones. Churches: places to be quiet in and maybe even to ‘grow wise in’ (Philip Larkin*). Or graveyards: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards’ (Samuel Beckett, naturally†). I have posted before about a couple of local favourites, Elkstone, a cherished Norman building, and Farmcote, partly Saxon, partly Tudor. Both attract me back, partly for the architecture, partly for the quiet.
Going back, there is always something different to see or learn. At Farmcote, talking to a local resident, I learned that the unassuming building in my second photograph started life as one of the farm buildings of the great Cistercian abbey of Hailes, just over the hill from here; a granary I think. It shouldn’t be a surprise. All over these hills the Cistercians must have run sheep and grown crops. Any building of great age in an outlying farm around here might have some medieval origin involving the monks. Their abbey may be in ruins, but their presence is still palpable, as palpable as that of the sheep, still ubiquitous on the Cotswolds, who break the rural silence with that gentle baaing noise of their own.

* ‘Church Going’
† Oh, it is mean not to quote just a little more: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.’ Samuel Beckett, First Love, with an unfailing eye, and nose, on the word ‘must’.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Castle Cary, Somerset

Round house

Regular readers will have noticed my fascination with lock-ups, those small town or village prisons, generally used to hold miscreants temporarily – either until they sober up or until they can be brought before a magistrate. I suppose what particularly interests me about those small structures is the various ingenious ways in which they are roofed, often with stone in order to make this part of the building as strong and secure as the walls. The roof here is shaped like a bell (or like some kinds of military helmet), and so adds a touch of distinction to the square behind the town hall, where this lock-up has stood since 1779.
As usual with this kind of building there are no windows – just small grilles in the lower section of the roof to provide ventilation. It must be dark inside (in some places the lock-up is known as the ‘blind house’, from the lack of fenestration) and uncomfortable. But the round shape, unusual roof, and ball finial give it a touch of visual distinction, so that it acts as a better visual focus from outside than many a larger prison. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bosbury, Herefordshire

Tower power

The first thing you notice on approaching Holy Trinity, Bosbury, is the tower. There’s nothing unusual in that except that this tower is detached from the main body of the church. There are quite a few detached towers in Herefordshire,* and it’s sometimes said that the reason for their detachment is that they were built as defensive structures, in case of incursions from over the Welsh border. 

It’s difficult to say if that’s true. In the case of Bosbury, the tower’s walls are very thick and its windows very small – noticeably smaller than many windows of the 13th century, when the tower was built. These are useful attributes for a defensive structure. Against that, there’s an argument that towers are not very effective for defence, as their internal floors make them vulnerable to attack by one of the most widespread medieval weapons – fire; although in this case the small windows make the building hard to attack in this way.

Clearly, not every detached church tower in Herefordshire was for defence. The tower at Pembridge is made mainly of wood, and that at Yarpole has a wooden upper section: they are bell towers, pure and simple. This one at Bosbury and other similar stone towers in the area seem different, though whether built for defensive purposes, to express a preference for particularly chunky architecture, or for some other reason, is difficult to say.

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*Pevsner lists seven detached Herefordshire towers and another four that were originally free-standing but later joined to the building they serve. I have previously blogged about the one at Richard’s Castle.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Malvern, Worcestershire

Mobile architecture (2): Ancient

I'm stepping outside my comfort zone because I want to share the reconstruction of a medieval tent that I saw at the Malvern Heritage Festival shortly after admiring the café-in-a-caravan featured in my previous post

I don't know much about the history of tents, but I was attracted to the look of this one. Its owner, who was sitting outside making metal mail armour, told me that plain red had been chosen for the top because of the historical evidence. Illuminated manuscripts from most of the medieval period tend to show plain-coloured tents; the striped tents familiar from films and television dramas tend to be a bit later – from the end of the Middle Ages or just afterwards.

The other thing he pointed out about the tent was the structure, which is supported both by hemp guy ropes and by a wooden framework – the latter has a series of spokes like an umbrella which you can see inside the tent. This dual structure makes the tent very stable, and this was demonstrated in practice when maybe about a year ago it was pitched on the rise near Raglan Castle and stood firm during a gale while other tents nearby were blowing down. It was also very warm and snug inside. I've never been an enthusiast for camping, but in something like this, I could maybe take to life under canvas.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Malvern, Worcestershire

Mobile architecture (1): Modern

Spotted in Malvern during the heritage festival this weekend was this memorable caravan, which I think of as a piece of mobile architecture. When I first saw it across the abbey churchyard I thought it must be an American Airstream, but it's actually British, and made by a company called Rocket, based in Stourport-on-Severn, who build aluminium caravans (both touring and, like this one, for businesses) to customers' specifications. It's shiny, eye-catching, looks very well made, and contains a mobile café that was doing good business. The cheerful person behind the counter, just visible in the shadows in my photograph, dispensed me an excellent cup of tea. She told me that Café Eight Three is available for all kinds of events, parties, festivals, weddings, etc, etc – you can find out more about the café here.

Please note A deadline approaches, so my posts will probably be shorter over the next few weeks. My apologies, and with them my hopes that brevity will be if not the soul, at least the occasional embodiment, of wit.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kinnersley, Herefordshire

Painter and decorator

The Victorian architect G F Bodley had close links to the Herefordshire village of Kinnersley. His wife's family came from the village and Bodley is also buried in the churchyard here. The church (originally built in around 1300) was restored by Thomas Nicholson in 1867–69, and a couple of years later Bodley designed painted decoration for the chancel and nave. So this modest country church has a a scheme of decoration by one of the foremost (some would say the foremost) church architect of the time. There is a richly painted chancel ceiling with flowers, sun motifs, and inscriptions of the 'IHS' monogram and 'Alleluia'. The nave walls above the arcade are also painted and both parts of the church are emblazoned with quotations from St Thomas Aquinas and the Book of Common Prayer.

The painted decoration that Bodley designed was executed by the rector, the Rev Frederick Andrews, who must have been highly competent – an unusual, but by no means unique, collaboration between architect and rector. Andrews seems to have tried out the colours on a pillar near the west end of the nave (below) – the greens and reds are especially in evidence in the wall paintings in my photograph at the beginning of this post; the blues were used in combination with these colours in the chancel and on the chancel arch. These small marks are a tangible reminder of the presence of the person who applied the paint – someone we often overlook in our admiration of the architect. Both of them deserve due credit.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Elmley Castle, Worcestershire

Easter offering

I’ll not rabbit on about this. It’s a small carving, crudely but vigorously done, set into the wall of the north porch of the church at Elmley Castle. Its date is not, I think, known, but the context is a wall of the 15th or 16th century, in which several older fragments, some of them identifiably Norman, are set. When I saw it, it made me smile. Looking at buildings we ask for many qualities, from utility to sublimity. Charm has its place too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

From Liverpool to Sheffield...

...from the 1860s to the 1960s: Peter Ellis’s ups and downs

It’s interesting, the way one finds out about things.

A very long time ago (it would have been in the 1970s), I was advised by at least three people, including my college tutor and some close friends, to read the novel Changing Places by David Lodge. This is a very funny account of two men, one British, one American, both professors of English Literature, who swap jobs for a year as part of an academic exchange scheme. Aside from all the other interesting things about the book (the characters, the writing), it gives the novelist a wonderful way of talking about two cultures, about how English was taught in two different milieus (Lodge was also a professor of English), about fiction itself.

Much of this has stuck with me, but there, is (you saw it coming?) an architectural footnote to all this. Towards the end of the novel there’s a funny scene set in a modernist tower block in the British university. This tower is fitted with a special sort of lift (or elevator, in transatlantic English) called a paternoster, up and down which one character chases another.* For those of you who don’t know, a paternoster is an ‘endless chain’ elevator, which has two shafts instead of one, and a number of lift cars instead of one. The cars are open-fronted and move continuously in a cycle, up one shaft and down the other – and you enter and leave them while they are moving. The advantages are that you don’t have to wait – there is always a lift arriving, and the carrying capacity is much greater than a conventional elevator because of the number of cars. The drawback is that you have to be able to get in and out quickly.¶

For years, for me, the paternoster remained something in a book. I’d never seen one. Then I went to the city of Zlín in the Czech Republic, and looked at the headquarters tower of the Bat’a shoe company. And there is was, a paternoster, quietly moving up and down on its well oiled chains and pulleys and gears, as it had been doing for well over 70 years. I discovered that there are quite a few paternosters in Central Europe (the Czechs have a thing about them and the Germans are not far behind) and one or two in England, although in many places, because of health and safety concerns, they move no more.†

Until recently, the received wisdom has been that the paternoster was invented in the 1870s by the engineer Peter Hart. However, Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones have shown that an earlier patent was taken out – by none other than the Liverpool architect Peter Ellis, architect of Oriel Chambers, the building in my previous post.§ Apparently Oriel Chambers had a paternoster, fitted soon after Ellis’s 1866 patent was taken out, though it does no longer. For some reason, Ellis did not renew his patent, and Ainsworth and Jones speculate that someone else may have bought the rights from him.

Ellis, who was clearly a talented engineer as well as an architect, has several inventions to his credit, such as an improved water closet, a secure letterbox, and an omnibus incorporating a device for preventing crew from pocketing some of the fare money. They are all answers to specific problems, addressed with thoughtful engineering solutions. The paternoster too is like this in the way it increases capacity and reduces waiting times. The inventor even tried to address the problems of those who are unable to get on and off quickly by adding a braking device so that the endless chain could be temporarily halted. For all this, and for being mesmerized by one a few years ago in Zlín, I like paternosters. I think one can admire their ingenuity while admitting that they’ve had their time. And I increasingly admire Peter Ellis’s ingenuity the more I find out about him.

The video above, with footage from Sheffield University's arts tower, explains a bit more about how paternosters work; the discovery of Ellis's invention came after the film was made.
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* A huge simplification of what is going on, but it will do for now.

¶ The name 'paternoster' (Our Father) comes from a comparison of this type of lift with a string of rosary beads. David Lodge taught at Birmingham University, which in many ways serves as the model for the University of Rummidge in the novel. As far as I know, Birmingham University does not have a paternoster, although there was one at the nearby university of Aston. Lodge would not doubt have known this one, as well as the one in Sheffield. Not that it matters where he got this idea from.

† The Zlín building also has another memorable lift, a large one in which the office of the company boss Tomáš Bat’a was installed, so he could work on any floor he chose. Truly the Czechs go up and down with style.

§ Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society, 2013)

Finally, thanks to Joe Treasure, whose picture of Oriel Chambers used in my previous post set this not-quite-endless train of thoughts in motion.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Water Street, Liverpool

Blowing bubbles

The third of my Liverpudlian trio is Oriel Chambers, an office block in Water Street that has been catching eyes since 1864. It was designed by Liverpool architect Peter Ellis (who did the equally striking 16 Cook Street and a number of other, less notable, Liverpool buildings) and it has always fascinated me.

What’s striking at first glance is the amount of glass, and its arrangement. Dozens of similar oriel windows protrude from building’s two street facades. They have very narrow glazing bars, so the effect is almost like a series of glass bubbles. There are no structural outer walls. This is a framework building, and the frame is of cast iron, although the material is concealed from the world by a thin cladding of stone.

So, how very modern, one thinks, for 1864: a tall, metal-framed building with a ‘curtain wall’ of glass, like a 20th-century skyscraper. And yet, also, how old-fashioned: the metal is covered with stone, and the skyline is punctuated with pinnacles that look almost Gothic. The oriels themselves have little finials too. So it’s a mixture, this building, and no less fascinating for that.
When it was built, the press disliked it. Building News thought the oriels looked as if they were ‘trying to escape from the building’ and called it ‘greenhouse architecture gone mad’. A Liverpool critic in a satirical magazine called The Porcupine called the building ‘this vast abortion’ and said that ‘the plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior, as a building, to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles.’ They didn’t much bother about the back of the building, which is even more remarkably modern, as the video below about Oriel Chambers and Ellis’s Cook Street block, reveals.

There used to be a lot of speculation that Ellis’s career was derailed by the contemporary criticism he received for Oriel Chambers. But historians Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones* have researched the architect’s life and work, and have found a man quietly thriving as an architect and surveyor – and pursuing new directions, which I hope to cover in a further post. Meanwhile, we can, I think, admire Oriel Chambers as a fascinating building that looks forward to modernist architecture while also glancing back towards tradition: not a bad way of working, to my mind. His building is an asset to Liverpool and deservedly famous.

With many thanks once more to Joe Treasure for the pictures of Oriel Chambers.

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* Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society, 2013)