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Preview: English Buildings

English Buildings

Meetings with remarkable buildings

Updated: 2018-04-21T17:54:13.279+01:00


Down Street, London


On the tracks of old railways (1): Identity

Go on. You know what this is, or what it was, don’t you? If you’ve lived in London, or been to London, and you’re not rich enough to ride around all the time in taxis, you’ll recognise the style straight away. Oxblood-coloured tiles, semicircular windows a bit like the Diocletian windows used in Roman and Palladian architecture, classical details like the dentil course at the top, the occasional Art Nouveau curlicue. But especially those oxblood tiles. It’s an underground station, of course, or, in this case, Down Street Station having closed in 1932, a former underground station. It was never heavily used, being close to other stations on the network and in a well-to-do area in which relatively few people took the tube; those who wanted a train could easily get one at nearby Hyde Park Corner or Dover Street (now Green Park).

That we know immediately what this building is or was is down to Leslie Green, architect to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, who was tasked in 1903 with designing new stations on lines then opening that later became parts of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Northern lines on the modern tube network. Green designed all these stations, about 50 of them, between 1903 and his death in 1908 at the tragically early age of 33.

He chose the shiny tiles for these facades because he knew they would be easy to keep clean and their uniform colour would be easy to identify. That would help travellers searching for a station, and so greatly increased the usefulness of the underground network. I remember my mother telling me about making her first trip to London from rural Lincolnshire in the 1940s. She was frightened of getting lost in the capital’s maze of streets. ‘You need never get lost in London,’ said the friends she was going to see. ‘Just find a station and take the tube to where you want to go.’ And so she could orient herself and find her destination, wherever it was, from Oxford Circus to Kentish Town.

With these innovative and enduring station designs, Leslie Green also started another ball rolling. He gave London’s underground network something akin to a three-dimensional corporate identity. That wasn’t a familiar concept in 1903, but it soon would be. He was a pioneer, then, in more ways than one. It’s pointless to speculate, but one can’t help wondering what else he could have achieved if he’d lived longer.

Cirencester, Gloucestershire


Day in the life

Passing through Cirencester, we spot a large temporary yellow sign telling us that there’s an exhibition of Lucienne Day’s textile designs at the New Brewery Arts Centre.* We have time to spare, so pull in, to find a single, very pleasing room of the work of one of Britain’s best, best loved, and most influential designers of the second half of the 20th century.

Lucienne Day specialised in textile design at the Royal College of Art, met her husband, the furniture designer Robin Day there, and left college in 1940. With the world at war, there wasn’t much work for a textile designer, so she taught for a few years, starting as a freelance designer after the war ended. Widespread recognition came with the 1951 Festival of Britain, when she created her Calyx fabric design for two of the Festival pavilions that contained work by her and Robin. She also sold the design to Heal’s, although their fabrics director Tom Worthington didn’t think it would sell so only gave her half her usual fee. Calyx was a lasting success and was followed by many others – around 70 designs for Heal’s alone.

Calyx (two colourways of which are on the rear wall in my photograph, which can be enlarged by clicking on it) draws on Day’s love of modern art: it seems to speak of the paintings of Paul Klee and Joan Miro  and perhaps the mobiles of Alexander Calder too. It’s a far cry from the old floral prints that people were used to, but it’s not aggressively modern. It combines newness and bright colours with a certain charm. It’s also rooted in stylised natural forms (parts of flowers, seed heads – Day was a keen gardener). This use of natural motifs (albeit abstracted or transformed) is one reason for the exhibition’s title, Lucienne Day: Living Design.

The main display in my photograph shows a selection of Day’s fabrics. In the foreground, Flotilla (1952) is similar in spirit to Calyx and draws on the appearance of buoys floating at sea. Magnetic (1957) is based on a repeated horseshoe magnet motif and is shown here is a particularly vibrant colourway; it was roller-printed and so cheaper than most of the fabrics, which were screen-printed. Dandelion Clocks (1953) is another design drawing on abstracted natural motifs – dandelion seeds and seed heads. Then come Spectators (1953) with its stylised human figures, the tree-based Larch (1961), and another colourway of Calyx.† 

The exhibition also includes smaller pieces of fabric, artwork, and images of room sets (some also featuring Robin Day’s furniture). It makes up an engaging and informative picture of the work of a fine designer, someone who helped to create the style we now think of as mid-century modern and had a huge influence on the look of British interiors from the 1950s onwards. 

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* Lucienne Day: Living Design is at the New Brewery Arts Centre, Cirencester, until 20 May 2018.

† As it is difficult to see Larch and Spectators in my picture, I have provided links to the site of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, where there is much information about the designers’ work.

Clifton, Bristol


Small differences

Growing up in Cheltenham, I got used to Georgian and Regency architecture very early on. Many of the town’s streets were terraces, crescents, or squares of tall, stucco-fronted houses, many with ornate iron balconies, and when I first went to Clifton, there were many similarities. Not surprisingly. Clifton expanded at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when Bristol was booming as a port.

However, there were also differences in the architecture. I’m relying on my memory here, but I’m sure my young eyes noticed two things, neither of which are much in evidence now, except on the occasional house, like the one in my photograph, which is on Sion Hill, Clifton and dates to the 1780s. What I noticed was that a number of the balcony roofs were striped black and white, and that many of the windows had shutters. These were unfamiliar things to me and seemed to my uneducated eyes to give the houses an exotic quality, like something out of a story book.

In a way, I wasn’t far wrong. External shutters are much more often seen in Continental Europe than in Britain. I’ve pulled external shutters closed to keep the hot sun off inward-opening casement windows in Italy, but not in Britain. Here, I wouldn’t often want to. As for those stripy roofs, well…even though they weren’t as colourful as deckchair fabric, they seemed even then to give the area a holiday atmosphere.

Looking at the place with an older eye, I can see other differences now. The balcony fronts have a different pattern, and the metalwork is much thinner than usually in Cheltenham – it doesn’t look so much like cast iron, more like wire work, at least in places. And then there are other interesting bits of ornate carving and unusual Classical orders and more rounded bow windows than in Cheltenham. In a way, the place reminds me of Brighton more than my home town, but a Brighton as it would be if it were miles away from the seaside.

I don’t know when this balcony canopy (and the two next to it) were painted in this way. I found one old photograph on the web dated 1945, in which they are not striped. Perhaps stripes came into fashion in the post-war period, or in the 1960s, when I first went to Bristol Zoo and had my first sighting of Clifton. Or maybe they are more recent still. Whatever their vintage, they give the street something of a holiday air – a little more festive than Bath or Cheltenham. Such are the small differences that give a place its character.

Rodley, Gloucestershire


Six of the best: Old iron

Since my last two posts – one on a house clad in corrugated iron in Mordiford, Herefordshire, one featuring pages from a catalogue of Edwardian corrugated-iron buildings, I thought I do one of my very occasional ‘round-up’ posts, offering links to ‘six of the best’ of my corrugated iron posts.

These are just some of my personal favourites among the various buildings I’ve shared that make use of the wriggly tin in some way. I hope they combine variety and local colour in a way that pleases my readers. Here are the links:

A colourful small railway building

A plotland house near the Severn

A favourite garage on a bendy road near the Welsh border

A rusty barn roof

A bizarrely curving ‘hot tin roof’

A charming rural church

The church, at Rodley in Gloucestershire, is a personal favourite. It’s shown in my photograph above, which I took when I returned to find the laburnum in flower, which it was not when I first discovered the building.



Flat-pack houses, Edwardian style

Thinking about the corrugated-iron house in the previous post, I thought I should have a look in a catalogue of prefabricated buildings from the Victorian or Edwardian periods, to see the kind of thing that was on offer. I have the perfect thing on my shelves: the 1902 catalogue of Boulton and Paul of Norwich.* This company began at the end of the 18th century as an ironmonger, expanding over the years into a large manufacturing business with a very strong line in prefabricated buildings (later they made aircraft too). They made houses, cottages, and bungalows (including designs suitable for ‘the colonies’) in both wooden and corrugated iron, as well as all kinds of agricultural buildings from barns to piggeries, and even prefabricated schools and hospitals, as well as a vast range of fittings and equipment – scrapers, screens, screw jacks, seats, seed protectors, soot boxes, step ladders, stoves, strainers: that’s just a small selection from letter ’s’ in the index.

My photograph (clicking on it should reveal more detail) shows one double-page spread from the section on buildings. The main images show two compact corrugated-iron cottages. These are single-storey buildings that Boulton and Paul would deliver and erect on the purchaser’s own foundations at a reasonable price. Estate owners ordered them for staff accommodation or as hunting lodges; someone with a bit of land could build themselves a house. More elaborate bungalows were available with spacious verandahs – just the thing for a company that was employing a representative in the far reaches of Britain’s then worldwide empire. For a little extra, the manufacturers would include fittings such as a sink, stove, shelves, and ‘Earth Closet Apparatus’. It strikes men that the building in my previous post looks less ‘designed’ than these neat off-the-peg cottages and may well be either a building in another material clad with corrugated iron or something put together by the first owner to his own plans.

Boulton and Paul made an effort to create attractive buildings. There are curvy bargeboards, fancy cresting on the roof ridge, and small panes to the upper parts of the windows, in the Norman Shaw tradition though less well proportioned. The catalogue is sprinkled with testimonials from happy customers. ‘I am very pleased with the House, which answers my purpose admirably. It is evidently very carefully and strongly made,’ writes Buckley Holmes, Esq., from Glenconway. ‘The Cottage is the first of its kind in our neighbourhood, and is much admired,’ says Rev. Chas. Trollope of Wansford. They may have been prefabricated, but these houses were built to last. Nearly 120 years later, most of them have gone, but a few remain, so show us why their first owners were so enthusiastic.

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* There were several other companies, offering very similar designs and construction methods.

Mordiford, Herefordshire


Off the radar

I’m always on the look-out for interesting corrugated iron buildings. They’re mostly off the radar, not the sort of thing that appears in guidebooks – you just have to keep your eyes open, and not ignore lanes, backstreets, alleys, yards, and neglected bits of the railway network. Sometimes the job is made easier because the material can be painted in bright colours, making it stick out helpfully. This example I spotted as I was driving past. Even on a dull day it wasn’t hard to see it among the brick, stone, and timber-framed houses and bungalows of this Herefordshire village – its bright colour, and setting behind a small stretch of greenery, made it easy to spot.

I don’t know anything about this bit of iron architecture that looks as if it’s about to disapear into the greenery. Corrugated iron buildings, often built on fairly lightweight frames, are most often single-storey structures, whether they’re lowly sheds or cavernous barns. This one seems to be on two floors, and has a chimney and quite domestic-looking windows. Perhaps it began life as a house, before being repurposed. Maybe the big black door is a later addition, allowing a car to be stored inside, or for access to a workshop. Does anyone know?

Rousham, Oxfordshire


The foolish and the wiseThe use of the word ‘folly’ in my previous post set some readers scratching their heads. What is a folly, exactly? That’s a good question, and one that has had many people stumped. A folly is a building without a practical purpose, some say. But what do we call a practical purpose? A house has a practical purpose, so does a mill, so does a garden shelter that protects people from a sudden shower of rain. But can an ornamental arch have a practical purpose – if it can also be a shelter, for example? And is a purely ornamental role enough for us to pigeonhole it as a folly? If the word ‘folly’ implies foolishness of some sort, we’re on difficult ground straight away: ‘where is the line drawn between foolishness and good sense?’ asks Stuart Barton.* Where indeed? In what is perhaps the best book on follies, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp look at it another way. ‘A folly is a misunderstood building,’ they say.† Why would anyone build a tower on a hill, or construct a concrete zoo in their garden, or spend a lifetime tunnelling under Liverpool? The people who did these things had their reasons, but we may very well not know what those reasons were. We have lost touch with the purpose of the building, which may have been practical, or may have seemed so to its creator. So we simplify matters by calling the results ‘follies’. The writer and illustrator Barbara Jones, in another very good book on the subject, admits that defining a folly is tricky, and offers instead a list of qualities that such buildings often share.§ Follies are produced by people who have money, security and peace; they are most often Gothic (or Gothick) in style; they have much to do with their creator’s mood and emotions; they are fragile; they are very personal; they rely a lot on their setting; the relate to the Romantic movement in literature and painting; their great age was the 18th and 19th centuries. In bringing together these various qualities, Barbara Jones doesn’t get us any closer to a definition, but she at least evokes the mood of many of these structures – and that is a step towards understanding them, at least.Some 18th-century gardens, like the one at Rousham in Oxfordshire, are full of what people have called follies. A number of these are actually very useful buildings that have a bit of extra adornment added on to them. In my photograph above, the building in the middle distance falls into this category.¶ It is known as the Temple of the Mill, and it is a mill with a fancy ornamental Gothic bit (quatrefoil window, pinnacles, flying buttresses) built on one end. Nowadays it seems to be used as a house. But it also serves as a picturesque feature in the landscape. It’s both useful and amusing. In the far distance, on the hillside in front of the trees, is the Rousham Eye-catcher. It simply consists of a wall with three arches in it. It is designed to look like part of a ruined building of some kind, and acts as a focus for the viewer’s gaze when admiring the scenery from Rousham’s enchanting garden. It might also offer a little shelter from a stiff breeze, but its principal function is to enhance the view, to give people something to look at, just like Scheemakers’ striking, indeed somewhat disturbing, sculpture in the foreground, which shows a lion attacking a horse. That’s purpose enough for me, and enough to make me doubt that the term ‘folly’ is really very helpful at all.** - - - - - - * Stuart Barton, Monumental Follies, Lyle Publications, 1972† Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings, Aurum Press, 1986, reprinted1999 § Barbara Jones, Follies and Grottoes, Constable & Co, 1953, reprinted with revisions 1973¶ It may be clearer if you click on the photograph to enlarge it.** Thanks however, to those who raised the question and sent me off to do some interesting [...]

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire


Tall tales

There is a tendency to label buildings like this ‘follies’. It’s a Gothic tower, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not part of a medieval castle – those pointed windows are not the kind of openings you’d see on a castle, nor are the little trefoil decorations, nor the very neat quoins. The Y-tracery of the windows is a typical device of Georgian or Regency Gothic-on-the-cheap – you get a ‘Gothic’ effect without spending too much time or money on elaborate carved tracery. So, we conclude, it’s the work of a Regency gentleman having a bit of fun.

And so it was. This is Enoch’s Tower, built by a Mr Enoch in 1828, as a carved date stone on the front tells us. But it’s a bit more than this, and labelling it as a folly is only part of the story. Richard Enoch (1771–1856) was said to have been in royal service and moved to Stow in the early-19th century. He was a collector, especially of Egyptological items, and had a house nearby. He built the tower to house his collection of antiquities – it was, in fact, a museum. The collection, alas, has vanished, and no one seems to know what was in it. There was a story that a cedar of Lebanon  nearby was grown from a seed found in an Egyptian sarcophagus, but that may be a legend – as, almost certainly, is the story that there was an underground passage linking the tower with Enoch’s house. Another story relates that Enoch planned to build a matching tower on the other side of the road and link the two by building a triumphal arch across the highway. That too sounds like a tall story – and conjures up in the mind’s eye an interesting clash of architectural styles. But as I read these stories I am starting to like Mr Enoch, and I imagine that he was not above spinning some of the yarns himself. Battlements, Y-tracery, little trefoils, interesting tall tales. Perhaps folly is not too far off the mark after all.

Llandinabo, Herefordshire


Church woodwork, or, Odd things in churches (10)

I have made it part of the business of this blog to bring you the odd, the unusual, and the unexpected, and I’ve found that English churches sometimes contain the most unexpected things of all. Over the years we have had a fire engine, a ducking stool, and, particularly dear to me, Milner’s Patent Fire-resistant Safe. I didn’t expect to find anything odd at Llandinabo, a church I’d passed quite a few times before I got round to stopping there. I’d read that there was some interesting woodwork – a fine screen – in the church, but, just for fun, here’s a very different kind of woodwork that I also found.

There seemed to be nothing to tell me who’d made this matchstick model of the church, which stands on a window ledge inside the building it reproduces. It’s painstaking, reasonably accurate, and a joyous bit of English, or Welsh, eccentricity. (Llandinabo is in England, but, as the name signals, it’s not too far from the Welsh border.) The modeller has caught the pierced roof ridge tiles, the timber-framing of the bellcote, and the openwork wooden porch, although he (I feel sure it was a he) had trouble with reproducing the exact pointed shape of the Gothic windows. But never mind. Anyone who can get this far deserves an alpha for effort as far as I’m concerned. I was reminded of the Eccentric Corner at the South Bank exhibition of the Festival of Britain where, apparently, there was a violin made of matchsticks, which Laurie Lee (exhibition caption writer) picked up and played quite successfully.

Of course, in the world of matchstick modelling, this is very modest stuff. A quick online search reveals people who have spent years making models of complex buildings like Notre Dame in Paris. There’s a particularly good one of Llandaff Cathedral, made by one Bill Tucker. Hats off to people with patience!

Surbiton, Surrey


Southern Electric

A while back I renewed my acquaintance with Surbiton station, and was struck again by its white walls and its design that seems to exemplify what was seen as modern in the 1930s. What does it remind you of? An Odeon? A 1930s radio set? At any rate it’s a symbol of how the Southern Railway saw themselves in 1938: as sleek, forward-looking ’Southern Electric’, keen to tell you that the railways were the modern, convenient way to travel.

The station is the outstanding work of J R Scott and he threw the modernist works at it – flat roofs, white walls, tall window openings, fins, the very simple clock dial, the sans serif lettering – everything, as railway historian Gordon Biddle points out, except for concrete platform awnings.* If this white, flat-roofed building is an interloper in the middle of Surbiton (cliché adjectives: leafy, quiet, prosperous…) it stands back from the road and holds its own without intruding. As I hastened to the platform to catch the 0911 to Waterloo, I appreciated its light interior and generous circulation space too. And today’s equivalent of Southern Electric† got me to my appointment with time to spare.

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* Gordon Biddle, Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings (OUP, 2003)

† A good train but not in the smart green livery of 1938. For railway colours, see my post of long ago here.

Soho Square, London



Last weekend I was due to drive down to Somerset to teach a course on Tudor and Stuart architecture. Somerset was one of the parts of Britain to receive the rare ‘red weather warning’, so the course was cancelled and none of us got stuck in the snow. One of the things I was going to talk about was the impact of the Great Fire of London and the fact that very few timber-framed buildings have been constructed in the capital since 1666.

Here is one exception, the hut in the middle of Soho Square. It might look like a survivor from the pre-fire era, but in fact it was built in 1925. Its original purpose was to disguise the entrance of an underground electricity substation, built for the Charing Cross Electricity Company. The substation is no longer active and the subterranean space was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Now the building is a gardeners’ hut, full of spades and the like. I’m not sure how the upper floor is used.

This little building feels visually generous – the arcades, pointed roof, bits of carving, and fancy bargeboards were hardly necessary, but provide just the right sort of fun for the centre of a busy square that’s now a popular place to relax. It’s here on the blog as a reminder – to me, to talk to the organisers about rescheduling my course, and to all of us, that after the snows, spring cannot be far away.

Wreay, Cumbria


Pinecones and ammonites

To mark International Women’s Day, I am posting today some pictures of what I think is one of the most outstanding and extraordinary buildings designed by a woman, the church of St Mary, Wreay. Here is what I wrote about the church in December 2012, when reviewing Jenny Uglow’s biography of Losh, The Pinecone:

St Mary’s Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the 1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but otherwise you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah
’s church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah’s parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

The photographs (credits below) show the interior of the apse and one of the windows. The window surround is carved with ammonites and pinecones, two of the building’s presiding symbols.

Photographic credits: Apse photo by The Carlisle Kid; window photo by Rose and Trev Clough, both used under CC licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Fairford, Gloucestershire


Fashion and craftsmanship

The snow has come down and put a halt, for now, to architectural exploration. Here’s a memory of another year’s snow, just visible lingering in Fairford, on Gloucestershire’s and the Cotswolds’ eastern edge. This house is just to the north of Fairford’s great church and was built as the lodge at the entrance of Fairford Park, a notable house that was demolished in 1957. Fairford Park was a 17th-century house but was modified later and had interiors of 1789 by Soane. It’s a sad loss, although one or two elements from the interiors were recycled elsewhere – the staircase, for example, ended up at Corsham Court, in Wiltshire.

This lodge is dated by Pevsner to c. 1800, just after the Soane alterations to the main house. It was the Gothic windows at the front that caught my eye – and that was the point of them. Back in the early 1800s builders were still putting up traditional Cotswold houses with rectangular, often stone-mullioned windows. But if you wanted something to stand out, pointed Gothic windows with intersecting tracery were just the thing. So this is a striking facade for a building that’s meant to be recognisable, to announce the entrance gate to the Park. There’s also a bay window at the side, with a different glazing pattern – this multi-aspect bay clearly helped the occupant keep an eye on the comings and goings through the gate.

So the pointed windows help to make the house a landmark, as does the lovely Cotswold-stone-tiled hipped roof, rising to a single chimney. These hipped roofs are not the most common type on the Cotswolds, where most houses have gabled roofs, but they’re delightful, with their great cascades of stone slates. These slates are large at the bottom, progressively smaller as you go up. Their production and fitting was one of the great accomplishments of the traditional Cotswold builders, and a reminder that, for all its fashionable ‘look at me’ character, this house is also a repository of craftsmanship and skill.

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire


Silent springs

There’s not a lot at Seven Springs, in the parish of Cobberley not far from Cheltenham: a largish mid-19th century house now a school, and the tiny parcel office in my previous post, and, well, seven springs. The springs are a contender for the ultimate source of the River Thames, although Thames Head, near, Kemble, is more usually cited as the source. Seven Springs is strictly the source of a small river, the Churn, which flows into the Thames at Cricklade.

As I was looking at the parcel office I decided to walk a few yards further along the road and visit the springs. They were bubbling away quietly, sending water from the subterranean rocks out through seven small holes. But it wasn’t really the right time of year for a photograph. The place was looking muddy and dark and, apart from a fetching clump of snowdrops, rather dingy. So I had a look at the stone tablet, which asserts the place’s claim in bold Latin – ‘Here, Father Thames, is your sevenfold spring’ – and resolved to return to Seven Springs when the weather is better and the ground less muddy.

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire


Staging post

This tiny building was always a bit of a mystery to me. Passing it years ago, I’d assumed it was a bus shelter, before I reflected that its position at a road junction would not be a convenient stopping-place for a big bus; it’s even less convenient now the junction has been converted to a double roundabout.  So I filed it away mentally, and put it down to the work of some local philanthropist offering shelter to passers-by.

Then, a few months ago I heard a reference to ‘the old parcel house at Seven Springs’. This is what it is, as a little googling confirms: a building where parcels were left and transferred from one carrier to another. The siting at a junction now made more sense, as the traffic passing here could be on the Cirencester to Cheltenham road or the one crossing it, which links Stow-on-the-Wold with Gloucester. In the direction of Stow, it also connects with the road to London.

I’m still not sure how long the parcel office has been there. It seems to be 19th century and the Victoria County History confirms that it was there in 1894. The Gothic openings and thatched roof lend it a picturesque air, although one might have expected it to be walled in Cotswold stone, like many a small bus-shelter in these parts. It must be a long time since it was in use, and one hopes it will survive when the roof reaches a state beyond pleasing decay.

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Postscript: Having looked at this again, I’m convinced that the brickwork is relatively recent and must date to a rebuild of the structure. This is confirmed by a drawing I have located online, showing a tiled roof, a more elaborately carved window opening, and other differences. More research is required.

Southwell, Nottinghamshire


The Leaves of SouthwellWhen posting about one of the carvings in the chapter house of Southwell Minster the other week, I inevitably got down from my shelves my copy of The Leaves of Southwell, Nikolaus Pevsner’s short book about this building’s extraordinary late-13th century sculptures of the leaves of plants and trees. I did so to look at the excellent photographs of Southwell’s stone leaves – oak, ivy, maple, buttercup, hop, vine, and other species. I ended up rereading the text of the book as well. The Leaves of Southwell is in the King Penguin series, which are short hardback books published by Penguin Books between 1939 and 1959.* The format for the series consists of an essay (usually of about 30 pages, though Pevsner’s is double that length), followed by a series of illustrations. The photographs, by F L Attenborough, then Principal of University College, Leicester, and father of Richard and David Attenborough, are exemplary: detailed, well printed, and with just the right amount of contrast. From the patterned cover to the photographs, the book is a pleasing object.The text is good too. Pevsner combines the virtues of a good art historian: a perceptive and inquisitive eye, a knowledge of contemporary history and intellectual context, and the wit to understand how the visual and the historical might relate. He picks out several qualities to admire in the Southwell carvings – the way the artists balanced pattern and background, the interplay between the architectural structure and the ornament that adorns it, the naturalism of the carvings and how this is modified or stylised in places. It’s this naturalism that is the remarkable thing about the carvings – they date to the point at the end of the 13th century when sculptors had turned away from the highly stylised ‘stiff leaf’ ornament of the previous decades and before they’d hit upon the slightly more formal style of carving that came later. Pevsner also enlisted a botanist to advise on exactly which species are represented, although the results aren’t always conclusive. Pevsner also writes about the intellectual context of the carvings. He discusses how early-medieval herbalists and encyclopedists write about plants. Most of these writers, he says, are not really very revealing. They tell us a few facts about a plant and maybe some of its herbal uses, but they don’t go into much detail and their information is mostly copied from other writers, not based on observation. The exception, says Pevsner, is Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), Dominican friar and bishop, scholar of Aristotle but also of the great Muslim writers Avicenna and Averroes. When Albertus writes about plants, he does so in a much more specific and observational way, as if he has actually seen what he is describing. This way of writing marks a change, and it occurs just before the Southwell carvings were made in the 1290s.Pevsner is not saying that the master mason of Southwell read Albertus. He is pointing out that this new realism and respect for specific detail was in the air at the time – it is part of what he calls the spirit of the age (his translation for his British readers of the German word Zeitgeist). It’s a spirit that encompasses the preaching of the friars, the growth of busy towns, the worldly love and nature poetry of the wandering scholars, the rejection of superstition, and the new openness to both Classical art and the ideas of Islamic philosophers. It’s a spirit, then, that accommodates with ease naturalist sculpture like the leaves of Southwell.At one point in his text, Pevsner remarks that Southwell is probably the least visited of all Brit[...]

Hanwell, Oxfordshire


February carvery (5)

I’d thought that my previous post would be the last of this month’s short ‘carvery’ pieces, but then I remembered Hanwell. This is one of the churches in North Oxfordshire that have distinctive carvings from the fourteenth century. Like Adderbury, it has a range of figures, beasts, and other carved subjects, both indoors and out. Some of them are of the ‘linked arms’ type on capitals, the kind I’ve previously noticed at another North Oxfordshire church, Bloxham, and elsewhere.

The heads at Hanwell are if anything even better than those at Bloxham – individual, crisply carved, and full of character. This bearded face is one of my favourites. His hair, beard, nose, and mouth are well done, I think, although the eyes are rather small and mean. The overall effect though is good, and makes one smile. Nikolaus Pevsner says in his book The Leaves of Southwell (to which, I hope, I’ll soon return) that capitals mark a structural junction between two functions (column and arch) and ornament marks this important transition while also masking the joint. In this case, the figures also look as if they are doing some of the structural work, by bearing the weight of the arch on their arms and shoulders. They look none the worse for their effort. 

Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire


February carvery (4)

For my final short post about church carvings, here’s one from Brant Broughton. This time it’s on the outside of the building and shows a beast less ambiguous than the Much Marcle creatures: a bear, by the look of things, and one that has been chained and muzzled. A dacning bear, perhaps, and part of a long and cruel tradition, but accepted in the Middle Ages and in some parts of the world today.

He’s part of a large collection of carvings high up on the outer walls, a display that reminded me of some of the glorious North Oxfordshire churches such as Adderbury. Like that area, Lincolnshire, and the bordering parts of Nottinghamshire, seem to have had a strong local tradition of medieval carving – and, in many places, enough prosperity to employ master craftsmen to do this work. Positioned on an outside wall, the bear and his neighbours have worn quite a lot. But there’s enough strength in the stone, and a bit of shelter from the cornice above, to ensure they still give pleasure.

Much Marcle, Herefordshire


February carvery (3)

A few years back I did a post about the great yew tree in the churchyard at Much Marcle and I’ve always meant to go back and look again at the church there. One reason is these charming, and rather odd, carvings, which I’ve chosen for the next in my series of short posts. Some of the capitals in this church are a cut above the usual parish church fare of plain mouldings, stiff leaf, or more realistic foliage.

Here we have a row of heads – and what else? A bird with a tail that has turned into a bit of foliage to the right of the central head; another creature with bird-like body but animal-like head on the other side, again with a foliate tail. We seem to be in the realms of the bestiary here. I’m intrigued, and, yes, when life is less busy, going back and having a further look must be on my list of expeditions.

Southwell, Nottinghamshire


February carvery (2)

For the next of my short posts showing medieval church carvings, an example from the best place of all to see this sort of thing: the chapter house at Southwell Minster. This is one of the great medieval rooms, a feast of carving, much of it very realistic depictions of leaves. Ever since Nikolaus Pevsner worse his little book about them (The Leaves of Southwell), they’ve been known among architecture buffs. But Southwell is not a major tourist centre, and Southwell Minster is one of our quietest major churches.

I’ve chosen an example from above one of the seats ranged around the wall. Not a Green Man with foliage coming out of his mouth or nostrils, but a face encircled with leaves. A beautiful way to fill up this space above the arch, and one of the best preserved of the carvings in Southwell’s chapter house. A real delicacy from the carvery.

Navenby, Lincolnshire


February carvery (1)

Life is very busy at the moment, so for the next two weeks or so, I’m going do to some short posts. I thought a common theme, medieval church carving, might be entertaining, and would enable me to share a few more pictures from some recent discoveries and rediscoveries.

To begin with, a bit of early-14th century Gothic from the chancel at Navenby. This is what 14th-century Gothic is meant to look like: lots of little arches and niches, so smothered with ornament that you can hardly see the structure – crockets, finials, pinnacles everywhere. But here, as so often, there’s also a human touch – little heads that make it all less serious, one sticking its tongue out, another with a rather grumpy expression. This visitor went away far from grumpy.

Highley, Worcestershire


The signs of yesteryearIn the words of Chard Whitlow, Henry Reed’s amusing parody of T. S. Eliot, ‘As we get older we do not get any younger’. As I get older, I can’t say I experience outright rudeness that often, although the world is not short of oafish behaviour, as a swift walk through any provincial town on a Friday night will reveal. I wonder, though, whether in days gone by it wasn’t worse. One certainly might think so, looking at old notices aimed at improving people’s behaviour. You didn’t have to go far before encountering a ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’ (low down, where an inconvenienced ‘gentleman’ might ‘aim’), an ‘ANYONE SMOKING WILL BE PROSECUTED’ (more likely at eye level), a ‘PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING’ (on buses), a ‘GENTLEMEN RAISE THE SEAT’¶ (on trains), or even an ‘ANY PERSON WILFULLY INJURING ANY PART OF THIS BRIDGE WILL BE GUILTY OF FELONY AND UPON CONVICTION LIABLE TO BE TRANSPORTED FOR LIFE’ (on bridges, in Dorset). Oh, the signs of yesteryear. So people really had to be told not to spit on the bus or piddle in the corner? I suppose they did, oafs being as thick on the ground then as now, and hygiene being as important then as ever. So the Victorians and Edwardians got on and told them, in bold painted notices and cast-iron signs. Maybe some people even took notice of the notices. But above all, I suppose, it’s the language that marks them out, with its bracing mixture of euphemism (‘nuisance’) and dire warning (‘transported for life’). A sign of the euphemistic sort that I’d never seen was ‘PLEASE ADJUST YOUR DRESS BEFORE LEAVING’. How can I have missed that one? Too busy admiring the plumbing in the Gents? I don’t know. I became aware of the existence of such signs years ago, reading an excellent book, The Faber Book of Parodies.* This contains not only the poem quoted at the beginning of this post, but a further go at T. S. Eliot, a sort of synoptic parody, called Sweeney in Articulo, attributed to Myra Buttle.† One section of this mock-epic concludes with a random-seeming bunch of quotations, in allusion to the allusive way in which Eliot’s The Waste Land ends. There’s one from Baudelaire, a bit of Latin, some Chinese characters, and then, mixing the highfalutin with the lowly:‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’‘Couldn’t you bring better weather with you?’ and,Above all,‘Please adjust your dress before leaving.’Like anything about T S Eliot, the poem has to have footnotes, and the final line is glossed, ‘Reproduced by permission of Westminster City Council’.I was thrilled, therefore, some forty years on from reading the parody, to visit the railway station at Highley on the Severn Valley Railway§ and find, not only a ‘Paisley’ water cistern by Doulton and Co, looking like a large butler’s sink painted black, held above my head on two very sturdy iron brackets, but also this notice, a cast-iron plate with letters picked out in white on a black background. Thank you to the Severn Valley Railway for paying attention to the small things. As one must do when adjusting one’s dress before leaving… - - - - -¶ Jonathan Miller, in Beyond the Fringe, offered the suggestion that this might be a loyal toast.* Dwight MacDonald (ed), The Faber Book of Parodies (Faber and Faber, 1961)† After wondering for a minute whether ‘Myra Buttle’ might be a pseudonym of one of my Oxford tutors, Marilyn Butler, I read that Myra Buttle was a Cambridge don, a Sinologi[...]

Stewkley, Buckinghamshire



When looking at a building form the outside, we often think in terms of its façade, ‘The face or front of a building towards a street or other open place, esp. the principal front,’ as the OED has it. Lots of buildings – Palladian houses, Victorian town halls, Gothic cathedrals – have very beautiful façades, formal, symmetrical, and attention-grabbing.

Medieval English parish churches, though, often don’t have formal façades in this way. They have their entrances on the side, usually the south side, and churches aren’t usually symmetrical from the side. The porch might have a grand frontage, but there’s nothing you could call a façade. Cathedrals traditionally have their main entrance at the west end, so buildings like Peterborough and Wells cathedral have beautiful west fronts. But parish churches rarely have west fronts because they have western towers: the view from the west is usually of a tower and the ends of two aisles sticking out at either side.

Here’s an exception, though. The church at Stewkley, built by the Normans, has a central tower, leaving room for a grand entrance façade facing the street, at the west end (photograph above). And very odd it is too. There’s a central doorway, decorated with chevron ornament and flanks by two blind arches, also with chevron. This is a pleasantly balanced group of features, although the bifurcated or double arch above the door is rather odd. Above the door it gets odder, with a single, rather meanly small window crashing into the top of the doorway arch and a tiny round window high above. The window above the door owes its size and position to the fact that it matches windows on the flanking walls, by the way.

I find all this rather eccentric in its mixture of balance below and gaucheness above. Not that I mind eccentricity – this blog has been thriving on architectural eccentricity for years. I think what we’re looking at here is a builder working things out as he goes along, and making a stab at doing something that he didn’t often get the chance to do: building a symmetrical façade for a substantial church.
Stewkley church, from the south



Squared up

To complete my trio of posts from Lincoln, here’s a couple of street name signs that caught my eye. I can’t say I like them quite as much as the strong and characterful Egyptian letters that I’ve always admired in Louth, my favourite Lincolnshire market town, northeast of Lincoln itself on the way to the coast. The Louth signs have everything going for them, it seems to me – clarity, distinctiveness, a style that works well across the varied town centre, a coherent overall shape.

These Lincoln signs, by contrast, have letters which seem rather constricted. This is particularly true of some of the rounded letters, the S especially, which looks as if it has been squashed so that it has flattened at the top and bottom. The same effect appears on the O, although the curve of the U has a more rounded form. However, the signs are clear, and the even effect when the letters are set quite close together. as in ’St Swithins Square’ is elegant. The border, formed like a picture frame, is effective too, and unusual in my experience.*

The more I look at these signs, the more I like them. And they are wearing well, although the left-hand one could perhaps do with a bit of rubbing down and painting up. I’d much rather have these than the flat, plastic signboards that are now so common in many places. I hope Lincoln hangs on to them.

- - - - -

* I’m having fun, by the way, trying to guess what was painted on the wall before the signs were fitted. The ghostly letter that’s just visible does not seem to be of the current street name.



Heavy plant

I first came across really tall factory windows when I had to write about the Nairn’s linoleum works in Kirkcaldy for my first BBC Restoration book back in 2003. Here are some to rival them, at the Robey iron works not far from the centre of Lincoln. Robey’s was one of several successful Lincoln engineering companies that were born in the 19th century. They were famous for making steam engines – stationary engines to power factory machinery, the first iron-framed threshing machines, railway engines, and big traction engines. This was the sort of heavy plant that needed big spaces, and this part of the works – just a tiny section of what was a seven-acre site, fitted the bill. These enormous windows must make for an interior that's very light. From the outside they make a statement: it doesn’t matter how big it is, we can make it.

The huge complex was at first known as the Perseverance Works, but in 1885 it was extended and renamed the Globe Ironworks, presumably in honour of the company’s worldwide reach. The late-19th century entrance, on a lower wing that adjoins the wall with the high windows, has a carved globe above along with the company name.
When World War I arrived, Robey’s were again in the technological vanguard – like several other Lincoln engineering firms they took to manufacturing aeroplanes. As well as aircraft bearing their own name, they produced Sopwith Gunbuses and Short seaplanes under contract. Later still they developed their electrical engineering work (they’d already built electrical plant to light Lincoln cathedral in the Victorian period) and moved into diesel engineering. The company survived until 1988, their closure part of the general decline in British manufacturing industry that took place at that time. A lot of their robust and versatile buildings remain on Lincoln’s Canwick Road.