Sunday, 26 November 2017

A walk around Hamburg

This weekend we had the pleasure of visiting Hamburg for the first time. The Speicherstadt (historic docks) and neighbouring Kontorhaus District and Chilehaus were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, because of Hamburg's role as one of the world's leading maritime trade centres. 

Before reaching the Speicherstadt, we took a ferry past the Elbphilarmonie, a concert hall that opened earlier this year, designed by (Tate Modern) architects Herzog & de Mouron

Birmingham Symphony Orchestra played a concert here on the night of our visit. It turns out that residents of Hamburg have a particularly keen appreciation of British arts and culture, although this latest arts venue somewhat puts anything equivalent in the UK into the shade

Spectacular views were to be had from the viewing platform of the Elbphilarmonie, looking back across the docks of Hamburg.

The Speicherstadt is a district of nineteenth-century warehouse buildings. Originally these buildings would all have faced onto water. The copper hoods of the gables contain ropes and pulleys, used to hoist goods into the capacious warehouses. Many of the buildings are today used for storage of other goods: carpets, spices, coffee, tea etc, if they have not been adopted as museum spaces. 

Hamburg is proud of its links to the medieval Hanseatic League, an early alliance of cities that traded with each other across the North Sea and the Baltic. The Speicherstadt was built as a free port within the newly unified German empire and customs union.  I suppose therefore the buildings, which are lifted from the waters on timber piles, form an architectural manifestation of an early form of the European Union Customs Union.

Perhaps the Beatles felt especially at home here in 1960-62, when they took up residence. They had moved from one great maritime city to another, both of which are today recognised as UNESCO world heritage sites. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The seven ages of Newport

This was a talk I gave recently at a community service in my local church. It is an attempt to explain the history of my village, Newport in Essex, in seven ages....

Age 1       Ice Age

Half a million years ago, the land that is now our village was covered in ice. As the ice retreated and the land warmed up, river valleys were formed, such as the one that Newport sits in today, the gentle valley of the river Cam. We can still see evidence of the ice age in the large stones that are sometimes found on the sides of roads in this area of north-west Essex – they were the boulders left behind as the ice retreated.
Newport's 'Leper Stone'. So-called because lepers put money in the hollow, in return for food being left for them.

Age 2     The earliest settlers

As the land warmed up, it was settled. By the time the Romans came, the countryside was largely cleared of trees and was being farmed. The 11th-century chapel at Wicken Bonhunt is one of the oldest buildings not just in Essex but in the whole of East Anglia.  

Age 3     The making of Newport  

Newport was a prosperous medieval market town. The name Newport after all means ‘new market’, and there was a market here from at least the 12th century. Farmers would come from miles around to trade animals and produce, a practice that continued into the 18th century.  You might say, in fact, that we are a village that was once a town.

The church we are in is a testament to the wealth of Newport in medieval and Tudor times. Not too far away was St Leonard’s hospital, the stones of which can still be seen in the wall by the roadside. Its care for the sick and infirm gave the name to the leper stone that marks the spot where the hospital once stood.

  In 1587 a wealthy London widow Joyce Frankland left a bequest in her will to build a school in Newport. It formerly occupied a building on the site of what is now Church House.

Age 4    Georgian Newport

It was only the granting of a licence for a market in nearby Saffron Walden that led to Newport’s own prosperity being eclipsed. Since then we have been too small to be called a town, but perhaps still too large and important to be called a village.

Walk down our High Street today and you will see the evidence of the prosperity of 18th-century Newport. Five or six large houses dominate - these were originally the farms that employed the majority of Newport’s inhabitants back in the 1700s.

At either end of the village were the mansions of the men who actually owned the land – Shortgrove to the north, and Quendon to the south.

For many years our village was known as Newport Pond, because of its propensity to flood. Some things never change.

Age 5   Victorian Newport

Newport continued to enjoy prosperity into the Victorian era. The coming of the railway in the 1840s was an important moment. The local farmers relied upon the railway to transport their produce to London.  

Age 6      20th-century Newport

The roll call of names on the memorial stone in the churchyard records the lives the village lost in the First (and then Second) World Wars.

The soldiers who returned from the trenches one hundred years ago marked the event by building a new social club in the village, which sat alongside Newport’s six pubs (which had names like the Hercules, the Star and the Three Tuns).

The men resumed lives as farmworkers, blacksmiths or labourers, the women also as farmworkers or in domestic service. Newport remained a predominantly agricultural village, weathering as best it could the vicissitudes of farming life. 

Within the space of half a century, all this had changed. Most of Newport’s pubs had gone, leaving us with just two (the Coach and Horses and the White Horse). The farms had gone too. In their place came hundreds of new homes – such as the houses on Frambury Lane and Cherry Garden Lane.
Behind us, the M11 ploughed an expressway through the fields – and the A11 was downgraded as the B1383.

Age 7      Today

Newport today is home to many people who would describe themselves as commuters – just witness the number of people catching the 713 or 743 to Liverpool Street every morning. New houses are being built, and our village may yet be transformed back into the town it arguably once was.
Yet we retain our charming rural setting, knowing that we are just minutes away from being able to walk in beautiful open countryside.

An Angel Roof in Newport, Essex

At our local history group talk this week, we heard a fascinating account by Michael Rimmer of Angel Roofs in East Anglian churches. Michael has written the definitive book on the topic, in which he speculates as to how and why this distinctive architectural form came to be found mainly in the Eastern counties, in churches dating from between c.1400 and 1536.

Actually the first Angel Roof turns out to have been that of Westminster Hall, commissioned by Richard II in the 1390s. The architect was Hugh Herland, and the roof was a feat of engineering by the standards of any age, featuring as it does timbers that weigh 660 tons in total.

Thereafter, the hammer-beam style decorated with angels was adopted in churches starting with King’s Lynn, where Herland happened to be working after Westminster Hall was completed in 1398. Michael set out some of the reasons why Norfolk and Suffolk might account for more than 80 per cent of all the Angel Roofs found anywhere in the UK (or indeed the world). This was the most prosperous area of the country in the middle ages, with ample wealth as well as access to skilled craftsmen and timbers as a result of the extensive trade across the North Sea with northern European and Scandinavian economies. Angel roofs were a dramatic expression of piety and godliness, helping to create a clear spiritual geography within church layouts (with the angels on high hymning and praising the image of Christ depicted in the rood screen below).
Blythburgh, Suffolk. Picture: Ben Cowell
Angels were carved with great care and artistry, using skilled craftsmen who clearly moved between the different churches as they plied their trade. The loss of angel roofs as a consequence of the Reformation in the 1530s was an act of aesthetic vandalism: many of the angels had their faces removed or otherwise obliterated. Yet 170 survive today, their beauty preserved by being so high and distant from the hurley-burley of the ground level.

Michael largely excluded Essex from his analysis, though he acknowledged that North West Essex did indeed share many of the attributes of the East Anglian counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
St Mary's, Newport, Essex Picture: Ben Cowell
As it happens, St Mary’s church in Newport in Essex has an Angel roof, albeit perhaps not quite as impressive as others in East Anglia. Newport’s angel roof is not of the hammer beam type. Rather, the eight angels are a decorative addition located between the tie beams that hold the roof in place. The angels are unpainted, but are clearly angel-like, with wings and carved faces.
Newport Angel. Picture: Ben Cowell
The roof is not mentioned in Pevsner’s (or Bettley's) account of Newport’s church. This may be because the roof is not original, but a 19th century restoration. It is said that an earlier vicar of Newport, Benjamin Hughes (vicar from 1780 to 1796) ‘disfigured the angels that supported the nave roof by cutting off their heads’. Michael hinted that it is possible the current angels were brought in from another church altogether.Yet there they still are, gazing down upon the congregation. 
See Michael's excellent website for more on East Anglian Angel Roofs - and do get a copy of his book.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Wrest Park

Our local history group recently went on a summer outing to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. 

Wrest Park is an English Heritage property, having been acquired by the Government after the Second World War. For many years the house and wider estate were used by the Ministry of Agriculture as a research establishment. In the 1980s the Government transferred the estate on lease to a commercial research company, but more recently English Heritage has done much to restore the gardens and take the house back into direct management. Commercial businesses remain based at Wrest Park, using an industrial estate that sits just beyond the house, out of sight of visitors.

We had two guided tours on our trip. The first was to rooms in the house that are not normally open to the public, because of their particular conservation needs, owing to their beautiful wallpaper. The first two rooms contained examples of handpainted Chinese papers, full of life and drama depicting scenes from everyday life in 18th century China. 

The colours on these papers have been retained, because in part they were boarded up while the house was being used as offices (although in one of the Chinese wallpaper rooms we were told that the wallpaper had remained on full show, and that the colours had been damaged by the steam from repeated use of electric kettles). In another room, we saw wallpaper that had been printed from hundreds of wooden blocks, their combinations making unique dioramas of different landscapes from across four continents.

The second tour was of the gardens, and encompassed the Orangery (where a brass band was playing), a plunge pool folly, the Archer Pavilion, and a column erected in honour of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who was engaged to improve the gardens in particular the water courses.

Wrest Park is the creation of the de Grey family, who lived there for more than 800 years. The house that is there today replaced a house of medieval origins with a classical fa├žade. This house stood amidst formal gardens laid out in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in imitation of those seen on the continent. Jemima, Marchoness Grey, later commissioned Capability Brown to make subtle alterations, but insisted on keeping the formal look of the gardens still visible today. 

By the 1830s, Thomas, Earl de Grey decided that a new house was needed, and built a French-looking building to his own designs. (De Grey became the first ever President of RIBA). This is the house visible today; it stood at some distance from the original house, which was demolished, but the symmetry of the gardens was preserved. 

The de Grey family continued to live at Wrest, but by the early twentieth century that connection ended. Wrest became  the first country house to be used as a hospital for soldiers in the First World War. Sold again to a private owner between the wars, it was acquired by the Sun Insurance Company in 1939 and then bought by the Government in 1946. It was put to use as a research facility for the Ministry of Agriculture, later leased to the Silsoe Research Institute. 

Wrest is a good example of what happened to many country houses as a consequence of war. Given alternative uses during both conflicts, it never recaptured the glories of its heyday. While grand, the house today retains a slightly institutional feel, and there is realtively little by way of furniture or collections. There were some very well produced exhibitions, however, one about Wrest Park during the First World War and one detailing the history of the house and its gardens.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

'Lost' heritage and the Country House

Sadness at the loss of cultural heritage has been on my mind recently. News filtered through this week that Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque and minaret have been deliberately destroyed by Isis forces. It is yet another shocking example of heritage being deliberately targeted in times of war and conflict. Few would agree that this sort of willful destruction can ever be justified – indeed, it may well constitute a war crime.

Yet built heritage is constantly facing loss, in the face of time’s depredations, the pressure of maintenance costs, and sometimes public disinterest or apathy. Buildings cease to serve useful functions, and are either adapted or supplanted. Or, as TS Eliot  says in The Four Quartets,

‘In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored’ 

For ‘houses’ substitute any form of built heritage you like: places of worship, factories, thatched cottages, bridges etc.  Should we care, and if so, how much?

Recently I attended an event in London to mark the publication of Curated Decay, a wonderful new book by Caitlin DeSilvey which offers a polite and beautifully written provocation to some established heritage norms and values. The book explores examples of where entropy and decay have not been arrested but instead acknowledged and accommodated. In some cases, this has been due to the very nature of the asset at risk: a 19th-century harbour wall facing ever-destructive inundations from the sea, a lighthouse on the edge of the Suffolk coast that could soon be completely gone unless it is rebuilt brick by brick further inland. DeSilvey notes that the process of decay is constant, and she suggests that, in some cases, the heritage sector would do well to develop new techniques for embracing this sort of change, rather than deluding ourselves that we can prevent it altogether. Curators might help communities to celebrate the lives of their buildings, even while the buildings themselves may ultimately face complete destruction, which, after all, in the long run, everything does  (as Keynes once pointed out). 

Caitlin’s book contrasted with a conference I was lucky enough to attend, in Dublin, also this week. The conference was entitled The Country House Revived? and concerned the state of the country house in the early 21st century. Nearly fifty years ago, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, there was considerable public concern about the fate of country houses. 

An exhibition at the V&A museum catalogued the loss of hundreds of country houses in the UK from 1875. Many of them were deliberately razed to the ground, as owners found they could not afford to keep them going in conditions of high taxation and reduced agricultural rents. In the Republic of Ireland there was a political motivation too, with Terry Dooley (co-convenor of the conference) estimating that almost 300 houses were deliberately burned during the Irish revolutionary period between 1920 and 1923. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe former Soviet states witnessed similar events unfolding in different circumstances, as houses and estates were seized after 1945 and converted to institutional uses or sometimes ruinated altogether.

The conference was a very positive event, reflecting on how far the country house has come in the last half century. Houses across Europe are in rude health, as owners find new ways to keep them in good order and open them to the public. Former Eastern bloc countries have seen the restitution of houses back to the families from which they were requisitioned. Houses have drawn their strength from new functions and uses, and are now found featuring retail and catering developments, high-quality holiday accommodation, and offering special bespoke tours and events. All this activity has helped to reinvent the country house for the modern era.  

So how worried ought we to be about the ‘loss’ of country houses? Matthew Beckett’s Lost Heritage blog records more than a thousand houses lost in the UK since the 19th century. Admittedly the rate of loss has slowed right down in recent decades, with one index being the reduced number of houses that nowadays need to be rescued by the National Trust. Yet there remain problems.  Undoubtedly life is hard for many country house owners as they try to find the resources to meet the repairs, labour costs, and energy bills that are all required to keep a house going. Within the UK the organisation I work for, the Historic Houses Association, estimates that country houses face a £1.38 billion repair backlog, of which nearly £500 million is urgent.

We heard at the conference about one of the most famous problem cases, Wentworth Woodhouse. Here there is a happy ending (we hope), since a new trust has taken on the house (with one of the largest facades in England), with a £7.6 million grant from the government. But question marks remain over other houses, such as Kinloch Castle on Rum in Scotland.

The message of the conference was that solutions can be found to intractable problems, but they depend on entrepreneurial and imaginative thinking, some measure of support or assistance from the state, and careful thought for what modern audiences, inhabitants or the next generation might want from country houses. In other words, things must change in order for things to stay the same. Whether an organisation like the National Trust or English Heritage would ever want to ‘curate decay’ at one of their mansion properties, as Caitlin DeSilvey might propose, is another matter altogether (though do visit Calke Abbey in Derbyshire for the closest approximation to this).

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A Trip to Newmarket

On Saturday 27 May the Newport Local History Group made a trip to Newmarket, the home of horse racing. This was the first of our two summer excursions, and was inspired by the fact that an object from Terry Searle’s collection, Sir Carl Meyer’s racing purse, is on display at Palace House. Palace House has recently been fully refurbished, and the museum is currently shortlisted for the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year Award.

Before visiting the museum, however, we called in on the Jockey Club Rooms, a private members club in Newmarket with a unique historical pedigree. We had a very pleasant 90-minute tour here courtesy of the General Manager, Charles Howard, who kindly broke into his otherwise very busy day to welcome us (the Club was hosting a wedding in the afternoon). We began in the Steward’s Room, sat around a horseshoe-shaped table which is where the Jockey Club would have its Stewards’ enquiries in the event of a dispute over a race’s outcome. Charles explained how Newmarket was the Las Vegas of 18th-century England, because it was a town whose fortunes were built on gambling. If it moved, the Georgians would place a bet on it, and besides horseracing there was cockfighting, bear baiting, and bare-knuckle fighting. Several Newmarket inns and hostelries still have their original fighting pits: their trade, then as now, was entirely dependent on the practice of making bets on the outcome of sporting competitions.

These days of course the competitions are much more genteel. Horse racing has developed into a highly professional business, even while its origins may have been rather more unruly. The Newmarket race track was often the route from the centre of the town to Six Mile Bottom, or vice versa races would start there and then finish just outside the Jockey Club itself. Disputes would be resolved in the Steward’s Room, the walls of which were lined with horsehair-stuffed leather, to prevent the sound of the proceedings from leaking out. We also saw the Coffee Room, where the first wagers were placed. Gentlemen would sit in alcoves, getting steadily inebriated and placing wagers on the outcome of races. These would be marked in a book, hung from a nail in the wall. The making of these books gives rise to the word ‘Bookmaking’.

Over time, horseracing became the lucrative and highly regulated affair that it is today. Its unruly side was tamed, as courses were more closely defined, and riders were forced to wear their distinctive silk shirts, so that they could more readily be identified. The Jockey Club became a most exclusive venue. Even today its membership is tightly controlled, although the practice of blackballing is no longer followed (where a black coloured ball rather than a light coloured one was dropped into a voting box, to block someone’s attempt to join the club).

Another stunning feature of the Jockey Club is its artwork. Sporting art proliferates, naturally, and there are some truly remarkable paintings, including by Stubbs and Munnings. The evolution of artists’ attempts to depict the horse is on show. Early 18th century paintings are somewhat naive in their appearance, and don’t quite capture the full complexity of the horse’s physique. Close observation and study of the horse led to significant breakthroughs by artists such as Stubbs. The invention of photography helped artists to realise just how horses ran - not, as it turns out, with all four legs in the air at any one time. The Jockey Club walls are also hung with portraits of the individuals that have made a significant impact over time: Admiral Rous (who did much to modernise the sport), Winston Churchill (who prevented the race course from being taken over as an airfield in World War Two), the trainer Henry Cecil, and of course the Queen, who remains Patron of the club and a regular visitor.

As well as paintings, Charles showed us some impressive items from the collection. There was a wheel from the first ever horse box - a carriage designed to transport the famous thoroughbred Eclipse, which avoided the need for the horse to be walked all the way to Newmarket (which had been the practice until then). There were several horses hoofs, saved as momentos of much loved horses, and now used as ink stands or even a very fine William IV snuff box. All in all, the Jockey Club rooms were a fascinating place to spend a little bit of time before moving on to Palace House itself.

As our guide explained, Newmarket features not one but several royal palaces, making it fairly unique as an English market town. Palace House was built for Charles II, who was a fanatical horseman, and a regular visitor (with his wife - and mistresses - in tow). The building is now a temple devoted to British Sporting Art, some of which is now on loan from other museums and galleries (including the Tate).

We were pleased to see that Sir Carl Meyer’s Racing purse was on display in a prominent spot in the Oak Room, at the top of Palace House. It served in some ways to underline the link between Newport and Newmarket. Not only do the two placenames have essentially the same etymology, but there are other links as well. Setting aside the suggestion that Charles II was also responsible for buildings in Newport (Crown House in particular), we can see that the landscape around Newmarket is a vast arena for horseriding, with Newport serving as a sort of perimeter mark. Gentlemen were keen to build houses in our part of north west Essex because of the proximity to the delights of the racing at Newmarket. North of us, Anglesey Abbey can be said to occupy a similar position, and the horseracing was definitely behind Lord Fairhaven’s decision to move there in the 1920s.

Newmarket’s fortunes are inextricably linked to the horse. At any given time, there could be as many as 10,000 -12,000 horses living in the centre of Newmarket or nearby, all of them taken out to train on the gallops each morning. There are 92 yards in the centre of the town alone. As well as Palace House, the Newmarket museum features a stable yard, where former racing horses are being retrained. A series of exhibition spaces explain the development of the sport, and its fascinating history. We could not fault the design of the buildings, and the way so much has been crammed into a single site. Our tickets will give us all the chance to return, and many resolved to do so, in order to learn more of the history of this most fascinating sport, and town. 

We wish the museum all the very best of luck in the forthcoming Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. I am starting to wonder, even, if a small wager could be justified….