Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Materiality & Locality- Holy Trinity, Hull

That old churches are usually hewn from the rock that surrounds them can be a blessing and a curse. The creamy limestone of the Cotswolds form not only the rolling hills, but also the finely cut tracery of its churches. The flatlands of Norfolk, whose ground yields only flint has resulted in a legacy of ancient round towers.

Britain’s underlying geology generally sweeps across the country in diagonal bands, and the vernacular styles match these swathes from southwest to northeast. Bands of  cold granite, fine timberwork, crumbling sandstone towers, crisp limestone detailing, giving rise to local vernaculars that disregard administrative boundaries.

Hull, located distant from good stone, but economically close to Flanders, and the Hanseatic Cities, is blessed with wonderful early brickwork in Holy Trinity Church. Today, many of us overlook brick as the building material of bland mass-production in Victorian times. But this is claimed to be earliest use of brick in a major British building since Roman times.

Holy Trinity claims to be the largest parish church. I wouldn’t wish to get too caught up in superlatives, but it is bloody massive. Not cathedral scale, like Tewkesbury or Sherborne, but a big town church. It benefitted from being founded as a chapel of ease, meaning that it had no graveyard. These green oases can so often isolate a great church from the surrounding streets. Holy Trinity pushed East to the busy road, and on all other sides fills the square of old Hull that still skirts it. It never dominates. Post-war planning shifted the heart of the city to Queen Victoria Square. The Old Town was left. For a city with such a dreadful reputation, the Old Town is surprisingly quaint in places. And Hull still has many rewarding civic buildings. If, like me, you love the derelict industrialisation of inner city Britain, walk north along Wincolmlee. Adjacent to the River Hull are enormous old grain stores and factories and bridges and railways and walls, meandering.

East Yorkshire overlooks Holy Trinity Church in favour of Beverley’s two masterpieces, and Heddon, and Howden, and Patrington. At the heart of Britain’s “worst city” stands a landmark to Hull’s ancient origins.

Friday, 26 August 2011

A Question of Prominence

A couple of weeks ago, as I travelled by train to Northampton Station, I was repeatedly struck by the prominence of churches in the landscape of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Spires, and also towers, were visible in the distance and the foreground, punctuating every hill or valley the train past. Most prominent are the beautiful spire of Hanslope Church, or the wonderful gothic tower meets baroque cupola of Northampton’s All Saints in the heart of the town centre. I was thinking about how churches, regardless of religious function stand prominently as landmarks for every village or town. Visible, from a great distance, steeples have been used for defence, for map making, for one-upmanship. Ancient and infinite. The most prominent elements of the English landscape. And then I went to Cumbria.

The Lake District is about as extreme as the English landscape ever gets. Mountains, moors, forests, waterfalls, oh, and lakes. I was staying in beautiful Borrowdale, surrounded by the highest mountains in England. Hemmed in by impressive stone cliffs. The little hamlets are not visually dominated by their churches, but by their landscape. The simple churches I visited were little more than barns with Victorian gothic windows and bell-cotes. These buildings feel raw and untamed. They are not works of art, but of function. Interiors of Cumbrian churches sadly lack the ruggedness of their exteriors. They may be more integral to the daily life of the village, but they do not mark the village out, as the churches do of lowland Britain. The difficulty of transporting materials, the relative lack of communication, and the lack of wealth have left churches which do not have the visual prowess of Somerset Towers or floating clerestories of East Anglian wool churches.
Here, the mountains are prominent, the churches are hidden. No hilltop in Northamptonshire is complete without a view of at least four or five churches. Likewise, no Cumbrian church is complete without a view of four or five fells.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Northampton's Gas Holders

Northampton is to be the location of a new 'enterprise zone'. Whilst I am really in favour of this kind of fantastic investment into a neglected part of Northampton town centre, I am concerned that the relaxed planning will lead to the demolition historic buildings and structure. Specifically, it is the landmark gas holders, especially the more ornate cast iron one located along Towcester Road. 

Such a beautiful structure, which has stood for around a century is a wonderful reminder of the town's proud industrial past. Northampton has a terrible record of preserving such important structures in favour of banal housing and offices. There remain proposals to demolish the former power station near Beckett's Park, and no doubt the brick gas works office adjacent to the Carlsberg Roundabout. What the town would be losing is not just 'a few worthless old buildings', but a key part of its industrial landscape. The concentration of such buildings stands to remind us of the once self-sufficient nature of power generation. Now, they may seem obsolete and grim, but consider the great loss the town suffered with the demolition of the historic streets of Spring Boroughs in the 1930s and 1960s. The Express Lift Tower is not just a redundant industrial building, but an icon for the town. 

These gas holders could easily be converted into useful buildings, or retained as sculptures in a fantastic public landscape. The Emscher Park in the Ruhr Valley of Germany uses derelict industrial buildings as the basis for an evocative and sustainable park. A very similar gas holder to the Northampton ones has been converted into flats in Dublin, a far more beautiful and creative solution than the majority of recently built flats in Northampton.

Yes, Northampton needs investment especially in the central areas, but we must not allow this investment to be at the expense of our heritage.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

All Saints, Cottesbrooke- The South Transept

Cottesbrooke is an estate village. It's history is bound up with that of the hall, whose changing ownership has enriched, changes, developed the village over time. The same, as is so often the case, goes for the church. Only the south transept remains of this once cruciform church. The south transept of this 13th century church with georgian fittings is given over to two impressive Jacobean monuments, and has other interesting features. Entered via a small flight of stairs, opposite the wonderful three-tiered pulpit.

Immediately to the left is a beautifully domestic marble fireplace, with a rustic timber bench

The oldest monument, that of John Rede and dated 1604 features ten curious little elizabethans, kneeling in a sort of gnome procession.

The centre of the transept is filled by the tomb of Sir John Langham, whose purchase of the estate resulted in it being passed down through the Langham family for 300 years. The family built the Hall, and endowed various local charities.

As you leave the transept, there are two other little features which are so rewarding. Mediaeval relics in an otherwise port-reformation interior, they are the few remaining steps, high up in the wall, which once must have led to a minstrel gallery, and the squint through to the chancel. Both whitewashed and looking pure and ancient.

The whole village is picture-postcard England, and the church is an often overlooked gem when the hall is such a treat.