Fortess Road Post Office, London

This one really speaks for itself, I believe: ‘Fortess Road Post Office’, a mosaic inscription on this late nineteenth-century building in Kentish Town proclaims. The words are placed in a blind window right in the centre of the gable. A symmetrical floral motif in the lunette completes the composition. This motif is repeated in the lunettes of the other, actual windows on the façade (although in one of them the mosaic decoration is now missing).

One might argue that the rather narrow blind window might not be the ideal choice for fitting such an inscription, but the designer of the mosaic turned necessity into virtue by giving the words a distinct diagonal slant. This gives the lettering a dynamic appearance, which is enhanced by the curvy shapes of the initials and by the floral scrolls filling the angles of the frame.

And it’s even further enhanced by the background: What may seem like a flat white surface at first glance, upon a closer look, turns out to be a pattern made of small tesserae following the curls and twirls of the letters they surround. What’s more, the white tesserae are interspersed with yellowish ones, adding a certain shine and sparkle to the mosaic ground. Combined with the colourful contrast between the dark, almost brownish red of the letters and the turquoise of the initials, all this produces an aesthetically pleasing, almost lavish effect.

It seems almost superfluous to add that the post office no longer exists, at least not at this address. Instead, the building now houses a shop on the street level and, I assume, flats on the first and second floor. But the post office sign remains, an ornate reminder of the building’s original use – and of a time when the area was growing at a fast pace from rural suburb to urban borough.

Summer House, Richmond, London

Standing directly on the popular Thames promenade in Richmond, this small tower-like building is probably a familiar sight to many Londoners. Its crenellated parapet gives the structure an almost medieval look, but the large round-arched windows betray its eighteenth-century origin: It was built around 1760 as an architectural garden feature for Trumpeter’s House, which, at that time, was in the possession of one Lewis Way, a barrister of the Inner Temple, Director of the South Sea Company and President of Guy’s Hospital.

Trumpeter’s House itself had been erected shortly after 1700 between Richmond Green and the Thames, on the site formerly occupied by Richmond Palace. Lewis Way added two wings and an impressive portico to the building, as well as the summer house at the rear end of the extensive gardens, which stretch all the way to the river. In many respects, it is this position on the waterfront that determined the design of this ‘miniature tower’. After all, its primary purpose was to provide its owners a view over the river. Thus, while the garden side has a solid, closed appearance, there are two large windows looking outwards, and the building’s main level is raised above ground by an elevated basement. One might perhaps even describe the summer house as a kind of free-standing theatre box – with the boats and passers-by outside providing the entertainment.

 

Cholmeley Lodge, London

Another walk uphill in north London, this time up Highgate Hill. As you make your way up from Archway tube station, the Art Deco block of Cholmeley Lodge stands out like an eye-catcher at a slight bend in the road, among rows of mostly Victorian terraced houses. It was built in 1934–35 after designs by Guy Morgan, who is perhaps best known for Florin Court, another London apartment building in the Art Deco style.

In the case of Cholmeley Lodge, the vertical rise is counterbalanced by the horizontal lines of the balconies on each floor. Projecting from the façade, these balconies also add a certain amount of structure and plasticity to the block. Add to this the contrast between brick and white-plastered walls, enlivened by generously spaced windows, and the result is a building that appears rich and elegant without using so much as a single ornament.

That, however, is not all there is to it…

As you continue uphill and get closer to the building, you realise that it is not a simple block, but swings out in a curve, then turns a corner and swings out again. And again. In fact, Cholmeley Lodge is comprised of three (almost) identical crescents, overlooking the city from the slopes of Highgate Hill.

With its curves and balconies, the complex seems perfectly matched to its hillside spot, so it may come as a surprise to learn that it was originally designed for an entirely different location: the seafront at Bournemouth. But, even though Bournemouth, like many seaside resorts, has its fair share of Art Deco architecture, Guy Morgan’s design was considered too modern by the local planners and therefore rejected.

Well, what can I say, Bournemouth’s loss is Highgate’s gain, and so far, Cholmeley Lodge is probably my favourite building in my new(ish) north London neighbourhood.

Belvoir Estate, London

Earlier this year, at the beginning of May, I was walking with my partner from Archway to Crouch End, in north London. Knowing the neighbourhood already better than I did, she was pointing out the area’s architectural highlights to me, mostly buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian era. But as we made our way up Hornsey Rise, she drew my attention to a much more recent council estate extending along the east side of the road, saying that she kind of liked it despite its overt postmodernist 1980s look. Now, having both grown up during that particular decade, we share a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards it aesthetics, but I had to agree: those buildings on Hornsey Rise did have a certain quality, so I made a mental note to try and find out more about them… Only a few days later, of course, all major British news outlets announced a list of 17 postmodern buildings that had just received listed status by Historic England; the estate on Hornsey Rise was one of them.

Belvoir Estate, as it’s called, was designed by Gerry Jury of Islington Architect’s Department, under Chris Purslow, and built 1983–1987. Extending over a roughly triangular site delimited by Hornsey Rise, Hillside Road, and Hornsey Rise Gardens, it comprises a range of buildings in different styles and sizes, from bungalows to almost tower-like three-storey structures.

Between them, the estate’s altogether 48 housing units display a rich mix of materials and architectural motifs that has been compared to the aesthetics of the Arts and Craft Movement. As you’d expect in north London, the main building material is brick, and the combination of the yellowish London stock brick with sections of red brickwork makes for a nice contrast.

Even more contrast is provided by the addition of metal canopies and frameworks, painted in bright colours; faux-timber-framed oriels reminiscent of Tudor buildings; pointed windows that bring to mind Gothic or Gothic revival architecture; then again clear lines and curves recalling interwar Modernism.

All of these different features are thrown together in an almost playful manner, but the overall effect is anything but hodgepodge. Instead, what characterises Belvoir Estate is an interesting and pleasing interplay between variety and unity. Individual elements and motifs appear on one end of the building complex, then seem to vanish for a while, only to reappear, with subtle variations, at the other end. Thus the architect manages to give the estate a sense of unity, while successfully avoiding monotonous uniformity.

Refectory Floor, Cleeve Abbey (Somerset)

Over the past couple of weeks, images of medieval floor tiles have been appearing in my Twitter feed with a surprising regularity. I’m fairly sure this is a mere coincidence, but maybe, just maybe, it’s the universe trying to tell me something – so I figured I’d write a post on one of Britain’s finest tiled pavements from the medieval period, the old refectory floor at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset.

Cleeve Abbey is a former Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century. Its church was demolished in the wake of the English Reformation, but most of the other monastic buildings, including the dormitory and the chapter house, are still extant. While most of them date to the 13th century, the refectory range was rebuilt in the late 15th century. However, in an open space just to the south of it, the pavement of the original 13th century refectory was discovered in 1876. Fully excavated and put on public display in 1951, it was exposed to wind and rain for several decades and has suffered accordingly… When I visited a few years ago, a kind of marquee had been placed over the floor tiles to offer at least a mininum amount of protection, but I’m happy to report that in 2016 it was replaced with a proper, state-of-the-art wooden shelter.

As is evident from the photos, some of the polychrome encaustic tiles have suffered quite a bit of deterioration, but all in all the floor is remarkably well-preserved. Covering a surface of approximately 4 x 18 metres, it still retains its original tile arrangement, something that is extremely rare in surviving medieval floors. Presumably made in the 1270s by a Gloucestershire tilery, the refectory floor at Cleeve Abbey consists mainly of heraldic tiles, visualizing the abbey’s political affiliations and commemorating its surprisingly far-reaching network of lay patrons. For instance, the chequered coat of arms in the above photo belonged to the family of de Warenne who were Earls of Surrey at the time.

The heraldry displayed on the tiles may have had an even more specific significance, though. It has been suggested that the pavement was created to commemorate the wedding of  Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, and Margaret de Clare, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, in 1272. While there is no ultimate proof for this theory, it certainly seems plausible: After all, the arms of the de Clare family (pictured above) as well as those of the Earls of Cornwall (below) feature prominently in the refectory floor.

One even finds the arms of Edmund’s father, Richard of Cornwall (1209-1272), the double-headed eagle in his crest alluding to his heavily contested stint as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire…

… and then, of course, there are the three well-known English lions, presumably referring to Richard’s brother, king Henry III, who also made significant donations to the abbey:

But there are even more 13th century tiles to be seen at Cleeve Abbey: Another batch of them survives in the south-western corner of what was once the monastery church. Unfortunately, though, these are not preserved in their original arrangement. Consisting of heraldic and ornamental tiles, this bit of pavement rather appears to be a modern assemblage of fragments:

Finally, a few more tiles from the church are on display in the small abbey museum, run by English Heritage. Most prominently among them is a pair of tiles depicting a combat between two knights on horseback. According to the label in the museum, this rare survival of figurative tiles from Cleeve dates “from sometime between 1244 and 1272” and was designed to be laid “on the risers of steps, perhaps in the presbitery of the church”:

Considering these fragments, it is titillating to imagine what the pavement of the abbey church may once have looked like – and painful to realise what has been lost. But even what survives is amazing enough, and the refectory floor alone is well worth a visit, even a detour if you happen to be in the area.

Midland Railway Stables, London

St Pancras Way in the Borough of Camden certainly isn’t the most picturesque street in London; lined mostly by nondescript industrial and student accommodation buildings, it has little to offer to the architectural and/or historical enthusiast. That is, until you reach no. 7: a two-storey brick structure, which immediately evokes the Victorian era. The ground floor is dominated by a regular row of round arched windows, while the openings on the first floor are slightly narrower and surmounted by straight stone lintels. The building’s original purpose is helpfully spelled out on a sign painted at the northern end of the street façade, reading “South Stables”. What the sign doesn’t tell you, however, is that this relatively small, isolated structure was built in the 1860s as part of the extensive Midland Railway facilities which then covered large parts of the area.

Midland Railway was founded in 1844 from the merger of several local railway companies serving the area around Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby. In the late 1850s, Midland Railway began to expand towards London, and in 1862 decided to build its own terminus there: St Pancras. The station opened in 1868, but one could argue that it was only really completed with the addition of the Midland Grand Hotel, George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, built 1865–1876. If the hotel was, and still is, St Pancras’ ‘public face’, a range of much more modest, utilitarian buildings was tucked away behind the station. Extending over hundreds of metres, there were offices, warehouses, facilities for coal traffic – and large stable complexes. Most of this has been destroyed in the course of the last one and a half century, but the South Stables building remains as a small, if poignant reminder of the Midland Railway’s golden age. And, in a slightly ironic twist, it also reminds us that, even though the Victorian era may have been the golden age of the steam-powered railway, actual horse power was still indispensable in any kind of transportation business at the time.

Old Manor House, Aldbury (Hertfordshire)

Despite its current name, the Old Manor House in Aldbury never was a manor house in the strict, legal sense of the term. Nonetheless, it is a handsome enough building, dating from the Tudor period. It was constructed around 1500 and presumably belonged to the demesne of Aldbury manor. Most likely it was built either for the Russell family, who were its tenants from 1495 onwards, or for Henry Winch, who held the lease of the manor at the time. A substantial extension was added on the north side in the mid-seventeenth century, resulting in an L-shaped floor plan. This was done by one Bennet Winch, whose initials appear on one of the chimneys, before 1663.

The eastern facade, overlooking the street and the still extant village pond, is determined by a simple timber frame structure with red brick infill. On two bays of the northern extension, however, the infills are plastered; with their ‘striped’ black and white look they stand out from the rest of the brick-dominated front, giving a certain pleasing irregularity to the building’s appearance. All in all, the impression is a rather picturesque one, and I must admit, the Old Manor House in Aldbury seems to me a perfect example of the kind of quintessentially English village architecture one is wont to see on Midsomer Murders. And sure enough, while I was researching the building’s history, I learned that it has indeed been featured in said TV show, and even quite early on, in the second episode of the series. I think it’s a nice coincidence that it has now also become the subject of the second post on this blog…