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…


Hargrave Mansions, London

I recently moved to Archway, in the London Borough of Islington. Perhaps the first piece of architecture to catch my attention in my new neighbourhood was this row of uniform terraced houses, called Hargrave Mansions, on the south side of Hargrave Road.* When I first glimpsed them from the corner of Holloway Road, I was immediately intrigued by the contrast between red brick walls and the white of window frames and parapets. While this combination is rather typical for late Victorian and Edwardian houses, it seemed strangely highlighted here by the clear, simple lines of the facades, culminating in an uninterrupted line of parapets hiding the flat roofs.

There is a stark simplicity to this row of buildings which I find immensely pleasing – and reminiscent both of Modernist and Regency architecture. But, as it turns out, Hargrave Mansions were in fact built in the Edwardian period, i.e. in the first decade of the 20th century. As in other parts of north London, major housing developments in Archway were only undertaken in the second half of the 19th century, and the south side of Hargrave Road was one of the last stretches of land in the area to be developed. I’m not sure in which year exactly the construction of the terraced houses was begun, but it must have been completed by 1910, when they were advertised for rent in The Solicitors’ Journal and Weekly Reporter as “Ten blocks of well-planned Residential Flats, each block containing six self-contained suites.”

The front of each block has three bays, the central bay being slightly recessed, as are the narrow strips of wall joining the blocks together. This gives an interesting three-dimensional quality to the otherwise mostly flat facade – only the door frames, window sills and roof cornices protrude from the unadorned brick walls. Both the window mullions and the pilasters framing the doorways are rendered in a plain neoclassical style which is indeed reminiscent of the Regency era. It would probably not be amiss, therefore, to define Hargrave Mansions as an example of Neo-Georgian architecture – a style enjoying considerable popularity during the first decades of the 20th century, aiming to reproduce the classicist simplicity of the Regency period. But, truth be told, I find it difficult to put a label on this row of houses – or perhaps I’m just unwilling to do so. The thing is, as an art historian, putting a defining label on a piece of art or architecture often gives me a feeling of having solved a puzzle, and this can sometimes tempt me to consider the case closed and move on. But moving on is the last thing I want to do: On the contrary, I have an inkling I’ll at least cast a glance at these buildings from the corner of Holloway Road every single time I walk up to Archway Station…

* Named after the Hargrave family who used to own the land in this area from the 17th century onwards.