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STONES: Malverns

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

_DSC8451_1689This stone has a dense, obdurate hardness to it. It is a deep, flat shade of grey; shattered by feet or frost from its host rock, it has a certain sharp-edged flatness. It is also very ancient: cooked up 600-670 million years ago, under conditions of enormous heat and pressure many kilometres below an active volcano; far above, the planet had yet to develop large plants, or animals, or even fertile soils.

300-500 million later a phase of mountain-building placed the expanse of rock of which this stone was a part under huge pressure. Normally part of the hidden ‘basement’ which lies beneath our entire island, it was squeezed upwards, testing a scar-line that was itself ancient: the joining point of two chunks of continental crust.

Over the ensuing millennia the landscape around this great mass was transformed – new rocks formed and eroded away, old ones moulded and reshaped – but throughout this time this oldest and hardest of rocks has changed more slowly than anything around it, and the forces that reduce have had less of a levelling impact than they have had on the surroundings landscape, and our rock’s bare and frost-shattered surface has been left high above the surrounding country.

_DSC8298The Malvern Hills are the result: a dramatic punctuation mark in the unfolding landscape of England. As a place of igneous origin and mountainous character, they introduce with a striking drama the themes of the west and the south-west some distance before one should rightfully expect them to appear. They are thus an outlier, a harbinger. Yet their relative isolation is a reminder that more than anything else, they are a place apart. These are the oldest rocks in southern England. They are a near-shocking interruption in the southern narrative of young, untroubled rocks, a kind of exposure of a geological collective unconscious. Stories like this barely exists anywhere south of Ullapool, let alone in Worcestershire.

The hills they make are also a divider. Look west from this 9-mile long ridge, and one peers into the dark, old country of the Marches – Silurian shales, Old Red Sandstone heights, complex landforms, distant Welsh mountains. Look east, and one gazes at a fertile wide valley-plain of young, soft rock, the Severn and the M5 running roughly parallel to this north-south ridge, the gentle-looking uplands of the Jurassic Cotswolds lining up beyond. This entire valley has been created by the removal by the Severn of the soft rocks over which it slides, leaving these heights to either side: indeed, here on the Malverns there is no higher point between here and the North Sea (indeed it is said there is no higher point between here and the Urals): in effect one is gazing towards the settled heartlands of the south and east. It is fitting, then, that this wall-like flank of hills is anciently a boundary: the Earl’s Ditch follows their spine and dates from the Bronze Age; it was the focus of territorial disputes in the C13, and remains the border of Hereford and Worcestershire.

The Malverns are also a kind of toy wilderness in an otherwise tamed landscape; a place where Anglo-Saxon hermits went to found Great and Little Malvern priories; and later, major cultural figures dreamed their dreams. The vision of William Langland author of Piers Plowman, is particularly prescient. Lying by a spring beneath a ‘broad bank’ on the Malverns, he had a vision which crystallised several signature qualities of this landscape. That this is a wildness safe enough to dream in; that these hills overlook a great plain in which the worldly and the everyday is visibly milling around (witness the M5); that the hills themselves are an important source of fresh water; and that they are marked by ancient statements of power (The Earl’s Ditch is one, but perhaps the ‘broad bank’ is the forbidding Iron-Age rampart known as British Camp). Langland claimed not to know where he was in his dream,_DSC8284 yet its landscape is firmly rooted in his locality. And his dream also embodies the cultural relationship of romantic highland and worldly lowland that would later be writ large in the Lakes and other mountain zones.

Centuries later, Elgar, too spent much of his life walking these hills and cycling the lanes beneath them as he composed his sweepingly Romantic musical visions of Englishness. In truth, all who have found in the Worcestershire landscape a certain swooping darkness – from Elgar to the wild pagan fulsomeness of And Also the Trees and the rural punk of the Dancing Did – owe something to this outburst of pre-Cambrian upland.

Our stone, lying in the grass near Herefordshire beacon — the highest point in the Malverns — is diorite, an igneous rock that is hard to work but very permanent. The steps of St Paul’s cathedral are diorite, as are some of the most durable monuments of ancient Egypt.The other main truly ancient rock up here is a pinkish granite.

The sharp lines at the edges of the stone are worth remembering, for the way it cracks is crucial to its impact on the human story. When it was uplifted somewhere 300-100 million years ago, an infinite number of such sharp fractures appeared within it, and these in turn filter the rain that hits these hilltops to a remarkable degree of purity as the water seeps downwards. When the rock changes character to something younger and less pervious, this water pours out — and thus the lower slopes of the Malverns are riven with springs around which, in the early modern era, a kind of healing cult developed. People flocked to Malvern to take the waters (locals still drink from the many springheads, and you can get Malvern Water in bottles in many places). Villas for retired, health-seeking well-to-do Midlanders; spring-head houses and hotels gave the slopes the atmosphere of a resort. The demand for this local rock for use as a building stone pockmarked the hills with quarries, like tiny bitemarks in the steep elevation. At the same time, the common land of the open hilltops began to be divided up. Development could have ruined these hills altogether and for this reason they were vested in the Malvern Conservators in 1884, a conservation measure that presages the founding of the National Trust in the true wilderness of the Lakes twenty years later.

We can thank this phase of development for one thing: the first widespread use of our hard, ungiving local stones as a building material, creating a signature to the buildings of Malvern that is as distinctive as the landscape itself. Before this, ambitious local architecture had been made of the nearby limestones and sandstones, their shades of pink, soft yellow and off-green a contrast to the dour tones of the hillside. Now, presumably thanks to the availability of powered quarrying tools, Malvern’s newer landmarks — St Ann’s Well, Great Malvern station — were made of Malvern stone — often diorite like this. _DSC8372This is in contrast to the national pattern, in which local rocks of low usefulness tend to dominate in any given area until the Industrial Revolution, after which those sourced from further away tend to become more common.

Once again, it is the sharp-edged quality which provides the signature. Diorite, for example (the granite is also used) is rarely seen carved, but is instead cleaved into rough polygons, which are then placed as close together as possible. Walls of Malvern stone have a clear signature: close-set, sharp-edged patterns; deep grey tones embedded with a deep and intractable hardness as much felt as it is seen. Indeed few rock this ancient has been used so extensively in buildings. In many senses the Malverns are the most striking of the few outbreaks of the archaic period south of Scotland, striking for the collision of the wild and the wealthy, the comfortable and the primitive, that they represent.

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Archaeological extensions

July 28, 2015 Leave a comment

_DSC1194Home, five minutes ago. The rubble pile from our extension accidentally sorts itself into a geo-archaeological artwork, frost-shattered white cretaceous chalk on one side; a rubble-randomised anti-stratigraphy of smashed brick, fragments of concrete, pieces of coke, and soil mulched by human life on the other. In the middle, a ritual deposit, equally accidental.

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Greetings of the Season

January 3, 2015 2 comments

_DSC3159And so it draws to a close, as day follows night and the planet hurtles around its satellite star. The great hibernation in the last month of the year, as the cars vanish from the roads and the emails disappear from the inbox and everything goes silent or refocuses on an orgy of purchase, fridges and larders overflowing as if we will never see another harvest. We cut down living trees, put them in our homes, and cover them with lights. We sing with unfamiliar communality, uncomfortably worshipping things we do not know. And then, for a day, the still, intense feast-ival and holy-day for which we have all been preparing.

The food is good, and part of it. The presents, too. The preparation – chopping, wrapping, stirring – part of the silent ritual enchantment of such prosaic, crowd-pleasing pleasures. But what gives such simple things bottom is twofold. The underlying keying-in with the brute, blind, conquering force of nature, the shortening of the days, the spinning of the planet. This Solsticial binding is the bass. But just above that sits a low, silent melody equally significant, historically younger, and harder to define, unless one is capable of understanding these things literally, which I’m not (and in any case to do so always seems to me to turn the baby out with the bathwater, or the manger). An idea about a human birth: blood and groaning in a cold barn; a shocked and confused mother, strange visitors. An idea about a humanity that is also a divinity, even *the* divinity. A birth that has its death bound into it like holly is with ivy. An idea that unites us all, because this is also all of us. For a long 24 hours, the darkness is held back, and the promise of a light to come remade, and we are all together. As much of the world seems to be getting darker, this is a good thing.

And then it all starts, as slowly and as inexorably as time, to unwind again. A week’s dusky prefigurements, and late nights and boxsets and too much drink, and the overlapping rival poetries unravel, Janus turns in one direction, the cars spew out their carbon on the motorway and the servers of north European Christendom begin to groan with the weight of busy-ness. Was it worth it? It was.

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An art history of handwriting?

December 11, 2014 4 comments

‘Style’ is a curious thing. As an art historian its a major concern: trying to understand the twists and turns of this or that motif, from the way a given artist’s personal way with a brush changes over time, to the choices made by architects about entire buildings: Gothic or Classical? Ionic or Corinthian? These architectural decisions of course, are relatively self-conscious: I want it to look like this. Painterly style is seen as less so — as being a side-effect or expression of personal choices driven by self-expression and aesthetic preference — but even here there is a strong element of conscious choice: one of the reasons we are able to look at something and call it Impressionist, or Quattrocento, or whatever. But I’d never really thought of handwriting in this way before. In some cultures – the Islamic and Chinese worlds, for example – writing is the highest of arts; but even there, much writing is much more workaday than that: simply a way of recording information, of fixing words for future reference, of communicating the prosaic. Yet handwriting, like art, moves in broad stylistic waves; and each of us develops a way of writing that is to some extent an expression of our personalities, but which also, consciously or not, fits into a broader cultural context of how the handwriting of a particular kind of person ought to look. There is a sense then in which all our handwritings render us artists. I’m struck by this as I crawl my way through these churchwarden’s accounts, watching the C16 inch its way into the C17, and the C17 make its way forwards to the modern world. These are workaday attempts to record ingoings and outgoings, likely to be scrutinised at the end of the financial year and then ignored for the rest of human history. Until a trainspotter like me comes along, trawling dull lists of payments for insight into the past. Here they are, stacked up in great volumes in the record office, recording the ‘bread and ale’ bought for the bellringers after they marked the mayor’s entrance into the city in the 1680s, a treat that becomes ‘tobacco and ale’ by the 1700s: newly fashionable drugs (2010: ‘line of coke and lager?). Marking the purchase of ‘nayles’ to fix doors, the constant repair of bell ropes, the purchase of ‘gunshot to kill birds in the church’. Becoming fuller and more exacting as they move into the pomp and red tape of the C19. And all the time, the handwriting gradually evolves. It changes its style. And what is so striking is that it moves in broad phases that align with the broad developmental patterns of art itself, and which in turn are somehow hung from the great invisible superstructure of History. So these wills and title deeds from the 1490s are carefully written by trained clerks, rounded, squashed and relatively legible, in spite of often being written in another language: Latin. Forty years later, the Latin has vanished except as an occasional word; so too have the trained clerks. Everything is written in Secretary Hand, which sounds very efficient but is in fact, in the hands of the local churchwarden, one of the hardest things on earth to read – even though it’s now in English. This curious, slightly nightmarish way of writing, all to-us distorted and compressed letter forms and unfamiliar ways of making marks, it strikes me, is the handwriting equivalent of Elizabethan and Jacobean art. This is a world in which Classical motifs are squashing themselves into a way of thinking about how things should look that is still late Gothic. A world in which a Great Disjuncture has occurred, the mass extinction of the monasteries, and is still being played out; in which every aspect of visual, religious and increasingly political culture is being violently contested. A world in which visual things are rarely beautiful, and can be even rather nightmarish, if certainly impressive. One might better call this Jacobethan Hand than Secretary Hand. This does not mean that the words themselves have problems. It’s a version of Secretary Hand that Marlowe, Shakespeare and others presumably used to form some of the greatest combinations of letters into words and words into sentences ever attempted in the English language; in which the King James Bible and its predecessors were, I imagine, first drafted. Thank God that printing is by now reasonably commonplace, or we’d have trouble reading words which underpin so much English literature and song ever since. Indeed printing, I suspect, is one of the  reasons for all this: people are no longer dependent on handwriting to make books: if something needs to be legible and understood by enough other eyes, it can be printed. Indeed I suspect handwriting is deteriorating for comparable reasons right now: as everyone is word processing, and every text can be spellchecked and published automatically, we are each, when writing by hand, increasingly likely to fall into a C21 version of sixteenth-century writing. Post Modern Hand. When did you last see someone’s handwriting? We used to see it all the time. But then, in the 1680s and 1690s, look what happens: it’s still Secretary Hand, but somehow it’s stretching out, becoming legible, reasonable, straightforward. By the early 1700s its morphing into a kind of italic, fully-formed by mid-century. I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for this that historians of palaeography, or education, of whatever, have uncovered: what strikes me now is that again, ordinary writing is lining up rather neatly with broad phases of development in artistic style, and in turn, with history itself. The backdrop, then, to this change in the way the sexton and the carpenter write out their receipts to the churchwardens is Wren, Hawksmoor, the belated but brilliant tide of a truly understood Renaissance; Newton, the Royal Society and later the Enlightenment; the gradual, painful accommodation both religious and political that marks the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, etc. The term Italic is right: the culture that comes from Italy. These are Whiggish historical clichés, of course, yet it’s very hard not to read these men keeping their accounts in no-doubt rather cold parish rooms, and watch the way the letters move out of the nibs of their pens over the striding decades, and not see history itself come into focus, or feel the modern world hurtling into being, as Jacobethan Hand becomes English Baroque Italic, and before you know it the age of machines and Empire and near-universal literacy is upon us: I have yet to study Gothic Revival Hand, Historicism Hand, let alone Brutalist Hand. But perhaps I’ll know them when I see them.

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Jon Cannon tours 2015

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment

‘You have an extraordinary talent for rendering your erudition accessible’; ‘This has been the trip of a lifetime for me’; ‘Jon Cannon is as good as it gets as a scholarly authoritative lecturer’; ‘In a word, extraordinary’; ‘ a sensitive, funny man who brought to life … the medieval world.’… just some of the comments received from my 8-day Cathedrals of England extravaganza. If you’d like to share in this experience (I couldn’t possibly comment!) here are the dates for 2015.

Also be aware of events upcoming in 2016: A two-day residential ‘dayschool’ on Canterbury cathedral; the four Martin Randall Travel Cathedrals of England tour, and a newbie from MRT, Sacred China.

West Walton-Jon Cannon and group

A group play ‘where’s the church?’ at West Walton. We never did work out where it was.

 Dates for 2015

This year we will have two new residential tours, Anglo-Saxon England in May and Essential China in September, as well as all the well-established favourites …

Dayschool on Medieval Architectural Style (venue: Bristol cathedral), 10 January 2015 

Each of the main styles surveyed, in the classroom and in the flesh, or should that be stone. Contact me to find out more:

Dayschool on Hereford cathedral, Abbey Dore and Kilpeck23 May 2015

A beguiling cathedral, and two of the country’s most famously wonderful churches. Contact me to find out more:

English Cathedrals, 22-30 April 2015

Luxury hotels, epicurean meals, exclusive musical recitals — and an expert 8-day show-round of ten of the greatest buildings on Earth.

Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon & Norman History & Architecture, 8-10 May 2015

A journey into the roots of English architecture, visiting a selection of the country’s finest surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, plus such Romanesque gems (with ancient roots) as St Albans, Waltham abbey and more. Excellent food and accommodation.

Medieval East Anglia: Cities, Towns & Villages, 1–5 June 2015

From mighty Norwich to exquisite Lavenham, discover a lost world of medieval life and architecture. Excellent food and accommodation.

London Day: Seven Churches & a Synagogue, 23 June 2015

London in a nutshell, from Romanesque to High Victorian.

Medieval Churches, Monasteries & Cathedrals of the Fenlands, 4–6 September 2015

Some of the most famous churches in the country. Excellent food and accommodation.

Dayschool on Cirencester, Fairford and Inglesham, 3 October 2015

Two extraordinary late medieval churches, including a detailed exploration of the famous medieval glass at Fairford. Plus one perfect unrestored gem. Contact me to find out more:

Essential China, 20 October–2 November 2015

Classic China, including all the key sites of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Hangzhou, with all the Martin Randall quality you’d expect as regards food and accomodation
I am also lecturing, mostly to NADFAS groups, in New Zealand (a three-week tour!), Malmesbury, Monmouth, Wey Valley, Newick, Welwyn, Liverpool, Cockermouth, Hexham and Stratford-upon-Avon. Contact me ( if you would like to attend one of these talks, which are open to the public for a small fee. Also regarding private tours, if you would like to arrange something.

People rave about these tours: I hope you’ll come along.


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The great Scots circuit

September 29, 2014 2 comments

The Highland Boundary Fault seperates Lowland from Highland at Stirling

The aim of these trips is to move around the island on which I live, getting a sense of the lie of its land. At all times I am alert to two things: the underlying geology, (especially as it affects the shape of the landscape on the surface); and the resulting shifts in human things: buildings, history, culture. It’s the calibration between the two that interests me.

The aim is to re-enchant our relationship with and understanding of the land beneath us: in an age of identikit towns and sat navs, to reveal the power and specifity of place — and to reveal the human element in that grand and elemental storyAnd also to explain: this is how this island fits together, and what makes Humberside different to Caithness, Dorset different to Cumbria. To turn places into Places.

This trip over to Scotland — at a remarkable, if rather anticlimactic, point in its history — is a case in point, and also a challenge. I was ignorant, I realise, of basic things like Scottish counties and major rivers (how is Angus different from Argyll, the Don from the Dee?), and daunted by the scale of the landscape. There’s a lot of Place up here. And I’m doing more or less what I did with Northern England a week or two ago: casing the joint, getting a sense of the shape of things, with lots of research combined with a certain amount of gut-feel *that’s* where I’m going today.

The border is not a specific point in the landscape, like the Pyrenees in Spain; but the Borders are well named. Underneath this entire region lies a great mass of Carboniferous sandstone, separating the Pennines from the Southern Uplands, great and linking the wide mouth that is the Firth of Forth — one of the geological structural keys to the whole island — and the lesser one of the Tweed. The geology of the Borders seperates, but does so gradually, creating a region with an identity in its own right; and arguably the existence of uplands from the north Pennines to the Midland Valley is one of the reasons for the survival of Scotland as an entity.

After all, this is not a large island, and England has ultimately been richer and more powerful: over centuries, in many parts of the world, this has resulted in the extinguishing of smaller polities. Yet Scotland is unquestionably a nation, and not (like Wales, until recently) a nation whose identity depends on cultural identity alone: this is a nation that even at the height of the Britain/UK project retained its own institutions, its own laws, and whose constitutional relationship to the whole depended on a deal-between-monarchs that is very much not the submission of poorer northern to richer southern partner. That is, it is a nation institutionally, too, and has never ceased to be so.


Granite city: Aberdeen

Perhaps that is why things change as soon as you cross the border. The little ashlar bungalows and big Grecian hilltop monuments or public-spirited institutional buildings of Coldstream could just as easily be in Morayshire or Galloway, and would look weirdly foreign even 50 miles south. There are continuities, of course, not only of architectural style but of regional specifics: those little ashlar bungalows are a case in point, prevalent in the Northumberland Cheviots, too; Newcastle, with its Grecian Grey monument and grand sandstone streets is on the way to being a Scottish city. As well as being on the way to actual Scottish cities.


The distinctive dark stones of Portnockie

They mark out the elements of a series of things architectural that make the Scottish landscape distinct from the English one. I haven’t fully got to grips with all of them yet, but certainly some can be seen everywhere from Thurso to Forfar. The medieval and Roman dimensions of the landscape, so often the visible root of everything in England, are often absent and even when present not nearly as obvious: instead, it is the C17 and C18 from which the landscape apparently derives itself. Places are often planned: they are often planned in England, too, but because the plans there were laid out in the  C10-C12 they have had time for each structure on each plot to be rebuilt several times over, and the underlying directed nature of a settlement thus becomes less explicit to the eye. Perhaps they were always slightly less ordered in any case.  There is a bigger range of grand public buildings, institutions, collective projects created for the good of all (or at least of their members), than even in the north of England, and they are Neoclassical, a rare style to the south. A bigger range of places of worship, too; of course there are nonconformist chapels aplenty in England but one is rarely in any architectural doubt that we have an established church. In Scotland, the architecture of one branch of Christianity does not dominate, or provide the tap root of places, in the simple way it does in England: churches crop up in (to an Englishman odd) places. Graveyards are often set aside from them, cropping up as plots on the edge of cities or by the roadside in rural areas. This may be a pattern with old roots: where the churches are ancient, they are in non-nucleated sites in the middle of groups of farms, or outside the centre of the modern settlement. And finally, within Scotland there’s a separation between two landscapes: the Scotland in which scattered crofts overlook the seas, and the Scotland of scattered farms set inland around kirktowns and chapel towns. (There’s a grand imperial city and post-industrial Scotland too, but not particularly part of this trip. And there’s more, but that will do for now).


Rubislaw, the hole from which Aberdeen was ripped

And everything is made of sandstone and granite. Indeed there is so much of the former that one might begin to tire of it. A shame, because on closer examination the variations and uses of these stones is one of the great qualities of this built landscape, and its most immediate debt to the natural one. The purple-brown sandstones of Angus are different from the sand-coloured ones of Morayshire; a stone of one colour will be used as decorative dressing in a build made of stone of another. These variations, for example along the north coast of Moray and Aberdeenshire, often move subtly in step with that of the underlying geology, a sequence marvellous to move through.

Indeed, this whole country is made of sandstone and granite. That’s a massive generalisation, of course, but in Scotland the English story of a generic sandstone ‘midland’ around which everything else can be seen to fit is turned around. The sandstones of the Midland Valley (and elsewhere) are the key to the country’s prosperity and, arguably, statehood: here are Glasgow and Edinburgh, for example. North of this are the highlands, to the south the Southern Uplands. Here the story is unendingly complex (and exciting), but igneous rocks play a vital role in it: witness the great massif of Cairngorm. Indeed the great lava whins that erupt throughout the country play a key role in giving even the most verdant arable landscape an edge of drama, and making Stirling and Edinburgh such impregnable seats of power.


Pictish symbol-stone in Elgin cathedral

That’s the big picture, as it currently seems to me. What specifics have stood out from this 5-day recce of the country’s eastern side, from Edinburgh to Caithness and back? Firstly, I’d barely clocked neither Aberdeenshire nor the area immediately east and north of Inverness before, but these are heartlands from the Pictish era onwards, and even in prehistory they veer from the reassuringly familiar — the prevalence of long mounds, henges, round barrows and hillforts suggests that the concept of Britain might have been understood all those thousands of years ago — to the fascinatingly new. The result includes Pictish carved stones, of course, but also recumbent stone circles (only one stone is recumbent, but it’s an important one): both of which are very geographically specific phenomena. With regard to the latter, the whole area around Inveruie in Aberdeenshire is one of this island’s great sacred landscapes, doing everything such Places should: react to the water, the meeting of Don and Euie in a great fertile bowl; react to mountains, the great peak of Bennarchie; mark out and sacralise the more fertile land, in twenty or more stone circles scattered on the hills around a central henge; reveal internal continuities and stratigraphies, such as in the reuse of stone circles as later cairns or the recarving of individual standing stones by the Picts, several millennia later, but still ancient to us; and respond to the rocks beneath. Easter Aquhorthes was a gem: the great one-off lump of pink granite almost glistening in the evening light; the curious quartzite skin on the moon-facing main recumbent rock very suggestive.

The monuments of Caithness were almost as impressive: here the epicentre looks north, as if Caithness was a suburb of Orkney Mainland, only attached to the boring old Continent to the south by misfortune; and geologically, both are part of the same ancient sandstone basin. To crawl inside the round mound at Camster is an experience not to be forgotten, with thousaands of tonnes of dry stone powered and domed above one.

Medieval monuments were intriguing, too. Elgin cathedral as serious a work as any in Scotland, telling the same stylistic story: Romanesque and Early English a highly sophisticated offshoot of the latest practise in Northern England; from the mid-C14 everything changes and England is conscpicously ignored. As we ignore it: the chapter house, visually 1390 but laid out in the C13, is not in our ‘grand narrative’ of polygonal chapter houses, which is bonkers. Montrose cathedral an intriguing demonstration of how a decent designer with few resources could use a few early C13 bangs and whistles, all of them as far as I can see derived ultimately from Lincoln and York — to good effect.

As for later stuff, every town and village is stuffed with it, and the better-off the area, the more of it there is. But for responses to local stone, there is little in Britain to beat the sequence of fishing villages that run along the north coast into Banffshire, a geological map on a stunning coastline; or Aberdeen, glistening with mica, a city of granite, cold, inward looking — as Bath is a city of Jurassic limestone, warm and inviting. The great hole of Rubislaw from which the city was lifted, now a hidden lake surrounded by offices and high fences, was a sight in itself.


Ultima Thule: Duncansby head, Caithness

Then there are the places that struck for their unexpectedness: the curious country around Caithness, a brief 10 miles of arable struck with tooth-like sandstone slates after decades of highland and peat bog. Fraserburgh, a functioning fishing town in which Tagalog and Doric seem to be the two main langauges, the latter only slightly easier to comperehend than the former. And much, much more. Some of which is on Facebook, because I’m running out of time.

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The great Northern circuit

September 18, 2014 3 comments

The next book is about landscapes, really, but I find myself itching to get down the highlights from some of the more striking buildings I discovered during last week’s 1500-mile grand tour through Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland, the Borders, Cumbria and Lancashire. The aim at all times was to discover the unfamiliar, and the landscape-rooted, but these included some architectural/art historical gems of the medieval (and other) world/s.


Stained glass at Horton in Ribblesdale

The first of these was Horton-in-Ribblesthorpe: a classic dark, bleak Dale-land/Pennine church, externally all Perp but with C12 arcades so simple they could as easily have been poor man’s C17. The highlight here was three tiny pieces of late medieval glass, high up in the west window and barely visible, yet striking in their implications: the head of the Virgin Mary; the head of Thomas Becket; the arms of Jervaulx abbey. These are arguably the two most aggressively proscribed images of the 1530s/40s, combined with the arms of a dissolved institution; not only that, but to retain just the heads — the part of an image most thoroughly focused on by iconoclasts, and equally a part most easy to slip from some shattered pile and spirit away — is a remarkable act; when combined with the badge of the dissolved monastery, one that surely has purpose. There was something very moving about the unknown backstory of these (apparently carefully preserved) fragments: one is reminded that here we are in the heartland of the anti-Reformation Pilgrimage of Grace.



Lastingham crypt

Lastingham, nestled in a verdant valley of the North York Moors, has strong connections to the early church and one of the less-known monuments to the remarkable years of the 1070s and 1080s, the earliest decades of the Romanesque in England. The highlight of this church is the extraordinary crypt, presumably associated with the cult of St Cedd, and one of the most significant monuments of a couple of decades from which, outside the cathedrals, very little survives. It is in a brusque early Romanesque rather reminiscent of the early castle chapel at Durham, and like that building, the simplicity and heaviness is combined with some determined attempts at decorative variety: in this case, every capital is different, and one of them is surely one of the earliest dated cushion capitals in the country. Upstairs the remarkably effective ‘restoration’ by Pearson preserves intact a top-rate Norman apse but seems to occlude the archaeological evidence for whether the enormous groin vaults are based on any evidence or not. All in all this was a small-but-rather-fine priory whose development, complete with crypt, halted in mid-build, leaving a structure which only has the stump of a nave to this very day.

I’m going to pass over Reivaulx (and Jervaulx, and Middleham) — but mention must be made of the chapter-house at the former famous church, a kind of miniature apsidal basilica perhaps associated with the cult of St Ailred: an odd place for a shrine, but he was buried there, and there surely can’t be another reason for the provision of an ambulatory? Perhaps the insertion of a little shrine-setting to the north of the central door in the C13 was an attempt to provide pilgrim access without having the hoi-polloi troop through the chapter-house itself? Another moving Dissolution-moment here, too: axe-marks on the stumps of the columns. I wondered offhand whether there was another religious building in Europe closer in plan to a C3BC Buddhist caitya hall. Which was also a gathering-place for monks, if rather more devotional in function.


Dod’s Law

Dod’s Law, Northumberland is not a church: it is a pair of iron age hillforts on a hilltop overlooking the distant domes of the Cheviots, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something ritualistic or religious about the remarkable, probably Bronze Age, rock-art  — like graphic maps, or Native Australian images of Dreamtime landscapes — laid out painstakingly on the great blocks of Fell Sandstone that litter the site.


Jedburgh abbey, east end

Next up, two great abbeys close to the border, in southern Scotland: Kelso and Jedburgh. Both are testament to a series of generalisations one can (perhaps) make about medieval Scottish architecture: that these buildings are not large by English standards, and until the C15 even the greatest of them lack the high stone vaults that were standard to the south by 1200; that by 1400 they have stylistically gone their own sweet way, almost pointedly ignoring developments in England — and that c.1150-1250 a great wave of building and rebuilding swept this country, resulting in structures of such inventiveness and sophistication that the story of architecture in the British Isles in those crucial years is incomplete without them. Witness the remarkable westwork, a richly-arcaded mini-Ely, at Kelso; and the handsome Giant Order, part of a story which is otherwise restricted entirely to southern England (Tewkesbury, Oxford, Romsey, ?Reading), in the east end at Jedburgh.

From here to Cumbria there is a B-road of spectacular beauty and emptiness, snaking for 30-50 miles through mountain fell and dales running with peat-black streams, with barely a hint of village or farm. Then, barely in England, and still in a landscape untouched by signs of tourism or Leisure Activities, one comes to Bewcastle. This is a tiny church at the centre of a cluster of farms, a pre- high medieval kind of setting, preserving much that was normal before the invention of the ‘village’.


The Bewcastle cross, among the gravestones

This is a place of astonishing silence, but don’t be deceived: enclosing the ruined Border castle and the churchyard alike is the earthwork of a major Roman fort, with a road connecting back to Hadrian’s Wall. In the C7/C8, therefore, this could easily have been a nodal point in a post-Roman, Christianised landscape — explaining the presence, still standing proud in the open air among the tombstones,  of one of the major works of the era of the Lindisfarne gospels, Cuthbert and Jarrow: a mighty, headless cross, covered in Runic inscriptions, well-carved late Roman decorative scrolls, and figures of such hieratic clarity they could be by Eric Gill, rather an anonymous craftsman of 1300 years ago. This is partly a commemorative monument, as the inscriptions demonstrate; the great flock of C18 and later headstones from which it rises, all their names pointing optimistically east, powerfully demonstrative of the continuance in the Christian tradition of the ‘commemorative standing stone’.


Sarah Losh’s church at Wreay

Then, firmly back in a more recognisable England, the extraordinary church built at Wreay south of Carlisle by local gentrywoman Sarah Losh in 1842. Losh guided every detail of this building (and the associated landscape of school house, mortuary enclosure, well-heads and funerary chapels, as well as a few domestic buildings), constructed entirely by local craftsmen with local materials. The result, infused by symbolic imagery drawn from personal, Christian and non-Christian sources alike, and powerfully informed by the early C19 understanding of early Christian art, is a testament to a convincing and unique aesthetic vision.  In other words, this was a revelation: there is a moment of spiritually-infused formal originality in the eC19, most purely embodied in the post-Blakean work of Palmer and his Ancients, arguably present in Turner, but not as far as I know expressed architecturally in any other religious building (Watts managed it later). It should be one of the most famous churches in the land: Losh as a kind of Victorian architectural Kate Bush (or Sir John Soane, for like Bush this is an art that transcends gender, will arguably being suffused by it).


Looking down the scree-slope, Pike of Stickle

West of here, in the great ice-scoured post-Volcano of the Lakes, the peak at Pike of Stickle has hanging down its vertiginous rampart a colossal scree slope that appears to be almost entirely man made. Though this entire upland was a terrifying third-world desert to medieval people, it was a place of great human significance in the late Neolithic, with a plethora of henge monuments all lying within 20 miles or so. And here, at the top of an often frost-and rain-shattered peak, stone axes were knapped from the landscape in such number and traded with such keenness that their products can be seen in many parts of Europe, and the axes deemed to have *failed* produced in such number that 100s of thousands, perhaps millions, still litter the hillside to this day, their sharp edges and knap-fractures intact.

Pike of Stickle has a special status in the great narrative of the anthropocene: just as this is when people first began to shift stones around so as to make permanent structures, this is also the first time that the products of a single place were spead so far and wide that the result is at once often found and entirely divorced from its geological origin. For the hand-axes of Stickle Pike or Grimes Graves, read Barnack limestone, York paving slabs, Welsh roofing slates, Portland stone, Italian marble, and every mineral product of the modern third-world mine that goes onto be spread around the world in laptops and handsets.

On to Furness, for more revelations. Here is a landscape on the way to nowhere, but also a mini-country of it is own, with its historic towns (Ulverston), dramatic industrial sandstone capital-city (Barrow), moors, wetlands and beaches, all overlooked by lowering Lakeland peaks. First there is Cartmel, not quite as eccentric a smaller priory church as Dorchester or Oxford but on the way, and with excellent glass and a remarkable C14 tomb to boot; and then there is Cistercian Furness abbey itself.


Furness abbey chapter house

I had expected this building to be somewhat provincial, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course, like so many of its peers, it is in a beguiling landscape, a valley near (but not in) a medieval ‘desert’, but presumably bearing a comparable relationship to the centre of serious power at Lancaster as Jervaulx does to Middleham, Rievaulx to Pickering or Helmsley (?), and Tintern to the Marcher lordships (and, further back, Lindisfarne does to Banburgh).  Like our Border abbeys, and indeed Lanercost to the north, it includes major examples of late C12 work, as well as the C15 stump of a prodigious western tower and a cliff-like east end, and a series of conventual/precinctual buildings of the later C12 that really should be better known.

The edge-of-precinct chapel and infirmary extension capture the mannered quality of some late EE/early Dec work, otherwise associated with very cosmopolitan buildings – Bishop Burnell at Wells and Acton Burnell, bishop Aigueblanche at Hereford. And the chapter-house, even in its current roofless and vaultless state, is extraordinary. This was once a hall-‘church’, its three rows of high stone vaults supported on vertiginously slender columns, its edges a series of mighty blank-tracery panels, like the York chapter-house vestibule blank ‘arcade’ filling an entire wall. Polygonal chapter houses are knockout, of course, and some of the more traditional rectilinear examples of the Romanesque era (Bristol is the best-preserved) clearly were, too. But I haven’t come across a Gothic-era rectilinear-planned chapter house in England of anything approaching this beauty and ambition. Wow.

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Elemental England I

July 19, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve not blogposted from the top deck of a bus before; neither have I even begun blogging fragments relating to my next book. Something of a first, then: whether I can publish this between Shrivenham and Swindon is another question.

I have followed the A420 many times; too many for this impatient driver, as its a road on which one is guaranteed to be struck behind a queue of lorries. But from the top deck of a bus everything changes. It slows down, for a start (!). More to the point, the lie of the land opens out. What had always felt like a low-slung, characterless drive through the clay plains of middle England reveals itself as a tour of the Corallian ridge, a switchback ride along a snaking spine of limestone that is easy to overlook, so undramatically does it slip itself between the higher uplans of Jurassic Cotswolds and Cretaceous chalk Downs.

From up here, the shape of these hills is more beguiling than I’d expected; while low, they have the cool smooth openness that gives all limestones their tang. The knowledge that this was all once coral reef in some warm ocean gives the landscape an extra tang. But so is the significance of the ridge itself. It’s the setting for a cluster of hilltop towns, rare itself in this counrt: Wooton Basset, Swindon, Highworth, Malmesbury. Not far from Brinksworth it forms a watershed which divides Severn-headed Avon from mighty Thames: the rain only has to fall the wrong side of a low hill to end up in the Atlantic or the North Sea. And as was reach the head of he Vale of White Horse, I realise something I’d not noticed before.

Uffington: famously extraordinary. it’s White Horse a work of near-abstraction, surely partly the result of the mind-boggling 3000 years of scouring that have stylised it while keeping it visible. The nearby church is almost as remarkable. But from up here, suddenly the white horse makes sense. From the clay vale of the valley, you can barely see it, let alone read it: but from up here, it, and the curiously visceral Dragon Hill with its bare, dragonsblood-drenched summit, seem to rise just above the eyeline, at once powerfully legible and all-dominant. In other words, these are works of art in compact with nature that are designed to be seen from up, perhaps on horseback. This ridge has been an important route for no little time, then, and the tarmac snake of the A420 must follow natural ways of great age. So here’s to the Corallian, as we crawl through low humid rain towards Swindon bus station.


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Medieval church architecture

July 7, 2014 Leave a comment
beverley  (40)

Decorated-era crocketed ogee arches at Beverley Minster

It was the lucky inheritance of a pile of Victorian and early C20 handbooks which served as my way in to the inexhaustibly rewarding subject of medieval architectural style. Now (ie from this week!) my new Shire handbook makes a very attractive modern equivalent. For more details have a look at the relevant page in the Buy My Books section of this website:

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Unpacking Glastonbury II

June 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Glastonbury abbey: stub of the south transept, a shattered Giant Order elevation of 1184; Tor behind

Preparing for a Glastonbury dayschool, I’ve been able to revisit some of my thoughts on Unpacking Glastonbury (

In a funny kind of way, I’m less exercised by the origin of it all than one might expect. What do we know? That there was some reasonably serious Roman activity on the site of the abbey. One would expect there to be Christians among such people by the C4; here we certainly know there were Christians in the Somerset area. That in the C5/C7 the Tor site was a centre of power that still maintained awareness of, and was able to trade with, Mediterranean cultures. That the first historical church on the abbey site, Ine’s church of the early C8, is clearly oriented on an existing structure (and arguably an associated well) which remains the tap root of the entire complex from then on; that by Dunstan’s time the legend of a special origin had developed.

All the business about miraculous/crypto-Biblical origins is recorded much later, and is by-the-by: I see no problem with the proposal that there was already something on the abbey site that people in the C8 might understand as being special for some kind of antiquity or earliness; that is, proposing a Christian *something* of say the C3-C5 (say starting as a place of worship in a villa and persisting into something more self-consciously a religious community or cult site as Rome itself recedes), is not quite putting 2+2 together to equal 5.

Hell, we even have archaeology for such continuities in the area, barely 10 minutes drive away at Glastonbury’s great rival Wells, where there are no legends at all — but plenty of proof of just such a sequence, with the present cathedral its final result. Many have taken all this further, and I’m going to resist the temptation, except to additionally point out that, if the power-centre on the Tor was a scene of resistance to the Anglo-Saxons (no evidence, but reasonable supposition); and if local leaders/kings (call them what you will; and leaving aside whether the Tor site was religious or secular) were traditionally buried next to the Christian-thing on the abbey site (again, the Wells Christian-thing was a place of high-status burial); that would be easily enough for people of the late C12 to dig one of these burials up and call their find Arthur.

But in a way what interests me is what happens thereafter: how all these rolling mythological/hagiographical/pseudo-historical stones keep rolling from the C11/12 to the present, bumping into each other, swapping hoary mosses, like an enormous communal, sacral game of Chinese whispers. I’ve outlined that story in my previous post; but this time round I’m struck even more by Glastonbury’s oddnesses. It’s reputation as a mighty centre of sacredness has come down to the modern world vital and intact; yet the medieval story is more strange and contradictory than that.


Glastonbury abbey: south door and interior of the sacred Lady chapel. Finest work of sculpture of the 1180s?

Firstly, there is something restless, almost insecure, about all these rolling hagiographical stones. Our Ancient Christian Thing is the absolute nub of that, morphing from Vetusta Ecclesia to standalone Lady chapel to combined Lady chapel/chapel of All Saints to chapel of St Joseph over four hundred years, even as the stories of its origin get gradually more outlandish. There is a whole cultural history here, from the context of the C12 events in the rich culture of Anglo-Norman England and the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’ to the late phase, where the hollowing out of its crypt to create a new, tomb-like devotional focus and the visceral associations with the man who project-managed Christ’s burial is powerfully redolent of late medieval religious culture. The point being that Glastonbury cults have an oddly fluid quality. What is this Vetusta thing? Not a saint, exactly: it’s a structure, a vessel, a receptacle: that’s what sacred spaces do. No wonder it’s so fluid. Do we have Patrick, or is he in Ireland? Dunstan, or is he in Canterbury? Is Arthur a saint? Has anyone ever heard of this minor host of Celtic saints and Wessex kings? The contrast with mighty Cuthbert or Etheldreda (or later, Thomas of Canterbury), iconically bestriding their respective communities, is curious. What did this place actually mean?

Secondly, Glastonbury has a curious way of consigning its own story to oblivion. The astonishing, casket-like richness of the Lady chapel (and equally astonishing scale of investment by the king in 1184-9 — shades of Westminster abbey sixty years later) is at once deeply a fireproofed recreation of its feted predecessor and a consignment to oblivion of all trace of it to; if any sign of that remained below ground, it was in turn vapourised by the hollowing out of the chapel’s crypt in around 1500.

It’s patterns like this which fuel the remarkable story since, in which small-scale, organic features of the abbey’s (remarkable) surrounding landscape – a thorn tree, a well – features which have the slenderest evidence for mattering to anyone particularly before the early C16 — become the fuel for the twisted (in the sense of complex and knotty) resacralisation of a Dissolution-shattered landscape from the C19.

There is, then, something going on here throughout about forgetting, or half-remembering; something as analgous to sleep and its dreams as it is to real history.

One is tempted to riff further, on the fate of medieval religious enclosures, post-Dissolution. These are basically the walled enclosures of a mighty but vapourised institution: Swindon railway works, Detroit Motor City, but making prayers not engines. Some (Tewkesbury) have continued to be graveyards dominated by a church; many (Durham, Ely) have become that icon, the English cathedral close. Bury is a public park. Bristol a civic centre. Walsingham has been reconolised by self-conscious claimants to its original raison d’etre, even as the monastic enclosure itself remains an aristocrat’s garden: the Dissolution in a landscape-nutshell. Glastonbury…


Glastonbury Tor, with the tower of St Michael’s church: dealer in myth since the C5, or before?

Back to my theme. There is another aspect of Glastonbury that’s oddly overlooked, and that is the art-historical significance of what does survive. We actually know a fair amount about this building: Bligh Bond and Harrison are unfairly vilified, if over-enthusiastic in filling in the dots; Jerry Sampson is doing heroic work as I write. Firstly, the Lady chapel is arguably the most drop-dead work of small-scale architecture of the febrile 1170s-1200s, as significant in its way as Canterbury, Wells, Lincoln (or, perhaps its closest comparator, the Durham Galilee). Secondly, the great church, also designed in 1184, is no strippling. It has the last in the great sequence of C12 Giant Order elevations, always a little too clever for their own good: is that because the previous church, ie the early/mid C12 one had one, too? (shades here of the relationship between post-1173 Canterbury and Anselm’s east end) In the mid-C13 we have a west front and a functionally intriguing Galilee that might have looked Wells in the eye for richness of articulation — and contextually from here on a fascinating sequence of events around an image of Mary from the  Old Church that had been miraculously preserved in the 1184 fire. Not to mention all those other rolling stones. The consequences of some of this are the biggest gap of our knowledge: given the significance of late C13/ec14 architecture in this part of the world, the loss of the north porch extension, the nave and galilee vaults, de Taunton’s pulpitum, etc is a tragic one. Even more so as Monington’s work in the choir was arguably one of the most significant and ambitious early essays in Perpendicular, applying the grid idea to the existing church with a determination that can seem almost extreme, given the way it must have left the C13 clerestory as a series of dark holes. It could be 1340s, astonishingly early; it is unlikely to be latter than the late 1360s (Monington dies in 1375), which still makes it the first Perp great church after Gloucester (neck and neck with Winchester); indeed Gloucester is itself only just drawing to completion. Equally impressive is the careful late C12/C13 retrospection of Monington’s retroquire, arguably a model for that other remarkable piece of backwards-architecture, Yevele’s Westminster nave (Westminster-Glastonbury is almost as fun a riff as Wells-Glastonbury — don’t get me started).

After that, evidence continues, but assessing significance gets more problematic: the Renaissance inflections mooted for the Loretto chapel seem to be entirely invented; the palpable links between the Edgar chapel and the Gloucester and Westminster Lady chapels make the proposal that it was an exceptionally rich structure convincing; the archaic design of the Lady chapel/Galilee crypt/s is fascinating — but also, prosaically, a very similiar design to that of the lost dormitory undercroft. There is much to learn.

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