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adventures in architecture Posts

Bromley Hall (1490)

A grim stretch of the Blackwall Tunnel northern approach is hardly where you’d expect to find London’s oldest brick building – or an English Civil War gunpowder factory, for that matter.

Bromley Hall is easy to miss. Many times I’ve driven around the A12 paying little attention to the endless exhaust-strained offices, boarded-up factories and self-storage hangers. The carriageway passes right by the door, so you’re also unlikely to see it from afar.

The early Tudor house was built in 1490 by Holy Trinity Priory, on the site of the earlier Lower Bramerley Manor. Seized during the dissolution of the monasteries, it was refurbished by Henry VII before being used as a gunpowder factory in the 1640s. The building was later used as a printing works and private house before becoming a nurses residence and training hospital in the late 19th century.

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Rievaulx Abbey (1132) and Easby Abbey (1152)

The Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx (founded 1132) and Premonstratensian foundation of Easby (1152) lie thirty miles apart on an upland tract of North Yorkshire. The Orders closely shared constitutions and spiritual ideas, and these similarities are reflected in Easby’s main abbey complex, begun two decades after Rievaulx, which appears to follow developmental phases common to the Cistercian claustral plan, but with notable divergences. To what extent can these be explained by the Premonstratensian spiritual mission, or was Easby’s development influenced by other factors?

Figure 1: Plan of Rievaulx Abbey (founded 1132). Image: English Heritage

Rievaulx (Fig. 1) is considered a model for a Cistercian house as it was the first to be founded in the north under instruction from Clairvaux. Its plan developed in three broad phases but, as Fergusson notes, despite its innovations and the influence of its French mother house, architectural developments at Cistercian foundations were not always inevitable. The first, 12th century, phase saw the re-building of Rievaulx’s church and east and west ranges as statements of reform under Abbot Aelred. The nave had a nine-bay arcade added, with aisle barrel vaults at right-angles, betraying the influence of its Burgundian architectural model. Transepts, transept chapels and aisle chapels were also added – each square-ended – in a further move towards the ‘persistent simplification’ of Romanesque monastic architecture that better reflected values of simplicity and solitude of location. This approach was continued into the east range: the chapter house, though apsidal, featured a simplified Norman arcade supported by large, round piers. The other principle spaces, such as the day room and huge first-floor dormitory, were also similarly austere in execution.

The south range, however, began to signal a reorientation in Aelred’s planning. An earlier refectory, positioned east-west following Benedictine precedent, was replaced by a larger building erected perpendicular to the cloister. Thompson contends that this change of axis, similarly seen at Fountains and Kirkstall, was principally to allow for the expansion of the adjacent kitchen and warming house. The peak population of 650 religious and lay brothers at Rievaulx appears to support this need for expansion, though greater weight should be attached to the confluence of other theories that would later direct Rievaulx’s claustral plan. These include Aelred’s admiration for Durham’s refectory (also created as an upper hall over a vaulted undercroft), the inclusion of a large, south-facing, Early Gothic window, and the underpinning of these arrangements through scriptural justifications for first-floor dining. This reorganisation of the south range can be seen as a deliberate movement away from the stark simplicity of the earlier works in preparation for a fuller embrace of Early Gothic principles – principally in the greater use of light as a prism for spiritual reflection.

The second, early-13th century phase, saw the architectural realisation of Aelred’s ambitions, but carried an inherent tension. The nave was raised, the presbytery received a seven-bay extension and a reformed choir, and a shrine for Aelred (d.1167) was added behind the altar. The earlier architectural simplicity was now being further challenged by an Early Gothic trend for combining lighter walls and more expressive building techniques. This tension was also felt in the addition of five chapels to the church’s eastern wall. These were flat-ended, eschewing apsidal plans associated with ‘spiritual exhibition’, moving Rievaulx further towards a rectilinear plan that would become characteristically Cistercian. Morris notes, however, that chapels were connected with processional circulation which, while reflecting a 13th century trend for private masses, again signified a growing gap between the simplicity of earlier liturgical arrangements and the abbey’s more elaborate physical manifestation.

The 14th century saw the lay brothers depart Rievaulx, marking the third phase of claustral development. While some extant ruins of the west range pre-date Aelred’s administration, their later conversion to study/storage space, the inclusion of a parlour where monks could meet with family, and extra space in the western nave available for processional use, all signified an increasing semi-public function for the abbey that had moved beyond its founding, hermetic, intentions. Therefore, while Rievaulx is now seen as a model Cistercian claustral design, it was not planned as such. Moreover, it arrived at its plan though a conscious rejection of Norman expressive forms, followed by a dissonant accommodation of austere Cistercian principles with Early Gothic inspiration.

To what extent did Easby’s monastic plan (Fig. 2) follow a similar path? Proximity of founding date, location and shared spiritual ideals would suggest a degree of pragmatic architectural interchange, and evidence of Cistercian precedent is apparent in Easby’s plan. However, also like Rievaulx, architectural changes were reactive to wider forces.

Figure 2: Plan of Easy Abbey (founded 1152). Image: English Heritage.

Easby Abbey was similarly founded in a river valley for farming and drainage reasons, but of greater significance for its plan was the decision to position it on an existing ecclesiastical site. St. Agatha’s church was included within the abbey precinct, and the irregular quadrilateral shape of the abbey cloister seems to have been influenced by the need to accommodate the monastery within a defined ancient space. The claustral buildings, however, at first glance appear to conform to Cistercian convention: the church, north of the cloister, dates from the 12th century, and like Rievaulx had aisles added and its presbytery lengthened in the early-14th century. Flat-ended transept chapels and a sacristry south of the choir were also added in this phase, but were additions that, by this time (as seen earlier at sister houses such as Leiston and Talley), were already features of a typical Premonstratensian plan.

To understand why the layout of Easby’s other claustral buildings came to reflect characteristics of the Premonstratensian Order requires understanding of its spiritual mission and organisational structure. It was an expectation of White Canons that, unlike the White Monks, they would spend time in the community, preaching and carrying out charitable work in addition to managing their granges. A circary system of governance also evolved, detached from the mother house of Prémontré in France, that allowed for a wider variety of architectural solutions.

This free-thinking is evident in Easby’s east and west ranges. While the chapter house (again flat-ended) and its adjacent rooms are located below the south transept, there is no dormitory above (the upper-storey space appears to have been a grand apartment). Instead, the monks’ dormitory was located in the west range, conjoined with guest lodgings in a ‘exceptional and probably unique’ configuration. Colvin notes that little is known about the accommodation of Premonstratensian lay brothers within the monastic plan; as ordained priests, the White Canons had less time than the White Monks for manual labour, so it must be assumed that a larger proportion of Premonstratensian lay brothers were living out on their granges or elsewhere. Unlike at Rievaulx, the configuration of Easby’s west range is the product of a single phase of early-13th planning, so can therefore be attributed to reasons that are identifiably Premonstratensian in origin.

Easby’s south range, similarly built within the same 13th century phase, also  shows evidence of Premonstratensian assimilation of Cistercian precedent. The kitchen, warming house and refectory are in the same position as at Rievaulx, but with the refectory building situated east-to-west. The refectory itself, however, was also positioned on the first floor with a huge, east-facing window in the Decorative style – indicative of the works being carried out fifty years later than at Rievaulx. However, clear precedent of a similar dining arrangement can be seen at other Premonstratensian houses, including Tupholme (1155) and Eaglestone (late-12th century), suggesting two-storey refectories were already common practice for the White Canons by the time Easby was under construction.

Easby’s claustral plan, therefore, borrowed from the Cistercians but diverged significantly from it. That Easby was founded a year after the Cistercian general chapter of 1152, which halted further rapid Cistercian expansion, further suggests that the Premonstratensians took the opportunity to adapt an already highly appropriate Cistercian plan for their own spiritual duties. Rievaulx in the 12th and 13th centuries was largely the product of an abbot’s somewhat tentative ambition to combine Cistercian spiritual values with progressive Anglo-French architectural thinking. The claustral plan of Easby, conversely, reveals no individual guiding hand. Rather, the most significant developmental factor was an architectural confidence derived from a more autonomous circary system that better-suited the White Canons’ spiritual mission.


G. Coppack, P. Fergusson and S. Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey (London, 2006)

Fergusson, Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England (Princeton, 1984)

P. Fergusson, ‘The Twelfth Century Refectories of Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys’, Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, C. Norton and D. Park (eds) (Cambridge, 1986)

J. Gribbin, The Premonstratensian Order in Late Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2000)

R. Morris, Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales (London, 1979)

Rudolph, ‘Architectural Theory, the Sacred Economy, and the Public Presentation of Monastic Architecture: The Classic Cistercian Plan’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 78:3 (2019)

A. H. Thompson, English Monasteries (Cambridge, 1923)

Rievaulx Abbey (English Heritage)
Easby Abbey (English Heritage)

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Stephen Croad Essay Prize 2023

Receiving the Stephen Croad Essay Prize certificate from Giles Quarme FRIBA.

Last week I attended Historic Buildings and Places’ annual lecture at the Alan Baxter Gallery in Farringdon, where I was awarded the Stephen Croad Essay Prize 2023 for my paper on Balthazar Gerbier and Hamstead Marshall.

Speaking about my essay on Balthazar Gerbier and Hamstead Marshall.

After receiving my certificate, I gave a short talk on why the topic is of interest to me and my key findings. The essay will be published in Historic Buildings and Places’ journal next year.

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Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross (2014)

Coal Drops Yard
Looking across a bridge between the two coal drops sheds. The western shed (pictured) has restaurants and retail units on both floor. In the background are retained gas holders, now housing apartments. Image: Struan Bates.

A couple of evening photos from the Coal Drops Yard redevelopment. I worked for a number of years at King’s Place on York Road, and witnessed the adjacent Granary Square transformation, though at the time the coal sheds shown in these images (built in 1851 and 1860 and used for storing coal from Yorkshire before it was transported on Regent’s Canal) lay boarded-up and abandoned after their later use as warehouses and nightclubs.

Coal Drops Yard
Units along one side of the eastern shed. Image: Struan Bates.

The wider development of the area continues apace, and appears successful, with one’s attention still largely drawn to the architecture over the former coal sheds’ commercial occupants. The Granary Square development in particular also has a very different feel in the daytime, attracting more families to the canal steps and fountains.

The whole King’s Cross development has not been without controversy, however, with questions raised over affordable housing and ‘pseudo-public spaces’.

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Recording the Danby Gate (1632-33)

A measured drawing of the north elevation of the Danby Gate, Oxford Botanic Garden.
A measured drawing of the north elevation of the Danby Gate, Oxford Botanic Garden (1632-33). Image: Struan Bates.

On a recent trip to Oxford I passed the Danby Gate (1632-33), the historic entrance to Oxford Botanic Garden. The weather was considerably sunnier than the last time I visited, when I was measuring, sketching and photographing the gate for a survey.

A couple of memories stood out: firstly, in hindsight how probably mad I was to choose a building that required the drawing of such heavily rusticated and ornamented features. Secondly, and rather obviously, perhaps, but of considerable consequence when producing a printed record, was how much difference the availability of light makes when taking high-resolution photos.

Photos, heavily manipulated, of the norther elevation of the Danby Gate. Images: Struan Bates.

My final measured drawing of the north elevation of the gate is at the top of this article (this is the entrance side set back off the High Street opposite Magdalen College, though the actual visitor entrance is now through the wall to the left of the arch). After much rubbing out, I decided to take a less-is-more approach, lightly hatching the rustication on the pilasters and only tracing the outline of the statues of Charles I and Charles II in the left and right niches, and the bust of Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, who paid for the gate, in the pediment above.

The Danby Gate, south elevation. Image: Struan Bates.

The inscriptions on the pediment on both the north and south sides were similarly tricky to get right, particularly the serifs on the letters at such a reduced scale.

Survey equipment. The DISTO was variably accurate under fluctuating levels, with averages of multiple readings needing to be taken. Image: Struan Bates.

While not particularly complex in plan, the gate is not symmetrical or equally proportioned north and south of the wall. Neither are the internal and external fluted niches of equal size, requiring some nimble compass work.

Initial measured sketch of the Danby Gate plan. Image: Struan Bates.

This survey was the first time I had used a DISTO laser measure to record ceiling and roof heights. The accuracy of the tool appeared variable as the light fluctuated, though when the clouds came over this at least meant the laser point could be seen at the top of the pediment.

The eastern elevation of the gate bisected by the Botanic Garden wall, the side of the arch most difficult to record due to restricted space and light. A stone marking the place of the medieval Jewish Cemetery is to the right. Image: Struan Bates.

While not a novice in enhancing images, applying techniques to high-resolution photos taken on a very gloomy day was extremely time-consuming, with varying results. Particularly tricky was achieving consistency when increasing light levels and adding clarity to images showing both the whole of the gate and close-up details.

Holes for wooden posts, presumably created when adjacent structures were built. Image: Struan Bates.

The statues of the Stuart kings in Roman dress had recently underdone repair, but their elevated positions also made it hard to photographing smaller details. Even standing on a stool only resulted in grainy images when enhanced.

Statue of Charles I in the left niche, north elevation. This grainy, heavily magnified, image illustrates the difficulty of being unable to photograph features at eye level. Image: Struan Bates.

My survey also included research on the gate’s history. I had previously done some work on Nicholas Stone, who built the gate in 1632-33, together with the garden wall and a couple of smaller arches to the east and west, though only a potted history of Stone’s work was required for this project. Stone was also working on a house at Cornbury during the same period, using Headington stone provided by the Strong family of masons. To what extent work was simultaneously being co-ordinated between both sites is, for me, one of the most interesting outstanding questions.

History of the gate taken from the final report. Image: Struan Bates.

To some degree the Danby Gate suffers as a small historic building in a city with lots more larger and more visible ones. Its proximity to larger buildings and rather hidden location at the end of Oxford High Street both contribute to its diminished visibility.

The Danby Gate is however important as a complete surviving work by a leading figure in the development of classical architecture in the seventeenth century. For this reason, perhaps, its architectural significance deserves greater appreciation.

More on the Danby Gate

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Charlie Gee, York Minster Stonemason

I recently stumbled across the work of a Charlie Gee, a young apprentice stonemason who works in the Stoneyard at York Minster. If you’ve ever wondered how medieval craftsmen did it, this is the place to look! His videos are quite mesmerising, and have attracted almost 250k followers on Instagram, one of the best places to admire his craftsmanship.

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St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (C12-15)

Fig. 1: St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (south elevation). Image: Struan Bates.

The principal features of the church of St. Lawrence the Martyr in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire (Fig. 1), date from between the 12th and 15th centuries. The church appears to integrate progressive stylistic trends, spanning the Norman and Perpendicular gothic periods, in a way that is characteristic of the region. Richard Morris asks in Churches in the Landscape (1989) whether parochial preferences in church-building followed in the wake of technical innovation, or vice versa; St. Lawrence’s offers support for both sides of this argument, but this article will contend that the most significant factor that influenced its architectural development were changes in liturgical arrangements.

An ecclesiastical building pre-dating the church on the same site is confirmed by the Domesday Book, where Abbots Langley is listed as held by the abbot of St. Albans with a priest in situ. The short nave and chancel also hints at a Saxon structure: an abrupt transition from Norman to gothic arcading along the south aisle corresponds with a short side-return on the north aisle: this suggests a wall may once have divided the nave and chancel, with the chancel possibly forming the original Saxon church.

The principal surviving features, however, are Norman. Most striking are the 12th century semi-circular arcades dominating the nave (Fig. 2). Large circular piers support scalloped and coned capitals, with zig-zag decoration adorning the middle orders of the arches. These features are characteristically late-Norman, dating the arcades to between 1150-1190. Similar rich detailing was brought to St. Albans Abbey during this period under Abbot John de Cella, and its use at St. Lawrence’s and nearby Hemel and Redbourn suggests co-ordinated planning of works at parish level with the mother church.

A single round-headed window in the west wall of the north aisle also suggests that the aisles are Norman in origin. They are particularly narrow, and may be contemporary manifestations of prestige, rather than a response to a requirement for more congregational space. If this was the case, their lack of decoration suggests that, if they did form part of Abbot de Cella’s 12th century vision, their technical implementation was truncated.

Fig. 2: Left: Looking east from nave to chancel, with 12th century arcading to the north and south. Right: The indicated capital from the middle north aisle pier, with scalloping and zig-zag arch decoration. Images: Struan Bates.

The next significant addition was the west tower (Fig. 1) of rubblestone and flint, with traces of Hertfordshire Puddingstone. This was erected in at least two stages: narrow, lancet windows adorn the north and south walls which, together with the pair of low, diagonal buttresses supporting the west face, date the lower half of the tower to the transitional period of the early-13th century. Perpendicular windows above the west entrance date the upper portion to the 15th century, with a modern brick parapet crowning the cornice.

Greater structural consequences, however, were affected by St. Lawrence’s changes in liturgical arrangements from the 14th century. The most significant addition was the Corpus Christi chancel chapel (Fig. 3, Fig.4). From the exterior, the chapel obscures the chancel, incorporating three Decorated windows in knapped flint and Totternhoe Clunch squared chequerwork walls. Roberts notes that clunch, a hard chalk quarried in nearby Bedfordshire, was first used at St. Albans under Abbot de Cella, and was almost universally used in Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire churches, principally being transported along routes to St. Albans and Windsor. This suggests the guiding hand of higher clergy in planning the chapel, however its origin is uncertain.

Fig. 3: Left: The chancel chapel from the south-west. Right: Totternhoe Clunch and flint chequerboard work on the east wall. Images: Struan Bates.

The religious guild of Corpus Christi founded churches during this period, however the practice appears to have been mainly urban. The chapel also changed its name to the Lady Chapel in the 15th century before later reverting. Paul Barnwell notes that chancel chapels were built to accommodate overspill of the congregation or for chantry reasons, and were often designed to be deliberately ‘showey or elaborate’ in rivalling the chancel. It is notable that St. Lawrence’s chapel’s disproportionate embrace of width, characteristic of the Decorated style’s use of space- and the liturgical importance attached to it – would have a lasting impact on how the church managed its congregation, principally in subsequent modifications to the chancel and nave.

This is first apparent when viewing the chapel through the extended gothic arcading (Fig. 4) separating it from the chancel. The chapel’s greater dimensions position it as the dominant space, with the eye drawn to its fine roof with king posts and curved braces, and the three Decorated windows. Their cusped window heads and reticulated tracery suggest a date of the early-14th century, and deliver the ‘softness and fluidity’ that is the hallmark of the Decorated period. Access to the chapel, however, is awkward.

The reason lies in the arrangement of the gothic arcading. The easternmost pair of two-centred arches, with double-chamfered moulding and octagonal piers and capitals, date to the late-14th or early-15th century, and documentary evidence confirms the chancel was rebuilt at this time. The chancel also appears to have been lengthened during the same works, fitting with a wider trend of chancels being enlarged in the 14th century to distance the altar from the laity. These changes indicate that the chancel and chapel may have co-existed as largely separate rooms or buildings, with a wall subsequently removed between them.

Fig. 4: Left: Looking through the chancel arcade into the dominant 14th century chancery chapel. 16th century skew arch in the foreground. Right: Decorated windows and kingpost roof in the chapel. Images: Struan Bates.

West of the two-centred arches is a larger, four-centred arch, incorporating a hood mould in the Tudor style (Fig. 4), with two smaller pointed arches beneath. The larger skew arch dates to the 16th century, with the apparent purpose of further integrating the congregation. Positioned at the juncture of nave and chancel, however, it awkwardly connects the Norman and gothic arcading, upsetting their rhythm and the harmony between the church’s principal spaces. The liturgical consequences of the Corpus Christi chapel, therefore, had architectural implications. Once the Decorated chapel was complete, a decision appears to have been made to further integrate the congregation in a way that complemented the chapel’s growing status and fluidity of space.

To an extent, the second phase of later-medieval renovations can be seen as a response to the architectural questions the chapel posed. The works from this next period are in the Perpendicular style (Fig. 5), and were begun by Abbot Moote of St. Albans in the early 15th century. The chancel received larger east and north windows with Perpendicular tracery. The upper part of the tower was reconstructed, with a parapet added, in keeping with a movement towards greater angularity. The aisle walls were also rebuilt, and the nave roof and clerestory raised.

Fig. 5: Left: When viewed from the east elevation, the Perpendicular chancel again appears dominated by the Decorated Corpus Christi chapel. Right: Grotesque corbel of pig in a cowl in the nave roof. Images: Struan Bates.

Also embedded in the nave roof were a series of grotesque corbels, some depicting friars as pigs. Was this Chaucerian satire a response to the excesses of the neighbouring King’s Langley Priory? If so, the corbels may suggest a local rivalry between between the priory’s mendicant Dominican order and the Benedictine house at St. Albans, the product of which possibly accelerated Abbot Moote’s Perpendicular improvements at St. Lawrence’s.

By the 15th century, St. Lawrence’s had reached its maximum medieval areal extent. The Perpendicular phase, however, appears to have been insufficiently accommodating, as between the 16th and 19th centuries the chancel was employed as a mortuary chapel, with a funerary monument in the place of the high alter, whilst the taking of communion moved to the chapel. How clergy and laity were arranged for worship in this later period, when there was effectively a dog-leg between nave and chapel, requires further investigation.

Fig. 6
: Plan of medieval phases of St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (2021). Image: Struan Bates.

This article has shown how some of the key stages in St. Lawrence’s development between the 12th and 15th centuries were the product of stylistic visions instigated by senior ecclesiastical institutions, or by the rivalry between them. If works decisions were made at a parochial level, evidence for this is limited.

These visions, however, were often truncated, with only the 14th century Decorated Corpus Christi chapel achieving a coherent form and function of its own. The chapel’s exterior use of conspicuous vernacular techniques and materials also suggests a confidence to embrace technical innovations. The more significant consequences of changes in liturgical arrangements and subsequent architectural responses promoted by the chapel’s success, however, would be far longer-lasting.


P. Barnwell. ‘The Community and the Individual: Worship and the Late Medieval English Parochial Church’, Barnwell (ed), Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland 1350-1550  (Donington, 2019)

F. Bond, An Introduction to English Church Architecture from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century, vol. 2 (London, 1913)

J. Bony, The English Decorated Style: Gothic Architecture Transformed, 1250-1350 (Oxford, 1979)

J. Harvey, The Perpendicular Style 1330-1485 (London, 1978)

R. Morris, Churches in the Landscape (London, 1989)

N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Second edition (Harmondsworth, 1978)

E. Roberts, ‘Totternhoe Stone and Flint in Hertfordshire Churches’, Medieval Archaeology 18:1 (1974)

R. Wilkinson, The Church and Parish of Abbots Langley (London, 1959 – many thanks to the Peter Waddell, vicar of St. Lawrence’s, for the loan of this book)

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Forty Hall (1629)

Forty Hall. Image: Struan Bates.

I suspect there’s a lot more to discover about Forty Hall. The 1629 date quoted for the house we see today appears too early; it has more in common with the angular, astylar boxes built after the Restoration. That said, there are earlier stylistic precedents (e.g. Coleshill , usually given a date of 1650).

Forty Hall was built for Nicholas Rainton, a former Mayor of London, who was imprisoned for refusing to help Charles I raise a loan, and who died in 1646 (interesting monument in St Andrew’s, Enfield – Nicholas Stone?) A lottery bid put together by the hall and English Heritage in 2008 suggested a ‘clever artisan builder’ probably designed the house, but no name is suggested. Little information can then be found about Forty’s architectural development between Rainton dying and the property leaving the family’s possession in 1696. I’ve not seen Peter Mills‘ name associated, but Forty immediately brings to mind Thorpe Hall … just a thought.

Forty has a fascinating interior, too; the photos below were taken on a flying visit, but give a good impression of it inside and out:

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.

Image: Struan Bates.
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The People’s Piazza: A History of Covent Garden (BBC)

I finally got round to watching The People’s Piazza: A History of Covent Garden on iPlayer. As with many of the best documentaries, the researchers had done a great job of finding people who had direct involvement with the subject at hand, including men and women who had worked in the market in the pre- and post-war periods. There was some great archive footage, and the framing of developments around historical figures worked well.

Inigo Jones’ St Paul’s church loomed large, though its architectural history wasn’t explored. It’s still surprising how Jones integrated the most ‘primitive’ Tuscan order with elegant surrounding townhouses, and in doing so delivering London’s first formal open space. Jones had seen the opportunity to employ the Tuscan’s earthy and robust dimensions in an ecclesiastical building after agreeing with the Earl of Bedford to deliver the ‘handsomest barn in England’. The huge east front pedimented portico of St Paul’s (sixty feet across), with its widely-spaced pair of large columns flanked by square pilasters, had no precedent in England, and the sight of a quasi-Tuscan temple would have been all the more dramatic for its urban setting. The church’s double-square interior displayed Jones’ preference for harmonic ratios, with symmetrical, tall, rounded-headed pairs of windows on the east and west facades complementing circular windows above the church’s ‘entrances’ (the east one is fake).

Flanking St Paul’s were a pair of arches, also Tuscan, with rusticated pilasters. These were positioned away from the church and joined by a wide, low wall, at a distance proportionate to the columnation of the church’s portico. The cumulative effect of their inclusion, visible in later etchings and paintings, again demonstrated Jones’ inclination for horizontality, but at Covent Garden going a step further to confidently bestow a residential skyline with the gravity of the Tuscan order.

No drawings in Jones’ hand survive for the the tall, narrow houses he designed for the north and east sides of Covent Garden, but later pictorial evidence shows that they were narrow, classical structures, with vaulted, rusticated, arcade walkways (‘piazzas’) spanning the terraces, with steep roofs and dormer windows. Summerson argued that the whole of Covent Garden was a ‘comprehensive essay in the Tuscan mood’, with Jones adapting a Serlio  design for his Covent Garden houses to deliver elegant continuity around three sides of the square. The effect is seen in later paintings: a band of red, upper-story brickwork runs around the square – smart, but subordinate to the bright, rusticated ashlar line leading the eye to its termination at the new, understated, Protestant, place of worship.

The point here isn’t to establish whether Jones’ unified application of the Tuscan order was faithful to antiquity, but more to recognise that what Jones had created was the first classical city square in England. Its influence was soon felt in surrounding streets, with Jones directing similar classical projects in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Great Queen Street. Jones had arrived at his own urban vernacular, the forerunner of London street architecture. Crucially, these buildings and spaces would be experienced by the public, not just kings and courtiers.

At this point Jones still had what might have been the crowning glories of his Westminster Palace and St Paul’s cathedral developments on the horizon, though the former didn’t come to fruition and the latter was demolished. Whatever the aesthetic merit of Jones’ work on the west front of the cathedral, it’s Jones’ influence on secular architecture that was revolutionary, though his buildings alone may not have been enough to secure that legacy.

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The Architecture of Swithland, Leicestershire

Swithland is a small, linear settlement in Charnwood Forest, seven miles north-west of Leicester. Its built environment makes extensive use of Cambrian stone quarried locally, principally pinkish-grey Mountsorrel granite, and grey-blue Swithland slate. This geological confluence is unique to the region; a few miles north begin the Coal Measures, with their ‘lobster or tomato-red’ brick former pit villages, a trend continued west of Charnwood and south of Leicester. Head east towards the Northamptonshire border, and we see iron-tinted limestone cottages, some with Collyweston slate roofs.

This contrast in building materials is brought into greater relief at Swithland, as its architectural character is arguably the most consistent within the Charnwood Forest’s geological ‘island’. To understand why, we must examine how land ownership and industrial processes guided the use of these local stones in shaping Swithland’s vernacular appeal.

Typical Mountsorrel granite and Swithland slate cottages along Main Street, Swithland. Image: Struan Bates.

Swithland isn’t mentioned in the Domesday Book, but evidence shows the estate under the control of a succession of Norman lords, with the positioning of clusters of different status buildings being settled by the thirteenth century. Three open fields were grouped around the single thoroughfare, Main Street, following the curve of a brook to the south. Higher status buildings were situated at its eastern end, including the original manor house, now gone (the site was near to the surviving Hall Farm, which possibly sits on the medieval demesne land). Opposite this is St Leonard’s church, with its tower and arcades dating to the thirteenth century.

St Leonard’s provides the earliest evidence of the vernacular techniques that would come to characterise Swithland’s architecture. The thirteenth century walled base of its tower combines both granite and Swithland slate. The granite blocks, roughly dressed due to the limitations of medieval tools, would have been transported from the quarry at Mountsorrel, a couple of miles away. Swithland slate is incorporated as wedge-shaped pieces of grey rubble stone, also roughly dressed, and almost certainly quarried from pits in and around Swithland Wood, to the west of the village. When taken from the ground the slate is light grey-blue, but weathers to develop leaf-green or purple hues. It is also extremely durable and versatile.

St Leonard’s church, Swithland. Image: Struan Bates.

In 1435 the Danvers family inherited the manor of Swithland, and the height of St Leonard’s tower was raised in the fifteenth century. As a higher status building, it would have been one of the first to be given a Swithland slate roof (though used in Roman Leicester, the slate only appears to have been used on Swithland roofs after the demise of thatch). Swithland slates are typically thick, (1¼ inches), and as the local quarries could not provide them in uniform sizes, were placed in diminishing courses – an attractive technique that also helps to accentuate the pitch of the roof.

While uncoursed walls of granite and slate rubble can appear heavy and lacking refinement, they gain greater decorative appeal when offset against the smoother, darker, Swithland roof slates. This juxtaposition would have the greatest lasting significance for the development of Swithland’s unique character.

Later infill now connects the east of the village with the narrower plots to the west, originally dwellings for agricultural and quarry workers, though the physical separation is still somewhat apparent. One building that marks a transition is 124 Main Street (Pit Close Cottage). While the exterior largely dates from the seventeenth century, the cottage is one of the few surviving to retain its thatched roof. Here perhaps is the best example of a Swithland slate rubble-stoned wall building as it would have appeared before the village-wide adoption of slate roofing: one-and-a-half storeys, with casement windows, eyebrow dormers, and red brick used minimally for short chimney stacks.

 Left: 124 Main Street. It is not clear when the whitewashed plastering was first applied to the rubble stone walls. Right: 137 Main Street illustrates the transition to Swithland slate roofing, but retains a characteristic, though updated, fenestration. Images: Struan Bates.

Further west, approaching Swithland Wood, are the two-storey former worker cottages, similarly built in granite and Swithland slate, though with later façades. An examination of their interiors and plot rears would be needed to establish if any medieval fabric remains.

From the eighteenth century onwards, the Danvers’ estate ownership would play an increasing role in establishing local granite and slate as central to Swithland’s architectural character. One reason appears to be the limited number of households able to develop properties. Davis (2004) has shown that between 1788 and 1910 only 5-7 individuals owned land in Swithland, a tiny number compared to villages nearby. This period spans Swithland’s enclosure in 1799, where all subsequent land claims were rejected. This suggests that the Danvers family retained a strong guiding hand over the built environment.

Another reason was the family’s accelerated exploitation of landowning rights through the industrialisation of Swithland slate quarrying. The introduction of gunpowder allowed slate to be extracted from greater depths, with the resultant trade swelling the estate’s fortunes. By 1800, more workers’ cottages were being built towards Main Street’s west end, with the Griffin and Slatesplitters hostelries opening to provide refreshment. Each building was again constructed or redeveloped with granite and Swithland slate walls, and a now-ubiquitous (and presumably cheaper) Swithland slate roof.

The last category of building that appears to have developed along Main Street from 1750 onwards were farms. There are three, each with yards entered directly from the road. Hall Farm, as mentioned, survives from the original manor house land, and in 1749-50 received two new barns. ‘Sir Joseph Danvers, Baronet’ is inscribed inside one, making it reasonable to assume that the proud choice of local granite, slate rubble stone and Swithland slate roof tiles was specified by the family. Again, brick is used minimally as window decoration.

It’s unclear looking at Swithland’s 1799 map if Pit Close Farm and Longlands Farm pre-existed enclosure, but both farmhouses (now private homes), share the fabric of Hall Farm’s barn walls and roofs. Each range has casement windows with cambered brick lintels and red brick roof stacks.

The Swithland slate boundary wall around Hall Farm. The barn is one of two surviving. The turret, also one of two surviving, is thought to be a boundary folly, and dates from a similar period. Image: Struan Bates.

A final building of note from this period is North Lodge (1847), a short distance from the rest of Main Street, and somewhat anomalous with its projecting Tudor bay windows and arched arcade. A decision appears to have been made to harmonise the lodge with the rest of Main Street, as the new manor house (1834), for which the lodge serves, was built in a neo-classical style and is not visible from the road.

The success of Swithland’s native slate industry would, however, be short-lived. Welsh slate – cheaper, lighter, and more thinly cleavable – flooded into the area in the nineteenth century, forcing the last Swithland slate quarry to close in 1887. By this point, more industrially-developed villages nearby could boast fine Georgian and Victorian brick buildings. Swithland had almost none.

The demise of slate quarrying in Swithland was followed by a coda of sorts with the advent of the Arts and Crafts movement. The architect-designer Ernest Gimson built a series of cottages in Charnwood, inspired by its craggy outcrops and ancient woodlands. The architect of 24 Main Street, Swithland, is unknown, though this early-twentieth century property shares the rough-hewn slate rubble stone walls and massive exterior stone chimney stack of Gimson’s Stoneywell Cottage (1899). Further research would be needed to understand why these architects were inspired at this particular time to add their own accents to Charnwood’s rustic architectural language.

Left: North Lodge incorporates Tudor features with characteristic Swithland materials. Right: 24 Main Street attempts something similar in an Arts and Crafts style. Images: Struan Bates.

Legislation in the twentieth century would be largely successful in protecting Swithland’s architectural character, though, in newer homes, excessive red brick has encroached on attempts to retain traditional slate and granite façades (though reclaimed Swithland slate used in boundary walling has gone some way to mitigating these missteps). Houses in the village still never rise above two storeys, and modern dormers are much in evidence, echoing the older cottages.

The architectural character of Swithland is therefore largely a result of geological circumstance, its fortunes as an estate village, and the relatively short life of the slate quarrying industry for which it is best known.


Charnwood Borough Council, Swithland Conservation Area Character Appraisal (Loughborough, 2013).

A. Clifton-Taylor, The Pattern of English Building, 4th edition (London, 1987).

V. Davis, ‘Charnwood Forest: Population. Landownership and Environmental Perception, c.1775-1914’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Leicester, 2004).

A. Horton and J. Harrald, Strategic Stone Study: A Building Stone Atlas of Leicestershire (London, 2017).

A. McWhirr, ‘The Roman Swithland Slate Industry’, Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, 62 (Leicester, 1988).

N. Pevsner and E.Williamson, The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, 2nd edition (London, 1984).

S. Young and C. Ayres, ‘Swithland Slate Industry’, Leicestershire Victoria County History Trust Charnwood Roots Databank, (Leicester, 2017).

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