Virginia Barton

When avoiding a tour of the Tor

Catholic Herald, 6 March 1987


Review: The Architecture of Northern England by John Martin Robinson (Macmillan, £19.95)


Melbourne Hall2


“For those who prefer grandeur to mere prettiness, the North is for them”. Thus John Martin Robinson in his introduction to The Architecture of Northern England. Quite a few of these big, glossy reference-cum-coffee-tabIe books come my way and it is rather difficult to know where to put them. Too often such books end up cluttering a side-board or spare-room, their sheer bulk being too large to accommodate in the standard DIY bookshelf.

Not so this one. Its 400 pages are packed with information, gorgeous photographs and prose that is erudite and relaxed yet stringent. It covers the area between the Cotswolds and the Scottish Borders, the Welsh Marches and the North Sea. It contains 575 entries, four area maps and a useful glossary of architectural terms.

For example, did you know that a “galilee” is a chapel or vestibule usually at the west end of a church, sometimes called a narthex? Or that “clunch” is hard chalk used as a building stone? (Drawings à la Osbert Lancaster to illustrate a spandrel or a crocket would have been a nice addition).

It’s not easy to review a book like this as one can’t possibly read it from cover to cover in the time allowed. So I did what you would probably do in a bookshop and turned to the section about which I reckoned I know the most, namely my own beloved county, well north of Watford, where the air is bracing, the silence golden and the building on a massive scale. “My” county fared well, with 45 items ranging from coastal ports to moot halls, poignant Cistercian ruins to pele towers and market towns.

Several places of interest I had no idea of even though at least half of my life has been spent within shouting distance, and those that I know well were accurately and interestingly described with humour and scholarship.

Mercifully, my favourite castle ruin, country house and village church were neglected – after all, who wants to find their favourite childhood picnic spots overrun with trippers and tourists? For this is a book to take visiting. Have it in the car. (Apart from maps and guides, every car should be equipped with suitable reading matter for when the radiator boils over or everybody except you wants to climb Glastonbury Tor).

It would be impossible for a book such as this to include up-to-date information as to opening times and facilities, so do check elsewhere on that sort of thing.

The author points out that due to the strong recusant element in the North, there are more Catholic churches and houses of Catholic interest than in the South. This makes the volume of particular interest to those in search of monastic ruins, priests’ holes and the family houses connected with the Old Faith.

A wealth of information includes a description of Ascension Day well-dressing at Tissington, a reminder that the last Abbot of Jervaulx was hanged in 1537 for taking part in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and a delightful aside on the loaf of bread put out for the poor at Cartmel Priory.

The modern or “way-out” aren’t neglected either, with entries on Jodrell Bank, Port Sunlight, the two cathedrals in Liverpool and the extraordinary church, built and designed in the nineteenth century in Cumbria by Miss Sara Losh, in memory of a departed younger sister.

The great northern industrial towns Iike Leeds and Manchester get comprehensive coverage as do the grand houses, churches and model villages built with the profits of the Industrial Revolution.

A word about the photographs. How immeasurably they add to a book like this! Black and white pictures on nearly every page and mouth-watering colour plates that make you want to pick up and rush off straight away; (viz the delicious wrought-iron birdcage at Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, pictured above). These excellent photographs by Jorge Lewinski and Mayotte Magnus must contribute largely to what I am sure will be a very successful, and deservedly so, publication.

I shall now save up for the already published Architecture of Southern England by John Julius Norwich, and I hope Macmillan have further treats in store with volumes on Scotland, Wales and Ireland to come. If so, I shall have to get a bigger car – or ask someone stronger to carry my knapsack.


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