A Pictorial Journey of a Selection of Gloucestershire’s Most Crafted Medieval Churches – known and unknown

A report on our event  in Cirencester Church on 7th March, when Dr Steven Blake presented his talk on Gloucestershire’s Medieval Churches.

Cirencester Parish Church, founded around 1120, made a perfect backcloth for Dr Blake’s talk. As members of the Civic Society and visitors entered the church, eyes swept the huge space, over to the magnificent organ and on up to the fan vaulting. One couldn’t help wondering, as the warm all-round glow of underfloor heating greeted us on an icy evening, what the clothier financiers and churchgoers originally in charge of this fine medieval town church would think. Dr Blake drew gasps from his 21st century audience when he added that maintaining this magical building now costs £8,500 a day!

The tympanum at Ruardean (click the picture for more info – courtesy of Philip Wilkinson’s blog)

We settled quickly with a comforting glass of wine, as our speaker’s first slide sprang up – a church near the west bank of the Severn 12th century Staunton Church, one of many less familiar churches that would appear, crystal clear on the church’s large screen. Next came Pauntley and Ruardean – the latter with its wonderful Tympanum carving of St George and the Dragon on the south door. Another tympanum, this time showing the tree of life, at Dymock, and many more wonderful sculptures in the area were, Dr Blake, noted, ample proof of a Cotswold school of sculpture, most probably with Dymock at its centre.

Wall paintings at Kempley Church – click the picture for more info from English Heritage

This idea of an an artistic centre in the Cotswolds seemed increasingly likely as we moved on to marvel at nearby 12th century Kempley Church with its 13th century tower, and its stunning 12th and 14th century wall paintings. Dr Blake then moved on to the glorious churches of the Cotswold high plateau and river vales. Outstanding for Dr Blake was Elkstone Church’s Norman corbel table with its carved heads, centaur and griffin and its font carved with virtues and vices. All treasures indeed.

Part of the corbel table at Elkstone church, click the picture for more info from Great English Churches.

One of the demons in the stained-glass at Fairford – click the picture for more information from Wikipedia

These glorious depictions of scenes from the bible, represent, as Dr Blake called them, the poor man’s Bible for largely illiterate people. Even today, how better illustrate the ideas, say behind Christopher Marlowe’s play ”Doctor Faustus”, than to show students an illustration from Fairford Church’s medieval windows of a hideous Demon with evil glowing eyes, torn, twisted teeth and bloody gums, with terrified people falling into hell! All these rich images reveal a rich feast of largely anonymous artists’ work, offered most notably to the glory of God.

Dr Blake moved us on to wonderful visions of churches and their striking towers, all points of navigation in the landscape. Owlpen Church and Manor appeared in a painterly image of buildings encased in striking stretches of carved topiary green. Very similar was Lasborough Manor and St. Mary’s Church, also surrounded on every side by green woodlands.

After questions had been invited and answered, Tim Mars chose to make a dignified ascent heavenward to give his vote of thanks from the medieval pulpit, very fittingly a rare and finely-worked wine glass design, to much humorous applause.

We left carrying Dr Blake’s list of favourite medieval churches. Many of us, no doubt, already set on visiting one or two of those tucked away, as yet, undiscovered treasures.

And we all agreed that our Chairwoman Juliet Shipman had excelled herself in organising the event.

Fone Revive shopfront success!

Back in July we reported on the shop front controversy in Stroud High Street, where Fone Revive had erected a new shop front inappropriate to the Conservation Area, without permission. They had applied for retrospective planning permission but this was turned down.  You can read our views on this on our news posting here: http://stroudcivicsociety.co.uk/wp/?p=3693

The good news is that Fone Revive have now removed the inappropriate frontage and have re-used the original shop front that was hidden behind.  You can see before and after pictures below:

Before (new shop front put up without planning permission):

After (following refusal of retrospective planning permission, so now using the original design again):


The future of the Sub Rooms – consultation meeting on Saturday 17th March

Tomorrow, Saturday March 17th, there will be a public consultation on the proposal from Stroud Town Council to run the Subscription Rooms. The consultation is from 10am until 12 noon on Saturday March 17th in the George Room at the Subscription Rooms.

District council staff and elected councillors will be on hand to answer questions. Members of the Task and Finish Group and representatives from Stroud Town Council will be at this event.

A summary of Stroud Town Council’s offer can be found here. https://www.stroud.gov.uk/…/appendix-1-summary-of-stroud-to…

After the public consultation, the Task and Finish Group will review the offer and the public consultation response, before making a recommendation to the council’s Strategy and Resources Committee meeting on Thursday 12th April.

The process started in October 2016 when all political parties at Stroud District Council agreed to a review of the Subscription Rooms because it is no longer able to afford to continue to run the 184-year-old venue.

An all-party task and finish group was set up to investigate possible options and the freehold of Stroud Subscription Rooms and the associated forecourt was advertised for sale in July 2017. However, after the council listened to public concerns about selling it, it was withdrawn from sale in December 2017 and bids were invited from prospective tenants instead to run the venue for public arts, community use and entertainment. Offers from community organisations, individuals and companies were sought by the council for a lease of around 30 years.

The deadline for offers closed on 5th March. Only one offer was received—from Stroud Town Council. https://www.stroud.gov.uk/…/proposal-received-for-stroud-su…

‘The Country Houses of Warwickshire 1660 – 1830’

A report on our February 2018 event on ‘The Country Houses of Warwickshire 1660 – 1830’ given by Geoffrey Tyack. 

The favourite was definitely red as members and friends of Stroud Civic Society entered the Old Town Hall, removed gloves and chose their glass of wine. Our speaker waited sympathetically while everyone unwound thick coats and scarves, exclaimed about the bitter cold outside, sipped their wine and finally settled.

Warwick Castle

With a slide photograph of grey stone-built medieval Warwick Castle and Warwick’s timber-framed Market House on the screen beside him, Geoffrey Tyack explained that from an early age he had been fascinated by Warwickshire,  its landscapes, its castles and country houses. It had taken years, however, before he had finally come to research and write about them.

Arbury Hall

Our speaker’s chosen houses ranged in size from Warwick Castle through to monastic conversions like Arbury Hall (whose owner re-modelled the chapel with a highly decorated plaster ceiling), and Stoneleigh Abbey, with, as recorded in the 1660s, 70 hearths. By the 1670s  further ‘improvements’ began – the quotation from Jane Austen’s novel ‘Mansfield Park’ reminds us of the demand for domestic comfort to impress prospective suitors for the daughters and sons of the houses. But the Earl of Warwick led the way with the first and best French-inspired ‘great apartment’ ever seen in a Warwickshire country house.

The plasterwork at Stoneleigh Abbey

At Stoneleigh Abbey (where Jane Austen was a frequent visitor) the fifth Lord Leigh decorated the entrance hall (the saloon) with magnificent Rococo plasterwork depicting, for example, six of the Labours of Hercules; he also planned rows of Corinthian columns, a new library and music room. These however, never materialised, since sadly he went mad in 1767 and all work on the house ceased.

Mirroring alterations to the houses came transformations of older formal gardens with the fashioning of irregularly sided pools, ruins, an orangery – perhaps a rotunda or a new cascade for the lake. Inevitably fashions continued to change but the most exciting innovations took place at Arbury Hall. The re-modelling of the house began in 1750 and continued for over 50 years. These major works resulted in the most impressive eighteenth century gothic house in England, With a grand Saloon, the most elaborate room in the house, inspired by the roof of Henry V11’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Equally striking is the Hall with three Gothic arches with a plaster fan vault rather like the cloister of Gloucester Cathedral. Even Lady Newdigate’s dressing room was ‘fitted up Gothic’.

An hour later our colourful journey round and through Warwickshire landscapes and their country houses ended and after questions and a vote of thanks by Tim Mars, small groups formed to urge our Secretary Juliet Shipman to please organise trips to see some of these wonderful houses!

So, why not join Stroud Civic Society and enjoy a Summer Programme of visits to spectacular castles, churches, houses and gardens on every kind.

Have your say in the future of Stroud’s Heritage

Stroud District Council have recently announced an 8 week consultation period on A Heritage Strategy for Stroud District.  The Civic Society will be submitting views – and we would encourage everyone interested in Stroud to do so too.

The document, subtitled ‘Valuing our historic environment and assets’, is to become Supplementary Planning Advice, so it is essential to get all views on board!

You can take part between Thursday 13th July and Friday 15th September 2017. Details are in the downloadable pdf document available from the SDC website HERE.

SDC are particularly interested in;

  • whether the priorities and big issues identified within the document are the right things to focus on;
  • what options exist for tackling them;
  • any practical or financial implications; and
  • whether there are other options or opportunities that have been missed.

There is no structured consultation questionnaire – views can be sent by email, letter, or a response proforma from the website. Full details are in the first few pages of the document.

Updated to add: Stroud Civic Society will be responding to this document and would be pleased to incorporate any comments members may have on this issue in their reply.  Comments should be sent by post to our Chairman, Juliet Shipman at Apartment B,  Field House, Field House Gardens, Stroud, Glos GL5 2JX or email julietshipman@hotmail.com in time for us to respond before the end of the consultation period on 15th September.

Planning News: ‘Fone Revive’application turned down

The new shop front – for which planning permission was sought retrospectively.

The Society recently objected to a retrospective application by the owner of Fone Revive in Stroud High Street.  The business had recently completely remodelled the shop front with plastic fascias, out of keeping with the town centre and at odds with Conservation Area policy. The business owner had not applied for planning permission beforehand and so was applying retrospectively.

The Society’s objection is set out below:

The Civic Society wishes to object to these applications. Both Stroud Town Council and the District Council have produced guidelines for shopfront design and these applications do not appear to be in accordance with either document.

The colour of the shopfront is garish and disruptive, the lurid bright green and orange do not blend in with the pastel or heritage colours as recommended in contributing to the character of the area.

The materials: The shopfront is made of shiny plastic which appears incongruous amongst the wooden shop fronts of nearby shops. The SDC guide recommends wood plus stone and/or brick

The previous shopfront – fitting in with the local style with an elegnat wooden surround. Hopefully this material still exists under the plastic.

The Fascia: This should carry only the shops name and not be used for advertising, further there is advertising down the sides of the shop which is not acceptable. STC guide recommends painted fascia with traditional sign writing.

Corporate image: The national shops in the High Street, Vodafone, Millets and Superdrug have all modified their corporate shop designs to fit into the conservation area.

Finally Mr Turner suggests he will close his business if further changes are required but he is missing the point, attractive shop fronts attract shoppers, a cheap plastic shop front says this is a cheap down-market town.  Stroud deserves better!

On 17th July SDC refused consent – on the grounds that

The signage by virtue of its design and synthetic materials appears as visually intrusive, incongruous and as an inappropriate feature within the street scene causing undue harm to the character and appearance of the Stroud Town Centre (Extension 2008) Conservation Area. The illuminated signage is therefore contrary to paragraph 137 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), Policy ES10 of the adopted Stroud District Local Planning, November 2015 and policy ZP1a of the Stroud Town Centre Neighbourhood Development Plan (Adopted).

UPDATE: MARCH 2018  The original shopfront has now been restored – see our brief report at http://stroudcivicsociety.co.uk/wp/?p=4154

Owlpen Manor visit, July 2017

At the end of a narrow lane, nestling under beech woods, lies Owlpen Manor and its church. It was a perfect day for our guided tour of the house and garden by the owner (since 1974), Sir Nicholas Mander.

Sir Nicholas came out to meet us after we had picnicked under the shade of umbrellas looking over to the gardens. He took us to the top of the garden where we had a clear view of the architecture of the house. United under three gables were the three phases of development, an east service wing of 15th century origin (with Georgian windows inserted later), a 16th century hall and the west wing with its wonderful storeyed bay window and a date stone of 1616.

He then swiftly led us inside while telling us the story of the rescue of the house from near collapse by Norman Jewson. Sir Nicholas went on to form a close friendship with Norman and the contents of the house reveal his enthusiasm for the Arts and Crafts movement.

Of special interest is the high backed settle by Sydney Barnsley which comes from Ernest Gimson’s own cottage at Pinbury and was bequeathed to Owlpen by Norman Jewson. Among the textiles, furniture, prints and plasterwork is a very fine steel grille by Alfred Bucknall.

The Mander family were great collectors and all sorts of treasures have found their way to Owlpen, including family portraits, 18th century embroideries, prints , books and porcelain. Outstanding too are the watercolour paintings of the house, done mainly between 1890 and 1933. These reveal the wonderful picturesque qualities of the interior with its low beams, leaded lights and elegant Georgian panelling, all enhanced with a rich collection of colourful rugs, cushions, tiles and textiles.

After tea in the medieval barn now known as the Cyder House we paid a visit to the nearby church, now richly decorated with tiles and mosaics from the famous firm James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars.

The firm had close links with Edward Burne Jones, William de Morgan and Philip Webb while Alfred Powell, the Arts and Crafts architect who lived for a time at Tunley was a relation.

A memorable visit to a house which has been so much admired over the years while a series of caring owners have preserved what H.J.Massingham called ‘this rare cotswold treasure‘.

Stroud Civic Society Navigates Canals!

An account of our meeting on Thursday 31st March, written by Sue Houseago.

Stroud Civic Society’s meeting on the 31st March in the Old Town Hall began with the AGM, which marks the end of its winter talks. Most auspiciously the last was to be about ‘Canals in the Landscape’ and was given by Tony Conder who set up the National Waterways Museum in Gloucestershire in 1988. As Stroudwater Navigation’s restoration project is in full swing, Tony’s talk of canals, their construction, and the resulting changes to the landscape, seemed particularly relevant. 

Juliet Shipman welcomed us all to the AGM, creating delighted laughter, when she announced that because of her house move she had very simply lost all her papers for the meeting! She did, however, say farewell to Guy Williams, praising him warmly for his work as Membership Secretary, and for being a willing, hard-working committee member. Amid clapping Juliet presented him with a box of wine.

She passed us on then to Tim Mars who, it turned out had produced an on-line pictorial ‘fly by’ of a year in the lives of Civic Society Members. His choice of colourful photographs evoked memories of splendid trips.- a Christmas ‘do’ at Tyntesfield; Swindon to see the building designed by Norman Foster for Renault in 1982; a trip to view St. Mary’s Church, Brownshill, to have a lecture on its splendid stained glass.

ThomasTelford, one of the great canal engineers, pictured with his innovate Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the background

After enjoying our glasses of wine Tony Conder began his talk on ‘Canals in the Landscape’, explaining the physical challenges that canals presented to their engineers, and how these industrial constructions changed our countryside. Canals, as Tony showed us on a map, meander over all kinds of diverse landscapes and can get round most obstructions. The heart of the system is in the Black Country, and it was fascinating to see how canal engineers worked to adapt to the geography and geology of each area.

The Bridgewater Canal – named after its owner – the third Duke of Bridgewater – opened in 1761, and revolutionised transport by cheapening the cost of coal as factories appeared alongside it. We saw the moveable aqueduct which carries the Bridgewater Canal along to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, which has itself a staircase of locks. Norton Priory’s canal had to run through a lake in a Capability Brown landscape. We saw slides of castellations, spiral staircases – bridges above ground and tunnels below ground. Other large industrial industries followed the canals; Stourbridge, for example, had potteries and 20 famous glassworks, thus shops, houses and people began to settle around canals, and in the 1970’s canal towpaths began to be used for leisure activities. 

Barton Swing Aqueduct, carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal. This picture shows it in the open position.

Tony ended his fascinating talk dramatically, saying very simply that canals, having altered the landscape in so many ways, were rendered useless by the arrival of the railways in the 1870s.

Questions, and warm thanks followed, and I think every member of the audience felt a renewed respect for Stroudwater Navigation’s history and an added pleasure in watching its restoration.

P.S. Sadly the Cotswold Canals Trust’s recent Heritage Lottery bid for funding has not been successful. However a new and revised application will be submitted – for more information on this news click here.

‘The Cotswold House’ : Far More Than Just a House.

An account of our meeting on Thursday 25th February, written by Sue Houseago.

The front cover of the book

The authors of ‘The Cotswold House’, Tim Jordan and Lionel Walrond, arrived in Stroud Old Town Hall on the 25th February with a laptop, and all the necessary accoutrements to guide a full house of Civic Society members and others, on a virtual tour around a wide selection of glorious Cotswold Houses.

Having settled his co-author Lionel in a seat directly in front of him, (he was, we learned, a quick thinking accomplice in any moments of uncertainty), and having been introduced by the Civic Society’s Chairwoman Juliet Shipman, Tim began by asking a question. ‘Is there such a thing as an easily identified Cotswold house style?’ Fortunately, because we all nodded and shook our heads in disarray, it had been a rhetorical question. ‘No and Yes,’ Tim agreed, smiling, ‘because they change from century to century, as does the stone from one locality to another, varying in texture and colour from greyer on the south Cotswolds to more creamy in Painswick to deeper cream in Guiting to the ironstone tinge in the north of the region.’ Then’, he continued, ‘we have to consider the master masons’ unique decorated finials on gables and dormers and the local craftsmen who will all have added their own unique details, inside and out.’ 

A map from the book, showing the area covered

These geographical, social and historical factors, we learnt, all affect the changing architectural region styles of Cotswold houses through Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean to Classical Georgian, Victorian and Art and Crafts – all, Tim stressed, will have left their particular mark on the Cotswold House. We were glad when Tim projected a large, clear map identifying the whereabouts of the ‘Cotswolds’ which stretch from Cheltenham to Gloucester, Swindon, Oxford and Banbury. From soft lush rounded areas of the south west to the upland areas with shallow more stony soil. Most Cotswold houses were built below the hills for shelter, and many had timber frames. 

The cruck-framed house at Didbrook

Tim showed us a fine illustration of the earliest form of timber frame – a cruck framed cottage – one of a few left, which can be found 40 minutes away in Didbrook.  Next we were off to Bibury where we saw illustrations of wooden lintels. Most of the  houses were thatched and timber framed. ‘But how’ Tim interjected, ‘do we know that they were once thatched? Well, see that ledge on the chimney? That, plus the pitch of the roof are proof of original thatching.’ These cottages, we learnt, began as medieval stone barns, then, with the addition of dormers and chimneys, became weavers’ cottages and finally workers’ cottages. On we went to enjoy selected illustrated examples of many more cottages, farmhouses, manor houses, almshouses and parsonages. 

Tim’s  slides most eloquently kept pace with his talk, demonstrating and elaborating upon the varying features of the Cotswold house. I suspect many of us, dizzied by the variety and beauty of the houses ended up envying those lucky enough to live in these local houses with their many subtle signs of a fascinating historical heritage.  

Our chairwoman Juliet Shipman had everyone clapping in delight as she thanked Tim not just for his wonderful talk, but in such a rich showing of Cotswold houses, not one of which, had been visibly ‘enhanced’  by a modern extension.