Cheshire (Buildings of England)
Cheshire (Buildings of England)
By Clare Hartwell and Matthew Hyde
Yale University Press, 755pp, HB, £35
The new edition of the Pevsner guide steps beyond its architectural remit through sheer enthusiasm
A bright student recently brought home to me how odd it is to read Pevsner guides for the fun of it. I don’t find it odd, of course, but if I were serious about persuading others to see it that way, I would point them toward the volumes Matthew Hyde has a part in. Here is a writer, like Ian Nairn, who finds it hard to confine his enthusiasm within the strict bounds of the Pevsner project, who likes to connect buildings with the oversized personalities that produce them, who has an eager eye for incongruity and outlandish coincidence.
I should state that different parts of this new Cheshire volume are not signed by the different authors, so I am only guessing which collaborator we’re reading at any point. In fact, looking back, I sometimes find that particularly vivid passages were already there in the old edition, long before the present authors became involved.
Maybe it is safest just to say that Cheshire, a county without major monuments, leaves more room for attending to the offbeat or ensconcing oneself in byways like the little peninsula of the Wirral. It is particularly good hunting ground, say, for the churches of FX Velarde, among the strangest products of the mid 20th century.
Not so profoundly startling, but strange at least in the context of these pages, is the series of highly coloured Vitrolite bathrooms inserted by 20th-century antiquary Raymond Richards in Gawsworth Hall, while he was improving the house in a Gothic style that the guide calls “romantic-mischievous”. Richards is one of many figures brought to life in the revised edition. Others include FH Crossley, another antiquary, who, a footnote tells us, came to Cheshire as a farm labourer, took a carving class sponsored by the vicar’s wife, went on to produce remarkable screens in many Cheshire churches, and wrote the best books on the subject.
Cheshire, a county without major monuments, leaves more room for the offbeat
William Lever, the soap magnate, wasn’t a stranger to the old edition of this guide, but is now given a more interesting role. He mixed in on the design of Port Sunlight in more important ways than was earlier thought. That community has added layers of complexity to its own history since 1971. From our vantage now, not all the change is positive, but the story is fascinating. I particularly relish the account of dipping under a railway bridge and then realising that you’ve crossed the edge of the settlement and are in a different, everyday world outside the ideal. The appreciation of the Mersey tunnel ventilator at Birkenhead steps likewise outside the boundaries of strictly architectural comment, to exhilarating effect. I might not agree that the air shaft outfaces the tower of the cathedral on the opposite bank when I’m actually standing there, but this guide will have brought me to the spot and made me look.
The most wonderful moment in my scanning of this volume wasn’t strictly or even mainly architectural. The Wirral is evidently a prime locus for early 20th-century domestic architecture, including lots of semis of arts and crafts bent. Buried on page 159 is a reference to a typical representative of this not very remarkable genre, Edward Hubbard’s own house. He lived in the Wirral and wrote a good part of the first edition. In the normal course of things, this isn’t a piece of information anyone is going to tell you to look for. You would have to stumble across it. The book is full of moments like this, where something clicks and the world looks different.