Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Have you looked at … the battlements, turrets and towers in St Leonard’s?

Battlements and fortifications in St Leonard’s – surely not!  But it is true, there are buildings with crenellations at the top of their facades, and others with towers or with turrets on the roof.  Of course, these are purely for the sake of appearance, but their presence reflects a fascination with architectural features from earlier times.  Originally crenels referred to the gaps between merlons and merlons were the uprights at the top of fortified walls where the defenders took cover and crenels were gaps through which the defenders could shoot arrows or throw stones at the attackers.  Although I have not climbed up to see, I assume that the local walls we can see do not have walkways for archers.

In the early medieval period, people were supposed to obtain a licence from the king before they could build such defences.  It is on record that the Bishop of Exeter had two licences, in 1290 and 1322.  I don’t know how many archers the bishop employed at the time!

Locally, there are fine examples of crenellated walls on a house in Claremont Grove, visible from Matford Lane; the façade of The Maynard School has decoration which is influenced by crenellations.  Exeter School also has a low stone wall with crenellations in Victoria Park Road.  Just visible from Penleonard Close, there is a garden building with battlements which is associated with a house in Victoria Park Road.  Besides the school wall, there are several garden walls with such decoration in brick or stone.  There’s a concrete wall beside the Weirfield Path which has this design.  As a change from battlements, there are several houses with balustrades closing the top of the facades.  Painting the reverse of a roof-top balustrade is one of those domestic tasks that is essential but nobody will notice that it has been done.

The travel writer and TV presenter Bill Bryson wrote about the sight of some 19th century houses: “… with every embellishment known to the Victorian mind – cupolas, towers, domes, gables, turrets and front porches you could ride a bike around.”  Several of our local houses have towers on the corners, with turrets or cupolas on top.  I wonder what the owners do with the rooms in those towers.  Are they used as living space?  Or as storage space?  Do children play hide-and-seek in them?  With so many outside walls, heating them must be challenging.  There are examples of such corner towers in Spicer Road, Barnfield Hill and Matford Road, among others.  The bays of the main block of The Lodge in Spicer Road are topped with cupolas.  One of the local modern houses has a circular tower on the street façade.  (Reference books seem to indicate that the terms dome, turret and cupola overlap.  Cupola means “little dome”, so is probably more appropriate for domestic buildings – nobody would say that St Paul’s Cathedral had a cupola!)

On the top of the towers, the turrets are generally more substantial than their medieval equivalent.  The latter were generally wooden, lighter in weight than a stone or brick structure with tiles or slates.  Our local ones have finials of various kinds.  (Older residents will remember that flags were flown from the flagpole of the tower on Cornish’s store, at the corner of North Street and Fore Street.  There is a mechanism in the building which allows the flagpole to be lowered so it can be repainted.)  Exeter School’s main block has a four storey tower, and there is a square tower on the separate building beside Victoria Park Road.  That tall tower is remarkable for the chimney stacks on the east and west walls, and for the fine brickwork of the facades.  The Mormon Church in Wonford Road has a slender spire. 

Other buildings have turrets on the roof ridges.  Some of these are there to provide ventilation to the roof voids, as is the case in St Leonard’s Church and (just outside the neighbourhood) the Barnfield Theatre.  The builders of these chose to make a feature out of these vent covers.  The Maynard School has another example, visible through the surrounding trees.  The pavilion overlooking Exeter School’s playing field has a small ornamental turret.  In the adjacent grounds of Matford Lodge there is a coach house with a conical roof, topped with a large turret.  Round the corner, the modern building of Mardon House is one of several buildings which have large turrets covering clerestory windows which give natural light to the interior. St Leonard’s Church Hall has a turret with a small bell in it, as does the chapel at Wynards.  Maybe you want a turret for your roof?  There are online suppliers of small roof turrets if you want to add one to your home. 

An article about towers can’t overlook the spire of St Leonard’s Church, floodlit each night and a landmark for those travelling through the neighbourhood.

(The quotation from Bill Bryson comes from “The Lost Continent”) 
(July-August 2012)