Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The pyramids in St Leonard’s

Have you ever looked at …?
The pyramids in St Leonard’s

After my whimsical departure into mathematics last issue, this time we are returning to looking at everyday aspects of St Leonard’s.  So, have you noticed any pyramids around the area?

No, I don’t mean the swimming pool complex, which has some tiles with Egyptian themes (but hardly a pyramid in sight), nor do I mean a well-known brand of tea-bag, nor the formation adopted by some football teams.  I mean objects whose shape is a pyramid, which means that they have faces which are triangular, or roughly so, and they converge to a point at the top.  Just like an Egyptian pyramid.  Those have a square base; tea-bags have a triangular base.  The shape of the base doesn’t matter – it is those triangles and the point which are important.

Pyramid on top of a brick pillar, St Leonard's Road
Once you start looking, pyramids are all over the place.  Most often, you find them at the top of gateposts, making an attractive top to the upright.  The sloping triangles shed water, so the aesthetically appealing shape is practical.  And as most gateposts are rectangular or square, so the base of the pyramid on top is also square.  But that doesn’t mean that all the pyramids in St Leonard’s are the same!  Take a walk and look at a few gateposts with their decorative pyramids on top.  Some are almost flat, others are more pointed.  Some are stone, others are artificial.  Some add a few gentle curves to make a shape that is almost a pyramid (but not quite).  As an introduction to the delights of the neighbourhood pyramids, take a walk along Spicer Road from the Mount Radford to Denmark Road.  You will find some shallow concrete pyramids, some fancier ones, mortar shaped into the bricklayer’s version of a pyramid, and the shaped bricks of the gateposts of the Maynard School.  Once you reach Denmark Road, turn left and admire the gateposts of the almshouses.

Pyramid as part of a shaped granite gatepost, St Leonard's Road
Go a little further, and you’ll find granite posts with shaped tops, those which include a vertical step interrupting the triangular shape, and some which smooth the shape with curves.  Archaeologists link the familiar pyramids outside Cairo with some older Egyptian “stepped pyramids” (whose name suggests the shape).  There are examples of such stepped pyramids around our streets, but I suspect that they are probably not so old that they would be of interest to many archaeologists.
The Smeall Building, St Luke's campus, University of Exeter
There are more pyramids to be found than on our gateposts.  Exeter’s street rubbish bins are topped with a pyramid roof.  The steeple of St Leonard’s church is a pyramid.  Admittedly, it has bits sticking out, but essentially it is a pyramid with four very tall triangles on a square base.  Around the main steeple, and part-way along the roof of the church, there are some more pyramids.  Buildings of other kinds are topped with pyramid shaped roof, because, like the gateposts we started with, a pyramid looks nice and its design sheds water.  There is a fine example at the junction of Barnfield Hill and Spicer Road.  On the Quay, near Colleton Hill, a modern building is topped with a small turret and a pyramid.  County Hall’s clock-tower has a pyramid for its tiled roof, and there are yet more on the St Luke’s campus, and at the Mardon Centre.  During the summer, when I was looking out for examples of local pyramids, there were several gazebos visible in local gardens, and their roofs are made of triangles meeting at a point.
On top of the clock tower of the residences, St Luke's campus, University of Exeter
Just outside the neighbourhood, the uprights of the suspension bridge over the Exe at the Quay are topped with octahedral shapes – which are two pyramids, one pointing up, one pointing down, with eight triangles. 

Not all the local pyramids are on square bases.  I have noticed some with a six-sided base, and others with an eight-sided base.  The more sides, the closer the base comes to looking like – and fitting onto –  circular foundations. 

The Mardon Centre, Wonford Road, see across Exeter School's playing field
The gateposts of several houses in St Leonard’s road have been carved from granite, with a pyramid top and a slight collar around the upright.  It would be interesting to know the reason why this shape was adopted.  Being such a hard stone, it seems unlikely that the collar is there to prevent erosion. 

The late Osbert Lancaster wrote a short guide to the history of architecture.  Thinking of the original pyramids, he commented: “The architecture of ancient Egypt has much to commend it – size, dignity and durability – but nevertheless it must be admitted that it is a trifle monotonous.”  I hope that you do not find a walk in search of local pyramids even a trifle monotonous.  (Next summer, perhaps, with global warming, there will be camels to carry local visitors on tours of our pyramids!)

(My thanks to Ellie, Abbie, James and Tina for their help in spotting pyramids around St Leonard's)

(Published in the November-December 2015 issue of Neighbourhood News)