Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Monday, 18 June 2018

Looking at the variety of stringcourses in the neighbourhood

The beautiful Georgian terraces in Southernhay are enhanced by the lines of plasterwork that run along their front walls, making lines indicating the levels of the floors behind.  They also provide a discreet way of advertising the businesses and offices which occupy buildings which were intended as residential property.  

But you don’t need to go into the city to enjoy a rich variety of stringcourses.  The word describes any kind of horizontal feature on the wall of a house or commercial building.  Stringcourses, sometimes written as two words, and referred to by various other names as well (including, for some reason, the name “Belly band”) have been a feature of architecture since at least Roman times.  They are often used, as in Southernhay, to mark where the building’s floors occur.  But architects are not content with a rule which limits their creativity.  Stringcourses can run between the lintels of windows, or mark a centre line running through window frames, or … you name it, there is a stringcourse there!  In some cases, the design of the stringcourse has a practical purpose, to direct some rain away from the wall, making a sort of drip strip.  

As for their construction, architectural imagination runs riot.  They can be made of brick, plaster or stone.  They can be plain or decorated.  Some of the most highly decorated examples are really a frieze on the exterior.  They can be discreet so that you would hardly be aware of them.  Otherwise, they can be really “in your face”.  

This month I am not going to tell you where to look for local designs and styles of stringcourse.  Instead, here’s a challenge; can you find these sixteen designs of stringcourse in St Leonard’s?

  • A stringcourse in the same colour as the rendering on the house.
  • A stringcourse in a different colour from the rendering on the house.
  • A brick stringcourse that is flush with the house wall.
  • A brick stringcourse that is proud of the house wall.
  • A brick stringcourse that uses a different colour brick from the house wall.
  • A brick stringcourse that uses a different brick bond from that on the house wall.
  • A moulded brick stringcourse.
  • A moulded stone stringcourse.
  • A stringcourse which marks the junction of brickwork and render.
  • A stringcourse which is not at the level of a floor.
  • A frieze.
  • A building with two or more stringcourses.
  • A building with a painted black stringcourse.
  • A building with a painted white stringcourse.
  • A stringcourse on terraced houses which is stepped following the slope of the road.
  • A stringcourse on a façade, but not on the side of the building.

 Have fun! (Published in the May-June 2018 Neighbourhood News)

Friday, 16 March 2018

Looking for old advertisements in Exeter

This month, the challenge is to look up for faded advertisements, across the city.  

From the start of the 19th century, businesses used the walls of houses and shops as a space to display publicity.  Paint could be used more easily, and more durably, than paper posters.  Sign-writers extended their skills from lettering on shop fronts to decorating larger areas.  The practice continued until the middle of the last century.  Changes of ownership, and the trades concerned led to some of these large advertisements being overpainted.  Since then, the signs have faded, and in many cases, have been erased from their walls.  

Interest in what remains has led to numerous books about “ghost signs” in the UK and other countries.  Spotters of such relics have recorded many ghost signs in urban New York and smaller US cities, and there are books about the ghost signs of Bath and London, plus websites for other localities.  

So what about Exeter?  There was a painted sign in the village, many decades ago for the dairy – now the fishmonger.  But it has been lost, like many others.  But some survive beyond the neighbourhood.  Perhaps the best in Exeter is on a wall by Cowley Bridge Road.  It advertises Redline petrol, a brand which existed in the 1930s and 1940s, including a picture of the top of an old petrol pump.  This is the only surviving advert for the company in the UK, though, bizarrely, one of the shops in Princesshay has used a fuel can for the Redline brand in its “retro” styling.  

Nearer to us, there is an advert for the Royal Society for the Blind in Palace Gate – like many, it is on a wall that faces away from the main road, so you can see it when walking towards South Street from the cathedral.  A partly illegible sign for a business in Gandy Street can be found in Baker Street, just off Magdalen Road as it approached the Gordon Lamp in Heavitree.  Further east through Heavitree, a ghost sign advertises “Chemist” in Victor Street.  

My (very short) list of Exeter’s ghost signs also records those for the Polsloe Dairy in Jubilee Road, Pearks Baking Powder in Cecil Road, St Thomas, Holwill’s Dairy in St David’s Hill, and the Lamacraft brewery overlooking St Sidwell’s School.  A faint advertisement for a Victorian cigar Importer is on a wall in Fore Street.

These relics of old Exeter businesses are rare survivals – look out for them in our city, and keep your eyes skinned for similar survivors if you are travelling this Easter.  Do let me know of any others in the city.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Have you noticed the shape of roofs?

The extension to The Lodge residential home was nearing completion in December.  It can be seen from outside the Mount Radford Inn, looking along College Road.  Have a look at its roof – there are vents in small gables built into the slope of the tiles.  Now compare it with the roof of your own home – what is different and why?

Although the basic concept of a roof is a simple one – to make a building weatherproof – there are a multitude of different styles in a neighbourhood such as ours.  Ask a child to draw a house, and they are fairly certain to give its roof a slope at left and right, identifying the difference between the vertical house walls and the covering.  Such a roof is hipped, but is only one of several popular designs in the neighbourhood.  Hipped (or simply hip) roofs limit the possibility for attic space compared with those where the roof only slopes on two sides (pitched and gable roofs).  Look at the older houses with the latter roof style and you will often find a window set into the angle of the two slopes, suggesting an attic or loft room. 

Then gables can be created at right angles to the ridge, over a projection in the frontage of the house, or as a decorative feature.  The strange animal above the pharmacy in the village is on such a gable, but it is a gable with a most unusual variation.  Stop and have a look (if it is safe to do so) next time you are passing.  Behind the beast, there is a gable, and behind that the roof ridge rises above that of the building, exaggerating the height of the façade.  A case of architectural bragging!

From the early years of the twentieth century, skylights began to be fitted into some houses – windows replacing tiles or slates and providing illumination into the otherwise dark roof spaces.  If your first thought is to call a skylight a “Velux” you are using a commercial name (like “Hoover” and “Biro”) to describe all similar products.  Velux originated in Denmark but is now a worldwide company.  Modern roof materials can be so efficient that it is necessary to provide vents to prevent mould.

Flat roofs appear in St Leonard’s, not just in modern architecture, but in a small number of older properties – especially blocks of flats.  Developments in technology mean that they are generally more waterproof than the notorious leaking flat roof of Castle Drogo.  (Sir Edwin Lutyens, architect of Drogo, created many houses whose tiled roofs were an integral and eye-catching part of the design, rather than an afterthought.)  The ingress of water through roofs causes many problems in other types of building; Victorian builders of churches delighted in providing problems for successive clergy and congregations by concealing gutters behind brick or stone facades, creating gulleys which fill with debris – and are very difficult to reach and clean.  (Rather than use scaffolding, these days, inspectors increasingly look at church roofs with drones.)

Old Matford, in Wonford Road, supposedly the oldest inhabited private house in Exeter (cathedral houses in The Close are older) was probably once thatched; there remain a few thatched properties in the city, but none in this neighbourhood.  On one side is the Church of the Latter-Day saints, whose roof is in the saltbox style, with two sides of unequal length.  Almost opposite is the Nuffield Hospital which has a form of mansard roof, with the top floor windows surrounded by the same material used for the roof covering.  More typical mansard roofs are found associated with the two storey prefab houses erected after the Second World War in Countess Wear and Heavitree.  And, additionally, in the main block of The Lodge, in Spicer Road, which takes us back to where we started.  

Take a look around the neighbourhood; what other shapes of roof can you find?

(Printed in the January - February 2018 issue of Neighbourhood News)