Platinum Jubilee listings
Sherds was intrigued to see that the Imperial Hotel in Stroud, Gloucestershire, is one of six buildings newly listed in celebration of Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The somewhat slender reason for connecting this building with the Jubilee is that the then-Princess Elizabeth ‘visited the hotel as part of a tour of Stroud’ in 1950. There must be any number of places that the Queen has visited over the last 70 years. Indeed, in December 1981 she stopped off not far from Stroud at the Cross Hands Hotel, Old Sodbury, Gloucestershire, after her journey from Badminton to Windsor was delayed by a blizzard. The Queen’s chauffeur asked if Her Majesty could use the loo, though the hotel’s website puts it more diplomatically: she ‘took advantage of our renowned hospitality’. The hotel now boasts a Queen Elizabeth Suite, even though she only stayed for a cup of tea before proceeding to Windsor – a case of ‘the Queen very nearly slept here’ to match the many hotels that claim Elizabeth I as an overnight visitor.
One wonders how the good people of Stroud took the news of the Jubilee listing. The town sits at the western edge of the Cotswolds, a part of England that is solidly royalist and has two royal homes, at Gatcombe and at Highgrove. It is firmly conservative (with a small and a capital ‘C’) and has numerous aristocratic estates of many thousands of hectares that the landscape historian H P R Finberg believed were the direct descendants of Roman villa estates (though this attractive idea is not widely accepted by other academics).
Stroud is proud to stand apart from all of this. Located at the meeting point of five valleys with fast-flowing rivers, it has a fine legacy of 18th- and 19th-century cloth and fulling mills that once claimed to have supplied the uniforms for soldiers on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars. They were later famous for tennis balls and billiard-table baize. Damien Hirst now has his factory in one of those mills, as does the Pangolin Editions sculpture foundry, which casts and fabricates bronze sculptures for many of the foremost artists of our time.
Stroud was industrial when the rest of the Cotswolds was largely agricultural. Its (relatively) cheaper houses have long attracted creative types who have lent the town a bohemian character. This was the first town in England to adopt Fairtrade principles and declare itself ‘Nuclear Free’. It is home to Woodruffs, often claimed to be Britain’s first fully organic café. It was the first town in Britain to elect a Green mayor, and Extinction Rebellion was born at a gathering of climate activists at a council house on the outskirts of Stroud in 2018.
It is thus likely that the town has more than a sprinkling of republicans – or maybe not: it is possible that the Queen is regarded as a hero for advocating tree-planting for her Jubilee, while eco-champion Prince Charles has expressed some sympathy with climate-change campaigners and ‘understands their frustration’ at the slow rate of progress.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Imperial Hotel is not so much the building as the biography of its architect, Benjamin (‘Ben’) Bucknall (1833-1895). He designed a number of buildings in the Stroud area, many of them to support religious communities: for example, the Convent of St Rose of Lima, now a school for children with a wide range of disabilities. His best-known work in the area is Grade I-listed Woodchester Mansion, a Victorian Gothic pile set in a Cotswold valley so secluded that there is no mobile phone signal (as the Mansion Trust’s website reminds visitors repeatedly).
What makes Woodchester Mansion special was Bucknall’s purist commitment to medieval Gothic construction principles. He derided the Gothic revival buildings of his day as ‘fancy-dress architecture’, because they had steel frames wrapped in a ‘Gothic’ skin. He designed Woodchester Mansion as a ‘true’ Gothic building, carrying the weight of the roof and walls on stone vaults and massive buttresses of locally quarried limestone. His client was the wealthy Catholic convert William Leigh, who intended the mansion to serve as a secular ‘monastery’, but Leigh was profligate with his fortune and ran out of money before the building could be completed.
After his death, a sale of all the unused timber, tools, and quarried stone was held on site, but the unfinished house survives as a remarkable exercise in the revival of medieval building techniques. Art and architecture students and trainee masons now visit the mansion to study the construction and to admire the quality of the carved stone gargoyles, bosses, and capitals, whose designs were inspired by local flora and fauna. Others come for the large colonies of lesser and greater horseshoe bats that have taken up residence in the attics and whose behaviour can be observed via high-definition cameras. Adding to the site’s appeal is its romantic valley setting (it is in great demand as a film location). Inevitably it is also considered to be one of the UK’s most haunted buildings, and people pay large sums to spend the night in the freezing cold mansion with their ghost-detecting cameras and radar equipment.
In 1873, Bucknall emigrated to Algiers where he spent the rest of his life. Mystery surrounds the reason for his relocation – ill health is the usual explanation – but he not only left his wife and children behind, he also abandoned his commitment to Gothic principles, turning instead to designing neo-Moorish villas for French and Arab clients in the elite El Biar district of the Algerian capital. One of these – the Villa Montfeld, described by Harold Macmillan, then serving as Minister Resident in the Mediterranean, as ‘the best villa in the city’ – is now a US ambassadorial residence, and it hosted the January 1981 negotiations that brought an end to the long-running Iran hostage crisis.
Bucknall’s life has one or two parallels with the biography of another unsung architect, William Douglas Caröe (1857–1938; he pronounced his name ‘Carew’ but spelled it thus, although his Liverpool-based Danish Consul father was called Anders Carøe). Like Bucknall, Caröe had a great respect for traditional building techniques. He too has a Stroud connection – Caröe designed the church of St Mary of the Angels, Brownshill, overlooking the Golden Valley some five miles south-west of Stroud, as the chapel for a Catholic community caring for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (the chapel is now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches).
Caröe is responsible for the light-touch restoration of hundreds of medieval buildings, which he often enhanced with his own strikingly original furniture, sculpture, embroidery, metalwork, and memorials. His was the subtle hand behind the archbishop’s palace at Canterbury, revealing hidden details of Lanfranc’s 11th-century original; as well as the woodwork in Winchester College chapel; the restoration of Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford; and a dozen major abbeys and cathedrals including St David’s, Brecon, Llandaff, St Albans, and Rochester.
Tim Brittain-Catlin sums up his style in The Edwardians and their Houses (Lund Humphries, 2020; £45) as ‘old-and-new’, where it is impossible to distinguish between the different building eras, citing Caröe’s own Arts and Crafts family home at Vann, near Hambledon in Surrey. It is said that the clay roof-tiles for Caröe’s extension were dipped in blood from the local slaughterhouse in order to blend in with the existing roof (don’t let that put you off visiting the gardens at Vann). Needless to say, Caröe’s approach annoyed some members of William Morris’ Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings: they wanted every addition to a historic building to be clearly of its time and not simply designed to look historical.
Looking back, we can see that Caröe’s practice marked a shift in approach to the repair of old buildings, in which his creativity was inspired by the architecture of earlier ages. He fully deserves to be better known as a founder of that unsung discipline of conservation architecture, as well as for his own work. This includes the Church Commissioners’ offices at No.1 Millbank, London; Cardiff University’s Main Building; several substantial suburban churches (such as St David’s, Exeter, described by John Betjeman as ‘the finest example of Victorian church architecture in the south-west’); and the Working Men’s College (44 Crowndale Road, London NW1), which proudly calls itself ‘Europe’s oldest extant centre for adult education’. A fully illustrated monograph is surely overdue.