Nooks, Corners, and Cloister Cafés

Back in the days when Private Eye was still young, the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column used to report regularly on historic buildings that had been destroyed by fire. What was it, one wondered, that made these buildings so susceptible? Perhaps there was a clue in the fact that so many succumbed following the refusal of planning permission or when facing the ‘threat’ of being listed. The blame was usually placed on a tramp who had broken in, lit a candle, fallen asleep, then awoken to find the building alight, managing to escape the burning building just in time.

One reads of far fewer such incidents these days, but historic buildings are still occasionally hit by vandals. In October 2018, for example, the Sheffield Star newspaper carried the front-page headline ‘Former Sheffield Coroner’s Court damaged in arson attack’, after a fire broke out that South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue said ‘was believed to have been started deliberately’. Fortunately, the fire brigade was able to put the blaze out before it did too much damage.

An investigation into the cause of the attack is now under way, and there is no suggestion that the developers were in any way involved. They are said to be revising their plans for the building after the city’s planners had turned down an earlier application for its demolition ‘following a number of objections from campaigners keen to preserve Sheffield’s heritage’.

Among those who had objected to the demolition was Valerie Bayliss, Chair of the Victorian Society’s South Yorkshire group, who said that the building was not listed, though it was to be included in the proposed Castlegate Conservation Area and would then benefit from this protection. Valerie went on to say that ‘the blaze should act as a lesson not to leave old buildings unoccupied.’ Perhaps with this in mind, the Institute for Historic Building Conservation has chosen ‘Fire, flood, and structural calamity’ as the theme for its 2019 conference, to be held in Nottingham. Someone with a love of alliteration has come up with the conference title: ‘Confronting Conservation Calamity’.

Victorian toilets transformed

The best way to protect historic buildings is to keep them in use – though not necessarily for their original function. One class of building that has suffered more than most from redundancy is the public convenience. You might have thought this type of building – small and perhaps with a pungent legacy – would be very difficult to reuse. Not so, according to Janet Martin, who has already turned a number of historic buildings in Newport, south Wales, into art galleries, cafes, and studios for amateur dramatics, dance, and yoga. Now she has taken on a Victorian Grade II-listed toilet block near the city’s former docks and has just received listed building consent to turn the tyˆ bach (a Welsh euphemism literally translated as ‘little house’) into a ‘small and intimate performing arts venue, where audiences of up to 25 can attend poetry recitals, monologues, and small theatre productions’.

Wales has form in the business of toilet conversion. One of Aberystwyth’s best restaurants is the intimate Pysgoty (the name means ‘fishing’), a harbourside cafe-bar with sunset views that specialises in freshly caught fish and shellfish. Kitchen and dining area, chef, waitress, and customers are all fitted into the TARDIS-like space that was, until recently, the harbourside toilet block. In Cardiff, you can enjoy fresh coffee and cakes, as well as cava by the glass, at Bloc, a former toilet block next to Victoria Park on Cowbridge Road East. On Barry Island the slightly larger Grade II-listed changing rooms and toilet block is currently being redeveloped into a restaurant, with a rooftop terrace and an extension to one side of the building. Meanwhile Cardiff Council is marketing a Grade II-listed toilet block built of Portland stone in a similar style to the grand Edwardian buildings of the National Museum, City Hall, and the University of Cardiff – all in elegant Cathays Park. The council promises to look favourably on applications for a change of use and for a possible rear extension. A key question remains, though: where do the people who make use of these cafes go when they need to spend a penny?

Church-based cafes

Cafes do seem to be the flavour of the moment – and not to be left out of the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for tea, coffee, and cake, the National Churches Trust is featuring a selection of the best church-based cafes on its Explore Churches website. The Cloister Cafe at London’s St Bartholomew the Great (used as a location for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, Sherlock Holmes, and Muppets: Most Wanted) is described as ‘an extraordinary cafe for an extraordinary church, praised by the Financial Times as “probably among the nicest in England”, offering smoked salmon, pies, scones with cream and jam, and a selection of monastic beers’.

left The Cloister Cafe at London’s St Bartholomew the Great has been described by the Financial Times as ‘probably among the nicest in England’.
The Cloister Cafe at London’s St Bartholomew the Great has been described by the Financial Times as ‘probably among the nicest in England’. Photo: Dun.can

The entry for the cafe at All Saints, Hereford, mentions locally sourced food and a setting that has won awards as an example of modern intervention in a 14th-century listed building – and it sets us the challenge of spotting the ‘naughty little Tudor woodcarving’ on one of the roof timbers. Glasgow’s Wild Olive Tree cafe, located in St George Tron, says it shares its profits with Glasgow City Mission and Bethany Christian Trust, though someone has relied too much on the false friend of a spellchecker, for the website entry says that it ‘helps the most vulnerable factions of Glasgow’s community’ – Glasgow has been renowned in the past for factional strife (Celtic v Rangers, for example) but perhaps what was meant here was ‘the most vulnerable sections of Glasgow’s community’.

The page devoted to ‘Heavenly church cafes’ is one of a number of themed entries on the Explore Churches website – you can also search for churches with ancient yew trees; churchyards for snowdrops, aconites, or daffodils; and churches with good flower festivals, music, or fine monuments. The National Churches Trust hopes that every church in Britain will eventually join the site, and that it will become the go-to place for people who love visiting churches to plan their days out.

Royal Palaces online

Perhaps you might combine church-visiting with a trip (real or online) to a royal palace or two. Former English Heritage Chief Executive Simon Thurley (who began his career at Historic Royal Palaces and is currently writing a monograph on the history of St James’s Palace for the Royal Collection Trust) has created a website with information on all the places in Britain that were royal houses at one time or another. There is a surprising number of such palaces: Simon has created potted histories of 50 of them so far and he promises another 100 next year; he manages to reach this nice round figure, though, by including the Royal Train (‘in effect, a mobile palace’) and the Royal Yacht Britannia (which Simon describes as the only new royal palace built in the present monarch’s reign, designed to be a ‘working palace at sea’) in the tally.

Simon claims that ‘the original meaning of the word yacht is “a vessel of state used to convey princes from one kingdom to another”’. He does not footnote this, so it is not clear where his definition comes from. Most sources say that the word’s origins lie in the Dutch jacht, meaning ‘hunt’ – in other words a yacht is the maritime equivalent of a horse, bred for the speed and stamina of the chase.

right This painting by Lieve Verschuier, The Arrival of King Charles II of England in Rotterdam, 24 May 1660, depicts the monarch in his sumptuously decorated yacht Mary. It is on display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
This painting by Lieve Verschuier, The Arrival of King Charles II of England in Rotterdam, 24 May 1660, depicts the monarch in his sumptuously decorated yacht Mary. It is on display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

With their love of hunting, one can see why monarchs might also be fond of fast yachts. A famous painting by Lieve Verschuier (1627-1686) in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, shows Charles II arriving in Rotterdam in the sumptuously decorated yacht Mary, a gift to the king from the Dutch East India Company. Charles often took the helm himself when racing on the Thames, but Mary lost favour when the king commissioned the even faster Catherine, built at Deptford in 1661.

It is at that point that Mary ended up transporting English officials and aristocrats between Dublin and Holyhead or Chester (perhaps this is the origin of Simon’s definition). Sadly, she hit rocks off Anglesey in thick fog on 25 March 1675 and sank. She was rediscovered in 1971 along with a rich array of artefacts – gold finger-rings, fine Italian glass and ceramics, fashionable shoe buckles, pewter vessels, swords, a cannon, and firearms. Many of the finds are now on display in Merseyside Maritime Museum, and Mary is one of Wales’ six wrecks designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1974.