Thursday, September 8, 2016

Castell Coch - William Burges' Medieval Fantasy in Stone

Perched on the Beech covered slopes of the Fforest Fawr, the towers of Castell Coch rise above the trees, seeming too fantastic to be real, a mirage in stone.

In a sense they are. This perfectly preserved Medieval castle, a time traveler displaced from the 13th century into our time, is actually a Victorian recreation, an attempt to be historically accurate to every last detail.

Now that's a doorbell to be proud of!
Castell Coch owes its reincarnation to the combined talents of two remarkable men, John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, and the architect William Burges. Both men were hugely intelligent, each in their own way. The Marquess of Bute, one of the richest men in the world and the skillful owner-manager of a vast coal empire, spoke 20 languages and Burges had perhaps the deepest understanding of historical construction methods of his generation. Their mutual interest in all things Medieval combined with the Marquess' deep purse made nearly all things possible.

The sober and powerful exterior of the castle gives way to an interior of indescribable fantasy, with every surface painted, sculpted, gilded and tiled. The walls and ceilings are covered with imagery from fairy tales, fables, and biblical allegories. Time, the seasons, the Zodiac, the temperaments, monkeys, mice, hedgehogs, and butterflies all find their place.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

More London Churches

Here are a few more of the unusual, beautiful and sometimes lesser known churches of London, to accompany my earlier post on London churches.

All Hallows on the Wall
This simple and elegant little church, built on the site of a medieval church which was itself built on top of the ancient Roman wall that once surrounded London, holds a special meaning for me. It was here, in its medieval incarnation, that my 17th century ancestors were married before they set forth on the long and dangerous voyage to the New World.

Saint Botolph's Aldgate was designed by George Dance the Elder, father of the designer of the church above. Now dwarfed by the orgy of glass-box construction currently in progress in London, it occupies part of the site of the main Roman gateway into the ancient city.

All Souls Church, by John Nash, boasts a highly original design for an entrance and spire. This grew out of a particular difficulty of the site. Nash's design demonstrates clearly how classical architecture is a flexible idiom that can result in very location-specific designs. The challenge of this site is that it sits at a very obvious and prominent bend in Regent Street, which could have resulted in awkward side views of the church's main elevation. Nash turned this to his advantage by designing a powerful circular composition that has no obvious front. The tower ends up anchoring the street view, becoming an important landmark and orientation point for the entire district.

Music lovers will no doubt have heard of Saint Martin in the Fields, a church which boasts acoustics finer than most concert halls and hosts impressive gatherings of the finest classical musicians in the world, while still being a church with an active congregation.  Saint Martin was designed by James Gibbs in the 1720s. Recent archeological evidence suggests it may occupy the site of a pagan temple. Incidentally, if you are visiting London, it is right on Trafalgar square and has a great restaurant in its crypt. So if you're looking for a spot of nosh while traipsing through the London throngs, this is a convenient place to dine close to the ancestors.


Saint James Church in Muswell Hill is a fine example of late Victorian Gothic. It is typical of churches of the period, demonstrating a high level of skill in its application of the Gothic structural and decorative idioms. The complexity, and yet perfect coordination of elements of the design far exceed the complexity of similar-sized buildings typical of our time. The craftsmanship in stone, wood and glass shows how the Victorians were able to foster high levels of craftsmanship at costs affordable enough to be available to a typical London suburban community.