Category Archives: Events

Exhibition: The luxuriant “Blanket Coverage” at Tŷ Pawb gallery, Wrexham

Wallace Sewell

Blanket Coverage, the exhibition currently showing at Tŷ Pawb Gallery in Wrexham, is an exploration of sumptuous and subtle modern woven blanket textiles.  If you have never really considered blankets as an art form, or have never had the chance to experience them at first hand, this is a real opportunity to get up close to some examples of the most creative and skilled examples of modern British textile art.  Some of the artists included in the exhibition are very well known, with established businesses and works hanging in galleries, whilst others are just starting out.  Both individual artists and commercial mills are represented, and there is a good mixture of textures, colours and ideas on show.  It is a small exhibition, but full of rich content.

The curators of Tŷ Pawb have inventively and successfully combined the Blanket Coverage touring exhibition from Llantarmon Grange in south Wales with their own exhibition, The Tailor’s Tale, sharing the same gallery space.  The two small exhibitions, both specializing in textiles, work beautifully together, each complementing the other and offering contrast in terms of themes, styles, textures and colours.  I am talking about each on separate posts, because there is so much to say about each of them separately.   I have started with Blanket Coverage (just because I finished it first) and the post about The Tailor’s Tale will follow shortly.

Detail of Margo Selby’s “Kazo Throw” showing the subtlety of the colouring and the softness of the texture (click to enlarge and see the details).

Blanket Coverage has been curated by designer, weaver and curator Laura Thomas, and features works by a diverse collection of contributors who, at Tŷ Pawb, included (in alphabetical order) Llio James, Beatrice Larkin, Angie Parker, Sioni Rhys Handweavers, Margo Selby, Maria Sigma, Wallace Sewell, Meghan Spielman and Melin Tregwynt, as well as curator Laura Thomas.  All are available to purchase.  Both exhibitions opened on July 2nd and are running until September 24th 2022, between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Saturday.  Entry to the exhibition is free of charge.  There is plenty of parking above the gallery and public space, and it is a super, friendly place, so feel free to ask questions. Check the Tŷ Pawb website for any updates.  I have talked about the exhibition space and Tŷ Pawb itself in my previous post about the fabulous Tales of Terracottapolis.
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The exhibition

Handwoven blanket by Llio James. 100% lambswool. 137×178 (upper) and 137×168 (lower)

Blanket Coverage is all about woven large scale blankets (weighty and warm) and throws (lighter weight and fluid).  The format of the blanket, which is big and rectangular, offers an opportunity to develop ideas on a large scale.  The blanket provides a flat, symmetrical area that can be filled with compelling patterns, colour combinations, and textures in combinations that display skill, creativity and often luminous imagination.  Perhaps more than any other medium, the woven work is produced within the constraint of the technology that defines it.  The loom, whether manual or mechanized, is both a restricting factor, confining the weaver to the format of the physical structure of the mechanism, and an appeal to the imagination of the artist to create magic within that confinement.   Just as a concert pianist is confined to wherever the grand piano happens to be, a weaver must build a relationship with the loom within its environment.  Before the sketched design can be translated into a woven textile, the loom must be threaded with the warp, the structural component of the weave into which the rest of the yarns, the weft, are woven.

Within those restrictions are a multitude of options that enable the weaver to express ideas and develop new forms of connection with the person who picks up the resulting textile, handles it and is lucky enough to luxuriate in it.  Some are lightweight throws that are full of movement; others are heavier, traditional blankets with more physical mass.  Mixing lighter and thicker yarns creates alternative fabric weights and textures, extending the repertoire.

Meghan Spielman “Interchange” showing the use if ikat dyes

Dyes too, varying in subtlety and complexity, give infinite possibilities for design.  Whilst some of them reference the environment in which they are made, with muted colours of the landscape, others are brightly independent of any particular context and celebrate the yarns, colours and textures with which they are created.  Others are splendidly monochrome or used a limited, pastel palette, focusing attention on the shapes and patterns that create an energy through the sense of rhythm, repetition and reinforcement.  The ikat dye technique, of which I was previously unaware, works by blanking off parts of the yarn and dying others, so that the dye leaches and creates the effect of colours bleeding into one another, and looks as though the surface has a liquid quality.  Just as a sculptor tests the limit of his or her chosen material, weavers are experts on how to make the most of their material resources.  

Laura Thomas. “Home blanket.” 100% lambswool. 150x200cm

As well as being visually stunning, each piece has a phenomenal tactile appeal that makes it difficult not to reach out and touch.  A lady with two children who was visiting when I was there was hissing “no, don’t touch!” every few minutes, and I felt total empathy with the children, because it is almost impossible not to reach out to sample the feel of the weaves.  The tactile temptation of textiles like this is different from nearly all other forms of art.  Just as luxurious fabrics like the soft warmth of a cashmere jumper and the cool, liquid smoothness of a silk scarf are just as attractive to the touch as they are to the eye, the finely woven blankets in the exhibition have their own special properties and personalities in which their very physical texture is important both to their functional role and their aesthetic appeal.

Left: Margo Selby. Right: Angie Parker.

The exhibition presents an excellent mix of hand-woven and mill-produced textiles.  Hand-woven pieces consume time, and are more expensive.  Those produced in a mill are less expensive,  and means that copies can be made, but most of them were first woven by hand and were then produced by the mill, building authenticity and originality into the process.  Mills, with their own economic challenges, have become increasingly flexible and adaptive, and work with individual designers and design companies to provide short runs, enabling the mills to develop new opportunities, and the designers to lower prices and reach a wider customer base.  The mills too have their own designers, some of them computerized, which add a new dimension to their works.  The relationship between artist and mill is probably the key not merely to the survival of weaving as an art, but of its development.


The exhibitors

Beatrice Larkin. Cut Throw. 148x195cm. &0% Merino lambswool and 10% cotton

The exhibitors in Blanket Coverage at Ty Pawb introduced below in alphabetical order.  One of the great things about the exhibition is that it combines some well known names like Wallace Sewell with relative newcomers like Beatrice Larkin.

Beatrice Larkin works first in pencil and ink to create her monochrome designs, and works with commercial mills to produce textile runs that capture the hand-drawn quality of her works.  Her patterns repeat over the surface of the blanket, and the way in which the designs are put together often creates a sense of motion.  Her blanket weaves are both eye-catching and attractive. I particularly like the way in which most of those in the exhibition have a rhythmic feel to them, which gives even repeat patterns a sense of being natural and spontaneous.  A good example is the double-sided “Cut Throw,” a monochrome twill weave blanket that looks as though a pattern of slashes has been reproduced across the surface.  It was inspired by West African mud cloth block designs.  Although she lives in Kent, Beatrice Larkin’s weaves are all produced in the north of England, and this example was woven on a jacquard mill in Yorkshire. The jacquard mill, patented in 1804 was an ingenious invention that used punched cards to speed up production and produce increasingly complex patterns, a bit like an early computer, and other weavers in the exhibition also have their designs made up on short runs on this type of loom.  

Margo Selby. “Kazo Throw.” 100% lambswool. 140x190cm.

Margo Selby specializes in hand woven bright colours and geometric designs.  Often inspired by graphic design and Japanese art, she examines the interplay between colours, exploring the relationship between the boundaries where colours collide.  Like some of the other designers in the exhibition she makes hand-woven objects and then works with a mill to produce her designs on a jacquard loom.  Her company makes both large- and small-scale pieces, the latter being particularly well suited to blanket design.  The pieces within the exhibition are not typical of her usual riotous colour palette, and instead focus on the interplay of blacks, whites and greys, creating an interplay between the mainly monochrome shades and textures.  Although her company specializes in handweaving they also collaborate with commercial mills.  As well as blankets and framed pieces, the studio produces rugs, fabrics for upholstery, soft furnishings, apparel, cushions, towels and scarves.

Wallace Sewell “Feilden.” 100% lambswool. 170x250cm

Wallace Sewell (established by established by Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell) is a textile design company that produces items both to hang and to use, including scarves, cushions and throws, as well as art prints of some of their designs.  Their weaves are first created on a hand loom before going into production, and all are made using natural yarns.  They work closely with Mitchell Interflex, a mill that straddles the Lancashire-Yorkshire border.  The Mitchell family has been producing woven textiles since 1907, when they first acquired the mill.  Wallace Sewell are noted for the bright colour abstract combinations of their designs, which are fresh and full of light.  Although not on display in the exhibition, if you have hopped on a Victoria Line tube train in London and admired the lovely seating upholstery capturing famous London landmarks, this was one of their commissions, and a measure of both the company’s success and its creativity.

Left: Llio James. “Phaedra V2.” Pure new undyed British alpaca and dyed lambswool. 170x130cm. Right: “Acallis V2” baby blanket. Left: Phaedra V2. Pure new undyed British alpaca and dyed lambswool. 170x130cm

Maria Sigma is a Greek weaver trained in Britain and working in London and Athens.  She uses naturally coloured yarns, including alpaca, to produce hand-woven textiles with subtle and complex patterns and textures, and some surprising details like the blue edging of the ones in the exhibition, which contrast with the muted, natural colours of the yarns.   Her use of yarns that are only minimally processes gives each blanket a unique finish, where the texture is as much a part of the fabric, and of Maria Sigma’s ethical approach, as the design itself.

Llio James, a Welsh weaver who grew up in a village that supported two mills, specializes in using a palette of ecru, black, charcoal and reds to produce modern designs building on the tradition of Welsh weaving that is so familiar to her.  Those at the exhibition are hand-woven, but she also works with a mill for short production runs.  Most of her patterns don’t repeat, but use the rectangular blanket format as a canvas to develop abstract designs, which are best seen in full format rather than folded.  She starts the design process on paper before moving on to a loom to experiment with colours, patterns and yarns, before finalizing the designs, which are produced in a traditional Welsh mill, the Melin Teifi.  The photo of her two contributions to the exhibition are at the top of this section.

Melin Tregwynt. “St David’s Cross.”  100% lambswool.  240x250cm

Melin Tregwynt in Pembrokeshire is one of the best known Welsh weaving mills, which has been in the hands of the same family for over 100 years, and there has been a mill on the site since the 17th century.  The company has a huge archive of Welsh designs, and colours chosen often reflect the local landscape with its valley and moorland palettes.  As well as in-house and guest designers, they also make use of a computer programme called ScotWeave to develop new and complex patterns.   Their versatile product range includes Welsh woollen blankets and throws, woollen cushions, upholstery, items of clothing, accessories and bags.  Although most Welsh wool is too coarse for most weaves, the Cambrian Wool Initiative has been established to introduce softer fleeces back into Wales, and as partners in this project, Melin Tregwynt now have a source of Cambrian soft wools to use in their weaves. Have a look at their website to see a series of videos on the production process: https://melintregwynt.co.uk/watch-weaving.

Sioni Rhys Handweavers

The popular Sioni Rhys Handweavers, established by designer Dennis Mulcahy and weaver Stuart Neale, specializes in the production of traditional Welsh cartheni, patterned bed covers that are used as throws and blankets, frequently using the distinctive twill weave shown right.  Although they often reference the surrounding landscape of Brecon in their colour choices, other examples are bright and full of energy.  Their aim is to combine traditional techniques with modern ideas, and the four examples at Blanket Coverage show the versatility of their carthen range.

Detail of blanket by Angie Parker

Although Angie Parker specializes in woven rugs, she began making blankets during lockdown, inspired by the colours of some the painted buildings that she was walking past in her Bristol neighbourhood.  She specializes in complex combinations of bright, light colours, and this translates well into her blanket weaves, combining colours in very appealing geometrical arrangements that draw on her designs for rug weaves and costume design.  There was only one blanket in the exhibition, but it was well chosen for its visual impact and firm but fine texture.  It was made up by the Bristol Weaving Mill.  There is a photograph of it at the end of the previous section.

Meghan Spielman, “Interchange.”

Meghan Spielman trained in London and now lives in New York.  “Interchange” is a wall hanging rather than a blanket or throw, but uses the same format as the blanket, enabling the design to be worked over a large area.  Spielman works in a variety of materials,  often in combination, which give each of her pieces a distinctive quality.  The piece in the exhibition is a double cloth that uses the ikat dye technique to give parts of it something of the appearance of a watercolour, with colours bleeding into one another, whilst other blocks are far more linear, with clean edges, providing an attractive contrast to the more fluid areas of the surface.  The limited palette of colours, which work so well together, put the composition at centre stage.  It is composed of two sections, stitched down the centre.
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Laura Thomas. “Verdant blanket.” 100% lambswool.

Laura Thomas, the curator of the exhibition, is a well known and popular weaver, and has two of her own blankets on display, one a uniform colour in two shades of green with a pattern built into the weave itself, creating oval spaces evenly distributed across the surface.  A second piece, monochrome with a repeat pattern defined by a raised texture, was particularly successful as a design concept on Instragram, and was sent to Melin Tregwynt for production for a short run.  At the mill it was made of Cambrian Welsh wool, and creates a real sense of motion, like water, as you follow the design across the surface.  As well as designing individual pieces like these, she also works with graphic designers on commercial works, and has contributed to public art projects, which sometimes blend with architecture to create unusual spaces.  Like others in the exhibition, she has a real feel for bright, striking colours and experimental textures.

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A fading tradition?

Melyn Tregwynt

In its introduction to Blanket Coverage, the Llantarmon Grange website comments “With traditional skills such as weaving in danger of being lost, the makers in the exhibition are ensuring that traditional crafts continue to not only survive but thrive, both celebrating and innovating the rich tradition of woollen blanket production.”

Weaving is rarely taught in schools, meaning that most children are simply not exposed to it. Those who go on to study art at college may have the opportunity to experience weaving and other textile arts, but they represent a select few, most of whom will not have been exposed to weaving before.

Developing a career or a business based on weaving also presents a challenge.  A fully hand-woven item is extremely time-consuming to make, and this translates into a much higher cost than an item produced on a commercial scale.  Although some of the weavers represented in the exhibition only weave by hand, others have chosen to build relationships with commercial mills that can produce their designs on a more commercially viable basis, which helps to lower costs and potentially find additional potential purchasers.  Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks is to find ways in which to market these products, and to locate suitable places to display them, where they will find these potential purchasers.

Wallace Sewell’s “Dorothy.” 100% lambswool. 105x165cm.

Some help comes from collaborative projects that support craft and design combine resources to help support practitioners and promote their interests.  A good example is Design Nation, which arranged the interview with exhibition curator Laura Thomas, shown below.  At the same time, galleries like Tŷ Pawb and Llantarmon Grange are important for showing us not only what skills remain but what traditions we should continue to support.

Blanket Coverage and The Tailor’s Tale, and similar exhibitions are at the heart of raising the profile of textile arts, and help to involve the visitor in challenging their own ideas about the importance of traditional skills and products in the modern world.  By combining the two exhibitions in a single space, one about quilting, patchwork and costume, the other about blanket weaving, the curators of Tŷ Pawb have given local people access to a world of colour and texture that, one hopes, will continue to grow and to find new purchasers who will find great pleasure in experiencing objects of real beauty on a daily basis.

Final Comments

Beatrice Larkin

The blanket makers in this exhibition are ensuring that traditional crafts continue to not only survive but thrive, both celebrating and innovating the rich tradition of woollen blanket production. The skills, traditions and symbolism wrapped up in blankets make them a prized procession in every home, providers of comfort and warmth, both physical and psychological, which are passed from generation to generation.

By combining its own exhibition, The Taylor’s Tale, with Llantarmon Grange’s Blanket Coverage, Tŷ Pawb has elegantly combined two textile genres to bring artists working in this medium into the public eye.  I loved it.

Both exhibitions opened on July 2nd and are running until September 24th 2022, between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Saturday. Entry is free.

There is an informative interview with curator Laura Thomas, who is talking to Design Nation‘s Development Manager Liz Cooper about the Blanket Coverage exhibition (55 minutes).

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Sources and further reading:

Melin Tregwynt. “Knot Garden.” 100% lambswool.

Designers’ websites

In alphabetical order

Other Websites

Arts Council of Wales
Blanket Coverage goes on Tour
https://arts.wales/news-jobs-opportunities/blanket-coverage-goes-on-tour

Design Nation
http://designnation.co.uk/about-us/

Design Pool
Ikat: Definition, History & Design
https://www.designpoolpatterns.com/ikat-definition-history-design/

Llantarmon Grange
Touring:  Blanket Coverage
https://llantarnamgrange.com/blanket-coverage-at-shetland-art/
Blanket Coverage catalogue on Issuu
https://issuu.com/lgac/docs/blanketcoverage_eng
Interview by Design-Nation with curator Laura Thomas
https://vimeo.com/492333129

Margo Selby
Blanket Coverage
https://www.margoselby.com/blogs/stories/blanket-coverage

Melin Tregwynt

Series of videos on the their weaving production process
https://melintregwynt.co.uk/watch-weaving.

Tŷ Pawb
https://www.typawb.wales
The Tailor’s Tale / Blanket Coverage at Tŷ Pawb 02/07/22 – 24/09/22
https://www.typawb.wales/exhibitions/the-tailors-tale-blanket-coverage/

Detail of Beatrice Larkin’s “Cut Throw”

Eaton Hall Gardens Charity Open Days 2022

My father and I booked for the open day on Sunday 26th June.  All tickets have to be booked in advance, both for the gardens and for the train a narrow gauge railway.  We skipped the train option so I don’t know what that experience was like (lots of children, I would imagine) but the gardens were superb, and in some ways unexpected.  Brief comments on practicalities for those considering July or August visits, in terms of parking, suitability for those with mobility issues etc, are at the end of this post.

The Eaton Hall Gardens are open to the public three times this year, the last Sunday in June, July and August, all in aid of three different charities.  If you are intending to go, but have not yet booked a ticket, I suggest you book immediately via EventBrite, as it sells out every year. I missed the chance last year.  The benefiting charities for the 2022 events are Cheshire Young Carers, Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Kidsbank.

We entered via the Belvedere gate just north of the Grosvenor Garden Centre on the old Chester to Wrexham road (the B5445).  It is an ostentatiously long approach to the property.  Just in front of a gigantic obelisk is a checkpoint where you show your tickets.

Young RAF Air Cadets were on hand everywhere to direct traffic and answer questions, and did an absolutely splendid job of keeping the traffic moving.  Once we had followed their directions and parked in a field (but see my notes on disabled access at the end), and walked up towards the estate buildings, you pass through a gate where your tickets are checked again.  Here you are handed a leaflet about the charity being supported, and another highlighting garden features that you might want to visit by head gardener Jan Lomas, with an excellent map on the back showing the locations those features, with  recommended routes between them, which is absolutely necessary if you are not going to miss anything.  You can download my battered copy of the map here if you want to plan your visit in advance.

We were lucky with the weather, because although it was overcast, with only short burst of occasional sunshine, it remained dry, and it was warm.  You can click on any of the photos to see a bigger version.

The description of the gardens on the EventBrite website gives some idea of the treats in store:

Eaton Hall Gardens extend to 88 acres and have been developed over many years by prominent designers, most recently by Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd. The gardens have a wide variety of planting, including four formal colour-themed rose gardens and grand colour-themed herbaceous borders. There is a newly completed hot border design and a stunning bedding scheme in the Dragon Garden which is not to be missed. Visitors can also enjoy the walled Kitchen Garden, as well as the wildflower garden and the lake walk, where you can take in fabulous views of the Hall and grounds. Finally, the Tea House is filled with roses and herbs and sits perfectly at the end of a short walk past the lake area.

We found all the gardens except the wildflower garden (up a flight of stairs out of the Dragon Garden), and we didn’t do the lake walk simply because it was getting rather late, but looks like a brilliant venue for the picnics that were being carried by more organized visitors.

The first place that we visited was the camellia walk, a long, slender glass corridor lined with camellia bushes.  Although none of the camellias were in flower (they are a spring flowering species), the conservatory building itself was a thing of real beauty, and the sense that it goes on and on without visible end is wonderful.

Nearby are the sheds and the platform for the narrow gauge railway (with open-sided carriages pulled by a steam engine, which used to connect to a Chester-Shropshire railway line siding some 3 miles away).  We walked along a track round the walled kitchen garden towards the courtyard entrance, which is an intriguing little walk, as there is a lovely tree-lined walk towards the kitchen garden, and a couple of quirky buildings, but no signs that it is in use for anything.

The first port of call for most people is the former stable block surrounding a courtyard.  The stable courtyard is open to the public, and there is a horse-drawn carriage display in the light-filled atrium that gives access to it.

The open courtyard itself is laid out with tables and chairs, and is one of the places where refreshments are served in aid of charity (for cash only), and was very congested, but the surrounding buildings were not at all busy.

The former stables themselves, built by Alfred Waterhouse in around 1869, are open.  The saddle horses and harness horses were stabled separately, and there was a harness room and a carriage house too.  There is some information about the horses stabled there and a reconstruction of the stud manager’s office, as well as the family history and exhibition rooms.  You can also, from the stable courtyard, access the bizarre shell grotto and the 1870 Eaton Chapel from the courtyard (stained-glass windows by Frederic James Shields).  Live organ concerts were being played in the chapel, majoring on Johann Sebastian Bach, a lovely, intimate sound in that small space.   

After visiting the courtyard, which is the first place that everyone seems to filter into first, the nearest of the gardens to visit is the walled kitchen garden.

Along one of the walls is a broad border filled with brightly coloured flowers, many of which grow on a massive, upwardly skyrocketing scale.  Within the walls, the beds are divided into squares and rectangles by multiple pathways, many of which are provided with colourful arches.  Some of the beds are defined some defined by short hedges of interlaced apples.  Some of the flowers are exotic and gaudy, others are more humble and subtle, and there is a lively mix of floral displays and vegetables, with lots to see.  The overall impact is one of careful husbandry with a real eye for colour, scale and shape.

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From there we walked down to the Parrot House, a little round building looking rather like a Graeco-Roman temple, but designed to keep tropical birds.  It was built in the 1880s by Alfred Waterhouse and was fitted with heating to create suitable conditions for such birds, but apparently never housed anything more tropical than some budgies.  There were hay bales outside for visitors to sit and watch the band.

From here it was a short walk to the rose gardens, which sit in front of the Eaton Hall house, offering the first real glimpse of the house and the great clock tower of the neighbouring chapel.  The Country Seat website offers the following very useful potted history of Eaton Hall (not open to the public, but an unavoidable presence).

A Victorian Gothic iteration of Eaton Hall in the late 19th Century. Source: Lost Heritage

The first notable Eaton Hall was designed by William Samwell and built in 1664 but was replaced by a vast Gothic creation by William Porden in 1803, which was then enlarged by William Burn in 1845. This was then replaced by the Victorian Gothic of Alfred Waterhouse in 1870, before the whole edifice was swept away in 1961 as the trustees of the then young Duke couldn’t imagine anyone living in such splendour again. Faced with being a Duke with no seat in his 11,500-acre estate in Cheshire, in 1971 the 5th Duke commissioned a starkly white modernist country house from John Dennys, (who also happened to be the Dukes’ brother-in-law) which was as striking as it was controversial. This was then given a vaguely ‘chateau’ style makeover in 1989 for the 6th Duke, to designs by the Percy Thomas Partnership. So of the five major houses which have been graced with the name Eaton Hall, the current one, though impressive, still doesn’t quite have the gravitas of the others. Perhaps, in time, a future Duke may decide to replace it again.

The current house is an ugly great block of a thing looking not unlike Faengslet prison. I daresay it has more going on in its favour on the inside.  Next to it, rather more endearing in a uniquely Victorian way, is the Eaton Hall chapel clock tower and the chapel itself, behind which is the the stable courtyard.  Although the history of the house is of interest, the visit is all about the gardens, which are excellent.

The gardens are dotted throughout a park that sits above a lake and extends to the east.  Instead of being clustered around the house, as in most houses and estates of this type, the different gardens are dotted around, approached both via metalled surfaces and grass paths mowed through stretches that have been allowed to run wild.

The rose gardens are probably the highlight of the gardens at this time of year.  The twin gardens flank a long rectangular ornamental pond that runs towards the house.  The pond is often shown with fountains, but they were not operating when we visited.  The rose gardens are the most remarkable of a set of terraces.  The top terrace, not accessible to the public, is on the level of the house.  The rose gardens are next down, and below this is the lioness and kudu pond, which in turn overlooks the slope down to the lake, which is fed by the River Dee.

The rose gardens and the pond are flanked by wooden arches connected with thick ropes, and both the arches and the connecting ropes support white and palest pink roses.

On each side of the pond are two square rose gardens, separated by yew hedges, cleverly offset so that one garden cannot be seen from the next, giving the impression of being the entrance to a maze.  Each of these rose gardens has a central focal point, a circular path, and four beds, each with a massive obelisk in its corner.  Each of the gardens is colour-themed.  One, for example, is blue and yellow, whilst another is pure white.  The roses are certainly the dominant flower, but they are supported by penstemons, clematis, geraniums and various other species that help to create a mass of different textures and shapes.

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The Dragon Garden is named for the dragon sculpture in the centre of the garden.  A formal geometric garden, planted with small species  of blues, purples, lilacs and mauves, this is a delightful sight, highly structured and precise.  There is a statue of a figure on each corner of the garden, possibly former family members.

After a pause to enjoy the view at the end of the terrace, and to look down over the lioness and kudu sculpture (a truly bizarre thing) we went towards the Dutch Tea House and the accompanying Tea Garden.  Outside this garden, and elsewhere on the estate, several of the vast oaks are wrapped in fine mesh.  I had seen this on a previous visit to the Aldford Iron Bridge on the other side of the estate, and had wondered what it was all about.  A helpful sign explained that it was an experimental measure taken against acute decline disease, thought to be caused by a parasitic boring beetle.  The mesh restricts the movement of the beetles and prevents them spreading.  At the same time, the roots of the tree, under soil compacted over the decades, prevents water and nutrients reaching the tree, so a programme of mulching has been undertaken to help retain water and help the transfer of nutrients and water via the roots into the trees.

The Tea House is a little ornamental building, approached via a path that leads through the pet cemetery, and look out for a delectable little wooden Wendy house on the other side of a low hedge.   If you have a pushchair or wheelchair / buggy, there is a side entrance to the garden that avoids the steps down from the Tea House.  Giant fennel plants give a wonderful bitter-sweet scent on approach to the garden.  The garden has a statue of Mercury at its centre (standing on a personification of the wind).  The garden is beautiful in a less formal way than the rose gardens, with a more unaffected feel, with lovely block-paved paths and beds filled with flowers and highly aromatic herbs that deliver a gloriously chaotic range of different aromatic scents that follow you around.  On a hot day I imagine that it would be even better as the aromas heat through.  

From here there was a choice of walking down to the lake, or taking one of the grass paths to another little temple-like building, referred to as a loggia.  We opted for the walk to the loggia, rectangular this time, which was flanked by two genuine Roman columns and housed a genuine Roman altar, the latter found to the east of Chester between the Tarvin and Huntington roundabouts, about 320 metres east of Boughton Cross, and 1.8 km due east of The Cross, Chester.  Given how much Roman architecture has been lost from Chester, it was probably a kindness to remove and preserve them.

The altar is today known officially as RIB 460.  On two sides it reads “Nymphis et Fontibus
leg(io) XX V(aleria) V(ictrix),” translated as “To the Nymphs and Fountains the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix (set this up).”  It was rediscovered first in 1821.

There is a grass avenue from here back to the Parrot House via the terrace with the lioness and kudu pond.  The band’s little white marquee is stationed in front of the Parrot House so you don’t really get a sense of the connection between the two buildings, but it is a nice arrangement.  As you walk onto the pond terrace, you pass through a grass path flanked with two borders filled with lavender.  We paused to run fingers through it and release the splendid scent.  The wall that runs below the upper terrace where the rose gardens were located is covered in white hydrangea petiolaris, a form of hydrangea that climbs. The pond itself has a vast greened sculpture in the middle showing a lioness about to leap on and kill a kudu (a deer-like animal).  As you walk up behind it, the change of perspective gives a strange sense that the lioness is in motion. It is absolutely not my cup of coco, and I would have it moved somewhere a lot less conspicuous, but it is certainly attention-grabbing.

From the Parrot House it was a short walk along the bottom edge of the walled garden to the field where we were parked.  We found the Air Cadets who were stationed around all the entrances and exits very helpful in sorting out somewhere where I could easily pick up my father.

Later, whilst my father was masterminding a fabulous culinary extravaganza in his kitchen, I read the leaflet about the Cheshire Young Carers charity that the day’s takings were to support.  It was something of an eye-opener to learn how many children care for their parents or their siblings, unsupported by any official mechanisms.  I was so pleased that our tickets had gone towards helping this excellent organization, which not only helps with practical support but organizes away days for children, activities that allow them to escape their responsibilities for a short time.
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Visiting Practicalities

The parking arrangements were very well managed with plenty of Air Cadets and other personnel at the ready to give directions and advice.  The car park was a field.  The field surface was dry buy very uneven.  A brief conversation with one of the parking officials enabled me to drop my father off on the hardstanding that led up to the gardens, and park nearby, where some spaces had been kept free, but if you have a disability badge, there are is special parking right by the entrance to the gardens.

There is a disability stand where disability scooters and other aids can be collected, and the gardens as a whole are generally easy for those with mobility issues, as well as for wheelchair and pushchair users. The gardens are connected with the lake by metalled paths leading between gardens, and within some of the gardens and in the park between them, there are level grass surfaces and light slopes throughout, which (at least on a dry day) are suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.  There are not many benches or seats around, and none between the gardens.

It was only moderately busy.  The car parks seemed to be stuffed full of cars, but the park and gardens seemed to swallow visitors very easily.  Only in the places where people tend to convene, like refreshment areas and places where there was live music, was there a sense that it might become crowded.  The gardens themselves gave no sense at all of there being too many people for the space.

Full details of the event, plus booking information, are on the Eventbrite website at:
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/eaton-hall-gardens-charity-open-day-tickets-308591705097

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Sources:

EventBrite
Eaton Hall Gardens Charity Open Days 2022
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/eaton-hall-gardens-charity-open-day-tickets-308591705097

Historic England
Eaton Hall Park and Garden
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000127?section=official-list-entry

Lost Heritage
Eaton Hall
http://www.lostheritage.org.uk/houses/lh_cheshire_eatonhall_info_gallery.html

Roman Inscriptions of Britain
RIB 460
https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/460

The Country Seat
Country houses of the 2014 Rich List – Top 10
https://thecountryseat.org.uk/tag/eaton-hall/

Exhibition: “Tales from Terracottapolis” at Tŷ Pawb gallery, Wrexham

Tŷ Pawb, meaning “Everyone’s House,” is a small but well thought out community and arts hub in the heart of Wrexham.  I had never been to Tŷ Pawb before, simply because I didn’t know of its existence.  Although I have been permanently installed in Churton for over a year now, I am still finding my way around.  The photographs below are my own unless otherwise stated in the caption.

Ty Pawb in Wrexham. Source: Wrexham Leader

For those who have never encountered Tŷ Pawb, it was formerly a covered market with a car park on top.  Apparently the market was hanging on to life by a thread before it was closed and as usual with this sort of change, the plans unsurprisingly met with some resistance. Often, the words “arts” and “community” when put together in the same sentence are enough to set any number of warning bells ringing, but in this particular case, there has been a strong dose of common sense and a real feel for the town thrown into the mix. The car park and the open space occupied by the market are still there, but the exterior and the former market space have been given a very smart and modern facelift.  Small retail units and a food hall and modern benches and chairs making it an an excellent place to meet and grab a bite.  It is an impressive initiative, and looking at it today, it seems to be working very well.

Source: Ty Pawb

The  gallery fits in very nicely into this arrangement.  The market space with its creatively designed modern signage and bright frontages and furnishings give the whole place a contemporary edge, which segues nicely with the inclusion of the gallery, which is so well blended into the space that at first we couldn’t see it.

We were there to see Tales from Terracottapolis.  It is on until 4th June (open Monday to Saturday, 10-4, free of charge), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  It is a small exhibit, a single gallery, but makes brilliant use of the space with its excellent light.  Using objects from the Wrexham Museum and elsewhere, together with art works from a number of local artists, it combines 19th Century with 21st Century ideas to explore the local production of architectural flourishes and glazed tiles that formed the character of an older, more confident and prosperous Wrexham.  Some of the decorative twiddles, like capitals, finials and long decorative panels, could be ordered from catalogues, but others were custom made.

There is an excellent video that provides the background to the industry, and explains how the terracotta was made, from kneading the clay by hand via being formed into moulds before firing, a highly skilled process from beginning to end.  It would have been really great to be able to re-see the video online.
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The front part of the gallery, where you walk in, is dominated by the modern pieces, many of which are very striking and engaging, and which aim to complement the story of Wrexham’s brick, tile and terracotta industry by offering new responses to it.

The first thing that draws the eye is The Brick Man by Antony Gormley, best known for his Angel of the North. It is (or would have been) one of his most tactile pieces, and a true celebration of brick.  This is a scale model of a piece that was originally planned as a 120ft (36.5m) monument in the run down Holbrook area of Leeds, near the Leeds City Station.  There was some public outcry against it, which is such a shame, as it resulted in the planning application being rejected by city planners.  As well as the scale model, itself a solidly impressive celebration of brickwork, there is an archive of documentation following the sources of the statue, from the original proposal to the official rejection of the the proposal.

There is a fascinating letter from the Partnership Manager of the British Railways Board, who supported the idea of the project, to a disgruntled objector, which really hits the nail on the head for me.  You can click on the image to see a legible version.  I am often amongst the first to grumble about inappropriate and poorly thought out modern sculpture installed in urban or rural locations as some form of random art statement, because such initiatives can actually alienate people from art and frequently undermine the impact of the heritage in which they are being installed.  By contrast, The Brick Man actually had real merit (originally, I typed “legs”), not only as an art work, but as a way of contributing to urban regeneration, both by drawing attention to the monument and the area, and by attracting visitors.  It is also a good piece of art, which is important.  I was previously unaware of The Brick Man, and it was a really good opportunity to see the scale model and some of Gormley’s original plans.

Display of pottery sherds by Paul Eastwood

Immediately on the right as you walk in to the gallery is a section of wall covered by rows of ceramic sherds that the artist, Paul Eastwood, had collected from riverside locations during lockdown.  It was so familiar, looking eerily like some of the stuff I have been collecting from my garden, and posing exactly the same sort of questions.  Eastwood, based in Wales, specializes in capturing how memory is created through objects and language and, in this case, what abandoned sherds tell us about the people who discarded them and the places they were found.  There were other pieces of his work on the same wall.

A set of large stand-alone pieces in the main space of the gallery, hanging panels and tall curving sections, captured the images of walls and arches, surface-traced like brass-rubbings from the derelict walls of buildings that had produced the bricks, moulded works and tiles.  I had not worked my way round to these Lesley James pieces when I was welcomed to the exhibit by one of the curators, who pointed them out to me, and I was glad she had as I would certainly have missed their textural connection with the 19th century manufacturers:

Lesley James surfaces traces

At the far end of the gallery is a floor-to-ceiling map showing the location of all the major brickworks.  It is an excellent way of showing just how important the area was for the production of bricks, tiles and terracotta.

In this section of the gallery, the focus shifts from present to past, and some of the marvellous tiles and moulded terracotta pieces are located here, together with the video.  This is where the exhibition makes a slight gear change from modern art gallery to beautifully displayed items of heritage.  Both flanking the map and at its foot, are examples of locally made bricks, each one marked with the name of the works that produced it, with a key to identify which name related to which manufacturing works.  In Farndon, on Brewery Lane, there is a Llay Hall brick more or less randomly incorporated into the left side of the road, all on its own, face up.  I have no idea what it is doing there, but it was great to see two of its relatives on display, from Llay Hall Brickworks in Sydallt.

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J.C. Edwards ceramic tiles, rescued from a condemned property on the Air Products factory site in 1989, and restored and reconstructed in 1993.

The main manufacturers represented at the exhibition are Dennis Ruabon Ltd and  J.C. Edwards of Ruabon, both important local producers of bricks, tiles and terracotta.

J.C. Edwards tiles were particularly valued and were installed locally at Liverpool’s Pier Head, and at the Lever Brothers village Port Sunlight on the Wirral, and were bought from as far away as Singapore, Egypt, Panama and India.  Edwards also provided the floor tiles for the kitchens on the Titanic. There is at least one of his tiles in the British Museum, designed by Lewis Foreman Day.

Examples of Dennis Ruabon Ltd terracotta work can be seen locally in Chester at the Westminster Motor Car and Coach Works and the Central Arcade in Hope Street, Wrexham.  Further afield, the Grand Metropole Hotel in Blackpool and Wellington House, at Buckingham Gate in London are high profile examples of  Dennis Ruabon Ltd work.  Whilst Edwards specialized in brickworks based on the Etruria Marl unique to the area, Dennis had interests in a variety of industries, including  quarries, coal pits, waterworks, brickworks and a tramway.

Tiles by J.C. Edwards

Tiles by J.C. Edwards, Henry Dennis, Monk and Newell and the Pant Works

The use of clay pressed into moulds was an excellent way of enlivening buildings, giving them celebratory flourishes without all the costs involved in stone masonry.  The use of moulds that could be re-used many times, enabled manufacturers to produce catalogues for architects, from which their customers could choose appropriate features, which not only made decorative flourishes affordable, but resulted in their proliferation, particularly on roofs.  Once you have seen the items on display, as well as those more elaborate versions shown in the video, it encourages you to look up in places like Wrexham and surrounding villages to spot the terracotta work that gave many local towns a real sense of pride.

Dennis Ruabon Ltd chimney

The layout of the works was elegant and well thought out, with each item widely spaced from the next, allowing it to be appreciated without distraction.  The combination of modern art works and 19th century heritage objects worked beautifully.

All the signage was in Welsh and English, and there was a  handout introducing the modern artists whose works were on display, together with  the 19th century manufacturers J.C. Edwards and Dennis Ruabon Ltd.  I picked up the Welsh version, assuming that it was bilingual; presumably there was an English version as well, so if you don’t read Welsh, look out for it.  I was rescued by Google Translate 🙂

The friendly and helpful curator of the exhibition, whose name I failed to catch, told me that over 2000 people had visited since the exhibition opened in March, with a number of them either former workers or their families sharing experiences.  Certainly, from my own perspective of things I have found in my garden, the Llay Hall brick randomly set into the side of a lane in Farndon, and my enormous affection for 19th century tiles in general and the Westminster Car and Coachworks (now the public library) in Chester in particular, it was very easy to relate to this exhibition.  The modern art pieces also work really well, balancing the older pieces and offering a new way of looking at this type of heritage, as well as engaging the visitor in their own right with thoughts about how heritage can be remembered, explored and, when necessary, lamented.

There was a school party arriving as we left, and on the table by the door I noticed that there was a pile of A4 sheets showing illustrations of three different statues, with an empty space for children to add their ideas for a monumental work.  We flipped through the completed sheets, and they were brilliantly inventive.  They made me remember what it was like to be a child with all that flying, chaotic, no-holds-barred imagination.  I particularly liked the giant robin with a big mouth in its side were its wing should be, complete with a healthy set of teeth.  The giant jelly fish statue was also rather terrific, but they all had something to offer.  Some were surprisingly very abstract.  It was a marvellous idea.

The gallery is a welcoming place, completely unintimidating. I both admired and enjoyed the entire feel of the place.  My only actual grumble about  it is that apart from seating for watching the video there was no seating in the gallery for those who have less than perfectly functioning legs, or who just want to sit and soak up the exhibits.

Practicalities:

The gallery is open 10-4, Monday to Saturday and the exhibition is free to visit.  We didn’t investigate what else the gallery has to offer, so it would be worth checking what else is available and whether there is a ticket charge if you want to visit anything other than the exhibition space (Gallery 1).  Full details for visitors and future exhibits are at https://www.typawb.wales/plan-your-visit.  You can also follow them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TyPawb

We parked in the multi-storey carpark on Market Street, which has lifts down to the ground floor where the gallery and the food /retail space are located.  It was easy to find, and unlike some multi-storeys, the spaces were generous.  Do not leave your carpark ticket in the car – the pay station is on the ground floor outside the doors to the elevators, and access to the elevators requires you to put your car park ticket into a ticket reader by the side of the door.

Tŷ Pawb has been shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year, the winner of which will be announced in July 2022.  Here’s hoping!
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Source: Ty Pawb

Sources:

Ty Pawb
Exhibition: Tales from Terracottapolis
www.typawb.wales/tales-from-terracottapolis

Exhibition handout in Welsh:  Chwedlau o Terracottapolis 19/03/22 – 11/06/22


More re Wrexham’s brick, tile and terracotta manufacturing history:

Wrexham Leader
There was gold in the red of Dennis Ruabon
https://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/20131331.gold-red-dennis-ruabon/

Old Bricks – History at your feet
Ruabon Area
https://www.brocross.com/Bricks/Penmorfa/Pages/ruabon1.htm

Coflein
Hafod Red Brick Works; Dennis Ruabon Brickworks, Rhosllanerchrugog
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/40776/

Wrexham History
Henry Dyke Dennis and the Red Works, by John Davies
https://www.wrexham-history.com/henry-dyke-dennis-red-works/

Pontcysyllte
Brickworks
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/object/brickworks/

Hansard 1803 – 2005
Brick and Tile Industry, Wrexham Area: Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.] – Mr. J. Idwal Jones (Wrexham)
https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1958/jun/10/brick-and-tile-industry-wrexham-area


More on Ty Pawb:

Ty Pawb
“About” page
https://www.typawb.wales/about/

The Guardian
Tŷ Pawb review – an art gallery that truly is everybody’s house. By Rowan Moore
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/sep/01/ty-pawb-review-art-gallery-everybodys-house-wrexham-market

Architect’s Journal
Something for everybody: Ty Pawb art gallery by Featherstone Young
https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/something-for-everybody-ty-pawb-art-gallery-by-featherstone-young

Wrexham Leader
Ty Pawb, Wrexham, shortlisted for Art Fund museum of the year
https://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/20126804.ty-pawb-shortlisted-museum-year/


More on artists in the exhibition mentioned in this post

Paul Eastwood
https://www.paul-eastwood.net/

Lesley James
https://www.lesley-james.com/

Antony Gormley
https://www.antonygormley.com/

 

 

Telling Stories from Handling Medieval and Early Modern Objects

Many thanks to Chester Archaeological Society for circulating the news that Dr Katherine Wilson (Associate Professor in Later Medieval European History, University of Chester) was inviting CAS members to see and handle medieval objects in Chester from the Grosvenor Museum’s collections at two pop-up events.  Both were part of the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries initiative.  The first event was on the day that I attended, the 3rd March at the Garret Theatre in the Story House, and another on the 4th March.  We were all greeted warmly by the team from Chester University, which included students who were seated in front of trays full of objects for us to go and investigate and learn about.

The format was very straightforward and worked perfectly.  A number of trays containing the objects were organized on a u-shaped table layout, so that we could easily move between them without being on top of each other.  In front of each tray was a University of Chester student, all of them helping us to explore the objects, encouraging discussions and real involvement with the objects in front of us and how they might lead us to understand more about the lives that left them behind.  Each tray had a selection of very different objects, so in each case there was a lot to talk about.  I didn’t catch the names of the students, but they were excellent.

Chester has a rich Medieval past, but as the team made clear, most people thinking about Medieval Chester focus almost exclusively in terms of the Cathedral and the half-timbered shop fronts, when there are not only other great buildings, like St John’s Church (Chester’s first cathedral), but there are also all the objects that have been excavated over the years, the items of every day life that people used, wore, carried with them or used in their daily work.  These items bring to life, at least in the imagination, the people who owned them.

Sole of a leather shoe, beautifully shaped. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Each object has a knack of opening windows into other parts of Medieval life that are no longer easily visible or reproducible.  The shoes were particularly evocative.  The first tray at which I sat down contained fragments of a black material, some very thin, one rather thick.  When I was asked what I thought they were, I said the first thoughts that came into my head: leather, protective, item of clothing.  I guessed a hood, perhaps because I was drenched from rain 🙂  They were, of course, fragments of shoes.  In the other boxes there were far more complete items, one sole with an additional patch of leather attached over the heel as a protective layer, much like a flat shoe today.  All of them bore the signs of wear, most of them were marked by tiny holes where one piece had been connected to another, and there was even a fabulous child’s shoe with an open toe.  These shoes, preserved in a waterlogged ditch just outside Chester, posed so many questions – how expensive were they (a goose, a sheep?), and in turn were they high status objects?  Were they everyday wear or were they only worn for best?  Where did their owners wear them?  How far did their owners, wearing their leather shoes, travel for trade, as messengers, or on pilgrimage?

Two of the keys in the object handling trays. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

There were several keys, some of which had remarkably patterned and intricate ends or bits.  For every huge key there must have been a vast door, opening into home or business premises, whole worlds within worlds.  For every tiny key, each fascinating in its own complexity, there is a missing lock, a missing box and the missing contents to contemplate.  Perhaps such keys, each either looped or perforated at the tops, were carried on a string, worn around the neck when small enough or tied to a belt or locked in a draw, along with other keys.  Whilst the keys themselves were portable, and the small keys may have opened small and very portable chests, the big keys probably opened big doors, either room doors or cupboard doors, and whilst the keys themselves were portable, what they were opening was much less so.

The pieces of wheel-thrown pottery were impressively large and well made.  There was no sign of glazing, so these were probably very practical, every day items.  Being rim sherds, the diameters could be calculated to give an idea of the size of the pots.  There were no bases, so it was not possible to see if there was any sign of the sort of charring that would be expected for cooking.  Perhaps they were used for storage.  They were solid and designed to be moved around, re-used and to do a reliable, practical job.  A piece of handle probably belonged to an even bigger vessel, looking very like a Roman amphora handle, thick and ribbed, impressively chunky.  The contents of the vessel must have been heavy to require such big handles, perhaps a liquid of some sort.  If these items travelled, and were broken in the process, it was probably in the process of being shifted across a room or in the case of the thick-handled vessel, perhaps being carted from farm or port to market.

Medieval floor tile. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Medieval floor tiles seem like the antithesis of mobility or portability, but they too had travel tales to tell, as one of the students pointed out very vividly.  Between the pattern designers, the clay diggers, the mould-makers, the artisans and those who laid the floors, these pieces passed from hand to hand until they were eventually laid on the ground.  They are thick, about 3.5 cms from memory, and as the lady sitting next to me pointed out at one of the trays, there was little sign of inclusions in the fabric.  This presumably made them less prone to cracking, more able to bear the weight of people walking over them.  The tiles were splendid, the glazed ones with the indented moulded decoration capturing light as we moved them.  In candle light, the images, lions and griffins, must have appeared to shift and shimmer, providing them with a type of dynamism beyond the pattern that the contributed to on the floor.  I was looking at the Victorian floor tiles in Chester Cathedral last week, for which I have a guilty liking based on the hallways of countless terraced houses around the country, but when compared to the Medieval ones they seem very two-dimensional and glossy.  The Medieval ones have a texture, luminosity and energy that are truly remarkable.

There was one piece, possibly a tile, that was neither rectangular or glazed, but perfectly round with a lion’s head looking out.  The puzzle, the student told me, was that the rectangular ones were all mass-produced, because they would be laid on floor, just like modern ones, but round ones were most unusual.  This was small, only about 10cm in total diameter, and deeper than the square ones.  It was also, if memory serves, made of stone.  The lion’s head was painted on, not moulded, and although the disk itself would have been fairly tolerant of feet, I wonder about that lion.  A possibility is that it was the centre of a radiating design, but the radiating pieces would also have to be specially shaped, and if so, where are they?  As he said, a puzzle, but a very nice one.

A remarkable ampulla. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Some of the objects came from outside of Britain.  A gorgeous little cross within a circle, just a few centimetres across, was from Siena in Italy, and was probably sewn on to a piece of clothing, and would have looked like a brooch.  Other items may have worked their ways all the way down the Silk Road, eventually finding their way to Chester.  One particularly startling piece, featuring a very austere male face, is a tiny St Thomas Becket flask for containing holy water, called an ampulla (ampullae in the plural), the ears forming little loops for string attachment to a belt or clothing.  Its weight suggests that it was made of lead.  Some of these long-travelled objects were moulded, and easy to mass produce, but owning them would still have been precious, often representing a serious achievement, something to which others might aspire, and making the owner visibly one of a circle of similar achievers, irrespective of birth or background.
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Silver spoon handle with face of St Peter topped by a cockerel. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

In another tray was a tiny but highly decorative little piece of metal, a devotional token. It is in the face of a head, and was broken below the neck, so certainly had once been somewhat longer.  It probably had something of a similar role to a pilgrim’s badge – the souvenir or, rather more importantly, an indication of pride, the sense of achievement with which a particular devotional religious task is associated.  There was also a very, very thin copper ring on the same tray that had a wide section at the front, with tiny little carved symbols marking it, thought to have been different events in the owner’s life.  In another tray was a silver spoon handle from Rome showing the face of St Peter and topped with a cockerel, representing Peter’s denial of Christ three times. These three items were so small and personal that they spoke of how people who made long journeys, perhaps people who did not have sufficient silver pennies to make many such journeys, valued these objects as emblems that declared numerous concepts – achievement, affiliation with an idea or an ideal, veneration of a religion or a preferred saint.  One student (wish I had known any of their names) had on his own jacket a replica pilgrim’s badge of geese in a basket, the symbol of St Werburgh, whose remains were moved to Chester Abbey (now Cathedral) in the 10th century, attracting  pilgrims.

Poppy worn by thousands of British people each year in memory of those lost and wounded in war. Photograph by Philip Stephens. Source: Wikipedia

Taking this a step further, people have been using objects to signify identity, nationality and membership since prehistory, and we still wear objects to communicate similar ideas.  Examples are badges of membership of a particular association or society; shirts supporting a particular sporting team; sweatshirts declaring an affiliation to a particular university; handbags advertising how elite they are by displaying their designers’ logos; poppies on Remembrance Sunday expressing our debt to those injured in war and, just recently MPs in the symbol-laden House of Commons wearing Ukrainian flag ribbons.  Today some of these icons and symbols travel the globe very easily, but travel was more difficult in the past, and some images that found there ways into Medieval society travelled from other parts of the planet via trade and pilgrim routes, copied and re-interpreted as they travelled.  The emblems of association with guilds, religions and the signals of achievement must have had a much greater depth to them, and new images and their ideas must have been both challenging and fascinating.

National Archives Currency Converter showing the results for the estimated value of £1.00 in 1440

Distributed through a number of the trays  were coins, tiny silver pennies, so thin that they were terrifying to handle and difficult to read.  One was a Henry VI penny, so beautiful and so subtle that it looked more like a piece of ornamentation than something one would do business with.  The question of how one measures value came up.  Many exchanges were done in kind, trading one set of skills or products for another in the form of services, foodstuffs and finished products but for  assessing those who had coinage, the National Archives has a fabulous Currency Convertor, enables you to put in a year, a monetary value (like a penny, pound or £10, 3s, 1d and press a button to calculate how many horses, heads of cattle, sheep wool, days of labour etc you would get for your money.  It goes back to 1270 and gives a vivid sense of what value something may have been in the past, and since I found it about 10 years ago has always made me think of historical coins in terms of what that would have purchased. If we plonk ourselves down somewhere in the middle of the king’s first reign, say 1440, when there were about 240 pennies to the pound, what would £1.00 have bought you? One horse, two cows or seven stones of wool.  That also equates to 33 days of a skilled tradesman’s labour.   All those little pennies added up to something very significant if only, just as today, you could save enough of them.

It’s amazing how one can get things so badly wrong.  One object, with a very sharp point and spurs of different sizes, I speculated might have been a device for cleaning sheep hooves.  I am a bit livestock-orientated, having specialized in livestock management in my own research.  On rethinking, I thought that it might have been used for both piercing and shaping leather or other materials.  Turns out that it was another key, presumably incredibly well worn 🙂  One of the great things about the object handling event was that there was absolutely no derision.  All ideas were welcomed.  Handling the objects, talking about them, thinking about them was a great way of bringing all that reading to life and imagining how people’s lives actually looked and felt.

Grosvenor Museum. Photograph by Dennis Turner. Source: Geograph via Wikipedia

There will be an exhibition based on a similar theme at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester beginning at the end of April.  I used to volunteer there, working on finds during the 1980s.  Dates and top-level details for the upcoming exhibition, which will probably be added to in the future as the exhibition nears, are at:
https://events.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk/event/medieval-chester-retold/

Repeated thanks to Dr Katherine Wilson and her excellent team, who did such an excellent job of talking us through the objects on the trays in front of them.  Thanks again too to Chester Archaeological Society for the email that told me that it was happening.  A great couple of hours.  For more about the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries project, see the website at:
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

I went for a second wander around the cathedral afterwards, and was lucky enough to catch the organ in full swing.  Glorious.  Although this is a 19th century organ, with bunches of pipes popping up everywhere, there are records of an organ in the abbey since before the Dissolution, perhaps contemporary with some of the objects that we were handling today.
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Links connected with Thursday’s event:

Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries website
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

Mobility of Objects: Pilgrim badges and devotional tokens from the Grosvenor Museum, Chester (video)
https://www.openartsarchive.org/resource/mobility-objects-pilgrim-badges-and-devotional-tokens-grosvenor-museum-chester

Object Videos Pilgrimage Badges and Devotional Tokens (video)
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/object-videos-handling-session-2-pilgrimage-badges-and-devotional-tokens/

Education Object Boxes
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/activities/education-object-boxes-for-schools/

Other sources

Useful details about ampullae
Ampulla
https://medievallondon.ace.fordham.edu/collections/show/90

A Chester Local List Workshop – what is local listing all about?

A few weeks ago, Chester Archaeological Society forwarded a request from Cheshire West and Chester (CWAC) for participants to attend a Local List Workshop.  I volunteered, but at that time I had only the fuzziest idea of what a local list actually is.  This post aims to clarify the subject of local lists and provides an account what happened during the fascinating Chester workshop.

A lot of county and city councils have programmes dedicated to local listing, and are running their own workshops and other forms of interaction with the public in order to launch their own local lists.  So what is a local list when it emerges from its burrow?

What Local Listing is not

The Grade 1 nationally-listed Chester Cathedral. Shame about the big purple sign, which completely destroys the first impression.  One of the lessons of Chester is that inappropriate signage and shop frontages can intrude very negatively on an otherwise beautiful city.

First, it’s useful to understand what local listing is not.  Local listing is not the same as the more familiar sense of the term listing, which is where a building or monument is “graded.”  Most of us are aware that when a building is officially listed and allocated a grade (Grade 1, grade 2 etc), it is given a special status and there are limits on what can be done to it and how it can be used.  Here’s part of the English Heritage explanation:  “Listing marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.  The older a building is, and the fewer the surviving examples of its kind, the more likely it is to be listed.”  There are currently 511 listed buildings (Grade 1, Grade 2* and Grade 2) in Chester City Ward alone.  Chester Cathedral, for example, is Grade 1 listed.  This is a national designation, and usually referred to as National Listing.

Local Listing

Local listing is different.  For a start, it is not a national designation and is not determined by a centralized national unit.  It is organized on a local basis by the council.  Here are some of the details on the Cheshire Local List Project website:

“In addition to the National designations, (including Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Registered Parks and Gardens and Registered Battlefields) local heritage can also be identified through the production of Local Heritage Lists of non-designated heritage assets. These enable the significance of any building or site on the list to be better taken into account in planning applications affecting the building or site or its setting.”

As I discovered recently when contesting a planning application, one of the sticking points in objecting to any planning application is the concept of a “material consideration.”  A material consideration is something that a planning department takes into consideration when accepting or rejecting a planning application.  More to the point, anything that is not a material consideration is ignored when objections are made.  Local listing ensures that even those aspects of the built environment that are not nationally listed and have no grading are included as a matter of material consideration, which may make all the difference to communities attempting to care for their assets.

National, graded listing is designed to protect buildings and other sites, and ensures that when changes are proposed, a process of consultation takes place, but there are many other buildings, sites and objects that are not nationally listed, but nevertheless have an important role in communities, either because they contribute to community identity, or represent significant markers of local history.   As locally listed entities, these become subject to material consideration in the planning process.

The Cheshire Local List Project (CLLP) website goes on:

The Cheshire Local List gives importance to local heritage within the planning system, but also allows the expression of community identity, both through the list itself and through engagement in the research and designation process. It is a key component of conservation area management and Neighbourhood Plan development, and allows numerous stakeholders to better understand and appreciate the heritage of the county and its communities.

It would have been helpful if the word “listing” had been confined to national graded listing to avoid any confusion, but hey-ho, we’re stuck with it, and whatever it is called it is a really good idea, assuming that it is well implemented and becomes an integrated part of local planning procedures.  Local listing is a government initiative that sits at a level beneath graded listing, and is a much less formal designation, but could be just as important for communities if they work with councils to identify important local sites that cannot be nationally listed.  It puts the onus on councils to engage with the idea, but my hour on Google suggests that many have taken up the gauntlet.

The idea of the workshop

One of the Project’s aims is to be community-lead.  Here’s the official wording:  “We see the Cheshire Local List as a community-driven dataset. Rather than impose detailed criteria, which may be restrictive and exclusive, we have developed non-asset-specific criteria which we hope will enable local communities to define local heritage significance on their own terms.”

The term “community-driven” is often an indication that an organization intends to do nothing at all unless poked firmly in the ribs by some community-based pressure group, but here we had excellent James Dixon, Built Environment Officer (Conservation and Design) at CWAC, reaching out to Chester Archaeology Society, amongst other groups, for people to come and participate in a series of workshops.  The objective, ongoing, is to understand sensory experiences of small groups of people walking the same route through Chester to see how this might help to build an idea of what the concept of local listing might contribute to a city that already has 511 nationally designated listed buildings.   Rather than looking at the merit of individual buildings, this approach sought to develop an idea of how people respond to and interact with the city as a whole.

The approach is evidence-based.  Evidence-based approaches have become popular in all sorts of research that involves human interaction, including archaeology, social science and economic development as well as urban planning.  They have largely emerged from the basic idea of phenomenology – the way in which different living spaces are experienced and interpreted by individuals and communities – but are now a tool for developing  strategies or policies.  It takes the idea that how people live their lives and how they perceive their built, natural and cultural environment should influence what decisions should be made about those environments.  First, of course, is the requirement to understand people’s responses, both conscious and subconscious to the context under discussion, in this case the city of Chester.  In our workshop group at least, it produced some interesting results.

Another concept that has been incorporated into the Cheshire approach is “group value.”  This divorces heritage in its own right from other things we appreciate, such as assets, objects and spaces and how we experience all of these in a sensory way.  Valuable buildings are easy to put a finger on, describe and evaluate, but the open spaces in front of them, the odds and ends of  modern sculpture, ancient architectural lumps and bumps, and the occasional well-positioned tree or cobbled footpath are more difficult to evaluate.  And yet, they too are part of the heritage landscape, the built environment, the cultural context or whatever else we are calling it this year.  My above whinge about the purple sign in front of Chester Cathedral is just as important to people’s perception of how we move through our cultural space as the building we want to engage with, because signage is an attention grabber, and it manages expectations.

Archaeologists and historians are always flipping between what a site, building or object might have meant in the past and what it means in the present and how that distinction influences how we interpret the past.  That’s the archaeologist in me talking, but it works for any entity that we look back on from the perspective of time.  Cities and towns are accumulations, so we are reacting not to a single slice of time, but to an amalgamation that spans the oldest to the newest building and and is generally  experienced by the user (shopper, visitor, worker) as something that instead of having many multi-layered and multi-temporal identities, has one single identity in their own minds, in this case the identity of being Chester.

Because we humans are all so different from one another, a Chester identity is no single thing, because different people will respond to it in different ways depending on, for example, nationality, familiarity, personal interests, and the way in which they are intending to interact with it.  So Chester actually has multiple identities, each person perceiving the city as single cohesive entity but each doing so from a different perspective,  meaning that there are multiple identities of Chester, all of them compressing the complexities built up by time into a hurried present-day reality through which we pass, often in a tearing hurry.

In order to move beyond this sense of Chester being any single thing, James has come up with a method of directing participants in the workshop to look at Chester in an alternative way, something that had nothing to do with arranging its buildings chronologically or by function, but by asking us to think about how we reacted to different sensory aspects of it.

Participating in the workshop

Post-Covid there are a lot of empty shops, looking abandoned and derelict, dragging down the image of their neighbouring shops. The entire of the St Werburgh Row is devoid of life, and tragic. This initiative, however, where empty shop windows are provided with imaginative Chester-themed boards is excellent, raising a smile. The one here is the former Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street.

On the 18th of November, the 90 minute workshop started at the bottom of Bridge Street, where we received our instructions from James, an excellent, reassuring communicator who turns out to have a natural gift for herding cats.  From the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross, and then from The Cross to the top of Northgate Street, the workshop set out to build an evidence base of sensory experiences including, for example, colour, sound, smell and texture, and more elusive concepts like fun and solitude.

James handed each of us a 6x4inch card, at the top of which was written a single word.  There were eight of us in the group, which was a good number for exploring some of the concepts, and enabled us to exchange notes on three occasions, once after we had walked Bridge Street, once after Northgate Street, and once in the town square, outside the town hall.  The topics were, in no order, were texture, colours, sound, stillness, views, words, and mine was fun.

There were Covid-aware latex gloves for those of us who wanted to explore texture by touch.  We could partner up with someone else, we could proceed en masse, or we could go off individually.  Apart from that we were given no direction so that the thoughts that came to us were not influenced in any way by James, or by the council’s objectives.

The idea was to write down words that occurred to us in relation to the given topic on the card.  I have to say my heart sank because I had no idea how I was supposed to interpret “fun,” but it was hugely enjoyable once I got into the swing of it.  The photos on this post are snaps that I took as I was walking around and thinking about my target word.  It came in very handy for consolidating my thinking as I went along.  If I had had a different word on my card, the photos would have been entirely different, which is an interesting thought in its own right.  For example, if I had had “stillness” or “texture,” both my words and photos would of course have been quite different.

The record cards

The keywords are clever, because they avoid simple reductionist descriptions based on liking or disliking, positives and negatives and instead focus on more nuanced responses and descriptions.

When he set us off on our own, James said that there was no right or wrong thing to write down, that the whole point was to let us react and write accordingly.  We had a card for Bridge Street and either the reverse side or a new card for Northgate Street.  One of mine is shown here, annotated to make it legible.  As well as capturing our thoughts so that we didn’t have to remember them, they helped us to marshal our thoughts when we gathered to discuss our findings.  We handed the record cards in at the end, so that James could collate them with those of other workshops.  The cards were an important part of the workshop.  Several of us had to apologize for our handwriting 🙂

Discussing the keywords

James was great at getting us together, on four separate occasions.  Two of the discussions were about what we had written on our record cards.  Here’s just a bit of  that, but I am sure that James received radically different comments when running different workshop groups, so this is just a sample of a sample.

In all the discussions it was clear is that we were all looking in different directions, and that’s partly because of the keywords, which directed attention to different parts of the built environment, and partly because of how we interpreted those keywords and what took our interest.

The Cross

Our first stop to exchange notes was at The Cross, where Bridge Street meets with the other three primary roads preserved from the legionary fortress, Eastgate Street, Watergate Street and Northgate Street.  We had at that stage walked only up Bridge Street.  James asked us what struck as what we found surprising about Bridge Street, within the parameters of the keywords on our cards.   I didn’t know anyone’s names, so these comments are all anonymous, and are shorter, simplified versions of what was discussed:

The Rows. There is a lot more stillness here than down on the streets, at least at the moment.  It makes for a nicer experience, but I am sure that the shops would prefer greater footfall.

Views:  As one looks up towards the Cross, the impression is of a great complexity pattern of walls and facades of buildings that forms an incredibly intricate pattern that frames the view from the floor up.  Some bits stick out, some don’t, and all the buildings have their own character, but they lead unambiguously to The Cross, along a road that is surprisingly wide given its Medieval past.  The rows give the whole thing a very distinctive feel, and means that the shops on those level are set back from the road. Everything converges on St Peter’s church, which is a big red sandstone building that draws the eye.  The path from one end to the other, seen as a view, is almost too much for the eye to make sense of.

Touches of colour in the old buildings above shop level stand out and are welcome.

Colours:  The biggest surprise was the contrast between the more or less uniform character of the builds above the shop frontages versus the brightly multi-coloured shop frontages themselves.  There were only a few details in colour on the older half-timbered buildings, which made the colour stand out.  Chester at street level is a torrent of colour, but when one captures a little of it in the buildings that soar above the shops, it is a lovely piece of deliciousness.

Sound:  In this area, the biggest surprise was what could not be heard.  There was such a cacophony of clinks, roadworks and street music, that the things that one could see going on around one, were lost in the other noise.  A pair of hard heels could be heard, but trainers and other soft-soled shoes were lost in the overall sound.  Even individual voices were difficult to make out.

Words:  At shop level the impact of words, in the form of text, was impossible to avoid, and overwhelming.  Branding and signage dominate, in a variety of lights and colours, and it is difficult to differentiate one from another.  Silent, in terms of audibility, they still manage to form a cacophony.

Different ideologies expressed in different building materials, different approaches, different design ideas,  different colours and textures.

Texture:  Texture occurs at every level.  It changes underfoot, but is most obvious in the walls, which are red sandstone, yellow sandstone, brick, wood, concrete and many other materials, which each has its own personality.  Decorative plasterwork is very distinctive and very fine, but not always noticed.  Each texture has its own character – granular, soft, smooth, slippery etc.  Each adds to the diversity of the buildings.

Stillness:  This one was rather sad in many ways at this point.  The main stillness was embedded in failed, closed-down shops.  There had been several before Covid, but there have been some tragic losses since.  These were all devoid of movement and interaction, dead areas that people walked past without looking.  More amusingly, anywhere not selling coffee had a certain stillness, by contrast to those places that were, which were busy, noisy and drew attention to themselves.

Fun:  There is not a lot of fun at foot level because it is all shops with unlovely frontages, but look up and there is a lot to make one smile in the decorative architectural elements that embellish the buildings, particularly the 19th century facades, a bit like excessively ornate wedding cake decoration, and improbable towers and incredibly ornate ironwork.  Often OTT, and very confident, these flourishes  are always very finely crafted.  They are both fine and truly great fun.

The Story House

The Story House is a thing of real ugliness, but even so I would defend it energetically if anyone were to threaten it because it is a monument to its era.  Not all heritage is pretty.  The same could be said for the telephone box in the foreground.  The bollards, however, at the edge of the road, were agreed by all to be cultural as well as physical barriers.

Our next stop was at the Story House.  Northgate Street had started out very like Bridge Street, with lots of engaging architecture similar to Bridge Street, again sitting on top of ordinary shop frontages, but as one proceeds, it opens out and there’s a lot of more architecture to see, some from more recent times, not all terribly positive.  The four most dominant buildings as one filters through the narrow entry to the market square are Chester Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Motor Works, and the Story House.  There is also a very conspicuous frontage to The Forum Shopping Centre, which incorporates the market.  At the moment, the Christmas market dominates the public space, closely clustered and overwhelmingly full of cooking smells.  We walked past the market and gathered in front of the Story House to discuss the walk up Northgate Street.

Inevitably and fascinatingly, we all talked about how interesting it was to compare the walk from the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross with the walk from The Cross to the Story House.

Views:  This was a story of constriction within fairly narrow confines to a sense of release in the big space in front of the Market Square and the Town Hall, but it was also a story of disappointment.  The sense of being lead somewhere by views of trees beyond the narrow start of Northgate Street lead to nothing more than an untidy space that was undefined and offered nothing like the oasis that was suggested by the trees.  At this time of year, particularly, the trees lend very little because they are deciduous and have dropped all of their leaves untidily onto the ground.  The Christmas market did not improve matters.  The cathedral, to one side, was a pleasant presence but did not dominate.  The main dominating factor, in terms of being lead forward, was actually the Story House, not Chester’s most aesthetically pleasing building.  Beyond the Story House, the symmetry collapses and there is nothing to tempt one forward.

Colours:  This is so dependent, just as it was on Bridge Street, on where you happen to look.  Ground level is bright and full of aggressive colours, but although on Bridge Street these were very jarring, they are more restrained on Northgate Street.  Looking up things are far simpler with black and white facades, and reddish-brown brickwork that provide a warmer feel.  The Christmas decorations were felt, by everyone who expressed an opinion, to be just right, not overstated or understated, but entirely suitable for the job in hand.

Sound:  In contrast with Bridge Street, Northgate Street was a far richer audio experience.  There was tapping, humming, rattling, the sound of wheeled suitcases on cobbles, a bicycle, and more human traffic, as well as the inevitable street music.  The sound of heeled shoes versus trainers was again particularly noticeable.  Reaching the marketplace, the noise of people talking increased enormously, and there was more traffic.

Words:  The plethora of promotional messages at street level was again dominant.  It was all very urban and vibrant, but there was also text in the historic buildings above the shops, where there were other messages to be seen that were resonant of the past.

Textures:  There were so many textures to be seen including the old versus the new, tiles versus glass, wood versus brickwork and the incorporation of carvings and sculptures into building facades.  As well as buildings, there were plants and trees to take into account, including moss on cobbles next to the cathedral.

Stillness:  The cathedral, a former abbey, is an oasis of stillness in the city, and offers a gateway into an inner peace, including its gardens.  The interface between the city and the peace beyond is provided by the Abbey Gate, and was probably the only entirely still place in the part of Chester that we walked on that day.

Fun:  Again there were a lot of excellent architectural details that were functionally unnecessary but expressed real exuberance.  Examples are the little sculptures in niches above the row of shops that includes Lakeland and Zara, little towers at the top of buildings and ornamental plasterwork on all sorts of buildings.  The overall impression of certain attention-grabbing buildings, like the town hall and the motor works lift the spirits, and both these draw attention to the positive impact of colour in building materials.

We did not, of course, explore internal spaces, but the idea of exploring interfaces between external spaces and internal spaces is an interesting one.  Little corridors leading from one space to another gave an almost secret feel to some of the city.

The good, the bad, and the highly nuanced

The other two discussions took place first in the public space in front of the Town Hall and the entrance to the market (The Forum Shopping Centre) and then at the point of Bridge Street where it becomes traffic-free and were less on what was on our cards than on our overall impressions.

Market / Town Hall Square

When we paused in front of the Town Hall, in what is usually an open area, we were asked what our impressions were of that public space.  The Christmas market was setting up, obscuring a sense of what it is like of most days of the week, but some interesting comments emerged.

Two of the dominant buildings, the Town Hall and the old Motor Works were exuberant, and were terrific examples of how whole buildings can express the enthusiasm and enjoyment (as well as ambition and pride) of those who created them.  They, together with the Story House and the Cathedral, surround the public open space.  The chap who was looking at “views” drew attention to how we had been funnelled from the lower end of Northgate Street, between buildings similar to those in Bridge Street into a space that, from a distance, with trees visible, had led to a sense of anticipation, but had very little to offer.  There were random odds and ends dotted around, leading to the sense that there was no cohesion in the space.  A very grubby Roman column here, a modern sculpture there, and an anti-terrorism barrier across the road.  I think that we all had the sense that nothing seemed properly integrated, and that a public space that might have had real potential was actually very drab, in spite of being surrounded by some great buildings, each of a very different but superb character.  We also looked at a bike rack that was very intrusive but could be placed somewhere less conspicuous and still be useful.  This was no piazza or plaza, and there was really nothing to celebrate.

The entrance to the indoor market.  A reminder of Chester’s Roman heritage, or just ugly?

I found myself almost back to back with a Roman soldier who was explaining something to a small group of visitors. I love the soldiers, who certainly come under the heading of “fun,” because wherever they go they raise a smile, but these soldiers, whether giving guided tours to adults or leading long strings of children wearing cardboard armour and carrying cardboard Legio XX shields, are a terrific innovation.  Some of us were also facing a Roman column that usually looks a little forlorn and isolated, and for which I have affection, but on that day looked more than a little farcical hemmed in on all sides by the Christmas market.   In Chester, a great effort has been made to incorporate the city’s Roman past, and there are constant, excellent reminders that help to reinforce the fact that as well as the built environment, the buried environment also plays an important role.  But that column could do with a rethink and a clean.

Little flourishes are worth looking out for.

Although the keywords on the record cards avoid simplistic likes and dislikes, positives and negatives, we found that in discussions value judgements were inevitable, because for every example of “fun” there is probably a “dull” in the next street, and for every ten tactile and aesthetically enjoyable examples of “texture” there is probably an edifice of brutal concrete nearby (the Pepper Street multi-storey car park springs to mind for both examples).  One of the interesting things from the discussions was that there are so many positives that the negatives stand out as noticeable intrusions on the positives.  One of the workshop members pointed out that anti-terrorist bollards, for example, are not only very ugly with their modern appearance and big lights, but give a misleading sense that there are better bits and less desirable bits of the city, separating  areas in which one is safe and where there are good thing to visit from those which may be not quite as safe, and not quite as worth visiting.  Once this was pointed out, everyone agreed, and we all understood that the city should not be seen in terms of what lies within and  what lies beyond those bollards, but that the perception is difficult to avoid.

Upstairs or downstairs – where does the fun lie?

Response to the keywords is a hugely personal thing.  I am guessing that many workshops would be required to capture even a small sample of what an entire community might think and feel about their living environment.  I interpreted “fun” as anything that would make me smile spontaneously.  I automatically looked away from the street level shopfronts to the upper levels where time, imagination and skill have wrought wonders. Some shop road level frontages are better than others, but for me all are brash, most of them frightfully ugly, and I hate shopping anyway, so nothing fun is to be found there.  But I have friends for whom shopping is hugely enjoyable, and the bright lights and colourful window dressings are all part of the enjoyment, and some of them would be puzzled by me describing architectural exuberance and decorative flourishes as “fun.”  So my interpretation of fun, confined to the upper levels where history looks down at me and I look back at it, would not be someone else’s.

Pausing again on Bridge Street

We paused again on Bridge Street, just on the uphill side of the anti-terrorist bollards, to discuss our views.  We were on borrowed time, as we had eaten up most of our 90 minutes, but we were all eager to point out the negatives of our immediate environment, because we all wanted to see improvement to encourage businesses to invest in that part of town.  Everyone agreed that the anti-terrorist bollards seemed, again, to cut one part of the street from another, and that the area north of Bridge Street was rather more prestigious than that to the south of them.  We also looked at some truly awful shop frontages, text-heavy, with lurid colours, tacky.  We asked about planning permission for frontages, as we were standing in front of a particular shocker at the time, and it turns out that they are indeed subject to planning permission, but that some retail outlets do not follow the procedures.  There is a lot of work to check up on those who ignore the rules, and it takes even longer to enforce the violated regulations.

The future

James said that he will feed back to Chester Archaeological Society about the results of the workshops once they have all been completed, and I really look forward to that.  Particularly, it will be interesting to know the answer to James’s own question – what can the local list do that designated graded listing does not already do in somewhere like Chester, which has listed buildings everywhere you turn?

The good news, even before the workshops have been completed and their findings collated, is that the Local List facility is already up and running and you can nominate an “asset” for local listing if you feel that it has particular community value and should be taken into account when planning and other issues are raised that might place it under threat.  You can find out full details on the Chester Local List Project website at the following address:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/guidance:

The Proposal Process

When you make a proposal or proposals for the Cheshire Local List, you will first have the option of creating and revising a draft that will not be reviewed until you submit it. When you submit your proposal, a Conservation Officer will check it to see if more information is needed. If so, it will come back to you for revision, and if not it will be moved forward for approval.

Make a proposal for the Cheshire Local List here

Approvals for nominations to the Cheshire Local List will be done by a panel of Conservation, Planning and Built Environment officers from Halton, Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East.

The final list will be put forward for formal adoption by each of the three boroughs in due course as part of the development of new Supplementary Planning Documents for local heritage.

The Assessment Criteria are here:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria

The top-level asset categories are Buildings; Parks & Gardens; Landmarks, Art Works and Way Finders; Other Sites, Structures & Landscapes, but see the following page for more information on each category:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria-asset-type

If or when I hear more about the project, I’ll post about it on the blog.

Hidden Holt: An illuminating must-visit exhibition currently at Wrexham Museum

Cover of the free English/Welsh booklet accompanying the exhibition published by Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021.

My thanks to Brian Payne of the Holt Local History Society for alerting me to the fact that the Hidden Holt exhibition has been launched at the Wrexham County Borough Museum, running until 29th January 2022.  I went last week my father, and we were both bowled over by how good it was.

The exhibition introduces the Roman tile, brick and pottery works that were spread across a number of fields to the northwest of Holt, next to the river Dee.  It uses an excellent combination of original artefacts, video,  information boards and both old and new photographs and diagrams to track the twin stories of the site itself and the history of its discovery and excavation.  Holt Local History Society has a long-standing interest in the Roman works, and commissioned the most recent geophysical survey work at the site, so it’s great to see their contribution to the story being celebrated.

The exhibition (free to enter) is in Gallery 3, to the left as you move beyond reception and the café to enter the display areas.  I’ve given an overview below, but I seriously recommend that you just go – it is a tremendous, professionally-produced and beautifully designed little exhibition with some superb objects on display and some excellent information boards that explain what you are looking at.  You won’t regret it.  If you’re in the mood, the café serves a great coffee and what looks like a rather delicious lunch 🙂

Survey and excavation

Arthur Acton –  page 5 of the booklet accompanying the exhibition.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The story of how the site was recognized and investigated begins in the early 1600s when landowner Thomas Crue of Holt Hill suffered repeated damage to his plough on broken brickwork and eventually discovered a series of fifty 2ft-tall posts and recorded this in a letter now in the British Museum.  The letter was mentioned in the book Roman Cheshire by W. Thompson Watkins (1886).  Retired chemist and keen amateur historian Alfred Neobard Palmer read the book, and in 1905 decided to hunt for the remains that Crue had found.  He tracked down the original letter and accompanied by local vicar Jenkyn Jones, and with the permission of the landowner Mr Beard, he engaged in a series of fieldwalking expeditions that found plenty of fragments of Roman bricks, roof tiles and pottery over an area of some 20 acres.

Fold-out plan of the kilns at Holt, published by Grimes in 1930. (Scanned from my copy of “Holt, Denbighshire”)

Palmer was not an archaeologist, and the task of excavating the site was taken on by Wrexham solicitor and amateur archaeologist Arthur Acton.  Work began in 1907,  in Wall Lock Field, and continued until 1915.  Although he lectured prolifically about the site, Acton never published his work.  Fortunately some of his records survived, and he sold the finds to the National Museum of Wales.  After five years of admirable work, the Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum, William F. Grimes who was better known as a prehistorian, published a comprehensive 235-page report on the site, complete with site plans, photographs and object illustrations.

Photograph and logo from the Archaeological Survey West website: http://www.archaeologicalsurveywest.co.uk/

Work did not stop there, and during the 1970s Geoffrey Bevan conducted both field walking activities and an excavation, finding Roman material that filled dozens of boxes, which were donated to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.  Most recently, Holt Local History Society commissioned Archaeological Survey West to carry out a geophysical survey of the site,  to accurately fix the positions of the known buildings and to identify any unexcavated and previously unknown structures.  This was successfully completed in 2018, and demonstrated that the Holt complex was even bigger and more complex than Grimes, via Acton, had been able to determine.  There is, of course, the potential for future field research.

The exhibition

Piece of a colander manufactured at Holt, on display at the exhibition

The exhibition is based mainly around discoveries made during the Acton excavations, using the Grimes and later reports to explain what was found and what has been discovered since.  Between them, Crue, Palmer, Acton, Grimes, Bevan, Holt Local History Society and Archaeological Survey West have produced a history of what lies beneath those lush green fields, and this is what the exhibition introduces.

As usual usual the exhibition’s narrative is arranged in a clockwise direction, so turn left as you walk in to Gallery 3.  The exhibition begins with a video that explains the history of survey and excavation and then talks about the site itself.  It is well worth taking a seat and watching.  It lasts about 15-20 minutes and is chock-full of information with some terrific photographs, diagrams and artist impressions of what various structures may have looked like.   The technique of superimposing building plans over a modern aerial view of the fields is particularly useful for understanding how the site was composed and what each element consisted of.   From there, the excellently designed displays take the visitor through the site’s history.

Site plan of the Roman tile and pottery work displayed in the exhibition. Also in the excellent booklet accompanying the exhibition, full details in Sources below. Click to see a bigger version with fully legible text.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The site was more elaborate than I realized, composed of a number of buildings as well as the kilns.  The image on the right is shown at full size in the exhibition, and shows how big a complex the Holt tile, brick and pottery works actually was.  This is a bang-up-to-date site plan, combining the information provided by Grimes in 1930 with the details obtained by Archaeological Survey West in 2018. What this and a lot of Acton’s photographs makes clear, is that the site was a fully integrated operation combining industrial, public and domestic architectural components. A senior manager had his own house, complete with hypocaust (under-floor) central heating, there was a public bath house, presumably for workers, a series of kilns for the manufacture of mainly tiles and pottery, and a barracks that may have housed workers, or alternatively a detachment of the Roman army based at Chester at this time.  The features shown in blue are unrecorded / unexcavated.  Those in dark brown are the building locations fixed in 2018, and those in paler brown those estimated by Grimes based on Acton’s work.

The main kiln plant at Holt, published by William Grimes in 1930. Scanned from my copy.

Although now the archaeological remains are covered with fields, Acton used photography extensively, and his site plans were detailed, many published by Grimes, and used in the exhibition to reveal and explain the different components of the site.  This is very helpful not only for understanding how the site worked as an end to end operation, but is invaluable for putting the objects into context.  Objects on their own tell a limited story, but when contextualized in terms of the buildings in which they were produced and used, come to life.  The exhibition does this brilliantly.

It was a good location for a tileworks.  Building stone was available in the immediate locality thanks to the Bunter sandstone, alluvial clay was available locally, woodlands were present for the provision of fuel to feed the kilns, and the river Dee provided direct access to Chester, 12 miles / 19km away, passing the civic settlement at Heronbridge.  The generally flat environment meant that building of roads was not particularly laborious.

The visitor is taken step-by-step through the production process, explaining how the kilns and drying sheds  were built and how they functioned. The kilns formed two main units, a larger (139ft / 52m long, consisting of a row of six kilns) and smaller twin-kiln built on the natural bed-rock.  Each kiln was rectangular and tile-lined with an arched stoke-hole for access.  A round pottery kiln was also located on the edge of the main kiln complex.  The oven floor was fascinating, consisting of a raised floor of tiles plastered with clay that were pierced with holes that acted as vents.  I was fascinated to see that the drying shed was provided with a hypocaust, better known as the under-floor heating system that was used in villas and bath houses.  These, like the kilns, were stoked and kept hot to ensure that the tiles, pottery and bricks were dried through after firing.

The exhibition displays a number of artefacts, including a roof tile, a brick and a triangular atefix tile marked with the letters LEGXXVV, an abbreviation for the twentieth legion, known as Valeria Victrix (valiant and victorious).  The antefix tile, one of which is shown in the exhibition (photo left and illustration below) also shows Legio XX’s dramatic running boar symbol.   Legio XX was stationed at Chester from AD87, and the Holt works appears to have been established shortly afterwards, reaching its peak output at around AD135, and falling out of use in the mid 3rd Century.

Antefix tiles from Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

A display board shows the vast range of products that were made at the site, including floor and roof tiles, and a variety of different pottery forms.  There is a good explanation of how the roof tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  A good memory for me – I dug up a lot of these tiles at my first ever dig in Silchester.  The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex.

Green-glazed ware found at Holt. Source: National Museum of Wales

Examples of the pottery found at the site are on display, with some really fine examples, including ollae (jars), urcei (jugs), lagenae (flagons), cattili (plates), calices (drinking bowls), and testa (lids).  I particularly liked a partly preserved ceramic colander and a mortarium (the latter working like a modern mortar, but with bits of stone embedded into the interior base of the pot to create a rough surface for grinding spices and seeds).  Green-glazed pottery, a luxury ware that I had never come across before, was also made at the site.  It is rare in Britain, so it was excellent to see examples of it on show.  A photograph of the green glazed pottery found at Holt (from the National Museum of Wales website) is shown below.

The workers also turned their hands to other types of objects made from clay – one cabinet shows a marvellous piece of shaped water pipe that was manufactured at the site.

Section of water pipe manufactured at Holt

All of the output manufactured at the works was sent by boat downriver to Chester, the exhibition suggests that a short may have been dug out at Holt in order to make loading the ceramics easier, its course marked today by annual floodwaters that, as they recede, leave a line of floodwater in what could well be a Roman channel.

Samian pottery found at Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

Interestingly, the exhibition shows that even though huge amounts of pottery was being made on-site, there were particularly favoured types of ceramic being imported.  Samian (terra sigillata), a truly gorgeous luxury dark red ware that has moulded decoration on its lustrous surfaces, was found in surprising quantities.  This was usually imported from south-eastern Gaul (France); a Roman experiment with samian production in southern England produced inferior pottery and was very short-lived.

Imported black-burnished ware was also found at Holt, which the exhibition explains was made in Dorset.  At sites in southern England it is common (we found bucket-loads of it at Silchester), but when found at northern sites, it was probably imported to fulfil a particular need or desire.  The works manager might have wanted high-status ceramics, and any soldiers at the site may have craved the comforts of home, but another option is that it was being imported for use by a nearby settlement.  One of the findings of the 2018 geophysical survey was the presence of a possible Roman fort or marching camp to the west of the site, suggesting that the site may have been on the edge of an unidentified vicus settlement, or village.

Coins on display in the exhibition.

The coins at the site are invaluable for their contribution to creating a timeline for development of the site, but are works of art in their own right.

The exhibition provides another insight into the inhabitants of the site by displaying some of the other objects they owned, like small pieces of jewellery made of bronze, manicure equipment, a beautifully crafted needle and a delectably delicate silver spoon.  These are objects that people chose and kept on them, intimate reminders that these were real people who lived complicated lives in which personal appearance had an important role.

Silver spoon from Holt on display at the exhibition. Source: Grimes 1930

A map at the end of the exhibition was riveting, showing how widespread Roman presence in northeast Wales actually was, showing everything from single find-sites to industrial sites like that at Holt, the settlements at Heronbridge and Plas Coch, and the villa at Rossett, the latter two sites both recent discoveries.  It looks as though there will be more Roman discoveries in the future, filling out a picture not merely about the activities of Romans in Britain, but on their interactions with local communities, something which remains poorly understood.

Museum details

The museum is an excellent resource, a small but modern with excellent displays and a lot of great information on professionally produced display boards into context. At the time of writing (August 2021) masks must be worn and you need to leave your name and telephone number with reception.  For opening days and times, plus directions, see the Wrexham County Borough website:
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/wrexham_museum.htm

A booklet accompanying the exhibition is available both in the museum foyer and under the video screen in Gallery 3.  The cover and some of the pages from the booklet are shown at the top of the post, and full details are in Sources, below.   A leaflet, Holt: Legacy of the Legions, is also available from the museum, or can be downloaded.

It is a real shame that the Hidden Holt gallery is only a temporary feature, but Wrexham Museum has a lot more to see, and I will be posting about some its permanent displays in the future.

Sources:

Books and papers

Grimes, W.F. 1930.  Holt, Denbighshire:  Twentieth Legion at Castle Lyons.  Y Cymmrodor.  Society of Cymmrodorion.

Ward, M. 1998. A collection of samian from the legionary works-depot at Holt.  In (ed.) Bird, J. Form and Fabric.  Oxbow Monographs 80.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333155555_A_collection_of_samian_from_the_legionary_works-depot_at_Holt

Ward, M. 1998. Some finds from the Roman works-depot at Holt.  Studia Celtica 32:43-65
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311789557_Some_finds_from_the_Roman_works-depot_at_Holt

Booklets / leaflets

Wrexham Heritage Service 2021.  Hidden Holt.  The Story of a Roman Site.  The Discovery of a Roman Legionary Tile and Pottery Works at Holt, near Wrexham.  (Booklet accompanying the exhibition in both English and Welsh)

Holt Castle Conservation and Interpretation Project.  Holt. Legacy of the Legions.  An introduction to the history of the Legionary Works Depot at Holt. (Leaflet, including site plan, available from the museum)
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/assets/pdfs/heritage/holt_castle/holt_legacy.pdf

Websites

Hidden Holt
Wrexham Museum
https://www.wrexhamheritage.wales/?exhibition=hidden-holt-the-story-of-a-roman-site

Hidden Holt – Roman history revealed in a new Wrexham Museum exhibition
Wrexham Council News
https://news.wrexham.gov.uk/hidden-holt-roman-history-revealed-in-new-wrexham-museum-exhibition/

Holt Local History Society
https://holtlhs.weebly.com/

National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/

Roman Glazed Pottery from North Wales
National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/articles/1327/Roman-glazed-pottery-from-North-Wales/

The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britian by Vivien Swan (database)
https://romankilns.net/