We have in Morpeth, or not far away, pretty well the whole range of English architectural styles: The vernacular, the medieval Gothic, the Baroque, the severely classical (at Belsay and Longhirst Hall), Victorian Gothic, Victorian exuberance, bleakly Modernist and tastefully understated post-Modernist.
Nothing, however, is extreme. All of these styles exist, but usually in a more muted form than you find in other places.
Vernacular buildings are those made from local materials without the aid of plans. An incident recorded by the French chronicler Jean Froissart, which probably took place in 1365, shows just how crude such buildings could be. The English had invaded Scotland and a combined French and Scottish force, England.
When the French and Scots came back to Scotland ‘they founde the countrey distroyed, but the people of the countre dyde sette but lytell therby, and said, howe with thre (i.e. three) or four poles, shortely they wolde make agayne their houses, for they had saued moche of their catayle in the forestes: … and the scottes sayd, howe the frenchemen dyde them more domage than the Englysshemen had done; … and dyuers other knightes and squyers complayned, that their woodes were cutte downe by the frenchemen to make their lodgynges.’
The essence of Froissart’s story is that the Scots meant to squeeze as much as they could out of the unfortunate Frenchmen, but it also tells us in passing that there was little to choose between the temporary huts of the French troops and the permanent houses of the Scots, and no doubt the same was true on the English side of the border as well.
Until the great fire of Morpeth in 1689, the traditional material for building ordinary houses in the town was probably clay-walling. Clay walls are perfectly good as long as the roof stays on, but if the rain gets in, they deteriorate quickly.
Robert Blakey, the Morpeth philosopher, lived in just such a house in Bridge Street from about 1799 to 1808: ‘When about six years of age, I was placed entirely under the care of my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Laws, who lived alone in one of the oldest and most rickety houses in Morpeth. It had been built of pure clay or mortar, and was next door on the west side of the old Phoenix Inn, and in the midst of the sheep-market, in Bridge Street.’
This spot is now part of Rutherford’s store. If, as seems likely, the taller of Rutherford’s buildings was the Old Phoenix, then Mrs Laws’ house was just to the right of that.
There are no longer any clay-walled houses in Morpeth, but when I was clerk of Felton Parish Council in the 1990s, the then Chairman, Walter Wood, told me that the house opposite the old bridge is actually a medieval hall-house built of clay, albeit the walls have been rendered over with cement.
Clay walls have to taper up from a broad base, and this leads to an intriguing puzzle.
Nos. 2-5 Wansbeck Place, in Mitford Road, is a row of stone-built houses. But the front wall leans back in the same way as a clay one would. Stone walls don’t need to lean so this could be a cladding over a surviving clay wall, or a replacement for a previous one. If so, it would have to be built to the same profile as the old wall so as to keep in touch with the floors and roof. Some of the stone was renewed not long ago and it would be interesting to know if the builders found anything unusual when they removed the old stonework.
Although there are exceptions, vernacular buildings don’t normally have much in the way of decoration, but they can still be good places to live in, and pleasing to look at.
The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones, 1856, begins with 37 propositions on which the rest of the work is based, thus Proposition 3 says: ‘As Architecture, so all Works of the Decorative Arts; should possess fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all which is repose.’
And Proposition 4: ‘True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want.’
The best example of this in Morpeth is Appleby House, a cottage said to have been built in the reign of Queen Anne, 1702-14, standing next to the Park Gates.
It can hardly be said to be in the Queen Anne style, being too plain. Rather, it is a vernacular building with just a touch of the neo-classical then in fashion. The customer evidently couldn’t afford columns and pediments, but could still exercise good taste. Ignoring an offshot on the north side, Appleby House is symmetrical and has an odd number of bays, and while the Greeks and Romans didn’t have sliding sashes and bay windows, the proportions of both the individual panes and the windows as a whole are just right.
The fanlight isn’t quite right, it should have been a bit deeper. But this beautiful little house exemplifies Jones’s treasured qualities of fitness, proportion, harmony and repose. You look at it and feel a glow of satisfaction. And if the fanlight is a bit too small, never mind. It’s ours, all ours.