Delving into the history of our buildings

Morpathia' Dutch gable
Morpathia' Dutch gable

I’VE been looking at Alec Tweddle’s Town Trails and the entry for Morpeth in Pevsner’s Buildings of England, and I find that a lot of the buildings in our main streets go back easily 200 years, and in some cases over 300. The ones at the bottom of Newgate Street, for instance, beginning with Joe’s Pet Supplies, date from the early 18th century.

Whether a building feels right or wrong is largely a matter of whether it looks like what it is and does what it was meant to do.

As a general rule, in the main shopping streets of the town, the older the building the more likely it is to include living accommodation.

By contrast, Morrison’s and Lidl’s were built as shops and nothing else, and since they stand more or less on their own, substantially apart from other buildings, they don’t cause offence.

I appreciate that the residents of Staithes Lane may not see it like that.

They might reasonably prefer the view they used to have of the County Highways Depot.

That apart, Lidl’s and Morrison’s look right where they are.

But the same thing in one of the old streets of the town wouldn’t look right.

Buildings in old shopping centres don’t exist on their own, but have to take their place alongside other buildings.

This imposes constraints, and this is the reason why we find the new Sanderson’s Arcade so acceptable.

Here again, I suppose some might disagree, though I’m not sure on what ground.

The frontage of Sanderson House has been preserved, the new buildings only have the same number of storeys as most of the town shops, and the shop fronts, although modern, have an almost Disney-like perfection of detail.

Like the supermarkets, Sanderson Arcade is not residential upstairs. But in the main streets, we like the old shops to look as if the upper floors are lived in, even if they aren’t.

For this purpose, tidy curtains in the upstairs windows are preferable to the most tasteful of advertisements.

ONCE upon a time, there was a Dutch gable in Wheatsheaf Yard. There’s a picture of it in Harry Rowland’s Bygone Morpeth, illustration no. 166.

It’s not there now, and there’s no joy in wishing for what will never come back. Better to concentrate on enjoying and keeping what we still have.

Happily, we do still have some Dutch gables. Nos. 6-8 Newgate Street (Darcy and Hallmark) has what are called shaped gables – the same as Dutch, but more curvy.

They were fashionable in the 17th century so it was probably built soon after the great fire of 1689.

As you can see, the gable at the south end is somewhat decayed, but the north one is in fine shape.

It isn’t typical. Most end-gables in Morpeth are just walls to keep the weather out. Apart from churches, which are a case apart, the only other ornamental end-gable I can think of is on Hood Street Hall.

The decorative feature is the chimney, which projects out from the wall, beginning a few feet above the ground with a carved stone plinth.

One problem with dating a building by its appearance is that the Victorians and their immediate successors could build in any style of any date, and usually did.

The former Grey Bull in Oldgate (Strutt and Parker) has a splendid Dutch gable, but is certainly Victorian.

A plaque states that it was re-built in 1895.

Louis Johnson’s, opposite the bridge-end, is equally striking, and adds distinction to the south entrance of the town.

It dates from about 1900 and was occupied in 1914 by George Young, the mineral-water manufacturer.

Other than 6-8 Newgate Street, which is unique in the town, the best gables are not on the end walls, but are decorative additions to the front of the building. They are very varied, as you can see for yourself.

Econofreeze in Newgate Street is a former Co-op.

Its upper floor was built as a hall, and has good solid no-nonsense co-operative gables.

I should guess it dates from just before the First World War, when the movement was at its peak and Co-ops all over the North East were celebrating their golden jubilees.

By contrast, there was a fashion in the 1920s for ‘Tudorising’ buildings, both existing and new-built.

Thomas Cook’s in Bridge Street is a fine example, as are Appleby’s Corner, opposite the Chantry, and the Queen’s Head.