I was working on the Channel Islands last week shooting a number of fine and recently completed retail spaces. The last one was in St Helier, in a prime location on the high street surrounded by quality establishments but pretty much the same ones you might see anywhere in the UK or Europe. All the big brands were there but directly opposite the store I was photographing was a rather different space. One that had seen better days certainly but one that also had a personality and charm of it’s own and neatly contrasted with the homogenised shops everywhere else.
Whilst waiting for the light to fall I went and spoke to the proprietor who I found seated in a little glass booth in the middle of the shop surrounded by decades of remaindered stock and predominately empty shelves.
We had a short ten minute conversation but amazingly were able to cover international banking, island life, the internet, the upholstery trade, shopping habits as well as a run down of the history of both his shop and his family history. It was around closing time so I asked if I could take a few pictures to which the proprietor agreed, but I had just started when he ushered me out in a polite but firm manner that could not be easily countered. So regrettably I wasn’t able to do the portrait I hoped to shoot and neither was I able to really do justice to his amazing shop, but here is what I did get in the bag in those last few minutes…
Romney Marsh has got to be one of my favourite places in Kent. The silent and bleak desolation is contrasted only by the endless groups of sheep nibbling at the grass and the plaintive bleats from the new lambs. Yesterday was a gloriously sunny day so it was a perfect time to visit St Thomas a Beckett Church near Fairfield. Apparently (according to Simon Jenkins) this is one of Kent’s most visited churches and it is in a wonderful location so one can easily understand why but if you strip out the setting, the building itself is rather plain and uninspiring.
The church now sits isolated and alone amongst the sheep and the steady trickle of visitors most of whom seem to park on the road, walk to the church and then back to their cars to drive off without stopping. I found the atmosphere there quite compelling and was really struck by the amazing silence that surrounds the place.
The sign on the gate says that the Church key is available at the nearest house. I was very happy to find the large key hanging next to the back door of said house. No security, just a small note saying to please replace the key after use – wonderful. And it was a fine looking key too!
There has been a church on this site since the 13C but all the associated houses have long gone. The existing church structure was restored in about 1910 after it had become virtually derelict so all the exterior brickwork and roof is from that date which gives it quite a early 20C feel but the interior has certainly retained some of the original timbers. It also has some marvellous (and very recently painted) box pews, a fine split pulpit and a lead font but I guess even taking these into account the best thing about this church is without doubt it’s location which is utterly unique.
Coming from a land where most building is pretty new (and new does not always mean good!) and the few 17C and 18C buildings that do exist are regarded as ancient monuments, I have long harboured a fascination with the old architecture of my adopted homeland, Britain. Here ancient really does mean ancient. My exploration of the Cathedral over the last couple of years and more particularly it’s roof structures has led me to look more closely at other old timber structures in the county.
Tithe barns are an interesting case in point. They are uniformly old, most dating from the 13 or 14C and more interestingly they reveal their inner most secrets without any attempt to hide or disguise how they are put together. It’s all there and as been so for centuries.
Most tithe barns in this country are timber-famed structures, in contrast to the preference for stone on mainland Europe. I visited the Woolton Barn recently. The structure has had some more recent soft wood restoration but it is essentially a 15C oak structure with the two ends glazed where there would normally be timber cladding. This last feature makes the building very light (not a common feature in buildings of this sort) and enables it to be kept in use all year round.
I love the raw and sculptural quality of the timbers and the fact that they have remained doing their job for so long.
A short note on tithe barns in general: these structures were built throughout Europe to contain the 10% of produce that everyone was obliged to give to the church. They were usually located near a centre of activity like a Monastery, Abbey, Church or Cathedral.
Although all shot in colour, I have presented most of these as Black & White images as this emphasises the structure and because I increasingly feel that unless there is a clear visual or commercial imperative, there is little need for colour!
The next barn I look at will be an older 14C building with a slightly more complex structure and a very much darker interior. But it exists in it’s original location with pretty much all the original timbers in place.