Brutal Bristol

Prince Street car park.

Brutalist architecture isn’t so called because it is harsh or bullying but because it emphasises the use of raw concrete, via the French: béton brut. Bristol’s brutalist buildings, as well as being a pragmatic response to the post-war need to build quickly and cheaply, are powerful, sometimes even beautiful presences in the cityscape.

At first glance the Shot Tower on Cheese Lane might be mistaken for a Cold War watch post. Its actual purpose was the manufacture of lead pellets. Designed by Underwood and Partners in 1968 it succeeded the world’s very first shot tower which occupied a nearby site. It demonstrates how varied and interesting concrete buildings can be, the chunks from which it is constructed given texture by the casting process, and used to create futuristic forms. It reminds me of the Discovery from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is perhaps also somewhat, just to the tiniest degree, phallic. It is now part of an office complex.

Shot Tower
The Shot Tower.

Concrete fetishists are about the only people who get excited by multi-story car parks which offer plenty of opportunity for bold design and abstract forms. NCP Prince Street, designed to serve the hotel next door by Kenneth Wakeford Jarram & Harris in 1966, is a much-admired example, made mesmerising by the saw waves and diamonds that cover its bulk, brough alive by the shifting of light and shadow. Another of note is NCP Rupert Street, the first multi-story car park in the city, designed by R. Jelinek-Karl in 1960, which sits above the street like a coiled concrete python.

Repeating concrete patterns on a car park.
NCP Prince Street.
Car park at night.
NCP Rupert Street.

Among Bristol’s most exciting buildings of any style or vintage is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Clifton by Percy Thomas & Son. The thrusting spaceship-like spire can be seen for miles around and the more-or-less hexagonal church was apparently unpopular with conservation-minded locals and worshippers when it arrived from its home planet in 1974. It was built using especially fine, pale concrete and so hasn’t aged as poorly as some similar buildings.

A modernist cathedral in concrete.
Clifton Cathedral.

Nobody can have missed Castlemead, the tower that rises over Castle Park. It is part of the last gasp of brutalist building, conceived by A.J. Hines in the early 1970s but not finished until 1981. It looks like the kind of building evil corporations in Hollywood films choose for their bases but there is at least a little humour in the concrete battlements at the top of the tower.
The Arts and Social Sciences Library of the University of Bristol on Tyndall Avenue (Twist and Whitley, 1975) is another building often described as ‘fortress-like’. Its windows, angled to control the entry of light, and its top-heavy structure, do give the impression that it is peering down on passing pedestrians.

A tower block surrounded by trees.
Castlemead.
Underneath a motorway.
M32 at Eastville.

I’m going to finish with a leftfield suggestion: take a closer look at the M32 motorway from beneath, at somewhere like Stapleton, where the song of the traffic between concrete columns brings to mind the interior of a cathedral, with mile after mile of the rawest béton around.

Where is the West Country?

This blog post has two purposes: first, to introduce this new project of mine; and secondly, to answer a question fundamental to it – where exactly is the West Country?

What I’m hoping to do this year is really focus on the part of the world I’m from, learn more about it, and share what I discover on the way. I’ll be doing that primarily via Twitter (@wildwestward) but with occasional blog posts here when I need more space to stretch out.

It’s weird to admit that I need to learn more about the West Country. I was brought up in Somerset, spent several years in Devon as a child, lived in Cornwall from 2011 to 2017, and have recently moved to Bristol. My ancestry includes pilots on the Bristol Channel, Somerset sheep rustlers and servants at seaside retreats. When I go Home (with all the complexities that word entails) it is to Bridgwater, and I say ‘gurt’ without the slightest irony.

The beach at Burnham on Sea.

The problem is that being from the West Country, I wasn’t interested in the West Country. As a kid I wanted to read books about Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London, outer space… Places utterly different to Bridgwater or Exeter. I’ve read near-as-dammit every word of Raymond Chandler but not one lick of Laurie Lee; I’ve devoured Dickens but dodged Daphne Du Maurier; I had to read Hardy at school but resisted, perhaps because all that gloomy, doomed, class-crisis bumkpinry seemed too close to home.

I only developed a slight, sneaking interest when I went to university and homesickness kicked in. That’s when I started buying second-hand books with titles like Rambles in Somerset or the Penguin guide to Devon. But still, even now, I’m more confident navigating east London where I lived for eight years than the Somerset Levels where my Dad grew up.

So that’s part of the plan for this year – to read as far as possible only books by people from, or books about, the West Country. (Suggestions are welcome.)

And that brings me to the first big question.

Motorway Bridge at Topsham.

The Shape of the West

One of the reasons I like the concept of the West Country is that it is vague with soft edges but as I suspect I’m going to get asked – indeed, have already been asked – which regions I consider to be within scope, I’ve decided to probe the term.

Maybe it’s “the five south-western counties of England” (Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall) as argued by John Payne, who excludes Gloucestershire as mostly “Cotswold country”.

Perhaps it’s just Devon and Cornwall, as many practical guidebooks not prone to navel-gazing over identity seem to suggest?

(I realise this last bothers some Cornish people who see this kind of thing — and, indeed, the whole idea of the West Country — as the first step on the slippery slope to full-blown Devonwall annexation by England.)

In the world of local TV, BBC West covers Bristol,  and parts of Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire; while BBC South West serves another chunk of Dorset, the rest of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Scilly. (The remaining bit of of Dorset is covered by BBC South — what a carve up!)

Fisherman on a Cornish windowsill.

Thomas Hardy’s Wessex includes not only Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire but also Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. It excludes Cornwall. The ancient Kingdom of the West Saxons from which it draws its name shifted its boundaries and influence over time but like Hardy’s Wessex (to simplify grossly) stretches further up and closer to London than most ideas of the West Country might allow.

The South West Region defined by the government includes Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Another bureaucratic body, the EU, says that a cheese can only be described as ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’ if it is produced in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset or Somerset.

And, finally, I’ve always thought of the Great Western Railway line that runs out of London Paddington all the way to Penzance as a kind of spine for the West Country. As a result, I tend to look up on Swindon and even Reading as far appendages of the West Country. Maybe Paddington counts, too, like our Voyager probe poking into the western side of the capital.

So, for now, here’s my conclusion: the heart of the West Country is Devon and Somerset; neighbouring counties are deeply entangled; but the next counties out again might or might not be in the West Country, depending on the angle from which you view them, or which story is being told.

I hope that doesn’t mortally offend anyone. I suspect my view will change the more I learn and read, or perhaps you want to try to change my mind. To which I say, go for it!

War Still Echoes

Inside a shelter.
The Spitfire base at Perranporth, Cornwall.

The recent surge in the visibility of fascism and fascist imagery is depressing. It’s become a cliche to say it but here goes: we had a war and settled this a while back, didn’t we?

What I’ve been thinking about lately, in particular, is how that ‘while back’ doesn’t even feel all that far back.

Yes, that feeling is partly a result of my being a relic of the 1970s but, really, you don’t have to look far, even in the leafy suburbs, small towns and countryside of Britain, to see great concrete chunks of World War II just lying around, like tombstones.

I went for a run up and around Purdown in Bristol the other day. My aim was to get to the base of the telecoms tower I’ve been able to see on the horizon for the last few weeks. Once I’d got past that, however, I was amazed to find myself picking a path through what were obviously the overgrown remains of gun emplacements.

Officially known as the Purdown Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery this site was first militarised in 1939 and the concrete structures were erected in 1940. Locally it was the source of the legend of ‘Purdown Percy‘, a supposedly secret, supposedly massive gun that could be heard across the city.

Fantastic as I found this survival I wasn’t surprised by its existence because, honestly, it sometimes feels like a challenge to go for a walk or ramble without stumbling across something like this.

Spitfire base, Perranporth.

On the Cornish coast in April my other half and I found ourselves diverted through the remains of a Spitfire base at Perranporth — overgrown, yes, but so complete that a Battle of Britain fighter squadron could probably operate out of it by this time next week if need be.

In my home town of Bridgwater pill boxes surround the railway station and line the canal all the way Taunton — brutal brick and concrete structures designed for no purpose other than war and preserved at first, I’ve always assumed, because no-one quite believed the peace would hold with Russia rampant; and then just forgotten about.

Even in London, built on and overbuilt and developed to a high shine, you can still see painted signs on Smith Square pointing to air raid shelters, and the remains of shelters themselves in parks and on side streets. Just look at the Citadel in St James’s Park, as I used to do on the way into work most mornings for about a decade — a bunker so bullying and intrusive, like a beached warship, that it has almost become invisible.

The war is still with us, even as those who remember it firsthand slip away from us.

The war is still The War.

The warning still rings.