Yesterday I mentioned that the stack of unfinished and unwritten posts is still ever-growing, only, a few hours later, to come across a mainstream newspaper article discussing one of the things I’d considered writing a post about. The Guardian review of the new book from architecture critic Owen Hatherley opens with a discussion of a modernist building I’ve loved for a long time: Grimsby Central Library. In fact, I was in there only a few weeks ago, taking photos of some of the architectural details and so that I could maybe post them here at some point.
I first knew the place when I was a small child, when it still had something approaching its original layout. Children’s books in the basement, books on the ground floor, music and some of the non-fiction on the mezzanine, the reference library upstairs and an exhibition room above that. Nowadays the basement is Local History, Reference is on the mezzanine where Music used to be, and the upper floors seem to be closed and quiet, a partition blocking off what was originally a broad staircase. Nevertheless, for a 1960s building, an awful lot of the original detailing has survived. The Staff Lift looks still essentially the same as when it was installed, fifty-something years ago
Similarly, the doors to the staff stairwell still have their original signage beneath more modern additions, and 1960 chandeliers still hang from the ceiling even if broken parts can no longer be replaced.
One thing it doesn’t have is the original shelves, which I rememeber surviving into the current century just about. They were tall, wooden, with a graceful curving profile when viewed from the side. Because of this curve, although the books at the top stood upright just as you’d expect books on a shelf to be, the books at the bottom were tipped back, tilted, so their spines were angled a few degrees in the direction of a standing reader. That little bit easier to see without bending down. I’ve never seen library shelves like them anywhere else, but I’ve always thought how ingenious they are.
It was over a month ago I took these pictures, so the librarians had put together a small display for LGBT+ History Month. I excitedly messaged a friend who used to work in the library back when we were both teenagers, just because we couldn’t have imagined it happening back then. I realise now it’s not just that we couldn’t imagine it happening, but that before 2003 it would have been illegal for an English public library to have a display about LGBT issues. Twenty years sometimes feels a very long time ago.
Incidentally, all my photos here are terrible quick phone snapshots taken whilst I was wondering round browsing the shelves. However, via Twitter, I did discover a blog post written by an archictecture fan a few years ago, with a whole host of much better photos of the place, particularly of the gaunt and haunting figures decorating the south side of the building, called The Guardians Of Knowledge; but also not forgetting something I remember very clearly from childhood, the floor of the foyer! Go and look!
In field archaeology, there’s a subtle process that field workers undergo called “getting your eye in”. A plain brown swathe of earth, after a few hours’ work, becomes suddenly a complex landscape of shade and texture. A mass of tumbled stone becomes a distinct sequence of structural building and collapse. All of a sudden, the things on the ground start to make sense.
When you’re buying a house, I’ve found, the same sort of thing starts happening on an architectural level. All of a sudden I can spot cracks in plaster I’d never have noticed before, or the slight dimples in walls that can indicate buried wires. All this, of course, is a result of reading surveyors’ reports, reports that are paranoid to mention every slight little thing that could potentially cause a future problem.
“Large degree of springing in floorboard” first makes me think: oh no! We only have to jump too hard and we’ll disappear into the basement. But then, I think back, and start comparing it to other places. I start walking lighter and paying more attention to my feet in every building I enter. The flat we live in now, for example, has very springy floorboards. If you walk too heavily in the living room, you can see the bookshelves moving slightly. In the hallway there’s a big gap between two boards that you can feel through the carpet with your toes, and another patch where you can feel the boards have been cut then never put back securely. And even this isn’t as bad as another flat I lived in briefly a few years back, with floors so uneven I always think of it as: not so much a flat, as a slightly rippled.
Now, I’m not saying that being sharp-eyed is a bad thing. But sometimes it’s possible to be too sharp-eyed, and spot so many little details that it worries you. This “new” house might have bouncy floorboards here and there, but of all the houses we looked at, it probably has fewer of these little flaws than any others of similar age. It is fun, getting the chance to be an archaeologist again, poking around to work out what’s under the garden gravel and how usable the chimneys are.* I hope that eventually, though, we’re going to be able to relax a little, sit back, and not worry that one moving floorboard means the house is doomed to crumble into its foundations.
* One of the chimneys is definitely still open and functional, but that fireplace appears to have had its damper plate patched up with some sort of papier-mache or cardboard, so I wouldn’t fancy lighting a fire in it.
Another lazy weekend this weekend. Wanting to get out of the house, though, we took a trip to Portishead.
It’s a strange town. A strangely-shaped town. Like Clevedon, it’s a seaside town that doesn’t look towards the sea. The harbour is lined tightly with recently-built classically-themed terraces, designed to look like Totterdown or Clifton, but packed in much more densely. Further south is a muddy bay, a headland looking across to Newport; and the remains of an old fortress, little more than lines of concrete in the clifftop grass. There is also, signs said, some Iron Age defensive works; but they are well-hidden by trees and my rusty eye couldn’t make them out.
Clevedon had a pier and an interesting bookshop; Portishead didn’t seem to have any similar attractions. We tried to find the lighthouse marked on our map, before going home, blown back by the wind off the sea.
Was over in the Republic of Hull at the weekend, and popped in a pub in the city centre, called Ye Olde White Harte.* It’s a very old pub indeed, full of tiny rooms, alleged ghosts and dark wood panelling, and it’s been on the site for around five hundred years or so. Back in the seventeeth century the Siege Of Hull, one of the opening skirmishes of the Civil War, kicked off in the upstairs room of the pub.**
I was in the pub to go to a meeting, in the aforesaid upstairs room, with swords on the wall and portraits of men in seventeeth-century styles. Just as you could imagine it being back in the civil war, in fact. We sat around having our meeting, just like the seventeenth-century city leaders plotting to change the government whilst downing jars of ale. But, of course, there was a little sign on the wall next to the swords: “found during the Victorian restoration”.
Like many buildings of its age, not much of the Olde White Harte is genuine. It might be a genuine sixteenth-century pub, but much of the interior will have been redone in the 19th century, if not since, to look like the modern ideal of a genuine sixteenth-century pub. For one thing, bars were only invented in the 19th century, in railway station refreshment rooms. I have no idea what it would have actually looked like when first built, but almost certainly not how it does today.
* I don’t see why they can’t call it the Old White Hart, but apparently it’s tradition or something.
** Well, they didn’t exactly start a bar-room fight with the King, but it was where the city leaders decided to bar the gates to the royal army.