The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Buttresses at Ripon Cathedral suggest a fortification. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Buttresses at Ripon Cathedral suggest a fortification. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Here’s a challenge for you. Imagine that you were to write a book about buildings in Britain, and that part of the text was to include examples of important buildings from each county. But there is only space for only eight or nine buildings.

Which would you choose to represent North Yorkshire?

St Marys Church, Whitby - eccentric. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

St Marys Church, Whitby - eccentric. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

That’s almost the puzzle faced by the architectural historian Anthony McIntyre when he wrote ‘The Shell Book of British Buildings’ a third of a century ago.

The bulk of his 1984 book is taken up with a succinct summary of British architectural history; you can judge its scope (and perhaps its limitations) from the titles of its first and last chapters – ‘After Noah’ and ‘The Practical City’.

In just over 230 pages he takes us from Neolithic standing stones to what was then the most modern architecture, like Milton Keynes and Runcorn New Town.

Then follows the gazetteer, starting with the Home Counties and London, followed by East Anglia, The West Country, the Midlands, and the North. Then come sections of Scotland and Wales – which are not subdivided like the rest into counties.

Fountains Abbey is compared to the layout of an efficient town. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Fountains Abbey is compared to the layout of an efficient town. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

For England, the counties are all given their own examples – but not all are equal.

That’s why it was almost a puzzle for Anthony McIntyre – a puzzle he ignored by deciding to give more examples to some counties than others. We therefore find that in the Home Counties, Bedfordshire has two and Hampshire four.

Skipping over London, which has, inevitably perhaps, a large number, we can pass on to East Anglia, where Norfolk has most examples with seven (Cambridgeshire a mere two).

The West Country’s most represented county is Somerset, and in The Midlands, perhaps surprisingly, Leicester has the most entries with five, while Herefordshire has only one.

And so we arrive in The North. How do we fare here?

Least well represented are West Yorkshire, which musters just one example, The Piece Hall in Halifax; East Yorkshire also has only one, Burton Agnes Hall. And the sole example for Durham is, unsurprisingly, Durham Cathedral.

Of the other northern counties, Lancashire can muster seven iconic buildings, as can Northumberland (including Newcastle).

But of all the counties of England, North Yorkshire musters the most, with its eight (indeed, with nine, if we include Middlesbrough).

McIntyre’s Gazetteer is not, of course a competition, and his examples are chosen to illustrate to specific points in his main text, but we might perhaps bask in some vicarious pride that the county in which we live has provided so many outstanding buildings that illustrate his argument.

So what are these exemplary structures? And how does McIntyre’s list accord with yours?

His first is Shandy Hall in Coxwold, which he chooses for its ‘humble character’ as a building of vernacular architecture – but also as the home of Laurence Sterne, author of ‘Tristram Shandy’.

McIntyre describes it as ‘Red brick, big chimney stack . . . and set in among this, the white windows seem curiously bold and geometrical.’ Perhaps this is an appropriately quirky start to the North Yorkshire list – and a good link with Ripon Civic Society, as the Society’s speaker on Thursday 2 November will be Patrick Wildgust, Curator of Shandy Hall, who will talk about ‘The Beauties of Sterne’.

The next entry shows the age of McIntyre’s book, for it is the ‘golf balls’ of the Fylingdales Early Warning Station, long since demolished.

McIntyre was ambivalent about them; he says, ‘You may call the architecture beautiful in its purity’ (not something that can be said of the replacement), but, he adds, ‘that purity is only a result of our inability to sense the building’s purpose.’

More straightforward in the ranks of great architecture is Rievaulx Abbey.

This McIntyre views not as an ecclesiastical building but as ‘an example of medieval town planning at a practical level’.

So he admires the water management and the drainage system, concluding, ‘It is interesting to compare this monastery, where the place and buildings were of secondary importance to the ideals they expressed, with the modern planned towns, where place and buildings are considered most important and where the only ideal principles are economic’ – a sentiment perhaps as much of McIntyre’s time as the monastery was of its.

Richmond Castle is the next, slightly-oddly described as having ‘a very pretty relationship to both the River Swale and the town to its north.’ McIntyre looks at two buildings in Whitby – the extraordinary St Mary’s church, with its eccentric interior of galleries and box pews, and the Town Hall (‘jacked up on columns’), which in an unlikely comparison he likens to the modernist architect Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy. And in Middlesbrough he notes the Bell Brothers’ offices, designed by the late-Victorian architect Phillip Webb.

But our best reason to cheer is that we in Ripon get two iconic buildings in the list. The first is Fountains Abbey. Like Rievaulx, Fountains is valued for its civic aspects: McIntyre says, ‘It must have been the equal of a town in population and industry, and was certainly better laid out and serviced than any contemporary towns.’

He also notes that the Water Garden at Studley is ‘a garden of architectural images, a catalogue of emotional and intellectual stimuli’.

And finally? It’s Ripon Cathedral, of course! Again Anthony McIntyre has his own take on the building.

He notes that the west front has ‘city watch-towers complete with battlements’, although he says that, unlike Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, Ripon’s ‘does not evoke anything like a city gate’.

He thinks that the array of buttress on the south side of the nave have ‘the bulky symbol of authority’ and ‘the robustness of construction suggests a fortification.’

While we may not quite see eye-to-eye with McIntyre’s vision of our buildings, it’s an interesting exercise to consider how we would compile a similar list.

Certainly, having so few to name will concentrate the mind.