Monday, April 4, 2011

Play Mistley for me

Straying into English Building territory, here's a short post about some architectural stuff I came across in the wilds of Essex. Over the weekend I drove through Mistley, a small town on the Essex side of the River Stour estuary. Mistley has a lot of interesting architecture, including a number of large and imposing brick built wharf buildings and some pretty terraces of Huguenot cottages. The warehouses in particular have an industrial scale and presence that's unusual for this part of Essex, a landscape mostly consisting of small-scale farm buildings and commuter belt housing. 

Mistley is perhaps more famous though for its connection with Mathew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General who pioneered the horrific practice of drowning women accused of being witches and who was memorably played by Vincent Price in Michael Reeeves' fabulously creepy 1968 film. As if to shrug off this association, the town attempted to reinvent itself as a fashionable spa resort in the early 18th century. The Architect Robert Adam was commissioned to design the main spa buildings but only managed to realise a fountain and a church before the project was abandoned.

Adam's enlightenment Classicism was clearly unpopular with the superstitious East Anglian witch drowning folk and the church was partly demolished in 1870, leaving only a pair of classical pavilion-like towers. These were retained as navigation points for boats on the Stour - at least according to indefatigable internet fact-checker @langrabbie* - and a 'new', appropriately  medieval looking, neo-Gothic church was built instead on a nearby site. The twin towers remain as appropriately picturesque ruins in the graveyard by the river's edge.

Adam's original design was an odd one though, with the towers sitting at either end of a single-storey, barn-like central section with a large pedimented front. Strangely given the obvious lack of local enthusiasm for the building that led to its demolition, care was taken to complete the towers as stand-alone elements. Their columned portico and cornice line now stretches around all sides when originally it only appeared to feature on one. This makes the towers appear like two independent pavilions, giving rise to the faintest suspicion that the middle section was never actually built at all.

Also, in the church yard is a vast, Egyptoid tomb, the sort of object in which one of Doctor Who's adversaries might have been imprisoned for eternity. I intend to have a replica of it constructed in the event of my own demise. 

One final thing. Mistley it turns out, is also famous for its swans. It has an awful lot of them. As we drove out of the town we could see them everywhere, not just on the river but on the grassy banks and waddling along the side of the road, seemingly oblivious to the traffic. Given their slightly grotesque numbers, their location in a small town by the water and the fact that I really, really don't like very large winged creatures, it felt a little bit like Hitchcock's The Birds. Well, kind of.

* Although I wonder, why keep both?

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