Many country towns blessed with good fortune retain the haphazard medieval imprint on the layout of their streets and have been spared the fate of the demolition of out-dated and old-fashioned buildings.
In the oldest part of the town, narrow streets guide the pilgrim towards the church, or lead the less devout away from the piety of the church and towards the market square. As the Medieval structures rise along each side of the winding streets, they try to reach across the divide and bridge the gap between themselves, all but shutting out the intrusive sky. In the square an old bow-window shop front has defied all attempts to replace it; one or two Victorian shop façades offer it their solidarity.
Gaps that, over time, inevitably appear in the sinuous line of properties are filled with buildings that use different materials and styles. Although this might be like filling a gap in toothy smile with a replacement tooth that is so obviously false, the tooth wears and discolours and becomes less obviously new, and although it can never be undetectable, it becomes, in time, to be a characteristic part of a familiar face. There is really nothing to object to in these occasional, piecemeal alterations; they seem organic and natural.
In one of the buildings that forms the boundary enclosing the square, parts of an older, grander building have been recycled, raising the esteem of an otherwise non-descript structure and providing a much-needed talking point. In another part of the town, brick is the building material of first choice and a street of solid, eighteenth century, red-brick mansions were created, worthy of the towns’ history and reviving fortunes. Unfortunately, the cobbles that once surfaced the street have been removed. These houses, that at one time were occupied by merchants, doctors and solicitors, are now museums of Georgian elegance, or the offices of advertising firms, or tearooms that offer a pastiche of a bygone age of gentility. As the town grew and expanded in the nineteenth century, some of its inhabitants decided to express and celebrate their increasing prosperity by building some grand stucco houses in the Gothic style or - emulating the royal tastes of the times – the Italian style.
So, when walking along a street in a town, how often do we raise our gaze above the level of the shop-fronts? We might look occasionally skywards hoping that the inspiration for a last-minute gift would descend upon us; and we may, in our torment of shopping, direct a look of anger or frustration heavenward to the abode of the presiding deity whose sense of humour we cannot fathom or appreciate at that moment of what we regard as undeserved stress.
But how often to we even spare a glance at the façades of the buildings above the shop windows? It’s not surprising that we don’t: our focus, after all, is on the contents of the shops, to be enticed through the doors, perhaps, by an elaborate window display, tempted into spending some of our gettings. The windows are themselves sometimes of interest: they are framed with polished granite, have pillars of serpentine with Corinthian capitals, or keystones carved from Portland stone; there are charming panels of shiny encaustic tiles under sills. Some of the more arresting decorative features are the carved heads that suggest one of the Greek Muses or Roman deities. They stare unblinkingly straight ahead – some of them having done so for over a hundred years - determined not to acknowledge the comings and goings that are beneath them. The bloom of their youth is sacrificed to passing time, which is aided in the despoliation by the callous elements. Yet all the degradations are borne with an admirable stoicism in the face of a multitude’s indifference. Those heads not of what would be generally regarded as sculptured beauty are almost invariably grotesques. In contrast to the uncomplaining Muses, the grotesques look down on the uninterested passers-by, who are preoccupied with negotiating bulging streets without colliding with others in the heaving mass, with what could be interpreted as being a mocking expression. In truth, we often do not have the time or the inclination to look above the gaudy neon signs or the distracting fluorescence that pours extravagantly out of the interior of a shop through a plate glass window.
The rooms above the ground-floor level are mostly used for offices, accommodation or storage. Pallid office workers look out of windows tinted with grime; on days washed by rain, their expression is one of smugness: on days gilded by the sun, it’s one of wistfulness.
Accommodation usually takes the form of flats. Occupants stare out of windows of an assortment of shapes – windows with pointed arches, windows with rounded arches, windows with no arches and windows that are round. With more interest but little more perceptible movement than that of the carved heads, they see what is going on at street level and speculate on unknown lives and unuttered thoughts; for a short time, they become like gods who condescend to take a passing interest the lives of mortals. They mostly observe without being observed, except, now and again, when a child, raising a lollipop into a shaft of sunlight, points to a figure at a window; being seen, the observer withdraws into the obscuring gloom offered by the narrow room that lies behind the window.
Sometimes, stacked against the cold glass of a storeroom window, there are bodies: jumbled legs and arms, headless torsos, severed heads, the slaughter the result of a bloodless dissection of manikins.
Unlike a sweeping redevelopment where the construction conforms to one man’s vision, whether his imagination is unrestrained or limited, the old market town presents many and varied faces. The eclectic mix of styles and materials creates interest and variety.
Would a wander around an old country town be a more interesting and enlightening way of spending an otherwise idle hour or two than shopping? O, be gone profane thought!