A Celtic nation of shopkeepers

A few weeks ago I wrote about Llanidloes in central Wales (formerly in Montgomeryshire, now in Powys) and featured the splendid nonconformist chapels that are such a prominent feature of its townscape. I now want to turn my attention to another building type that does a great deal to define the character of the place – its commercial architecture. The centrepiece – quite literally, as it stands in the middle of the staggered crossroads where all its main streets converge – is the timber-framed Market Hall of the early C17. But it is upstaged by neighbouring commercial buildings rising to three storeys in height, which give the ensemble unusual grandeur for what is a fairly small town and perhaps this is what led Ian Nairn to dub Llanidloes ‘The Pocket Metropolis’.

The entrance to the Red Lion Hotel on Longbridge Street

It is probable that much of medieval or pre-modern Llanidloes was timber-framed. That went in two stages – first in the early C19, when the town was experiencing great prosperity thanks to the flannel industry; then from 1865 onwards, when the discovery of lead deposits in the area revived a local economy which began to flag after that first boom had subsided. The buildings that I wish to show you here date from that second period.

The Market Hall seen from Shortbridge Street

These are the sorts of building that beg the question of where one draws the line and decides that the term ‘vernacular architecture’ can no longer appropriately be applied. They are not the work of famous architects or even minor masters (at least, not as far as I currently know, although who knows what a dig in the archives might show?) and show awareness of ideas that were in the air rather than being in the vanguard of stylistic development. Those that are listed have been designated for group value or for individual features. But they are very much products of their time, immediately identifiable as belonging to the latter half of the C19. Moreover, this is an architecture with a very high culture of details, designed with flair and executed with skill – downpipes, railings, consoles, fascias, bay windows, pilasters, joinery, stucco work.

Gravestone commemorating Jane Francis (d. 1845) in the churchyard of the church of St Idloes

Visiting the town in 1960, Ian Nairn rejoiced that this was all still a living tradition: ‘the decorators and house-painters in Llanidloes have natural taste. They employ their shadow alphabets as elegantly and appropriately as the 19th century would have, and paint buildings with a panache which we are now only fumbling back to in the schemes sponsored by the Civic Trust. There is no need, here, to specify a standard set of alphabets and range of colours, as the Civic Trust do: the right thing happens automatically – and this is indeed a lesson for the rest of Britain, where it sometimes seems that the harder we try, the worse the result becomes’. Nairn traces this pride in good lettering back to the splendid collection of slate headstones in the churchyard of St Idloes, singling out for special praise that to Jane Francis, who died in 1845 at the age of just 19, and whose name ‘is cut in a bold italic face, and in each character one of the serifs is prolonged and looped around the letter next to it, making a tiny sad pavane in slate’. But non-verbal communication is also splendidly expressed – witness the sheep with splendid curly horns and fleece hanging from an elegantly curved wrought iron bracket at No. 29 Great Oak Street (built in 1838, so just Victorian – a complex of public rooms that originally incorporated a wool market) or the beaming red lion on the roof of the porch of the hotel of the same name on Longbridge Street (chronologically probably outside the scope of this blog, but too good to leave out).

Sign advertising the wool market formerly based at No. 29 Great Oak Street

Perhaps it is no longer a living tradition – or at any rate, one no longer absorbed unconsciously from the milieu as opposed to the conscious cultivation of good taste. All the same, the details that make the commercial architecture of Llanidloes such a delight are the sorts of things most quickly eroded by carelessness and insensitivity, and the extent of their survival here – really, there is very little that strikes a discordant note – is the result either of extraordinarily good luck or huge diligence by the local conservation officer. Here is a selection – in no particular order and totally subjective – of the many buildings that caught my eye while I was walking around the town.

Nos 1-6 Cambrian Place

A splendid range of buildings stands at the top of Cambrian Place where it meets Great Oak Street and the High Street. There are evidently three phases of development here, and the properties in the centre with six-over-six sashes must be the earliest. The building nearest the camera (now occupied by an IT firm) makes a particularly proud display with the rusticated ashlar masonry at ground-floor level and the brown-glazed facing bricks, interspersed every four courses with cream-coloured bricks, laid with their chamfered arisses facing each other to create a V-shaped groove. The corner of the building is chamfered, too, and the coloured brickwork carried round across the flank wall, emphasising the change in alignment here of the street line. Alternating cream- and black-glazed bricks are used for the window heads and the chimneys are slate-hung (a local speciality), as is the end gable of the adjacent property where it has been raised by a storey.

Nos 4-5 High Street

A short distance away at Nos 4-5 High Street (curiously, despite its name, not the main drag of the town) stands this splendid pair on the corner of Cemetery Place. Buildings originally of c. 1840 were refronted in the early 1870s and the two shop fronts are just outstanding. The arches to the openings for the doors and shop windows are shouldered, notched and chamfered in the High Victorian Gothic line, with fine, attenuated capitals to the cast-iron columns that support them, yet with florid, wholly Baroque Composite order capitals to the pilasters that punctuate this elevation.

Detail of the shopfront of Nos 4-5 High Street

Heading back towards the centre, we encounter Nos 6 and 7 Great Oak Street, flanking the junction with Bethel Street. Both elevations are in the classical, ultimately Georgian tradition, but the bright red pressed facing brick immediately betrays the later date. The splendid rainwater goods of No. 6 with the barley sugar twist to the downpipes and hopper heads are a particular delight, so too its dormers with their blocked and rusticated stonework – dubious in strict classical terms, yet very effective. No. 7 has a good shopfront and also a fine doorcase in its flank wall facing onto Bethel Street. And again, as always in this town, the careful use of colour, both for the constructional polychromy of the brickwork and applied polychromy of the joinery, augmented by the varied palette of natural materials, gives great enjoyment.

Nos 6 and 7 Great Oak Street
Detail of No. 6 Great Oak Street
Doorcase on the Bethel Street elevation of No. 7 Great Oak Street

The Arts and Crafts range at Nos 2-4A China Street show that the tradition carried on into the early C20. A splendidly expressive façade takes up the natural change in alignment of the street front and, perhaps suggested by the angularity that that implies, acquired great visual interest through the liberal use of polygonal bay windows, a crop of three miniature pediments and a deep dentilled cornice, although that varies in depth where it is not interrupted altogether. The centres of the pediments are filled with lush baroque cartouches, picking up the sensuous curves of the hopper heads below, apparently adorned with the winged heads of putti. The arched front of what is now the premises of accountants R.D.I. Scott and Co is supported on splendidly bulgy Ionic dwarf columns.

Nos 2-4A (The Oxford) China Street
Nos 52-53 Longbridge Street

Back on Great Oak Street, there is more constructional polychromy at Nos 52-53 and another shopfront (the most elegant of any chippy in Wales?) with shouldered openings of elongated proportions. Next door but one is Plynlimon House, dated 1894 by the fine carved inscription, yet essentially Georgian in conception – and not merely because of the symmetrical upper storeys, the rusticated quoins and the cornice, but also because of the wonderful cast iron ventilating grilles to the double doors of the vehicle entrance and shopfront with a pattern based on repeated palmette motifs. That is pure Greek Revival, and if one were to date the building on the basis of this detail alone, one might easily put it in the 1830s. This was originally the premises of a butcher named Edward Hamer and The Buildings of Wales notes that the rail connection that Llanidloes acquired in 1859 (and lost, sadly, in 1962) much boosted the mutton trade in which he was engaged. The cornice of the shopfront appears to be sagging under the weight of the enormous coat of arms signifying royal appointment – ‘To His Majesty’, probably Edward VII.

Plynlimon House, former premises of Edward Hamer on Longbridge Street
Plynlimon House – detail of one of the ventilation grilles

The prize for me, though, is No. 2 Longbridge Street, squeezed in between the late Georgian Unicorn Hotel and a tall block on the corner with Shortbridge Street, the latter (dated 1871) spoiled by the replacement of the shopfront. Again, a façade faced in brown glazed brick, here enlivened by the raised and chamfered window jambs and inserts with coloured tiles. There are good window heads, too, and a fine eaves cornice made of multi-coloured terracotta components. But what steals the show is the shopfronts with vigorously moulded arabesques running not only up the pilaster strips but also across the fascia boards. Luxuriantly foliated consoles support the cornice and even the archway over the entrance to the rear passage is abundantly moulded. The colour scheme of one of the shopfronts is a little too monochrome to bring out all the detail – a slight shame, and it would benefit from being amended.

No. 2 Longbridge Street

What a wonderfully proud display! And what a splendid legacy in a town whose architectural quality is consistently high. Everything about it is a credit to the place and everything about it confirms, I hope, the same thing that is confirmed to me – that is a an uncommonly rewarding town to visit and well worth the effort of going to see, no matter how far you have to travel.

No 2 Longbridge Street – the passage running through to the back yard

Published by Edmund Harris

Heritage professional and architectural historian residing in Suffolk. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer.

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