An apology to all my blogging friends – a migraine means I can’t look at screens right now. (This was dictated to an able PA named Maddie). I’ll be back to see you all the moment my head will let me.
Sometimes buildings are more than bricks and mortar, wattle and daub, or whatever.
In each of our pasts-or, indeed, presents-there are buildings, which speak to us, with something stronger than words. And sometimes, it’s hard to put your finger on what that something is.
I was strolling down the street, in the market town of Newbury the other day, when I experienced something akin to love at first sight.
There it sat, surrounded by the paraphernalia of the 21st century, Declaiming the past 400 years with all the stout practicality of a well-seasoned Berkshire farmer.
It was, in fact, two buildings, which had become accustomed to each other throughout the centuries, like an old married couple. One, was built by a master carpenter, from the near-by village of Speenhamland, between 1626-7. The carpenter, Richard Emmes, was commissioned by the ancient Newbury Corporation to build a cloth factory, to give textile workers from the town alternative employment.
And build it he did. Wooden-framed, with elaborate carving, which stands out ebony against the smooth creamy plaster panels.
It was the Kennet Navigation, a canal opening in 1723, which necessitated the building of the younger of this pair. The town’s people built a granary to store the goods brought up from farms far and wide on the canal. And while it does not have the fanciful woodwork of its street fellow, the structure the rough-hewn timbers is striking.
For it has a balcony, which over hangs what is now the pavement, but was once a wharf. And, if you stand very still, even in the bustle of now, your mind’s eye might glimpse phantom barges pulling up, to offload their wares.
These two buildings, they have lived many different incarnations. The Cloth Hall was part of a larger set of buildings which was put to use as a workhouse, a hospital and a school at different times. The Granary had a short spell as the town’s bus station. They are well-seasoned, experiences places. They have seen life.
It was in 1903 that Newbury was bequeathed a miscellany.
You know the term: a mish mash of curiosities, objects of wonder and debate from near and far that the great and the good have collected together in the name of science, or natural history, or anthropology, or a combination of all three. Newbury’s Literary and Scientific Institution Closed, and their collection needed a home.
Thus it was that the Museum of Antiquities and Natural Curiosities came to live in the Cloth Hall in 1904, two years after it was restored in memory of Queen Victoria.
And it has been hoarding wonders ever since. Ever since, that is, until it closed in 2010.
Since then it hs been a little like a swan on the nearby canal, appearing serene but paddling furiously under the water. For it has secured a lottery grant to make the building fit for purpose, knocking down the link between the two buildings – made in 1934 to extend the collection – and replacing it with a sympathetic modern equivalent. Plans for displaying the collections are lavish, interactive, jaw-dropping: but before work could even start, the collection must be cleared.
Which is where the Friends Of West Berkshire Museum came in.
Two years, it has taken them, to label, pack and ship the hundreds of thousands of items in the eclectic little curiosity shop. And each one a volunteer. At the end of last year they received certificates for the specialised training they had used to become experts: training in documentation, object handling, packing objects, marking and labelling.
I popped into the tourist office to ask why the museum was closed. The lady behind the desk was almost lost for words. It was like coming in at the end of Gone With The Wind and asking, “Why is that lady going back to Tara?”
Point is, they have finished. This enchanting little set of buildings is ready for the off. The architects and builders move in shortly.
A grand new chapter in the life of my new favourite building is about to begin.