Until July 2017, documenting the seasons of coastal Dorset. I'm a complete amateur so don't trust I'm always right. If ever you see I'm wrong - whether with identifications or in anything else - do say! Meanwhile . . . I've now moved to Halifax in West Yorkshire. Click on the link below to collect the new URL. Don't forget to follow there!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


Even if it hadn't rained, we would have visited Gloucester Cathedral. And the rain wasn't too bad that day, more like on and off drizzle, so we were able to visit parts of the town as well - but the cathedral cloisters caught my imagination beyond everything else. (If you've seen the Harry Potter film where Hermione fights a troll - you've seen them too - and I understand they were used as a set for one of the Doctor Who episodes.)

I walked round and round (or square and square!). There's a garden in the middle but you can't see it unless you go out through one of the small doors.

These cloisters are large and wide. Very beautiful, clearly very old - but not exactly material for a nature blog so it took me a while to decide whether I should include them.

So, once back here in Dorset, I went for a walk. And as I went, I thought. And as I thought, I took some photos. Then I came home, turned on the computer . . . and looked at them all, holiday and here.

Part of why I felt so at home in those cloisters was evident.

It's a very outside sort of place. I doubt it would always have been glazed - even though monks would have washed in the basins at the side. And there's a stone bench running around the inner walls. You could sit there and be cool, or cold . . . depending!

These cloisters were begun in 1351 and construction continued over the next . . . well, decades. Never mind Rome not being built in a day - some cathedrals took centuries to build. Durham, which we visited later in our journey, took four - and they hadn't stopped tinkering even then! We may have less reason to complain about having the builders in than we think. The building of buildings like these was part of life's fabric through generations of workers and couldn't but have had an impact on everyone who lived in the town and the lands around.

Looking up - fan vaulting - the earliest surviving. Some of it probably the first ever built.

But 'fan' vaulting . . .

This post is a struggle. I'm heavily dependent on the internet for information and, so far, I haven't been able to find who first thought of the name.

To me, the 'fans' look more like support structures of umbelliferous flowers

- and such flowers are not a silly place to find inspiration. In the middle ages when towns were smaller and the country always close at hand, for people interested in pattern and structure (architects!) plants like these could not have been other than fascinating. So, for me, this is fennel vaulting. Whether fennel had been introduced by then is beside the point. There would have been all sorts of umbelliferous plants in the gardens and hedgerows of Gloucester and beyond.

(This family of plants has now been renamed 'Apiaceae' but (to me) 'umbelliferous' describes them better. Think of prongs which hold up umbrellas.)

I once spent ages trying to find out how long roses had grown wild in Britain - and writing a post like this forces me, once again, to realise that the English countryside is not ever-unchanging.

I don't know whether chicory grew in its mediaeval hedgerows (I suspect not) but the flowers, though striking in their blueness, are not alone in their umbelliferousness. Look at the shape of the petals too - tall, with straight, parallel sides and a toothed edge at the top. Look at their simple circularity. Then look at the lines and shapes and circles of the cloister windows.

This is a shoddy post. It is dreadfully short of information even though my brain is bursting. That's why it's taken so long to write. I've been hoping to find time to check out the facts, fill in the gaps - but, in the end, I've decided I'd rather post something inadequate than to let Loose and Leafy grind to a halt while I swim through a sea of research . . . so . . . take this next bit with care.

I'm not an indoors kind of person. Well, I spend a lot of time indoors but indoors is not where I feel most at home. Yet these cloisters entranced me.

Here is a door.

And this is a familiar walk along our old railway line.

There will always have been routes through woods where the trees arch over. There will always have been bridges of some kind to walk under. Doors into . . . where . . . ? One catches one's breath.

And ever since I walked in these cloisters, I've been plodding around taking pictures of the spikey tops of leafless bushes - and chimney-scapes. Of telegraph poles and trees. And examining the way flat topped builidings don't seem to fit into our particular landscape as comfortably on the eye as those with sloped roofs and overhanging eaves. Is this because some reflect the shapes of oaks and mushrooms but others clearly don't? Do I like some buildings more than others because I begin from nature (in other words, is this is a matter of taste) or does architecture go wrong for everyone when it abandons the way things grow and form?

(I put it this way because buildings which suit a rocky country might well need to be more angular than those which 'fit' here.)

No way is this to do with simplicity. The cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral are far from unsophisticated structures. They didn't take a long time to build because workers were short of JCBs and tall, metal cranes. They were a radical innovation. A new design. Something people hadn't seen before.

If only we in the twenty-first century paid as much attention to ceilings!


Mark Willis said...

Very interesting! How about the "Gherkin" building in London as a recent example of what you describe?
Love the door picture. You have captured the light effect so well.

Lucy said...

Hello Mark. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the Gherkin for it perplexes me. I don't like it - but I'm out of touch with how London is nowadays (even though I lived there until I was fourteen / fifteen).

I know it's very popular - maybe because it reminds people who have been brought up with science fiction films of city-scapes from the future. If so, it might bring them warm memories of childhood along with the excitement of finding themselves living in that very modern age. However, I suspect it's something to do with the name. I understand it was named hurriedly before any less polite names caught on. Whether that is so or no, we do have quite strong responses to what things are called. It would be hard to take against a building called, for instance, 'the potato' - whereas 'the tobacco tower' might never excite affection.

In other words - I'm not sure it fits with the post at all! - Which doesn't bother me because I wouldn't presume to put my insight forward as principle from which no deviation is allowed, nor one which covers everything - but I think it holds enough truth in it to ring bells with readers - even they immediately think of exceptions.

Perhaps the Gherkin is one of these . . . or maybe it's just that I don't see where it fits in . . . or maybe I am really am describing what is to my taste rather than applicable to human psychology in general.

What do you think?


VP said...

There's quite a mouthful of a term for all of this: Biophilia!

It's all about bringing nature into our cities - architecture, outdoor spaces in as many different ways as possible.

The argument is that if we do, everyone's a lot happier and healthier.

VP said...

PS there should be an etc. after outdoor spaces

Lucy said...

Hi VP - almost by definition, people who read this blog will like nature and want to bring it into our cities - but how much is a matter of inclination and how much to do with human need?

In this post though, I'm not so much talking about consciously bringing plants into cities but where nature has had an impact on how buildings are constructed and how we respond to buildings with or without these links. There isn't a leaf in sight in these cloisters - and I can't say I was specially impressed by the garden within the square. I did, none the less, feel I was walking through a light and airy and high-branched forest. It was lovely. If anyone were ever to bring vases of flowers and stick them around the place - the atmosphere would be destroyed.


P.S. I wish 'Biophilia' didn't sound so improper!

VP said...

It's an awful American word :(

BUT it's not just about bringing plants in: it's also design using natural forms just like you've shown us. It's about squeezing nature into things in all kinds of ways...

Elephant's Eye said...

and going to Hogwarts. Something about that cloister, makes me pause for a moment of wonder.

Muddy Boot Dreams said...

I waited to read this post until I had the time to absorb it fully, and I am glad that I did.

Shoddy? No way, interesting, and fascinating, how on earth...? But of course you would see the common lines, you look at things with eye for the unusual. Does that make sense. What a amazing correlation you have found, intense research or not.

I love, love, love those shots, did you take them, and do you have more? Breathtaking....I am entranced seriously, I so wish that I had the opportunity to see this in person like you did. Canada is a young country, without generations and centuries of history like England.

I for one am happy that you wrote this post.

Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

colleen said...

As soon as you pointed out the similarity between the fanning and the fennel, it all seemed so obvious. Perhaps that's part of the clever design - it just seems so natural, and maybe that accounts for their beauty too.

Lovely post.

easygardener said...

Fan vaulting does indeed look like the structure of fennel. I think one of the impressive things about Cathedrals is looking at these huge structures and reflecting that they were 'hand built' by craftsmen. Hard to envisage nowadays.
I do wish they could be restored with the painted walls, carvings, and all the colours that would have originally decorated them. I think the association with nature would become even more obvious. Unfortunately modern taste gets in the way.

catmint said...

Dear Lucy, I think this is a very creative post linking two different spheres. There is something immensely appealing about Gothic art and architecture and it definitely resonates with forms in nature. Why don't people care about ceilings now? Too busy to look up? cheers, catmint

Dimple said...

I think your observation about building styles fitting into different environments is exactly right!
The cloister is lovely (that's not the right word, but it's the best I can think of right now!) I can see how walking through it would feel like walking through a forest. Thank you for including it in your nature blog!

inhabiting_trees said...

Lovely, thought provoking post thank you! I think the fan structures also look like the leaves of Ginko biloba .. but perhaps that's because I've been studying arboriculture LoL!