The part of the world I’m originally from is known for its black and white (or ‘Magpie’, funnily enough) buildings. Crooked oak posts, cruck or ‘A’ frames, intricate carving counterpoised against rugged adse-hewn joints. The timbers are paint blackened, countless coats over hundreds of years, with jettied floors ideal for jettisoning night soil. The infill though is far from soiled, it is whitewashed, brightly pronounced even when a new splash is needed. But despite being seemingly too stark for a countryside setting, somehow the opposite becomes true, they fit into their surroundings, dig in, natural, at one. For me, though, it’s not the body of these vernacular buildings that I enjoy most, it’s the head, the hat. The chimneys weave and wind, often the chimney breast is concealed inside the house and the stacks suddenly erupt in swirls and twists.
Travelling south and east though into the Midlands, the black and white houses ebb away. Timber buildings are still here, but the timber is usually left alone, or more typically hidden by the façade, brick or otherwise. And the chimneys too seem less grand. Maybe us Cheshire folk have always been a bit showy, but these Staffordshire chimneys are straight, honest, workmanlike. Maybe they just put their money into the parts of the house they could see when reading a book. But then you get a surprise: stuck in traffic in the old Cathedral city of Lichfield a few days ago, I see these beauties on the old hospital of St John (no Knights Templar as far as I could see but there probably is a connection). A row of tall chimneys rising from the pavement up. Not an afterthought, but so essential to the buildings, they seem almost like an enceinte, a castle wall, a fortification, a warning. Proudly vertical then, reaching up towards the clouds, but in such profusion that they have a strong horizontality too, strengthening the roof line, the line of the lintels and leading the eye along and away.