Home / articles / Looking Up

Looking Up

High Street, Totnes, Devon


I hope you have had a lovely weekend, that the weather has been kind to you and that you’ve not spent it all working hard, preparing for the week ahead.

As mentioned in a recent post, I have been reading A Lust for Window Sills by Harry Mount (Editor of the magazine, The Oldie.)   I think I could do no better than to quote from the blurb on the dust wrapper because where some books are praised to the hilt and the reality doesn’t quite live up to the puff, this book most certainly does.

“From soaring Victorian railway stations to Edwardian terraces, from Perpendicular churches to Strawberry Hill Gothick, Britain has an architecture unrivalled in fertility, invention and heart-stopping beauty. And, with a stack of cultural references from Chaucer to EastEnders, an eye for a Georgian cornice and some very strong feelings about window sills, Harry Mount could not be better qualified to survey it.”

I have one person in particular to thank for my love of architecture and that was the late Alec Clifton-Taylor. He was born in 1907, studied at Oxford, the Courtauld Institute and the Sorbonne and was already lecturing on the history of architecture in the 1930s.  After war service at the Admiralty he became an extra mural lecturer of London University.  He died in 1985.  I have a cutting here which I snipped from the Radio Times shortly after he died, it is a tribute by Sir John Summerson who says that Alec “was a very uncommon historian.  He was concerned with buildings; buildings as natural history, not as art history, or social or economic history.  He was of course, a perfectly sound academic:  he knew all about styles and dates. But what drew him so deeply into architecture was his love of materials – the stuff buildings are made of, which shapes them and shapes our reaction to them, often far more than we realise.”

And so Alec Clifton-Taylor who had several well-received books under his belt by the time he made a series of films for the BBC that was first shown in 1978, entitled Six English Towns.

What I remember most about that series, apart from Totnes being one of the chosen six towns (the leading photo above shows the Elizabethan building which is now the town’s museum) was that Alec taught us to “look up”.  We are so busy going about our business in towns and villages that seldom do we actually stop and look up towards the rooftops above the top storey of windows.  I was now neatly hooked on architecture and he simply reeled me in.

Two further series follows …


and following his death, a book he had been working on was published posthumously …

This book is doubly special to me as it was a Christmas present to me the year it was published from my late Uncle Arthur, another gentleman who taught me so much.  Unlike the Six English Towns series, none of which has colour plates, Buildings of Delight has many fine photographs in full colour (and in the days before digital photography.)

Since those early days of my awakening to architecture (for I was a relatively young mother of 34 in 1978, with two young sons) I did what Alec suggested and began to look, really look, at buildings, not just pass them by or rush into the shops that so many of them later became.

And then one Christmas a penfriend who lived in Bearsen, Glasgow sent me a book on Robert Adam for Christmas.  My friend sadly died many years ago but I have this lovely book to remember her by.


I studied books on Adam (I have several more than are shown here), we visited Saltram House, near Plymouth, and eventually I wrote a piece about Saltram (now National Trust) and the man engaged to make 18th century ‘improvements’.  


Saltram House, Plymouth, Devon

I started my piece thus:

“If there is one name that is synonymous with a whole epoch it is Robert Adam.  His style is instantly recognisable, from his gilded ceilings and fluted columns to his painted furniture and sumptuous damask-lined walls.  What Mozart is to music, Adam is to interiors.  In a word, unique.”


But long before I wrote about Robert Adam, I saw another interesting TV series, Built in Britain. This was different from those by Alec Clifton-Taylor as Gillian Darley, a writer and journalist, instead of certain towns focused on eight widely different regions, from Scotland to Sussex, and charted the vernacular buildings in each region.  The book was published in 1983 and in 1984 we visited one of the villages mentioned, Lavenham in Suffolk (when we did a holiday house swap with a family in Long Melford – this was our introduction to Suffolk and we fell in love with the county immediately.)

The book shows The Little Hall in Lavenham and here you will also see my own photograph from 1984 (pre-digital photography, this time taken with my ancient Agfa 35mm, even before I had my Pentax 35mm)

Other books have been added to my collection, and one I regularly turn to is …

Again I will quote from the book blurb …

“Jenkins has travelled throughout England, from Cornwall to Cumbria, to choose its most impressive, interesting and unusual houses.  Not only does he include a full, rich selection of its great and famous houses and estates; he also presents an eclectic mix from the many thousands of towers, castles, halls, abbeys, cottages, private homes – even schools and prisons – of the country.” 

And finally, for now anyway, a whopper of a book. This one is very heavy (I mean literally heavy; you need strong hands and arms to lift it!) is The English House – 1000 Years of Domestic Architecture.  An excellent book for an overall look at how our English houses have developed right up to the present day with a visit to Poundbury, otherwise known as Prince Charles’ village in Dorset.

Of course, I have many more books on architecture, including Sit Nicklaus Pevsner’s Devon and his book on Cornwall.  Surely, a library is incomplete without one’s home county’s Pevsner, just as a desk is incomplete without a good dictionary, notebook and pen (irrespective of apparently everything being digital these days, I find nothing beats an old fashioned notebook and fountain pen for quick jottings!)

And so to my latest read, Harry Mount’s A Lust for Window Sills.  I will leave you with something I thought really amusing.  You mightn’t agree – as with buildings, those we love and those we loathe are very personal to us, and humour is much the same.  Anyway, here goes.  Harry was talking about chapels and meeting houses of the nonconformists and dissenters, “the Christian groups that broke away from the Church of England:  the Puritans and Presbyterians of the late sixteenth century, the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers of the seventeenth century, the Methodists of the eighteenth.

“With all these strands of Christian thought, it’s difficult to nail a particular type of building to each one. Think of chapels as elephants – difficult to describe, but you know one when you see one.”

And with that, I will close this post.

Until next time.


About Margaret Powling

Margaret Powling
Margaret’s main interests are her husband and family, her friends, her home, her garden, writing, literature, architecture, décor, social history, photography, historic houses and gardens, and towns, villages and the countryside. She writes about the things she enjoys: flowers, scent, fine soap, monthly style magazines, and other such small indulgences, such as afternoon tea or simply enjoying her summerhouse with a book. She invites you to enjoy this virtual visit to South Devon, England.

Check Also


People have often asked me who has been most influential in English interior design, both on …


  1. I often think how wonderful it would be to travel Great Britain, and see all those beautiful buildings. In New Zealand, we just don’t have buildings as old as yours! But, as I drive around my home city, Auckland, I’ve always got one eye out for the amazing old villas from over 100 years ago, and the old shops. I inherited an eye for antiques and although I live in such a tiny cottage that I can’t actually have any…. I go into antique shops to admire them. Fascinating reading, I do so enjoy these posts

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Thank you for saying you enjoy my posts, Ratnamurti. I certainly enjoy writing them. I like to diversity, and I never know what I might write about next, I just write about what interests me and hope that it will interest others. Even though your buildings aren’t as old as many in the UK, they will still be interesting to look at, and although you have a small cottage you have learned that this doesn’t prevent you from taking an interest in antique even if you haven’t space for them. As I was taking my books down from the shelves to photograph them, I came across the booklet for the Royal Albert Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter and thought it might be good to visit it again, as we’ve not been for a few years, so perhaps there might be a post on that lovely collection before too long.

  2. I also loved Alec Clifton-Taylor’s programmes – I can still hear his melodious distinctive tone of voice in my head.

    “Look at this row of characteristic Victorian vernacular cottages, but now look again at what one of the neighbours has done” –

    They had probably stuck some of that nasty plastic stone on top of the bricks thinking that it looked smarter – I often wonder what they thought if they watched the programme.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      How lovely, another Alec Clifton-Taylor fan! Yes, I learned a lot from him. Yes, he hated such things as you mention – the plastic ‘stone’ and so forth. I suppose he was the equivalent on architecture to Sir Alan Clark on ‘Civilization’? I wonder what those programmes would be like to watch today … I wonder whether they would have stood the test of time?

  3. I too have learned to look up, especially in built up cities, there’s so much to see which you would otherwise miss. I find it sad that so many beautiful buildings have been allowed to fall in to disrepair, though I think we’ve seen the error of our ways in recent years and we’re much better now at recognising the history behind these buildings and making sure they’re better preserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *