It took me a trip to Winchester this week to remind the impact of our built heritage on my wellbeing. I lost myself in the network of flint and brick-walled alleys that meander around the south and east of the cathedral. There’s a delightful and irreverent mix of materials, colours and textures that brings a sense of rootedness to the place.
Flint and brick and ashlar; timber, limewash and clay. Because the materials used in historic buildings are from natural sources, the boundary between human constructs and natural forms is deliciously ill-defined.
I think that’s why our historic environment is so important.
Alec Clifton-Taylor notes in Pattern of English Building:
“Irregularities give life to a surface, and render it a pleasure to contemplate. This is a law of nature. The blades of grass in every field, the leaves on every tree, differ minutely from one another while adhering to a general conformity. The differences from brick to brick might also be scarcely perceptible, yet they were sufficient to break up the flatness of the finished wall and save it from dullness.”
If he were here today, Alec Clifton-Taylor might accord a dullness to our modern streets. There’s a dullness that’s partly generated by the banality of the materials used, but also by the disconnect between the people that build on our streets and the people that use them.
Here in Winchester, I’m reminded of a watercolour by Ruskin entitled “Study of a Piece of Brick, to Show Cleavage in Burnt Clay.” It shows a fragment of brick that has been weathered with time. Delaminated and pitted, it holds upon its surface a green mossy covering that is reminiscent of a forest canopy seen from an aeroplane. This humble fragment has folded within it all things that are holy to our senses: the imperfections, the textures, the organic forms. Ruskin is trying to tell us something.
The environmental psychologist Lily Bernheimer talks of an ‘ordered complexity’ contributing to our love of old buildings. Patterns and textures both hand-made and natural hold within them ‘self-organising’ systems that reveal a connectivity with the natural environment. It is within the nested nature of natural and geometric patterns on our streets that affect us on a deeper level – something that might even have a positive impact upon our mental health.
For me, even looking at these photographs, gives a sense of calm..
Whether it be a flint bejewelled wall or the humble surface of a lichen encrusted brick, Winchester’s melodious mix of materials holds an ordered and nested complexity that impacts us in ways that we’re only just beginning to understand.
The challenge that we now face is how to use the wisdom from our historic environment to influence our modern day streets.