28 November 2014

Happy National Gutters Day!

Today is National Gutters Day here in the United Kingdom. Fascinating, right? Right?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I frequently develop ‘fascinations’ about things – see, for example, my recent blogs on Weathervanes, wind vanes and weathercocks and Turret toppings, amongst others.

Exeter Cathedral

Well, during my holiday here in the UK last summer, my insatiable curiosity led me to photograph the many and various designs of guttering, downpipes and hopper heads (those funnel- or box-shaped receptacles at the top of the downpipes) I noticed on the numerous historic buildings I visited. Now I’ve discovered this annual celebration of gutters so what better day to regale you with the engrossing details of these incredibly necessary objects and to share the photos I’ve gathered.

One of the lovely buildings at Port Sunlight

Left: Lyme Park; centre: John Rylands Library, Manchester; right: Chirk Castle

Guttering is, of course, a very practical invention – buildings do not survive long without the means to rapidly and effectively jettison rainwater – and it was the Romans who first brought the notion of good water management to Britain. They even had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina (who, not surprisingly I suppose, also protected sexual intercourse in marriage!).

Following their successful invasion of England in 1066, the Normans instigated the construction of huge numbers of castles, manor houses, churches and more, throughout the land, and these buildings, with their stone roofs, towers and turrets, required gutters and gargoyles to throw the water clear of their walls. Though unverified, it is thought that the first downpipe was erected in Britain in 1240, to protect the newly whitewashed walls of the Tower of London.

Left: Tower of London,; centre: Dunham Massey; right: Westminster Abbey

The destruction of church buildings that began in 1536 after Henry VIII’s decree for the Dissolution of the Monasteries was, amazingly, a good thing for gutters because large quantities of lead became available. This lead was repurposed and reshaped into hopper heads for use on England’s many great houses, and the hopper heads were decorated with designs and dates, a fashion that continued when the use of cast iron replaced lead in the late 1700s.

Cast iron was cheaper and more plentiful than lead so gutters, downpipes and hopper heads became commonplace on smaller houses and the fact that the iron was cast meant it could also be patterned. During the Victorian period, hopper heads became rather ornate, their designs more detailed, and downpipes might have embossed motifs or barley-twist patterns. 

Battle Abbey

All Hallows by the Tower Church, London

Sadly, this fashion died out in the mid 20th century when cheap plastic guttering began to replace cast iron, and guttering is now mostly plain and angular, with no ornamentation. Fortunately, there are still some craftsmen manufacturing replica guttering for the refurbishment and restoration of historic buildings, and they maintain the old tradition of adding ornamentation and dates to their work, as can be seen from the more recent dates in some of my photos.

National Gutters Day does, of course, have a more practical purpose than simply celebrating the gutters of the past. The day came into being in 2002 and was the brainchild of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). It is the finale of National Maintenance Week, ‘an awareness campaign designed to encourage everyone who owns or looks after a building to take a few simple steps at the beginning of winter to ensure that their property is ready for anything that the season can throw at them, especially in these increasingly wet, windy and unpredictable days’.

Left: Hailsham Parish Church; centre: Church of St Peter and St Paul, Hellingly; right: Sidmouth Parish Church

All Hallows by the Tower Church, London

It’s an eminently sensible cause. For me, though, today is about paying tribute to the craftsmen who created all the wonderful designs to be found on the hopper heads of Britain’s glorious old buildings and celebrating the ornate guttering of centuries past. Happy National Gutters Day!

St Mary and All Saints Church, Great Budworth

St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London