09 January 2015

Cheshire: The historic buildings of Northwich

Plaques like this can be found in various strategic places around the town of Northwich, in Cheshire. Though unfortunately now out of date, they were made to last and are very well done, with a reasonably, though not entirely accurate map of the town centre and depictions of the very impressive historic buildings to be found around the town.

I decided to find all the buildings, to take my own photos of them and find out more about each one. Here’s the result.

1. Bridge House
During my first photo walk I couldn’t find Bridge House, probably because the map shows it sitting right on the corner of London Road and Chester Way when it is, in fact, further along London Road. Though not in recent years, the building has actually been moved twice in its lifetime. Constructed in 1850, it was originally a public house, and was itself built to replace an earlier brick building that was demolished due to subsidence – the timber-framing makes it easier to move. 

In time, the replacement building was also in danger of subsiding into the River Dane so, in 1913, the 55-ton building was rolled along the road to its present location. In 1998, after standing empty for 7 years, Bridge House was renovated and converted into 5 flats, at a cost of £200,000. At the same time, it was moved again, this time upwards, onto a platform that would protect it from those pesky 100-year floods. Sadly, I have no information about those handsome people adorning its frontage.

2. Parr’s Bank
This is another building with a moving history. According to the current occupant’s website ‘the whole building was lifted over 4 feet using the old fashioned lifting methods which was the standard way n the 19th century. These jacks, pumps and manifolds were supplied by the Brine Board and are now on display at the Salt Museum’. Apparently, this was the last building to be lifted in Northwich, in the 1920s, and local historian Daniel Clark has posted a wonderful photo on Twitter showing the process. 

Parr’s Bank was originally established in Warrington c.1788 and expanded into Northwich through its acquisition of Thomas Firth & Sons in 1865. This building once housed its local branch office. 

3. The Bull Ring
Since I first visited Birmingham in 1980 I’ve been fascinated with the idea of a ‘bull ring’ in the centre of towns and cities. It seems the name harks back to centuries past when bull-baiting was a popular sport. A bull would be attached to a metal ring, usually found in the ground in a central market area, and dogs would be set on the poor creature. As well as providing sport for onlookers, the purpose of the baiting was to improve the quality of the bull’s meat – the process was thought to soften or tenderise the meat – so baiting was often conducted by the town butcher.

In his book Life is Now! How to make it happen, John Eaton writes: ‘My maternal grandfather (Harry Houghton) was born in 1861 and he told me that when he was a boy he remembers on a number of occasions when a bull would be baited by two bulldogs in the Bull Ring in Northwich. The bulldogs always won.’ Thankfully times have changed and, nowadays, the Bull Ring is simply an intersection.

4. Town Bridge
Spanning the River Weaver and built by the Weaver Navigation Trustees in 1898-99, Town Bridge and Hayhurst Bridge, 600 metres downstream, were the first road swing bridges to be built in Britain and the first to be powered by electricity. The single steel spans of both bridges were constructed so as to pivot from the western bank when tall river traffic needs to pass along the river – very ingenious! I haven’t yet seen the bridges working.

5. 20-22 High Street
As one of Northwich’s plaques explains:

Timber-framed buildings were the Victorians response to the subsidence problems caused by wild brine pumping. Techniques were refined until the more sophisticated examples that survive today could be jacked back to a level position. Ranging from small sheds to larger elaborately decorated structures, these ‘Tudor-beathan’ style black and white buildings give Northwich its unique character.

One of many timber-framed buildings in Northwich’s High Street, this one is now occupied by Saffron Indian and Nepalese restaurant though it originally housed offices and a bank. As you can see from my photographs, the decorative detail on these old buildings is rather splendid. But who are those green-coated black-cloaked gents propping up the top of the building I wonder.

6. 21-23 High Street
Across the High Street from Saffron Restaurant is this even more wonderfully embellished construction. It has the heads of dragons and monsters adorning its jettied carved window heads, and four carved and painted figures on either side of the mullioned windows. The figures apparently represent the town cryer and the nightwatchman and the couple holding cups and plates, an innkeeper and his wife.

7. Moore and Brock’s Riverside Warehouse
I hunted and hunted for this building until I discovered that it no longer exists!

It was a grade-two-listed three-storey timber-framed building built in 1890 by Thomas Moore, a local slate merchant who had set up The Northwich Carrying Company in 1883. George Brock joined the business as a director in 1906 and the two operated a successful freight company, using the warehouse by the River Weaver as a base to transport salt and other chemicals between Northwich and Liverpool.

Though the company continued operations following the deaths of its directors, it was eventually wound up in 1932 by which time river transportation was no longer economically viable. The warehouse building was unoccupied for a long period and then suffered severe damage in an arson attack so was demolished in November 2008.

8. RAOB Silver Jubilee Club
This 4807-square-foot building in Witton Street was designed in 1911 by Mr J. Cawley (who designed many of Northwich’s ornate subsidence-liftable buildings, including number 5 above). In October 1913 it became the Constitutional Club and headquarters of the Conservative and Unionist Association, and was later owned by the RAOB Silver Jubilee Club, hence its name.

As the photos show, the building has lovely ornately leaded windows and beautifully carved mythical creatures on the dormer brackets. No wonder it’s another of Northwich’s grade-two-listed buildings.

9. Brunner Library
In 1909, this stunning building was donated to the town by Sir John Brunner, the local MP for the periods 1885-86 and 1887-1910. Designed by the architect A. E. Powles and built by Hartford builder W. Wood, it adjoined the original salt museum and was another building to be constructed with an oak frame to resist subsidence and to allow lifting (the earlier 1885 library, also donated by Brunner, had slipped away!).

10. Former Head Post Office
Designed by H.M. Office of Works in 1914 as a purpose-built Post Office to serve Northwich and surrounding districts, this is the town’s largest liftable building. It was converted to a pub in the late 1990s, appropriately enough named The Penny Black, the name of the world’s first self-adhesive postage stamp. 

 In his book The Buildings of England, architectural historian N. Pevsner describes it as a ‘super, black and white’. Very profound, Mr Pevsner! The listed buildings website has rather more detail: 

Post Office, 1911, architect not known. Subsidence-liftable small-framed timber structure with recessed plaster panels; tiled roof. 3 storeys plus attic; 5 windows. Symmetrical, Elizabethan, lavishly ornamented. 4-storey porch has double doors in Tudor archway with balustraded leaded overlight; paired pilasters carry, on shaped brackets, bressumer inscribed POST OFFICE in gilt Gothic lettering; ornate 2-storey oriel window; deeply jettied gable with mullioned and transomed casement. Left of doorway a mullioned and transomed casement and a Tudor-arched vehicular entrance to sorting office at rear; 2 mullioned and transomed windows right of doorway; 2 to each upper storey to each side of porch; 4 gabled attic dormers. Chevron and quatrefoil braces and ornate timber decoration to panels; coved plaster eaves; casements to front leaded. Plain small-framed end gables. Sorting office of plain framing with grey slate roof.

11. British Waterways Offices
When it was built in 1826, this building housed the Weaver Navigation Office. It then became home to the local British Waterways offices but that entity ceased to exist in England and Wales in 2012, replaced by the Canal and River Trust. It’s a two-storey brown brick building, with hipped grey-slate roofs, and boasts a rather grand entranceway, flanked by columns of Tuscan marble. The 1830 clock tower is also very impressive.

12. Edwardian Pumping Station
This is the Dock Road Edwardian Pumping Station and is certainly the most unusual building on this tour of Northwich’s historic buildings. It’s hard to imagine such a picturesque structure was built to pump sewage but indeed it was, in 1913, and a good thing too – before it was built, Northwich’s untreated sewage was discharged directly into the river.

I haven’t yet seen inside as the building is only open to the public on Sundays and Bank Holidays from Easter to the end of September (and to groups at other times by arrangement) but the exterior signboard notes that ‘the original Hayward Tyler sewage pumps and Crossley gas-fired engines have been fully restored and are demonstrated regularly’. I’m certainly keen to check out this unique example of environmental engineering from over a hundred years ago so I’ll be there at Easter for the grand tour.

13. Weaver Hall Museum
Northwich’s museum inhabits the former Union Workhouse, one of those structures designed to house the destitute, those locals who had insufficient money or income to cover their daily living expenses. Designed by George Latham and completed in 1839, it served 61 parishes in the mid-Cheshire area and could house up to 300 inmates.

When workhouses were abolished in 1930, the building was renamed Weaver Hall but its function remained practically the same as it continued to house the infirm, the elderly and the destitute. That form of community support ceased in 1964 and the men’s and women’s ward were subsequently demolished. The remaining structure opened as a museum in 1981.