Saving Face/Saving Grace: the Buildings of Penzance

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Penzance Buildings
Penzance Buildings
Is Penzance a dead parrot on a pirate's poop deck? Is Penzance really at the end of the line - strategically and economically?

Is Penzance a dead parrot on a pirate's poop deck? Is Penzance really at the end of the line - strategically and economically? Or, is this small, modest seaside town, which is rather more blessed in its geographical location and outlook than say, Aberystwyth, Morecambe, Blackpool, Brighton, (Oh, go on then...sodding Londinium  too) simply economically moribund?

Is Penzance just waiting for an economic Fairy Godperson's quick fix that will catapult it into the stratosphere of the never-never land of recovery-until-the-next-recession?

Is Penzance, like a multitude of communities throughout Britain, simply poleaxed by austerity and deficit delirium, those current good old market-force cover-ups for the cataclysm created by the incompetence greed, and sleazy vanity of bankers, the incompetence of self-styled 'entrepreneurs' and the incompetence of career politicians? Will this charming, end-of-the-line town ever recover, regenerate, and re-invent itself?    

I don't honestly know...

There are, of course, multiple ideas and mad suggestions for reversing the perceived decline of any small town. Fantasies in most cases.
 
*Warning: Do not take the following seriously.

We may dream about ways of catapulting Penzance into a stratospheric recovery:

  • Google relocating its UK headquarters to what's left of Eastern Green instead of London's Kings Cross?
  • Oil, simmering in deep heat pods beneath Mount's Bay, rather than beneath the Bay of Mexico?
  • Vladikins sending in the Cossacks to 'reclaim' Penwith as a forgotten outpost of Imperialist Russia?
  • A Nuclear Power station in Penlee Quarry? (Don't laugh. St Ives Borough Council discussed the siting of an Atomic Power Station on the Zennor Moors in the 1950s.)
  • Five million wind turbines in Mount's Bay?
  • Another supermercado Mausoleum of Munch to feed your face?
  • Fracking!!! Ah...Now, there's a thought. Fracking beneath Sainsbury's car park (for recovery of high-octane helicopter kerosene drain-off).

 
The possibilities are endless. Even the almost realistic ones:

  • A major college campus or Art College (Too late! Too late..!)
  • A top end marina (A top end chimera?)
  • Penzance inner harbour and attendant buildings as an out-station of the National Maritime Museum with emphasis on the historic fishing industry. (Oi! It's been, sort of, tried. It was called the National Lighthouse Museum)
  • More! More! More! big brand stores in town. (Poundland! Poundstretcher! Pound-o-Flesh!)

Then there are the really, really toothsome fantasies:

  • Backing up the rail station to Marazion, thus freeing the fabulous shoreline of Mount's Bay for truly imaginative Tourism development. A hidden advantage to this would be that it could also divert attention from the visually ruined hinterland of Eastern Green. And fear not. How about a proper Park & Ride at the new Marazion station with a discreet light rail link into Penzance, to where a whole new world of imaginative development might transform the current harbour car park/station area into something truly impressive. (or, is St Erth being secretly assessed as the end-of-the-line...or Hayle, or Camborne, or Redruth, or Truro, or...Plymouth?)

Load of botallacks! I hear you say. Loadsamoney needed!

RICHER CURRENCY

So: Given that nothing truly revolutionary is going to happen tomorrow...or next week..., consider this:

Penzance is a cracking little town as it stands (give or take temporary damage to the  Prom, Jubilee Pool, Newlyn Green etc. (There has been worse storm damage. You mean, you weren't around in 1880? In 1963? - when they were clearing pashminas of seaweed from the attic of the Queen's Hotel). Cracking little towns, such as Penzance, offer a richer currency than the often slavish focus on retail and loadsamoney investment and the ludicrous posturing of celebrity snake oil artists such as Mary Queen of Flops.

There's been far too much mooning and moaning about how rundown Penzance has become. How Market Jew Street has lost it. How Chapel Street is a half-empty marketing possibility. How the good hamburghers of the town are ever ready to flog another few slices of heritage currency and civic identity in order to entice yet another Mausoleum of Munch to suck even more life out of the civic heart of the town.

Penzance people are certainly doing their best to keep the town alive, whether through schemes such as the BID (Business Improvement District) programme and other business-backed initiatives, or through a swathe of other schemes. But Economics is as much about perceptions and attitude and about hanging on to civic
pride, as it is about cash and candy.

When a small town falls foul of poorly managed national macroeconomics and bad planning decisions, its citizens need to refresh their connections with what that town has at its heart, its iconography, its aesthetic, its other currency of townscape, micro as well as macro. You cannot eat architecture and townscape, of course.

And, other than as a tourist draw, you cannot make too much money from a town's architectural features. But, the fabric of a town like Penzance, its 'ornamentation', its design features, its motifs, no matter how old and forgotten, no matter how much has already been lost, can give citizens satisfaction, civic pride and sense of place.

The Market House, Penzance
The Market House, Penzance Palladian

No. 67 Chapel St
No. 67 Chapel St, Pilaster Paradise

DECONSTRUCT

Deconstruct Penzance into its parts rather than its sum and you'll find a fascinating  stylebook of architectural templates. True, the town was kicked rather brutally backwards by the infamous Spanish raid of 1595 when, it is assumed, a great deal of the medieval heart of the port area was destroyed. (Had it survived, there's no guarantee, of course, that 'medievalism' would have survived the later vandalism of home grown Philistines.)

Old photographs reveal fascinating Penzance architecture that is long gone. But the town still thrums with interesting façades and facets, furbelows, finials and features to catch the eye. It's not enough to repeat endlessly the usual blurb about 'historic Chapel Street'. Start looking at the roof lines, the stonework, the entire history book that wanders, intriguingly up and down the street past such obvious features as the technicolour dreamcoat façade of the Egyptian House, the Wesleyan Chapel's lurking Italianate glower, the unassuming, yet satisfying Georgian and Regency terraces that leap-frog their way over the street's quirkier outliers. The side streets that slip away to quiet corners.

Delve into the history. Are the red bricks of the 'Rotterdam Houses' and the famous 'Bronte House', patterned as Flemish bond instead of English bond because Dutch traders who used to offload brick ballast at Penzance built houses in the town? (Probably not - Flemish bond was an all-British preference for brick patterning anyway.) But, hang on! What the Father Ted are Flemish and English bonds! Are we talking bricks here! Find out.

Flemish Bond
Flemish Bond...eh? Whassat?

Beyond the bricks, granite is the great vernacular building stone of Cornwall that sets Cornish town's apart, not least Penzance. Look at granite forms and facades, of churches especially, and match them to the features of the great cliffs of Bosigran, Gwennap Head and Land's End and the relationship between the built and natural environments is palpable. Check out St John's Hall for its monumental stonework, some of which was plundered from the Iron Age 'hill fort' or settlement of Chun Castle on the lonely moors of Penwith's north coast. The walls of Chun were reputedly over fifteen feet high in the original form. Granite from Chun was also used, reputedly, for the paving of Market Jew Street's splendid Terrace where there is a unique little art form in the intricate scoring of the slabs underfoot.

Stonework
Photoshop the cars out and look at the stonework

STOP! LOOK UP!

The secret of appreciating townscapes is to look up. (STOP FIRST! of course, or you'll wrap yourself round a lamppost.) Most of the surviving architectural features of towns and cities start above the ground floor. Years of trading have turned the street line of most towns into a palimpsest of shop façades that increasingly become functional and bland. It's the upper stories where a roll call of old features survives and where strange little motifs and quirks languish under the grime.

Stop in Market Place at the junction of Queen Street, Chapel Street and Parade Street, opposite the Globe Inn, itself a fine little architectural accent, and then crane your neck for a modest but fascinating cluster of upper storey and roofline features you've probably never seen before. Then, look for the red granite column - from Aberdeen, no less - on No. 3 Market Place - the original Devon & Cornwall bank of 1888.

Stay with the reds and check out the splendid terracotta motifs on the Art School façade in Morrab Road and on the old Lifeboat Station on Wharf Road, courtesy of Silvanus Trevail, whose name alone is splendour. Then check for the resident owl at the bottom end of Queen Street.   

Penzance wriggles with 'Lines of Beauty', those serpentine, elongated S-shapes, or ogees that are essential ingredients of the visual aesthetic. Watch any model sashay down the catwalk and your watching a mobile ogee...or a basic wriggle. Look at the swooping edge of a hillside, the majestic curl of a big wave. You could say even, that the roof of Sainsbury's is a line of beauty that's fallen on its arse. (Sainsbury's architects describe it as being 'a high level canopy roof (with) a meandering curve to mimic a wave'. Or it's a skateboard deck! Or the MOD's latest land-based aircraft carrier.)

ICONOGRAPHY

Penzance boasts a splendid iconography of building styles and features, not least in its Late Georgian/Regency/Post-Regency terraces - walk through Regent Square's handsome cluster of early 19th century stuccoed buildings, all columned porches and scripted pilasters and your feet are tracing out a Line of Beauty, otherwise, a street.  

Morrab Gardens Bandstand
Just look at that canopy! (Morrab Gardens Bandstand)

The lines of beauty wriggle onwards. The town's flagship scapes include the handsome Morrab Gardens, Penlee Park, the Prom, or the Marine Esplanade, as it was known originally with essential Victorian pomp. Choice enclaves include the fine cluster of Georgian and Regency Terraces to the north of Morrab Gardens and the uncrowded, light-filled complex that surrounds St Anthony Gardens; a splendid conflation of the Yacht Inn's Marine architecture, the chunky Gothic of the old Sailors' Institute, the vernacular granite of The Barbican and the enduring Jubilee Bathing Pool (And shout out long and loud for the Lido - or the Forces of Incompetence will turn it into a car park!)

The lines of Beauty can lead you through a delightful maze of buildings if you have the eyes to see and the curiosity to care.  All those scrolls, shapes and features of the townscape are the same templates that you see in wild landscapes, in the way fields and moorland and cliff and cove multi-layer, in the multi-faceted patterns of waves and water, of how clouds look, how rain falls, how shadows fall, how we hear music, even. And, be prepared to be irritated or disappointed even, by ugly features, failed façades, or neglected, littered corners.

Penzance Brutalism?
Penzance Brutalism? or Beauty in the ipad of the beholder?

DISAPPOINTMENTS

As with art, personal opinion is what makes the appreciation of architecture a complex pleasure. One of my disappointments is Chapel Street's Church of St Mary (an opinion for which I may earn perdition). What a location! What a site of outstanding prominence! What a lofty leap of a tower!

Yet, somehow, the rather constrained and cramped vital statistics of the church frustrate the eye; the dignified ashlar stonework is just a little too prim and unweathered. St. Mary's was built in the 1830s as a 'Commissioner's' Church, of a type encouraged by the Church Building Act of 1818. The Act provided government funding as part of a scheme to give rapidly developing small towns with Anglican churches of substance, partly to combat the growing popularity of Methodism.

St Mary's design may have been constrained because of the inevitable financial strictures that such schemes impose. The Commissioners wanted these new 'preaching' churches built quickly. St. Mary's rises above it all, of course, but, for my taste, an elegant, spidery spire rather than the stolid Perpendicular Gothic tower of the church would have given Penzance, Mount's Bay and St Michael's Mount a more pleasing and dramatic complement. St. Mary's triumph is its elevated position and the airy 'deck' of its churchyard above the sea, one of the most serene, yet exhilarating open spaces in Penzance, never mind the old 1830s cholera burial pit in its north west corner.

TWO DIMENSIONAL

If three-dimensional landscapes and townscapes unscrew your head, fair enough. Stick with two-dimensional screens. But, if you need some guidance in appreciating the built landscape of Penzance then there's a fantastic amount of research and writing about the town, its history and buildings, that has been carried out over the years by local academics and enthusiasts. Head to the splendid Morrab Library (join up, in fact) and to the Reference section of Penzance Public Library for a swathe of books, treatises and documents on local history that give in-depth background to the built environment of Penzance - and of the Penwith district as a whole.
   
The ultimate guru of architecture is Nikolaus Pevsner, whose Buildings of England series is essential reading for the façade fancier.

But, a better champion of Penzance's townscape was Peter Laws, whose Review of the Architecture of Penzance, is an intriguing appendix to P. A. S. Pool's masterly History of the Town and Borough of Penzance. Peter Laws Review is certainly required reading for a fine overview of the town's buildings that overwhelms Pevsner's sometimes sniffy dismissal of the provincial.

The Penwith Local History Group's excellent publication, In and Around Penzance During Napoleonic Times, is a comprehensive and evocative record of Penzance in the early 19th century and includes numerous references to town buildings.

There are several Photographic Memories books full of intriguing records of what Penzance looked like, not so long ago. You see the ghostly outlines of their pictures in the modern streetscapes of Penzance today.

Delve into the archives and you'll find much more. A rewarding study of Penzance, by Nick Cahill and Stef Russell, can be found at: www.historic-cornwall.org.uk/csus/towns/penzance/csus_penzance_report.pdf

WHAT'S YOUR VIEW?

So...What's your view..? What's your favourite scape? Is there a corner of Penzance that attracts, intrigues or repels you? The second storey façade of a building you haven't noticed before? A cluster of features in a roof line, perhaps? A glimpse between buildings of oddly layered features? A curious juxtaposition of roofs or gables? A really, really ugly fragment of a building that is still somehow intriguing?  

Here's a glaringly obvious Penzance scape:

The Egyptian House, Chapel Street

'Glaringly' is used with purpose here because this familiar and striking Penzance building really is 'glaring'. Its gleaming façade shares the same in-your-face colours, and poster-paint slather of fairground rides, ships' figureheads and Disneyland. But that's its point; a one-off splendour, frothing with corded pilasters, lotus buds, swags swithers and ornate glazing bars. The Egyptian House owes its provenance to a nineteenth century 'Egyptian Revival' in architecture and design that was sparked off   by Napoleon's conquest of Egypt and Nelson's triumph at the Battle of the Nile. The exotic motifs of Egyptian buildings, pyramids, obelisks and temples inspired a fashion for Egyptology throughout Europe.  

Egyptian House, Penzance
Poster (paint) for Penzance

The Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly
The Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly London (built as an exhibition venue 1812. Demolished 1905) (Out of copyright use)

The first Egyptian Revival building in Britain was the Egyptian Hall in London's Piccadilly, built in 1812 as an exhibition space. It is the archetypal building that was the template for Penzance's Egyptian House, built in 1834 for the bookseller, John Lavin and used it as a lucrative outlet for the sale of stationary and maps and for the exhibition and sale of minerals. Penzance's Egyptian House languished beneath fading paintwork until restored, superbly, by the Landmark Trust in 1970.   

DECKED PARROT?

So: Is Penzance a dead parrot on a pirate's poop deck? Or, a dead pirate on a decked parrot? No. It's just one of many small provincial towns with a terrific back catalogue of fascinating buildings and micro features that are not just space-fillers between the 'retail outlets'. Buildings may not launch Penzance into the trickle down economic miracle promised by the snake oil salespersons, but such buildings give the town its soul. No profit in your pocket, but definitely a sense of optimism and civic pride. And the more of us who recognise the saving grace of Penzance the better chance there is of saving the face of this splendid little town and saving it from   being turned into a  car park, a warehouse, a giant retail shelf, or one big concrete block...

*****

Once you've 'read' your way round Penzance's open book of buildings, keep going. Keep stopping short in any Cornish town and village and look up! Try Newlyn. Try Redruth. (Any small town that boasts a 19th century Florentine Romanesque clock tower has something to preen about. And Helston? Take a stroll around the Cross Street area of Helston for superb examples of 19th century Cornish town houses and stable courtyards and granite façades and features. Falmouth? Land and sea conjoined in a delightful mixing of building styles that have one foot on land, the other in the sand. And, of course, Truro; well favoured, crammed with fine buildings; Touch of Bath at its best and almost French in places. Truro Cathedral looks handsomely French, when seen from the river, just round from Malpas. Its spires are Normandy Gothic, of a kind that would have enhanced Penzance's St Mary's. But never mind. And Boscawen Street needs all traffic banished to turn its cobbled expanse into a proper Place du Marché. Then, there's Launceston, Lostwithiel, Fowey, St. Ives, Hayle, Fowey...You'll never stop.
 
* Gazing at buildings is a harmless and fruitful pastime. But, people often live behind the intriguing façades that you may be eyeballing. Discretion is advised. Photographing a private house may not be welcomed.

Photos: Des Hannigan
©Des Hannigan 2014

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Comments

Nice work Des, and lovely to

Nice work Des, and lovely to hear enthusiasm about PZ. I often wonder what people see in it but that's because it's the first town I knew and so I never saw it with fresh eyes. In fact it's only the centre from Humphry Davy to W H Smith which is blighted by multiples - businesses out on the four 'arms' of the town are mostly locally owned and quite vibrant. Pedestrianisation of MJS is the bleeding obvious answer. Some other points: The Zennor Nuclear Power Station was actually given planning approval, though happily it has lapsed. The loss of old buildings, as someone cleverer than I pointed out, was not only due to vandalism or decay but also to success - let's tear that down and build something new! Put PZ on the map! Just as bad three hundred years ago as now. Finally I take your point about looking up. Having the luxury of being a drummer in the golowan band I've had the privilege of walking down the middle of the main street of most towns in Cornwall making a noise - the perfect standpoint for upward gawping and no risk of being knocked over. Thanks... Mike S-F

Thanks Mike.

Thanks Mike. Just shows that even a citizen of East Morvah (the disengagement from West Morvah matters, believe me) knows where Penzance is. Re. the Atomic Power Station. I have just stumbled across old research notes that show that the initial suggestion, in 1957, for an 'Atomic Research Station' in the Zennor/Gurnard's Head area came, in fact, from the Penzance Chamber of Trade (Commerce) of the day! Groveling apologies to St Ives. My old editor, the magnificent Geoff Carver, would be appalled at my carelessness. I blame the internet. But say no more! The Hakes are justified in their enduring suspicion of Penzance. When lobbied by the Penzance Chamber of Trade, Penzance Town Council enthusiastically 'favoured the idea of an Atomic Station in principle' while the then West Penwith Rural District Council declared that they too had been considering the idea, but felt that Hayle would be a better site! To their discredit/sort of credit, St Ives Town Council agreed to support the project, provided that any chosen site would not be 'one of the county's beauty spots'. Mind you, at the same time, St Ives council was keen as mustard to use the local 'beauty spot' of the Horse's Leap, at Hor Point, just west of St Ives, as a useful place from which to dump the town's refuse into the sea. The council even appealed to the Government in a bid to overturn the local planning authority's refusal of their scheme. Only when Hor Point was sold to the National Trust did the council give up on its rubbish tip plan. Not much changes in municipal thinking when it comes to rubbish. Des H

Des, thank you for a

Des, thank you for a wonderful article. Like you I have spent years looking up above the bland shop fronts and marveling at the unexpected lovliness above in Penzance town. It seems to me that people just love to moan as its easier than getting up and doing something about it I suppose. Mike is right that you only have to move away from the shopping streets to see the lovely architecture of PZ ; Falmouth is also a perfect example of this. Cars blight many places which should be beautiful - Bread Street being a perfect example. I'm a foreigner from up country so have a different perspective from locals maybe but the place I was brought up in, Hampstead, which was once a lovely mixture of rich and poor, Regency, Victorian and London municipal housing has been ruined by the influx of money since I was a kid. Its soulless and dead now in comparison and I wouldn't wish that on PZ. A happy medium maybe, but struggle shows there's life in the old dog yet. Just a thought.