Archive for July, 2013

Reform Synagogue

‘Sleepy Hollow’ was the rather dramatic name of the leafy plot on the corner of Palmeira Avenue and Eaton Road that Lewis Cohen sold at cost price to the trustees of the Reform Synagogue.

The congregation had been growing since its inception in 1955 and had gotten too large for several temporary homes, including the Young Women’s Christian Institute on Holland Road. A new synagogue was designed by architect Derek Sharpe, and dedicated to the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Lord Cohen died in 1966 so sadly could not be present at the consecration of the new building in 1967.

The Eaton Road side of the building is lined with screens of cement roundels which cover the south-facing windows. The principle entrance is located beneath a vaulted porch on the Palmeira Avenue façade, above which rather attractive stained glass windows and a triple-vaulted roof are found. I was lucky enough to be shown the interior by Gweni and Ivor Sorokin.

The raised ground floor level contains offices and other smaller rooms. Below this is a basement level which was being used for language classes when I visited. The main synagogue, which seats 200 on rows of oak seats (with 200 more behind folding screens at the sides), is located on the first floor. The height of its ceiling is highlighted by the presence of a row of three stained glass windows – one window per roof vault.

The stained glass artist John Petts included a variety of Jewish imagery on the three windows. The blue and purple left and right windows feature Jacob’s Ladder, a dove with an olive branch, a ram’s horn, a trumpet, a candelabra (to denote Chanukah), a scroll (to signify the Giving of the Law) and a wine glass and egg (to represent Passover). The red and yellow central window features a vivid tree of life beside the Star of David.

Below is the Torah Ark. Heavy glass doors dramatically slide open to reveal the synagogue’s scrolls. Each scroll contains the first five books of the Bible; written by hand, right-to-left, in Hebrew, with special ink and a quill, without any punctuation or headings.

Just as I was looking at a scroll from 1850, a Painted Lady butterfly flew from the brightest part of the window above and landed beside my hand. It really hit home that this is a truly magical building.

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13 Montpelier Villas

Clifton Terrace, Powis Villas and Western Terrace are all perhaps candidates for the accolade of best road in Brighton. But, all things considered, I think that Montpelier Villas in the Montpelier & Clifton Hill Conservation Area is most deserved of the top spot – and a house is now for sale on this fine street.

Montpelier Villas features just twenty houses, which equates to five pairs of near-identical Grade II listed semi-detached residences on each side of the street. Save for a few self-contained basement flats, they are all whole houses. Fortunately, as the front doors are on the sides, hallways separate the front and rear rooms, which makes conversion particularly tricky. Submerged basements and split staircases also help in that respect.

No. 13, on the west side of the road, has just come onto the market after nearly 50 years with the same family. Bearing in mind that at least four houses on the street have changed hands for £1.6 million and over since 2005, the current asking price of £1.35 million seems incredibly reasonable.

Like all of the houses on the street, No. 13 features two principal storeys, a deep basement with high ceilings, and rooms in the roof. The road was built from 1845 to the designs of prolific local architect Amon Henry Wilds, who was also responsible for Montpelier Crescent, Hanover Crescent, Park Crescent and the Victoria Fountain. I particularly like the lead canopies above the front bow windows (there are also side and rear bow windows) where glass inserts allow light to flood into the rooms behind.

Much of the charm of Montpelier Villas can be attributed to its maintenance as a carefully thought-out composition. An Article 4 Directive, which dates from 1977, specifies non-negotiable paint colours for both exterior wall surfaces and windows (white) and ironwork (black). An earlier photograph that I found shows one property with black windows and white walls alongside another with white windows and grey walls. Uniformity here is key.

The whole street is said to have been built on a bluebell wood. Whilst I didn’t see any bluebells in the surprisingly spacious rear garden of No. 13, a number of my other favourite plants, including euphorbia and climbing roses, were present in abundance.

Nick Muston at Austin Gray is the man to speak to if this sounds like your dream home – and you have £1.35 million spare to buy it.

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Chapel Bell Tower, Brighton College

When I heard from a reader of this column that a thick locked door in the corner of a classroom in Brighton College was perhaps somewhat more than a stationery cupboard, which its appearance suggested, I had to investigate further.

Brighton College’s Head of Security, Pat McCarter, took our little group from reception through to a fairly standard classroom on the ground floor of the grand flint building which occupies the north side of the College’s famous quadrangle. The room is apparently used for Classics, and detentions.

As soon as the mysterious door was unlocked, I knew that we were in for a treat. A tight spiral staircase could clearly be seen to twist upwards, into the dark above. Four of us ascended the 50 or so narrow stone steps with me at the rear. With hindsight, this was unwise as it was always going to be me who would be exploring whatever we found at the top. I guess that we assumed that it would open out, but instead the steps simply became a tall wooden ladder. I squeezed past the others and started climbing – from the dark, into a bright chamber at the very top.

The octagonal room, with eight windows – four wide and round, four arched and narrow – contained a large bell. Its green tinge suggests copper content so it is presumably bronze. Ropes hang down, past the ladder, and through circular holes in some of the steps so that the bell can be rung from the ground.

From outside, it was clear that we had been up inside a slim angular protrusion jutting out of the aforementioned flint structure. The foundation stone of the building was laid in 1848 and its architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott, who was also responsible for the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras. It is clear that a serious amount of work has recently gone on to repoint between the flints and to replace and clean much of the masonry, including many of the stone quoins.

Halfway up the spiral staircase is a door that apparently leads to the library. But that room served as the chapel until a dedicated structure was built nearby. This is no doubt connected to why the tower is called the Chapel Bell Tower.

Thanks to Lucy Bidwell for telling me about the door, and to Ed Allison-Wright and Rebecca Findlay for giving the tour.

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Highdown Gardens

A talk at Hove Gardening Club about a fairytale house on a hill, surrounded by perhaps the finest chalk gardens in the country, inspired me to travel straight towards Worthing to explore.

The distinctive house, Highdown Towers, was constructed in 1820 to the west of Goring, 100ft above sea level. It is reached via a long straight driveway to the north of the Littlehampton Road. It was the home of Sir Frederick and Lady Stern, who were responsible for transforming the disused chalk quarry above the house into a packed network of winding walks and light-filled clearings. The white chalk cliffs of the quarry are now barely visible behind luscious green trees and shrubs everywhere.

Frederick Stern’s work on the gardens began in 1909 and intensified at the point of his marriage in 1919. Some of the great collectors of the day brought back seeds and plants from as far afield as the Himalayas and Borneo. Much was experimentation to see which plants worked best in this demanding chalky, and windswept, spot.

Sir Frederick received his knighthood in 1956 for, unsurprisingly, services to horticulture. Upon his death in 1967, Lady Stern donated the house and gardens to Worthing Borough Council which took over the gardens the following year. From 1991-98, the house served as a nightclub called Sterns and, later, the Mansion House. The story goes that the council gave permission for the enterprise thinking that it was to be some sort of country club. They couldn’t have been more wrong – some of the raves finished at 6am.

Highdown Towers features two storeys, though there are two notable exceptions. First, as the name of the house suggests, the building incorporates a tower. The pebbledashed extrusion, which stands out from the rest of the knapped flint structure, incorporates an extra storey.

Second, the house is today known as the Highdown Hotel and offers 16 bedrooms with conference facilities. I wasn’t expecting though, whilst exploring a curious set of unwelcoming steps leading into the ground in front of the house, to find the hotel’s largest conference room hidden within a secret level below the house’s lawn. The steps were some sort of fire exit.

Highdown Gardens are free to enter and include a number of breathtaking examples of rare trees (such as the constantly peeling Paper Bark Maple), colourful shrubs, climbing roses and – my favourite bit – rock pools with an adjoining cave.

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