Thursday, 12 March 2015

Black


Bath has just been voted the best place to live for young people, and by that I suppose they mean 30 - 45 year-olds, not the retired gentility that made up 80% of the population when I moved here, over 40 years ago.

My mother came to stay here when she was a girl in the 1920s once, and she told me that she hated the place because it was so oppressive. When I asked her what she meant by that, she said that all the buildings were jet-black and sucked the light out of every street. Even the Royal Crescent was black - I remember it so.

When she told me this, I was beginning my life in stone by water-cleaning all the Victorian coal-soot from the stonework of the city, and I must have cleaned 15 or 20 of them by the end. Now there are one or two which have never been cleaned, and they are a reminder of what the place looked like for about 150 years before people like me spruced it up to the 'honey-coloured' mellowness which travel writers use as a lazy cliche in brochures. Bath stone is only honey-coloured after it has oxidised in about 20 years exposure to the elements.

In a way, I miss the blackness of that black. When you are close up to it, it has an intensity which could only be matched by the black of an old-fashioned photo-copier. It was the densest 'natural' black I have ever seen - no wonder it sucked the very light from the streets.

As soon as the cleaning-program begun, the council banned all coal fires in the city and gave grants to home-owners for the jobs to be done. There are very few open fires used in town these days, but the ones that are may burn smokeless fuel, which gives off just as sulphurous and acid fumes, but they don't leave deposits. Whatever they put in petrol as a lead substitute is causing its own problems now, by rotting the stonework at exhaust-pipe level, usually where cars pull away from traffic lights, and some of the fuel is expelled unburnt.

The above photo is of the original late 17th century, back, rubble wall of The Bell (see the blocked-up casement windows) and the blackness is Victorian. When the black forms on ashlar (flat, fair-faced block work) it forms a smooth, velvety surface, but when it accumulates on rubble, the joints deteriorate first, showing up as whiteish lines like this.

In a way, I miss the old, black Bath. It had a sort of sombre beauty, and that black can never be replicated by modern photo-copiers.

11 comments:

  1. Stuck in traffic in Bath yesterday (I think it might have been Walcot Street) I was admiring the ghost images of old advertising slogans on the side of the buildings. "Nestle with full cream etc." They must have looked quite gaudy when they were first painted but have a wonderful faded patina now. Hope they never completely disappear.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. These days, they are 'cherished' as historical artefacts.

      Delete
  2. My ordinary non-eco woodburner hardly issues a nuage; my neighbour's very expensive German super-eco system belches out thick smoke by the truck load. Hopefully his house will be completely black by 2018.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sadly, it will probably be yours if the wind is in the wrong direction...

      Delete
  3. Still mesmerised by Cro's use of the word 'nuage' - never heard it - must look it up and try to use it as much as possible as it is so impressive!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought it was an Irish woman's name.

      Delete
    2. Sorry... I often muddle French/English.

      Delete
  4. Sheffield used to be the same - oppressive soot covered buildings - I went back on a visit a couple of years ago and didn't recognise the place.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't see Sheffield until after the clean-up, but I do remember those kitchen-sink films of the 50s and 60s, when steel was still produced there.

      Delete
  5. I remember years ago, when they cleaned up the facade of London Rd. station in Leicester…it was a joy to behold the beautiful pink brick, and creamy stone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, Leicester, final resting-place of Richard 3rd.

      Delete