I never fail to be flummoxed by Pinner High Street – one moment to be surrounded by post-war London development, the next to be strolling up the picturesque hill of what is, undoubtedly, a village or small country town, flanked on either side by timber-framed and brick buildings, with the church standing guardian, as it has since the 1200s. St John the Baptist, altered and enlarged over the years, shelters a most curious monument in its churchyard, erected by my history hero, John Claudius Loudon, the early 19th-century author of some 30 hefty works on architecture, agriculture and horticulture.
This startling pyramidal structure, pierced through with a coffin-shaped sarcophagus, was in honour of Loudon’s parents, William and Agnes, though only his mother is buried there. The mystery of its design has never been solved. One explanation is that Loudon had commissioned it in his famously indecipherable handwriting, the legacy of the rheumatic fever that struck him when he was a young man and progressively crippled him in his later years.
I want him to come back and crush out the soul-destroying building that we see today.
Whenever I think of that, I laugh at the story that when collecting material for his Encyclopaedia of Trees and Shrubs, Loudon wrote to the Duke of Wellington, asking to see his famous beech trees. The Duke, reading Loudon’s signature as “London”, and “beeches” as “breeches”, and in his monumental vanity, apparently thought the Bishop of London wanted to see his trousers! He sent them off – isn’t that charming?
I first came across Loudon and his work when I was researching a book on buildings for animals – he built some sensational circular Gothic stables. And when I came across his Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture I was hooked by its designs.
Loudon was born in Cambuslang, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, the son of a farmer. He went to Edinburgh University, and studied agriculture and botany, becoming interested in landscape planning as part of farming and gardening. His early reputation brought him to England, and he worked at Great Tew, in Oxfordshire, where he established one of the first agricultural colleges. He was also a landscape gardener and botanist of worldwide repute, and an architect who created the prototype for suburban villas. We still live in Loudon’s England.
It was said of Loudon that for him to see an evil was to labour for its removal. And he worked tirelessly, only taking four hours’ sleep a night. Writing such books as The Suburban Gardner and Villa Companion, Loudon set out to “improve the dwellings of the great mass of society”, grasping the nettle of the newly industrialising age. He advocated excellence in the building of everyday houses for the everyday man.
Loudon founded probably the first gardening magazine, and suggested that plane trees should be planted in London – a wonderful legacy. He laid out some of the first London parks, and introduced bandstands; he proposed sports grounds for schools; the laying out and landscaping of cemeteries as Elysian Fields; and that breathing zones of green should be left around the Metropolis, anticipating the idea of the “green belt”. Remarkably, he campaigned for the use of gas, rather than coal, looking forward to a time when the atmosphere might be comparatively pure.
And in another example of his attitude towards the built environment, he recommended the use of stone, brick or earth “according to local practice and resources”. Contrast that to the houses that are going up across England today – the architectural pox that is disfiguring the face of our country. Oh, would that he lived on today. That’s really why I’ve chosen him to talk about – I want him to come back, to crush out the horrifying, soul-destroying building we see the length and breadth of the land, with no whisper of history upon it.
A new edition of Lucinda Lambton’s Temples of Convenience & Chambers of Delight has been published by Tempus.