Just how long I’ve been gone from the US hits me once in a while when I find myself forgetting which expressions are British and which are American. Suburbs in the USA have plenty of houses in a style I think of as Mock Tudor – but is that the American term? Or the British term?
Whatever Americans call them, you probably know what I mean: modern houses dressed up with trim in patterns of stripes, grids or herringbones that show up dark against the lighter plaster or stucco spread between them, in imitation of medieval timber-frame buildings. Here in the UK, the middle-of-the-road term is Mock Tudor; if you want to be more polite you call it Tudor Revival, and if you want to be less polite you call it Tudorbethan, a mish-mash of Tudor and Elizabethan meant to indicate the building didn’t come from any historical period, but is only a cheap fake.
But here in England, we also have the real thing, hundreds of half-timbered buildings still in use even though they were built in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the periods directly following because the technique was used here for hundreds of years. The Midlands—the common name for an imprecisely defined part of the country made of up the counties in the middle, those not classed as North or South of England, the West Country or East Anglia, if that makes things any more clear—is known for having lots of these, for half-timbering with more ornate patterns, and for using curved braces to make designs called stars.
The technique is called half-timbering, because—depending upon which authority you trust—the timber framing was set on foundations or even a lower story of stone (or later, brick), as opposed to earlier buildings in which the supporting timbers were set in trenches, which made them more stabile than if they had no foundations at all, but also made them more inclined to rot away.
Wikipedia will tell you that the technique is called half-timbering because all the framing is constructed of tree-trunks or -limbs cut in half, but you don’t have to visit many medieval half-timbered buildings (or even look at the pictures in many books on traditional English architecture) to know that just isn’t the way these houses were built.
Now, the English are sometimes more direct in their use of language than Americans, despite their reputation for understatement. These are, after all, the people who refer to retirees as OAPS (old age pensioners) and where, until recently, charities set life-sized figures of children on crutches or in leg braces, with coin slots and signs saying “For the Spastics”, outside stores and pubs. (The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope in the early 90s; you can see a picture of one of the collection boxes here). So, in line with that kind of plain speaking, these wonderful historic places are often just called black-and-white buildings.
The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury is known for them, so much so that their tourist information board’s web site says “Shrewsbury’s not all black and white, you know!”—of course it isn’t only black and white; I told you only last week that the Abbey there is red—although other pages from the same site brag that the place is “awash with black and white timber-framed historic buildings”.
I hope you enjoyed this photographic tour of some of Shrewsbury’s black and white sites, in full colour.