The Industrial Beauty of Gas Works Park

Gas Works ParkOn the north shore of Lake Union, overlooking the skyline of downtown Seattle, a rusting collection of industrial era technology, partly overgrown and daubed with graffiti, forms the unlikely centre piece for Gas Works Park.  I found myself there on a stop on an epic road trip from Vancouver to Tijuana with a small group of friends.

We were much taken by the Industrial Age monument, with its giant tanks, labrythine pipework and tall smokestacks, which now sits in green parkland.  From a distance it looked to me like Howl’s Moving Castle.  Closer, and out of its original context it has the air of a giant art installation.  It is incredibly photogenic.  I shot the accompanying picture with my Nikon Df using a circular polarising filter.  The sun was just at the right angle to bring out a lot of contrast, and the clouds help give it a steam punk vibe. 

Concrete train trestles greeted us at the park entrance. Part of the original 1906 gas plant, they apparently mark where the train tracks ended and coal was delivered, though as we had no idea what function they served at the time, they appeared completely abstract to us.

Reading up on the park after our visit, I was surprised to learn that during its productive life this was one of 1,400 coal gasification plants in the USA, converting superheated coal and crude oil into synthetic gas.  Like a static Dr Who, it is now the sole survivor of its kind.  It is also one of the earliest post-industrial sites to be transformed for public use through reclamation.   Gas production ceased back in 1956 and the 19-acre site was acquired by the City in 1965, opening to the public 10 years later.

The story of its Gas Works Park usage starts with the arrival in Seattle of visionary landscape architect Richard Haag in 1958.  An unsuccessful but well regarded finalist for another landscape project, he was subsequently awarded Gas Works.   The idea of industrial buildings being preserved in parkland was unheard of in the 1950s.  Unsurprisingly, there was considerable public debate about the site and its usage, but park supporters carried the day.

In addition to the Gas Works, the park features an artificial kite-flying hill created from on-site spoil.  On the summit there is giant sundial constructed from glass, ceramics, and stone, where you can put your shadow to good use in telling the time.

As I mentioned earlier, my visit to Gas Works Park was on a stop on a West Coast road trip. Seattle’s weather was, as it is all too often, extremely wet.  As the trip was at the beginning of April we were also subject to hail.  Our one respite from bad weather there was the morning we visited the park – it was bright and sunny, though bitterly cold.  We concluded that our trip to the park had been the highlight of our brief stop in Seattle.  It is well worth a visit.

The Ruined Manor in the Lost Village of Hampton Gay

The manor at hampton gay
The Manor at Hampton Gay, January 2021

The village of Hampton Gay has largely disappeared, leaving only an isolated church and the picturesque ruins of an Elizabethan manor house. The remaining inhabitants reside in the farmhouse and cottages that line the last few yards of single track road; a mile long, single track spur that connects to the road from nearby Hampton Poyle and Bletchingdon.  Once you pass though the pedestrian gate into the fields you can see the outlines of where Saxon dwellings once were from the humps in the grass.

It’s an ancient spot and much of the surrounding farmland on the nearby circular walk undulates as a result of the use of the mould-board plough in medieval times.  The best way to see it is to walk from Thrupp, a small village just north of Kidlington, and along the canal to Shipton-on-Cherwell.  There you turn right across a bridge over the river Cherwell and arrive at Hampton Gay after a few minutes walk. It can also be reached by on a circular walk from the excellent Bell pub in Hampton Poyle.

By car you’ll need to take the single-track spur road. There are a few passing places but there is a blind bend just past Willowbrook Farm, so please drive slowly and carefully.

I’ve been visiting and photographing the ruin for many years; the aspect of the ruins change greatly according to the season and the light, which makes it well worth a return visit. You can find my photography galleries from those visits at the links below.  Most of the shots are in the main gallery with smaller selections in the following two.   

  1. Main Hampton Gay Gallery
  2. Film Gallery
  3. Tilt Shift Lens Gallery

Village origins

Fallen tree in front of the ruined manor

The de Gay family were tenants of the two estates in Hampton Gay in the 12th and 13th centuries – the village name combines their surname with the Old English for a village or farm.  The de Gays donated and sold land from the estate to various religious orders including the ill-fated Knights Templars, the Abbey of Osney, just outside Oxford’s west gate, and the Convent at Godstow.

The manor house

All the land owned by religious orders at Hampton Gay were forfeited after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The crown sold the land into private ownership and in 1544 it was purchased by John Barry, a wealthy glover from Eynesham, who built the manor house.  In 1682 the last of the Barrys mortgaged the manor and then sold it to Sir Richard Wenman of Caswell and in 1691 his widow Katherine sold the manor to William Hindes.  It remained in the Hindes family until until 1798. The manor changed hands again in 1809 and 1849, and in 1862 was bought by Wadham College, Oxford.

The Manor House was constructed to the classic Elizabethan E-shaped plan with gabled wings and a crenellated central porch.  The vertical line of the E was the main hall, and the horizontal end lines the kitchens and living rooms. The  central line was the entry porch.

As late as 1870, the building was still largely original including oak panelling, though it had been neglected.  By 1809 it was reported to be a ‘Gothic manor’ in a neglected state and in 1880s the house was divided into two tenements which were jointly occupied by a farmer and Messrs. J. and B. New, paper manufacturers. In 1887 it was gutted by fire and has never been restored.  

Return of the Barrys

The manor returned to the Barry family in 1928 when Wadham college sold the ruin to Colonel S.L. Barry of Long Crendon, a descendant of the Barrys who built it. Colonel Barry (1873-1943) was a highly decorated soldier who served in the Boer War and World War One. His military appointments and civil posts included membership of His Majesty’s Bodyguard and The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms, Deputy Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Justice of the Peace for Buckinghamshire, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and Lord of Manor of Long Crendon, Bucks, and Hampton Gay, Oxon. Colonel Barry’s papers (now deposited at the Oxford History Centre) reveal that during the 1920s and 1930s he compiled research notes, photographs and transcribed deeds, covering the history of the manor and its ownership.

Two mills and three fires

There has been water mill at Hampton Gay on the River Cherwell since the 13th century.  It was a grain mill until 1681 when it was converted into a paper mill.  In 1875 it was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt. In 1880 it had both a water wheel powered by the river and a steam engine and was capable of producing a ton of paper per day.  It closed in 1887 after a second fire.  That same year, a third fire consumed the manor house.

Hampton Gay Ruined Manor
One of the horses that graze at Hampton Gay, shot with a Leica M3

The train crash

There were rumours that the manor was deliberately burned down for the insurance. More imaginatively, others claimed it was the result of a curse related to one of the worst train accidents to take place on the Great Western Railway.  On Christmas Eve 1874, a Great Western express train from Paddington was derailed on the nearby Cherwell line.  Thirty-four people died in the accident and sixty-nine were injured.

Among those coming to the aid of the victims was Sir Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston, from nearby Blenheim Palace. The paper mill was used as a temporary mortuary, and the church a refuge against the bitter cold until a train arrived to take the injured to the Radcliffe Infirmary and the other survivors to Oxford hotels.  According to the story, the residents of the manor house refused shelter to the victims and the curse was retribution for this.

The agrarian revolt

Hampton Gay is known for its villager’s part in the unsucessful agrarian, or Oxfordshire rising, rising of 1596.   The Barrys enclosed land at Hampton Gay for sheep pasture. The villagers, unable to till the land for their own produce, faced starvation and many joined a revolt.  The plan was for the villagers to come together to murder Barry and his daughter, but this was foiled when the village carpenter turned informant.  One of the ringleaders from the village received the barbaric sentence of being hanged, drawn and quartered.  Subsequently, the Government recognised the cause of the rebels’ grievance and the Tillage Act of 1597 enabled the land to be ploughed and cultivated once again.

The church of St. Giles

Hampton Gay St. Giles Church
The Church of St Giles

The church of St. Giles now stands in picturesque isolation not far from the ruin of the manor house. It has never had electricity and is lit by candle light.  Evidence of its existence dates to 1074 and it was granted to Oseney Abbey by the de Gay family about century later.  By the time of the dissolution it fallen into disrepair after which it became a free chapel, funded by the owners of the Manor.   It was completely rebuilt in the eighteenth century in Georgian style by the owners and re-modelled in the nineteenth century using the Early English Gothic and Norman revival styles.  Nothing remains of the medieval building  except the cross on one of the gables and the reused battlements of the square tower.  One of St. Giles’ two bells is from the mid-13th-century and is one of the oldest in the country.

Fluctuating fortunes

Hampton Gay’s population has fluctuated over the years in line with its fortunes.  In the fourteenth century it had between nine and twelve taxpayers.  In the fifteenth century it was exempted from taxation because there were fewer than ten resident householders.  The Compton Census recorded twenty-eight adults in 1676.   The population increased during the late 18th century – in 1811 there were seventeen families crowded into thirteen houses. The peak was reached in 1821, with eighty-six inhabitants, After the fire and mill closure in 1887 the population fell to thirty and by 1955 there were only fourteen parishioners.  Hampton Gay ceased to be a separate civil parish in 1932 when it was merged with Hampton Poyle.

A strange occurrence

I updated this article, adding the Hampton Gay photo gallery, in June 2020.  That week I came across a post that mentions a photographer observing something out of the ordinary at the ruin.  I found that was curious and a little spooky, as I had seen exactly the same thing a few days previously, but never before.  It was a black piece of cloth, like a curtain, hanging from a second floor window and moving in the wind.  It was only in view for a few seconds and I wasn’t able to photograph it, though the other photographer did.  Since then I’ve seen the cloth a couple of times – it is heavy, like a tarpaulin and now seems less sinister.

Renovation attempts

There have been several proposals to renovate the Manor.  The earliest of these came in 1901 from the distinguished architect T.G. Jackson, famous for his remodelling of Victorian Oxford and whose work includes the iconic Bridge of Sighs.

In 1975 Jiri Fenton, of Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology, purchased the building from Colonel Barry’s daughter. His intention was to restore the Manor as a thank you to the nation for providing him a home when he fled the Nazis in 1939.  His attempts failed due to “crippling inflation and Government red tape”, according to the Oxford Mail.

In 2010 Christopher Buxton, whose company Period and Country Houses restored and sub-divided English country houses, submitted plans to create a five-bedroom home within a concrete envelope that would support the original walls.  He had also submitted plans four years previously, but neither plans proceeded.  

Hampton Gay Manor in the snow
The ruins in the snow of January 2021

Present day

Today, the manor is a Grade II listed building and a scheduled monument in the designated site of ‘The deserted village of Hampton Gay’. Historic England have placed the ruins on its register of historic buildings at risk where it is described as:

Ruins of late C16 manor house which burnt down in 1887 in very poor condition suffering from structural problems and with substantial vegetation growth. A programme of consolidation works needs to be agreed and implemented and management as a ruin is required.

The village of Hampton Gay is enjoying a resurgence in traditional (organic and natural) small scale farming.   Manor Farm (whose ownership includes the ruins) and Willowbrook Farm are both passionate advocates for this and their efforts have boosted the population of the hamlet.  Hampton Gay remains one of the most picturesque spots in Oxfordshire, set in a landscape that has barely changed since the Domesday book.  The Bell in the nearby village of Hampton Poyle is an excellent hostelry to stop at for food en route or afterwards.

Brill Windmill

Brill windmill is well known to photographers all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire; the hill-top site is a popular spot for walkers, cyclists and picnickers. To reach the village of Brill requires a climb up a steep hill about 4 miles from Long Crendon and 7 miles from Bicester. At 190 metres above sea level, it’s the highest vantage point for miles around and provides excellent views over the Vale of Aylesbury below.  Brill windmill and the the undulating rough ground where the clay was once worked make it a unique spot.   On a windy day it’s an ideal location for long exposure shooting and sunsets from Brill Hill make for a popular spectacle. You can find a gallery of my black and white pictures of Brill here.

Brill windmill storm
Brill Windmill under heavy skies

Sources

I found The Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Assessment Report to be a rich source of information on the history of the village. To learn about the post mill, the best source seems to be the detailed chapter in the history of windmills in the area compiled by local historians at Tring. These, together with Aylesbury Vale Landscape Character Assessment, and the Brill Community herd site have been my main sources for this article.

Landscape

Here is how the landscape is described in the Aylesbury Vale Landscape Character Assessment: The settlement of Brill was once associated with brick pits and works. This has had a lasting impact with many fine brick houses and undulating rough ground where the clay was worked. Brill windmill on the northern side is a key visual landmark. There are fine exhilarating, panoramic views out from the hills. Several large farms are situated on prominent areas of the steep hillsides one of the most notable is Chilton Park. The common land, unimproved grassland and other patches of rough ground add to the sense of a landscape with strong historic associations, which has been left relatively unchanged for centuries.

Village Origins

The combination of its hilltop location, good soil and the presence of springs have made Brill an attractive location from the earliest times and it has been occupied since the Iron Age. Even the origin of the name of the village is ancient as it includes both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for hill (Bre-hyll). Surviving Celtic place names are less common in the South of England than they are further North. In the reign of Edward the Confessor the village was known as Bruhella.

The Windmill at Brill
Brill Windmill and the hummocky clay pits (2021, Film, Olympus OM-1n)

Clay, Pottery and Bricks

Brill is best known for its old post-mill and the clay pits that were dug for the production of pottery and Brill bricks.   The clay pits were in use from Roman times until the last bricks were produced in the 1920s, which is also when the windmill closed as a business. Many of the older houses in the village are built of Brill bricks, as are Thame Grammar School and Waddesdon Manor.

Royal Manor

Brill was a Royal Manor of the kings of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period as it lay in the heart of the royal forest of Bernwood.  There was a Royal Hunting Lodge there, sometimes referred to as a Royal Palace.  Edward the Confessor, Henry II and Henry III  stayed there in the 12-13th centuries.

The Royal Lodge at Woodstock became a palace under Henry II, who spent time here with his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, after which Brill became less important; by 1337 it had ceased to be a Royal Manor. It is possible there was a castle at Brill as a map of 1591 has “Castell Hill” marked but this is apparently the only evidence of such a fortification.

Medieval Brill

By the middle of the 13th century Brill had a market and annual fair, but it did not develop into a town, possibly due to competition from the larger markets of Aylesbury or Long Crendon. Brill’s principal industry was pottery which was sold at markets in Oxford surrounding areas. Brick and tile making took over from pottery after the medieval period.

The Civil War and the Battle of Brill

Brill saw action during the English Civil War. A royalist force occupied the village as part of a defensive ring of the city of Oxford where Charles had consolidated his forces. There was an abortive Parliamentarian attack by the Parliamentary commander-in-chief of Buckinghamshire Colonel Goodwin in January 1643 (known as the Battle of Brill). Shortly afterwards Brill was replaced by nearby Boarstall as a garrison and Royalist troops left the following year.

Brill Windmill
Rear view of Brill windmill (2020) shot with a Leica Q at f1.7

The Spa at Dorton

Nearly two hundred years later the proprietor of the nearby Dorton estate, Mr Ricketts, attempted to turn Brill into a spa town. The mineral spring at Dorton was renowned for its curative qualities and Ricketts opened the spa in 1830. A Grand Fête was held in 1837 and for a short while the resort was fashionable. It consisted of a classical spa building with pump room and baths set in an ornamental pleasure ground. This was reached from an associated hotel in Brill – the Spa Hotel. The drive between the two survives as a public footpath. Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa secured Royal patronage for their Spas whilst the rather remote Dorton/Brill business dwindled and closed in the late nineteenth century. The Spa Hotel was pulled down after it sustained damage from a German doodle-bug in World War II.

Brill Tramway

In 1868 the Aylesbury and Buckingham Railway was completed and the Duke of Buckingham built a light railway to provide freight access by rail to his estates. An extension to Brill known as the Brill Tramway gave access to a brickworks there, which was followed by passenger facilities in 1872. The Metropolitan Railway took over the line in 1896 and the branch line survived until 1935

A good deal of old Brill survives today; 54 of the village’s buildings are currently listed. The earliest of these is All Saints Church, originally a private chapel whose earliest features date from the 12th century.

Brill Windmill

The rectory manor of Brill had a mill in 1086. This mill would have been water or animal driven as windmills appeared a century or so later. The post mill, which could be turned into the wind is named after the large upright post which the mill’s main structure is balanced on, enabling the mill is to rotate to face the direction of the wind. The high ground at Brill is an ideal location for a post mill. According to the History of the County of Buckingham “a windmill was built here of timber from Bernwood Forest, probably on the site on which John de Moleyns, about 1345, constructed another with oaks felled in his demesne woods.”

Brill windmill in its current form has been dendro dated to 1686 and survived as a working business until 1924 when it finally closed. A roofed wall, or roundhouse, was built around the bottom part of the post in 1864. It was removed in the 1930s in poor condition and rebuilt in 1950 using bricks from a kiln that had been demolished when the last of Brill’s many brick and tile yards closed. It was last restored again in 2009. The mill was purchased by Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher in 1929 to save it from destruction, and was maintained by trustees until taken over by Buckingham County Council in 1947.

A second post-mill once stood on Brill Common.  Parson’s Mill was built in 1634 and stood on the opposite side of the road to the current mill. It was struck by lightning in 1905 and demolished soon afterwards. 

Brill Windmill
One of the Dexter herd at rest (2020)

The Community Herd

There is a small community herd of Dexter cattle that conservation graze the common in small temporary paddocks. These are moved at intervals to avoid overgrazing. I was interested to learn that Dexters are the smallest native breed of cattle in the British Isles and are both docile and hardy. Being so small, they have no trouble at all with the steep slopes of the common.

Notable People

The wikipedia entry contains references to a few notable people connected to the village, the most interesting of which I’ve included here:

  •  J. R. R. Tolkien used the name and various other features of Brill as the basis for the village of Bree in The Lord of the Rings.
  • The Great Train Robbers hid at the remote Leatherslade Farm on Brill’s boundary with the village of Oakley In 1963.
  • Martyr Thomas Belson was born in the village circa 1560. He was found guilty of assisting Roman Catholic priests, and was executed in Oxford in 1589.
  • Sir John Betjeman rejoiced that the long arm of ‘Metro-land’ was halted before impinging on “the remote hilltop village of Brill”

More of Brill

Today Brill windmill is one of the oldest and best preserved in Britain. The steps that extend up to the doors at the rear of the mill are a very popular spot for group photos, whilst small children love to run around the roundhouse. I’ve enjoyed many a great picnic at Brill with my daughters, both of whom are as fond of the place as I am.

I have been taking photographs around Brill for some years with film and digital cameras, sometimes making use of specialist tilt-shift lenses and taking long exposures taken with a dark filter on a tripod. You can view a gallery of my black and white pictures of Brill here.