COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Markenfield Hall ' 'perfect'.
Markenfield Hall ' 'perfect'.

David takes a look at the architectural gems across Yorkshire and picks out his top eight choices.

Since 1942, BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs has brought us the music choices of a vast range of “celebrities”.

Each of the more than 1,500 “castaways” has been asked to choose eight favourite discs (the programme has hardly kept up with recording technology) that they would take with them to this mythical desert island.

Inevitably, the choices have been as eclectic as the guests, but the list of the eight most-frequently chosen pieces includes just four composers – Beethoven (four times); Elgar (twice), Rachmaninoff and Schubert. You may wish to guess which pieces of each were chosen; it’s not too hard!

But what if, instead of discs, they were asked to choose their favourite buildings? This, admittedly, would not work so well if we imagined them marooned on a desert island with, say, the Taj Mahal and the Royal Albert Hall. They could hardly be told, as they used to be with grand pianos, that they were not allowed to use them as a shelter.

Still, it’s an interesting game, which might keep you amused for a moment or two. And to make it slightly easier, let’s confine ourselves to a defined area; let’s choose eight Yorkshire buildings with which to be cast away. Prepare your list, and then compare it with those of others – will there be a consensus or a crazy divergence of views as to what constitutes a great building?

But although we’re limiting it to Yorkshire, it’s actually a very hard exercise; leaving out special buildings is painful, and what we firmly (or reluctantly) reject today may be essential in a list compiled tomorrow.

Still, for better or worse, here are some suggestions of eight buildings, in chronological order, that you might want to consider.

Let’s start with one of the best of Yorkshire’s churches – St Patrick’s at Patrington in East Yorkshire. Built between the end of the 13th and the middle of the 14th centuries, it is known as the Queen of Holderness. What is memorable about the exterior is how the tones of its silvery stone work in harmony with its proportions – especially in the soaring tower and spire, surrounded at its base with a “corona” of arches. Inside, it is harmonious, too, with wonderful carved details that are nevertheless kept subsidiary to proportion and line.

Next, and contemporary with Patrington, is something nearer home – Markenfield Hall. Markenfield is the perfect medieval small manor house, hardly changed since its construction.

The house, surrounded by its moat, is a great survival of what was mostly swept away in succeeding centuries – the home of the lower gentry, never rich enough or successful enough to rebuild it. And then it was almost abandoned until its recent triumphant restoration.

Where now? Let’s go back to East Yorkshire and to the very end of the Elizabethan Age. Burton Agnes Hall near Bridlington, built between 1601 and 1610, is a superb example of the self-confidence of the Tudor Age.

Constructed of fine russet-coloured brick and with a fine display of the then very-fashionable bow windows, it displays the symmetry favoured by the age – though the entrance is not central. Instead, the hall retains the medieval plan of entering via a screens passage into the impressive great hall.

Now into the 18th century, and Castle Howard. But not the house itself – this desert island choice is the great mausoleum, the masterwork of Nicholas Hawksmoor. It is bigger than many of Wren’s City of London Churches, and is, as Pevsner writes, “extremely noble in design, of a majestic simplicity”. Horace Walpole called it “a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive”. It dominates the landscape, turning it from a Yorkshire scene into an Italian painting. The domed interior has giant Corinthian columns and superb carving.

As the Castle Howard Mausoleum was being finished in 1728, the gentry of York asked the promoter of the new Palladian style, Yorkshire landowner Lord Burlington, to design an Assembly Rooms – our fifth desert island building. Ignore its later, rather pedestrian exterior; inside is one of the best rooms in Europe – long and quite narrow (“far too narrow for dancing”, said the early patrons). It has 40 tall Corinthian columns and a decorative freeze, contrasting with a light upper storey. It is suitably festive and elegant for the York gentry’s needs.

The 19th-century entry in our list was a particular problem, given the vast choice available. It seemed logical to look at something that had an engineering flavour, so Ribblehead Viaduct almost made the top eight but in the end a structure that combines innovative engineering with the grand architecture of the Victorian Age won out.

So the sixth place goes to Cuthbert Broderick’s oval Corn Exchange of 1860-62 in Leeds. Its great rusticated exterior is impressive enough, and so is the interior space, but what sets it apart is the great elliptical dome of wrought and cast iron, thrown seemingly effortlessly over the great space.

The choices of the 19th-century become even harder in the 20th. But as many would agree that Lutyens was the greatest and cleverest of the architects of the last century, the choice here is his house in Ilkley called Heathcote. Designed in 1906, it is an Italianate villa whose architecture plays games with its architectural sources – perhaps it crams too much in for what is a relatively small building, but it is still a fine and imposing composition.

And the last choice – the 21st century representative? It’s a building this column has mentioned before – the convent called Stanbrook Abbey near Wass in the North York Moors National Park.

It is an uncompromisingly modern building, rectilinear, much of it glass-walled. It is an exceptional structure that works both practically and spiritually, and has great emotional impact.

And if all these buildings were to be washed away, as Desert Island Discs asks, which one should we save? An almost impossible question, of course. Perhaps the choice had better be yours.