COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

New Dutch gables at Hammonds Mews, Magdalens Close in Ripon.
New Dutch gables at Hammonds Mews, Magdalens Close in Ripon.
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This week, David explores the contribution of Dutch architecture and construction methods on our own buildings over the centuries:

Look up “Dutch” in your copy (or the library’s copy) of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. You’ll uncover what may for most people be a forgotten corner of British history.

In the 17th century Britain fought three wars against the Dutch – the main one, the second Dutch War between 1665 and 1667, is the best known; it was the one in which the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter cheekily sailed up the Medway. The first Dutch War began with the Battle of Godwin Sands and is remembered mainly because it’s the war in which Admiral Tromp tied a broom to his mast to sweep the British Fleet from the seas; the third began with the Battle of Sole Bay.

Set beside the Armada and Trafalgar, these are minor skirmishes. But it’s at this time that we get anti-Dutch sentiments entering our language. So we talk of Dutch comfort (it might have been worse), of Dutch courage (courage inspired by drink; the Dutch were supposed to be heavy drinkers), of going Dutch – or a Dutch treat – in which one pays for oneself, and, of course, speaking double Dutch.

If you say something blindingly obvious, you may follow it with “or I’m a Dutchman”. Mocking the enemy has a long, if not honourable, tradition – there are plenty of expressions that mock the French, too, for example.

But the Dutch influence has a much longer history than that in this country – and architecture and garden design have long benefitted from the style and expertise of Holland.

Among the most obvious clues is the use of brick. The Low Countries are not blessed with an abundance of building stone, nor of timber. But they have plenty of clay, so it was natural for them to fire it into bricks and to build with them. And the influence of brick began to make itself felt in the part of England that traded with Holland across the North Sea.

The earliest brick-built structures in the country – apart from those like St Alban’s Abbey that recycled Roman brick – are to be found in the eastern counties. Bricks were certainly being imported from Holland in the 13th century, sometimes as ballast in returning ships.

In 1278 a shipment of more than 200,000 Dutch brick arrived in London for use in the tower. Very soon after, the start of the 14th century saw the building of Holy Trinity Church in Hull and North Bar at Beverley, and bricks were used extensively in the vaults of Beverley Minster.

By now brickmaking was happening in East Yorkshire and all the way down England’s east coast – but the impetus, and some of the craftsmen, came from Holland.

Not only the bricks, but the methods of laying them also show Dutch influence. One of the most common ways of laying bricks – bonding, as it is called – is Flemish bond, which alternates headers (bricks with the short-side facing outwards) with stretchers (the long side) in each course; if you move each successive course half a brick to left or right, it’s called Dutch bond.

Another import from across the North Sea was glass. Flemish glass was of the best quality, and so was specified for the most prestigious buildings – mostly churches and royal palaces. The glass and the glaziers who produced the magnificent windows in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge were Flemish.

Nearer home, York Minster has much Flemish glass – and it is recorded that at Colton, between York and Tadcaster, Flemish craftsmen had furnaces to produce glass for the minister. It is highly likely that Ripon Minster, too, once had Flemish glass.

And it wasn’t just practical –physical things like brick and glass that came to Britain from Holland. Once we had finished fighting the Dutch in the later part of the 17th century, the British found it expedient to invite a Dutchman, William of Orange, to take the throne alongside his wife Mary. Fashion followed royalty. One particular fashion, for lavish gardens, was immediately taken up by the British aristocracy.

Surviving, or restored, royal and aristocratic Dutch gardens of the later-17th and early-18th centuries show a considerable degree of elaboration – raised terraces, elaborate parterres, topiary work and canals.

Some of this came to Britain. Most of this elaboration has now gone, but we can get an impression of the importance of water in such Dutch-inspired gardens by going to Studley Royal, where the straight canal and the geometric pools of the earliest part of the garden is apparent.

Similarly, aristocratic building began to copy Dutch styles. Brick-built houses with large, tall windows, balustrades and sometimes with dormer windows and cupolas, had begun to appear as early as the 1640s but were given a real boost by the Dutch monarchy’s example. Wren’s additions to Hampton Court for William and Mary set the style; Newby Hall, on the design of which Wren may also have had some influence, is a good local example.

And what about lesser buildings? There are some early small buildings around the country that betray Dutch influence; wander down Ogleforth in the shadow of York Minster and you’ll see a much-restored, small, mid-17th-century house in the Dutch style.

And by the time we get to the 19th century, when architectural styles picked, magpie-like, from the glittering past, shaped Dutch gables begin to appear – even in Ripon; there are the so-called crow-step gables, like the one on the gothic-fronted shop on North Street, and the curved ones on the gatehouse to the Workhouse Museum.

These curves also occur on houses on the bend in Magdalens Road – these were recently copied at Hammonds Mews in Magdalens Close – and on the former Employment Exchange on Water Skellgate.

It’s unlikely any of these have ever been sold at a Dutch auction, but they do show that we have absorbed a great deal of influence from our near neighbours.

Let’s drink to that (going Dutch, of course)!