Wind Catching ~ The Ancient Art And Science Of Persian Air Conditioning


Wind towers – aren’t they  just beautiful? Not only that, they provide low-tech, totally renewable energy solutions to day-time desert heat waves. Within the capped tower is a port that is opened towards the prevailing wind. Some towers are multi-directional, the vents opened and closed as appropriate. Air is drawn into the living quarters below, its movement providing the cooling effect.

When there is no wind, the tower acts as a chimney, venting hot air from the interior. A more sophisticated version involves an underground canal, qanat, in which case the wind tower vent is opened away from the prevailing wind, and the system pulls cooling air up from the canal. You can read more about this if you follow the link.

But it seems to me to be an example of perfect human ingenuity – problem solving with minimal impact on the natural environment, while at the same time harnessing natural resources without depleting them. Persian architect-engineers came up with such elegant and aesthetically pleasing solutions over 2 millennia ago, although Ancient Egyptians apparently had something similar.

And not only can you have upmarket palace installations, but there is also the demountable, flat-pack desert nomad version.

The first kind was photographed (above and below) in Dubai at the restored Sheik Saeed Al Maktoum House on Dubai Creek. It is now a museum, but built in 1894, it was originally the home of the ruling Al Maktoum family. Persian architectural techniques arrived in Dubai in the nineteenth century along with the development of the pearl fishing industry there.

The portable Bedouin version I spotted in the Dubai Museum  in the courtyard of the old fort. Apparently the disadvantage of this kind of makeshift structure was that close proximity to the cooking hearth could have the unintended consequence of turning it into an actual chimney, and thus a major fire hazard.





 copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

For more wind themed posts please visit Ailsa’s blog at Where’s My Backpack

Seeing my town in Black & White: 2

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In the second part of my black & white tour of Much Wenlock (part 1 here), I was further inspired by Marilyn’s Wednesday photo prompt at Serendipity. This week she chose ‘small town summer’. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could capture that sense without using colour.

So it is Wednesday, half-day closing. A warm July afternoon. Wenlock is drowsing, although there are some visitors wandering here and there. In the heart of the town, where the High Street meets Barrow Street, a young man is waiting – for his girl? For his best mate? On the right is the sixteenth century Guildhall described in part 1, behind him, the former Victorian Market Hall with its added World War 1 Memorial frontage. This building was also the local cinema in the 1950s. Now it is our museum and tourist information centre, but due to council cuts, it is not open much.

Here, then, is the town centre from the boy’s point of view. There is little of interest for young people. His  posture, the high-lit ‘not-much-happening-here’ of the following street scene triggers my own response – that long-ago sense of adolescent ennui: that permanent sinking feeling of alienation.


In the five o’ clock shadows past and present coalesce. It could be oppressive. In the Square the Jubilee Clock is a local landmark. Its several faces used to tell different times, but it has recently been overhauled and given a new electronic movement. It was donated in 1897 by a town worthy, erstwhile emporium owner and august alderman, Thomas Cooke. It celebrates Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and would have been in sight of Mr. Cooke’s shop that stood next to the Museum and is currently occupied by the open-all-hours Spar Supermarket.


The buildings around the Square are modern – a pastiche of local architectural idioms. But the open space is pleasing. For years it was occupied by a derelict stone barn. These days it is a gathering point for locals and visitors alike, and a good place to sit and watch the world go by, albeit a rather small and slowly moving world.

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The High Street is difficult to capture. It is narrow, and its east-west alignment means that one side or the other is always in shadow. Then there are the cars in the way, either parking or manoeuvring through. Surprisingly, there is fervent trader resistance to pedestrianizing the street. They think they will lose custom. I think they should at least try it for six months. They might be agreeably surprised at how many more visitors would come to enjoy this little street in peace. It can offer so much hospitality and interest along the way.

For a start we have two ancient inns whose origins go back to monastic times. The George & Dragon is probably everyone’s idea of an unadorned old English pub – all beams and quarry tiled floors.


The Talbot on the other hand has a 1970s ‘olde worlde’ interior, though it dates back to 1360, and was thought to be the Almoner’s House, a hostel for pilgrims come to worship at the shrine of St Milburga, and also a centre for alms giving. The white rendered facade hides its timber-framed antiquity, but if you step under the arch you will find a pretty courtyard, where there are also nice B & B rooms in a converted malt house should you want to stay longer.


There are also two cafes, one with a deli, an Indian restaurant and two hotels. And amazingly for a small town, we have two bookshops – one dealing in second-hand books, and the other an inspirational survivor among the country’s dwindling number of independent book shops. Its owner, Anna Dreda, not only sells new and old books, but she also hosts reading groups for infants and adults, puts on author talks and book launches, and she is the founder of the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. Browsers may further find themselves offered a cup of coffee or tea, and invited to pass away the hours in one of the cosy corners upstairs. In short, the shop and its owner are among the town’s treasures, and have won national notice to prove it.


And it is from upstairs in Wenlock Books that you can sneak a good view of the High Street’s mid-section: Mrs P’s newsagents and sweet shop, the estate agents, and Ippikin, a shop that is its own art installation and is our very special haven for knitters and crafters. These next two photos were taken earlier in the day.


Opposite the book shop is the street’s most impressive historic house, Raynald’s Mansion. Here we have a medieval hall clad first in a flat-fronted building of 1600, and then extended by the addition of three timbered bays in 1680. The property remained in the Raynald family until the late 20th century, and is still a private house. In the nineteenth century it was actually a butcher’s shop, and the rail beside the right hand doorway was an aid to tradesmen lifting heavy loads.



And next is another town treasure, Twenty Twenty Gallery. I missed it out. It is further back down the street towards The George & Dragon, and every month has a new exhibition of contemporary art, ceramics and jewellery for sale. The owner, Mary, likes to feature the work of local artists and makers.



Back again down the street beyond Raynald’s Mansion and The Talbot Inn we have another imposing house, also early 17th century. Up to the 1920s it was the Swan and Falcon Inn. Later it housed our local branch of Barclays Bank until it moved to smaller, less frequently open premises next to the Post Office. The current new owner has development plans for it and its ancient  medieval barns out back, but in the meantime our local wildlife rescue charity has it shop there.


And just in case you think all is perfection along our High Street, we do have our eyesore. In 2009 or thereabouts the space next to the old Swan and Falcon was the scene of a general town uprising. A local developer, who had put up an unpopular housing enclave behind the High Street, then erected a house on the street frontage that did not conform to the approved plans. So after considerable agitation, down it had to come, although only after we Wenlockians had frightened the visiting local authority planning committee by our vociferous objecting. It was rather like a similar revolt back in Wenlock’s 1300s, when the serfs, fed up with the domineering Bishop who ruled both Priory and the town, threw down their ploughshares in general protest.

The site itself was once a seventeenth century clay tobacco pipe works, and in more recent years had become overgrown, and thus a well treed wildlife area that helped mitigate the town’s flooding risk. The only problem is that ever since, the space between the Swan and Falcon, and High Street’s terrace of Tudor cruck cottages, has looked like this, one of our less than successful visitor attractions:



Somewhat surprisingly, the original planning permission for the housing development, both on the street, and behind it, had been given without any reference to, or consultation with the local authority’s Conservation Officers.  Apparently it was not deemed necessary with a new development, despite the site being in the middle of an ancient town. Anyway, the houses were expensive, cramped inside, and so took a lot of selling, even with offers of free cars. In the end a housing association bought many of them, so at least some families on the local social housing list have benefitted.




By contrast, this row of cruck cottages some 400 years old, and the new development’s nearest neighbours, are solidly built, remarkably spacious inside, and have very pretty gardens behind them. Lacking the paper thin walls of new houses, there is doubtless little noise leakage between the cottages, although they do lack multiple en suite shower rooms that seem to be a feature of all English new-builds these days. Anyone would think water grew on trees, or that our drainage systems were robust enough to cater for all the washing we think we need to do.


Finally, here is one of the town’s loveliest ancient houses Ashfield Hall. I’ve mentioned its history in an earlier post. It was built by one Richard Ashfield who lived in Wenlock in 1396. It is probably on or near the site of the earlier St. John’s Hospital which was a hostel for poor itinerants.

And there you have it: some of Wenlock’ High Street highlights. It is well worth a visit.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell






Seeing My Town In Black & White: 1


In this week’s Black & White Challenge, Cee is asking us to focus on subjects that are more than fifty years old. I’m pretty confident, then, that my home town of Much Wenlock more than fits the bill. As a settlement, it has been continuously occupied for the last thousand years.

The town windmill (seen above) is not quite that old. I’ve begun with it because it is the oldest structure near my house. It  was busy grinding corn from around 1655. Then a lightning bolt struck it in 1850, and it has remained sail-less ever since – either a pity or not, depending on your views on historic conservation.


On the other hand, I perhaps needn’t have gone as far as the windmill. You might say my own house is something of a minor monument age-wise, much like its inhabitants (?).  It’s original half dates from the 1830s. In the living room there’s a massive inglenook fireplace complete with bread oven that defies my attempts to photograph it well, so you’ll have to imagine it. Instead I’ll take you on a walk down Sheinton Street to see a few of the other sights.


Heading into town, there are here-and-there signs of the medieval origins of many of the cottages, their timber frames concealed or disguised by brick and stone exteriors that have been added in more recent centuries.

Most of these cottages would have once housed artisans, their workshops opening directly onto the street to catch the eye of potential customers. The living quarters, and gardens would have been behind the workshops. In fact, the layout of long medieval burgage plots behind these Sheinton Street properties, and now pretty gardens, are still visible from the field path.

Today, Much Wenlock is a sleepy sort of place, much gentrified, and up-marketed. But step back a couple of hundred years, and much of it would have been grimy and industrial. Not only was there quarrying and limestone burning going on around the town, but within it were once the smoking kilns of the clay tobacco pipe manufacturers, stinking pits for the curing and tanning of hides for leather working, horses and carts churning up the dirt. Brewing was  also a big local trade, as were slaughtering, pewtering, smithing, weaving, and hat and shoe making. The unmade streets were alive with taverns to wet the throats of dusty quarrymen, and the final touch, ambiance-wise, would have been provided by the malodourous effluvia of the Schetbroke, an open sewer of a stream which ran through the town (but now happily culverted).


I don’t know the particular history of this rather grand cottage seen above, but it’s a good example of a later stone frontage added to a much older building. Most of the town’s stonework has in fact been recycled from its medieval priory, dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540.


In amongst the antiquity we can also find more recent buildings. For instance, in the space between  medieval neighbours is this little set of picturesque alms houses built in 1810. They are known as Wolmer’s Alms Houses, a charity founded in the town in 1485. They are still operated on a charitable basis for the elderly. I love the brick ogival arches over the doors and windows.


At the end of Sheinton Street is Brookhouse Farm. It is now a residential enclave of smart barn conversions, but until fairly recently was one of the last surviving examples of England’s town farms.  I can still remember it in the 1990s as a very rustic farmyard with cattle in the barns. The farmhouse in the foreground was stone-clad in the early 1700s, and is one of several Much Wenlock houses with a medieval hall concealed within it. You might call this the Chinese Box school of architecture.

Then on the opposite corner from the farm is the Bull Ring…


…so named after the unsavoury pursuit of bull-baiting that went on here until the early 1800s. By then the timber-framed building  had stood for some 200 years, while Holy Trinity Church, seen behind and in the next photo, stands on the site the Saxon women’s church of St Milburga’s Abbey, founded in c.680 AD as a religious house for both nuns and monks. The oldest part of the present church is the nave which dates from 1150. Other parts were constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries.


During monastic times, Much Wenlock was ruled by the Prior under ecclesiastical law. After the dissolution in 1540 a new civil courthouse had to be built. It stands just across the Church Green, and marks the centre of the town. These days the ground floor is the venue for our various markets, while upstairs houses the original law court (now a gallery) and the council chamber which is still used for all Town Council meetings, and has to be one of the most uncomfortable, if august, venues in the whole town.


And now we’ll double back on ourselves. Please head under the arch (look out for the man with a camera) and cut across the Church Green for our last stop on this tour – a quick look at Much Wenlock Priory.


This is the view from the lane, where the site’s perimeter is shaded by soaring Corsican Pines. We’ll need more time to make it worthwhile buying a ticket to go inside, so I’ll leave you with a photo from one of my earlier visits: a close-up of the monks’ lavabo where they used to wash before entering the refectory to take their meals.

The carved panel dates from c.1180, which is odd, actually. I could swear one of the saints is on his cell phone.  Not so much religious texts, as a direct call to the Almighty?


In Part 2 I’ll take you on a black and white stroll up the High Street.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


5 Photos 5 Stories Hidden Wenlock #1

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: over fifty years old

Anyone for CGI – Iron, that is?

Travel theme: Ripples

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Ripples through time, ripples of iron: Ailsa’s prompt gives me the chance to show another shot of Bage’s Flaxmill-Maltings, the world’s first iron-framed building and eighteenth century blueprint for the skyscraper.

Recently, fellow blogger Frizztext in his post on Frankfurt Mainhattan spoke of “skyscrapers to sharpen the corporate identity”, a stunningly acerbic phrase, and Charles Bage certainly had something of the sort in mind when he built the flaxmill. The whole thrust of his design was to overcome a long-standing and costly problem for mill owners: the propensity of flax and cotton mills to go up in flames. There was certainly big money to be made in proving such a design. For one thing it meant industrialists could build bigger, taller factories, the better to exploit larger numbers of needy workers including orphans.

However, the iron-clad tower above (and whose rusty corrugations I confess to enhancing with some digital tinkering), belongs to the building’s later phase when it was used for malting barley for the brewing trade. I confess, too, to a yen for corrugated sheet iron. You could put it down to a childhood spent in rural Cheshire where the curved iron cladding of Dutch barns formed striking landmarks across the flat farmland. It was usually painted black.

St Chad's Gospel Mission Church, Blists Hill, Madley

St Chad’s Gospel Mission Church, Blists Hill Open Air Museum, Shropshire. Photo: Creative Commons David Dixon

Corrugated Galvanised Iron is anyway a brilliantly useful structural material. It was invented in the 1820s by Henry Palmer, architect and engineer to the London Dock Company. Cheap, and relatively easy to transport, it has been used all over the world to rainproof grass huts, make instant pioneer homes and water tanks, and to clad colonial godowns and administrative offices. One useful property is that it is pest proof. At least I think termites can’t quite manage to recycle it. It is ideal for prefabricated buildings, requiring little skill to erect. Furthermore, as it rusts, it creates its own art installations across the landscape. There are of course downsides in the tropics, rusting being one of them. Also iron roofs convert buildings into ovens during the hot season, and into tin drums in the rainy season.

I bet all you travellers out there (and especially those of you who live in Australia and New Zealand) have some good CGI shots too. Here are some more of mine.


Kikuyu farmstead 24

Kikuyu Farmhouse, Central Highlands

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Kikuyu Farmhouse, Central Highlands

Karen coffee garden gift shop and restaurant, once part of Blixen estate

Karen Blixen’s Coffee Farm Manager’s House, Karen, Nairobi


A farm in the Ngong Hills at Denys Finch Hatton’s grave site

And in Stone Town, Zanzibar:



Ndola Red Cross


Harare colonial house

Colonial house, Harare

Lamu, Kenya:




Victoria, Mahe

Pattern for the Skyscraper

Weekly Photo Challenge: Pattern


Fractured Light by Andy McKeown, Flaxmill-Maltings, Shrewsbury May 11-12 2013

At first sight there may seem to be no connection whatsoever between Andy McKeown’s magical lightshows (Fractured Light) and the skylines of NYC, Dubai, Chicago, Hong Kong. But believe me there is. In fact there are some clues in the photo below, although they are heavily disguised by the giddy maypole effect of light streamers. Architects should spot them, though – the slender columns of cast iron.  And this is where the another kind of pattern comes in – not in the spectacle of fractured light, but in the venue. On the 11-12 May 2013 the Friends of the Flaxmill-Maltings held an open weekend so Nosy Writer and hundreds of other nosy people could look round this old industrial complex, perhaps for the last time before renovation work begins. Since the buildings have been lying derelict for decades this was something of a celebration, hence the performances by musicians, craftspeople and artists all over the complex.


Andy McKeown’s ‘Fractured Light’ was up on the third floor of the Cross Mill, and without the entrancing light show the place would have been dank, cold and cavernous. It was originally the mill where hackling or flax dressing took place, and is part of a late eighteenth century iron-framed building – the first of its kind in the world. This is Bage’s Flax Mill in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, the place where, in 1796-7, the makings of the skyscraper began.


Shropshire Archives

Photo: Shropshire Archives

Above is the building around the end of the nineteenth century after it had been converted into a malting factory. The main five storey block was the original flax mill. And  its connection with the Manhattan skyline?

New York 214


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…a constructional frame of iron columns and beams that ever since has allowed buildings to go upwards.

As with many great innovations, the development of iron framed buildings was prompted by disaster. In 1796, linen magnate, John Marshall and Shrewsbury businessmen, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon had suffered severe financial losses when their timber-built mill in Leeds, Yorkshire, caught fire. Such fires in textile mills were all too common. Flax and cotton dust  are highly combustible, and not only were the early mills built extensively from timber, they were also candlelit. And so when Messrs Marshall and Benyon had the opportunity to develop a new flax mill in Ditherington, Shrewsbury, a fire-resistant building was what they required.  And a good part of the answer lay in an up and coming new material – cast iron.

The late 18th century was the age of cast iron. It was the revolutionary material of choice for engineers and architects of vision. In 1781 the spectacular unveiling of the world’s first iron bridge had taken place at Coalbrookdale, a few miles downriver of Shrewsbury. It was a PR stunt of breath-taking proportions: to use this untried material in such a dramatic and highly visible  setting. But it was not all bravado. There were practical considerations too: the need to span the Severn in order to make a more convenient road link between various iron works, thus replacing a treacherous ferry crossing. Then there was show-off element of achieving this with a single arch that was tall enough to allow swift passage for the sailing barges that plied the Severn from Bristol to Shrewsbury. Usually these large cargo boats had to lower their masts to go under the Severn’s many stone bridges.

At the time, then, the Iron Bridge was a new world wonder and a magnet for celebrity visitors. Coalbrookdale ironmaster, Abraham Darby III, was the man making his pitch for the utility of cast iron, egged on by business associate John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson whose works across the river from Coalbrookdale were being served by the new bridge.   When in 1795, the Iron Bridge was the only bridge to survive unscathed the massive river floods of 1795, it more than sparked the interest of Thomas Telford, ‘Father of Civil Engineering’. At the time he was also in Shropshire, working as County Surveyor. He went on to devise his own astonishing uses for cast iron, not least the Pontcyssylte Aqueduct near Llangollen in North Wales.

But if all this constructional enterprise in iron seems a bit old hat to us now, then perhaps we should try thinking of the River Severn in Shropshire as the Silicon Valley of its day. Cast iron helped drive the Industrial Revolution in all its component parts; it brought us to where we are today. 

The world’s first Iron Bridge, built by Abraham Darby III and opened in 1781. Today, it is a world heritage site and still spans the River Severn in Ironbridge, Shropshire.

While technological developments were proceeding in Shropshire, the possibilities of using iron in industrial buildings were also being explored by Derbyshire cotton spinner and architect William Strutt. He was particularly concerned to find a way to make cotton mills more fire resistant. To this end, he developed the shallow arched brick ceilings with tiled and plaster floors that his friend and fellow Derbyshire man, Charles Bage  was later to use in the Ditherington Flax Mill. He also used sheet iron to encase the mills’ timber beams to inhibit fire damage. All these measures he discussed by letter with Bage who shared his interests. And in 1776 Bage, just happened to be a wine merchant and surveyor, working in Shrewsbury.

And so as the old A-Team phrase would have it, here we have a good plan coming together. Charles Bage was engaged by Marshall and the Benyon Brothers to design their flax mill. There on the banks of the Shrewsbury Canal that Thomas Telford was just then completing, he would create a quite novel construction in iron, and since this was pioneering stuff, he decided to take nothing for granted. He set about undertaking a series of experiments to test the structural properties and strength of iron, and so established the modern discipline of structural engineering. The papers with his calculations still survive.

The Ditherington Flax Mill, then,  was the first mill to be built from brick and iron. It was this mode of construction that led the way for the development of multi-storey, fire-resistant buildings, and whose techniques were later  adapted for the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.


Cast iron pillar on the ground floor of the flax mill warehouse.

But this is where the story of entrepreneurial enterprise and invention takes a nasty turn. We are, after all, also talking about the growth of the factory and and the enslaving of human beings to the demands of machines and mill owners. In the 1840s there were 800 employees at Ditherington and, as time went on, more than half of the workers were under twenty years old, with some as young as seven. These were the apprentices, mostly orphans and illegitimate children despatched from parish Work Houses in order to learn a trade. At Ditherington, the conditions were reputed to be better than most mills: accommodation in the Apprentice House was strictly segregated, and the welfare and moral upbringing was overseen by a manager. Even so, working hours were long and life was tough. There were cruel and vindictive overseers who beat the children for the slightest mistake, or dipped them head first into a water cistern if they dozed off at their work.  

In 1832 there was a House of Commons enquiry into factory working conditions and Ditherington workers gave evidence. One Samuel Downe, born in Shrewsbury in 1804, told the Committee that he began work at the mill from the age of ten. Of his working hours he says:

       “We used to generally begin at five o’clock in the morning till eight at night.”

And when he was asked if he had been beaten, he said that once he had been beaten so hard that he could not lie on his back to sleep. The reason given for the brutality was  this:

      “I had never been in a mill where there was machinery, and it was winter time, and we worked by gas-light, and I could not catch the revolutions of the machinery to take the tow out of the hackles; it requires some practice, and I was timid at it.”


Scene from one of John Marshall’s flax  mills in Leeds c.1800, much as his Ditherington Mill would have looked. (Copyright expired)

Despite such indictments, John Marshall saw himself as a benign employer. He believed that treating his workforce well meant they would work harder and yield greater profit. He thus provided ventilation and heating in the work rooms, and in time added baths and changing rooms. Also in 1834 when there were 92 child employees, they were by then allowed two two-hour sessions, morning and afternoon, for lessons.

Even so, the processing of flax on this vast scale, was a dusty, unpleasant business. The crop had to be dried, then de-seeded by threshing and combing. Then it was left to partially rot for up to three weeks so the stems could be peeled away from the useful fibre. Next this fibre was dried, separated and combed by machine and finally twisted into yarn on  spinning machines.

Throughout the 18th century, linen was a hugely important textile. In Shrewsbury flax yarn production took over from the dwindling wool industry, employing many of its skilled workers. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) Ditherington was supplying the yarn to make Britain’s military uniforms. But with successive generations of owners, and doubtless the growth of the Lancashire cotton industry, the mill began to fail, finally closing in 1886. Some ten years later it had a new lease of life. The five-storey building was converted into the Maltings, making malt for the brewing industry. These works finally  closed 1987, and since then this extraordinary building has been left to fall apart, despite being a Grade I listed building.


Photo: Keith 1999 Creative Commons

This, though, is hopefully about to change. Finally, on the verge of collapse, and after much campaigning by the Friends of Flaxmill-Maltings, a partnership of English Heritage and Shropshire Council has put in a bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Their plans include a massive regeneration scheme, bringing environmentally friendly office and workshop space to a currently depressed part of Shrewsbury. Perhaps at last this landmark structure will have a bright new existence, and just as Andy McKeown’s light show amazed and energized the Open Day visitors, infuse its occupants with life-enhancing potential, banishing the ghosts of dismal exploitation. 

In the meantime, Nosy Writer, like many others, is rather keen on scenes of industrial decay. So here are a few shots of the Flax Mill-Maltings – pattern of bricks, timber and iron.



The timber hoist tower was added during the Maltings phase and the ornamental capping put up to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.


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For more info about the Flaxmill project:

© 2013 Tish Farrell