There is a strange stillness before the first frost dusts the mown grass white. In time past, before central heating, there was surprise and delight when one threw back the eiderdown into the freezing morning to find frost had painted delicate, spidery leaf patterns all over the windowpanes. Comfortable central heating has banished all that into the almost forgotten past. Winter begins officially on the first of December, but the chill comes before then. Clear, frosty skies provide the most beautiful sunsets of the year, as if to apologise for the shiver in the air. Bare branches wave a spidery pattern over the pastel shades of blue and pink above the horizon.
Under a duvet is where one might choose to be in a Covid-stricken world, muffling out cold and infection. There is a consolation in listening to the patter of rain on roof or against windows. Our Sunday outing into the countryside took us past a house built in the Arts and Crafts style at the end of the nineteenth century. The craftsmanship of the brickwork was as visually satisfying as a hot meal on a winter’s day. A row of workers’ cottages, one room deep, had a pleasing rhythm of shallow arches running around the windows along the façade. Was it built for seasonal farmhands, perhaps for families on a working holiday from a city slum?
Flexibility, adaptability. Change of use. Inside where the stables used to be now stand chairs and tables. A café. The cobblestones, cleared off ploughed fields in times long past, equally hard on hobnailed boot or hoof, usefully raised them above the puddles and urine. Perhaps children were once employed to pick smaller stones off fields and deposit them by the stables for the winter tasks of cobbling shoes and courtyards. Now cars bump over the cobblestones and weekenders stop to buy plants and craft products, herbs and perfumes. Apples are piled for sale in baskets placed at garden gates with bedding plants, harbingers of springtime and a money box beside them.
Is there still a hierarchy of building materials? There is no stone in the Beverley area, the material used for nobler buildings – churches and castles. A wealthy person could enhance his status by building in stone. No quarries near Beverley, but pilgrims to the tomb of Saint John of Beverley in a small church left coins and parishioners gathered the money to pay for a noble church. Stone was imported. It came from Tadcaster by river to the sea. From there, ships laden with stone hugged the coast southwards to the port of Hull. It was built by the Humber estuary where the Romans had sailed before founding the city of York. From the Hull river that flows into the Humber, a canal was dug for boats laden with Tadcaster stone to anchor close to the site chosen for Beverley minster. At the other end of the town is Saint Mary’s. These two sturdy stone buildings stand at opposite ends of the medieval town that was one of the largest in thirteenth-century England. However, humble bricks were used to build the two country houses on nearby estates, though stones were used for mullions framing the windows and for quoins at the corners. Stone erodes less than brick and winds buffet the corners of a building more than the flat walls. Framing a brick building in stone gives it a touch of nobility.
The last time I visited Burton Constable, a fine stone country house built in brick in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, I wandered through a suite of rooms with enough time to look closely at the pictures. In one of them was a picture of the brick building I was inside, and there it was painted white. It would have been a time-consuming and expensive task to paint a large building white, just to disguise the brick and make people believe, at least from afar, that it was the stone seat of an ancient family. A question of status.