DRIVEN TO PERFECTION
The Malverns are a long way from the smokestacks of British manufacturing. But the hills of this genteel spa are home to a redbrick factory where Britain’s most characterful car is made.
Morgan is the oldest private car maker in the world – founded in 1909 by HFS Morgan to make a three-wheel cycle-car. The motorised trike was the perfect runabout: cheap, but with the charm to seduce aspiring Mr Toads into donning tweed and motoring across the English countryside.
A century later Morgan still produces three-wheelers. There’s a line of them outside the factory greeting me with chromium smiles. No robots or Henry Ford conveyor belts at work here, each car is assembled by hand, passing from one craftsman to the next: the first fashions the chassis, the next the body, another makes and fits the dashboard, the last one spray-paints the vehicle. Four weeks from parts to a shining new sports tourer.
Morgan cars mix the traditional and modern: the chassis is a ‘sandwich’ of steel and 95 pieces of ash. Yes ash: the tree that the bows and arrows of Agincourt were made from. But a 21st-century motor car? “The wood absorbs shocks very well,” Managing Director Charles Morgan, grandson of the founder, tells me. “It’s a flexible and light material that links contemporary engineering to established craftsmanship.” In a field in Lincolnshire, Morgan is planting ash trees which in forty years’ time will reach speeds of 106mph.
‘Moggies’ demonstrate the joy of a handmade brand – no car is exactly the same as the next. Each bonnet and boot is made to measure. The testimony of 430 men and women dedicated to the craftsmanship of cars.
The Morgan Motor Company, runs guided factory tours.
BATH’S MODEL CITIZEN
In a dusty former Victorian school on the edge of Bath, Timothy Richards is remaking the world in miniature. It’s a world of great architecture: the Pantheon, the White House, Villa Rotonda, the Radcliffe Camera, the Chrysler Building – each one crafted from plaster in precise and exquisite detail.
Richards’ workshop mirrors its master: chaotic, relaxed but passionate. “I was an art teacher,” he tells me. “Not a good one, disorganised – poor at disciplining kids. I tried being a pottery manager, but the company wasn’t interested in my ideas. In 1988 I found myself out of work with a family to feed and I started casting and selling architectural models.”
His first pieces didn’t make money: “They were too fragile. So I refashioned them as solid, functional and, thankfully, popular bookends. At the same time, I began to develop my craft, to understand how plaster models can draw out the qualities and transform our image of buildings.”
“Most architects’ reproductions are made for planning, to sell a concept. I make models of a building to reveal its soul. When you scale down a large structure you can understand how and why it was built. I want to uncover the emotions of the original architect and builders. I imagine them in the room, talking to me while I am working.”
Richards encourages potential clients to take a photo of his Pantheon model and then send it to friends pretending they are visiting Rome. “The detail fools everyone,” he grins. Hard-earned detail: it takes a week to cast, assemble and decorate the 85 different parts which make up the model of the Roman temple.
The work attracts interest from around the world, with major pieces selling at auction for five-figure sums. Richards recently won the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation prize from the University of Notre Dame for outstanding work in the field of traditional and classical architecture. For all the international acclaim, the maker’s relationship with his home town has been fraught: “I made myself unpopular in Bath when I fought to save a neoclassical 1930s buildings from demolition. I’d like to think the city and I have made peace now – I am preparing a model for the newly renovated Georgian museum.”
Not surprisingly for a man who has spent 15 years studying the world’s architectural heritage, he wants to leave a personal legacy. “My dream is to create a museum featuring 25 models. I call it the ‘pivotal buildings’ project’; a gallery where people can see and understand how these structures changed our civilisation.” In a (literally) small but beautiful way, Richards has shown how important architecture is to the human experience.
Find out more about Timothy Richards
Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire is where the industrial revolution blazed into life. In 1709 Abraham Darby perfected cast iron production here and the valley was soon pitted with mine shafts and blazing with blast furnaces.
Three hundred years later the satanic mills are gone, and the wooded gorge is a World Heritage Site dedicated to industrial history.
The gorge remains loyal to its artisan traditions. Craven Dunnill produce handmade floor and wall tiles at the valley’s Jackfield Tile Museum. Utilising machinery installed when the factory was founded 130 years ago, they use Victorian glaze techniques, source local clay and hand decorate the tiles.
Ralph Jandrell makes ceramics at the Coalport China Museum: “My work follows an English tradition,” he tells me. “The ideas come from the natural environment at Ironbridge Gorge. It’s a living template for Arts & Crafts patterns – the timeless motifs I use to decorate my pieces.”
Another artisan influenced by the valley’s history is local born decorative glass maker Nikki Williams: “It is inspiring being in the birthplace of industry. Particularly for a local artist working by hand and keeping the ‘Britain still makes things’ ethos alive.”
Malcolm Gibbons is an Ironbridge woodcarver with a world-class pedigree. His ancestor 13 generations ago was Grinling Gibbons, Britain’s greatest ever wood sculptor whose intricate carvings decorate palaces from Hampton Court to Windsor Castle. When I meet Malcolm at his workshop in Blists Hill Victorian Museum he is making a rocking horse – which he describes as ‘an antique of the future… carved with love’.
BAGS OF STYLE
The satchel first appeared in the 1340s – the word comes from the French for ‘little bag’. Shakespeare gave it literary fame, imagining a ‘school-boy, with his satchel… creeping like snail unwillingly to school’.
When Julie Deane couldn’t find a suitable satchel for her son she started a business making them: “I always loved mine as a child. It lasted me all the way through school,” she explains. Five years after she founded the Cambridge Satchel Company, their bags have become a fashion icon.
Deane is committed to British manufacturing. In 2011 the company opened a factory in Leicester employing local craftsmen and women who make and finish the leather bags by hand. This year Cambridge Satchel opened a shop in London’s Covent Garden which features a lending library in the basement. Fans of the company’s bags range from East End hipsters to West End celebrities. And while the purple and fluorescent yellow versions attract young fashionistas, traditional satchel stylists are catered for with a classic brown version.
Marc Zakian stayed in the ancient town of Tewksbury at the Abbey Gatehouse, 30 minutes by car from Malvern. Standing guard over Tewkesbury Abbey, this grand building from the 1500s features vaulted ceilings, a large stone fireplace and sculpted angels to watch over you at night.
Beckford’s Tower was built in the 1820s to the design of the eccentric collector William Beckford as his museum and treasure house. It offers great views across the city of Bath.