Signs and memories: Ladybellegate Street, Gloucester

Philip Wilkinson is the author of over 40 books, including The English Buildings Book, and a new book called The High Street, written in conjunction with a major BBC TV series. Happily for us, he’s also the curator of the English Buildings Blog, a firm favorite here at The Dabbler. In this series of posts, Philip talks us through some overlooked architectural gems…

Walking around Gloucester a while back and wondering for the umpteenth time if the latest wave of regeneration will achieve anything more than an outbreak of urban regenerator’s bum, I was pleased to be reminded of this chunk of wall in Ladybellegate Street, in the centre of the city. This is the kind of signwriting that makes me lie on my back and purr, and somehow the decay that’s taken place makes it more evocative, not less.

Why get worked up about a painted notice on an old wall? Well, for several reasons, actually.

First, it’s a reminder of a kind of craftsmanship we don’t much see these days, now that the laser printer has replaced the brush and mahl-stick. Someone chose the letters, laid them out, and painted them with care and skill. They got the swelling strokes of the capitals for ‘TALBOTS’ just right, and added the little pointed flourishes. And they contrasted these ornate letters with the plainer sans-serif forms of the rest of the sign, skilfully negotiating the curve of the wall while keeping all the letters in proportion. Respect, as they say, to the person who could do all this so well.

Second, the sign tells us about a forgotten industry: quite a lot of us know that Gloucester produced matches, flour, and aeroplanes; it’s interesting to know that beer was bottled here too. A city like Gloucester produced many of its own goods and foods and drinks in the 19th century, while also, as a port, remaining open to imports from mainland Europe and beyond.

Third, this place is right in the centre of Gloucester, alerting us to the fact that this town was once home to a diverse inner-city economy, where manufacturing, processing, packing, and merchandizing went on in the same neighbourhood. Industries weren’t banished to ring roads or out of town ghettos – shops, factories, houses, churches, and civic buildings jostled together in a hectic inner-city amalgam.

It tells us a lot, then, this fading, scuffed paintwork. But its age and battered condition stand for something more. I’ll try and illustrate this with a personal story. Over thirty years ago, in my last year at school, I set out on a series of journeys across England and Wales to attend university interviews. One of these grillings was at Swansea, and as my train slowed and pulled into Cardiff station I caught sight of a poster, then common in Wales, advertising the local brew: ‘It’s Brains you want!’ said the slogan on the poster, a remark that seemed cruelly apposite in view of the purpose of my journey. A few years ago I made the same train journey and was astonished to see that, although the poster had long been stripped away, its ghost, in the form of a faint residual image, was still there on the wall.

How many hundreds of thousands of people had seen that poster or its ghostly image? What pints had it evoked in the minds’ eyes (or minds’ taste-buds) of passengers? What other imaginings had it inspired? Talbot’s wall must have sparked off similar trains of thought, renewed on reacquaintance, redoubled even with a passing glimpse of this tantalizing fragment. Such signs are triggers of memory, and repositories of dreams.

You can check out Philip’s blog – chock full of curious and diverting buildings, here

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8 thoughts on “Signs and memories: Ladybellegate Street, Gloucester

    October 20, 2010 at 18:21

    I love all these old reminders of the past, we have destroyed so many of them, it is almost criminal.
    Listed buildings are disappearing at a rate of knots, or being changed beyond all recognition.
    Frome, was reknowned for the Coloroll and Singer factories, which have both now been transformed into modern housing estates. The original signage for the Coloroll factory, was supposed to be preserved and erected at the entrance to the estate, but somehow this got demolished along with everything else and is lost to us forever.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    October 20, 2010 at 18:40

    I lived in Gloucester for around 10 years before my self imposed banishment and found that the secret for exploring the city was to look up. Frontages had been reduced to the usual level of pap across the city, but look up to the first storey and above and the city was full of fun like this.

    I actually worked in the aircraft factory. It was producing man made fibres by this time but it to had its own little bits of hisory in the stones. Toward the back of the factory there was a piece of brick wall perfectly smooth and unblemished but outlined clearly by a very worn area. Legend had it that this was where a piece of armour plate had been fastened to the wall for use in aligning the machine guns on Spitfires. The outline was produced by those shots that were somewhat less aligned than others.

      October 21, 2010 at 13:35

      I think that what you say about looking up, when exploring cities, is the best one and something we have now started doing, after we heard the same advice a couple of years back.

      Our closest cities are Salisbury and Bath and that advice has certainly paid dividends, as we see things in a wholly different light. The place where we found the advice struck us the most was actually Bournemouth, where the upper stories of many of the main street shops, are actually glorious reminders of her past Victorian splendour.

      • Gaw
        October 21, 2010 at 14:02

        I get upset whenever I visit Bournemouth because I can’t understand why anyone would allow a big boxy cinema to be built across the view of the bay. A big, boxy, ugly cinema. A building that by definition doesn’t have exterior views. All it can do is block views. And it’s squatting across the view of the bay. So you’re next to one of the most beautiful bays in England and you’re sitting in the dark watching a film, a film that could be watched anywhere, and not only are you not enjoying the view, your activity is preventing others from seeing it, seeing this beautiful bay. All you can see is this big, boxy, ugly, monstrous cinema, squatting there, in front of the beautiful bay. It’s just wrong. It’s stupid. It upsets me. Yes, it does. It really does. Aaarghh!

        The planners deserve to be put in stocks by the local townsfolk and then forced to eat the cinema, block by block.

  3. Brit
    October 20, 2010 at 19:21

    Terrific stuff – I love these ghostly posters.

    (Your story of visiting prospective universities by train reminds me of my own experience when visiting Reading as a sixth-former… as the train pulled into the station the first thing to greet me was a giant graffiti message: “Students F*** Off”).

  4. Worm
    October 20, 2010 at 19:24

    great story BTAPL, and a great post Philip! There are still a few of these old advertising signs peeling away here in Leamington Spa.

    Those of you interested in these ‘ghost signs’ might like to know that there’s a website dedicated to recording them, with many amazing examples:


    Gadjo Dilo
    October 21, 2010 at 05:54

    Thanks for introducing us to Philip and his blog! My uncle was a signwriter for a while and proved how difficult a job it can be by not being very good at it. This post also rekindled my own memories of travelling on trains to university interviews. I’d bought the cheapest double-breasted suit (why I thought double-breasted was suitable for a 17-year-old I cannot imagine) available in C & A, and it was brown and made in Romania, strangely, and I looked a proper nana. After my interview at Liverpool Uni I asked a passer-by to direct me kindly to The Carvern Club. He was surprised but rather warmed by this peculiar little foreigner’s request.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    October 22, 2010 at 13:53

    Gloucester architecture can be rather odd. My own favourite oddity was the Music Library. This is past the main library, down a little lane behind the market. This picture catches only a part of its oddness. With its 70s brutalist rear merging into a medieval monastic ruin all thats lacking from the picture is the Georgian sandstone frontage.

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