27 November 2015

Happy National Gutters Day!

On a disused Victorian toilet block
Today is the day to ensure sure your hopper heads are firmly attached to your downpipes and your gutters are clean and unclogged ready for the winter onslaught of rain, sleet and snow.

Guttering is, of course, a very practical invention – buildings do not survive long without the means to rapidly and effectively jettison rainwater – and it was the Romans who first brought the notion of good water management to Britain. They even had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina (who, not surprisingly I suppose, also protected sexual intercourse in marriage!).

Following their successful invasion of England in 1066, the Normans instigated the construction of huge numbers of castles, manor houses, churches and more, throughout the land, and these buildings, with their stone roofs, towers and turrets, required gutters and gargoyles to throw the water clear of their walls. Though unverified, it is thought that the first downpipe was erected in Britain in 1240, to protect the newly whitewashed walls of the Tower of London

The destruction of church buildings that began in 1536 after Henry VIII’s decree for the Dissolution of the Monasteries was, amazingly, a good thing for gutters because large quantities of lead became available. This lead was repurposed and reshaped into hopper heads for use on England’s many great houses, and the hopper heads were decorated with designs and dates, a fashion that continued when the use of cast iron replaced lead in the late 1700s.

Fabulous gargoyle water-throwers on the tower at Llandaff Cathedral

Also at Llandaff Cathedral, hoppers and Kings of England and a jolly Green Man

Cast iron was cheaper and more plentiful than lead so gutters, downpipes and hopper heads became commonplace on smaller houses and the fact that the iron was cast meant it could also be patterned. During the Victorian period, hopper heads became rather ornate, their designs more detailed, and downpipes might have embossed motifs or barley-twist patterns.

Sadly, this fashion died out in the mid 20th century and the gutters of today are very uninspiring, mostly black and frequently plastic, usually plain and angular, with no ornamentation. Fortunately, there are still some craftsmen manufacturing replica guttering for the refurbishment and restoration of historical buildings, and they maintain the old tradition of adding ornamentation and dates to their work. 

This magnificent beast attends to the rain water at Cardiff Castle, as do those pictured below


National Gutters Day does, of course, have a more practical purpose than simply celebrating the gutters of the past. The day came into being in 2002 and was the brainchild of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). It is the finale of National Maintenance Week, ‘an awareness campaign designed to encourage everyone who owns or looks after a building to take a few simple steps at the beginning of winter to ensure that their property is ready for anything that the season can throw at them, especially in these increasingly wet, windy and unpredictable days’.  

On the Cardiff Crown Court and City Hall buildings

On a repurposed church and on a private house (a well-used pigeon perch by the look of it)


It’s an eminently sensible cause. For me, though, today is about paying tribute to the craftsmen who created the wonderful designs to be found on the hopper heads of some of Cardiff’s glorious old buildings and about celebrating the ornate guttering of centuries past. Happy National Gutters Day!

The beautiful creatures above and below guard the gutters on Cardiff University's Trevithick Building

A selection from the King Edward VII Hospital buildings

An appropriate design for this hopper at St Margaret's Church in Roath

My favourite of Cardiff's gutters to date: this magnificent hopper can be found on Cardiff University's Glamorgan Building