The Bedside Book of Dormers

An ode to Ulster's architecture. Watch video featuring author Marcus Patton

Marcus Patton is a true Renaissance man. Architect, accomplished viola player, watercolourist, and, judging by his new book The Bedside Book of Dormers and Other Delights, an architectural anorak.

The premise is not promising. A pictorial guide to architectural details in Ulster? Hundreds of photographs of windows, doors, roofs, walls, the eponymous dormers… Yawn. Far from dull, the book is, in fact, a delight. I would go further. It does what all great books do – it makes the reader look at the world, or at least our built environment, in a whole new light.

Now as I drive along the roads of Limavady and County Londonderry, I peer curiously at chimney pots, farm gates, weathercocks, window guards, porches, and date stones, marvelling at the sheer variety of architectural stuff that is still, despite our pathological love affair with the new build bungalow, all around us.

Patton, according to the book’s preface, realised this more than 30 years ago, when he returned to Northern Ireland after some years living in Scotland, and embarked on his photographic odyssey. ‘I was pleased to recognize architectural details that I had missed elsewhere, and often delighted by other things I had never noticed before.’

From an Arts & Crafts house in Dungannon to a granite chimney in Seaforde, the bell on the lodge of the People’s Park in Ballymena to decorative Victorian tiles at Bellarena railway station, Patton has photographed and commented on a vast array of architectural styles and ornamental offerings.

Even the Nerve Centre in Derry~Londonderry gets in on the act, with ‘the magnificent lettering and startlingly cheerful colour scheme’ of Café Nervosa warranting a mention.

Patton is certainly not a snob, joyfully detailing the ‘hedge sparrows [of architecture] that we take for granted but which visitors to Ireland can find surprisingly exotic’.

The photographs are accompanied by little gems of information and much wry commentary. The tone is set with the book’s frontispiece, a Patton watercolour of Dungannon Police Station reputedly designed for use in the Khyber Pass in India, until the plans were misplaced by a civil servant in Dublin. Local legend has it that the Khyber Pass is decorated by an Ulster Police Station…

‘Even ivy can get out of hand,’ Patton writes of a house in Derry. ‘And when you can’t see out of the second floor windows it is time to call a gardener.’

On McKnight’s outfitters in Kilkeel: ‘In a fishing port a draper has to offer not just balls of wool for the women but also seamen’s outfits to replace those lost or shrunk at sea.’

Few of the buildings are identified and only located by nearest town and county, which turns the book into a fun I-Spy. I once considered buying the house in Hilden with the Moorish windows, for example, and speculate just where is that art nouveau column in Magherafelt?

Contemplate the humble bollard. You never have? Neither had I, yet here is a ship’s cannon half buried in the ground, muzzle upwards, in Hill Street, Belfast. And a unique bollard with a clenched fist clutching a baton, lurking somewhere in the streets of Limavady.

There’s plenty of other weird and wonderful stuff – model houses, bootscrapers, postboxes, and topiary. Moscow Joe McKinley, the naïve artist from Carnlough, gets his own page. Little remains of McKinley’s house (and therefore work), demolished on his death in 2003. Indeed, many of the buildings featured in the book no longer exist.

‘For the most permanent of the arts, architecture is remarkably transient,’ Patton writes. ‘The basic structure of a building may survive a long time but brick gets repointed, glass gets broken, slates slip, timber rots and even stone decays.’

Never mind our wanton vandalism and gung-ho planning laws. Patton likens plastic windows, which have wiped out many of our indigenous window types, as the ‘grey squirrel of the architectural ecosystem’.

These buildings and architectural details, once common now rare, and so often carelessly destroyed, are the very fabric of our past, a tangible living heritage. Taken as a whole they ‘have a flavour that you can recognize as Ulster, as distinctive as potato farls, and our towns and villages would be the poorer without their cheerful presence’.

Patton’s marvellous book manages somehow to be both celebration and lament.

The Bedside Book of Dormers and Other Delights is out now, published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.