Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tin town halls

For all its other qualities Pembrokeshire is not awash with grand architecture, at least not in the usual sense of that term. Much the same could be said of Wales. There are many reasons for this: the quality of local materials; a low wage community that prioritises economy over fancy design; and in the case of Pembrokeshire, the Atlantic weather which eats away at any structural weakness.

I read somewhere that Jan Morris had declared the quintessential Welsh building to be the farm. That's a good shout; it certainly isn't the castles, most of which were built by the English and in any case are largely in ruins. I'd add the chapel, particularly those Methodist tradition tabernacles which stand austere at the centre of most villages here abouts.

But a third, and often overlooked contender, could be the tin village hall. These are not unique to Wales but there's an abundance here that helps to define the place. Often they were attached to churches but the community would use them, if not quite seamlessly, for both religious and secular purposes. My late neighbour gleefully told me tales of Saturday night shagging behind our village hall - of course, there was a Sunday School too, he said.

Tin halls and churches are having a resurgence. There's some that are listed buildings, others have been converted to holiday homes; occasionally a tea room, an artists studio... They're a popular motif too: on postcards, paintings, tea towels - there's even a coffee table book of moody photographs called Tin Tabernacles.

Until recently our hall was open to the wind; House Martins had colonised the rafters with their pulp nests and in the cupboards you could find posters for the Silver Jubilee dance, paper plates in red white and blue. There was a sink unit holding white china crockery and a water boiler with a two pin plug.

Three years ago the church sold it off. It was bought by a local farmer - he's had it repainted, sealed the doors and otherwise left it alone. In a way I hope it stays that way. Better that than being replaced by a rendered bungalow.

It's easy to become falsely nostalgic about the heyday of these buildings. The sense of community the halls embodied and sustained has waned; in most places it's long gone. In isolation that's to be lamented, but the reality is that few us would opt for the life choices of those who built and used these glorified sheds. On a tangent, I once bemoaned the loss of the simple youth hostels in Wales to which a trustee replied that the visitors had stopped coming long before the hostels closed. There is an equivalence here, but let's not get too embroiled in politics and social history.

Few visitors come through my village unless they're lost. Those that do tend to be looking for the old church with its arts and crafts rood screen; most walk past the hall on the green without a glance. That's a pity, for in the right setting these tin structures are some of the finest and most typical architecture of Wales.


  1. I agree. The wife and I love Wales and your pictures have instantly transported me there... do accept some tinned applause.

  2. I found this a really interesting post as I did some research into 'tin tabernacles' and wrote a piece about them for our county magazine many years ago, and more lately the village magazine, which happened to tie in with a talk being given about one of them in our area. I also saw an article about one being lived in, it was gorgeous inside. The local one is at Babingley, and has a thatched roof, and was restored many years ago. I used to drive down there to photograph it in the various stages of going from decrepitude to beauty.

  3. We used to love chucking stones and footballs onto corrugated tin roofs just like these when I was but a nipper. It was a noise thing, of course. As for the shagging behind the village hall part, well, not quite,...but lets just say 'thanks for the mammaries' Mark.

  4. I think that's part of the charm of unspoilt Wales. Lovely photos.

  5. I think you a right about the Chapels. There are some beauties out there. Still kept immaculate in some cases by the aging congregation. My Great Nan and Grandad used to clean the one in the village.

    Don't know about any shagging behind our hall, but I certainly smoked a few underage cigarettes there.

    The Jan Morris book is an absolute cracker, one of my all time favourites I think.

  6. It is a shame when hostels close and old buildings knocked down--better to see them re-purposed.

    Wishing you many happy hours in your new shed. I tried to leave a comment on that post but Blogger would not cooperate.

  7. Hi Mark
    Thanks for your comment, I do pop over but rarely comment on anything at the moment. Far too busy being shocked about finding myself pregnant again ;)

    Wonderful to read about tin churches, a few years ago I found out that we had our very own one in St Albans. Its mentioned here: http://www.ssaviours.org/TheStory/Wilton%20Hall.htm

    The only actual experiences of them I have had are this one at the Chiltern Open Air Museum which has a special feel about it http://www.flickr.com/photos/topcat_angel/2541009634/
    However I do recall a lot of tin buildings from my travels around Western Australia and there really is something special about them, they do take you back to a lost time and not in the same way that National Trust properties do, if you know what I mean. Fantastic that its been saved, for now anyway...

  8. I love 'tin' buildings of any kind...While out on a bike ride a few days ago I purchased a coffee from a 'tin' shop in the village of Chettle in Dorset...just like stepping back in time..!!
    Thanks for another interesting post Mark.


  9. interesting post...
    our village hall was commissioned by the Italian Counsul who actually lived in a hall just outside of the village
    one of the reasons for its commission was to give the poor out of work a job!

  10. Wow! Brilliant idea. Thanks for all these infos. I've been looking around for this and i found it here in your blog.

  11. Hi, Love this story.

    I am researching corrugated iron buildings in Wales and would love to know where this is.