Look Up and Wonder

Architectural enhancement of individual roofs and the creation of exciting roofscapes has been part of the builder’s art throughout history, whether to add style and character to buildings or for functional reasons, such as hiding unsightly features. An industry has arisen to serve this market, and builders and designers can choose from a host of different products and suppliers.  

Decorative ridge tiles are perhaps the most traditional Anglo-Saxon roofing embellishment and are currently enjoying a significant resurgence in popularity. More and more tile manufacturers have a standard range of designs and many also offer a bespoke service, which can prove particularly useful for replacing damaged original fittings. Clay and concrete are the two main materials used in ridge tile manufacture and designs can be as varied as the imagination can conceive. As would be expected, terracotta is the most specified colour, but slate grey and browns and greens are becoming increasingly more popular. Another current fashion in ridge embellishment is the addition of crestings, which are usually in cast iron or aluminium and hark back to Victorian and Georgian styles.  

Finials are often the subject of a designer’s wildest flights of fancy, taking the form of anything from geometric designs to animals and mythical beasts. Several companies market a range or will design to order and the materials used in the making include clay, concrete, wood, iron, copper, brass and plastic. They were originally developed to weigh down the end ridge tile, which is, of course, the most vulnerable to the elements and were often an integral part of this tile. With modern roofing methods, this practical application is no longer relevant, but for aesthetic uses the final is a popular and often a surprisingly low cost option.  

Cupolas and turrets constitute the royal family of roof ornaments, manufactured as domes, bell towers, spires, hexagons, octagons and in many other variations. Aesthetic appeal is often not the only aim: while adding character and style to a roof, these products readily act as clock towers or to support weathervanes or even to direct natural light into a gloomy interior. Information of all kinds may be displayed in an eye-catching manner, while screen-printing or signwriting will effectively “brand” a public or corporate building or a retail park and can be visible from a considerable distance.  

Cupolas are perfect disguises for unsightly ventilation ducting, boiler flues or foul air pipes. Louvres can be incorporated as inlet and outlet ventilation terminals for balanced flue boiler systems or for extracting gases and fumes from kitchens. Some manufacturers offer free-flowing natural exhaustion utilising external pressure differences, while others rely on electric fans, usually thermostatically controlled.

A good rule of thumb for choosing the correct size of cupola is to restrict the maximum base width to one twelfth of the width of the roof, measured at eaves level. This avoids the danger of “over-dressing”.  

Increasingly, cupolas are being constructed from maintenance-free glass-fibre reinforced plastic (GRP) and often to customers’ own designs. A reputable manufacturer will be able to ensure that not only the original style and colour but also the effects of ageing or weathering are maintained. Slate, lead and tile effect roofs are simulated by working from moulds or patterns made from the original material. The addition of copper powder to the plastic moulding followed by etching and other special treatments will bring out a natural verdigris appearance.  

Some manufacturers will undertake replacement of decayed or destroyed structures working only from an old photograph or drawing. The example shown here is a replica of a cupola 22 feet in height, complete with an eagle weathervane boasting a 36-inch wingspan. It was recreated for a public building in Lerwick, Shetland Isles, using an old museum photograph and measurements from the surviving wooden base.

Turrets not only add aesthetic appeal to a roof but can also serve as clock towers or support weathervanes.

The perfect finishing touch for many roof designers is the addition of a weathervane, Judging by the bewildering array of vanes on display throughout the country, it seems that if you can think of it, somebody will make it. Sailing ships, cars, bicycles and sporting figures abound and, of course, every bird and animal living, extinct or mythical is represented. Smaller weathervanes are still often made from copper and then treated with acid to produce verdigris normally requiring many years of weathering. Additionally, designs are generally available in brass, mild steel and highly polished stainless steel.

The very popular Oxford cupola with lead effect pagoda roof, classic clock and large copper rooster weathervane.


Most manufacturers agree that when large three-dimensional figures are required, GRP is by far the best material. As with most areas of roof ornamentation, one-off design and manufacture is a welcome challenge for some companies, often with spectacular results. A fine example is the recently completed construction of a special weathervane commissioned by the Corporation of London. A metre-high silver and red griffin taken from the City’s coat-of-arms was required to feature on the roof of the new Senior School Building for the City of London Freemen ’s School in Ashtead Surrey.  

Initially, a purpose-built mould was created working from an embossed shield. This was hand-crafted to produce the three-dimensional griffin figure from GRP, which was then mounted on a stainless steel weathervane to take pride of place on the new building.  

Designers should always take the time to consult the relevant local authority in the early stages of a roof decoration project. Assistance is available from numerous building and roofing advisory services, many of which are sponsored, as would be expected, by the various manufacturers of roofing products. Overloading the roof from a visual aspect is a danger to be considered, especially where shallow pitches are involved. A plethora of fancy chimneypots, fleur-de-lys crests, soaring eagle finials and the odd weathervane or two will appeal to traditional English eccentricity but can look totally out of place, especially on a cottage or bungalow!  

The flourishing British architectural features industry clearly believes that a roof is not just for the practical purpose of keeping the rain out, but is also a canvas upon which a skilled designer can work a particular kind of magic, causing us all to look up and wonder. 

Contact Doug Williams

Good Directions Ltd

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