Two power stations on the Thames Estuary.At the top is the one on the Isle of Grain in Kent, which I believe is no more. Or that might be just the chimney. The second is at Tilbury in Essex, taken in an equally wintry afternoon light from a gun emplacement at the fort. They come to mind because of three things: 1) There's a celebration of the estuary starting about now, 2) Rachel Lichtenstein's book Estuary is out tomorrow, and 3) I shall grab a copy as I make my way to a meeting on the Thames at Blackfriars. I lived close to both these shores once, and have found that over the years they have seeped deep into my bones. First it was helping to race a Thames barge on the wide stretches of water around Southend and Brightlingsea, later lonely walks out on the Isle of Grain and the Hoo Peninsula on bitterly cold days, then the discovery of the Cooling Marshes and Cliffe church with its little gravestones that inspired the opening scene of Dickens' Great Expectations. Later still there were commissions that took me to the Essex shore to photograph both the Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts and the wonderful Bata shoe factory. All to the soundtrack of my re-discovery of Canvey Island's Doctor Feelgood. (I'm often asked what period of history I'd like to go back to and inevitably hear myself saying "the Kursaal in Southend in 1973 with Doctor Feelgood doing Route 66". When I should be saying "on the deck of the Victory" or something.) So much to see, so much to feel, so much to hear. Mournful ships' hooters in the fog, the clanking of iron doors on empty forts way off shore, the cries of marsh birds, rotting hulks, the orange flares of refineries. As John Piper said of the Romney Marsh "it's all 90% atmosphere really".
Sometime in the hedonistic eighties we were meandering our way home from Hastings and came across a derelict house next to a railway station in East Sussex. The front door was open, honest, and we shuffled about on broken glass from room to room. In the kitchen I noticed a slightly different surface to part of the wall, and a tell-tale gas pipe told me an iron plate had been placed to absorb heat from an oven. It was streaked with yellow paint and I immediately knew what it was. As I'm sure you've guessed too. Our car had a toolkit and it was but seconds for the plate to be levered away to reveal this very bright enamel sign, still exhorting us to find the station master and take out Railway Passengers Assurance. And still demonstrating the artist's optical trick of giving the perfectly rectangular sign a permanent lean. It's subsequently been in a succession of garages and garden sheds with just spiders for company, until the other day I was putting the lawnmower away and had the urge to take it down and give it a good clean. The enamel, which appropriately would have seen the inside of an oven in its manufacture, came up as bright as the day it left Hancor Signs in Mitcham in, I imagine, the 1920s. One thing I like that you can't really see in the photograph is that there is residue of the green kitchen wall paint on the edges. Probably the only reminder of the house, now demolished to make way for a car park extension. So now I'm wondering where to put the sign. Looking around I think it will have to be the ceiling.
Fellow travellers in Unmitigated England will know of my passion for the work of S.R.Badmin. And indeed will doubtless share it with equal fervour. So finding an image I hadn't seen before is always a singular joy. Badmin produced many book covers, and indeed also illustrated books of the calibre of the Ladybird Book of Trees and Puffin Picture Books on trees and architecture (Village and Town). So I got very excited by discovering in Chipping Norton The Rolling Road by L.A.G.Strong, and its Badmin cover of which the above is a detail. It's 'The story of Travel on the roads of Britain and the Development of Public Passenger Transport' and this Swift coach sums it all up for me. Was there a Swift Coaches Company around in 1956, and if there was did they paint their vehicles in this sympathetic livery of pale lemon and deep pink? I do hope so. I bet the number plate is SRB something; Badmin often included his name or initials somewhere in the picture other than in the obligatory bottom right hand corner. One book on churches even has his name very prematurely on a tombstone in the foreground. I had the enormous privilege of taking tea at Mr.Badmin's home in Bignor, West Sussex, with a dear friend in the autumn of 1987. His large living room window looked out at the slopes of the South Downs and my friend said "It must be wonderful for you to have that view of the Downs just outside of your window" and he replied "Too close for me m'dear" and proceeded into the kitchen to put the kettle on. And it's true, so much of his work informs us with loving detail in the foregrounds, but quickly take us off to far horizons.
These days we still always say when confronted by a stand of chestnuts around a farm or a line of willows by a slow-moving stream "Very Badmin" as if nature had decided to copy his work. Nobody 'does' trees like S.R.Badmin, but there's always much more in his paintings. If you can get hold of a copy of Highways & Byways in Essex (the last in the series in 1939, he completed it on the death of F.L.Griggs, the original illustrator) you will see his outstanding line drawings of buildings, such as Bures Mill above. But trees really were the thing. As we left Mr.Badmin's home I noticed that leaves from the trees in his garden had dropped with the rain onto my car. I carefully peeled them off and put them in a church leaflet I found in the glovebox. 'Leaves from Mr.Badmin's Garden' I wrote on the front. I still have it, the leaves now dry and brittle, but still embued with enchanting and very agreeable memories.
And so to Northumberland with Youngest Son. I'd always wanted to see the painting above, which is one of eight at Wallington Hall (west of Morpeth) and the start of a series commissioned by Pauline and Walter Trevelyan in 1856 to illustrate salient points in Northumberland's history. This one is of a group of workers on Hadrian's Wall being roundly chastised by a Roman commander. The artist's model for this soldier was John Clayton, Town Clerk of Newcastle, who was instrumental in saving stone from Hadrian's Wall being nicked by local farmers for buildings. It is, I think, my favourite Victorian narrative painting.
Thence to Bamburgh, where after a frightening experience in our hotel with what we thought were possibly onions in a steak sandwich, we fled to the beach where YS went fully-clothed into the sea whilst I waited for the sun to appear from behind a static mackerelly cloud to light the castle. One of the most impressive sights in England, this colossus is a quarter of a mile long and covers eight acres or so. I've always loved it since seeing it used as seventeenth century Loudun in an establishing shot in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), complete with a foreground of a skeletal corpse tied to a cartwheel on top of a pole. Dear Ken, I do miss him.
After these disturbing thoughts we moved swiftly on to Holy Island the next morning. What a romantic place to spend time in, providing you've read the tide timetables coherently. The beaches with sea-washed bricks and tiles (always an Unmitigated Pleasure), the fishermen's huts made from upturned boats, (are they really, or did they just use boatbuilding skills?), a gaunt ruined abbey and of course the showstopper of Lindisfarne Castle. Built by Edwin Lutyens for his mate Edward Hudson (the founder of Country Life magazine) in 1902, this is the ultimate holiday home. Shades of Enid Blyton's Five on a Treasure Island perhaps, or Tintin's Black Island, this was a sixteenth century castle on an outstanding plug of rock, abandoned in the mid nineteenth century until Hudson discovered it.
This is a painting by John Moore, showing the original castle in 1877, complete with the nearby limekilns in action and the abbey in the distance. I too needed a memorable image, so got very excited in the tiny scullery when for only about two minutes the top of a tap was highlighted. As this was the hottest day of the year thus far it seemed somehow very refreshing. Although when I pointed this photo opportunity out to other castle gazers they quickly turned and went sniggering outside to look at seals through a telescope on the Upper Battery. Oh well.
Not wanting to find we were stuck out here until six o'clock we walked with long purposeful strides to the distant car park, our heads whirring with thoughts and stuck into big ice creams. We will return, next time maybe in the depths of winter with an easterly gale blowing, the threat of Northumberland snow in the bitter air and firelight in Lutyens' hearths lighting the herringboned-patterned brick floors.
Both Wallington Hall and Lindisfarne Castle are National Trust properties, and Moore's painting can be seen at the latter. Thank you NT.
Once upon a time I was asked to contribute to this, originally a big full colour book edited by Bill Bryson, who at the time was Chairman or something of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. I was very pleased to be included in a list of contributors that included Kate Adie on gnomes and Benjamin Zephaniah on the Malvern Hills. And what a launch party we had. Michael Wood (Alfred's Cakes) brought along his John Mayall's Blues Breakers LP, the one with Eric Clapton (Newlands Corner) reading the Beano on the cover, in the hope that Eric would be there to sign it. He wasn't. I kept looking for Richard Mabey and he wasn't either. Truth be told it all became a bit of a blur, as Only Daughter and I were having such a good time. We looked unsteadily round the room until we espied Mr. Bryson nervously packing up his little leather briefcase. "Let's go and talk to whasisname" we both said at once, and did. My most coherent memory of the evening is poor old Bill fleeing resolutely into the Fitzrovia night.
Anyway, here's a new paperback, just out. I go on about post boxes, Bryan Ferry about the Penshaw Monument in Sunderland, Kevin Spacey on canal boating. Just to drop two more names. But all are worth reading, and this new edition of Icons of England has a fabulous new cover illustration by Neil Gower. Amazon are still showing the old cover with a post box (ooh) on it, but I'm sure that will change soon.
Last night I delivered the mother-of-my-children up to the welcoming arms of the Women's Institute in Earl Shilton, Leicestershire, whilst her gamekeeper and I went in search of sustenance. I know, I said, and we ended-up in what is probably the only pub designed by Charles Voysey, the Wentworth Arms in Elmesthorpe. Built for Lord Lovelace in 1895, it is now completely knackered as far as the Voysey Look is concerned, as all the interior rooms with green tiled fireplaces and other details were ripped out in the 1970s. We did however have very decent bangers and mash and pints of Doom Bar, so we looked more kindly at the outside which still sports a typical Voysey catslide roof in Swithland slate.
Much more to our liking was the row of cottages, also designed by CV, just over the railway bridge next door to the pub. Wortley Cottages, designed for Lovelace in the following year, are much better preserved with intact porches, rendering and big fat corner buttresses. The family in one of them were sitting down to a barbeque in the back garden so I was able to ask to trample over the lawn with ease. "I'll have mustard with mine" I said, and was met (yet again) with blank stares. But the main bloke was very kind and pointed out that they were once thatched, now replaced by superbly size-graded Swithland slates. Here's how they would've looked:
He also pointed out the Very Voysey original door hinges and superbly lettered name plaque on the far left cottage. And all this goes to show that hidden treasures can continually pop up into one's consciousness. The west side of Leicestershire is so easily written-off as ugly and not a patch on High Leicestershire to the east. This is partly the result of indiscriminate Victorian development that served the extensive hosiery industry, so that when the socks and stockings had run off left a very sad neglected feel. I hadn't been over here for some time, but I'm pleased that there is now a much brighter atmosphere. Particularly when one sees cottages like these after some Doom Bar.
I stood next to that David Attenborough in a Leicester pub back in the 80s. He had a pint of Bass and a curry in a bowl, just like me. But this isn't about him (Happy Birthday), but his dad, Frederick Attenborough, who was once Principal of the University College in Leicester from 1932-1951. One of his mates was the Reader in English Local History, W.G.Hoskins. In the late 1940s the latter wrote two brilliant little books, Touring Leicestershire, and Rutland. Both were photographed by Frederick, and son David remembers helping out by trying to get cattle in the right places and, as my own children will testify, probably counting down the seconds before the sun emerged from behind a cloud whilst the photographer's eye was pressed up against the viewfinder.
I was reminded of the Rutland book this morning, as I drove down local lanes and noticed the new growths of cow parsley starting, and the about to burgeon hawthorn. I thought of the photograph above, of an old drovers' lane near Empingham, and wanted to share it with you. I was a little surprised, however, to see that Hoskins' caption was 'High Summer near Empingham' when it appears the cow parsley is only just about to invade the verge. No matter, it's an image that always comes to mind at this time of year, and I look forward to wandering these quiet lanes again. Amongst others it was Hoskins who ignited my interest in the English landscape, and in 1995 I obtained permission from his publishers to use sections from his inimitable Shell Guide to Rutland for my first little book Rutland Much In Little.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)