Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sussex Signposts

Have you ever gone to a place for the first time, and then, for inexplicable and unconnected reasons, kept being drawn back to it? Three years ago I had time on my hands before meeting a 'plane at Gatwick, and decided to try and find a church that I had espied the year before in the failing light somewhere in the Ouse Valley between Newhaven and Lewes in East Sussex. The first person I described the church to was looking after the National Trust counter that sits in Leonard Woolf's garage at Monks House in Rodmell, half way down on the opposite bank of the River Ouse where his wife Virginia loaded up the pockets of her coat with stones and walked into its waters. I described how the church sat to the left of the road, seemingly alone but towered over by a group of Scotch firs. He thought for some time until telling me he had absolutely no idea. Monks House gripped my imagination, as did the next village down the road, Southease. And then, returning up from Newhaven on the A26 I rounded a bend in the chalk hills and there it was. Beddingham. Complete with firs and backed by a round-topped section of the South Downs I now know to be Mount Caburn. Here it is in the photograph above and something that day happened very deep within me, something I still haven't fathomed out. But the signposts keep on rising up into my consciousness.
    At home I poured over the maps, noticing with pleasure that Southease was served by a little station from where a field path led via a bridge over the Ouse to the village, and looking in a Southern Railway timetable for 1947, as one does, I noticed that a train took just four minutes to get to Newhaven Harbour or six to Lewes. So of course I started to imagine myself here, four minutes to Eric Ravilious's harbour lighthouse, six minutes to Harvey's Brewery Shop in Lewes, a few minutes more to Brighton Rock.
    Not long afterwards I picked up Eleanor Farjeon's Book and read about Elsie Piddock's constant skipping taking place on, of course, Mount Caburn. That's it in the background of Ardizzone's lovely cover for the Puffin:
    The signposts continued, a map reference here, a paragraph in a book there. All now accidental, uncalled for but very pleasurably received. I started to see myself as an even more eccentric Other Man, the alter ego that dogged Edward Thomas on his travels throughout In Pursuit of Spring and who told him "There is no weathercock" at Kilve. Well there is at Southease, or at least a vane:
I saw myself walking across the Ouse floodplain to catch trains up to London, returning in the dusk and on the path home turning to see the carriage lights receding down to Newhaven.
    Other things then took up my time. Until a couple of weeks ago when I quickly scoured my bookshelves for something light but good to take down into Essex for three days. Ripple dissolve, as they say, to a school class room in 1959 on a Friday afternoon. We'd filled in our diaries for the week (like the passing of Buddy Holly) and settled down to hear the first chapter of a book read to us by Pop Widdowson. I was so entranced by The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett that I ran excitedly home to tell my mum all about it. At the weekend she went out and bought me a copy of the Puffin book for myself and I devoured it over a couple of evenings; almost certainly the first time I had read a book from cover to cover. So of course the next Friday afternoon I sat there smugly whilst Pop read the next chapter as I grinned and nodded at my fellow pupils.
The light faded over Colchester and I found myself immersed in the adventures of the Ruggles family in Otwell-on-the-Ouse. Oh no. Wait a minute. But yes, as the pages unfolded after all those years, it became clear that Otwell was Lewes (almost), Seahaven was Newhaven and Brightwell, of course, Brighton. Further delving found that Eve Garnett was indeed from Lewes. I felt as though someone had come up behind me and pointed to another signpost. Naturally I have to return, but what will I find? My hopelessly erratic imagination puts forward all sorts of possibilities, some of which I'm sure you're making up for me now. But, I have to say, it's with a certain amount of trepidation. I must just make sure nobody quietly ladens my coat pockets with pebbles.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Painted Christmas

Now then. I know it's ridiculously early, and I'm usually the first to be shouting at decorations appearing in John Lewis in September, but I wanted to share a pertinent thought with you all. A few of you will remember the Christmas cards I painted between 1998 and 2006, generally featuring buildings around Oundle in Northamptonshire, but always featuring a Royal Mail van of one vintage or another. More of you will perhaps have seen them in the Christmas chapter in More From Unmitigated England. Later, in discussion with the Royal Mail over a book on post boxes, I accidentally found myself showing them off. They were leapt upon, and I found three of them being proposed as Christmas stamps to the august body that is the Stamp Advisory Committee.They were the RM's stamps of choice, but the Committee decided on photographs of leaves floating on water by Andy Goldsworthy.
So, to get to the point (yes please, Ed.) I have decided to sell the original paintings.They are all a uniform size, 155mm x 155mm, and are executed in Designers Gouache. If you are seriously interested, then contact me through this blog and I'll send a pdf poster of all nine to you. The usual copyright stuff applies, but we'll talk about all that off piste as it were. The three paintings here feature, from the top, Oundle Post Office, the bridge over the River Nene at Fotheringhay and one of the two gate lodges to Lilford Hall. Obviously much artistic licence has been liberally applied along with the paint.

"...very impressive" Chris Beetles

Monday, 17 October 2016

Electric Hedge

This little building is obscure even by Unmitigated England standards. It's halfway down the very bucolic Commissioners Lane (which tells of it being an enclosure road) that leads only to a farm just outside Slawston in Leicestershire. You won't find it in a Pevsner or a Shell Guide; this is a prime example of a utility building built, I would think, between the wars. Despite all the warnings of death by electric shock, I somehow think that there is no sub station equipment therein. There's no sinister sounding hum emitting out into the lane, and I would guess it's now currently (no pun intended) a store for Western Power Distribution's excess tree-loppers and hedge cutters that are being put to increasing use locally to cut back foliage from electricity wires, and any other bits of tree pruning they can be persuaded to do. ("While you're up there...")
    But my main reason for sharing this riveting discovery is that it's worthwhile spending half-a-minute to look at how much care actually went into its simple design. Built in neat brickwork, a concrete lintel extends over both door and windows, the roof parapet is in different coloured brick with an intermediate course of tiles and care was taken with the iron gate. The tree loppers haven't been snipped into action on the surroundings, and the whole thing is gradually disappearing from view. Soon WPD's white Land Rovers will come down here and the abseiling woodcutters will scratch their heads saying "Well it was around here somewhere". 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On The Brink

With its back to the tidal River Nene, this was the South Brink Farm Shop on the A47 just to the west of Wisbech. In 1999 I'd been out on the Fens and on my way home I pulled in here."Do you mind if I take a photograph?" I asked politely. "You might as well" the proprietor said from his easy chair "Every other f----r does". I loved it. The handwritten signs shouting out like a market trader, the impromptu temporary feel to everything. Just look at that wheel-less Allinson Wholemeal Bread van sitting there. I had to buy big onions at £1.50 a stone, and think I said as a parting shot "As the French onion seller said as he sold his last onion: that's shallot". I can't be absolutely sure but I think he said "F--k off."

I drove by last April with the redoubtable Ron Combo, and noticed that it was not only closed but very substantially burnt to the ground. Anyway, if you'd like a signed A4 glossy print I'll knock one out (as they say) for twenty quid. Just drop me a line. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Estuary English

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 Cooling 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".

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Oven Ready

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.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Very Badmin

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.