Friday, 9 June 2017

Out In The Wind

On this morning of great doubt and uncertainty, I think we should consider things of far greater interest like the lookers' huts on Romney Marsh in Kent. By the sixteenth century the Marsh was unproductive and the population decreased dramatically. Large tracts of land were bought-up by absentee landlords who turned it into sheep pastures. By 1890 there was a staggering quarter of a million sheep, and freelance shepherds were hired to look after the flocks, sometimes spread over a very wide acreage.This meant spending much of their time away from their families, particularly at lambing time. And so very basic shelters were built, usually in brick with a hearth and chimney at one end. They could also be used to store tools and act as an infirmary for sick sheep. The Romney sheep are wonderful grazers, with the added bonus that they won't jump the dykes and waterways that criss-cross this open landscape.
    The hut above is below the Isle of Oxney at Cliff Marsh Farm, and one of probably only a dozen still extant where once there were around 350 dotting the Marsh. I spotted it from the road that runs in tandem with the Royal Military Canal, out in what are now arable fields. The farmer was very kind in letting me investigate, warning me that the door lintel was in danger of collapse, but I did manage to get a photograph of the interior:
Spartan accommodation is probably over-selling it, but I couldn't help imagining myself in here with a roaring fire and a few bottles of Harvey's Sussex Best and just the sound of the wind and pitiful bleating outside for company. Most of the woodwork was sound, the Kent peg-tiled roof now replaced by corrugated iron sheeting. A small bed would have occupied a fair part of the space, but I expect there was a chair and a small table from which the occupant would eat his mutton and vegetable Looker's Pie.
    It was back in 2010 that I made my first discoveries of these sadly neglected and all but forgotten tiny buildings. And of course the now ubiquitous mobile variety. There is thankfully a fully restored looker's hut at School Farm at St.Mary in the Marsh, but most of the survivors are gradually disappearing into the soil like the one above at Cutter's Bridge. About the same time that I was wandering the lanes another photographer, Nigel P.Crick, was seeking out the last remnants, and I am indebted to his book The Looker's Huts that has both photographs and map references.
    The Romney Marsh, with its remote medieval churches with Georgian interiors, lonely tile-hung houses and seemingly endless vistas that end either at the ancient cliffs of the original coastline or the bleak shingle of Dungeness, will always fascinate me, will always call me back.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Grass Collection

Oh no, another collection started this morning. I always used to wonder about these grass triangles, usually at T-junctions out in the country. My suspicions were confirmed some time ago when I read about grassy triangles in the essential England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King. It's really very simple. There's an area that gets missed by turning traffic, and they've been with us for centuries.So the grass continues to grow and when roads were first metalled they were quite substantial and so got left to their own devices, Which usually means a haven of wildflowers until council contractors mow them down like here.
    Often they will have a signpost on them, this one between Medbourne and Hallaton in Leicestershire has one obscured in the hedge on the left. This is on my school run, and last week we had to divert because the lane down into the village of Blaston was being re-surfaced, but it did mean that this morning I could get a shot of the junction with its pristine new road markings. One T-junction near us in the opposite direction at Othorpe is busier, so the first gravelly signs of a triangle here are not allowed to grow because the whole thing gets re-surfaced regularly. Maybe I should go and chuck some soil and seeds down there and see what happens, but the size of tractor tyres round here would soon send my effort to oblivion.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Strange Beds

Having deposited offspring at a Kettering cinema in order for them to engorge themselves on family size buckets of popcorn whilst watching Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, and having endured blank stares when I said that I didn't understand why a chocolate bar needed defending once, let alone twice, I disappeared with a few hours to kill. After stocking up with the enormous amount of groceries needed when both are in residence I decided to lose myself in an unexplored tract of country to the east of Higham Ferrers where Northamptonshire gives way to Bedfordshire, and in the fascinating manner of these things in England, Bedfordshire decides immediately to start becoming East Anglian. Timber and thatch replacing stone, the landscape finally freed from the results of the vanishing boot and shoe industry of the Nene Valley. I didn't expect any great surprises, but they came very quickly and in the case of the above very dramatically.
    This is Yielden Castle, dominating the village of the same name and still showing much of its origins in the massive motte and bailey. This is a classic example of a Norman castle quickly put up by one of the Conqueror's mates in the aftermath of the 1066 invasion. And like so many, when families and priorities changed, almost gone within two hundred years.   
    The road circumnavigated the imposing mounds, and across the fields I saw that inviting sight, a church backed-up against higher trees.This was St.Mary Magdalene in Melchbourne, and, as the porch notice told me about where to find the key, in the Sharnbrook Deanery of the St.Albans Diocese. Not having time to knock-up a local I contented myself with standing on tiptoe to look through the unadorned window glass. I saw a beautifully plain 1779 Georgian interior with box pews, virtually un-messed about with and still with those little openings set in each window for ventilation. The churchyard was eerily quiet, but did afford a view of a thatched house that demonstrated that we can still restore buildings with taste and empathy. Sometimes.
    Pressing the lens gently against the church glass produced pictures that made-up for not gaining an entrance, but not quite pressing the lens against the glass produced something equally pleasing if slightly spooky. When I showed the boys the result they actually stopped talking about the chocolate protecting film and said "Wow, how did that happen?" I told them that I'm still very disturbed by it because "...the cottage simply wasn't there when I turned round". I was stared at again, and their conversation quickly turned back to Drax, Gamora and Baby Groot.
 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Scrapbook Scrap No 2

It must've been sometime in the late 1970s, and a full page ad. in The Sunday Times Magazine. I'm ashamed I don't know which agency to credit, because this was an utterly original idea at the time. And still would be now really. It was part of a series that included Spike Milligan's Pentax with a face drawn on the silvered upper part of the body. Naturally. But being an uber fan of Ken Russell films I got particularly excited by this, and thought of all the shots it had taken and how it might've got that beautifully distressed look. Ken was a highly original photographer even before he started making films and his career took off with Monitor and Omnibus programmes at the BBC. I like to think that the absence of a strap was a personal choice rather than an art director's whim, because all the straps for cameras I've bought still lie unused in their cellophane packaging. I know it increases the possibility of a camera taking flight to possible destruction, but I feel hindered by them. I've only had one  photography equipment disaster (he says, gripping a wooden desk), and that was whilst changing a lens on a Northumbrian beach. The 28mm winged its way out of my hand in a slow but graceful arc in order to land on wet sand that subsequently gave it a very disturbing grinding feel when changing f-stops. A man in an attic in Epsom sorted it all out.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

One hundred years ago today one of England's finest poets died at the Battle of Arras. Edward Thomas didn't write about the Great War per se, but about the countryside he was fighting for. One hundred and nineteen poems between 1914 and 1917, and those who love poetry will continually go back to them. No computer, no smartphone, no 'tablet', no Facebook and the only twitter the birds in the trees outside as he simply put a pen to paper:

By the ford at the town's edge
Horse and carter rest:
The carter smokes on the bridge
Watching the water press in swathes about his horse's chest.

From the inn one watches, too,
In the room for visitors
That has no fire, but a view
And many cases of stuffed fish, vermin, and kingfishers.


Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Broccoli & Tin

If Unmitigated England had a gallery with unlimited space, then at least one room would be entirely devoted to the Shell County Paintings. Produced in the 1950s and 60s the originals were reproduced as advertisements, calendars, and, very memorably for me, as school wallcharts. Shell commissioned some of the very best artists of the day such as S.R.Badmin, John Nash, Rowland Hilder and David Gentleman. Each picture was accompanied by a brief description of the county and a key to what were the salient points in each image, a capriccio if you like of the many things that gave each county its particular character. Above is one of my favourites, Cornwall by Richard Eurich (1903-1992). Dated 1958, I still find things that I've missed in the plethora of detail. The wheel-headed wayside cross, the train on the viaduct, the deserted tin mine and what I wouldn't have known without the key: the basket of broccoli carried by the man walking up the hill. And Eurich hasn't ducked putting in the lunar landscape of waste from china-clay workings.
    Sadly Shell sold all the originals of these and the accompanying series of nature paintings in 2002, and Cornwall was used for the front and back covers of the catalogue. (Which reminds me Sotheby's, you still owe me a call from last year.) Anyway, we still have the reproductions. Some will remember the Shell BP Shilling Guides that used the whole image over the covers, and the Shell Guide to Britain which could only use half of it, but the wallcharts really are the thing. Superbly printed and complete with metal strips and hook to facilitate hanging, I first saw them put up around my school hall, stared at as I went across its parquet floor with Philip Barlow to fetch the milk crate from the yard. I learnt that there were places like Wiltshire (Keith Grant, 1960) that specialised in big stones and white horses and that Middlesex & Hertfordshire (S.R.Badmin, 1963) harboured George Bernard Shaw and royal palaces embowered in blossoming trees. I recently talked to David Gentleman about them all, and his Shell series on roads, and he recalls that he was pretty much given a free hand as to what to put in his paintings (Somerset, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire). What a brief. What amazing things to put together.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Hidden Gold

'When they had finished all there was of both food and drink, he produced a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes, and they smoked for a while, contented and at rest.'
A Glastonbury Romance John Cowper Powys, 1933.
    Some of you may remember this photograph and quote from my book The Cigarette Papers, published by Frances Lincoln in 2012. It was a eulogy for the cigarette packet, brought out as a reminder that a government directive was in the offing to dispense with any individual brand design whatever. With no proper proof that it was going to work in decreasing both smoking itself and its appeal to the kiddies. We all know that smoking is simply not very good for us at all, but no authoritarian dictates about how a pack should look will make the slightest bit of difference.
    I say all this again because it's about to happen for real and a totally legal product that still produces millions for the Exchequer will be reduced to taking ill thought-out orders from a grey government 'design' manual. But more than this I get very dismayed by the revisionist stance that makes anybody who talks on, say, a television antiques programme, has to make sure that any remarks about tobacco packaging and artefacts are bracketed with sanctimonious and hypocritical tut-tutting about the dreadful practices of the smoker and smoking. What would the Tommy, going over the top out of a muddy trench in 1917 with a Woodbine clamped in his mouth, have thought of us.
    Anyway, if you'd like more anecdotes and extracts from literature about the fabulous packets we were once able to see without the Tobacco Police fingering our collars, then you'll find the last fag ends of The Cigarette Papers here, very cheaply indeed.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Snowdrops & Allsorts

Taking full advantage of the season I couldn't resist showing these snowdrops again. I'm always reminded of them everytime I see the sides of lanes and corners of gardens liberally carpeted. The photograph was sheer serendipity. Seven years ago we went into the quietness of Horninghold church in Leicestershire on a cold windy day when the sun was very intermittent. My two boys went off to have a fight with brooms they'd found in the cleaning cupboard and I walked up to the altar just as the wind parted the clouds to allow a few seconds of sunlight. Genuine genuflection took place.
    Those who enjoy the idiosyncrasies of Unmitigated England will know of the trilogy of my handbooks that map out such things, and indeed I used this photograph in the third volume English Allsorts, in a chapter called Daffodils & Monsters that describes and pictures a very personal natural history. As incongruously as I could make it, it sits between Cakes & Ale (market towns) and Black & White (monochrome photographers). Elsewhere you will find amongst other Unmitigated subjects Hornby Trains, Brighton Rock and Jaguar XK120s. Still available in all good ironmongers and coalyards, or here. Or even, in complete over-selling, by clicking on it opposite.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Film Fun

First thing, this is in Wales not England. But having re-discovered the original transparency I had to share it with you. In 2004 I was working on the book to go with the second BBC Restoration television series. I went everywhere from a salt works in Cheshire to a gaol in Armagh, and must be the only person who has ever been to the Orkneys by ship just for an afternoon. (Apart from the crew, obviously.) But that's another long-winded story. I had the immense privilege of seeing things few people will see, mainly because all the buildings shown would've benefitted greatly from the exposure and been 'restored'. 
    I do hope this collage of film posters and star pictures is still on the wall of  a back room in the Celynen Working Men's Institute and Memorial Hall in Newbridge, Caerphilly. Celynen had a large coal mine that employed over 1,700 men who produced around 10,000 tons of coal a week. This was the centre of their relaxation, opened in 1908, and by the early 1920s boasted a dance floor, cinema and theatre. So the films would have arrived with their posters, and I like to think of a movie buff snipping pictures from magazines and creating this collage over the years. Although I can't help wishing that the Casablanca poster, and one (out of shot) for The Ladykillers had been kept intact and hidden up in the projection room which I also photographed, complete with the spare bulbs for an immense projector. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Spring Loading


I've been looking at the work of James Bateman (1893-1959) recently, spurred on by the cover of Clive Aslet's Villages of Britain which features Bateman's probably best known painting of a Cotswold farm (above), and of which the publishers sadly only give credit to the picture library. I first saw it when it was used for another cover, this time on Ian Jeffrey's absorbing The British Landscape 1920-1950 and fully credited as Haytime in the Cotswolds, oil on canvas 1939.
    Yesterday I came across another Bateman painting that stopped me in my wayward tracks. This was Lullington Church, another work from 1939. It's the kind of thing that makes me yearn for springtime, much as classic Underground posters do like James McIntosh Patrick's Harrow Weald and Clare Leighton's Lambing, both from 1938.
I was immediately transported by this image of a country church, imagining myself walking up to that open gate and hearing rooks arguing up in the bower of trees. In my head it's an early springtime Sunday morning, and just as I'm wondering if the gate's been left open by the verger who's just gone in to put the oil heaters on I hear the sound of a sweeping brush and see the lady by the door.
    Those of you who read my Sussex blog post before Christmas will know what's coming next. At first I got it confused with Lullingstone up in my old stamping ground of the North Downs (the building bears a slight resemblance) but soon realised that the immediate environs were very different. And on finding Lullington I discovered, yes, it's near the Cuckmere river but certainly right in the nexus of the Ouse Valley that has occupied my thoughts for so long. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Scrapbook Scrap No 1

I've been keeping scrapbooks for over forty years now. (Takes out onion and violin.) Seven large volumes where I've taken no account that they get even larger when you've thickened them to twice the size with paper and cardboard. Anyway, here's the collage I did for the cover of the first one, the first entries being glued-in on the kitchen table of a Rutland farmhouse in 1976. Everything that appealed to me went in. Dog food labels, pictures of girls from Nova and Sunday Times Magazines, quaint parking tickets, postcards, photographs that never got stuck in an album. They have become a vital resource in sparking ideas, inflaming inspiration, or simply as curious entertainments. So I thought I'd start an occasional series on the blog where I'll choose an item that I can go on about.
Here's the first, probably found in a pocket two years after its expiry. Remarkable for the fact that it's handwritten in ballpoint and, of course, for that wondrous price for a month's travel. It brings to mind dusty carriage compartments, (either unheated or tropically hot), blokes doing The Times crossword, (getting cross because I'd sit there pretending to do it in two minutes so that I could throw the paper up onto the luggage rack seemingly completed. When in fact I'd written any old thing down just to wind them up), and girls who'd gently wake me up at St.Pancras.
    One morning I was late for the train and I had to drive to Market Harborough like an idiot in a borrowed Morris Minor. At one point my country road ran alongside the railway embankment, and I looked up to see my train approaching the station. I repeatedly sounded the horn, which was answered by a 'bar-bop' from the locomotive. I slewed onto the car park and ran up to the station, probably leaving the engine running. The train driver shouted down from his cab "Hurry up!" and racing up the platform stairs I found the guard holding a door open for me. Phew. Now you really won't see that anymore.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Bucks Phizogs

A treasured photograph from our family archive. This is a Buckinghamshire County Council road gang with their steam roller, out on a Chilterns road sometime in the 1930s (I should think). All in hats and caps, two with ties. The gentleman standing third from the right is my Uncle Joe, in fact my great uncle, being the chap who married my mother's Aunty Dora and lived in Lee Common. Readers of English Allsorts will remember my story about the faux Player's Digger packet, featuring Joe in the fifties. 
    I've always found the photograph curious for three reasons. Firstly it must have been unusual for a road gang to have been interrupted in their labours repairing road surfaces in order to pose for a group photograph. It makes me think that perhaps it was a picture taken by a press snapper, probably from the Bucks Examiner. Maybe accompanying a story about the gang finding treasure in a ditch at Ballinger Bottom, items of silver church plate wrapped in a hessian sack. But I digress, except to say that I checked on the Bucks Examiner and it now appears to be called 'getbucks' and has stories like 'Flasher exposes himself to woman walking in Marlow'.
   Then I think that the diminutive chap second from the right must be an ancestor of Robbie Williams, but more disturbing is the third curiosity that I only noticed quite recently. Whilst the men are posing proudly in front of their steaming roller, a hooded M.R.Jamesian figure appears to have climbed up behind them in order to surreptitiously take the controls of what I see is an Aveling & Porter Invicta with its beautifully embossed prancing horse motif.