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.
My apologies for being off air for so long. Can't believe early March was the last time. However, my purpose here is to make another apology; to all those of you who so kindly subscribed to my Unmitigated Postcard Box. There wasn't the same kind of support from Unbound themselves, very sadly because I actually do believe in what they are doing. Well, maybe a little less now. At my request they promised to close down my page yesterday, but that hasn't happened either. But when they get round to it money will be refunded, or, if you want, transferred to another project.
Interest has been shown by two 'real' publishers in producing it, so there is hope it may find an appreciative home. Failing that I may do it myself and travel around the country like a medieval pedlar, a stack of yellow boxes on my back as I trudge from town to town, hoarsely crying out my wares. In the meantime here are five postcards to be going on with:
This is Stoneywell Cottage in the Charnwood Forest, north west of Leicester.If you like arts 'n' crafts buildings and furniture (and I'm bonkers about them) then this seemingly organic house, rising out of the igneous rock and surrounded by woods, must be put very high on your 'must do' list. Designed by Ernest Gimson for his brother Sydney, it was built in Ulverscroft by that mercurial A&C craftsman Detmar Blow. Completed at the very end of the nineteenth century, for the most part it was used as a summer residence, with the family returning for Christmas. Deceptively economic in design, there are beautifully homely touches everywhere. A piece of granite jutting out near a fireplace was left for Sydney's tobacco jar and pipe, the stairs are like church tower steps with helpful ropes leading up to rooms where the floors are all on differing levels. The very nature of the site means that the main fat chimney grows up out the rock, an upstairs bedroom window gives access immediately into the garden.
The furniture is of course so at home. Gimson-designed ladder-backed chairs sit round a solid table in the dining room, almost Shaker-style coat hooks hang against a white painted wall. Contemporary or beautifully reproduced cots, beds and bookshelves; and everywhere a very comforting feel of homeliness. I could have dozed off in an armchair with an Arthur Ransome book on my lap, daffodils on a deeply-inset window sill, a log fire spitting in the grate with its Gimson fire irons in attendance.
As you can probably imagine I got very excited upstairs, with not only wonderful pictures on the walls, childrens' games on cupboards and chairs but also a heart-stopping Hornby O Gauge train on the floor of the Well Room, working its way past tinplate buildings in order to tunnel underneath a bed. And all so genuine. This is no art-directed interior, Stoneywell was left to the National Trust by Donald Gimson, grandson of Sydney, who advised the Trust on so much here. You have to book, which is good because it means you won't be trudging round with a hundred others before and after. But do try and make it soon as spring comes to Stoneywell.
Last night I went off-piste to ITV3 and watched a Miss Marple from 2008: A Pocket Full of Rye. Kenneth Cranham got the rye grains in his jacket pocket and blackbirds both in a pie and his desk drawer and Rupert Graves put a clothes peg onto the nose of a corpse, just to keep it more-or-less in the spirit of the nursery rhyme. Then of course my mind started to wander, and knowing I was safe with Miss Marple solving everything by being incredibly nosey, I remembered a nursery rhyme book in the East Wing with plates in it by the superb Lawson Wood, and searched it out to see if this rhyme was in it. It was, it's above. But then I was brought back to the screen by a fabulously outrageous performance by the unique Ken Campbell playing a dodgy butler. One scene had him lying on his bed declaiming the rhyme with a bottle and cigarette on the go and his blue eyes bulging. This was to be his last performance, and The Guardian judged him to be "one of the most original and unclassifiable talents in the British theatre of the past half-century. A genius at producing shows on a shoestring and honing the improvisational capabilities of the actors who were brave enough to work with him." One of those actors was Sylveste McCoy, who competed against Ken for the role of Doctor Who and won. But they still did shows together where they stuffed ferrets down each others' trousers. Blackbirds, clothes pegs, pies. And on Tuesday a corner of my curious and utterly delightful extended family gained yet another ferret to add to two others who, I assume, are also frantically trying to find trousers to run up the inside of. The connections didn't stop ferreting around my mind when I also recalled that I had once attended a wedding reception in the old Diorama in Peto Place near Regent's Park and Ken was a fellow guest. When it came to dancing (and I doubtless did my usual pogo-ing to Van Halen's Jump!) he danced across the floor and half way up a wall. Again, and again, and again. I have never seen the like before or since. Right, off to Waitrose to see if they have any blackbirds. Three frozen packs with eight in each perhaps. Pledge for the Unmitigated Postcard Box here.
Spring hadn't sprung yesterday, but it certainly felt as if it was about to. Youngest Boy and I decided to go down the road to Kirby Hall, somewhere I've continually gone back to for, ooh, a very long time. Snowdrops gave a soft patterning of white as we went down the avenue, the Hall itself welcomed us with window bar shadows reaching out into the bare empty rooms. After the obligatory hiding from each other and then jumping out with blood-curdling shouts (annoying those with audio tours clamped to their ears) we ventured outside. The upturned willow had to be climbed, but I took great pleasure in seeing what had happened to it since it fell over six years ago or so. My first picture of it above was taken in 2010, and I was so gratified that it hadn't been attacked with a chain saw (probably because willow spits like hell in a woodburner) or replaced by a sapling in a rabbit-proof plastic tube. No, it had been left to itself, and now wands of new willow have shot up in profusion. Sometimes we manage too much.
It was all very invigorating, and when we got home ready to start preparing lunch (well, I did) we found that the daffodils had trumpeted out from the Adnam's jug. Spring really does seem to be around the corner. Let's hope.
Anybody who has been within
five miles of me in the last year will have heard of the progress of this
latest addition to the Unmitigated Stable. It’s taken a while to fine tune,
which involved immense research and drinking in London, Leicestershire and Oxfordshire. (In fact
it involved drinking just about everywhere really.) So at last, thanks to those
marvellous people at Unbound, here is an opportunity to go even deeper into the
hidden recesses of Unmitigated England.
The Unmitigated Postcards Box is my first go at a crowd-funded project. Which basically means that
subscribers elect to support an author, usually for a book, at different levels
from signed collectors’ editions right up to something really special at the
top end. It’s all so exciting. You’ll see from the Unbound site that the yellow
carton (a pastiche of a well-loved Kodak photo paper box) contains 100 ‘eccentrically
eccentric’ postcards. A few you may have seen; most you won’t. All are my
favourites, and it would be brilliant if you thought that you could support the
cause. Thank you all very much.
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)