First, a very heartfelt thank you to all those who flew in on Friday night to help me bring English Allsorts out to an unsuspecting public. It was so good to see old friends and indeed make new ones. Thank you all, particularly to Beverley and Chris at Quinns who made it happen and who so uncomplainingly tidied up after us.
And so to Sunday night, and The Secret History of the British Garden. What a relief to see a beautifully put together programme presented by someone who actually knew what they were talking about. Not a Stephen Fry or Sue Perkins to be seen, just the calming and knowledgeable presence of Monty Don and other real experts. Concentrating this week on the seventeenth century, Monty very soon turned his Land Rover into the lane leading up to the remarkable Lyveden New Bield in East Northamptonshire. This garden pavilion isn't a ruin, but a building that was never completed. Recusant Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham intended it to be an expression of his faith with mathematical codes and devices, but on his death in 1605, and after his son was well and truly implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, the workmen downed tools and melted away into the surrounding woodland.
Lyveden was virtually our neighbour when we lived down the road, and we continually came up here for family birthday parties or just to sit and contemplate. Very memorably I drove the venerated old school gamekeeper Harry Churchill around the surrounding acres in a Land Rover to watch a pheasant shoot in cold snowy weather. A rare treat. So it all came back to me last night as Monty talked to Mark 'Chopper' Bradshaw, a property manager for the National Trust who in our time was the custodian. He recalled a Luftwaffe photograph of the area coming to light that, with the right light and time of the year, revealed the circles of a lost labyrinth.
Of course Lyveden New Bield had to feature on one of our Christmas cards from that time (top), and the aerial view was perfect for a record card I did for the local shoot (above). It's worth a visit at any time, and if you do, remember this: In the Civil War a Major Butler was here and told his men to cut off the wooden floor beams that were still extant, and take them down to Oundle where he was building a house. Copthorne House on the High Street is a very rare example of Commonwealth architecture, but more remarkable is the fact that the time and weather shrunken remains of the original timbers can still be seen in their holes in the walls of the New Bield. (The Old Bield is the house down on the lane below that runs from near Oundle to Brigstock.)
On my way to my junior school I would pass a pub (don't do that now) where a black glass plaque on the wall by the door had gilt letters on it that said Mitchells & Butlers. And an evocatively coloured painting of a stag leaping over a chasm. I stood there and wondered. Did the stag make it? Or was it just a crucial couple of feet short? Somehow I found it a slightly disturbing image, one that I put into a mental box that included the chimney sweep's brush popping-up out of a pot and shaking itself free of soot against a very early morning sky.
Yet another rummage produced this label a few days ago. Mitchells & Butlers appear now to be a pub business that manages places like All Bar One, but back in the day they were a frequent presence in Leicester and its environs. Indeed in the late sixties and seventies we were continually regaled with the fact that M&B's Brew XI was brewed for the Men of The Midlands. I never drank it, mainly because, like Watney's Red, it was said to be of such low strength it could legally be sold to children. (I wait to be disabused of this notion.) My researchs tell me that a park called Deer's Leap two and a half miles from Birmingham city centre gave its name in support of the brewery not far away.
I find this puzzling. Even a hundred years ago I can't imagine a deer leaping anywhere near the centre of Brum, and I'd always thought that it was part of some Exmoor legend concerning a stag leaping over a ravine during a pursuit by hounds. I have heard of stags escaping into the sea along the rugged coastline here, so it makes it all the more difficult to imagine the scene depicted on this fabulous label being in Birmingham. Or perhaps it's all just fancy anyway.
Perhaps we could argue about it in Quinn's bookshop in Market Harborough this Friday night over a glass of wine as we toast the arrival of English Allsorts (6-8pm)
This is extraordinary. Colour film of London shot by the amazingly prescient Claude Friese-Greene in 1927. CF-G struggled to get his Biocolour system adopted, but produced over 60 films including The Open Road, a trip from Land's End to John O'Groats, and this superb example here, restored by the British Film Institute in 2005. More can be learnt from The Magic Box, (1951), a film made for the Festival of Britain, a biopic of Friese-Greene starring Robert Donat.
Five years ago I found myself in The Bull's Head in Craswall, on the Welsh Borders in Herefordshire. I was very taken by these two pictures on the wall of one of the rooms, snapping them in passing. Two years ago I found myself there again, but the pub had changed hands and the pictures had gone. On asking about them I was met by blank stares, but that happens increasingly these days.
Today they suddenly came to my attention again as I searched for something else. And I find I like them even more. Both were in beautiful black frames that looked late Victorian, but the paintings I imagine are later. Closer inspection revealed them to have been very neatly signed in red paint by an NWJ Smith. But I can find out nothing about the artist, not even if it's a woman or man. Can anybody out there help?
John Turner looked more carefully at the signature than I did, and saw that it is indeed 'Smyth' not 'Smith'. So that helped enormously, and he found Norman Smyth on the intraweb, an Irish painter who, it seems, is still at it. Thankyou John for your diligence.
Sometimes I think I'm living in a parallel universe. (Distant chorus: "You are!") About forty years ago the designer John Gorham was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to illustrate an article in their 'Sacred Cows' series. I've no idea what it was about now (something to do with butchers or meat I expect) but I cut it out and stuck it in my scrapbook. A little while later I was drinking in a Covent Garden pub with John and I asked him how long it took him to paint the bucolic scene of cattle and sheep. "I'm a designer Pete" he said "I found a stock carrier bag, took the lettering off it and put in generic 'Family Butcher' typography". You can see the superb result on page 151 of that book English Allsorts. And for all that time I wondered if I'd ever find an original bag.
You know what's coming next don't you? The book has just come out and yesterday, for the first time in months, I go to the market in Market Harborough. As I say to the boys after I haven't been for a while "Something's calling me". So I present myself at my favourite stall and just as I look up from a 1938 Bartholomew's map of Wharfedale I see the owner sifting through a pile of things he'd just been given for sale. In a fraction of a second I saw the above. "Hang on" I heard myself saying hoarsely.
Not only is it the same stock butcher's bag (with slightly different folds on the cows and sheep) it's from a place I've only quite recently discovered, also mentioned in the book. Wimbleton's isn't there any more, but if it's food you're after in Porthleven's Fore Street then there's The Corner Deli, Top Chippy and Twisted Currant.
It all seems so long ago now. A cold lunchtime in late January, with us coming out of a very French wine bar just off the Charing Cross Road and me blinking at the light as I watched my publisher cycle quickly off into the traffic. Leaving me wondering "What have I done?". You see, it was January this year and somewhere between one libation and the next I'd said "Of course I can do it by the end of July". But I did, and I have to say that amongst all my books this is the one I've enjoyed putting together the most. And it's out today.
Everything became a pleasure. Pouring over Ordnance maps to find ruined Norfolk churches, talking to a very attractive driver of a new Heatherwick Routemaster in Victoria, having deep meaningful conversations with the Tiptree Jam people, polishing-up a Hornby O Gauge Fyffes Banana truck, turning up in a back street of Abingdon at a couldn't-be-bettered moment, remembering unprovoked attacks made on me by a chicken, attempting to whittle a list down to just three James Ravilious photographs, lying on a shingle beach in Aldeburgh thinking about my first pint of Adnams.
And the kindness of people. Edward Milward Oliver for sending me fantastic stills of Raymond Hawkey film titles, Tony Meeuwissen for sending me gorgeous examples of his outstanding work, Tom Harris for letting me crawl all over his newly-restored 1952 Jaguar XK120. Clive Aslet for writing such an insightful preface, Richard Gregory for meticulously and patiently making sure the whole thing got printed satisfactorily- which it was, by the exceptional Conti Tipocolor in Florence. And the inimitable David Campbell (the Charing Cross Road peddler) for well, another brilliant lunch, making it all happen and then just letting me get on with it. So many incredible people helped, I do hope I remembered you all in my 'thanks' bit at the back.
Your local bookshop will of course at this very minute be putting shed loads in their windows, but in any case you can read more here.
Some time in 1987 I walked past the Penguin Bookshop in Camden. (Imagine that, a bookshop just for penguins.) I looked in the window and saw a man in his seventies with glasses talking to two or three people round a table. A bottle of golden liquid appeared to take centre stage. So this is how I came to drink cider with Laurie Lee and he signed two copies of the Jubilee Penguin edition of his classic Cider with Rosie for me.The second copy he dedicated to my girlfriend, and if I remember rightly wrote something typically flirtatious next to his fountain pen signature.
So once again I looked through my fingers last night at the last of the BBC English Classic series that have played out over the last four weeks.Gradually I settled down to enjoy it, until during a scene quite early on the camera tracked across a row of schoolchildren reciting the Lord's prayer in the classroom, and they morphed into their older selves. And not just older, but in most cases almost mature adults, still in the same junior school room, still with the same teacher. I almost expected to see the buttons popping off their coarse jackets and smocks as they expanded.This was made even stranger when they gambolled and frolicked like their previous six year olds down to a designer icy pond. But I needn't have worried, they quickly found their short trousers and little frocks again and shrunk back to their small selves.
Was it all bad? Certainly not, mostly because of Samantha Morton as the mother, Archie Cox as a very passable Laurie Lee becoming the pipe smoking violin playing author and Timothy Spall as a superb narrator. When the director bothered to use him that is. Again, I don't want to make unfair comparisons, but I couldn't help thinking all the while about watching Claude Whatham's Cider with Rosie on Christmas Day 1971. With a screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Laurie Lee himself.
Anyway we don't have to worry now in Unmitigated England about such things and we can get back to grubby 1939 railway tickets and tins of cocoa. And the landmark milestone of this coming Thursday, as you will see.
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)