A beautiful autumnal morning, yesterday in Norfolk. I was very glad to turn off from the incessant traffic on the Cromer road to find two villages I hadn't seen before. Great Snoring and Little Snoring, which sound like two characters in a fairy tale. As you leave Little Snoring a bend in the lane reveals the remarkable little church of St.Andrew. Apparently it's a bit of a Norfolk mystery as to why an early Norman church was demolished so soon, and its replacement, certainly within a hundred years, built just to the north. My guess is that building at this time could be a bit hit and miss and the original church lurched with subsidence. The now detached round tower survives, and its magical red cap, again like something from a fey tale of long ago, looks like it may have been used as a dovecote. The louvered openings seem very small if they're for bells. Pevsner doesn't mention them, but then he didn't mention that you can still clearly see where the original church met the tower either.
Further down the lane is Great Snoring, a very pretty village with the church of St.Mary's. Worth visiting for the 15th century painted panels on the rood screen, defaced in the Tudor Reformation, and a superb late seventeenth century coat-of-arms towering over the inside of the south door.Near to Fakenham, near to Wells-next-the-Sea, both churches are worth the little detour.
Now this really was unexpected. I discovered it on a wall at the Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge and immediately knew what this was all about. Not that I'm given particularly to non-shrinking wool underwear, but when I was a lad I walked past the Two Steeples factory in Wigston Magna every day on my way to my junior school. The large Leicestershire village was sometimes called Wigston Two Steeples, on account of it having, well, two steepled churches: All Saints and St.Wistans, (later two of the houses at my next school), probably only half a mile apart.
But it was another memory that was stirred on seeing it. The owner of the factory lived at the top of the cul-de-sac road I lived on in Wigston Fields, in a large mid Victorian house, and every day could be seen walking very purposefully down the lane to his work. He wore heavily checked plus fours and carried a cane that he raised to us in greeting. I think he had a monocle, but this may be something I picked up from a character in the Eagle comic. Opposite my house my friend had a large yew tree in his front garden and we would perch up in its sooty branches to spy on people walking below. "Here comes Spring Heel Jack" we whispered as one poor chap strided beneath us as if on rubber springs, his head in a cloud of pipe smoke. I'm not sure what we called Mr.Plus Fours but it was either Two Steeples or The Colonel. He had a mate who used to come and visit him driving a mid blue 1920's Rolls Royce with disc wheels, the hood down and him sporting a Panama and a huge white moustache. "Here comes Mr.Pastry" we shouted to each other, and ran behind the car trying to jump up on the back. Blimey, all this from a sheet of vitreous enamelled iron advertising wool underpants. Whatever next.
I'm walking down the street having just come out of chapel. I pass the ironmongers with tin baths hanging outside and then remind myself I need a mattock like the one in the tool shop.The greengrocer waves to me as I descend the blue brick steps to a canal wharf where a pretty girl comes out from a corrugated iron hut to greet me, our conversation gently drifting from canal boat painting to other things. It's very warm, so I feel obliged to drop into the cool shadows of the public bar of the Bottle & Glass public house, where another delightful girl pulls me a pint of mild and furnishes me with a cheese and onion cob.
Have I gone to some kind of Unmitigated Heaven? In a way yes. I'm in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and I urge you to engage with the rigours of the West Midland motorway system and innumerable traffic lights and roundabouts in order to pay it a visit. You won't be disappointed.
We are perhaps all familiar with the Batsford book jackets designed by Brian Cook in the 1930s. Brightly coloured and so evocative of an era blessed with some of the best in commercial art, they have become highly collectable. But post war, Batsford needed to rationalise, and all that bother with rubber plates and transparent inks was simply too expensive, and a whole lot of trouble for those down on the printroom floor. What was needed, particularly for the British Heritage Series, was a generic cover that would do for all the titles, so that all that had to happen was the dropping in of the title onto standard cartouches.
But just look at that illustration. Everything's here that the range of titles demanded: a town, village, church, cathedral, country house, coastline, quayside, a river and a castle. Somewhere I imagine is an 'old inn of England'. It's a cappricio of everything Batsford stood for, and doubtless some of these delightful juxtapositions rubbed off on me when I did my own town prints. The artist is Philip Gough, born in 1908 and trained in Liverpool as a theatre designer, and after producing designs for the original Toad of Toad Hall in 1929 he went on to work on some twenty five theatrical productions in London. Gough had a great love for the late eighteenth century and the Regency period, and his work is perhaps very redolent of that other great artist, sadly lost in the Second World War, Rex Whistler. So now I'm looking out for more of his work. I know he did at least five covers for individual Saturday Books, and in addition to illustrating authors such as Jane Austen he worked on several books for children. Oh dear, yet another collection appears about to start. I think there's still room in the still room.
Last week I promised you the other end of the Romney Marsh, that extraordinary wedge of shingle that continuously shifts with every tide of the English Channel, the last of the Kent coast before Sussex begins near the port of Rye. A truly English enigma, every time I drive out from the comfort of the green marsh and onto Dungeness I feel that nothing's changed. And then I realise that everything has. More will have been done to one black-tarred wooden shack, less to another. The weather-beaten sign on the pub may have been altered but already be peeling, and between it all one patch of sea holly will have been replaced by another two yards away. Perhaps the only details that appear not to metamorphose in this eerie landscape are the wires and the brilliant light of a late summer afternoon.
I've written about all this on and off for years, but for the record the roof in my top picture is attached to an old Southern railway carriage, the whole appearing to be covered in bubbling black tar; the Britannia Inn is still thankfully run by Shepherd Neame (but I can't vouch for Doctor Feelgood still being on the jukebox), Mascot cottage is looking more homely but the boat at its side is still motionless but picturesque; and the Dungeness Lifeboat station looks even more like a still from a Wes Anderson film. I did think of setting the camera onto the self-timer in order to run in front of it in a grossly exaggerated manner about half way down the concrete roadway. Knowing my luck I would have tripped on the edge. Still wish I'd done it though.
It doesn't take much time on the Romney Marsh in Kent for my batteries to be re-charged, as assuredly as the ones in my cameras become discharged with every click of the shutter. Surprisingly for the time of the year it was very peaceful and quiet, winding slowly down remote lanes overshadowed by trembling white poplars and willows, sheep bleating animatedly at me every time I got out of the car. I felt utterly alone, but none the worse for that. The top photograph is of the church at Kenardington, not quite on the marsh but nevertheless winking at me continuously from its knoll above a bean field on the higher ground to the north. I think one of the reasons for my passion for these atmospheric acres is the colour palette of greens (particularly the dark) and brick reds in the houses and church roofs. The tile-hung building with the white picket fence is Hook Hall, not far from Brookland, and the beautifully isolated church is the remarkable Fairfield. Well-used as a location in Mike Newell's film of Great Expectations (2012), it was where Pip met Magwitch.
And so up off the marsh at Appledore, but not before crossing the Ashford to Hastings railway line where trains still stop at the station. And here another gratifying note was struck. Wanderers in Unmitigated England will know of my distaste for most of today's bus and train liveries, but the Southern seems to have got it just about right here for trains traversing the marsh, and indeed through the greenery of Kent and Sussex generally. My certificate of approval too for their adaptation of the original Southern Railway lettering for the train sides.
The other side of the marsh is of course Dungeness, which never fails me for one reason another. More of this shortly.
In the current Spectator, Ross Clark expounds on the loss of individualism, and the need for people (well, not us in Unmitigated England obviously) to not want to do things alone. Clark thinks that it's because since the 1980's children grew up not being allowed to run about outside on their own, climb trees or disappear into the woods unsupervised. He cites the desire now for them to stand with 200,000 others at Glastonbury, or sit two feet from half a million others on Brighton beach when you can in fact be virtually on your own just along the coast.
It's obviously also affected the sign world, or at least the highways department of Leicestershire County Council. My top picture shows the Rutland boundary sign in 1995, just over the willow-fringed Eye Brook at Stockerston. (Incidentally the front cover shot on my first little book Rutland: Much In Little.) The simple effectiveness of it has now been completely ruined by the crassness of whoever thought it was a good idea to attach the Leicestershire border sign on the back of Rutland's, even using the same posts to attach it too. Why? Particularly as Leicestershire has put another appallingly designed sign on the other side of the road. So of course the next fluorescently-clad highwaymen turn up with their signs for a pending road closure (equally badly designed) and think "Ooh, this is where signs are erected". Ignoring the fact that the closure will in fact take place a hundred yards previously at the convenient road junction, but there must have been great comfort in grouping everything together to make even more of a visual mess. Oh it's so good to have a rant. Haven't had one for ages. Not since Western Power dug up the lawn in front of Ashley Towers.
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) and Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012)