On the border of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, and surprisingly near the ghastly conjoining of the M1, the M6 and the A14, is Stanford-on-Avon. Parkland trees surround the red brick Hall built in the late 17th century by Sir Roger Cave, a monument to the early aviator Percy Pilcher sits out in a field, and amongst the few houses of the village is the 14th century church of St.Nicholas. Don't do as I have done for years and just wander by, idly remarking on its imposing appearance, but get in there. Your eyes won't know where to look first, the nave and side aisles being stuffed with fabulous monuments, including an extraordinary one of 1896 to Edmund Verney. A life-size hussar in full rig steps up to place a wreath below a medallion portrait, at his side a shield and spear looking as if they were discovered like this, dropped hurriedly on the South African veldt.
Last Saturday I once again stopped under the trees outside, seeing as if for the first time this oversize mound, lit just for me it would appear, against the dark east end of the church. My first thoughts got me very excited. Could it be an ancient tumulus, a reminder that the early church respected what had gone before on this very same spot? Fleetingly I entertained the notion that it might be the resting place of a deceased circus elephant, an example of which I know exists out in a Lincolnshire park. Back home I fruitlessly scoured my Pevsner and Shell Guide, hoping for at least a clue. Nothing. So, with more time to spare on Wednesday, I made the detour to Stanford again. Closer inspection of the mound showed two iron grilles half way up, presumably set in to provide ventilation to the inside of the mound. But for what? The answer came in the simple little leaflet propped up amongst the postcards. A list headed Finally, the visitor should notice concluded: Outside the church, at the east end, is a mound covering the family vault of the Cave family, Lord Braye's ancestors. Of course it is. I assume entrance was once gained from a doorway behind the altar. I've seen vaults outside churches and amongst lesser tombs in cemeteries, but never without some sort of inscription that at the very least would stop my wild imaginings about altruistic early Christians and elephants suddenly finding themselves in the eternal Big Top.
A brief return to Faversham, one of my favourite places. In his 1969 Shell Guide to Kent Pennethorne Hughes says 'A delightful market town and small port, obviously conscious of its historical and architectural heritage, but busy and contemporary. It has no showpiece for gogglers, but any number of pleasant buildings.....[and] has various industries: grain and flour, oysters, bricks, canning and packing works for the fruit and vegetables from the country roundabout, and a pleasant and occasional smell of brewing'. It still feels as though bricks and flour should be stacked up on the quayside, and there is certainly much activity down there, but the town still has at its heart the brewer, Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewer in Britain. (Check out their Unmitigated English new bottle labels.) The town is also the setting of Arden of Faversham, a brilliant play once ascribed to both Shakespeare and Marlowe. Murder and mayhem amongst the grain sacks.
Oddly, the Shell Guide has only one Faversham photograph, by Edwin Smith, of the 1574 Guildhall perched on its timber supports. So I'm hoping the picture above of Standard Quay gives something more of both the flavour of the town and the Shell Guides sense of place, following far behind in the footsteps of Smith, John Piper et al. The big white house is, I believe, an old Customs House.
A correction to the above has arrived at Ashley Towers from a stalwart of the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre in Faversham, who tells me that the 'Customs House' I had assumed it was is, in fact, '...the home of John Matthew Goldfinch, our foremost builder of sailing
barges, who had his yard next door. His most famous barge was the eponymous
Goldfinch, launched c1894. She was sold out of British service c
1930 and sold to a sugar company in what is now Guyana. The key point is that
she crossed the Atlantic under sail, with no auxiliary.Yet she was designed
only for UK coastal waters and short trips across the Straits of Dover and
southern North Sea to ports from NE France to the Baltic.'
You know how it is. You set yourself the task of finding one thing (in this case two 1980s chutney jars, don't ask) and you find that when you've finally exited the be-mildewed outhouse your kitchen table is groaning with piles of other stuff you've found. "Well I never, fancy seeing that again. How lovely". So why was it in there in the first place? There must be name for this. I'll call it the Slawston Syndrome to be going on with. This Silveroid Stainless Steel Fountain Pen Nib display card nearly made it into Unmitigated England, so perhaps in disgust at rejection it wrote itself into the brick outhouse. But it's a very timely reappearance, as there is now serious talk of a third Unmitigated England Book. Which I can't wait to start. Perhaps I'll try using one of the non-corrodible nibs to kick-off my thoughts. After all, it says they have '3 Degrees of Point'. I've had that myself sometimes.
And so to Walsingham in Norfolk. All very odd, and I'm dyed-in-the-wool C of E. The oddest thing for me is that the Shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham is in fact Anglican. This is the Church of England so high it must have rocketed over the border into full-on Catholicism. The streets are permeated with the smell of incense and elderly spinsters in nun-style headscarves staring beatifically into the distance as they stand blocking up parking spaces. We were looking for shriney things, and quickly found a dusty shop window filled with plaster saints. My companion photographed one with an enormous £11.50 price tag round Joseph's neck, and we wandered into the Abbey grounds. Well, not exactly wandered, we had to negotiate a lady having trouble with the till who took eight pounds off us to look at snowdrops and a ruined arch.The actual Shrine place was more interesting, if very disturbing. A pale brick building that looks like a bus station in Romford hides a garden full of bricked and gilded stations of the cross and a perfect set of three crucifixes on a grassy knoll. It was with relief that we saw these cleansing fluids on a dusty window sill as we fled to Brancaster and two big plates of whitebait.
A couple of days in Herefordshire, and an essential visit to Kilpeck church, one of the best preserved Norman churches in the country. Many will know of this pink sandstone building high on its knoll next to the castle, mainly for the incredible doorway with its Green Man (the object of my visit) and the course of corbels running around the top of the walls. Such a medieval pageant of heads and faces, upside down pigs, doves, musicians, acrobats and wrestlers. And then outside this little Reliant Robin under the yews, losing yet another wheel. Its elderly owner stood by it, staring at the space where the third of only three wheels ought to be, lost in thought. Probably remembering slow excursions down Herefordshire lanes, leaning gently into the bends.
A dozen or so years ago I was travelling across Cowbit Wash between Crowland and Spalding in the Lincolnshire Fens. A sudden kink in the road and I glanced to my right and saw this little red brick chapel slowly sinking into the grass verge. Readers of my Pastoral Peculiars will probably recognise it as an 1895 Wesleyan Chapel, and remember that not long afterwards I drove by and it had been completely erased from the landscape. Only a pile of orange bricks lay in the grass, incised with the name of a local brickyard- Peakirk. One of which of course now resides in a dark corner at Ashley Towers.
Why do I mention it again now? Well, I found the 35mm transparency in an old biscuit tin this morning, and I have demolition on my mind after having seen in quick succession the excellent and ever entertaining Jonathan Meades' mourning of the destruction of examples of 'brutalist' architecture, and the sad but inspiring documentary on the incomparable Ian Nairn. (Catch both on the iPlayer thing if you're quick.) And it prompted the thought that as cooling towers and unloved shopping centres are subhumed in piles of grey dust, we should spare a thought for these tiny and apparently unloved buildings. I was brought up being sat down on uncomfortable pitch pine pews in places like this, particularly on holidays when a search for a Baptist Chapel ended up by us being herded into Primitive Methodist strongholds that were often both remote and alarmingly eccentric. So I know a little bit of how it was here. Small boys (and of course girls) staring out at waving wheat on a summer's evening, fingering the peg doll or tin toy in the pocket and wondering if the interminable sermon would ever come to its conclusion, and the quiet fields could once again echo with shouts of gleeful relief as they run down the lane.
I am a 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)