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.
There was one thing we knew as boys. And that was that the illustration on the front of Hornby catalogues and train set boxes would usually bear no relation to the contents. But it didn't matter. It was the whole idea of steam trains that attracted us, and the fact that they were inaccurately rendered in colourfully printed tinplate meant not a jot. Back in the day we were an 'O' Gauge family, forced by circumstance to watch richer neighbours' or friends' Hornby Dublo electric trains careen around specially constructed baseboards in front parlours. No, we were strictly clockwork, and our battered cheapo 'M' series trains ran amok through hallway and kitchen, and very memorably around the garden. My brother came back from Leicester market with a huge box full of track, staggering up our cul-de-sac lane shouting "Give me a hand someone". We couldn't believe how far it stretched, right from the bottom of the garden by the empty pond, past the sentinel lupins, across the yard, round the side and front of the house until finally running out of steam at the top of the drive. Almost literally, because one winding would do the lot. I was posted by the front gate, and I can still remember the rush of pleasure as the train approached, my brother having put an apple or biscuit in a truck for me. Alone and out of sight, I would put my ear to the silvered track to hear the approaching clattering of wheels. We were so into all this we parcelled an abbreviated version with a string handle to take on our holidays to Anderby Creek on the Lincolnshire coast. Rainy days found the trains whirring around the attic of our bungalow.
You know what's coming don't you? Readers may remember the purchase of an 0 gauge level crossing three years ago. It started a slow ball rolling. Signals, bits of stations, then wagons followed by the odd carriage. But no locomotive. Until this Tuesday! The coupling took place with due ceremony, and we're almost ready to roll. Just need a 100 yard stretch of track. You see, apart from my youngest chaps, there appears to be a growing cache of grandchildren in my family, and the idea is to start services running around Ashley Towers in a similar fashion to those of, err, a long time ago. Trucks with Ribena beakers spilling over them, trucks with Lego cargos. And the inevitable, as everyone watches in fascination as a rose petal drifts gently down onto the track and the whole thing spectacularly derails and crashes into the dustbins. Beware of trains.
* 'Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!' For years I thought this line of poetry was someone remembering his train set. I couldn't figure out 'Barlow' because the only one I knew was my fellow milk monitor at school. Eventually I read the whole thing and it's about cricket: At Lord's by Francis Thompson.
Yesterday saw our annual village show, named after the next village for some still unexplained reason. I've gone on about it in blog posts passim, and you've only got to change the title of Philip Larkin's poem Show Saturday to Show Sunday and you'll know exactly what it's like: ...horse-boxes move; each crawls / Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound / For far-off farms.
This year was no different, except that I took more notice of what was going on in the main ring from my straw bale seat, rather than over-indulging myself in the hospitality tent of the show sponsors. So I know a bit more about ladies riding side-saddle, which was nice, but am still nonplussed by JCB digger formation dancing. I had a lovely chat with a bloke who had brought old tools for sale from near Bawdsey in Suffolk and who told me about playing inside Martello Towers when he was a child, but inevitably got drawn to the ranks of restored, partly restored and still wrecked old tractors. Towering over them was a vehicle used to haul timber, also from Suffolk, and I stared for a long time at the hand wrought lettering 'ticked-in' on the door. I wondered at which point the artist realised he wasn't going to get all of 'Suffolk' in before the door edge was reached. Of course he or she knew. If you draw lettering you know instinctively.
And just as inevitably I got drawn into the secondhand book tent where I nearly got into a scuffle with a pal who had, I confess, seen a C.Henry Warren book illustrated by John Aldridge before I did. But I did alight successfully on the 1920 Dairy Farming book. I had to have it just for the cover, which pleased me immensely. Although I don't doubt that I shall benefit at some time by knowing that cows calving between October and January give the highest yields. It says on page 80. I've just made it into a big A3 print and it looks even better. Perhaps I'll do the same for Mr.Cooper's red door.
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)