We take them so much for granted really don't we? No, not the signpost, (increasing numbers of which are disappearing, at least in this traditional form) but miles themselves. I always knew that there would be creeping metrication that would eventually see them banished, and it's started. I was going to go on about this before I heard on the news that height and width restrictions are soon to be in centimetres or whatever, after all newsreaders and journalists continually use metric, temporary roadworks are signed using it, and it's all now horribly and unnecessarily ubiquitous. And then I started reading the delightful and thought-provoking Claxton by natural history writer Mark Cocker, and was brought to a halt by this, talking about barn owls, where: "...within eight kilometres of this spot I know three churches that have housed them..." I double-checked whether Mark was writing this in the Carmargue, but no, he was still in the nexus of the River Yare in south Norfolk.
Well, I've had this problem with editors before, who have insisted I use metric for measurements, probably so that they don't upset the one person who kindly buys my books in Belgium or the curiously huge numbers of Chinese who I think use something else anyway. But we've always been able to compromise, where miles are left alone but heights of bridges, say, are awkwardly noted in both systems. But the Forth Bridge for me will be always held together by 6,500,000 rivets weighing 4,200 tons. Perhaps Mark had someone breathing down his neck at Jonathan Cape's. I do hope this is the reason.
The Highways Agency, or whichever darkened room recommends these things for roads, have said that information in both systems will improve road safety. Yes, that old rock cake. No it won't, it will only confuse. They will doubtless cite the poor old truck driver from Uzbekistan who has thundered across Europe with just one tyre with a decent tread who is suddenly confronted by a low bridge in the fog.
Unmitigated England is going to have to be mobilised soon in the cause of saving our miles. After all, it's not "How many kilometres is it to Babylon" is it? Robert Frost didn't say The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep....
Just north of Osbournby on the Bourne to Sleaford road, the A15 makes a sudden swerve to the left in order to circumnavigate Aswarby Park. But if you take the lane into the tiny hamlet you will be confronted by the church of St.Denis, and if you see it in bright autumn sunlight as I did last week then it will appear like the ghost of a Lincolnshire church. Which in turn has its own ghost story attached. M.R.James stayed at the now demolished hall and used it as the backdrop to one of his most chilling tales Lost Hearts. All that remains in the park opposite to mark the building's passing are two columns out amongst the sheep and fallen trees, both surmounted by boar's heads, the Whichcote family crest.
But I was here for a purpose, to try and solve a puzzle that has exercised me for some time. Dwellers in Unmitigated England may remember my oblique reference to a mound in a Lincolnshire park. This came about because of a revised note to Aswarby in The Buildings of England:Lincolnshire, made by John Harris to Pevsner's comment about a possible barrow in the park: "It has been reported...that it was raised in the c19 to cover an elephant which died in a travelling circus!" A number of times I have scanned the park for even the slightest eminence but to no avail. After chasing a woman I saw unlocking the church I discovered that there was "talk of an elephant" in the distant past, but nothing more. So the girls were put to work up and down the library ladders until finally I was presented with a map reference for a supposed barrow in the park. Right next to the A15 as it straightens up to continue northwards. Just past the equally ghostly and sadly defunct Tally Ho Inn that stands forlorn on the left hand side. Why hadn't I seen it?
Further burning of candles at the midnight hour then brought a startling discovery. Tayleur's Great American Circus toured the country during 1880 and the early years of the 1890s. The circus (once witnessed by Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll in Eastbourne), visited Grantham, some thirteen miles to the west, on a stormy night on the 24th September 1892. A further piece of the pachydermal jigsaw appeared when I discovered that Lord Whichcote granted permission for the interment of an elephant from a travelling circus in Aswarby Park in....1892. All of these snippets came with the get-out words "legend" or "myth" but I'm now convinced that there's too much detail for there not to be some truth in this curiosity.
So yesterday, an appropriately stormy day, I set out for Aswarby again, but this time accompanied by the eagle-eyed Mother-of-My-Youngest-Children. Who of course immediately spotted the pear-shaped mound exactly as the map reference had indicated. My excuses for not seeing it sooner, viz: "there's a tree at one end of it and it's behind a hedge", drew not one ounce of sympathy. "You just get impatient if there's not a sign saying 'Elephant Buried Here".
The A15 got closed further on because a straw stack the size of a town hall was on fire, so we took advantage of a quieter road and with the wind blowing with apocalyptic force I negotiated a steep-sided ditch to wait for the imminent break of sunlight in the dark rolling clouds. I staggered back to the car. "Any luck?" "You won't believe it. There's two tusks sticking up out of it!". "NO! You're joking!". "Yes." So, there we are. There's much more to do, and short of a proper excavation that could get very complicated it looks like there's a few hours to be put in trawling the archives of the contemporary press. Which, knowing this county of old, will throw up even more curiosities to chase after on stormy days.
Everyone knows about about my predilection for all things appertaining to Len Deighton. Be it novels (particularly those of the 1960s), cookbooks, non-fiction and the various books he edited. One, though, had escaped me for years until last week I finally got my hands on Drinks-man-ship at the right price and in excellent condition for it's age (1964). It's a superb piece of Deightoniana: large (235mm x 325mm), beautifully designed by Derek Birdsall and in it Deighton brings together writing by his pals on all manner of drinks and drinking. It's a magnum of good things- classic sixties photography, typography, and reminisces of drinking by the likes of George Melly and Anthony Haden-Guest (very funny). But do you know, I'd have bought it just for the dust jacket. That's Len himself in close proximation to the model Pattie Boyd (she of Smiths Crisps TV commercials and married to both George Harrison and Eric Clapton who wrote Layla about her). The caption reads 'Photograph of Len Deighton and friend by James Mortimer', and it's still got that 'wow' factor that hasn't dated. It all makes me want to knock back an Underberg and break into a blue packet of Gauloises before reading.
So here are the other five posters, in the order I executed them. Having decided on the first one that the legend 'Bread' should not be a piece of additional text but an integral part of the poster, I had to think of ideas where the same thing could happen. Which proved to be a lot of fun. The only thing that changed on the final prints was that badge on the Soda girl's t-shirt. I'm obviously so immersed in the codes of Unmitigated England that I'd always thought the phrase 'spooning' meant 'courting', mainly because my dad said it lot. When I showed the design to Only Daughter she expostulated "Daddy you can't possibly say that". We did in fact print it like this originally, but a few raised eyebrows prompted a rethink.
Fortuitously, just as I'm about to press the 'publish' button, I learn that Brucciani's have just been successful at the 2014 Tiptree World Bread Awards, winning the category 'Great British White', which I thought was a brand of whale.
If anyone's interested in a print, just get in touch via my e-mail
Last year I designed and illustrated six posters for two cafes in the centre of Leicester. They have a remarkable pedigree stretching back over 70 years, and everyone around here knows about going into Brucci's. As a spotty teenager I used to meet my dad in one at lunchtime for a cheese and pickle sandwich, and later waited in trepidation to see if a potential girlfriend would turn up. I was reminded of them again this week as I found myself in a Costa, and set to ruminating on why they think it's a good idea to have you queue to place your order and then to queue again to get your beverages. I mean, it's not Genoa is it? There I'm quite happy to pay upfront to an old lady in a glass booth, but then my cappuccino will be with me in two shakes of the chocolate sprinkler. It isn't every Costa, but if ever you're stalwart enough to brave Leicester's city centre do give a Brucciani's a go. The girl who takes your order will also very smartly prepare your request, and you'll find one in Fox Lane and one in Churchgate, both just off the Clock Tower. And if you're sitting down near to the poster above you can try and work out the puzzle picture to the right of the coffee pot.
Of course all this will seem like a shameless plug for a client, but I have to say this was one of the most pleasurable and satisfying jobs I've had to do. If you want to see the other five I might oblige, and if you want something similar for your emporiums (or anything else) then I will certainly oblige. We can talk about it over an affogato.
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 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)