Yesterday I was caught rummaging around in a junk shop when I should have been doing my Christmas shopping. Lo and behold, I found a stash of mid 1950's John Bull magazines underneath a pile of obscure Victorian song sheets. Imagine my joy when I opened the December 7th 1957 issue and saw this advertisement for Dinky Toys. Or perhaps you can't. I suppose you have to be as grizzled as I am to know what all this was about, but Dinky Toys were the creme de la creme in diecast model vehicles. Forget Corgi Toys with plastic windows, forget Spot-On with its obsessively correct detail, these were the ones. Bronze green telephone service vans, deep blue BOAC coaches, yellow and green Austin taxis and one I still lust after- the Morris J van delivering Capstan cigarettes. Seen here flowing colourfully around Eros, they were the staple of my Santa Claus lists, and many a Christmas morning breakfast was spent manoeuvering the latest addition to my collection around the pork pies and mustard pots. And for the fetishists amongst you, there was simply nothing like the first whiff of new paint as you rolled the new toy back out of its bright yellow box. Merry Christmas everybody.
A walk around my local churchyard on a frosty but bright morning revealed this slate gravestone. Of course in the early nineteenth century nobody would have thought twice about a Richard Burton marrying an Elizabeth, but from our 'modern' perspective the coupling is always going to grab attention. Old churchyards are happy (yes, happy) hunting grounds if you're interested in lettering and the decorative arts. In my local it's the Swithland blue slate ones that have survived the best, those carved from nearby limestone gradually becoming worn smooth by westerly rains. I go on about them in More from Unmitigated England, now stacked-up in your local bookshop. Oh, and I nearly forgot. In a village churchyard just down the road there's a Harry Potter. I won't say where it is in case coach loads of Potter Addicts turn up like others do to the Rosslyn Chapel to see if they can find the Da Vinci Code in the vestry.
A rainy morning, big water drops spattering against the window, blurring my view of sheep huddled-up under the trees. So I start rummaging about in cupboards and staring at bookshelves in the hope of finding something inspiring. Normally the spine of a book tells its message quite clearly, and one moves on. But books without a traditional spine can all too often get neglected, presenting just a few leaves of faded cardboard and the odd rusty staple to the outer world. And so it is this morning as I prise open a gap between volumes and pull out the Pop-Up Train Book. Published by Purnell circa 1950, a line of type advocates the use of a paper clip to keep the book open. I used a bulldog clip so that I could share this 3D railway station with you. Just to give you the back story, John and Mary are sitting next to their luggage by the Booking Office, on their way to visit Granny 'who lives far away in the North of England'. I particularly like the book stall, with its ranks of colourful magazine covers. When publisher Victor Gollancz launched a cheap paperback imprint in the Thirties he spent an afternoon going round all the station bookstalls in London to discover the predominant colour used in print. So was born the classic yellow Gollancz covers. Goodbye John and Mary! Have a happy holiday!
Gamekeepers leave some odd things lying around. Old oil drums and plastic dustbins for keeping feed in, mouldering timber sheds and somewhere to have a stiffener on a pheasant shoot. I'm not quite sure what this caravan was used for, slowly succumbing to lichen and moss in a woodland clearing in a lonely Northamptonshire wood. There is something very eerie about the curtains still up at the windows, and the neat bow of net on the door has chilly undertones of Miss Havisham's wedding dress. And it's hardly a love nest for Mellors and Lady Chatterley either, although round here you can never be quite sure. Somebody may recognise it from long gone holidays- perched on a clifftop at East Runton perhaps, or holding up the traffic on the Fosse Way. Nearby is a Zetor tractor that is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding trees and undergrowth. Nature takes over quite quickly when left to its own devices.
It must have seemed as though England woke up one morning in 1940 to find the countryside suddenly littered with anti-tank barricades, vehicle traps and the ubiquitous pill box. The threat of German invasion in 1940 resulted in 28,000 of these little concrete fortresses being placed in strategic locations- hidden in spinneys on the crests of fields, on the bends of rivers and at road junctions. All for a war that never came. And so instead of heroic tales of rattling machine gun fire raking across canals and cabbage fields, there must be countless tales of rehearsal, all-to-real manoeuvres or simply just rotas of guard duty that involved enamelled coffee pots and poaching in surrounding woods. I can't be precise as to the exact location of this one (this is the fens after all) but it can't be far from my smoking railway carriage. Just one of less than 6,000 still extant in the countryside. Find out more at http://www.pillboxesuk.co.uk/
A very evocative find out on the fens. An abandoned railway carriage sits at a deserted platform as if having collapsed on its final run up from March to Spalding. Sun-bleached peeling paint, cobwebbed windows, but still the sandblasted glass firmly saying 'It's OK, come in here and light up your Woodbine, Churchmans, Passing Cloud or Sweet Afton. No 'customer services team member' to report you to the Tobacco Police, no disapproving looks from your travelling companions. Now it's just the wind through the hawthorns blowing in from the quiet fields, the occasional badger or fox stopping momentarily to sniff the cold air. Do they catch the ghost of the last blue wreath of smoke curling up out of the ventilator? I do hope so.
All the horrible stuff going on in a Margate back garden reminded me that I'd been there once. Veering away from Dreamland and the pleasure beaches I came across this marvellous little building on the harbour. Once the Customs House, it was built in 1812 and sported the official coat-of-arms with its motto 'Dieu et Mon Droit' (God and My Right). Known ever since as the Droit House, it is now the worryingly- titled 'visitor intrepretation centre' for the planned Turner Contemporary Art Gallery which I think was once going to be a huge sail-like building anchored to the sea bed. Turner lived in Margate for twenty years. The only other astounding fact I know about Margate is that the railway once proudly claimed that it had the longest station lavatories in Britain, to accommodate the urgent rush of daytrippers from trains arriving from London. Ron Combo, a frequent visitor to the comment pages of this blog, and myself can attest to the fact that not only is it no longer true but on our desperate visit it was also locked.
Old boathouses are wonderfully evocative places. Once alive to the sound of laughter as the picnic baskets of house guests were loaded into skiffs and rowing boats, many lie forgotten on the banks of lakes and rivers. I even remember finding one falling to pieces on a beach up on the west coast of the Isle of Arran at Dougarie, with a boat half-submerged in the water and sepia photographs of parties from the nearby big house still in broken frames on the wall.
This example is at Elvaston near Derby, quietly rotting away thanks to the vagaries of Derbyshire County Council who used the excuse of foot and mouth to point to falling visitor numbers in order to close the castle (designed by James Wyatt in 1812) and its museum, just so they could lease the whole estate to a private developer. How many times have we heard that one? The park is still open, and it's worth a trip off the M1 just to lap up the atmosphere and discover the 1860 Moorish temple hidden in the gardens.Ken Russell shot scenes for his memorable film Women in Love (1969) here, but if you want to find out who's shooting who now, take a look at http://www.friendsofelvaston.co.uk/
Merchant Ivory films tend to get judged as 'Laura Ashley dramas'. Comments which are as obtuse as they are ignorant. So after a magnificent Sunday lunch with loved ones of roast pig and parsnips I retired to my village fastness and, after having poured myself a large snifter, I put on my DVD of Howards End. This must have been the fourth or fifth time I'd watched it, but yet again I was utterly absorbed. Everyone dresses up because this is Edwardian England; the period detail is as meticulous as it is unsurpassed. The social mores of the turn of the century brought to life by superb performances from everybody. But in particular I like Samuel West as Leonard Bast in his ill-fitting bowler and the infinitely watchable James Wilby who, with his eye-rolling, pipe-smoking characterisation of Charles Wilcox manages to overtly steal every single scene he's in, from even the august Mr.Hopkins and Emma Thompson. And of course there are veteran cars with original AA badges, steam trains and a walk-on part for St.Pancras as it was, complete with the wooden panelled booking office and a trainshed wreathed in smoke. I first saw this film when I scived off work to watch it in the Curzon cinema in Mayfair, (is there a better place to watch films?), and found myself alone in the red plush seating. And not a popcorn remnant in sight.
I learn from the inestimable 'Piloti' in Private Eye that the oafish Abingdon Council in Oxfordshire want to put a glass lift up to the second floor of the old Town Hall, built by one of Wren's masons in 1678-82. On the outside, if you can possibly believe it. Of course it's the usual insistence on disabled access, whatever the cost and accusations of vandalism. And on top of all that the curator of the 'museum' upstairs thinks that the open space at the bottom, framed by the arcades, is 'dark and dismal' and so wants it all glazed in. Doubtless to let out to a burgher franchise or dodgy building society. And the cost? £5 million. Thank God English Heritage have now got involved. But I do hope that if ever I have the awful misfortune to be unable to climb the stairs through either a disability, or from being morbidly obese, that I will either forgo the experience or be able to summon a couple of council officials to take me up there piggy-back style. They've patently got nothing better to do.
Drink was taken yesterday at the all-new St.Pancras railway station. Ejected from the 'champagne bar' (which looks like the kind of dull cabin favoured by Costa Coffee) for attempting to jump the patient queue that stretched down the platform, (in line for the shock of bubbly at £6 a glass), my friend and I repaired to the slightly queezy-sounding Baby Betjeman Bar. The station itself is astounding, bright Midland brick and Ancaster stone showing off the cast iron buttresses that support the stupendous glass roof, now finished in the sky blue as originally applied in the early 1870s. We needed a few vodkas ('Do you want ice in that?' 'No, you should be keeping it in the freezer') and glasses of fizz to contemplate it all. We liked the Betjeman statue in classic pose looking up at the arch of roof, but had mixed feelings about the nine metre high couple nearly snogging under the clock. I liked her legs but my companion complained bitterly that it was just too Jack Vetriano. There's something in that. Anyway, I scooted off to catch my local train, (thirty four quid for a single ticket to Market Harborough), running past the sleek streamliners humming out to Liege or wherever, to where it's still the same old Midland Misery Line. Pushed out of sight like the branch line it has now become. But do go and see the station, and raise at least one glass up to the roof.
These days 'luggage', to train operators at least, means something that's left behind a seat at the terminus or destroyed in a controlled explosion if we leave it in the toilets by mistake. We trundle and stagger about with cabin trunks on our backs and induce hernias by lifting our Globetrotter suitcases onto aluminium racking. As our fellow passengers groan because they can't get by and the automatic carriage door keeps opening and shutting with robotic randomness. Nobody wants to know anymore. Once, every station had a big set of pigeon holes that contained printed luggage labels for every other station in the country, even if it was on another company's railway. So our cases, trunks, parcels, bicycles and pigeon baskets could be sent on in advance. Or the valise we'd left on the string rack in our compartment could be forwarded to the correct destination. With a porter to help us out with it all. Imagine the present day soulless franchisees trying to get their heads round that one.
Really expensive railway relics today can cost the price of, oh, a single ticket from Market Harborough to the gleaming new St.Pancras. But old luggage labels will only set you back the loose change you'd otherwise find being snatched by a platform vending machine without delivering your bar of Nestles. Not only are they a wonderful gazetteer of railway topography, they are also simple reminders of just how rich an everyday piece of print could be in terms of typefaces and texture. Porter!
It's that time of the year again when autumn winds presage the dusting down of dark overcoats and the button-holing of red paper poppies. Three years ago I wrote and photographed a little book on war memorials called Lest We Forget, and whilst putting a few pages front and back cataloguing a random selection from thousands of stone crosses, I was mostly concerned with discovering the more unusual memorials. I certainly found a perfect candidate out on the flatlands of the Dengie Peninsular in Essex. This aeroplane marks the passing of those serving at RAF Bradwell Bay where Spitfires and Hurricanes fought on the front line of aerial defence in the Second World War. This, however, is a depiction of a Mosquito, painted in the colours of an RAF Northern Europe day fighter. I find the image of what looks like a plane embedded nose-down in the earth slightly disturbing, but in its own way it perhaps reflects the outstretched arms of a more conventional cross.
Oxfam shops can be showcases of startling juxtapositions. The genteel cast-offs of an English country town posed next to stark reminders of why the shop needs to empty our pockets. The impromptu window dressing can act as an almost surreal collage of objects: the paper flowers thrust into a tabletop ornament, plates with what look like Margaret Tarrant-inspired decoration balanced in a rickety bamboo bedside table. I tend to go in to scan the bookshelves or to rummage for pegtop high-waisted trousers discarded by retired colonels (I've never found any, and if I ever did they wouldn't fit me without an unseemly struggle). One of the best Oxfam bookshops is of course the one on St.Giles in Oxford, appropriately where the charity started. We don't think we'll ever get a bargain, and if we do discover something wildly under-priced we will of course alert the staff. Won't we? No, one has the distinct impression here that all incoming stock is severely scrutinised by someone with glasses on the end of their nose. Although once....
I suppose because I've known this wall (in Fleckney, Leicestershire) virtually all my life, I've tended to take it for granted. But looked at objectively, as I did the other day, it is rather odd. I know that there's a factory behind it (I'm not really sure what they make) and the pink rainwater heads and pipes correspond to the gutters that run between gabled roofs in traditional style behind the wall. Why did someone want to disguise the factory? Is this wall any better? What were they doing behind it? This being west Leicestershire it could be hosiery- Wolsey made socks in the village for Scott's Antarctic Expeditions or perhaps it's something to do with Furnival's of Fleckney Mineral Waters. Is it something so secret it only gets talked about in hushed tones? Maybe I should have found out properly before writing all this, but it's the wall that really worries me.
I'm gradually putting together yet another collection, this time of architectural animalia, if there is such a word. Pride of place at the moment is this stunning three-dimensional swan that stares out over a car park near Boston railway station. This was once Fogarty's 1877 factory, manufacturing pillows and mattresses that utilised feathers from the poultry that this part of Lincolnshire had in abundance. The name Fogarty disappeared for a while when the company was taken over by Coloroll, but a management buy-out means that the Fogarty name is back, and duvets and pillows are still made in Boston. This slightly ugly red brick building is now an apartment block. Ugly duckling perhaps, turning into a graceful swan against the sky.
Now that we don't let off fireworks in our back gardens anymore, living in fear perhaps of the Thought Police coming round and hosing us all down, we tend to gravitate towards our local recreation ground. So my boys and I stood around whilst two men ran about with a box of matches and a lot of rockets went up out of milk bottles (I assume). We tucked into big fat beefburgers with slices of processed cheese melting in them, but the bonfire was the best bit. There's something very primitive about a blazing pile of wood and straw bales, and I noticed a thoughtful, if slightly worrying, gleam appear in my four-year-old's eyes. He then thought that it would be a good idea to watch the display from one of the swings, so out in the peripheral blackness I pushed him higher and higher on his rubber tyre seat, a little black silhouette gazing up into the heavens as if he was part of the performance. Fantastic. When he started to fight with his elder brother on a seesaw, and I realised they weren't going to burn an effigy of a Pope, or anybody else come to that, I said 'Shall we go and watch Robin Hood?' and with shouts of glee they ran off back to the car, backlit by Whizzbangs and brilliant white Catherine Wheels.
Sometimes a building takes hold of you for many reasons, beyond the initial acts of appreciating architecture or landscape. Kirby Hall in north east Northamptonshire is probably the one 'heritage' building I've visited more than any other. It helps by being only a few miles from the two homes I've occupied over the last eleven years. Alone in the fields near Corby (the wretched Rockingham Raceway looms on the horizon) you approach it as if in a dream, finally walking down a rook-haunted avenue of chestnuts to the Weldon stone gateways. On the surface this is an Elizabethan prodigy with gables, obelisks and chimneys against the sky- started by Sir Humphrey Stafford in 1570, finished by Elizabeth's favourite Sir Christopher Hatton. In recent years many will have seen it, but probably not recognised it, as a film location: Mansfield Park, A Christmas Carol and A Cock andBull Story. Inside, the bare wooden floors and the stunning curves of the bowed-windows are for me the backgrounds to thirty years of happy memories: girls sitting in window seats looking out over the fields, little children stamping their echoing feet from room to room. If you want a test bed for, say, a new relationship, and you love this sort of thing, then Kirby Hall is a good laboratory. If you've never been, get to grips with it soon.
Once it gets into October you can almost hear the North Norfolk coast heaving a well-earned sigh of relief as most of the population retreats back to Chiswick. Here on Brancaster Staithe they just quietly get on with gutting fish, doing something to bags of mussels and putting village notices up in an old Eastern Counties bus timetable frame. And of course abandoning their boats so that they can lean with the weather like the Norfolk trademark pines on the horizon. I did wonder if this vessel ever uprighted itself on the higher reaches of the tide, listening as I did to the first gurglings in the reed-bound mud as the sea once again started to push against the hull of an active fishing boat, (short-wheel based Landrover in attendance). I had to buy a big fresh crab in a brown paper bag for my fish-obsessed ten-year-old from a little wooden hut.
Reaching 478 feet at their highest point, the Langton Caudles (that's the one with the sheep) in south east Leicestershire are hardly the Malverns. But round here this, and Slawston Hill (426 feet), are the big ones. If you want to get a bird's eye view of what's going on in the surrounding villages (not much) then a brisk climb up to their summits is suitably rewarding, even if it's only to see Range Rovers not giving way on the narrow lanes to gargantuan John Deere tractors with equally frightening implements sticking out the back. I've just been out to get essential Sunday afternoon supplies, and the cloud formations contrived to give spectacularly stage-set lighting to their slopes. A timely reminder to never go out without a camera in your pocket.
Everytime I duck through Smithfield Market I see this building on the corner of Lindsey Street, just before I dive down Rising Sun Court to the pub at the end. Suddenly you forget the humming refrigerated trucks and the sides of beef disappearing down greasy alleys. Obviously Art Deco in intent, but when I first saw it the fascias had been re-painted, looking for all the world like a background for an early Disney or Tex Avery feature. Indeed it could very easily have been lifted straight from Aldo Rossi's 1991 proposals for Disney's offices in Orlando, Florida. But in case one gets carried away and starts waiting around to see bulbous yellow cars and impossibly bendy red fire engines driven by round-eared mice or sailor-suited ducks, you can bring yourself back to reality by looking next door at Edmund Martin's tripe-dressing premises.
To Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. A pre-lunch (Falkland Arms, Great Tew) walk in the park, alone except for two Aussies who kept saying 'awesome' every ten seconds. And awesome it is, an early fourteenth century fortified manor house (with a Tudor frontispiece) on a spectacular moated site. A very heady experience, particularly after I'd poked my nose into the church porch and found it awash with lilies. I'd always wanted to see Broughton after Tony Richardson shot scenes for his 1977 Joseph Andrews here. This became the home of the Wicked Squire (Kenneth Cranham) who lures the heroes and heroine to unwittingly take part in his satanic pleasures. Richardson marked the decisive moment between good and evil by having the entourage race through the tower gatehouse (seen here to the right of the church), David Watkin's camera whip-panning into the dark interior of the gateway as the door swings shut against the sunlit church spire. But Henry Fielding's eighteenth century seemed, oh, nearly three hundred years ago on this bright, fresh October morning, with the only sound the gentle drone of a tractor behind the trees. Awesome.
Right. It's time to stop staring at the minutiae of scruffy old Penguin Books and empty Gold Flake packets and get back out there. On the road, seeing what happens; Fear and Loathing On The A1.
I saw on someone's blog the other day that a top ten of roadside caffs was being assembled. One of the candidates put forward was a very up-market pub, the Olive Branch at Clipsham in Rutland. Anything further from a transport cafe cannot possibly be imagined unless under mind-altering drugs, and in any case it's a good way off the four lane blacktop that is the Great North Road. But not much further north is the real thing. A wheezing shack roofed in red corrugated iron at the Cromwell Halt just north of Newark. The lettering (obliterated in the war in case the Third Reich fancied dropping in with high explosives) automatically triggers the senses. It says, as boldly as possible: bacon, sausage, two fried eggs, black pudding and a mug of tea you can stand a spoon up in. On my first visit thick-set truckers with arms like Popeye's shovelled breakfasts down whilst aiming expletives at Tony Blair (remember 'im?) preening himself on a the ceiling-slung telly. I daren't get the camera out inside in case I found the lens slowly clearing of HP Sauce, but in conversation with the owner I learnt that next door to the shack was an air raid shelter, just in case a stray Heinkel interrupted the mopping-up with fried bread. Marvellous. I shall return.
I needed an excuse to put a classic Penguin Book on my blog, and this morning I read about Nicole Kidman remaking The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. This lead me to thinking about other adaptations of seminal science fiction. A few years ago I heard that Mr.Spielberg was thinking of making a film of The War of the Worlds with the diminutive Tom Cruise, and having recently read the book I thought I would give him some advice about how to do it. I think my letter is behind a radiator in Burbank or somewhere, but the gist of it was that here was a golden opportunity to both make a truly awesome film and also line my pocket as Special Adviser. The trick was to simply follow the book. One world in H.G.Wells' novel is late Victorian England, the other is Mars with terrifying ultra modern destructive power. Put the two together and you have gigantic computer-controlled metal legs crashing down on butcher's boys and grocery shops in Weybridge High Street, Heat Rays scorching-up vicars and melting down Shepperton church. The future would have looked frighteningly authentic, a very literal war of the worlds. Needless to say an English classic novel was rendered down to be yet another great American Idea with no connection to its literary origins.
What is it about these big Norfolk churches in the middle of nowhere? If in the very unlikely event you ever drive between Tilney All Saints and Tilney-cum-Islington in West Norfolk you will see Wiggenhall St.Mary the Virgin across the fields. It stands out against a backdrop of trees surrounding the Hall and a towering cedar black against the sky. You'll find it on a cul-de-sac lane that leads out of the village, and then down a footpath that's also someone's driveway. You expect any minute that a dog will remove the seat from your trousers. The church is basically Perpendicular of around 1400 in rubble and plastered brick, and is sadly and forlornly closed and unused. But that remarkable institution The Churches Conservation Trust does care for it, and everything they do should be vigorously supported. The all-pervading atmosphere here is one of deep melancholy. It's very easy to conjure up past congregations walking up the tree-lined road from the village to their beloved church, all of them finally finding rest as the long grasses slowly cover their graves.
I've been knocking about in Brighton recently. I have to say I love it. Not just watching waves crashing up on the shingle whilst stuffing moules and Kir Royales down in early evening promenade bars, but the whole ambience that comes from that heady cocktail of architectural bon surprise and dodgy raffishness. Regency terraces, steep-laned Kemp Town. Graham Greene's Kolley Kibber hiding his card under teashop table cloths, Pinkie flicking open his knife in back floor apartments smelling of gas. As Keith Waterhouse said, Brighton always looks as if it's helping the police with their enquiries.
Running for an early morning train last week I looked up and just had to snap Brighton's station clock. Four 'Big Ben' style faces mark the minutes over the platforms with the gilded LBSCR letters reminding us that Brighton was once the terminus of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. What scenes must this clock have presided over. Racegoers in trilby's, murderers with torsos in cabin trunks. Laurence Olivier and Dora Bryan glancing up at it as they alight from the Brighton Belle. Always with the incessant cry of gulls over the ornate iron trainshed.
Recent events in my life have made me think about taking up the smoking arts once again. I've forgotten exactly when it was I threw the last empty Marlboro packet in the fire, but it's within a timeframe that means that I'm still hesitating as I buy a paper and see the ranks of cardboard boxes whispering at me 'Go on. The odd one won't do any harm'. Of course it would, which is why I gave up in the first place. Not because of hectoring Government advice, the Tobacco Police or being patronised by ASH. And certainly not because of the heinous demands that have been forced on a totally legal product in terms of on-pack health warnings and lurid pictures of strangers' diseased offal. I almost lit up again on the 1st July when smoking was banned in pubs, another bullying directive based on extremely suspect science. But if I do succumb (and I hope I don't) then I want it to be a totally subversive activity. Putting untipped cigarettes into one of my collection of empties, (Gold Flake or Capstan Full Strength favoured) driving at night to an isolated country church and exhaling blue smoke out amongst the branches of a graveyard yew. Just to make some obscure point.
Wandering down Bedfordshire lanes one day I glanced through a gap in the trees and saw this building catching the intermittent late afternoon light. It's Hinwick House, built in 1709-14 for Richard Orlebar. But I only knew this when I got home and looked it up in Pevsner. As I stood on the grass verge waiting for just that moment when the house would be isolated in a shaft of sunlight, I had a very eerie feeling that I was somehow photographing the past. I've been in a number of places where this has happened, doubtless fuelled by an over-active imagination. Here perhaps was a real-life dust jacket image for a re-issue of L.P.Hartley's The Go-Between,or for H.E. Bates The Distant Horns of Summer. Deer moving slowly through long grass, the unsettling choking cry of a pheasant in woodland margins. Or maybe it's just the first signs of the onset of madness. I blame those white window shutters on the ground floor, fastened against the sun.
So we come to the end of summer. Buckets and spades hung up in the beach hut, the Primus stove put back on the garage shelf as autumn winds sigh through the marram grass. I love the make-do-and-mend atmosphere of beach architecture, the vulnerability, the feeling that it might just not be there anymore when we return next year. I think this is because the bungalow we stayed in at Anderby Creek in Lincolnshire ended up on the front page of the Daily Sketch in 1953, leaning over a sand dune like a nervous diver about to plunge into the sea, a casualty of the East Coast floods (albeit a survivor). Here in Old Hunstanton the sea gives back more than it takes. The original coastline was right back where the pines silhouette the skyline in their truly North Norfolk fashion, and successive rows of beach huts mark the progression of subsequent shores. The next line of defence can be seen in the dunes building up in front of the latest huts.
The Pythouse estate is situated in that curious (even slightly spooky) countryside that sits in a green triangle between Wilton and Mere, in Wiltshire, and Shaftesbury in Dorset. The odd one-eyed town of Tisbury is at the centre and down increasingly narrow lanes you'll also find Old Wardour Castle. But I got waylaid at Pythouse where I got distracted by a ruined gothick chapel and dovecote in the woods. The grounds here are private, but I sort of got 'permission' to have a quick look. On my way back to my car from the woods I spied this ghostly white figure through the trees, standing in an enclosed cottage garden. But what really struck me was the dress. So Victorian, (or maybe so Laura Ashley), here was a latterday Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day and condemned to sightlessly rebuke the birds in a lonely clearing in Wiltshire woods.
I can never drive past King's Lynn in Norfolk without turning off and having a look around the quayside. All spruced up now, it's basically a car park overlooked by one of the finest seventeenth century buildings in the country- the Customs House. Wandering about in West Norfolk yesterday I thought I'd see it all from a different perspective, so I went down onto the opposite bank of the Ouse at West Lynn. Before I found a way to the shore via a recreation ground I found myself in a cul-de-sac, and confronted by this iron gate. Looking like the entrance to a vanished football ground I can only imagine it once led onto a defunct dock. On each gate pier was a letter in the same style, 'D' and 'C', so I suppose there's another entrance nearby, probably now under a housing estate. Actually, it does look very footbally. But whatever it is, my friends who manage to get to their sixtieth birthdays in a couple of year's time at least know what to expect on their greetings cards.
Amidst all the railway franchise changes in our meaningless 'customer service' culture, it's good to see a reminder of when it was all very different. This is Eridge station, on the branch line to Uckfield in East Sussex and opened in August 1868. One half of the station has been restored to its Southern Railway livery, as once seen from 1923 to 1948. Cream weatherboarding, green detailing on doors and window frames and what is apparently a reproduction Southern enamel 'target' station sign made by a member of the nearby Spa Valley Railway. The platform canopy is supported by ornamented cast-iron columns, and once served the branch that lead off to Tunbridge Wells West station from where the SVR now run steam trains through High Rocks and Groombridge. There is currently much fundraising going on so that they can run their trains into Eridge once more. Another positive note is that the new 'Southern', whose trains run through on the other platform, have invested in decently-designed signs and an evocative logo. So all is not completely lost.
There is much to be enjoyed in the church at North Cerney, tucked-up against trees above the Cheltenham to Cirencester road. A pulpit bowl hewn from a single block of stone, a 1929 reading desk made of panels from a sixteenth century box pew and a colourful organ case painted like one you'd find in a steam-driven fairground. And then you peep into a little room at the west end and see rows of jugs for flowers on a shelf, and this fire extinguisher. Stalwart of village halls and schoolrooms, I've always loved the idea of these red megaphones, wondering what it would be like if you followed the instructions and hammered it upside down on the floor. I suppose there is more sophisticated firefighting equipment these days, but surely none as gloriously-lettered as this Minimax Model 4AW.
The Victorian age is like an enormous shout, the echoes of which still rebound around us. Railway stations, waterworks, civil and commercial offices. Even if our local bank is now a wine bar called The Bank the chances are it's Victorian. And then of course there's the churches. Whether original or restored, their impact can't be exaggerated. Today I was told to poke my nose in at my local, to see (and smell) the glorious flower arrangements from last Saturday's village wedding. The church itself is also Decorated (14th century) but was restored by Goddard & Son of Leicester in 1864. After revelling in the flowers I looked more closely at the chancel floor and saw that the afternoon sun was highlighting patches of encaustic floor tiling, and whatever we may think about the Victorian mania for 'restoration', (Goddard's were more sensitive than some) I find the designs utterly compelling. The perfect visuals to go with the scent of flowers and furniture polish, all to the tick of the clock deep within the tower.
The phrase 'Unmitigated England' comes from John Betjeman's poem Great Central Railway Sheffield Victoria to Banbury. He was in turn quoting Henry James, who used the phrase to describe thatched roofs. So there can possibly be no better example of Unmitigated Englishness than this remote cottage on the Sudbourne estate in Suffolk. The hall has vanished, but all around can be seen perfect examples of the 'picturesque' cottage style, none better than this dwelling on the road from Chillesford to Orford. It's called 'Smokey House', and I've wanted to photograph it for thirty years or more, but it's either been raining, about to rain, or I've been in too much of a hurry to get into the Orford and Butley Oysterage. A truly rural idyll, windows peeping out of the great hump of thatch, runner beans and chickens supplying the shelves of a little wayside hut half tucked away in a hedge. Every time I think about it I imagine lying in bed up in the roof, the sounds of the night creeping in through the dormer window from the surrounding woods.
I came across this level crossing gate on a lane in Fordham, Norfolk. I would imagine the hedgerow has now completely obliterated it, reclaimed after years of service on a branch line from Downham Market to Stoke Ferry. The line closed to passengers in 1930, but a light railway order was granted so that sugar beet could be transported from a factory out on the banks of the River Wissey to the east. The Men from The Ministry tried to get these gates at Crossing No.6 (Causeway) dismantled, arguing that any approaching train would easily be seen through the trees. Which just goes to show that there were thoughtless idiots in public service even that long ago.
I've always had a thing about post boxes, and tend to photograph them all the time on my travels. Apart from being very graphic objects- all that red and black and seriously heavy cast iron- they can be a history lesson in who was king or queen at the time of the erection, as it were. The ciphers cast into the iron can be anything from Victoria's to our own Queen, with a handful cast for Edward VIII before he abdicated. Most boxes in urban areas will be pillar boxes, with wall boxes and boxes strapped to telegraph poles proliferating in the countryside. I am intrigued as to what happened here at Woolpitin West Suffolk. Presumably the wall box capacity became too small, but you wouldn't have thought the demand for posting to have grown that much between George V's reign (the wall box) and George VI's (the pillar box). I love the fact that they are both still in use, the wall box announcing that it's 'for large envelopes please'.
In the fields at the back of my cottage there is a hefty-looking embankment running across the landscape. Part of the remains of a railway line that once ran from Market Harborough to Melton Mowbray, it is now covered in hawthorn bushes and bisected every now and then by the abutments of bridges. It closed to passenger traffic in 1957 and the last goods train trundled through in November 1963, but it is always a source of great pleasure to discover relics of railway life still hanging on amongst the cow pats and thistles. This photograph shows one of two brick huts with tiled roofs that sit in a field at the side of the road just outside Hallaton, which in 1957 would have been my local station. The one nearest the road is most likely to do with the weighbridge, this little building is smaller and probably stored goods sidings paraphanalia such as oil lamps, wagon hitching poles and a shelf for white enamelled cans of tea. Beyond the trees the station has been replaced by a bungalow, but railway cottages can still be seen on the road to Horninghold. I wonder if the ruminating cows hear ghostly echoes of their forebears lowing in the yard.
Borough Market in Southwark is one of my favourite places in London. Particularly on a Friday lunchtime when not only is there a bewildering display of good things to eat but an equally bewildering display of people, all rummaging about amongst the courgettes and celery for 'something for the weekend'. For a photographer of course it's a fruit and veg paradise, not just with photo opportunities popping-up every few seconds of green and red pyramids of apples, cascades of rhubarb and parsnips and barrels of olives dispensed with big wooden spoons, but of colourful boxes with bright lettering. Backdrops like scene changes in a theatre of greengrocery. All this and The Market Porter pub as a refreshment stop.
Genuine pub mirrors are getting rarer. They were always vulnerable to someone putting a pint glass or somebody's head through them, and I don't doubt that in the excesses of so-called pub restoration in the 60s and 70s a good many were chucked into skips. We then had to endure reproduction mirrors that were, in effect, just silk-screened glass. None went as far as to reproduce the cut-glass ornamention that added so much in flashing facets of light. So I was very pleased to come across the mirrors still extant in the Dog and Duck in Bateman Street, Soho. After a hard early summer's morning photographing the Household Cavalry in Hyde Park, (a commission, not an obsession), I found myself almost alone in this tiny pub with my hand clasped round a pint of Harveys Sussex Bitter. The mirrors along the wall opposite the bar are amongst the best I've ever seen, and when I asked the chap behind the bar if he minded me photographing them he looked up from his Sun and stared at the mirrors as if he'd only just noticed they were there.
I'm not normally interested in frocks. Well, only sometimes, but I couldn't resist this shop window in Market Harborough. It was in Adam and Eve Street, and the almost surreal image created by the low early evening sunlight was very tempting. It wasn't until I looked at the photograph much later that I pondered over the garments themselves. Are they from the 1940s or is that just wishful thinking? Had I entered yet another timewarp where I thought I was in fact somewhere else? Or somebody else? Check the CCTV footage for a man in a trilby with an Ensign Selfix 420 camera.
Hearing somebody talking on the radio recently about the ancient practice of Swan Upping, I recalled Stanley Spencer's painting of the same name and this blue cast-iron bridge over the Thames at Cookham. It features very strongly in the background. Spencer's viewpoint was almost exactly the one I had taken to photograph the rest of the bridge one cold January afternoon, waiting for at least a single ray of wintry sunlight to coincide with one of the very occasional holes in the cloud cover. The water lapped around my feet on the towpath, my only companion a dog barking away behind a delapidated fence. I fretted for about half-an-hour, thinking that when the light did come my luck would mean that a cabin cruiser would churn by with somebody waving either a gin and tonic or two fingers at me.
The 1867 bridge was cast by Pease Hutchinson in the Skerne Iron Works in Darlington, which seems an extraordinarily long way away. With all the features of a seaside pier, it was once a toll bridge between Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, with the red pepperbox toll house on the Bucks embankment.
We've all walked around sunny fields looking at classic cars lined-up for inspection. Pristine Rileys, exceptional Wolseleys, all done-up in a condition that usually far surpasses the original showroom condition. One of the most elite of motor cars is of course the Bentley. Not the footballer's wife's shopping trolley but the inter-war monsters that blasted the tracks of Brooklands and Le Mans to such a degree that Ettore Bugatti called them something like 'extremely fast lorries'. But you won't find the present-day owners swanning about polishing their radiators on Show Saturdays. No, the unwritten rule of vintage Bentley ownership is that you must be out there driving them. As fast as you can.
I came across these Bentley Boys on one of their outings in the Kent Weald. I had passed five or six pulled up at the side of the road, the car's occupants struggling to put up the canvas and timber roofs against a sudden storm, big rain-coated men looking like they were putting-up unwieldy deckchairs. These particular Bentleys always bring to mind the Independent Artists film The Fast Lady, with Stanley Baxter and James Robertson Justice struggling to control a Red Label against the back projection screen.
The lane got narrower and narrower. 'It's down here somewhere', my friend said, looking increasingly worried, 'I'm sure it is'. Suddenly, on a tight bend, there it was, backed up against dense woodland. Given the surrounding trees, and the fact that it appeared to line-up with neither track or road, its setting was incongruous. Until we got the Ordnance map out and found that this early eighteenth century Triumphal Arch was once able to be viewed as the crowning glory on a Kent hilltop from Mereworth Castle, over half a mile to the north. The wood is a comparative newcomer, preventing the eyecatcher from fulfilling its original landscaping purpose.
Mereworth is a dead ringer for the Villa Rotonda, Palladio's famous, and highly influential, villa sitting above Vicenza in Italy. The architect was Colen Campbell, who was doubtless told by his client, John Fane, as Mereworth took shape in 1723: 'Whilst you're here Col, just knock-out some gate lodges will you, oh, and a triumphal arch of some sort, you know the sort of thing'.
Carter's run a traditional funfair. I first came across them in Chiswick one rainy Sunday evening, and was immediately transfixed by the Austin Cars Motordrome. If I'd been two feet high (or even four years old) I'd have spent all my money just going round and round it all night. The whole construction was superb, right down to the lettering, petrol pumps and National Benzole roundel. The cars, of course, are the thing. Starting life in 1948 as Austin J40 pedal cars, they were made from off-cuts unwanted on their full-size counterparts the Austin Devon and Dorset. Originally finished in the same paintwork as their big brothers, they were made in a purpose-built factory at Bargoed in South Wales by disabled Welsh miners. It closed in 1999.
A few years ago Railtrack sent me out photographing anything that appealed to me on their vast estate, most of which was news to them when I came back three months later. One treasure was this original W.H.Smith sign at Hull Paragon station. The shop was part of the old booking hall and looked ready to be demolished. Amazingly I didn't go and get the toolbag out of the car, but when I got home I rang up the estates department at W.H. Smith's and told them they ought to preserve it at all costs. I got the audio equivalent of a blank stare and wished I hadn't bothered.
The company has conserved art nouveau tiles advertising maps and books at Great Malvern, and the exterior of their Stratford-upon-Avon branch is worth looking at. And if you're ever passing through Grand Central Station in New York check-out the W.H. Smith kiosk. When I sauntered through there in 1986 the fascia was still in the familiar stained wood and metal letters, and the magazines were hung up in regimented order with bulldog clips. It could have been Leicester London Road station in 1955.
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)
"Open this book with reverence. It is a hymn to England". Clive Aslet
"Enchanting...delightful". The Bookseller "Cheekily named" We Love This Book
The Cigarette Papers
"Unexpectedly pleasing and engrossing...beautifully illustrated". The Bookseller
"Until the happy advent of Peter Ashley's Cross Country it has, ironically, been foreigners who have been best at celebrating Englishness". Christina Hardyment / The Independent
More from Unmitigated England
"Give this book to someone you know- if not everyone you know." Simon Heffer, Country Life. "When it comes to spotting the small but telling details of Englishness, Peter Ashley has no equal." Michael Prodger, Sunday Telegraph