Thursday, 23 August 2007

Underfoot 2

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.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Thatcher's England

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.

Railway Echo No 2

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.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Posting Dilemma

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 Woolpit in 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'.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Railway Echo No 1

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.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Market Forces

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.

Mirror Image

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.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

All Dressed-Up

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.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Barks and Spencer

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.

Bentley Boys

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.

Lost in the Woods

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'.

Austin Powered

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.

Friday, 3 August 2007

News from Hull

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.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Flying Down to Rio

Small independent cinemas should be cherished. This is the Rio in Burnham-on-Crouch and I hope it's still there. The poster outside is for Gladiator, so you never know. It isn't of any great architectural merit, no art deco Egyptian here, and it looks as if part of the roof is missing. But for what it lacks in streetscape credibility it more than makes up for in sheer maritime exuberance. The blue and white paint scheme seems somehow just right in this airy Essex estuary town, so much better than a soulless multiplex on an industrial estate. The last time I went to one of those, a boy sat three seats away from me with a huge bucket of popcorn. I said 'I hope you're not going to eat all that', and he replied 'It's not for eatin' mate, it's for throwin' at people'.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Underfoot 1

It's funny how even the most mundane of things can suddenly become embued with interest. I don't normally wander along streets with my face down in the gutter, unless it's a Friday night and I've been held to ransom in Shoreditch, but this image suddenly came to my attention as I left a Shepherd Neame pub in Colombo Street, a little to the south of Blackfriars Bridge in London. If it hadn't been dramatically lit by the late September light it would almost certainly have gone unnoticed. I didn't arrange the neat pile of leaves, they were grouped like this the last time a breeze ran down the quiet street, and I didn't have to move dog-ends or chewing gum either, remarkably. But as I knelt there fiddling about with my focal lengths a woman from some flats nearby did ask if I was alright. I almost certainly pretentiously saw it seventeen feet high in Tate Modern, an homage to the Boyle Family, perhaps called Edge of Darkness or something. But no, I just liked the look of it.