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.
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)