Monday, 30 June 2008

Show Sunday

Named after one village, but taking place in the field of another, our local show got under way yesterday. Ringed by ash and oak, the only buildings in view are an ironstone manor house and our church spire, everything else is a green quilt of Leicestershire pastureland under scudding clouds in a summer sky. For the last couple of weeks there's been sporadic activity in the field- a big marquee in pole position, sheep pens huddled in one corner, a show ring marked out in blue rope. And so now the scent of crushed grass, the heady smell of tractor oil and burger, the crackling of triple-horned loudspeakers. Smart gigs and dog carts swish round the ring as the battleship grey Fergusons, dark green Field Marshalls and startlingly blue Fordsons are revved up. Pocket money is distributed to the boys, the youngest immediately taking it upon himself to post his into the utterly inaccessible recesses of a brass tube on a fire tender.

Here is Unmitigated Local England, local people enjoying local pleasures- sheep tweeked and preened for the sheepwalk (one judging category reads: Three Threaves Mule or Masham), foxhounds snuffling for the biscuits in a huntsman's coat. A dachshund dressed-up as a bee looks nervously up at a policeman Alsatian, a polished Bentley convertible displays rosettes on the wing mirror and gingham-topped homemade jams jostle for sale next door to boxes of unmade jigsaws. And of course there's the refreshment tent, the beer not quite as local as we'd like, but it's here that we nod to neighbours in the beer queue, everyone bathed in that wonderfully diffused light that only white canvas under sunshine gives. Dogs are patted, gossip exchanged, gobstoppers and candy floss facepaint the boys. And on top of it all I manage to buy a first edition of Richard Mabey's Food for Free. So I'm very pleased with myself, but it does mean that it's dandelion leaves on toast for tea.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Unexpected Alphabets No 2

There are three beautifully-lettered mileposts (there maybe more) that sit on what appear to be the extremities of the Stanford Hall estate in Leicestershire. The early eighteenth century orange brick house and stables are amongst the very best buildings in the county, perfectly placed at the centre of a green park. The village and church are over the border in Northamptonshire, and it is in this county near Clay Coton that the other two ironstone mileposts stand half hidden at the side of the lane at Stanford Mear. One, almost completely enveloped by the hedge, has a big ball finial on top, a feature that I assume once crowned all three. I just love them, as much for the lettercutting as anything. I can only assume that they were positioned as information posts for departing travellers, and can perhaps offer a rough timeframe to them by noting the inclusion of Rugby Station on the above post (which has destinations on three sides), situated on the north east corner of the estate below South Kilworth. The railway arrived in Rugby in 1839, but the hall would have been very well served by the Yelvertoft & Stanford Park station that appeared in the village in 1850. I admit the mileposts do look earlier, and 'Rugby Station 8' could have been added later, but, whatever the facts, seek them out soon before they disappear completely.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Wessex Interlude 3

Afficianados of John Schlesinger's 1967 film Far from the Madding Crowd will probably recognise this tower. One of my all time favourite buildings, Horton Tower was used as the scene of a particularly viscious cock fight involving Sergeant Troy, played by a moody Terence Stamp. But I wouldn't blame you if you only remembered it for Julie Christie as the wilful Bathsheba Everdene. Heavy sigh.

Horton was built by Humphrey Sturt in the 1760s, probably following the contemporary fad for having an observatory, but it was more likely to have been used as a viewpoint for watching the local foxhunt. But if you had the money and the land to put it on, wouldn't you build something like this just for the hell of it? Just to look out over the surrounding hills and woods. I had photographed the tower ten years ago or so, but always wanted to picture it against a more characterful sky, which did the right thing by boiling up over Dorset on Saturday. It can now take pride of place in a book I've planned for some time- Preposterous Erections, which is still being eyed nervously by my publisher because I won't budge on the title.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Wessex Interlude 2

Unmitigated England appears to be getting more and more curious. First it was the blue bricked ramps in the middle of fields that we now know are 'cattle drinkers' and then this isolated chimney in the middle of a field between Piddletrenthide and Plush in Dorset. Of course the first thoughts were for a subterranean home in the style of Bilbo Baggins' Hobbiton dwelling, with the front door perhaps hidden away in the woods. And then maybe a smokery of some kind, reminiscent as it is of the little brick structures with their terracotta chimneys out on the Dungeness peninsular. But who would smoke what, way out in a damp field far from any habitation. The only other explanation put forward is that it is an escape hatch for the build-up of marsh gas emanating from a water course (there's a tiny stream in front of it). It just seems so purposeful, with its stone base and truly magnificent orange chimney pot. The field was virtually inaccessible, but on moving around it on the lane I did notice a little shallow trough filled with water on the northern elevation. So the gas ventilator idea may have some credence. And on closer inspection the chimney does look very much like a section of drainage pipe. I stopped an old man on the road, a modern day Tranter Reuben off to Casterbridge I supposed, and asked him about it. He peered over the hedge, thought for a minute and then said "I ain't got a clue boy".

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Wessex Interlude 1

Well, you see, it was like this. After depositing a goodly proportion of my family onto the docks at Southampton, I proceeded to spend the rest of the weekend at my pals' remote rural idyll in Darkest Dorset. I was told that for our Sunday lunch dessert, and as a treat for behaving myself, there would be rhubarb crumble with, wait for it, Bird's Custard. This was a nod to my O.B.E. (blogs passim: Old Brand Excess) where life is enriched by certain pantry staples. I refrained from asking to see the tricolour packaging, but as the moment drew near and I adjusted my serviette tucked into my shirt collar, Mrs. Pal appeared at the dining room door and quietly mumbled that she'd just realised that there was in fact no Bird's Custard in the Pal Pantry. A silence descended over the table, just the sound of a blackbird in the privet hedge coming in from the open window. "But I have got this!". The above receptacle was deposited in front of me. I can't remember the last time I had condensed milk, but I have to say it was a very evocative (and sinfully sweet) accompaniment to the delicious rhubarb. For the technically minded, the lighting rig was two Maglite torches held by my hosts, and the drip of milk echoing the printed version was entirely accidental. Honest.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Destination Moon

Onto the fastnesses of the Isle of Thanet in Kent, after attempting to con fisherfolk and old salts into taking the Unmitigated Circus out to the Martian-like Maunsell forts nine miles off Whitstable. More at another time, when the Ashley Shilling has finally been taken. And so to Quex Park in Birchington, where the simply extraordinary Waterloo Tower sits out in the fields surrounded by dark yews. This has been on the Wanted List for some time, a red brick tower with four corner pavilions that suddenly sprout a cast-iron open weave spire balanced on the turrets. The Eiffel-like edifice is modelled on the 1799 Faversham church spire which adopted very similar buttresses in order to soften the blow should it fall into the town as a result of an explosion at the nearby gunpowder works. Built at the behest of John Powell Powell in 1819, the tower (constructed by the Quex Head Carpenter and Sandwich ironfounder William Mackney) contains a ring of twelve bells- surely one of the most unique places that bells are still rung in the country- and doubles-up as both a Battle of Waterloo commemoration and family mausoleum. My thanks to the good offices of the estate in sanctioning my intrusion, but acknowledgement for the blog title must given to Commentator Diplomat, who took one look at the photograph and gasped "Destination Moon" which, as any Tintin fan will recognise, sums it all up very nicely indeed.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Back to School

School Prints Ltd was set up by Brenda Rawnsley just after the Second World War, with the aim of bringing the idea of art out from the gallery and elitist salon and onto the schoolroom wall. Initiated with her husband Derek, who sadly died before the project could get truly underway, School Prints brought the work of important living artists to schoolchildren. They are original lithographs, which means there is no painted starting point, each print being its own original. Artists of the calibre of John Nash, Barbara Jones and Kenneth Rowntree worked directly on litho stones or zinc plates for printing at the Baynard Press. Nash brought the excitement of the last minutes of reaping a cornfield to life, Jones a vibrant fairground scene and Rowntree a primitive orange tractor at work in a virulently green field. Tom Gentleman produced Grey Horses, a busy street scene in a Hertfordshire town (above) that features his schoolboy son David in the foreground. I have loved the idea of prints for schools ever since my own childhood, when I saw the classic Shell County and Natural History posters on my school hall walls. Imagine my heart-stopping surprise then, when the Goldmark Gallery in Uppingham unearthed a cache of mint (and I mean 'mint') lithographs, and proceeded to taunt me with them. A grizzled fan goes on about them here.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Fifty Not Out

In the fifties and early sixties, books like these slim volumes published by Country Life, (this one in 1958), were the souvenir purchase for upmarket holiday makers. A hefty fifteen shillings worth of carefully-framed monochrome pictures of famous landmark villages, landscapes and oh-so-familiar time-worn buildings. All taken with infinite care on grown-up equipment that was more furniture than camera, the sports coated photographer doffing his trilby to passers-by as they moved out of (or nearly) the carefully-framed shot. The decades roll on, and the books start to gather dust in the topography section of secondhand bookshops, maybe even ending up on the 'Everything £1' table outside, covered in polythene against the rain. But I feel a renaissance coming on. These straightforward, non-tricksy portraits are of a country before the storm. The telling details of Unmitigated England start to rise up into the consciousness. Where Dedham in Essex now has cars mounting pavements and each other in profusion, 1958 saw just one Fordson van in the street, probably delivering scrag end to the vicar's wife. And Kersey's watersplash is great fun for the flash driver of a cream Austin Somerset. I wonder how much a rotting door sill was to replace?

Monday, 2 June 2008

Unexpected Alphabets No 1

Some time ago I produced a little volume in my English Heritage Pocket Books series called Letters from England. Now stacked up in your remainders bookshop, I should think, in it I went on about vitreous enamel signs ending up being used for quite different purposes than those originally intended. "Many were later found doing duty as allotment shed walls, still mumbling their rusty messages amongst the courgettes." One sign I neglected to photograph in situ was discovered in the derelict kitchen of Etchingham station in Surrey, a bright yellow and red sign for an insurance company turned face to the wall as a heat screen for a gas oven. "Ask your Station Master for Details" it still whispered against the pale green plaster, until gently liberated into the Ashley Archive. And of course it isn't just enamel, as seen here in Great Bowden in Leicestershire. Backed up against a railway line a shed uses the side panel of a 60s delivery van as the back wall. The rest of the structure perhaps resonates with what was left of the vehicle. 'Courts' have long gone from the Leicestershire scene, the only reference to the name now being 'Crown', 'County' and 'Magistrates'.