The melancholy gap between Christmas and New Year is helped along by the Market Harborough Book Fair. Shelves bending under the marshalled ranks of volumes, (why can't I stop myself tidying them up as I go round?), with baize covered tables displaying choice items opened at the best bits, and the church hall window sills put to good use for what are obviously considered the also rans. Where I found this lovely 1950's guide to the town of Malvern, set in one of my favourite parts of England, Elgar's Malvern Hills. "Come to Malvern", says the back cover, "for scenic beauty, pure air and a warm welcome". The advertisements at the back use stock blocks of cows and sheep for local butchers and big briars for tobacconists, and a garage tempting you with the new Standard Vanguard has the telephone number 147. But just look at this front cover. This is what they call 'artistic licence' and whoever did this took a great big one out. The Malvern Hills are dramatic enough, but try as you might you'll be hard pushed to get this perspective of the town. To be honest, I think all he (or she) had to go on was a blurred photograph of the Priory and the thought that there was a hill somewhere near. But it works and is beautiful in its own way, and I expect brought them in their thousands to sample the delights of butchers, tobacconists, garagistes, drapers and outfitters, all clinging to the side of these wonderful Worcestershire hump-backed hills.
A minor road from Leicestershire into Rutland crosses the Eye Brook and climbs in a series of twists and turns to the top of Kings Hill. On the last but one bend a stand of beeches crowns a bluff of land that gives panoramic views of the Beaumont Chase below. I always slow down here, and often just get out of the car by a gate and stand listening to the sighing of the wind in the branches. There is something very special about this place, and one of my New Year resolutions is to find out more. Early yesterday morning a heavy ice laden mist was covering the hilltop, and once again the boles of these trees drew me in. It was eerily quiet, and brought to mind Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening, the last verse of which is:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
If you're travelling too, please take care. And a very merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.
Your Unmitigated Traveller struggled through blizzards of snow and ice to bring you this morning's puzzle location. I wanted to show you Clackett's Lane Services on the M25 yesterday afternoon, because for all the world it looked like a frontierman's cabin. All it needed was a grizzly bear leaning-up against a litter bin, but the necessity to load up with pork pies and giant sausage rolls and get going again was overwhelming. I honestly thought I was the going to be the last one out of Kent. So instead here's a warmer holiday photograph from Mr.Gullers.
A trickier one, maybe, and no buses to help everyone along. Perhap's the clue to narrowing it down a bit may lie in the brewery initials up on the pub. I like that bloke with his hands in his pockets. I've got a jacket like that, and I wonder if he brought all that stuff to Quiztown in the back of the car. Talk about an Antiques Roadshow, what with the Staffordshire dog (not a clue) and the copper kettle on the roof. OK, off you go.
Sometimes the most mundane things take on a curiously beautiful life of their own. Son the Youngest thrust my coloured pencils at me recently, and demanded they all be sharpened. I keep a tin of them (an old Illy coffee receptacle for those who care) on the kitchen table, and I reckon there's about 80 in all. They're difficult to keep track of because I keep finding them tucked under pillows and in use as props in Dr.Who games. So I got out the sharpener and set to work. Normally I would stand over the waste bin or next door's garden, but there were so many I thought I'd just let the shavings fall on to the table. Which was very satisfying, because not only was it a job done that was long overdue, it was also fascinating to see how big the pile was at the end. Well, I thought so anyway.
Sorry there hasn't been more Unmitigating over the last week. I couldn't believe that Tuesday had come round again and I'd done nothing to keep the ball rolling. However, as the old adage goes, you wait so long for a bus to appear and then three come along together. Or at least in every post I've done in this new series. The gate pictured was very nearly destroyed in the early twentieth century to enable a travelling circus to make a triumphant entry into the city. They say the proposal was defeated by only one vote at the council meeting, proving that philistine agendas in local government is nothing new.
Another of Mr.Gullers' fabulous photographs. One assumes bus queues were a rarity in his native Sweden. But what a host of fascinating detail, not the least of which is the bus side advertising Timothy Whites & Taylors- never mentioned in our household because my father worked loyally for Boots the Chemists. And the cars. I can only recognise about half of them, but very glad to see an Armstrong Siddeley in there and a Standard Eight that could be the one my brother drove and was the first car in our family. Which is all very well, but where are they all parked?
"Close your eyes and hold out your hand" the Youngest Boy said. Usually I recoil at the thought, knowing that I could so easily be the recipient of a slug dragged out from under the shed. But as he was still in his pyjamas I allowed myself the treat of having this tin presented to me. "It was going to be part of a new space rocket, but as you like old-fashioned things I thought you'd better have it". "Thankyou very much", I said, and really meant it. The thing is, of course, is that it's not a 1950's grocery item, or particularly nostalgic for the good old days of cocoa drinking in slippers by open fires. No, this is the result of Waitrose's designers knowing a thing or two about, well, good design. And you just know that it won't be replaced in a couple of weeks' time by yet another tweeking presented at the Monday morning strategy focus outreach meeting, a fate that regularly befalls it's better known competitors on the adjoining shelves. Good design like this is timeless. The right colours, the right type and a classic wood engraving that tells us what cocoa actually is. (Is this one is by Christopher Wormell?) So yes, it will be up there on the kitchen high shelf with Ovaltine and Milo and the Quaker Oats tin from a Greek holiday many years ago. Just because I really, really like it.
I felt I had to quickly redeem myself after the last erratic posting. And as I fell into the local post office this morning for my Telegraph, the opportunity stared me in the face from the window. I have received warning glances inside the shop when I've lingered a little too long looking at a display of similar items above the cigarettes, bottles of Wincarnis and stamps (bringing new meaning to the phrase 'top shelf'), so today I whipped out the camera and ran for it. But what survivors. Mainly medicinal, (that blue glass laxative bottle worries me) it's good to see an unused Bronco toilet roll with its optimistic tag '500 Sheets'. The hero for me though is that little Nescafe tin, a reminder of when this seemed such a ubiquitous item in the post war pantry. However, just looking at the description on the classic label of what they've done to it does make you wonder how far the contents had come from anything resembling a coffee bean.
What is it when we keep seeing faces in in the mundane? The Virgin Mary on toast, Hitler on a bath plug? Pareidolia, that's it. So is it just me that sees a dog's head here, made out of a scrap of paper, a stray twig and two bits of dirt. Spotted on the pavement in the next village, I now expect good fortune to follow in its wake. Which in my case will mean the seat being taken out of my trousers by a slavering rottweiler. No, I must be positive. It means that my erstwhile publisher will come back from his lunch of tripe and onions at St. John's in Clerkenwell and say "Ooh, I must ring Peter immediately and commission him to do eight more bestsellers for me".
Having run out of Find The Fault pictures for a while, I thought it would be interesting to look at period photographs of citys, towns, villages and landscape. So where's this then? All I can tell you is that the street scene was photographed by Karl Gullers for one of those ubiquitous Odhams books of the 1950s, and up until this trip to England Mr.Gullers was famous for photographing the Swedish Royal Family. I hope this helps.
I couldn't quite get my head round BBC's Autumnwatch. What started out being a very worthy attempt to let us see dormice putting their pyjamas on before going to sleep live on camera, has somehow degenerated into lively presenters sitting on a sofa joshing and ruffling each others' hair. The one bloke who appears to do any work just sits smiling in the dark outside some Highland croft and then shows us film he shot yesterday in broad daylight. But at least we now don't have to put up with that little chap from The Goodies grumpily anthromorphising everything in sight. So I wearily switched off and reached for What To Look For In Autumn, a Ladybird Book written by E.L.Grant Watson and illustrated superbly by Charles Tunnicliffe. I then took to wandering about the lanes in my patch of country, marvelling at just how much is still as he pictured it in 1960. A shepherd in a sheep fold (well, a bloke in a four-wheel-drive), a pale moon lighting the church tower, traveller's joy smoking the hedgerows, a bonfire lit at a field edge and pheasants strutting their stuff over rotting fungi-covered logs on the margins of the woods. And not a ratings-safe presenter with a stack of prompt cards to be seen anywhere.
Well, we've come to last Transport Series card this morning. And a good one to end on, I think. Next week we'll have something different to get us going over our morning teas and coffees. Still, I think there's enough going on here to keep us going for a while. Younger readers may struggle a bit with the concept of a trolley bus- basically a tram that didn't have to rely on travelling between rails. And yes, they did have wheels that big, very intimidating to cyclists and pedestrians alike. And can you still get Tit-Bits magazine? I do hope so.
So. The manufacturer of Velveeta ('bedder than cheddar') wants to take over one of our most 'treasured institutions'. Kraft's unwelcome bid for Cadbury's certainly seems to have spread the Primula amongst the Flakes, and the rumours have started. Dairy Milk is to be made in Gdansk, fingers of fudge in Poznan, that sort of thing. And England threw its hands up in horror, conjuring up visions of the violation of white-hatted lines of girls singing on production lines in blossom-filled Bournville, milk arriving by canal barge from Gloucestershire meadows, dancing under the trees in the lunch break. On hearing that Cadbury's Somersham outpost near Bristol may be closed, it suddenly became Fry's old factory, still turning out Five Boys I expect. No, as much as I bemoan the loss of our brands to corporate greed (HP Sauce made in Holland) , this is how it is. Cadbury's (I still use the apostrophe 's' they dropped years ago) is a multi-conglomerate itself, employing as it does Bertie Bassett and Jelly Babies, and will flog it immediately if the price is right. Any chance that Kraft will continue to make Fruit 'n' Nut under the apple boughs is as remote as Tomaszo Mazowieki. Of course I hope it won't happen, but sadly I think the days of awarding each other little tin CDM medals for worthy efforts are well and truly over.
I must apologise for the poor quality of this image. I snapped it last night, and it looks like I did it by candlelight. So you'll have to puzzle over it very carefully. I note that the number plate says the car was apparently registered in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but I wouldn't mind betting the letters are the artist's initials. When I worked in what was then called 'commercial art' we were always doing things like that. Hiding questionable details in silhouettes of trees or clouds, putting spurious headlines on newsvendor's placards and our girlfriend's or wives' names above shop fronts. Sometimes both.
I can't remember another year when the wearing of a poppy has been so intensively debated. All last week the papers had letters from Tunbridge Wells wondering whether the BBC had bought in a job lot from the British Legion, such was the proliferation. We expect newsreaders to start wearing them in September, but when I saw every member of every band on Jools Holland with one, I waited for the Blue Peter dog to run on with a poppy in its collar. It seemed as though everyone was trying to outdo each other in the remembrance stakes. Last night in the Royal Albert Hall Her Majesty appeared to be wearing six and a stray Duke standing behind her had such an enormous papaver somniferum on his coat I waited to see if it would squirt water like a clown's buttonhole. So it came with great relief yesterday to discover this little understated enamel badge on a lapel. And if Wartime Housewife will forgive me for nicking her Sunday Poem idea, here's a little understatement from Edward Thomas, who really knew about these things:
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
A German military ambulance in Unmitigated England? Mein Gott! But it was at this year's English Heritage Festival of History. And I liked the photograph of it against a very English summer sky. OK, that's enough excuses. I leave it to my engineering-inclined commentators to discuss the various merits of the Opel Blitz as opposed to the Opel Blitzkreig, but I think what appeals is that it's over here at all. In a parade ground full of Roman legionaries, American troop carriers and ATS girls, this beautifully restored vehicle really stood out. It's driver was fully kitted-out in a feldgrau ambulance driver's uniform and The Boys used the back as a high vantage point to watch fighter planes helping out at a Normandy beach head. Who knows what terrible scenes this vehicle attended, but it's very presence in an English field says so much about how far we've come in our acceptance of the background details of history. The mists of over sixty years perhaps hide some of the horrors of war, but let us never forget the sacrifices that were made on both sides by air raid wardens, nurses, field cooks and, of course,ambulance drivers.
I wonder what it would be like to live in Find The Fault Land? Permanently committing gross errors and never having to worry about having any rearlights. Still, here we are, out for yet another run in the pastel-coloured countryside. Perhaps it's Buckinghamshire with that pale yellow road surface. I always remember the colour changing quite dramatically when entering from surrounding counties in the 1950s and early 60s, as evidenced by numerous films shot on the roads during this period. James Robertson Justice hooting along in a Rolls-Royce, Stanley Baxter falling off his bike under Chiltern beech ridges. Carry on.
Concerned about some American cultural imports, the trick 'n' treating aspect of Halloween has never really appealed. All those old ladies keeling over at the sight of the undead beckoning to them with bony fingers, and those rubber masks- not too keen on masks either. So it was with dismay that I saw The Boys arrive yesterday in black velvet cloaks. "Take those masks off boys" I said, "You know I don't like them." "We haven't got them on yet Dad". Ghoulish laughter all round. Youngest Son had his cloak on all day, staring out of the kitchen window waiting for dark. Older Boy started on a Convincing Argument, and said if anyone wanted a trick he'd do one with his playing cards. He practised well, and Mr.Curmudgeon let them go round the village after he'd nearly ended-up in casualty making the pumpkin heads. I said why don't they go and hide in the churchyard and then I'd not come and find them. But what a good time they had. The village must be used to it, they came back with a big bag full of goodies and had been made very welcome in houses, along with other children who continually knocked on my door until I ran out of the pennies I'd heated up on the stove. No sign of any conversion to Satanism, we sat down by candlelight to a fabulous pumpkin soup. I said "What was the best bit?", and they replied that one house was in complete darkness and a loud voice had shouted out gutterally "What do you want?" and then the door had been flung open by a neighbour dressed as the Grim Reaper. I like that, it's given me an idea for next year...
Over in Norfolk I came across this shed, looking very appealing with its red trailer parked-up inside. A typical corrugated iron structure, but it was the frontage that caught my eye. The ends of sheds like this are usually finished-off with just plain timber doors or infilled with bricks, but often the iron curves were deemed just a bit too prosaic, and so were screened with slightly more upmarket facades. This one in Wereham looks like it was probably once a garage, decorated with petrol signs and the ubiquitous M.O.T triangles. The curved top echoes what lies behind, but two little wings were added to make it 'just that little bit different'. More often we will see crow-stepped gables, painted or rendered to give the illusion of a much larger building behind. Very pre-war, very much a fashion. And of course once you start looking, you see them everywhere. Workshops, factories, cafes; sometimes extended out from the workaday end to form offices with Crittall metal windows. I once went to a cinema in Suffolk that had an art deco facade hiding a corrugated iron-roofed auditorium. Which was fine until a prolonged storm broke out over the town and the noise of hailstones hitting the roof completely obliterated the soundtrack of Witchfinder General. (Screams, noisy dismemberments, Vincent Price's accent.)
Early last August a friend and I found ourselves in the Forest of Bowland, by the simple expedient of following a little road out of the back of Lancaster, under the M6 and up over Appletree Fell. After passing a little observation tower erected for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, from where it was possible to see just about everything westwards from Blackpool Tower to the far side of Morecambe Bay, we descended into the valley of the Marsh Wyre at Abbeystead. The Forest of Bowland, composed of high moorland and deep valleys, is one of the most beautiful, remote and relatively unvisited areas in England, although Lancashire industrial towns are never far away. Much of it belongs to the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Duke, oddly enough Our Queen, has I believe said that if she wasn't obliged to live in a succession of royal palaces then she quite fancied a house here. On leaving the wonderfully compact and quiet estate village of Abbeystead, the road soon starts to follow the river until a bend reveals a superb little building (above) standing alone above the rushing waters of the Wyre. This is Tower Lodge, where first a lane and then a footpath leads up on to White Moor. Our road continued into the Trough of Bowland and over to Dunsop Bridge, but not before we found refreshment at Annie's snack trailer with chairs set out under sighing firs. I wonder if Her Majesty would come down here in her headscarf for a bacon sandwich.
Well, what can I say. There are enough 'faults' here to keep us going for some time I should think. My main concern is why a 1950's caravan manufacturer should employ the services of an Italian hearse designer to do the interiors. Good luck with this one.
We're so used to seeing humour in the ornamentation of medieval churches- gargoyles, fantastical corbels, carved bench ends- but Victorian churches and restorations tend to be far more austere.
I still can't quite make my mind up about this keyhole in the door of the little church in my neighbouring village of Blaston in Leicestershire. It isn't as though this escutcheon would go unnoticed, and I really like to think that the church furnishers saw the joke and let it pass. After all, our notions of stiff and starchy Victorians has continually been disabused- their Queen had a laugh from time to time I'm sure. It could have course be that someone drilled those eyes in at a later date, but I doubt it. The great architect Sir Ninian Comper appears to have done something similar with the keyholes at his stunning St.Mary's in Wellingborough, and he never appeared to be a barrel of laughs either. Perhaps they're just happy accidents, because we are always oddly attracted to any inanimate object that makes a face, everything from buildings with windows for eyes to certain views of electrical plugs.
Marefield is remote Leicestershire, up on the eastern approaches not far from the borders with Rutland. The Great Northern Railway opened a ten mile line from Leicester's red brick Belgrave Road station in 1882, out through Ingarsby and Lowesby until joining up with the GNR/LNWR joint track from Market Harborough to Melton Mowbray at what became known as Marefield Junction. An unadvertised daily train took workers to the dairy at John O'Gaunt (just north of this red brick viaduct) until 1957, and the last passenger traffic of summer holiday excursions from Leicester to the Lincolnshire coast finished in 1962. I must have gone over this viaduct many times, clutching an enamel bucket and spade and wondering 'are we there yet?'. We weren't. Further south from here a beautiful blue brick viaduct over the Eye Brook was detonated as a cheap source of hardcore, so I marvel even more at the continued existence of this lone survivor, admired now only by walkers and the odd cow ruminating in the field close by. Whose milk I suppose goes by road to some industrial plant far away, when once it ended up in a dairy next door that sent three or four tankers of milk to London every day.
Elsewhere on this blog I have drawn attention to the remarkable history of Scots Pines in the landscape. The tree here is opposite my home, and is in all probability a truncated Wellingtonia. There is a Scots Pine next to it, positioned at what was once a crossroads, now a T-junction at the centre of the village, but this magnificent specimen is one of the tallest and most magnificent trees in the area. So of course the good folk in whose garden it stands want to chop it down. And why? Because after the removal of a brick arch that allowed for any movement of the tree roots, the replacement wall with foundations is now prone to damage. And of course this might well effect the smooth operation of an electronic gate. Heaven forbid. The wholesale destruction of trees is usually the preserve of over-zealous councils in a deadly pact with contractors to avoid what they perceive is litiguous action. But for a private individual to destroy a tree as old and as important to the local scene and history as this one is thoroughly reprehensible. There might be some point if the roots were interfering with household wainscoting, plumbing, televisions and wi-fi's, but irresponsible destruction of this kind should surely be a very last resort. It just isn't any threat to anything important, and attempts to fell it before have apparently failed because of the good sense of those brought in to do the deed who have driven off shaking their heads. Not so now. I understand a chainsaw is being primed far away in an adjoining county. And yes, I believe there's a Tree Preservation Order on it.
First, an apology for the quality of the picture. That's not the fault, honest, it's just that my scanner has now decided to do everything except actually scan, and so I had to resort to a hand-held camera lit by an oil lamp. Anyway it won't make any difference; all I will say is that the answer was a complete surprise, and will no doubt cause yet another heated debate that will take us through until at least Wednesday.
I promised more from Carters Steam Fair, and these wooden horses do the trick. One of the now rare places where genuine popular art can still be seen, the traditional fairground gives up many treasures in handcrafted decoration. Noel Carrington and Clarke Hutton's King Penguin English Popular Art gives many superb examples from canal boats to gypsy caravans, and I expect the often itinerant artists would be just at ease painting a merry-go-round horse as the odd inn sign. Carrington thinks that fairground horses 'have something too of the medieval knight's charger or lady's palfrey as seen in paintings of the sixteenth century' and mentions that King's Lynn in Norfolk was once a principle centre for circus and fair outfitting. And how often do we say "That horse has got my name on it?". A closer look at this picture revealed that in my case one of them certainly has.
I am reminded of illustrator Tony Meeuwissen, who this month has a restrospective at the Museum in The Park in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where he has made his home for many years. Searching in The Unmitigated Archive this morning this book fell into my hands. Without doubt it's one of my favourite book covers, a witty and beautifully executed illustration that turns images of estate or 'model' village buildings into an intact plastic kit of parts. Meeuwissen always has a penchant for the cottage ornee style, giving as it does decorative bargeboarding and characterful windows and chimney pots so suited to his meticulous style. This is the 1978 paperback cover, sadly not reprinted for the latest version, but I expect there will be copies hidden away in dusty bookshops and dusty internet sites. And I can also thoroughly recommend the contents. Gillian Darley has written what must be the definitive book on villages that instead of growing organically over centuries were artificially introduced by 'aesthetic, philanthropic or political reasons'. But keep looking at that cover. You'll find something new every time you look, and there's more about Model Behaviour on page 64 of More from Unmitigated England.
A lonely double-decker bus plies through the countryside. Probably lost by the look of it. That ground clearance is going to be a bit of a problem when they come to the hump-backed bridge by Maggot's Farm, and if Maggot has had the cows out those white-walled tyres will take a pasting. And what do we think of Bovril? There's always a jar around here somewhere, ready for those frosty mornings just around the corner.
Recently seen on Midsomer Murders, this is Wellington College near Crowthorne in Berkshire. It stood in as a dodgy university with people in those funny crash helmets cycling all over the inner quadrangle whilst the usual surfeit of corpses piled up in the surrounding countryside. I spent a lot of time working here last year, but was continually drawn to the south elevation. On this occasion it's about eight o'clock on a summer's morning, after a very early start and a hearty breakfast with yawning masters. Founded in 1853 as a memorial to the Duke of Wellington, who'd died the year before, it opened six years later. So this year sees its 150th anniversary. Pevsner thought the building highly important in the history of Victorian architecture, and it's one of those eyecatching structures you just can't stop looking at. Originally intended for the orphaned children of military servicemen, the entire first intake ran off in fright across the then bare heathy landscape after just a week. Now it's a 'vibrant and popular co-educational boarding and day school where girls and boys learn to be leaders for life'. And presumably how to avoid Inspector Barnaby.
Those nice people at the Guardian have asked me to blog about three things I do to enjoy England. Well, they came to the right place, obviously. But where on earth, or England, to start? The thing is I’m usually out there most of the time, enjoying it all. The sheer variety of landscape, buildings and infinite detail. Here’s a trio of tasters:
If I’m close to home then I’m invariably drawn to Kirby Hall, over the border in Northamptonshire from my home in neighbouring Leicestershire. Originally built in the 1570s-80s, this is a superb example of a ‘prodigy house’. Prodigious in scale, intimate in detail. The Hall sits alone in its park and gardens, found at the end of an avenue of chestnuts alive with the raucous calls of rooks. Part of the house is open to the skies, much more is a succession of echoing rooms- four with tall rounded bay windows that look like the sterns of a pair of galleons. My young boys simply love it, backdrop scenery to their rumbustious adventures.
Pubs figure largely in my wandering itineraries. In London this could mean the Windsor Castle in Notting Hill or the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell. But if I find myself near the Law Courts on the Strand (increasingly likely) then I can’t resist the Seven Stars in Carey Street. A pedigree going back to 1663, well- kept Adnams from the Suffolk coast, posters on the walls for films like Action for Slander, a cat on the bar called Tom Paine. And a redoubtable landlady, Roxy Beaujolais, who keeps it all how I like pubs to be. There’s the inevitable Dickens connection, precipitous stairs to the lavatory, and it survived the Great Fire of London. With the blighting of so many pubs by overt commercial concerns, this a true survivor in anyone’s book.
What else? Well, undeterred by jaded music hall gags- “It’s like a mortuary with the lights on”- we recently spent a week in Barrow-in-Furness. The town was curiously of great interest, but once we’d got beyond submarine buildings (prodigious, but not like Kirby Hall) and Victorian red-brick tenements, we discovered a long walk along the sands to the north. So lonely, so breathtakingly beautiful. The cloud-capped fells of the Lake District rose up over the Duddon estuary, a strange hinterland of alarming sand dunes spread out to the south. We didn’t really see anybody until a bloke in a tracksuit gave us unfathomable directions, but nevertheless we made it back to the car park and welcoming large 99 Flakes from a green-painted hut.
We've all known garages like this I'm sure. The family car didn't start losing oil until the 1920's, so houses didn't come complete with a purpose-built addition to park the Austin in. We had one on the side of the Victorian house I was lucky enough to have been born in, a lean-to affair with a corrugated iron roof (yess!) that my elder brother once fell through with such force that the sound of collapsing metal still reverberates in me now. We didn't have a car until much later, so our neighbour kept his little Morris in there. Dark and somehow comforting, another memorable day in my fourth year saw me climb into its leathery interior and take the handbrake off. It very slowly rolled forward and firmly wedged itself into my father's workbench. I remember clambering out, shaking with fear and running crying round to the kitchen where my mother was boiling up tripe (I would imagine). "What's on earth's the matter now?" she asked, probably waving wooden laundry tongs at me. "I've crashed next door's car", I spluttered through my tears. Anyway, quite apart from the obvious, I think the FTF artist could have taken a bit more trouble with the decoration on the gable of this improbable garage. A nice sunrise motif would've been nice.
Today is apparently 'Back to Church Sunday'. There's been some radio commercials, a website and the Bishop of Reading has come out to say, in response to the dramatic falling-off of attendance: "How did it come to this, that we have become the Marks & Spencer's option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Aldi or Lidl?". I think he's summed it all up in just that one crass statement. The Church of England has for far too long tried to re-invent itself, to appeal to a culture far more interested in being in B&Q on a Sunday. It started with the New English Bible (sic), the attempt to subvert and alter the Book of Common Prayer, ripping out pews, hiding the altar behind an Ikea table, sacking the organist and putting pimply youths in front of guitar stands on the chancel steps. The CofE had a simply irreplaceable heritage that has been squandered and vandalised. Toilet block additions, solar panels instead of lead (if it's not already been nicked) and leasing out the nave to Halfords. Listen bishops. Kick out the moneychangers like Our Lord did before he went down to Aldi, stick some decent flowers round the pulpit, re-install the organ, dust off the 1662 Prayer Books, bring back Hymns Ancient and Modern and preach proper sermons that are both intelligent and inspirational. Stop everyone embarrassingly having to hug each other and just instil calm, simple faith in people. Of course there's much more you've got to do, and Norman architecture and chucking canteen chairs out of cathedrals won't do it on its own. God help us. The church pictured is Kings Norton in Leicestershire.
It's so often the little, unnoticed things. A very brief trip into the north of the Cotswolds yesterday brought me yet again to Stanway. Perched up on the escarpment just off the B4077 east of Toddington, this tiny village has so much to delight the eye. It starts with a war memorial up on the main road that sports on its limestone column a cowering dragon being given a seeing-to by St.George (and lettering by Eric Gill), from where a lane leads down to a simply magnificent 17th century gatehouse connecting the south front of Stanway House with the yew-shaded churchyard. They were doing something to either the yews or the churchyard wall, but as I wandered by I spied these steps. Such a simple thing, here was a way of climbing over the stonework into the grounds. I poked my nose over the wall to see if there were a corresponding couple of projections on the other side, and there were. They reminded me of the Grandmother's Steps on The Cobb in Lyme Regis, such a functional device that obviated the need for a timber stile or indeed a gate. One can only imagine the use they've been put to. Children incorporating them into their games, housemaids lifting their skirts as they hurried to work in the big house, swains on the lower step plighting their troths to those same maidens on Sunday evenings. More about Stanway soon, I expect.
Good morning everybody. I think we'll have lot to talk about here, quite apart from the fact that there are actually two faults, one deliberate and one that would appear to be a genuine error. And has the driver of the lovely open-topped car just finished asking directions from the be-gaitered chap with his stick: "Oh sir, I know how to get there, but not from 'ere".
I've always had a thing about Morris J-types. Probably because they were once so ubiquitous as Royal Mail vans, but I think it was also because they somehow looked very modern when they first appeared, even though they still sported separate headlamps. Those sliding doors, and what are known as outrigger hinges that let the rear doors fold right back to the bodywork. Amazingly they were first introduced at the Commercial Transport Show in October 1948, so they're almost as old as I am, and for thirty years or so they delighted me with a host of signwriting and liveries. And it still goes on- one even cropped-up in a recent Dr.Who episode as the dark blue van of 1953 television saleman Mr.Magpie. With a raised roofline and hinged doors they of course made ideal ice cream vans, so I was very pleased to see one on my recent visit to Weston-super-Mare. Beautifully lettered, it was a perfect complement to the traditional treats of Carters Steam Fair. Stop me from buying one.
We haven't had a Creature Feature for some time, and then I remembered this sign, recently discovered near Cold Newton in Leicestershire. I remember Sludge Hall from my childhood, and thinking just how appropriate the name was for this isolated farm that was indeed on a lane covered in beastly excretions. I think this is vernacular signing at its best, a sheet of tin cut out to cow shape, producing a beautiful image to catch one's passing eye. I'm not sure what 'W.H.' stands for, but I shall have to be very careful that Wartime Housewife doesn't appropriate it. One off signs like this are such rewarding discoveries as one traverses Unmitigated England, (there's a pig I need to get to grips with near Oundle), a refreshing change from the ubiquitous corporate gobbledygook that all too often impinges on our peripheral vision. So thankyou to the anonymous signmaker who made this. I can see you now, bent over in the barn behind welding goggles, black, white and pink paint tins at the ready.
Flint occurs where there's chalk. And nowhere was it used to greater effect than in Norfolk, where the absence of other building stone or suitable timber presented problems to builders. This is one of the very hardest of minerals, composed of almost 100% silica. Usually we will see flint knocked into smaller units (knapping) and used as outer decoration on buildings. It could be mined, as at Grimes Graves near Thetford, but in Norfolk, as in Kent and Sussex, the sea-washed pebbles on the beach were in plentiful supply to put into use as ready-rubbed cobbles. The monster piece of flint above is embedded with thousands of others in the walls of Castle Acre, just north of the A47 Kings Lynn to Norwich road. This is an English Heritage property you can just wander into free of charge, and what a treat. One of the biggest motte-and-bailey castles erected in England, it sprawls over fifteen acres, forming as it did part of a reward (that included Lewes, Conisbrough and Reigate) given to William de Warenne for helping the Conqueror out at Hastings, and probably built within three years of the Conquest. I can't tell you what a playground this became for The Boys, but the closer I got to the walls and poked my camera in, another, equally pleasurable world opened up in the fantastical abstract shapes of the giant stones.
Not exactly a lightbulb moment for the government is it? We've seen some jaw-dropping dictats from them for some time, but this one beggers belief. So, from yesterday apparently, it's 'ban all those perfectly serviceable lightbulbs, use this crap instead because it will save a polar bear'. Ugly, dim, and utterly out-of-step. And that's just the Department of Eco Facism. Will we now have the Lightbulb Police flashing their clockwork torches through our windows- "ere, put that light out, don't yer know there's an iceberg melting?". What are cartoonists going to do if they're stopped from putting the traditional bulb above someone's head to denote 'idea'? What will happen is that it will always be the good sense symbol for a bright idea, just like the steam loco silhouette is still used for a unmanned level crossing. But I digress. I'm sorry if you find these new bulbs aesthetically pleasing, and that they do, in fact, fit nicely into your standard lamps, but Ashley Towers is going over to candles in enamel holders and hurricane lanterns. Welcome to the dark ages, let there be light.
I miss the insides of proper buses. It was the quality of the fittings- hardwood slatted floors, built in grab handles and little chrome ash trays like those in cinemas for your Woodbine ash. Amongst the best ever of course were the Routemasters, particularly the unrefurbished ones. A true bus for London, designed specifically for the capital's operators, crews and passengers. A far cry from the simply appalling off-the-shelf designs we have now have to endure, particularly the wretched bendy bus. But hope may be at hand if one of the winning designs for a new bus for London actually gets made.
Yesterday I found myself walking along the beach at Weston-super-Mare in Somerset. I'd only been here once before, an impulsive turn off the M5 some years ago, just to see what it was like. It was winter, raining, and I got back on the motorway very quickly. On that first visit I didn't notice that you can see Cardiff very clearly on the horizon, with the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm imbetween. Or the little miniature railway in Clarence Park or the streets that are like a tiny Victorian Bath nestling under the Iron Age fort on Worlebury Hill. Yesterday I saw it all, and ate a huge piece of cod washed down with a pint of Guinness in celebration on the seafront. Of course a fresh breeze and sunlit breakers far out to sea helped, as did the donkeys on the beach and the little Land Train tooting along the promenade. And then to cap it all I spotted a swirl of smoke over a hedge. Not the pier going up again, but Carters Steam Fair, here for the summer. Blog followers may remember them in Chiswick, and it was raining back then also. So I ran about here like a demented idiot, snapping away. Fairs don't get better than this, everything very traditional and superbly painted and not a hint of David Essex standing combing his hair on the back of a dodgem. But steam rides or not, Weston-super-Mare is certainly worth a detour off the motorway for. But don't just drive quickly down the seafront in the rain.
My father first waved a copy of H.V.Morton's In Search of England at me in the sixties. With virtually no knowledge of the things Morton talked about I suppose I found it quaint; somewhat dated without knowing what it was outdated from. I re-read it a couple of times, but hadn't picked it up again until very recently. What a difference forty years makes. I now find it stands up with the very best of English topographical literature, mainly because Morton is such a good travelling companion. In those early editions the sepia photograph of the Peddars Way in Norfolk always struck a lost chord, and so these pictures are my homage to him and his work. The Peddars Way runs down from Holme next the Sea to, well, nobody really knows. The Romans utilised it as a route to Colchester, pilgrims sang along it to get nearer to Walsingham. These days the trackway (and very occasionally metalled road) appears to run out at a place called Gasthorpe, but I walked a section of it recently up in North Norfolk near Great Massingham. Morton wrote: "I am conscious that this is a ghostly spot. Every time a leaf falls, every time there is a sudden rustle in the undergrowth I look up, half-expecting to see a figure not of this age coming towards me along the dead road". Believe me, I now know what he means.
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