Rare these days to find an untouched pair of semi-detacheds. Even more so to find them within a mile or so of each other. The top ones are in Little Bowden, which joins on to Market Harborough on the south east, and the others are in Great Bowden, which joins on the north east. For a large fee I will do a conducted tour for film location finders, who will be blindfolded until we're outside. The windows look right to me, and I can vouch for the front doors being original. Unsung domestic architecture, both pairs stand alone, that is neither are part of any vast interwar development. Some people have a problem with rendering, as on the Great Bowden houses, or 'pebble dashing' as it's more popularly known, but it's fine by me. Although I lived in a house coated thus in Kent, and during the Great Storm of October 1987 thousands of tiny stones were blown off the wall and against the bedroom windows as I lay in the foetal position on the landing. But rendered or not, I think there is great charm in these original pairings. All they need is a Morris J-Type bread van parked outside, or a proper postman in dark blue serge sifting through letters on the path as mum shakes a yellow duster out of a bedroom window.
By the ford at the town's edge / Horse and carter rest: / The carter smokes on the bridge / Watching the water press in swathes about his horse's chest.
I once regularly passed through the village of Eynsford in Kent, on the road you can just see here in front of the church. It's not a town, but it's this bridge and ford over the River Darent that always comes to mind when I read Edward Thomas's poem that was later called The Watchers. There's only one more verse after the one I quote here, and Thomas wrote it in 1916, the year before his untimely death just after the Battle of Arras. The picture stands out in a book entitled This England: An Appreciation by A.J.Cummings, the political editor of the News Chronicle. Cummings is writing in 1944, demonstrating to a population depressed by war that the country was still functioning, much as Thomas did in his poetry. The photographer is sadly anonymous, but there are many pleasures to be had from this image of a dull summer's afternoon. Perhaps there was also a distant roll of thunder. I leave it to the mechanically minded to identify the tractor, and perhaps someone will also know the rest of the name on the trailer. Is it a farm or the manufacturer? And what's that old boy got in his sack? Couple of rats for tea I expect.
Are we fed up with these yet? I'm happy if you are, but just thought I'd ask. So, we're off to the seaside this morning, a harbinger of sunny days to come we hope. My first holidays were spent on the Lincolnshire coast in a bungalow at Anderby Creek (sounds like something out of the Secret Seven doesn't it?), and the memory of jumping down from the verandah with bare feet into soft white sand is still very fresh. Being Strict Baptists in the 50s we had Sunday School on the beach, two families listening to my father talking to us in his rolled-up trousers. We never forget him getting a large piece of newspaper out of his pocket, and unfolding it to reveal a cut-out letter 'S'. He asked us to tell him how many things we could see beginning with the letter. I still find it remarkable how many there are: sun, sea, sand, seagull, ship, seaweed, starfish, swimming costume. And I must have pointed to my cousin Sue at one point. Heady, carefree days. Kite-flying, serious cricket matches on the firm sand when the tide receded to Holland, trips to a corrugated iron watch tower at Donna Nook with a door banging in the wind (ah, that's where it comes from). And hoping my older brothers and cousins would let me play with the clockwork train set we'd brought on a real steam train all the way from Leicester to put up in the attic. Mmm, let's all go there now.
A baa lamb on Unmitigated England? Whatever next? Pictures of nodding daffodils? Patience Strong verses? Blame the boys I say, wanting to go over the gated road between Horninghold and Blaston to see if the new lambs had been put out into the open field. Having recently acquired a black cat they've got a current preoccupation with all four-legged creatures, but if I'm honest I think the attraction in this south east Leicestershire field is the fact that they can swing on the metal gates at each end. Of course I then noticed that each new arrival had been aerosoled with blue paint. At first I thought it was a powerful reminder as to the order in which they had been born, but on seeing a companion with the same number assume it's the code for the mother. Anyway, forget all that, it's a great addition to the country letters and numbers I'm collecting. And if anyone thinks we've all got unnecessarily sentimental, one of the boys did give a parting au revoir out of the car window: "Mint sauce!".
You've got to watch what you're doing walking around Soho with your head in the air. The Golden Lion pub sits on the corner of Dean Street and Romilly Street, and I came off Shaftesbury Avenue with a purposeful stride (walking to an imminent lunch on Tuesday) and took a chance to study the sun dial. I can't quite work out the shadow of the gnomon, but it might just be telling the right time. Lions of all colours are often found as pub names, having appeared on the arms and badges of kings since the 12th century. We've still got one now, rampant on the royal crest in heraldic companionship with the unicorn. The Red Lion is still the most popular pub name, but we'll often find a gold king of beasts with a paw resting on a golden ball. Golden Lion pubs are often nicknamed Brass Cats. This particular one probably had an Art Nouveau make-over in the early 20th century, when the definite article was revived as 'ye' to denote old age, as in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. What else can I tell you? Well, Dennis Nielsen pick up murder victims here and some nutcase once blew the toilets up. And it has been known to charge £3.30 for a pint. No wonder my step quickened up Dean Street.
Now, I don't know if this is true or not, but punting in Oxford is traditionally carried out from inside the boat. Whereas Cambridge, my preferred Boat Race choice, stalwartly stand on the back. It's just that I've got a hazy memory of being poled down the Cam by a friend many years ago, who stood safely within the punt, and as we passed King's a chap in another boat shouted out "Oxford bastard!'. So I soon learnt very quickly to balance myself on the stern (?) and only once have I been left stranded mid-stream hanging on to a slowly declining pole. So imagine my dismay on Sunday afternoon to poke my nose over Magdalen Bridge in Oxford and see this. The 'boater' is not just inside the craft, but lounging back with a bottle of Oasis and languidly pedalling. What on earth's going on? The last thing I expected to see on these hallowed waters was a pedalo. What next? Lilos on the bank? Windsurfing? Pink Lycra? Loudspeakers instead of May morning choristers on Magdalen tower? Hurrumph, hurrumph.
All at sea with this one. I remember when galleons were a recurring motif in English popular art. Perhaps it was something to do with Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way through Hollywood films in the forties and fifties. Shouts from the crow's nest "Where are your buccanneers?". Muted answer from the other ship "On the side of me buckin' 'ead". We had galleons screenprinted on table lamp shades, embroidered onto tea cosies and blind-embossed on the leather covers we kept the Radio Times in. It appeared as part of the past times pageantry dished-up for the Coronation, a nod to the first Elizabethan age with local councillors dressed as Sir Francis Drake flouncing about on bowling greens, ignoring the Spanish Armada coming down the High Street. The English seafaring tradition in Tamworth; a reminder of salty windblown ancestries on letter racks and firescreens. But does any of that help you with this week's puzzle picture? Probably not.
At first glance it's like coming across a small town, high in High Leicestershire on a hilltop above Medbourne. This is Nevill Holt, and essentially it's just the hall, a vast late 17th century stable block and a church that was as convenient to the household as it's possible to be. Hoskins tells us that there had been a clearing in the woods here since the 12th or 13th centuries, and a manor house was here in 1302. This core was added to by Thomas Palmer, who died in 1474, and additions made by Sir Thomas Nevill between 1591 and 1636. The Papworths had a go in 1830 and it was a country home of the Cunards (the shipping ones) from 1876 to 1912. One can only imagine the huntin' and shootin' parties that went on here. When I first went inside it was a prep. school, which it became in 1919. I was negotiating its presence in a little film we were attempting, and the headmaster stared at me blankly over tea in delicate china cups. Nevill Holt is now in very private hands, bought with the fruits of the mobile phone. But a path runs in front to Great Easton, the views are magnificent and it's always so invigorating, particularly on an early spring afternoon when the only sound is the wind in the trees, or in the summer when the accompaniment is likely to be the 'chock' of willow and leather on the cricket pitch. Stands the clock at half past three, but are there toasted teacakes dripping with hot butter still for tea?
Newcomers to this blog may well be thinking "Why do we need to see Mr.Ashley's new trousers?". Well, I made a thing about them a few weeks ago (six to be precise) when we went over to Holt in Norfolk to look at and try on a pair of High Rises as my Christmas and birthday treat at Old Town Clothing, and my loyal band of commentators have been equally fascinated by them ever since. Delayed gratification was stretched to the limit like an optimistic waistband, and so I rang their Miss Willey last Thursday. I heard her shoes tap away across the linoleum, followed by a silence where I thought I heard the tick of a station waiting room clock, and then the return: "They've only got to have the buttons sewn on". The rest was down to Parcel Force, who claimed that they came to my village on Monday, only to find I'd gone out. I hadn't. So they very kindly sent me a letter that directed me to a Post Office at the back of a grocers in Market Harborough. I tore the brown wrapping paper off and...I love 'em. Have I tried them on yet? Steady on, I've only had them a day. It'll be at least a week to decide which braces match the herringbone Harris Tweed. Delayed gratification kicking in again you see. However, some young know-all on the Guardian said recently that the people who buy Old Town's clothes must still have outside lavatories. Yes. So?
We think now of plumbers as those chaps who turn up the day after you were expecting them and who are very adept at sharp but meaningful intakes of breath. Perhaps it was ever thus, but at least our friendly local pipeman doesn't generally scratch his name on your boiler. Robert Morris didn't waste any time in advertising his services to the handful of people who live in Stockerston on the Leicestershire Rutland border. Or perhaps he wanted to deeply impress the folk at the big hall next door to the church he was working in, not only as to his glazing prowess, but perhaps with the thought that he had a diamond ring with which to leave his mark. There are quite a few other bold statements made on other panes, and I expect that if we look closely at our local church we may find it was a common practice. I like the way he tells us he was a plumber (more plombe as in leadwork, rather than conjuring tricks with copper pipes) and glazer [sic], but adds '&C' to leave the job opportunities open. And also how the whole thing fits in very nicely with the leaded glass still up above the windows of an ironmonger in Mr.Morris's Uppingham, proclaiming them to once have been the Pinteresque 'Gasfitters' and 'Bellhangers'.
I'm more at home with this week's puzzle picture, having just shoved some tulips in the Agricastrol jug. And just look at that radio, or 'wireless' as we call it in Unmitigated England. We had one of this vintage in the 50s, and there is a photograph somewhere of my father smoking a Player's whilst listening to it in the late 30s. I learnt to tune it in to Listen with Mother after the glass valves had warmed through, turning the big Bakelite dial past stations with exotic names like Luxembourg and Hilversum. But I think the biggest treat was Childrens' Hour, particularly when David Davies read The Hobbit, with Greig's Hall of The Mountain King announcing his rich fruit cake voice: "...Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe...". My father rigged-up an extension speaker in the kitchen, where I could listen with mother while she thumbed through the Bero cookbook. Or run out into the garden when Victor Silvester came on. Learning to read meant I could look up programmes in the single colour Radio Times, and gorge myself on the superb line drawings by people like Robin Jacques and Edward Ardizzone. But I think that's for another posting. Tune in soon.
You can see them from wherever you are. When you're up here you can see wherever. A clump of young beeches and the odd fir form a dark blip on the ridge above the Northamptonshire / Leicestershire border. There is talk of a causeway camp long, long ago; there are marks on old Ordnance maps indicating a windmill. Always a meeting place of both people and trackways, there is more recent talk of the derelict single storey cottage being built in the 1930s for a chap to live in with his emphysema. Up in the wind, to help his gasping lungs. And the wind does blow. Producing ghostly squeals as the beeches crowd in and rub against the lichened brick, moaning in the rotten chimney stacks. Next door the air moves icily through the glassless metal casements of a wartime observation post, still with its wooden bunk beds up against the wall. In this strange grouping are also concrete entrances to bunkers that must havegiven chilling credence to the words 'Cold War'. Of course my boys thought they'd gone to some kind of windy heaven. They ran up here yesterday, dashing in and out of the swaying trees and invading the cottage like a landing force, moving from room to room with shouts of glee. "This is so awesome Dad". And then they unearthed the mossy skulls. Sheep, we hope. They carried them back down the hill like battle trophies, singing songs snatched away on the March wind. Just as it probably always was, a long, long time ago.
Isn't it odd how one changes one's mind about things. In the 1970's I lived in Tur Langton in Leicestershire, and just because this church wasn't on a ley line (the original is now only an arch in a garden just outside the village) we flared-trousered know-alls dismissed it out of hand. "No sense of holiness" we opined, looking at it from the pub windows opposite and never going in it unless one of us got married or died. Now, I can't get enough of it. Designed by those dynastic architects, Goddards of Leicester, the new church for the village arrived eye-wateringly in a field given by Sir Giles Isham in 1866. Much red brick, as can be seen, but with Box stone dressings and blue brick detailing. Goddards had been busy restoring local churches in the area (Slawston, Glooston) and used the local 13th century idiom for the spire, but in brick rather than stone. Inside (we increasingly find ourselves in there) it's a Victorian riot of polychrome banding, patterned encaustic floor tiling and much decoration on the pews. And a 'very florid font', as Geoff Brandwood and Martin Cherry have it in their very informative Men of Property, a study of six generations of Goddards. Round here you just can't get away from them- schools, banks, churches, lodge houses. All now glowing in early March light.
Hallo Sailor! Not being given to hanging around dockyard gates this one took me a while. Those with maritime predilictions will get it immediately of course. And it goes without saying you are only eligible to answer this puzzle if you've appeared on University Challenge whilst pretending to study Naval Fabrics 1805-1947
Going on about Humbers brought to mind this little filling station. A couple of years ago I walked round here to find it painted pink, and I've got an odd feeling it may now have dispensed the last gallon of unleaded. I found it on a dull June Saturday afternoon in 1990, when I wandered round the back of all those furniture stores on Tottenham Court Road after being led submissively around Heal's. It was easy to imagine Luton vans in the 1930's being primed with petrol here after being loaded-up with Elysian sofas and weathered oak beds destined for the new garden suburbs. In nearby Torrington Place Heal's vans were packed with new mattresses. I couldn't believe my luck when I found the Humber Super Snipe parked outside, its colours perfectly complementing the garage paintwork. Later I learnt that the garage was put here to serve the Duke of Bedford's Bloomsbury Estate, and as such is very likely the earliest petrol station in London. I'd be very grateful for any news (it was on the corner of Store Street and Alfred Place), but in any case it's well worthwhile standing opposite Heal's and admiring the superb decorative panels on the front elevation.
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)