Not getting out much this week, as you can see.Last night I sat staring into the middle distance pondering my sins and I started to look in detail at this label. So what's a marmalade jar doing in my living room? Well, I've been using an unopened giant 907g jar as a paper weight (best before date June 1999), but in any case I've always loved this label since I first saw it on childhood breakfast tables. Robertson's have been using a very similar design since at least Edwardian times when the label was pasted onto stone jars. All that's really changed since then are the number of oranges- far more in 1905- which may tell us something. Reading it as a six year old I think it was the first time I'd heard of a place called Paisley, nowadays it may be the first time a child sees the name Manchester. Her Majesty obviously likes it, I think it's a design classic and should be in the pantheon of such things that obviously includes the inviolate Lyle's Golden Syrup tin. Having said all that I'm now feeling guilty that my marmalade of choice is in fact Wilkin's Tiptree Orange & Tangerine. Mind you the way it's going round here I'll soon be twisting the cap off the Golden Shred. I had some year old Shredded Wheat the other night.
Unmitigated England doesn't normally get involved in current affairs, usually restricting itself to wanting to know why the 8.30 to Evercreech Junction is late. But I've wanted to use this cover in a blog for ages and hey presto! 'Pigs, Swine, Atishoo!'. And a recurring thought that however long the incubation period is of this latest flu bug, it's certainly moving faster than the samples that haven't turned-up in that white-coated lab. in North London yet. Susan Watts stood in a white coat amongst all the dodgy eggs on Newsnight on Monday and said they'd be in tomorrow (Tuesday). Last night she said tomorrow again, meaning Wednesday. Just now on the wireless (tuned-in to receive half-hour bulletins on the crisis so that we can prepare the bunker in the melon pit) some health official / scientist / passer-by said they might come today or tomorrow. So where are they? Still stuffed behind the pilot's seat on a 747? Still in a vacuum flask like in Billion Dollar Brain down at the shoe shop? Sorry, got to go, a Foden has just turned-up in the yard with the gas masks. You may laugh, this is a very nasty business.
I don't know anything about polar bears either really. It's all hearsay, like they can smell you from five hundred miles away and then bound across icy wastes in order to tear you apart and eat you. That's it really. But I can tell you about the polar bear on the Fox's Glacier Mints logo. His name is Peppy and he arrived on his mint in 1922, four years after Eric Fox founded the company in Leicester where they still are. I remember seeing a big neon sign on a gable end in the city and on asking my brother why it had a polar bear on it rather than a fox he just said "The bear's eaten it".
Every time I drive into Norfolk at this time of the year I see these plants rearing up in great clumps of efflorescence on the verges as I near the coast. I first saw it crowding the dirt track that leads up to the Happisburgh lighthouse, but only tonight do I reach for my well-thumbed copy of Flora Britannica and discover they are Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum). At first glance I thought they looked like the first sproutings of cow parsley, but of course the flower heads are far too thick, and in any case the yellowy green tops are the final colour. They are, however, in the same grouping that includes not only the parsley but pignut and coriander- the Carrot family. Richard Mabey reckons they were a Roman import, put to use 'as an all-purpose spring vegetable and tonic', but I wouldn't fancy it in a gin. You can eat the stalks- go for the green thick bits of stem and cook it like celery. Mabey also tells us that Alexanders are often found growing in the disturbed soil around monastic buildings, where it must have been put to both culinary and medicinal purpose, notably on Steepholm in the Bristol Channel. The name probably comes from 'the parsley of Alexandria', which explains its Mediterranean origins and maritime locations. Although it has been found in such diverse places as Bedfordshire and Dartmoor. So now I know, and of course will point it out to fellow travellers and go on about it as if I'd known about it all my life.
Wall's Ice Cream. It's what we had to go with our cling peaches for Sunday tea. A treat in the shape of a cardboard box bought from the van on a hot afternoon. The cream and blue vanilla packaging, the tricolour Neapolitan, the bountiful lettering. All were what we now call feelgood factors. And outside the post office in the village street and on wooden shacks behind the sand dunes there would be a sign. Shield-shaped and with a row of vertical blue stripes at the top that were like a shop sunblind on a sunny day. I tried to find an example to show you, but I'm sure you know what I mean. And then I saw the Wall's sign near the beach at Brancaster. The shed it's on is ok (it has to be, being next to the snooty Royal West Norfolk Golf Club). But what's happened? Every single ounce of pleasure has been rung out of the identity. This isn't a sign for ice cream, it's a sign for a heart foundation. And that's it isn't it? You can hear the presentation: "You see Mr.Wall we can make an ice-creamy sort of swirl look like a heart you see. Which means love, you know, like in 'I (heart shape) NY. And the bonus is it means healthy. And while we're at it we'll get rid of the old lettering in case punters think they're buying sausages". Nostalgia again? Not being what it used to be? I don't think so. Brand values, as I'm sure they say a lot, go further than the Powerpoint presentation. They end up on Norfolk sheds and country brick walls yes, but also as stickers on city fridges and corner shop windows. A truly great brand deserves better than this. Something more long lasting than a here-today-melted-tomorrow marketing document.
On the Ordnance Map it says 'Peddars Way & Norfolk Coast Path'. We'll come back to the name shortly, but yesterday we walked a good section of it. Or at least the coastal bit. After an hour swanning around on a deserted beach at Brancaster, we walked back to the village and along the path that borders the salt marsh in order to put down Adnams and crab sandwiches at the pub. They've laid railway sleepers covered in netting down as a boardwalk across the deeply soggy ground, a brilliant idea that means progress is swift, except for when a dog decides to nose-dive into the black ooze. A beautiful spring day, walking in single file past flint and brick cottages, stacks of thatchers' reeds and the upturned pale green leaves of whitebeams. And of course the Pleasing Decay highlights of rusty iron and lobster creels on the quayside. The Peddars Way though, is something completely different in both character and orientation, running from either Holme next the Sea, Thornham or Brancaster (the indecision of the mapmaker) to Walsingham and then down into Suffolk. So why do they lump both tracks into the same footpath name? It has that faint smack of a council office somehow, a rubber stamp convenience, easier filing. No, it's the Norfolk Coast Path, and joining it at three points is the Peddars Way. So there. But both worth putting stout boots on for.
The only time I attempted something like this is probably still talked about at Gillingham Ice Rink. It's too embarrassing to go into here, but it involved screaming skaters desparately trying to get out of the way of a big bloke in a red jumper travelling at an incredibly inappropriate speed, totally out of control. These mass sports have always caused me trouble. Ten Pin Bowling for instance. What's that all about? If you're really good at it, as everybody else always appears to be, you knock all those skittle things down with one ball every time. So what's the point. "Let's go bowling" someone says, always after everybody has sunk a shed-load of drink at a Christmas lunch. No thankyou, I don't want to have to take my shoes off at three thirty in the afternoon. I get so cross I want to wave a gun about like John Goodman does at the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski. No, bowling should be about gently rolling one down a greensward, pipe in mouth, faint applause from a weatherboarded pavilion with a clock on it. Which is absolutely nothing to do with this week's picture.
Aren't cattle amazing? Big, picturesque, slightly frightening and full of beef and milk. And they're always inquisitive. So many times they have come lumbering into my shots to see what I'm up to, to give a shuffling, snorting opinion. Out in the fields last week the local lads immediately hove into the viewfinder when I thought I'd photograph a wooden footbridge over a ditch. I gave up on the bridge and waited for them to arrange themselves into a hawthorn-bordered pose instead. I've collected so many Accidental Cows they could easily be another book. 'Freisian The Moment' a friend thinks it should be called. The One and Only Daughter and I did present the idea to a marketing girl at Express Dairies some years ago, but all we got was a blank stare and the visuals promptly lost. It was such a good idea we thought. I've got them in front of the Kilsby Tunnel ventilators, standing around chewing the cud with Jodrell Bank in the background and creating a bovine slant on Arthur's Henge in Cumbria. I once walked quite a distance to photograph a yellow Railtrack Stoneblower on the Dart Valley Railway in Devon from across the valley. And before I could get anywhere near where I wanted to be, I was followed. See above.
In a way, this has been a lost alphabet, although very unexpected when it was first photographed in the late 80s. Beards themselves stopped brewing in 1958 at their Fisher Street brewery in Lewes, and, although they still retained their pubs, neighbouring brewer Harveys (sigh) continued to brew the beers. There appears to be no trace of Beards now, except of course on signs like these. The writing was on the wall when the pubs were sold to Greene King (aka Allied Breweries) in 1998. I came across the superbly painted letters after a summer afternoon rattling up and down the nearby Bluebell Line, but very irresponsibly failed to make a note of where it was. So up until last night it was in the drawer marked 'Unknown', a picture without a map pin. And then I thought of Mr.Dudley, who knows his way around this neck of Sussex. After much searching with dogs and lamps a whistle was finally heard and the quarry cornered. The letters are on the tile-hung wall of The Sloop in Scaynes Hill near Haywards Heath. You can see it here, and wonder, as I do, if our sign is still lurking underneath that smart green board. My thanks to Mr.Dudley, who will receive pints of Harveys once I've renewed my passport.
Not for the faint hearted, the Hallaton Bottle Kicking. Easter Monday for centuries has seen local (and not so local) lads fall down the fields in a mass of thrashing arms and legs in order to put a bottle (in fact a small wooden keg) over a stream that runs in a deep cleft to the south of the village. This is pagan rivalry, an annual contest of brute force between Hallaton and the neighbouring village of Medbourne, shrouded in ritual and very, very, tribal. It starts with the cutting-up and distribution of a Hare Pie at the church gates, a blessing of be-ribboned bottles on the Butter Cross followed by a bagpiped parade headed-up by a man in green velvet with a Kit William's style hare on a pole. And a girl looking like an Ovaltine Dairy Maid who throws buns at the crowd from a wicker basket. Even more beer is put away, and then everyone troops up Hare Pie Bank to where the 'kicking' begins. What fun. Bloody fun, but amazingly good natured. When I got a bit near the centre of the action a winger, or whatever they're called, barged into me but immediately said "Sorry!". And then there is the additional spectacle (or dare I say attraction) of a secondary army of girls shouting encouragement to boyfriends, husbands and just blokes they fancied who were engaged head down in the heaving throng. And to a feisty girl in there somewhere. All swooning on testosterone like poets on laudanum, these are the camp followers, running with the pack like a baggage train on a battlefield. I walked back to my village across the sunlit fields, thinking myself a dismounted rider returning after the Charge of The Light Brigade, wishing I was at least thirty years younger so I could get in there with everyone else. Maybe next year I'll turn up in a big Michelin Man padded suit, but expect to be tipped-up in a ditch and abandoned, vainly trying to get upright again.
I was going to tell you all about going down in the scrum at the Hallaton Bottle Kicking yesterday, but then realised it was Tuesday, and therefore Find The Fault Day. So my heroic exploits on the side of a steep Leicestershire hill will of course have to wait. So, yet another boat picture. My experiences under sail are limited to getting my head bashed in (bit like yesterday) by a rapidly moving boom on Rutland Water, and thinking I was going to be unceremoniously swept down to Davy Jones' Locker from the decks of a Thames sailing barge in a gigantic squall off Brightlingsea. "Women, children, Unmitigated Bloggers first!". It's just that water never really agrees. Anything to do with me and my feeble attempts to swim are usually accompanied by someone running down a towpath or promenade shouting and waving a lifebelt. But I do like the idea of sailing, preferably with one of those big wood and cloth models you get in places like Aldeburgh, watching one of the children poke it about with a stick on the sailing pond while I read the Telegraph.
Solemn hymns, joyful hymns, flowers trumpeting on aisle window sills. The big door left open a little so that we can hear the growing lambs' Easter voices carried away on the wind from the hill. Churchyard daffodils nodding next to slate gravestones, but inside it's the smell of furniture polish, light filtering through old glass, the murmur of prayer. And the dull thump of the clock in the tower marking our hours. Happy Easter everybody.
Scenes we seldom see, to quote a Private Eye regular. Shop windows were once the grocer's stage to show-off what was on offer. Window dressing at it's most basic and effective, simple installations of cans, pyramids of this week's offer. Pavement Warhols, it's the repetition that appeals to me and Unmitigated England travellers will remember the triptych of Scott's Porage Oats sharing a gingham podium with Robertson's Mincemeat in 1970's Uppingham. The display here is in Holt (Trouser Town to blog regulars) and it all goes on inside the shop; a cash 'n' carry cave of Branston, Del Monte, Carnation and those Norfolk staples Brazilian figs and Spanish aubergines. Didn't they once stack tins up on supermarket floors, comedy slapstick props for floundering chases? Don't see that any more, health and safety you see. Good job too I say. Only Daughter used to amuse herself from the restrictions of her push chair by picking up tins from the stacks when no one was looking in order to hurl them with great force across the store. Fray Bentos tins winging their way into the grapefruits.
I'm not like Philip Larkin, who said something along the lines of "I like going abroad, so long as I can go to China and back in a day". And Venice is the sort of place I can spend more than a day in. Truly, madly, deeply impressive, it's much bigger than you'd think. And everything's delivered or carted about on boats; everything from early morning Coca Colas to local cafes to late afternoon funerals out on the cemetery island. You can easily avoid the crowds by just simply staying away from St.Marks Square or the shops on the Rialto Bridge, and unless you're a Venetian you can very easily get lost. Sometimes your only hope in getting back to somewhere you almost know is to look for the ghost signs on the alley walls that say 'vaporetto' with a fading arrow. Hang on, I hear you say, this is supposed to be Unmitigated England. It is, but it's Tuesday, and we're on holiday for the day.
Some books I just go back to again and again. Three Men In A Boat, Billy Liar. I've just finished Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male for the second time, his tale of a very single-minded hero going to ground in remote Dorset after a breathtaking chase on the London Underground. All in order to escape both a villainous tweeded-up representative of a dictatorial government (it's the 1930s so we can guess which one, although Household doesn't say) and slow-moving policemen with flash lamps. You can virtually follow his footsteps on a good Ordnance map, and Roger Deakin and his mate in Notes From Walnut Tree Farmeven go and camp out in not quite the same style at the exact spot. Clive Donner made a superb film of the book for television in 1976 with Peter O'Toole, and left us in no doubt as to who the dictator was. I would think it's ripe for turning over a Panavision Reflex again in an overgrown Dorset trackway, but the trouble is I fear it would get re-set in the Appalachians or somewhere, with rednecks hee-hawing in the back of a pick-up. Anyway, where's the Optimus stove and my dad's pre-war binoculars...
Right. I need help. I know you all know that, but this time it's cigarette packets. I'm looking for anecdotes about brands past, so, not about smoking per se but things like how you watched your grandfather make a tank out of an empty Ardath packet, how mum only ever smoked one Craven 'A' every year, on her birthday. You see the idea. And, if you remember, or come across references of named cigarettes in fiction I'd be very pleased to know about them. I've got things like Player's in Bond books, Gauloises in Len Deighton, but it's obscurer stuff I need, and brands. Like John Cowper Powys mentioning Gold Flake in A Glastonbury Romance, casually produced at an impromptu picnic. (Can you believe that, like he put a can of Lyle's Golden Syrup in Wolf Solent.) And those anecdotes. Is it really true, as a commentator said recently, that some fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain chucked their Weights packets out of their aircraft at Luftwaffe they'd just shot down? Anyway, all contributions very gratefully received, you'll find my e-mail address in my profile. Of course you'll get a credit if the whole thing ever sees the light of day, so thankyou all in anticipation. Now, where did I put that packet of Churchman's No.1?
Frequent tourists to Unmitigated England will be aware of the appeal that corrugated iron holds within its borders. Indeed those who stray into adjoining country will recently have seen a superb skeletal example waving about in the Cotswolds. They're a bit of an obsession at the moment, and I'm continually stopping the car in order to wander into muddy fields or to lacerate myself leaning over hawthorn hedges. Rippling with enthusiasm, you might say. Rather than rusting eyesores they usually manage to blend into the countryside as easily as vernacular brick or stone, and, as Commentator Wilko so rightly says, they're part of an essential working landscape. I've driven past this triptych of barns so many times, standing as they do in the Welland Valley where a minor road joins the A6003 at Caldecott, quite literally on the Leicestershire / Rutland border. But for some reason I'd always missed them, perhaps because of gearing-up to negotiate the road junction, until the other night they glowed like a beckoning beacon in the evening light. Barns and mission huts are the rusty staple of the corrugated world, but I get very excited when I find a two storey house like the one at Greens Lodge near Whissendine. Which on glancing at the map is also exactly on another boundary of the same two counties. (Cue Twilight Zone music.)
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)