So, seasonal congratulations to the Radio Times. This cover really stood out in the newsagents, surrounded as it was by its competitors that couldn't free themselves from the usual trashy soap celebs huddled together under snow-covered mastheads. For the RT to break free from this tradition is remarkable, guilty as it has been in the past for indulging the latest Doctor Who or dodgy chef. Christmas issues should be special; when it first came out the RT was in monochrome, and colour was usually only seen at seasonal highpoints. Covers by consummate professionals like Edward Ardizzone and Eric Fraser, and in my own time (under the editorship of David Driver) classic covers by the likes of Peter Brookes. I remember it all stopping when I stared in disbelief at a Christmas issue with a heavily retouched Mike Yarwood grinning out at me, probably doing his impersonation of Frank Spencer. Blimey, that dates me. But this current cover does it for me again. The actual details are very simple, but the overall effect is so rich, like the lid of a decorative biscuit tin. Even the Gruffalo offer is incorporated successfully, but a shame about the barcode, which annoys all designers. The cover is by Kate Forrester, and also comes in a green version. Which I suppose I'll have to get. Or three copies, a red and green for the library, another for seeing what's on the telly. But which colour? Oh God.
I've always hankered after taking a photograph of Battersea Power Station, but in its neglected and vandalised state this has proved difficult. I just wanted to be able to demonstrate what a stunning building this is, and a silhouette seemed to be the only solution, considering that so much is now missing. And I love those cranes that were used to unload cargoes of coal from the Thames. At last, the opportunity came yesterday lunchtime as I emerged from Chelsea onto the Embankment and was confronted by this. Snap, snap. What I didn't realise was that Battersea is apparently two power stations- one two chimney structure built in the 1930s, another identical one in the 50s, giving it the fantastic four chimney outline. The exterior was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (phone boxes, Liverpool Cathedral) and is still the largest brick structure in Europe. Going at full bore it got through a million tonnes of coal a year. There's a shot of it in The Beatles' film Help, it's on an album cover for Pink Floyd's Animals (with a barrage balloon pig sailing over it), and perhaps it was appearances like this that started us appreciating hitherto disregarded but important buildings. But since decommissioning in 1983, successive would-be developers have been and gone, after well and truly trashing the building. What a temple to industry this would have made, the art deco turbine hall once again humming with giant dynamos and lit with arcing flashes of electricity to show us just how beautifully exciting these powerhouses were.
As London expanded in the early eighteenth century, so did the need for new churches. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1711 in order that fifty new churches could be built to serve the population gathering at the fringes. By the time the order ran out in 1731, only twelve had been built, but amongst them are six stunning churches by Nicholas Hawksmoor. This master of the baroque was once Wren's assistant, but his own style is from another world altogether. This is Christ Church, opposite the old Spitalfields wholesale market and heralding the very desirable Huguenot weavers' houses to the north in thoroughfares like Fournier Street. Built between 1714-29, this is one of my all-time favourite buildings, and the view I always enjoy is my top picture, taken from down Brushfield Street, where the distinct impression is given that the tower is a continuation straight up from the immense Tuscan porch with its semi-circular pediment. As you move around the entrance, you discover that it's not. And what looks like it should be a square main tower is in fact a rectangle. There is much more to say, and some of it can be found in More London Peculiars where I've gone on about this and three other Hawksmoor churches.
So sad to hear this morning of the passing of film director Ken Russell. One imagines him now in some gothic Valhalla surrounded by Elgar, D.H.Lawrence, Mahler and Oliver Reed. Who is leading him to a heavenly champagne bar staffed by seventeenth century nuns. Ken was an enormous influence on me in the sixties and seventies, first with the groundbreaking television films- Elgar (after which my father, on seeing the director credit said "We must watch out for him), Song of Summer (the last days of composer Delius); and then the superb feature films- Women in Love, The Devils, and later Gothic and The Rainbow. A flawed (thank goodness) genius, I had always meant to track him down to his cottage in the New Forest where he ended his days alone. Now of course, he is largely forgotten by most of today's audiences who, if at all, will only remember his ill-judged but mercifully brief stay in the Big Brother House. I'm glad, though, that his work, in particular The Devils, was championed by critic Mark Kermode, and that this masterpiece is now finally going to be very belatedly released on DVD. I shall hook-up my videotape player tonight and give it a spin, raising a big glass of something good to a true master of English cinema.
(That's Ken in the middle of the photo above, with Lady Chatterley (Joely Richardson) and camera left his third wife Hetty Baynes.)
Discovered on a private driveway down to a house near Bath, the last remains of a K6 telephone box. This of course may be the awful fate of all these once ubiquitous red sentinels, their death knell tolled by BT back in the 1980s when they started to replace them with those unspeakable off-the-shelf glass cabinets. Mobile phone use has rendered them pretty well obsolete now, but I do wonder if a new use couldn't be found for them that means they remain in their original locations, instead of being turned into conversation piece greenhouses or shower cabinets. Some are quite rightly listed, some still have their interior lightbulbs shining brightly in the gloom, all of them appear to have discouraging notices about actualling attempting to make a telephone call. Unmitigated England Phone Boxes will of course have a corded handset on top of a black Bakelite phone, A & B chrome buttons, a shelf full of pink or yellow boarded directories, a list of local exchanges and a small mirror on the back wall. On the floor will be one empty Player's packet and a pencilled number awkwardly written on a Fry's Five Boys wrapper. And a man in a trilby tapping on the glass, mouthing 'Hurry up".
Just a quick one here, spotted by a gate leading up to Slawston Hill in Leicestershire on a Sunday afternoon walk. I like the simplicity and sheer effectiveness of the carefully stencilled letters, the colours, and the enigma as to why it was nailed to its post at an angle. Probably because we all walk about here with curious leanings.
In Dorset at the weekend, with friends who took me around some of their favourite haunts before we found ourselves inexplicably in The Stour Inn in Blandford St.Mary drinking Badger Poacher's Choice. Our last port of call as the sun dipped down behind the church was Cranborne, and we took a detailed look at buildings, brickwork and tombstones and wished we could get nearer to Cranborne Manor, Squire Allworthy's Jacobean mansion in Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963). And so to Castle Street, and this beautifully signwritten vets. Just perfect: the alphabets, the mixture of styles, the imaginative design of the projecting sign. I only wish it had been open and that I'd had a dog to de-distemper or something so that I could've gone in to congratulate them.
I was in Kew Gardens yesterday, almost enjoying the heat of the Indian Summer that has suddenly arrived. I partook of refreshment (tea, egg and cress sandwiches and a bottle of Fentiman's Ginger Beer) under the rustling leaves of the carefully considered pergolas outside the Pavilion Restaurant. I could have been in a Paris park. Round the corner is Decimus Burton's Temperate House that was once the largest plant house in the world. It's still the biggest surviving Victorian glass structure anywhere. Started in 1859, the government allocated £10,000 but four years later the Treasury got cold feet and brought construction to a halt. It took another 35 years for it to be finally completed. I love glasshouses, and this one needs a helping hand because it's been another 35 years since the last restoration. Find out more here.
I can't think why I'd never seen this before. It must be well-known to travellers driving west on the A44 out of Moreton-in-Marsh towards Chipping Norton, positioned at a dog-leg crossroads about a mile and a half from the town. The Four Shires Stone once marked the spot where four counties met: Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Three still do, but the Worcs. boundary is now further down the road. (The nearby parish of Evenlode was once in an enclave of Worcs., cut off from the main county until 1931.) This was a meeting place for centuries, and there must have been previous stones now removed or sinking into the surrounding ditches. The current marker has a seventeenth century-ish look , but the local history society has it as 1909. (That looks about right judging by the lettering.) Such is the timeless appearance of beautifully weathered Cotswold stone.
A long time ago I'm sure my brother told me that there was once a similar marker in the meadows by the River Welland in Stamford, marking the meeting of Rutland, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and possibly the Soke of Peterborough, which I suppose will now be Cambridgeshire. He reckoned he once went swimming in the Welland, and deposited his clothes around the stone. Trousers in Rutland, shirt in Lincolnshire, vest in Northants, etc, etc. A likely story, but not impossible.
Many apologies for being away from Unmitigated England for so long. Hopefully normal service will be resumed from now on. To be going on with, how about this wonderful tin. I noticed it again at a dear friend's house a couple of weeks ago, and memories came back of often coveting it. "Don't even think about it" came the riposte as I stared at it again, wondering if it would fit in one of the capacious pockets of my poacher's coat. 'Delicious Beyond Description', as it says on the tin.
A postponed walk along the South Downs is now in the offing, and the thought put into my mind this skilful London Underground poster. Executed by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis in 1933, for me it perfectly evokes the atmosphere of downland, even though its form is very graphic. Literally a bird's eye view, I continually return to it. The Ellis's produced companion posters for 'Heath' with an owl, 'River' with a heron and 'Wood' with, yes, a green woodpecker. Part of London Transport's brief to get passengers out into the countryside, this poster is not only brilliant in its execution, but a testament to the far-sightedness of publicity manager Frank Pick in choosing such celebrated artists to give the Underground the feel of a very accessible art gallery.
Sunday evening found me shouting at the television. Again. I'm actually not going to go on about it, much, but Britain's Secret Heritage (not anymore it isn't) on BBC1 was a masterclass in how to show pretty pictures, prance about in and around them in inappropriate clothing and then dub on tracks from the My Hundred Best Tunes CD box. With a lowest possible common denominator script, Cragside in Northumberland (above), saw Paul Martin, off something called Flog It, flog every hyperbole he could find in the manual, every two minutes. He did it in the obligatory puffa jacket, ill-matched with bright strawberry pink trousers, and was book-ended at Jervaulx Abbey ('this magical hidden gem") by the ubiquitous Clare Balding in a big bright blue dressing gown. Cragside was this week's 'host' location, which meant that we also had Charlie Boorman grinning on a rubber dinghy and a bloke pretending he'd slept all night in a Lincoln prison. Now, before I rant further, I must say that picking through all the debris I did manage to scavenge some titbits of interesting information. But what I will never forgive the producers for is not telling Mr.Martin that the architect of Cragside, brought in by owner Lord Armstrong to develop his Northumbrian shooting box, was none other than the brilliantly talented Richard Norman Shaw. He wasn't even mentioned once. Shame on you BBC. Next week Britain's X Factor Heritage.
As it's holiday time, I thought you might like a quick look at a little piece of Unmitigated France. Or La France Profonde? I've always been a bit of a fan of Vilac wooden toys, because Ashley Towers just isn't crowded-out enough with English juvenilia, and last Friday Youngest Boy and I found ourselves inexplicably in The Conran Shop. Of course we were only there to look at the racing car ceramic tiles surrounding the original Michelin building it's in, but half-an-hour later saw YB clutching a bright red Vilac racing car. Which he has subsequently not let out of his sight. All the way back home he kept suddenly bursting into song: "Vilac! Las Vegas!". I then remembered that I'd been given a Vilac garage for a birthday past, and we rummaged in the woodshed for it. It took us a while, but for what it's worth here it is. Ici. It really is La France Profonde, as the prices for fuel are in good old Gauloises stained francs. Still, perhaps it will come back to its own very soon. In the meantime, anyone for a quick depannage?
A lovely girl in Market Drayton has just sent me this box of truffles. Before you all go 'Oh yes, what's all that about then?', I will explain. A few weeks ago I happened upon this small town in the eastern marches of Shropshire, and noticed that the sign said 'Market Drayton. Home of Gingerbread'. On getting my obligatory sausage rolls and custard tarts for lunch, I asked for the aforesaid confection. 'Tuesdays' came the reply. As it was Monday I said 'Oh, you mean I've got to come back tomorrow?' Tuesday's of course turned out to be a wonderful chocolaterie, and it was here that I not only bought packs of gingerbread but also fell into conversation with the delightful Nicola, and learnt that MD was not only the home of gingerbread, but also had an incredible concentration of damson trees. The fruit was used to make dye for the northern cotton industry. 'I make truffles with gingerbread, damsons and of course chocolate', Nicola tantalisingly told me, before admitting she hadn't got any. It all started when she was presented with damsons a customer had used in making gin, and used her skill to blend the fruit and gingerbread with a dark, spiced, cream ganache. Nicola keeps the recipe very close to her heart, but Market Drayton can't get enough of them. I do urge you to try a box if you get the chance. We tucked in last night, and I have to tell you that not only did I eat four in a row, but I kept leaving Inspector Lynley and his burgundy Bristol to shuffle into the kitchen for more. They are supremely delicious, and I have additionally invented a new combination in the style of port & Stilton. I bought half a dozen shot glasses on Saturday, so commissioned them with Absolut vodka and the truffles. Perfect. Thankyou Nicola, I will return for more.
This jumped off a coach at me at an Abbey Pumping Station event. Leyland made Cubs for over 30 years, and this particular model was coachbuilt by Yeates in 1958. Leyland liked jungle nomenclature for their vehicles, and growling around oil-slicked bus stations were also Tigers, Cheetahs and Leopards. And Gnus for some reason. Leyland. Is this the only vehicle manufacturer to take its name from the town they manufacture in? Oh yes, forgot Bristol.
Now. This is a really difficult post to write. Because I like Nicholas Crane very much, whose new BBC2 series Town started last night with Ludlow. And I had to turn it off. OK, I did need an early night after a particularly concentrated early doors, but I really did want to sit back and enjoy it. The problem is twofold. Nicholas came to our attention with his trademark umbrella sticking out of his knapsack in the beautifully informative series Map Man. And then he appeared striding around clifftops and harbours in Coast, or at least when that nighthawk Neil Oliver wasn't glowering at us over his shoulder and flicking his raven hair out of his eyes. But something had changed, and I'd like to bet it wasn't Nick's fault. He vocal delivery altered. Suddenly he was talking in a fashion perfected by sports journalist Gary Newbon on 70s Midlands television, and currently irritatingly employed by that girl who does trailers on Radio 2. A sentence that starts, rises up and then dramatically falls back down again. Everytime. It's difficult to put into words, but I hope you know what I'm going on about. The thing is, this isn't how Nick talks. I've met him, and he talks perfectly normally. (Certainly better than me on this particular occasion.) And he was on Front Row with Mark Lawson the other night, and was very enjoyable to listen to. So what happens? It has to be the producers / directors, the ones with headsets and stopwatches saying "Nick darling, we need it like Gary Newbon" as they flick hair out of their eyes. That's the onefold. Number two was the music so thumpingly overlaid. Why? As Nick reluctantly admitted to Mr.Lawson, what was really needed was the natural recorded sound of the townscape. Not the Ride of the Valkeries (again) just because Nick was giving us a nervous grin from a helicopter. Come on BBC, put down your clipboards and puffa jackets a minute and look at how Aubrey Manning did it. And if you haven't heard of him get a DVD of Betjeman out of the archive. Sorry Nick, but don't let them do it to you.
I feel the need to impress upon you, dear readers, what an Unmitigatedly good day out is to be had at Audley End House, on the fringes of the delightful Essex town of Saffron Walden. English Heritage do some remarkable things, in this case the superb presentation of a house, a garden, and the attendant detail. A Jacobean house looking out on the formal gardens and surrounding countryside from tall windows with blinds half drawn; walls lined with the stern portraits of ancestral ownership punctuated by Venetian views; warm bright kitchens with copper pans reflecting firelight, pretty Victorian girls shouting to each other over pudding bowls; the heady scents from an expansive walled kitchen garden, grapes inflating in dazzling white greenhouses. So much to delight the eye round every corner. And after all that the Fry Gallery in the town, and a stunning exhibition of Eric Ravilious's Essex paintings. I had to be led out weeping, and into the Kings Arms on Market Hill to gather myself back together.
I wasn't going to comment on the demise of the News of The World, but then rediscovered this on a forgotten shelf. It's an 'O' Gauge tinplate advertisement for nailing up on the fence of Hornby railway stations. Before you ask, the Ashley Archive did grab one of the last copies of NOTW, running out of Sainsbury's with it in a plain wrapper. On reading it I have to say I was very tempted to light the fire with it, but as it's July, blah, blah. I can't help thinking that when this little tin poster was bought, the NOTW was an altogether different kettle of fish 'n' chip wrapper. More vicars caught with their trousers down in vestries than footballers shovelling coke up their noses. Maybe. We never had a Sunday newspaper in our house when I was running my clockwork trainset, and the habit was probably thought of as an integral part of the Devil's tentacles. (Or 'testicles', as an elderly country preacher once said, much to our infinite amusement.) Sharing the same shelf as this were tin ads for Woodbines, Gold Flake, Stephen's Ink and Shell Oil. All I need is a tinplate station fence. ,
Yesterday saw us at English Heritage's annual Festival of History at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire. Evidence of it being taken down a notch or two was apparent, with no Vulcan bombers strafing Civil War pikesmen and extremely indifferent service at one of the Bacon Roll counters (bacon placed outside the roll). Perhaps there was a war on. But still much to enjoy, with Roman Legionaries talking into mobiles (sinister dexter) the good ole executioner waving an axe about and telling six year olds about dismemberment, and a Lost Boy. (Sign here if you want him back.) Lovely stuff. For me though it's the brilliant photo opportunities, as once again an afternoon of July showers meant fabulous sky backdrops and stage lighting. I can't tell you anything historically accurate about these pics, particularly concerning the corrugated iron hut. But how could I resist it?
Saturday morning found me seeking out Diplo, hoping I'd catch him defrosting a fox or something for his breakfast, but the familiar battle-scarred Landrover was not on the gravel outside Diplo Hall. So I decamped down the road to one of my favourite Northamptonshire churches at Southwick. Here the combination of church and hall is a perfect example of one of the essential Unmitigated England fantasies, viz: that rectors holding wigs against the wind still scuttle in buckled shoes across lawns bordered by hollyhocks between dark oil-lit vestries and their masters' sunlit drawing rooms. For once I'd remembered my tripod, and so was at last able to photograph the monument in the chancel: 'Sacred to the memory of George Lynn Esqr who departed this life on the 6th day of May 1758'. And there's his wife, looking up adoringly at her husband. The craftsman here is French sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac, and this must have been one of his last commissions, executed in 1760. I had stared at it a couple of times before I saw, with a pang of immense pleasure, Anne Bellamy Lynn's sculpted foot. So relaxed, so informal. The years rolled away as I imagined her briefing Louis-Francois, staring at him as she let her slipper casually drop from her heel.
The Stamford Civic Society celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, and very kindly commissioned me to execute a painting of the town. Unmitigated Stamford is the result, and prints are available here. And a little film can be seen here. I've always had great affection for Stamford, starting in the 1950s with childhood visits to my Uncle David and his family. Uncle was editor of the Stamford Mercury, and indeed wrote (with Martin Smith) the definitive history of what is England's oldest newspaper. So the streets and alleys of this superb stone-built town became very familiar to me. I can remember standing on a corner of Red Lion Square when the Great North Road still thundered through the town, holding my father's hand as a seemingly giant red petrol tanker roared just feet from my nose, church bells echoing around me. I had favourite buildings, like the communal Bath House and Sancton Wood's classic Stamford Town railway station, and continually wandered about the meadows next to the River Welland. I decided to put my images of the town together in what I believe is called a capriccio, a fanciful notion where the buildings don't have to be in scale or even in the right place. And of course it gave me the opportunity to put in a train complete with blood 'n' custard carriages. I've enjoyed it all immensely, and have just completed another for what looks like being a series. So Unmitigated Leicester arrives very soon, and then hopefully Brighton. Oh I do like to be beside the seaside. And any opportunity to drink Harvey's Sussex Bitter whilst gulls scream around domes and spires....
As promised, here are photographs of the bus that ferried passengers from the nearby station on the Mid Norfolk Railway to the Hardingham Village Fete. Although painted-up quite correctly in the 1970s National Bus Company livery (slogan: 'Together we can really go places'), on its arrival in Norfolk in 1967 this Bristol bus would most likely have been signed in the original gold 'Eastern Counties' logotype on the side panels. I await cries of anguish from bus savants. But we just loved this. As fete openers we were allowed to go on it back and forth, so for a while we had it to ourselves. Well, apart from the conductor. And driver. "What's 'Stubber' mean dad" Youngest Boy asked, running his fingers over the raised surface of one of the little metal plates attached to the rear of every green upholstered seat. "It's where you were allowed to stub your cigarette out" I replied, and he just looked at me in sheer disbelief. What joy, the two of us sitting in different parts of the bus, me with my father's Panama on, he with mine. "Oh no, look!" he shouted, "That's all we need". And coming towards us on the empty green Norfolk lane was an open-topped Morris Minor. I buried my head in my hands, half expecting Hattie Jacques to get on when I looked up again.
Last weekend the Youngest Boy and I were in Mid Norfolk at the tiny village of Hardingham. I'd very kindly been asked to open their very Unmitigatedly English Fete, so I prepared a wandering speech all about rural pleasures and was going to recite from Philip Larkin's Show Saturday after apologising for it being a Sunday. A silver prize band tuned-up, bunting and chocolate cakes were adjusted and I went behind a marquee to limber up with throat spray and a hip flask. My kind host then told me that I didn't need to say much more than a couple of sentences because nobody would listen anyway. My ego suitably deflated I was going to give the mike to Youngest Boy, who'd brought a pair of kitchen scissors in his pocket because he'd thought there would be a ribbon to cut. So we kept it short and sweet and then got on with feteing. A red 1967 Eastern Counties Bristol single decker (of which more later) brought folk to the village from special steam trains that were stopping at Hardingham station. Crowds gathered around well-thumbed Dan Browns on the bookstall, rats were splatted in drainpipes, rides were taken behind a small scale steam traction engine. A kindly fireman told us how they cut crash victims from wreckage with massive bolt cutters and a Norfolk copper kept staring at me and talking sotto voce into his walkie-talkie. We thought the best thing was throwing three balls at shelves of crockery for 50p. Which suited us well enough, particularly Youngest Boy who was itching to do something similar to the Tombola table. Thankyou Hardingham for such a pleasurable afternoon in the heart of Unmitigated Norfolk.
Before I say anything else, I have to confess to being a) so uncharacteristically 'with it' that I use a smart phone (well, not very smart as it's covered in beer stains and gouache fingerprints) and b) utterly absorbed with taking snaps with the astounding Hipstamatic 'app'. As they say, "digital photography has never looked so analogue". The software uses the standard phone camera, but turns pictures into unbelievable retro-looking snaps. Just like plastic-lensed cameras of the 50s or 60s. Flaring, blurring, generally messed about with, it introduces an eccentric quality you'd spend two grand a day with a London snapper to get. The next step is that we'll all go back to using Instamatics and waiting for them to be done-over at Boots. And if you think I'm joking, or for once in my life ahead of the game, it's already happening. The Hipstamatic 'films' and 'lenses' have curious Ikea-style names like 'Ina 39' and 'John 'S', and if you don't watch out it changes your settings at random, just for fun. So you can imagine how I felt when these First World War limeburning kins at Barrowden in Rutland, in front of both a raging sky and the limestone village church, were accidentally captured on a film called 'Lucifer' with its burnt out ring of fire. You can find out more about the kilns in this book.
Another collection started today. The sheer variety of local signs advertising fresh eggs makes an interesting I-Spy game whilst out on country roads. Well, that's my excuse anyway. It could be a piece of recycled wood knocked out from the back of a wardrobe with not enough space left on it for the 's' of 'eggs', or the remarkably enigmatic 'Bull's Eggs' found out on an Essex coast road, as seen in Cross Country. Local vernacular commercial art. Here's a lovely jolly example on a road leading into Wilmcote near Stratford-on-Avon. Note the wheels for running it indoors at night. And yes, I did call in for half-a-dozen, and a quartet of duck eggs for good measure.
You can find out much more about these fabulous art deco buildings at the inimitable English Buildings blog, but I couldn't resist putting these pictures up. I'd been in central London, and was supposed to be joining the North Circular at the Hangar Lane 'Gyratory'. But I was so taken up with ranting and waving my arms about for the benefit of my long-suffering passenger that I found myself in the tunnel and out the other the side in a flash. I couldn't correct my error until the next junction on the A40 at Perivale, but this meant that on our return trip eastwards we passed this stunning pair. I'd always wanted to photograph them, but either it was raining or I was on the wrong carriageway. I do urge you to park up nearby if you're in the area and take a good look as we did, and I hope the sun and clouds are as complementary to the architecture. As Pevsner says, this was a factory designed to impress the new speeding motorists passing by in a few seconds, a blinding flash of hygenic white that perfectly endorsed the efficiency of the household cleaners once made within the early 1930's factory. The 1938 air terminal above was in fact the canteen, and round the back is now a Tesco, whose signs adorn the front lawn. Their presence here is remarkably and untypically low key. Every little helps.
I can't tell you how long I've waited to get my hands on one of these. I must have seen it first as a boy, perched up on grocers' shelves. We were a Bird's Custard household, but I remember wondering about the connection between a monk and a glass of custard. Much later I read that the custard makers were Monkhouse & Glasscock, where sometimes funnyman Bob's father was chairman, hoping vainly that his son would follow him into the business. As we all know only too well he didn't, and M&G got subhumed into Bird's. Such an evocative brand, and further round the tin there's a full-size monk holding up the glass and saying "At last. At last". How true.
I've always loved this. It shows just how brilliant some local signing was in the past before the impending national homogeneity took over. It also demonstrates what civic pride was taken in the detail, and Leicester was once rich in such things. This example is now housed safely behind glass (prohibiting both a decent picture and itchy screwdrivers) in the Museum of Technology at the old Abbey Pumping Station.
Jonathan Meades once wrote that I had an eye for 'wonky cricket pavlions' and he's right. Compiling photographs for a Leicester project I learnt in my local that Leicestershire County Cricket Club once played on a ground just off the Aylestone Road before finding their current permanent home at Grace Road. They did, from 1901 to 1939. 399 first class games were played here, including matches against the touring sides of Australia, West Indies, India and New Zealand. Being next to the power station, it was then used by the 'Leccy' (electric) board, and indeed it is still the home of the Leicester Electricity Sports Cricket Club. I was not a little alarmed to see Persimmon Homes' flags fluttering on the boundary fence, but on presenting myself at the 'marketing suite' was told by a delightful girl that the ground was safe. Later I discovered that there is to be some development of the outfield, and although it will be smaller it is planned that this should be one of the finest cricket 'squares' in the country. Persimmon are going to take the wonkiness out of the pavilion, and club members will see to the inside. So that's alright then, and very fitting, considering W.G.Grace once played here.
The drovers' lanes and wide-verged enclosure roads of High Leicestershire are currently billowing with characterful cow parsley. You may know it as Queen Anne's Lace, Keck, or even Badman's Oatmeal, but there's no mistaking what Richard Mabey, in his indispensable Flora Britannica, calls "mile upon mile of...indomitable, dusty smocking". Soon the council mowers will be out, scything through it all to leave bare verges, so yesterday we collected a few stalks and stuffed them into this impromptu vase as the centrepiece for our Sunday lunch table. Constance Spry would've been very proud of us. The Ovaltine tin is courtesy of a shed clearing by master joiner and bicycliste Clarkie, who brought it in a carrier bag to early doors at the pub on Friday evening. " I didn't think you'd got enough of 'em" he explained, and also inside the bag was a green and red Fowler's Black Treacle tin. Ah, the month of May in Unmitigated England, holding so many joys. Incidentally, did you know that cow parsley is part of the carrot family? Look closely at the leaves.
Sixty years ago yesterday saw the opening of the Festival of Britain. Although celebrated with events all over the country, it centred on London's South Bank with buildings and structures that have become like 3D souvenirs, even though almost all of them have disappeared. Powell & Moya's 300 foot cigar-shaped Skylon was rumoured to have been made into ashtrays, but at least we still have the Royal Festival Hall. This was 'a tonic to the nation', as Festival Director General Sir Gerald Barry had it, a surreal enlivener to perk up post war Britain after the deprivations of wartime. What brave new world things we would have seen. Everything including Terence Conran's first outings into furniture, Barnett Freedman's Penguin biscuit wrappers, Laurie Lee's captions in the Lion & Unicorn Pavilion, Rowland Emett's Far Tottering & Oyster Creek Railway chugging round Battersea Park. And Lewit-Him's Guinness Clock (above) that whirred into action every hour, as it later did on the promenades of British seaside resorts. I watched it with great wonder in Great Yarmouth, but I didn't make the Festival, only becoming aware of it when my brother stuck a sticker of Abram Games' Festival symbol with its bunting Britannia on the family cricket bat. But I do now have a book of matches (top) and a faux leather comb case with it on, and one of Bedfordshire's steel roundels used on village signs. (Given to me by the original manufacturer, I hasten to add.) My cousin went, but had a row with his dad and had to come home early.
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