Sometimes I think that I'm trying to re-create my childhood, piece by piece.Toys, books, old copies of the Radio Times, drooling over Humber Super Snipes. "A comfort blanket to hold up against the tyrannies of the new century" someone once said. Actually, it was me. The thing is, all those years ago I didn't have a Hornby 0 Gauge level crossing for my 1950's clockwork train. So very recently I couldn't resist this, in its bright red box that told me it was of 1953 vintage. I just love it. Opening and shutting the gates, trying to not let them scratch the printed tinplate as its first (probably) owner had done. I wanted to share it with you, but thought it was a bit plain on its own. Not having a clockwork train and carriages yet I reached out for my cheese biscuits tin and sourced these two Britain's farm models. And I didn't have those either as a child.
I'm busy photographing England's smallest county, Rutland, and on arrival at the churchyard of Holy Cross in Burley-on-the-Hill came across this remarkable gravestone. Apart from its fabulously momento mori skull and crossbones, it is very, very early for such a thing. Most memorials at this time (just decipherable as 1701 I think) were inside the churches, and there are no others of similar age as far as I could see. The local limestone has been used, but even so it appears to have weathered rather well. I have a thought that this is because the monument may have been inside the church and was removed during the inevitable Victorian 'restoration'. Or it could have been part of a larger piece of stone forming the side of a dismantled tomb chest, and cut with a rounded top when placed in isolation. But I still can't fathom out all of the inscription, other than that the person died on the 16th November and was only 20. Is 'Mason' a name or an occupation? And who is it? The surname may be 'Harald'. I'll just have to get back up here with a wire brush. No I won't. The other beautiful thing about this gravestone is what age has done to it with lichens and mosses. 'Pleasing Decay' in a country churchyard.
It started with three pop-pop steam boats I bought at the Abbey Pumping Station event (see last post). The idea is that you fill them with water and then light candle stubs that you slide under their tiny boilers. On heating up they start to go pop-pop and if you're lucky they steam happily along for five minutes or so. That's the theory, but we had grandiose ideas of having a race with them across our local stream where it fords a bridleway. Youngest Boy quite rightly said we should test one first in the kitchen sink, so after I'd burnt myself with the cigarette lighter, cut myself on the tin and thrown the offending boat down the garden, we took our Sutcliffe Clockwork Liner out instead. What a performer. A few turns of the long key you put down one of the funnels and it's away. It head-butted not only a strong wind but also the unpredictable current of the stream, whirring away whilst we let water flow into the tops of our Wellingtons. Having gone through a couple of concrete pipes unscathed it finally grounded itself Fitzcarraldo-style in a reed bed. We went home for cocoa, (well, Bovril in my case), wet through, caked in mud and very, very happy. I told The Boys I had bought the tin ship from Mr.Sutcliffe in person, which was met with utter disbelief. Amazingly, it's true.
Sunday found us at the Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester. Once used for pumping enormous amounts of sewage up to Beaumont Leys in Leicester (for which they were very grateful I'm sure), the incredible Gimson steam engines are housed in a Victorian Valhalla of decorated iron pillars and clanking walkways. As often as possible they're fired-up to thunderously roll again, but at the side is an utterly absorbing Museum of Science & Technology that shows you (amongst lots of other things) how lavatories work. Every now and then there's a Special Event, and this Sunday it was Steam Toys. It was just wonderful. A tent full of blokes bent over stationary Mamod engines, more people with their glasses opaque with condensation in the roof above the pumps running tin locos past tin stations; and outside a full-size train running in and out of the obligatory Victorian planting of laurels. Oil, steam, hoots and whistles. I had to go and lie down, and that was before sitting on a late 1930's Leicester Corporation bus ('Spitting Prohibited') and being allowed inside the Unmitigated 1938 Bedford mobile chip shop. (Thankyou Barrie.) There was a lot more, but was it all a steam elitist day out for shiny anoraks? Certainly not. The place was heaving, full of local families resisting the cold and having an utterly brilliant time. Perhaps this is the kind of thing Dave means when he goes on about the Big Society, a community coming and acting together for a common good.
You know what's coming next, don't you? Yes, Leicester City Council want to close the whole enterprise down, along with Belgrave Hall, the Roman museum at Jewry Wall and the fantastic medieval Guildhall next to the cathedral. The excuse is 'cuts' of course, but the Pumping Station does what it does because it's served by 100 (yes, 100) volunteers, who love and cherish it so that we and future generations can be educated, enthralled, or just given a marvellous time on a cold Sunday. The permanent staff will move on, the Pumping Station will be boarded-up, and thieves will break in (they've made a start on the roof) and destroy the engines for scrap. It will never be the same again. Unless of course a miracle happens, and someone will realise what a golden opportunity exists here- right next door to the National Space Centre- to tell the whole story of technological ingenuity on one site. Let's hope it's not another End of Steam.
There should have been another blog between the last one and this, but I'm still working on it. (Get on with it, Ed.) So here's another stunning car for you, a 1952 Jaguar. (Mark 9?) I just love it. As we talked about last week, advertising was so much simpler and more to the point in the fifties. All they needed to say was 'Grace', 'Space' and 'Pace'. Which meant that it looked good, had lots of room and went like stink. What more did we want to know? One of the getaway cars-of-choice for Laarndun villains, the Jag had style in bucket seat loads. Except I think it had a bench front seat. And look at that logo for 'The Motor' too. Perfect.
Often on this blog and elsewhere I have mentioned in passing the 'fat Austin Somerset', but not until today do I have a good picture of one to show you. Gliding through a very stylised Windermere, here it is; a 1952 Somerset in a paint finish I don't remember seeing, but with that fabulous flying 'A' badge above the radiator grille and four tweeds-and-pearls passengers. The woman in the front passenger seat is saying to her husband through gritted teeth "I wish Brian'd stop waving that bloody pipe about". 'Austin' is somehow such a homely English name for a car, even more so with a list of model names that included not only the Somerset, but also the Austin Dorset, Devon, Hampshire and Hereford. "Darling if you don't mind awfully I'll drive you to the station in the Hampshire".
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