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.
The end of April, and a walk on a recently discovered and delightful path through the beeches and ash trees of Wardley Wood on the Leicestershire and Rutland border. It starts with parking up next to a wooden shack in the trees called Sweethedges, where homely refreshments are provided to passing wayfarers. Almost the only indication of the turning off the lane between Stockerston and Allexton is this carefully-shaped lump of ironstone leaning next to a tall hedge. I went into a long rambling discourse about it being a marker for the crossing of both ancient trackways and the nearby Eye Brook, a forgotten and unrecorded landmark that defied any cogent explanation. I ran my fingers over the surface to discern some obliterated runes, and looked into the warm blue distances hoping for answers. Which came when I raised the subject as our tea and almond slices were brought to our table. "Oh that", we were told. "We dragged it up out of a pond and thought it would make a good signpost. Just haven't got round to carving anything on it". My thoughts of discovering a long lost totem and of assuring myself a place next to Alfred Watkins and John Michell evaporated with the steam rising from my little brown teapot. We left, me forgetting to pick up my discarded pullover.
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