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.
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)