So, farewell then Ronnie Biggs. The BBC must collectively be going "Well I never", considering the boost this news gives their drama on the 1963 Great Train Robbery that, amazingly, starts tonight. Back in those far off days I was returning home from the Chilterns in my dad's apple green Ford Popular, my mum in the front saying things like "Watch that cow Arthur" and me glowering and spotty-faced in the back. Suddenly, somewhere south of Leighton Buzzard, my mother says "Ooh, I know that bridge" pointing across a field to a railway embankment on the London-Euston mainline. "We were all in a charabanc going to Grandad's [a Chiltern strawberry farmer in Lee Common] and we went under that bridge and then it went off the road and tipped us all out into the ditch". My father looked at me in his driving mirror and we said nothing. "Were any of you hurt?" I eventually said. "No I don't think so. It went so gently down the bank we were just laughing in a big heap". And do you know, dear readers, that very night, at this very spot, the train robbers relieved the Glasgow to Euston mail train of what would be today around £40 million. Quite what the charabanc and the outing from Wellingborough's Strict Baptist Tabernacle were doing on this lonely lane I will probably never know. Anyway, that's two coincidences for today, three if you count my very recently taking the above picture at Quorn station, courtesy of the Great Central Railway.
So, it's Saturday and I'm on top of a hill in a disused radar station, remote on the North Downs above Bearsted in Kent. Nearby is a room humming with activity, an art exhibition featuring amongst other great things the stunning abstracts of Margaret Shepherd and exquisite jewellery by her daughter Nancy Rose. The space was kindly given by Nick Veasey, and close by another room hummed with even stranger activity. In here is a big X-Ray machine, and in the dark Nick produces simply amazing images, which you can see here. Well, I say in the dark, I think for much of the time he has to stand outside whilst the humming is going on. Anyway, being very nosey, I had to snoop about amongst the detritus in the immediate environs, and came across this extraordinary sight, a VW Beetle turning itself into its own X-Ray, wedged between two peeling MoD brick walls.Perhaps at night, after the big steel security gates are chained and all the humming has stopped, the Beetle carapace lifts up and puts itself back on the chassis. And like that scene in Woody Allen's film Sleeper it starts first time ('wouldn't you just know it?') and gently cruises around the skeletal radar masts on the dark hill top.
This is the time of the year I go rummaging in the woods. Seeing if a shaft of early morning sunlight will search through the lessening canopy of leaves to show me something I still find extraordinary. Flowerless Plants, as my fungi book designates them, are amongst the most fantastical living things. All that huge web of mycelium threading its way underground, to suddenly erupt in science fiction fruit that can look deceptively benign or downright evil. Not that I go in search of them to casually toss into a frying pan, unless it's slices of a big fresh puffball. My neighbour says "You've got to get up early to get those round here", meaning up before him. No, I just love photographing them, even though for the most part I'm doubtful as to what I'm looking at. I know Fly Agarics and Death Caps (fortunately), but the advice must always be rigorously followed- When collecting fungi to eat, only take those which you can identify with certainty. My Glamorous Assistant said these were Field Mushrooms. So what were they doing deep in a Kent wood, I pondered. Or did she have an ulterior motive? (Cue plaintive oboe music).
So, there we were bowling down the A303 on the way to Cornwall, more of which later. Suddenly we came to a screeching halt at the end of a queue for roadworks traffic lights, on that stretch leading down to Honiton that is more like a trunk road from the 1930s, after those gloriously sweeping dual carriageways across the Wiltshire downs. We called this The Blind House, and after taking a quick snap through a break in the incessant traffic we carried on. On our return in the gloom and rain of a late afternoon, we looked more carefully out for it. All I know is that it's after Honiton but before a crossroads I think was Eagle Cross. So can any of you out there remember what the pub was really called? Indeed, have you partaken of drink in there, or pulled out in front of someone from the car park?
On Sunday afternoon the skies above Bedfordshire were awash with vapour trails and echoing with the evocative engine noises accompanying the last flying day of the year at the Shuttleworth Collection. I get very excited by flying machines and the magnificent men who fly them so well, but you can probably guess by now what it was that had me running about pointing with childish enthusiasm. This is a 1913 McCurd, a 5 ton box van that is very likely the only survivor of its kind. Look at that stunning script flowing over the top of the radiator, marvel at the beautifully drawn packs of sugar and the Afternoon Tea box. It is, quite simply, one of the the best signwritten vans I've ever seen, and apparently it still belongs to Tate & Lyle. Imagine it, rumbling on its solid tyres out over the cobbles at the Silvertown Refinery in the East End of London. Very sweet.
The good news today is thatthe Crystal Palace may be built again on Sydenham Hill in South London. Almost the only thing left of the original is a pair of stone sphinxes that once crouched inscrutably next to one of the entrance staircases. The rest of it burnt down in 1936, the inflagration watched by my girlfriend's mother looking out of a bathroom window in Peckham. I remember asking her if she had to stand on the toilet seat and she gave me a funny look and said "Probably." Although smaller in plan, the building had as its core the original Great Exhibition building built in 1851 by Joseph Paxton, erected in Hyde Park and visited between May and October of that year by over five million people.
But what will the new one look like? Some bloke on the wireless this lunchtime said he expected there'd be some glass and iron in it somewhere, as if acres of glass wasn't a prerequisite. Ten years ago I remember seeing a design by Chris Wilkinson of Wilkinson Eyre at an RA Summer Show, and it would certainly suit me. A real new Crystal Palace for our own age, something we should've insisted on for the Millennium instead of that bloody awful tent in Greenwich stuffed full of tat. I couldn't find a decent photograph of the Wilkinson proposal to show you, but here's another BBC report from 2003 with a murky image attached. The brilliant thing about this Dan Dare spaceship is that it doesn't take up any parkland space, being mostly suspended in thin air as it were. Dust off those plans Chris please.
Sunday saw us wandering around Carshalton in South London, popping into the Honeywood Museum of local life and climbing an early eighteenth century water tower, both taking part in the extraordinary Open London scheme where you can often see things not normally open. Carshalton came as a welcome relief after the day before when an insulation savant in Belsize Park got twelve of us shut into his small bathroom to tell us about condensing boilers.
My mate, (who was brought up around here), suddenly said "I wonder if the holes are still in the wall by the Ponds bus stop?". Indeed they were, as you can see. Every brick in the wall immediately behind the stop had holes in them of roughly the same diameter and depth. They tailed off in each direction. What can they be? Giant masonry bees? The only explanation we could come up with was that for decades schoolchildren had bored them out with their bus fare pennies. They're about the right size for an old penny, and presumably the brick is soft enough. And if the bus was late you'd soon have made a serious indent. But we're not at all sure. So come on Old Carshaltonians, have you ever joined in this communal making of brick Emmental? Or is there another even more unlikely answer?
So. What I want to know is, when the Royal Mail gets privatised, will it still be the Royal Mail? Presumably not. I can't find a news item or discussion that even mentions it in passing, but don't we think it's important? You know what will happen. It'll be called something crass like Post For Yoo-Hoo; after all, look at the high level of thinking behind the moronic and quickly dispensed with 'Consignia'.And not being the Royal Mail means we won't see the reigning monarch's cipher cast into the iron. I think I'm right in saying that there's a dictat ( probably stuffed behind a radiator at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office) that they will always be painted red, like London buses. But you never know what mindlessness can beset those responsible for looking after our visual environment. The pillar box above is in Letchworth, the first garden city. Looking around, the colour that predominates in the leafy streets, apart from the cream renders and burnt orange tile hanging, is green. Green leaves, green trees, green lawns and the original Letchworth green doors, drainpipes and garden gates. So what colour did the council, unencumbered with any thought concerning their fabulous heritage, order the wheelie bins in? Of course. A mind-numbing shade of purple.
I've enjoyed the variety of weather this year as much as any I can remember.I'm not one for excessive heat, retiring as I tend to do under awnings and standing about with a Panama pulled down over my ears. So a hot day that ends in a spectacular thunderstorm watched from a local pub window holds a particular appeal. And then to traverse my stretch of countryside as the clouds clear and the last of the sun spotlights the fields brings me dancing about on the wet grass verges. The only sound the odd bleat from the fields and my village church sounding the hour. It doesn't get much better than this.
We've just spent a little time on the Suffolk coast. Southwold to be more precise, or Adnams-on-Sea as I shall now call it. It doesn't matter how far away from the classic town brewery I drink their ales, I'm always left with a self-satisfied beam on my face. But to drink a Southwold Bitter or, my current preference, a few Broadsides, within a handful of miles of the town is a very distinct pleasure. Anyway, Friday evening found us on Southwold Pier, running about like children as we enjoyed Tim Hunkin's joyful slot machine arcade called The Under The Pier Show. Gloriously old fashioned, utterly eccentric and delightfully bonkers. The one in the top photo is his Quantum Tunnelling Telescope, but sadly, like many seaside telescopes when the money runs out, the view from it was strangely absent. But it did make lots of noise.
More sedate was the Dovecote Studio at Snape Maltings. (Get your cow-shaped butter dishes here.) Snugly positioned in the stabilised ruins of the original 'cote', this is a Cor-ten steel monocoque shell that was prefabricated and then dropped in by crane. The architects were Haworth Tompkins. I pondered its use for so long, but had I bothered to walk round it, instead of complaining when anybody walked in front of it as the sun came out, I'd have seen that it had windows. It's used by musicians and artists in-residence and, I expect, as a useful hideaway for the Snape Maltings staff as they discuss the latest balsamic vinegars. I love this kind of thing, practical innovative thinking for a building that not only looks good, but also fits in (literally) with its surroundings. A good place to quietly put a few Broadsides away, staring out across the lonely marshes towards the sea, Britten's Sea Interludes in your ear and... (that's enough arty-crafty Suffolk references: Ed.)
I have been much exercised recently by thoughts concerning Ben Wheatley's new film A Field in England. On the first viewing I got to the end with my mouth open wide, and at the end of my second viewing I got to the end with my mouth open even wider. By turns it is: infuriating, brilliant, masterful, disorientating and beautifully atmospheric. Shot with great care in monochrome by Laurie Rose, many will, and indeed do, hate it. I loved it. So much so that I said to The Boys "Why don't we do an homage to it?" They readily agreed, rummaged around for big coats and hats that held an extremely vague approximation to a mid-seventeenth century look and got down to writing the script over a hastily disposed of supper. The restrictions were manifold. It had to be one shot, two lines of dialogue at the most and the location within a mile of Ashley Towers. I knew we'd have a problem with the wind buffeting the tiny mike on the camera, but we had great fun, and for what it's worth here it is. Have a look at the real thing, and if you experience it on DVD you can make up for any misgivings by watching all the 'making of' extras, which are amongst the most informative and entertaining I've seen. Particularly the uncensored views of performer Michael Smiley and the practicalities of blowing somebody's face off.
So there we were, motoring between tall hedges with the twin towers above their lonely beach playing peek-a-boo with us as we edged nearer to Reculver on the North Kent coast. "James Bond came down here in his Aston Martin DBIII in Moonraker" I said. "Really?" she replied, somewhat suspiciously. Quite rightly. Bond's visit was in Ian Fleming's Goldfinger (1959): He came up with a crossroads. To the left the signpost said RECULVER. Underneath was the ancient monument sign for Reculver church. Bond slowed, but didn't stop. We did, and spent a happy hour wandering about the gaunt ruins and beach, trying to avoid being in that other photographer's viewfinder. "Don't worry" he said, "I'll Photoshop you out". On the pub verandah later I mused: That's what people will say about me. "What happened to Peter Ashley?" "Oh, he got photoshopped out". Read more about the church here, read the original James Bond books to see just how much they contrast with the gadget laden later films. I really like them, and think I'll read Moonraker again, this time following Fleming's narrative in the right order, instead of backwards trying to find the word 'Reculver'.
So, there I was, roaming disconsolately around 'History Live!' the new wizzy and slightly queasy name for English Heritage's Festival of History at Kelmarsh. Why do they do this? It's like the English Tourist Board now being 'Enjoy England'. Yes, I will, thankyou. Anyway, I wandered about under the lowering skies, looking at Roman soldiers on their iPhones, chatting up WWII nurses doing each other's hair and generally feeling glum at the lack of light for my pictures when 'lo!', I walked into the beer tent and saw this on the bar. Now I don't normally drink the fruit of the apple, but how could I resist this? Quite apart from my well known penchant (in certain select quarters at least) for white on red polka dots, I just loved the design. It took me a while to get to the small print, but '100% cider apples' and 'Herefordshire' did it for me too. So what's it like? Let's put it like this. Come Christmas I want a reasonable quantity stowed in the cellars of Ashley Towers. As it says on the label: 'Well rounded, medium, still.' Thankyou to Celtic Marches who made it and designed the label- just for me it would appear.
There can perhaps be nothing more English than watching an event in the pouring rain. Considering the recent spell of excellent weather it really was bad luck that the al fresco performance of Pride and Prejudice at the National Trust's Ightham Mote should have been greeted and terminated by a storm of Biblical proportions on Saturday night. We arrived as rain swept across the lawns, tripping over our folding chairs and picnic hampers as we desparately tried to find a viewing position that didn't involve other people's umbrellas and massed ranks of hooded kagoules. I sat on a packet of wet scotch eggs, chucked a big glass of rose over the people in front and tried to keep an even temper as my chair decided to fold itself back up again and slowly sink into the grass. It was at this point that a lady thrust herself upon me and asked "Would you like to buy a raffle ticket?" I expect to hear of my membership suspension from the National Trust shortly.
But sincerest congratulations to the Chapterhouse Theatre Company for such a valiant and utterly professional attempt to give us the play for half an hour before a classic lightning strike threatened to take out the entire Bennet family. Two for one in one case as the actor playing Mr.Bennet doubled up as a very convincing D'Arcy, presumably doing very quick changes behind a convenient and very damp shrub.
I've made some decisions this week, quite apart from re-starting my blog. But first a very big thankyou for to all those followers who didn't disengage and who have kept the faith whilst I've been faffing about. I've decided not to Twitter anymore after I looked at the last one I'd 'tweeted' that used all the word allowance to ponder on why there was a teatowel from Leatherhead blowing on my neighbour's washing line. And the same goes for MugBook. The truth is I just can't be bothered with all that, but what I will promise is that these Unmitigated Postings will be as regular as All Bran. It's a forum I love, I've been away from it far too long, and even if there's only my immediate followers out there reading it I shall be very happy.
The idea for my 'first' posting came from the above tin that I found irresistible in Market Harborough's Market Hall the other week, and the timing for it's first appearance is hopefully obvious. And having just received the fabulously beautiful gift of my first grandaughter from Only Daughter, I'm all ridiculously babied-up at the moment. So here's to all new arrivals, royal or not quite so royal. (Opens bottle of Pimm's, puts a teat on it, gurgles it down in one, falls over. Smiling beatifically.)
It's no good me making apologies, but my computer is playing extraordinary tricks and is so slow that I can walk faster with my legs tied together. And this new Blogger thing doesn't help. It's taken since Monday, my birthday, to bring you this. So, we were all in the pub celebrating the fact that I'd completed yet another year, and in comes a very lovely lady bearing the above. A big cake just for me! How is it that people know what I like? I must have gone on about post boxes somewhere, because here was a very Special Delivery. My monogram on the door, a bag full of letters, and more cut-out icing letters saying 'Happy Birthday' scattered on the stone path. I just don't want to eat it. What should I do? Anyway, it managed to get back to Ashley Towers without ending up on the pub car park, where it is displayed along with other gifts that include a Selfridges No Noise Marmite jar. I'll start blogging it now and perhaps it will appear in a year's time.
A New Year, new departures. Once that dead zone between Christmas and the end of the month was safely and agreeably negotiated, the first UE outing of 2013 swung into action. I sat with a chum in a cafe in Stamford, and we both had the same idea simultaneously. Let's drive out onto the fens and find a really dodgy pub where we'll be made most unwelcome and have to leave. Turning off the A47 at Guyhirne we travelled north east from the bank of the tidal Nene and very soon found exactly what we were looking for. Excellently kept Elgood's Cambridge beer, a taciturn landlord and a pair of 1950's photographs on the wall that showed two aspects of another fenland pub with a burnt-out annex and a hump-backed Standard Vanguard parked up against it. We sank the Elgoods, nodded at each other and made our way into the back-end of Wisbech, and onto the North Brink (above). This must be the one of the finest runs of Georgian buildings in England, if you ignore that tall gabled gothic extrusion halfway down. At the west end is Elgood's Brewery, outside of which we stood in silent appreciation for a few minutes, and then a walk down past the perfect Peckover House where as a child I was taken out onto the roof and shown a stork's nest next to a chimney pot. A little further and the low winter sun highlighted the front room of the Hare & Hounds Hotel, wherein we found more Elgoods and beef stew with dumplings. And an obliging and pretty girl to serve us. Happy New Year from Unmitigated England!
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)