This is that stray card that falls on your doormat two days late, but even the maelstrom that is the pre-Christmas rush should not have prevented it's being sent. So here we are, wishing you seasonal greetings, and now, in particular, my wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
Sorry to have been off air for so long, but this will, I hope, be the start of a return that heralds more over Christmas. My lodge keeper at Ashley Towers couldn't wait to get on her Rudge bicycle in order to bring this message up from the gatehouse. Oh how we laughed over our slices of Colston Bassett Stilton and tumblers of vintage port. Me even more so as I watched her unsteady retreat back down the drive in the glowing afternoon light.
We take them so much for granted really don't we? No, not the signpost, (increasing numbers of which are disappearing, at least in this traditional form) but miles themselves. I always knew that there would be creeping metrication that would eventually see them banished, and it's started. I was going to go on about this before I heard on the news that height and width restrictions are soon to be in centimetres or whatever, after all newsreaders and journalists continually use metric, temporary roadworks are signed using it, and it's all now horribly and unnecessarily ubiquitous. And then I started reading the delightful and thought-provoking Claxton by natural history writer Mark Cocker, and was brought to a halt by this, talking about barn owls, where: "...within eight kilometres of this spot I know three churches that have housed them..." I double-checked whether Mark was writing this in the Carmargue, but no, he was still in the nexus of the River Yare in south Norfolk.
Well, I've had this problem with editors before, who have insisted I use metric for measurements, probably so that they don't upset the one person who kindly buys my books in Belgium or the curiously huge numbers of Chinese who I think use something else anyway. But we've always been able to compromise, where miles are left alone but heights of bridges, say, are awkwardly noted in both systems. But the Forth Bridge for me will be always held together by 6,500,000 rivets weighing 4,200 tons. Perhaps Mark had someone breathing down his neck at Jonathan Cape's. I do hope this is the reason.
The Highways Agency, or whichever darkened room recommends these things for roads, have said that information in both systems will improve road safety. Yes, that old rock cake. No it won't, it will only confuse. They will doubtless cite the poor old truck driver from Uzbekistan who has thundered across Europe with just one tyre with a decent tread who is suddenly confronted by a low bridge in the fog.
Unmitigated England is going to have to be mobilised soon in the cause of saving our miles. After all, it's not "How many kilometres is it to Babylon" is it? Robert Frost didn't say The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep....
Just north of Osbournby on the Bourne to Sleaford road, the A15 makes a sudden swerve to the left in order to circumnavigate Aswarby Park. But if you take the lane into the tiny hamlet you will be confronted by the church of St.Denis, and if you see it in bright autumn sunlight as I did last week then it will appear like the ghost of a Lincolnshire church. Which in turn has its own ghost story attached. M.R.James stayed at the now demolished hall and used it as the backdrop to one of his most chilling tales Lost Hearts. All that remains in the park opposite to mark the building's passing are two columns out amongst the sheep and fallen trees, both surmounted by boar's heads, the Whichcote family crest.
But I was here for a purpose, to try and solve a puzzle that has exercised me for some time. Dwellers in Unmitigated England may remember my oblique reference to a mound in a Lincolnshire park. This came about because of a revised note to Aswarby in The Buildings of England:Lincolnshire, made by John Harris to Pevsner's comment about a possible barrow in the park: "It has been reported...that it was raised in the c19 to cover an elephant which died in a travelling circus!" A number of times I have scanned the park for even the slightest eminence but to no avail. After chasing a woman I saw unlocking the church I discovered that there was "talk of an elephant" in the distant past, but nothing more. So the girls were put to work up and down the library ladders until finally I was presented with a map reference for a supposed barrow in the park. Right next to the A15 as it straightens up to continue northwards. Just past the equally ghostly and sadly defunct Tally Ho Inn that stands forlorn on the left hand side. Why hadn't I seen it?
Further burning of candles at the midnight hour then brought a startling discovery. Tayleur's Great American Circus toured the country during 1880 and the early years of the 1890s. The circus (once witnessed by Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll in Eastbourne), visited Grantham, some thirteen miles to the west, on a stormy night on the 24th September 1892. A further piece of the pachydermal jigsaw appeared when I discovered that Lord Whichcote granted permission for the interment of an elephant from a travelling circus in Aswarby Park in....1892. All of these snippets came with the get-out words "legend" or "myth" but I'm now convinced that there's too much detail for there not to be some truth in this curiosity.
So yesterday, an appropriately stormy day, I set out for Aswarby again, but this time accompanied by the eagle-eyed Mother-of-My-Youngest-Children. Who of course immediately spotted the pear-shaped mound exactly as the map reference had indicated. My excuses for not seeing it sooner, viz: "there's a tree at one end of it and it's behind a hedge", drew not one ounce of sympathy. "You just get impatient if there's not a sign saying 'Elephant Buried Here".
The A15 got closed further on because a straw stack the size of a town hall was on fire, so we took advantage of a quieter road and with the wind blowing with apocalyptic force I negotiated a steep-sided ditch to wait for the imminent break of sunlight in the dark rolling clouds. I staggered back to the car. "Any luck?" "You won't believe it. There's two tusks sticking up out of it!". "NO! You're joking!". "Yes." So, there we are. There's much more to do, and short of a proper excavation that could get very complicated it looks like there's a few hours to be put in trawling the archives of the contemporary press. Which, knowing this county of old, will throw up even more curiosities to chase after on stormy days.
Everyone knows about about my predilection for all things appertaining to Len Deighton. Be it novels (particularly those of the 1960s), cookbooks, non-fiction and the various books he edited. One, though, had escaped me for years until last week I finally got my hands on Drinks-man-ship at the right price and in excellent condition for it's age (1964). It's a superb piece of Deightoniana: large (235mm x 325mm), beautifully designed by Derek Birdsall and in it Deighton brings together writing by his pals on all manner of drinks and drinking. It's a magnum of good things- classic sixties photography, typography, and reminisces of drinking by the likes of George Melly and Anthony Haden-Guest (very funny). But do you know, I'd have bought it just for the dust jacket. That's Len himself in close proximation to the model Pattie Boyd (she of Smiths Crisps TV commercials and married to both George Harrison and Eric Clapton who wrote Layla about her). The caption reads 'Photograph of Len Deighton and friend by James Mortimer', and it's still got that 'wow' factor that hasn't dated. It all makes me want to knock back an Underberg and break into a blue packet of Gauloises before reading.
So here are the other five posters, in the order I executed them. Having decided on the first one that the legend 'Bread' should not be a piece of additional text but an integral part of the poster, I had to think of ideas where the same thing could happen. Which proved to be a lot of fun. The only thing that changed on the final prints was that badge on the Soda girl's t-shirt. I'm obviously so immersed in the codes of Unmitigated England that I'd always thought the phrase 'spooning' meant 'courting', mainly because my dad said it lot. When I showed the design to Only Daughter she expostulated "Daddy you can't possibly say that". We did in fact print it like this originally, but a few raised eyebrows prompted a rethink.
Fortuitously, just as I'm about to press the 'publish' button, I learn that Brucciani's have just been successful at the 2014 Tiptree World Bread Awards, winning the category 'Great British White', which I thought was a brand of whale.
If anyone's interested in a print, just get in touch via my e-mail
Last year I designed and illustrated six posters for two cafes in the centre of Leicester. They have a remarkable pedigree stretching back over 70 years, and everyone around here knows about going into Brucci's. As a spotty teenager I used to meet my dad in one at lunchtime for a cheese and pickle sandwich, and later waited in trepidation to see if a potential girlfriend would turn up. I was reminded of them again this week as I found myself in a Costa, and set to ruminating on why they think it's a good idea to have you queue to place your order and then to queue again to get your beverages. I mean, it's not Genoa is it? There I'm quite happy to pay upfront to an old lady in a glass booth, but then my cappuccino will be with me in two shakes of the chocolate sprinkler. It isn't every Costa, but if ever you're stalwart enough to brave Leicester's city centre do give a Brucciani's a go. The girl who takes your order will also very smartly prepare your request, and you'll find one in Fox Lane and one in Churchgate, both just off the Clock Tower. And if you're sitting down near to the poster above you can try and work out the puzzle picture to the right of the coffee pot.
Of course all this will seem like a shameless plug for a client, but I have to say this was one of the most pleasurable and satisfying jobs I've had to do. If you want to see the other five I might oblige, and if you want something similar for your emporiums (or anything else) then I will certainly oblige. We can talk about it over an affogato.
A beautiful autumnal morning, yesterday in Norfolk. I was very glad to turn off from the incessant traffic on the Cromer road to find two villages I hadn't seen before. Great Snoring and Little Snoring, which sound like two characters in a fairy tale. As you leave Little Snoring a bend in the lane reveals the remarkable little church of St.Andrew. Apparently it's a bit of a Norfolk mystery as to why an early Norman church was demolished so soon, and its replacement, certainly within a hundred years, built just to the north. My guess is that building at this time could be a bit hit and miss and the original church lurched with subsidence. The now detached round tower survives, and its magical red cap, again like something from a fey tale of long ago, looks like it may have been used as a dovecote. The louvered openings seem very small if they're for bells. Pevsner doesn't mention them, but then he didn't mention that you can still clearly see where the original church met the tower either.
Further down the lane is Great Snoring, a very pretty village with the church of St.Mary's. Worth visiting for the 15th century painted panels on the rood screen, defaced in the Tudor Reformation, and a superb late seventeenth century coat-of-arms towering over the inside of the south door.Near to Fakenham, near to Wells-next-the-Sea, both churches are worth the little detour.
Now this really was unexpected. I discovered it on a wall at the Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge and immediately knew what this was all about. Not that I'm given particularly to non-shrinking wool underwear, but when I was a lad I walked past the Two Steeples factory in Wigston Magna every day on my way to my junior school. The large Leicestershire village was sometimes called Wigston Two Steeples, on account of it having, well, two steepled churches: All Saints and St.Wistans, (later two of the houses at my next school), probably only half a mile apart.
But it was another memory that was stirred on seeing it. The owner of the factory lived at the top of the cul-de-sac road I lived on in Wigston Fields, in a large mid Victorian house, and every day could be seen walking very purposefully down the lane to his work. He wore heavily checked plus fours and carried a cane that he raised to us in greeting. I think he had a monocle, but this may be something I picked up from a character in the Eagle comic. Opposite my house my friend had a large yew tree in his front garden and we would perch up in its sooty branches to spy on people walking below. "Here comes Spring Heel Jack" we whispered as one poor chap strided beneath us as if on rubber springs, his head in a cloud of pipe smoke. I'm not sure what we called Mr.Plus Fours but it was either Two Steeples or The Colonel. He had a mate who used to come and visit him driving a mid blue 1920's Rolls Royce with disc wheels, the hood down and him sporting a Panama and a huge white moustache. "Here comes Mr.Pastry" we shouted to each other, and ran behind the car trying to jump up on the back. Blimey, all this from a sheet of vitreous enamelled iron advertising wool underpants. Whatever next.
I'm walking down the street having just come out of chapel. I pass the ironmongers with tin baths hanging outside and then remind myself I need a mattock like the one in the tool shop.The greengrocer waves to me as I descend the blue brick steps to a canal wharf where a pretty girl comes out from a corrugated iron hut to greet me, our conversation gently drifting from canal boat painting to other things. It's very warm, so I feel obliged to drop into the cool shadows of the public bar of the Bottle & Glass public house, where another delightful girl pulls me a pint of mild and furnishes me with a cheese and onion cob.
Have I gone to some kind of Unmitigated Heaven? In a way yes. I'm in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and I urge you to engage with the rigours of the West Midland motorway system and innumerable traffic lights and roundabouts in order to pay it a visit. You won't be disappointed.
We are perhaps all familiar with the Batsford book jackets designed by Brian Cook in the 1930s. Brightly coloured and so evocative of an era blessed with some of the best in commercial art, they have become highly collectable. But post war, Batsford needed to rationalise, and all that bother with rubber plates and transparent inks was simply too expensive, and a whole lot of trouble for those down on the printroom floor. What was needed, particularly for the British Heritage Series, was a generic cover that would do for all the titles, so that all that had to happen was the dropping in of the title onto standard cartouches.
But just look at that illustration. Everything's here that the range of titles demanded: a town, village, church, cathedral, country house, coastline, quayside, a river and a castle. Somewhere I imagine is an 'old inn of England'. It's a cappricio of everything Batsford stood for, and doubtless some of these delightful juxtapositions rubbed off on me when I did my own town prints. The artist is Philip Gough, born in 1908 and trained in Liverpool as a theatre designer, and after producing designs for the original Toad of Toad Hall in 1929 he went on to work on some twenty five theatrical productions in London. Gough had a great love for the late eighteenth century and the Regency period, and his work is perhaps very redolent of that other great artist, sadly lost in the Second World War, Rex Whistler. So now I'm looking out for more of his work. I know he did at least five covers for individual Saturday Books, and in addition to illustrating authors such as Jane Austen he worked on several books for children. Oh dear, yet another collection appears about to start. I think there's still room in the still room.
Last week I promised you the other end of the Romney Marsh, that extraordinary wedge of shingle that continuously shifts with every tide of the English Channel, the last of the Kent coast before Sussex begins near the port of Rye. A truly English enigma, every time I drive out from the comfort of the green marsh and onto Dungeness I feel that nothing's changed. And then I realise that everything has. More will have been done to one black-tarred wooden shack, less to another. The weather-beaten sign on the pub may have been altered but already be peeling, and between it all one patch of sea holly will have been replaced by another two yards away. Perhaps the only details that appear not to metamorphose in this eerie landscape are the wires and the brilliant light of a late summer afternoon.
I've written about all this on and off for years, but for the record the roof in my top picture is attached to an old Southern railway carriage, the whole appearing to be covered in bubbling black tar; the Britannia Inn is still thankfully run by Shepherd Neame (but I can't vouch for Doctor Feelgood still being on the jukebox), Mascot cottage is looking more homely but the boat at its side is still motionless but picturesque; and the Dungeness Lifeboat station looks even more like a still from a Wes Anderson film. I did think of setting the camera onto the self-timer in order to run in front of it in a grossly exaggerated manner about half way down the concrete roadway. Knowing my luck I would have tripped on the edge. Still wish I'd done it though.
It doesn't take much time on the Romney Marsh in Kent for my batteries to be re-charged, as assuredly as the ones in my cameras become discharged with every click of the shutter. Surprisingly for the time of the year it was very peaceful and quiet, winding slowly down remote lanes overshadowed by trembling white poplars and willows, sheep bleating animatedly at me every time I got out of the car. I felt utterly alone, but none the worse for that. The top photograph is of the church at Kenardington, not quite on the marsh but nevertheless winking at me continuously from its knoll above a bean field on the higher ground to the north. I think one of the reasons for my passion for these atmospheric acres is the colour palette of greens (particularly the dark) and brick reds in the houses and church roofs. The tile-hung building with the white picket fence is Hook Hall, not far from Brookland, and the beautifully isolated church is the remarkable Fairfield. Well-used as a location in Mike Newell's film of Great Expectations (2012), it was where Pip met Magwitch.
And so up off the marsh at Appledore, but not before crossing the Ashford to Hastings railway line where trains still stop at the station. And here another gratifying note was struck. Wanderers in Unmitigated England will know of my distaste for most of today's bus and train liveries, but the Southern seems to have got it just about right here for trains traversing the marsh, and indeed through the greenery of Kent and Sussex generally. My certificate of approval too for their adaptation of the original Southern Railway lettering for the train sides.
The other side of the marsh is of course Dungeness, which never fails me for one reason another. More of this shortly.
In the current Spectator, Ross Clark expounds on the loss of individualism, and the need for people (well, not us in Unmitigated England obviously) to not want to do things alone. Clark thinks that it's because since the 1980's children grew up not being allowed to run about outside on their own, climb trees or disappear into the woods unsupervised. He cites the desire now for them to stand with 200,000 others at Glastonbury, or sit two feet from half a million others on Brighton beach when you can in fact be virtually on your own just along the coast.
It's obviously also affected the sign world, or at least the highways department of Leicestershire County Council. My top picture shows the Rutland boundary sign in 1995, just over the willow-fringed Eye Brook at Stockerston. (Incidentally the front cover shot on my first little book Rutland: Much In Little.) The simple effectiveness of it has now been completely ruined by the crassness of whoever thought it was a good idea to attach the Leicestershire border sign on the back of Rutland's, even using the same posts to attach it too. Why? Particularly as Leicestershire has put another appallingly designed sign on the other side of the road. So of course the next fluorescently-clad highwaymen turn up with their signs for a pending road closure (equally badly designed) and think "Ooh, this is where signs are erected". Ignoring the fact that the closure will in fact take place a hundred yards previously at the convenient road junction, but there must have been great comfort in grouping everything together to make even more of a visual mess. Oh it's so good to have a rant. Haven't had one for ages. Not since Western Power dug up the lawn in front of Ashley Towers.
There was one thing we knew as boys. And that was that the illustration on the front of Hornby catalogues and train set boxes would usually bear no relation to the contents. But it didn't matter. It was the whole idea of steam trains that attracted us, and the fact that they were inaccurately rendered in colourfully printed tinplate meant not a jot. Back in the day we were an 'O' Gauge family, forced by circumstance to watch richer neighbours' or friends' Hornby Dublo electric trains careen around specially constructed baseboards in front parlours. No, we were strictly clockwork, and our battered cheapo 'M' series trains ran amok through hallway and kitchen, and very memorably around the garden. My brother came back from Leicester market with a huge box full of track, staggering up our cul-de-sac lane shouting "Give me a hand someone". We couldn't believe how far it stretched, right from the bottom of the garden by the empty pond, past the sentinel lupins, across the yard, round the side and front of the house until finally running out of steam at the top of the drive. Almost literally, because one winding would do the lot. I was posted by the front gate, and I can still remember the rush of pleasure as the train approached, my brother having put an apple or biscuit in a truck for me. Alone and out of sight, I would put my ear to the silvered track to hear the approaching clattering of wheels. We were so into all this we parcelled an abbreviated version with a string handle to take on our holidays to Anderby Creek on the Lincolnshire coast. Rainy days found the trains whirring around the attic of our bungalow.
You know what's coming don't you? Readers may remember the purchase of an 0 gauge level crossing three years ago. It started a slow ball rolling. Signals, bits of stations, then wagons followed by the odd carriage. But no locomotive. Until this Tuesday! The coupling took place with due ceremony, and we're almost ready to roll. Just need a 100 yard stretch of track. You see, apart from my youngest chaps, there appears to be a growing cache of grandchildren in my family, and the idea is to start services running around Ashley Towers in a similar fashion to those of, err, a long time ago. Trucks with Ribena beakers spilling over them, trucks with Lego cargos. And the inevitable, as everyone watches in fascination as a rose petal drifts gently down onto the track and the whole thing spectacularly derails and crashes into the dustbins. Beware of trains.
* 'Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!' For years I thought this line of poetry was someone remembering his train set. I couldn't figure out 'Barlow' because the only one I knew was my fellow milk monitor at school. Eventually I read the whole thing and it's about cricket: At Lord's by Francis Thompson.
Yesterday saw our annual village show, named after the next village for some still unexplained reason. I've gone on about it in blog posts passim, and you've only got to change the title of Philip Larkin's poem Show Saturday to Show Sunday and you'll know exactly what it's like: ...horse-boxes move; each crawls / Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound / For far-off farms.
This year was no different, except that I took more notice of what was going on in the main ring from my straw bale seat, rather than over-indulging myself in the hospitality tent of the show sponsors. So I know a bit more about ladies riding side-saddle, which was nice, but am still nonplussed by JCB digger formation dancing. I had a lovely chat with a bloke who had brought old tools for sale from near Bawdsey in Suffolk and who told me about playing inside Martello Towers when he was a child, but inevitably got drawn to the ranks of restored, partly restored and still wrecked old tractors. Towering over them was a vehicle used to haul timber, also from Suffolk, and I stared for a long time at the hand wrought lettering 'ticked-in' on the door. I wondered at which point the artist realised he wasn't going to get all of 'Suffolk' in before the door edge was reached. Of course he or she knew. If you draw lettering you know instinctively.
And just as inevitably I got drawn into the secondhand book tent where I nearly got into a scuffle with a pal who had, I confess, seen a C.Henry Warren book illustrated by John Aldridge before I did. But I did alight successfully on the 1920 Dairy Farming book. I had to have it just for the cover, which pleased me immensely. Although I don't doubt that I shall benefit at some time by knowing that cows calving between October and January give the highest yields. It says on page 80. I've just made it into a big A3 print and it looks even better. Perhaps I'll do the same for Mr.Cooper's red door.
Last week I had one of those moments when something occurred that hurled me back through time and space. The brass wheels and clocks finally stopped whirring at the spring of 1964. I was sixteen, and half way through my lunch one Saturday the printer father of my ex-girlfriend (my first girlfriend as it happens) pulled up outside our house in his new dark blue Humber Hawk. Diving under the stairs I was finally brought out to be asked if I'd like a trip to London. Yes please, and a couple of hours later packages of print were being off loaded from the cavernous boot somewhere in Blackheath. A short while later I was being treated to a meal in a Quality Inn near Piccadilly Circus, and on walking out into the exhaust fumes and haze of the early evening I noticed the queues growing outside the London Pavilion cinema for Tom Jones, a film that had just won four Oscars. We stopped and stared at the huge gaudy blow-ups that adorned the entrance, and my kindly 'driver' said "I've seen that. It's wonderful". I also noticed that it had an 'X' certificate (oh how we were protected!), but a week or so later I crept into the Picture House in Leicester and saw it. It was like a gun going off in my head as doors flung open. My love of buildings, the English countryside, film and photography, and much more, started in this dingy cinema late on a Saturday afternoon. It was cup final day at Wembley, and during the fight scene in the churchyard (location: Nettlecombe in Somerset) they flashed up a sign on the screen to say that West Ham had won against Preston North End, 3-2.
Last week the past collided with me. I was sent an e-mail newsletter from the London Transport Museum, and in order to advertise Sunday's cavalcade of buses down Regent Street yesterday they used a period photograph of Piccadilly Circus. It looked so much like a gaudily printed postcard I went onto ebay and much to my amazement found that it was. I'm holding the postcard in my hand now, and the reason for my excitement (doesn't take much these days) was that the London Pavilion is clearly showing Tom Jones. And on further research I discovered that it was taken by Franz Lazi and printed by the Kardorama company which had just started in Hertfordshire. The year is 1964, it's 11.30, it's a sunny day and who knows, in a couple of hours I might just be watching the speedometer on the walnut dashboard of the Humber edge up to 80 on the M1.
Now, I have a theory. I don't have them very often these days, wish I did. It's about modern housing development. We're currently hearing a lot about 'Garden Cities' (a term coined, one suspects, to make us feel better about massive development). Today some proposals may rise up challengingly before us, and it would be remarkable if they followed the same ideas and visual principles of places like Letchworth (above) and Welwyn Garden City (read about them all here) but I'm filled with foreboding. Particularly when you see the scrubby pyloned landscape around candidate Ebbsfleet in Kent, the infrastructure for a new city put in years ago with the high speed rail link. Two people discussed the idea of 'Garden Cities' on the Today programme this morning, a National Trust boss and a bloke who runs Next, and it was all about where the new 'Garden Cities' should be located. Somebody vaguely mentioned high standards and quality, but as in all these discussions nobody talks about the quality of house design itself.
Hence my theory: We'd all feel a whole lot better about housing development if the houses and the spaces in between were designed with some proper thought and care.Yes, it needs architects who can draw, but you never know.
Everybody runs about waving their arms in the air when the bulldozers start revving-up to clear the countryside for new homes, whether they're needed or not (developers and house builders will always tell you 10 million homes are needed by Christmas). And that's because of the paucity of quality in design. We all have concerns about acres of greenery being built over, but why can't the end result be something other than mediocre pastiches of past styles with eighteen inches between them and a few token shrubs? Even adding a decent height to chimney stacks and putting proper terracotta pots on them would help enormously. And I don't mean building toytowns like the one tacked on to Dorchester.
Great examples are out there to provide inspiration. The first garden suburb, Bedford Park in Chiswick, was planned around keeping as many existing trees as possible and employing people like architect Norman Shaw. And then there's the remarkable New Ash Green in Kent. Yes, that one would've looked a bit raw when it was first built, but the quality of house design, the planning of roads and cul-de-sacs and the keeping of essential trees and greenery means it has now matured into something almost unique in England. I do hope something similar starts to happen now, and not just in the new 'Garden Cities'.
People say of a good book "Ooh I just can't put it down". Well you will this one: a) to laugh out loud, b) to cry (possibly) or c) to look up words in the dictionary. This is one of those books I know I will go back to every two or three years or so, like, in my case, Three Men in a Boat and Rogue Male. Unlike these two stalwarts this is an account of a 1950s childhood spent amongst the bonkers demobbed majors and pike haunted chalk steams in and around post war Salisbury. But don't be fooled into thinking that this is just another nostalgic autobiography staring misty eyed at Golden Syrup tins and Hornby signal boxes. This is Meades Country, and I'm saying no more except it's essential reading. And I'm only half way through it. Delayed gratification you see, don't want it to end.
In my last post you will have seen the front cover for the new Shires Library book 'British Family Cars of the 1950s & 60s'. The photograph was a last minute choice after I'd seen an immaculate 1959 Morris Oxford Traveller at the 38th Nottinghamshire Classic Car, Motorcycle & MiniShow at Thoresby Hall. I fell in love with it, and on returning home quickly found myself looking for the original brochure. On receipt I was very pleased to see on the inside two gentleman loading cut flowers into the back of a model in the same colours, which I now know to be Dark Green and Island Green. What was it that appealed so much? Partly I think it was because this was the All Steel Traveller, rare I would imagine against the once numerous ash framed version that looked like an enlarged elder sister of the ubiquitous Morris Minor Traveller. But mainly I think it stirred my imagination into picturing it drawn up outside a Southern Region railway station on the Sussex / Kent borders. Early evening light reflecting off the chrome as the signal arm elevates to welcome the 5.15 from Victoria, a red setter getting excited in the back as a lady in a pink gingham blouse drums red painted nails against the steering wheel... [alright, enough of that. Ed.]
Back in the real world at Thoresby Hall my pleasure was further enhanced by my seeing a perfect contemporary picnic basket open on the back seat, cream crockery neatly strapped in against the wicker lid. As the brochure says: This new Oxford All-Steel Traveller is not only robust, colourful, and handsome, but also has line and design to make it the most accommodating and versatile multi-purpose car ever. I love that blatant and confident 'ever'.
In Unmitigated England, there are certain essential books that must appear on bookshelves, both in the home and at the local library. An assortment of Everyman Classics, a row of dog-eared Penguins, everything by Jonathan Meades and a set of Shell Guides. And quite recently a byelaw was introduced that states that everyone coming of age will receive a representative set of twenty one Shire Books. What an institution they have become. "...such gems" as Joanna Lumley has it; "...in every way delightful", Lucinda Lambton. And that's just the girls. "You won't be disappointed" joins in Jonathan Dimbleby.And they're right.Perhaps, to begin with,we remember them as quirkily typographic booklets with monotone text and illustrations, telling us about things like Whitby Jet and Roman Coins. And then, seven years or so ago they came under the direction of Nick Wright at Osprey Publishing and the Shire brand was extended, pummelled into shape and made to stand upright in a smart new livery on the Shire Spinners in countrywide bookshops. And now in glorious colour too!
And here, I suppose, I must declare a particular interest. Mr.Wright and I were taking luncheon somewhere in the Bermudan triangle that is pinned down by Daventry, Banbury and Brackley, and he suddenly said "I think I might have a job for you". The brand now having been very successfully established (and I had started to shuffle books along the Ashley Towers library shelves to make room for them) the next stage needed to be looked at, and this year will see new covers starting to spin in the bookshops. The premise is simple. Shire Books are packed with brilliant information on very particular interests, centreing around our heritage and of course quite rightly unashamed nostalgia for the past. Now was the time that the subjects of the books should be the heros. Or heroines, of course. So for the last year I have been immersed in the Shires, with new challenges set before me every day. I have stood waiting for ten seconds of sun amongst caravans in Shropshire, polished up Corgi Toys in Leicestershire, recreated the Blitz on my kitchen table and frightened myself with a garden gnome in an old radar station in Kent. Here's just a handful to be going on with, I hope you like them, I hope you will make room for them on your shelves.
I'm sad to hear of the passing of Wally Olins CBE, aged 83. Wally, along with creative hotshot Michael Wolff, were Wolff Olins, possibly the most exciting design group to be part of in the mid 70s. And although some of my contemporaries refuse to believe that it happened, I was part of it for a while. "You just happened to walk by one day and looked through the window" they say. But this isn't about me, but Wally, who taught me immeasurable truths about the business we were in. The stories are legion, but one I think typifies him for me. We had a client in the West Country, and reached the point where we needed to go and present a 'corporate identity' (as it then was) to a board of directors. Designer John Sorrell and I elected to go by an early train from Paddington, Wally said he'd drive and pick up Gerry Barney (incidentally designer of the British Rail arrows symbol) in Wimbledon. John and I arrived suitably refreshed at Newton Abbot station after a bumper breakfast (Gerry's arrows all over the restaurant car curtains) to find Wally outside casually leaning on the wing of his yellow Porsche, thumbing through an Egon Ronay guide. "I think I've found just the place for lunch chaps" he said, as we wondered how on earth he'd got there before us. Then we saw Gerry, still sitting in the passenger seat, white faced and staring ahead with a wild look in his eyes, muttering quietly to himself. Booted and suited after lunch I watched as Wally put up a 35mm slide on the projector in front of a line up of suspicious company directors. It was a silhouette of Mickey Mouse. "Who's that?" he asked. The correct answer was mumbled by most people in the room. "How do you know?" Wally barked, and what followed was one the best presentations I have ever witnessed.
I hadn't seen Wally for nearly twenty five years, but about three years ago or so I went to the David Hockney exhibition that opened Nottingham's Contemporary Art Gallery. Sitting on one of those Ottoman-style seats they put out so you can stare at pictures I was suddenly aware of a big coated big fedora'd man sitting with his back to me. It was Wally, and I quickly re-introduced myself to him. He stared at me like school teachers do who have seen countless numbers come and go under their auspices, but perked up no end when I introduced my girlfriend to him. Wherever you are Wally, thankyou.
I've probably misappropriated this image of him. It might belong to Creative Review, if it is, apologies and thanks.
On the border of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, and surprisingly near the ghastly conjoining of the M1, the M6 and the A14, is Stanford-on-Avon. Parkland trees surround the red brick Hall built in the late 17th century by Sir Roger Cave, a monument to the early aviator Percy Pilcher sits out in a field, and amongst the few houses of the village is the 14th century church of St.Nicholas. Don't do as I have done for years and just wander by, idly remarking on its imposing appearance, but get in there. Your eyes won't know where to look first, the nave and side aisles being stuffed with fabulous monuments, including an extraordinary one of 1896 to Edmund Verney. A life-size hussar in full rig steps up to place a wreath below a medallion portrait, at his side a shield and spear looking as if they were discovered like this, dropped hurriedly on the South African veldt.
Last Saturday I once again stopped under the trees outside, seeing as if for the first time this oversize mound, lit just for me it would appear, against the dark east end of the church. My first thoughts got me very excited. Could it be an ancient tumulus, a reminder that the early church respected what had gone before on this very same spot? Fleetingly I entertained the notion that it might be the resting place of a deceased circus elephant, an example of which I know exists out in a Lincolnshire park. Back home I fruitlessly scoured my Pevsner and Shell Guide, hoping for at least a clue. Nothing. So, with more time to spare on Wednesday, I made the detour to Stanford again. Closer inspection of the mound showed two iron grilles half way up, presumably set in to provide ventilation to the inside of the mound. But for what? The answer came in the simple little leaflet propped up amongst the postcards. A list headed Finally, the visitor should notice concluded: Outside the church, at the east end, is a mound covering the family vault of the Cave family, Lord Braye's ancestors. Of course it is. I assume entrance was once gained from a doorway behind the altar. I've seen vaults outside churches and amongst lesser tombs in cemeteries, but never without some sort of inscription that at the very least would stop my wild imaginings about altruistic early Christians and elephants suddenly finding themselves in the eternal Big Top.
A brief return to Faversham, one of my favourite places. In his 1969 Shell Guide to Kent Pennethorne Hughes says 'A delightful market town and small port, obviously conscious of its historical and architectural heritage, but busy and contemporary. It has no showpiece for gogglers, but any number of pleasant buildings.....[and] has various industries: grain and flour, oysters, bricks, canning and packing works for the fruit and vegetables from the country roundabout, and a pleasant and occasional smell of brewing'. It still feels as though bricks and flour should be stacked up on the quayside, and there is certainly much activity down there, but the town still has at its heart the brewer, Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewer in Britain. (Check out their Unmitigated English new bottle labels.) The town is also the setting of Arden of Faversham, a brilliant play once ascribed to both Shakespeare and Marlowe. Murder and mayhem amongst the grain sacks.
Oddly, the Shell Guide has only one Faversham photograph, by Edwin Smith, of the 1574 Guildhall perched on its timber supports. So I'm hoping the picture above of Standard Quay gives something more of both the flavour of the town and the Shell Guides sense of place, following far behind in the footsteps of Smith, John Piper et al. The big white house is, I believe, an old Customs House.
A correction to the above has arrived at Ashley Towers from a stalwart of the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre in Faversham, who tells me that the 'Customs House' I had assumed it was is, in fact, '...the home of John Matthew Goldfinch, our foremost builder of sailing
barges, who had his yard next door. His most famous barge was the eponymous
Goldfinch, launched c1894. She was sold out of British service c
1930 and sold to a sugar company in what is now Guyana. The key point is that
she crossed the Atlantic under sail, with no auxiliary.Yet she was designed
only for UK coastal waters and short trips across the Straits of Dover and
southern North Sea to ports from NE France to the Baltic.'
You know how it is. You set yourself the task of finding one thing (in this case two 1980s chutney jars, don't ask) and you find that when you've finally exited the be-mildewed outhouse your kitchen table is groaning with piles of other stuff you've found. "Well I never, fancy seeing that again. How lovely". So why was it in there in the first place? There must be name for this. I'll call it the Slawston Syndrome to be going on with. This Silveroid Stainless Steel Fountain Pen Nib display card nearly made it into Unmitigated England, so perhaps in disgust at rejection it wrote itself into the brick outhouse. But it's a very timely reappearance, as there is now serious talk of a third Unmitigated England Book. Which I can't wait to start. Perhaps I'll try using one of the non-corrodible nibs to kick-off my thoughts. After all, it says they have '3 Degrees of Point'. I've had that myself sometimes.
And so to Walsingham in Norfolk. All very odd, and I'm dyed-in-the-wool C of E. The oddest thing for me is that the Shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham is in fact Anglican. This is the Church of England so high it must have rocketed over the border into full-on Catholicism. The streets are permeated with the smell of incense and elderly spinsters in nun-style headscarves staring beatifically into the distance as they stand blocking up parking spaces. We were looking for shriney things, and quickly found a dusty shop window filled with plaster saints. My companion photographed one with an enormous £11.50 price tag round Joseph's neck, and we wandered into the Abbey grounds. Well, not exactly wandered, we had to negotiate a lady having trouble with the till who took eight pounds off us to look at snowdrops and a ruined arch.The actual Shrine place was more interesting, if very disturbing. A pale brick building that looks like a bus station in Romford hides a garden full of bricked and gilded stations of the cross and a perfect set of three crucifixes on a grassy knoll. It was with relief that we saw these cleansing fluids on a dusty window sill as we fled to Brancaster and two big plates of whitebait.
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)