Last week I tipped up at one of my favourite railway stations, Cromford in Derbyshire. It simply reeks with atmosphere, reached up a quiet lane and positioned immediately before a tunnel entrance.The only sound was an approaching East Midland train making its way up to Matlock from Derby, and once its diesel throb had been lost in the maw of the tunnel silence descended once again. Built around 1860 for the Midland Railway, there is more than a splash of elegance about it. Quite possibly it was designed by G.H.Stokes, an assistant to Joseph Paxton who transformed Chatsworth's gardens and designed the 1851 Crystal Palace.
The main building is the usual Midland staple with stone walls and painted valances, but over the classic latticed footbridge is a remarkable waiting room with diamond paned windows, a steeply pitched roof and a gabled steeple of a turret. Probably the result of a French building Stokes had seen on the Continent. Certainly the house up above is like a mini chateau, and even more amazingly this was the station master's house. Oh how times have changed; the Acme Thunderer whistle blew long ago for such things, even on station masters. But perhaps we may occasionally see a steam locomotive rumble loudly into view from the tunnel, as in the 1910 photograph above.
Back in 1995 the location was used for the cover of the Oasis single 'Some Might Say', the first of their output to be top of the Hit Parade for them. They were booked to shoot the video for it here but Liam didn't turn up so it never happened. (That's him on the footbridge.) Both 'chateau' and waiting room (actually two rooms, one for women, one for men) have been very sensitively restored and the latter is available as a self-catering holiday let. Do guests wake in the night and look out through a diamond pane to see an indistinct figure waving a lantern on the footbridge and crying out sepulchrally "Look out below!".
First, a very heartfelt thank you to all those who flew in on Friday night to help me bring English Allsorts out to an unsuspecting public. It was so good to see old friends and indeed make new ones. Thank you all, particularly to Beverley and Chris at Quinns who made it happen and who so uncomplainingly tidied up after us.
And so to Sunday night, and The Secret History of the British Garden. What a relief to see a beautifully put together programme presented by someone who actually knew what they were talking about. Not a Stephen Fry or Sue Perkins to be seen, just the calming and knowledgeable presence of Monty Don and other real experts. Concentrating this week on the seventeenth century, Monty very soon turned his Land Rover into the lane leading up to the remarkable Lyveden New Bield in East Northamptonshire. This garden pavilion isn't a ruin, but a building that was never completed. Recusant Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham intended it to be an expression of his faith with mathematical codes and devices, but on his death in 1605, and after his son was well and truly implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, the workmen downed tools and melted away into the surrounding woodland.
Lyveden was virtually our neighbour when we lived down the road, and we continually came up here for family birthday parties or just to sit and contemplate. Very memorably I drove the venerated old school gamekeeper Harry Churchill around the surrounding acres in a Land Rover to watch a pheasant shoot in cold snowy weather. A rare treat. So it all came back to me last night as Monty talked to Mark 'Chopper' Bradshaw, a property manager for the National Trust who in our time was the custodian. He recalled a Luftwaffe photograph of the area coming to light that, with the right light and time of the year, revealed the circles of a lost labyrinth.
Of course Lyveden New Bield had to feature on one of our Christmas cards from that time (top), and the aerial view was perfect for a record card I did for the local shoot (above). It's worth a visit at any time, and if you do, remember this: In the Civil War a Major Butler was here and told his men to cut off the wooden floor beams that were still extant, and take them down to Oundle where he was building a house. Copthorne House on the High Street is a very rare example of Commonwealth architecture, but more remarkable is the fact that the time and weather shrunken remains of the original timbers can still be seen in their holes in the walls of the New Bield. (The Old Bield is the house down on the lane below that runs from near Oundle to Brigstock.)
On my way to my junior school I would pass a pub (don't do that now) where a black glass plaque on the wall by the door had gilt letters on it that said Mitchells & Butlers. And an evocatively coloured painting of a stag leaping over a chasm. I stood there and wondered. Did the stag make it? Or was it just a crucial couple of feet short? Somehow I found it a slightly disturbing image, one that I put into a mental box that included the chimney sweep's brush popping-up out of a pot and shaking itself free of soot against a very early morning sky.
Yet another rummage produced this label a few days ago. Mitchells & Butlers appear now to be a pub business that manages places like All Bar One, but back in the day they were a frequent presence in Leicester and its environs. Indeed in the late sixties and seventies we were continually regaled with the fact that M&B's Brew XI was brewed for the Men of The Midlands. I never drank it, mainly because, like Watney's Red, it was said to be of such low strength it could legally be sold to children. (I wait to be disabused of this notion.) My researchs tell me that a park called Deer's Leap two and a half miles from Birmingham city centre gave its name in support of the brewery not far away.
I find this puzzling. Even a hundred years ago I can't imagine a deer leaping anywhere near the centre of Brum, and I'd always thought that it was part of some Exmoor legend concerning a stag leaping over a ravine during a pursuit by hounds. I have heard of stags escaping into the sea along the rugged coastline here, so it makes it all the more difficult to imagine the scene depicted on this fabulous label being in Birmingham. Or perhaps it's all just fancy anyway.
Perhaps we could argue about it in Quinn's bookshop in Market Harborough this Friday night over a glass of wine as we toast the arrival of English Allsorts (6-8pm)
This is extraordinary. Colour film of London shot by the amazingly prescient Claude Friese-Greene in 1927. CF-G struggled to get his Biocolour system adopted, but produced over 60 films including The Open Road, a trip from Land's End to John O'Groats, and this superb example here, restored by the British Film Institute in 2005. More can be learnt from The Magic Box, (1951), a film made for the Festival of Britain, a biopic of Friese-Greene starring Robert Donat.
Five years ago I found myself in The Bull's Head in Craswall, on the Welsh Borders in Herefordshire. I was very taken by these two pictures on the wall of one of the rooms, snapping them in passing. Two years ago I found myself there again, but the pub had changed hands and the pictures had gone. On asking about them I was met by blank stares, but that happens increasingly these days.
Today they suddenly came to my attention again as I searched for something else. And I find I like them even more. Both were in beautiful black frames that looked late Victorian, but the paintings I imagine are later. Closer inspection revealed them to have been very neatly signed in red paint by an NWJ Smith. But I can find out nothing about the artist, not even if it's a woman or man. Can anybody out there help?
John Turner looked more carefully at the signature than I did, and saw that it is indeed 'Smyth' not 'Smith'. So that helped enormously, and he found Norman Smyth on the intraweb, an Irish painter who, it seems, is still at it. Thankyou John for your diligence.
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)