Sunday, 23 September 2007

Lighting-up Time

Recent events in my life have made me think about taking up the smoking arts once again. I've forgotten exactly when it was I threw the last empty Marlboro packet in the fire, but it's within a timeframe that means that I'm still hesitating as I buy a paper and see the ranks of cardboard boxes whispering at me 'Go on. The odd one won't do any harm'. Of course it would, which is why I gave up in the first place. Not because of hectoring Government advice, the Tobacco Police or being patronised by ASH. And certainly not because of the heinous demands that have been forced on a totally legal product in terms of on-pack health warnings and lurid pictures of strangers' diseased offal. I almost lit up again on the 1st July when smoking was banned in pubs, another bullying directive based on extremely suspect science. But if I do succumb (and I hope I don't) then I want it to be a totally subversive activity. Putting untipped cigarettes into one of my collection of empties, (Gold Flake or Capstan Full Strength favoured) driving at night to an isolated country church and exhaling blue smoke out amongst the branches of a graveyard yew. Just to make some obscure point.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Going Mad in Bedfordshire

Wandering down Bedfordshire lanes one day I glanced through a gap in the trees and saw this building catching the intermittent late afternoon light. It's Hinwick House, built in 1709-14 for Richard Orlebar. But I only knew this when I got home and looked it up in Pevsner. As I stood on the grass verge waiting for just that moment when the house would be isolated in a shaft of sunlight, I had a very eerie feeling that I was somehow photographing the past. I've been in a number of places where this has happened, doubtless fuelled by an over-active imagination. Here perhaps was a real-life dust jacket image for a re-issue of L.P.Hartley's The Go-Between, or for H.E. Bates The Distant Horns of Summer. Deer moving slowly through long grass, the unsettling choking cry of a pheasant in woodland margins. Or maybe it's just the first signs of the onset of madness. I blame those white window shutters on the ground floor, fastened against the sun.

Beach Life No.1

So we come to the end of summer. Buckets and spades hung up in the beach hut, the Primus stove put back on the garage shelf as autumn winds sigh through the marram grass. I love the make-do-and-mend atmosphere of beach architecture, the vulnerability, the feeling that it might just not be there anymore when we return next year. I think this is because the bungalow we stayed in at Anderby Creek in Lincolnshire ended up on the front page of the Daily Sketch in 1953, leaning over a sand dune like a nervous diver about to plunge into the sea, a casualty of the East Coast floods (albeit a survivor). Here in Old Hunstanton the sea gives back more than it takes. The original coastline was right back where the pines silhouette the skyline in their truly North Norfolk fashion, and successive rows of beach huts mark the progression of subsequent shores. The next line of defence can be seen in the dunes building up in front of the latest huts.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Pythouse Straw Girl

The Pythouse estate is situated in that curious (even slightly spooky) countryside that sits in a green triangle between Wilton and Mere, in Wiltshire, and Shaftesbury in Dorset. The odd one-eyed town of Tisbury is at the centre and down increasingly narrow lanes you'll also find Old Wardour Castle. But I got waylaid at Pythouse where I got distracted by a ruined gothick chapel and dovecote in the woods. The grounds here are private, but I sort of got 'permission' to have a quick look. On my way back to my car from the woods I spied this ghostly white figure through the trees, standing in an enclosed cottage garden. But what really struck me was the dress. So Victorian, (or maybe so Laura Ashley), here was a latterday Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day and condemned to sightlessly rebuke the birds in a lonely clearing in Wiltshire woods.

Magic Numbers

I can never drive past King's Lynn in Norfolk without turning off and having a look around the quayside. All spruced up now, it's basically a car park overlooked by one of the finest seventeenth century buildings in the country- the Customs House. Wandering about in West Norfolk yesterday I thought I'd see it all from a different perspective, so I went down onto the opposite bank of the Ouse at West Lynn. Before I found a way to the shore via a recreation ground I found myself in a cul-de-sac, and confronted by this iron gate. Looking like the entrance to a vanished football ground I can only imagine it once led onto a defunct dock. On each gate pier was a letter in the same style, 'D' and 'C', so I suppose there's another entrance nearby, probably now under a housing estate. Actually, it does look very footbally. But whatever it is, my friends who manage to get to their sixtieth birthdays in a couple of year's time at least know what to expect on their greetings cards.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Railway Echo No.3

Amidst all the railway franchise changes in our meaningless 'customer service' culture, it's good to see a reminder of when it was all very different. This is Eridge station, on the branch line to Uckfield in East Sussex and opened in August 1868. One half of the station has been restored to its Southern Railway livery, as once seen from 1923 to 1948. Cream weatherboarding, green detailing on doors and window frames and what is apparently a reproduction Southern enamel 'target' station sign made by a member of the nearby Spa Valley Railway. The platform canopy is supported by ornamented cast-iron columns, and once served the branch that lead off to Tunbridge Wells West station from where the SVR now run steam trains through High Rocks and Groombridge. There is currently much fundraising going on so that they can run their trains into Eridge once more. Another positive note is that the new 'Southern', whose trains run through on the other platform, have invested in decently-designed signs and an evocative logo. So all is not completely lost.

Spiritual Fire

There is much to be enjoyed in the church at North Cerney, tucked-up against trees above the Cheltenham to Cirencester road. A pulpit bowl hewn from a single block of stone, a 1929 reading desk made of panels from a sixteenth century box pew and a colourful organ case painted like one you'd find in a steam-driven fairground. And then you peep into a little room at the west end and see rows of jugs for flowers on a shelf, and this fire extinguisher. Stalwart of village halls and schoolrooms, I've always loved the idea of these red megaphones, wondering what it would be like if you followed the instructions and hammered it upside down on the floor. I suppose there is more sophisticated firefighting equipment these days, but surely none as gloriously-lettered as this Minimax Model 4AW.