Tuesday 29 April 2008

Cool Goole No 2

As I was standing balancing myself on a brick wall taking the coal hoist's picture, I noticed these apparitions in the distance. I motored around Goole trying to get a vantage point, driving down dead-end streets, doing three point turns and frightening mothers with pushchairs. My quarry remained elusive, tantalisingly just over a fence with the sun in the wrong place, or access denied by security fencing. When I finally left the town to head for the M62 I spotted this view over the rooftops of an industrial estate.

They are, of course, both water towers. But what an Odd Couple, known locally as the Salt and Pepper Pots. The Victorian red brick tower supports an iron sphere that looks like a cannon ball stuffed into the breech, or an immense sinister ball-cock. It proved inadequate for the expanding Goole population, so the simply gargantuan ferro-concrete tower was built next to it in 1926. At the time this was, unsurprisingly, the largest ever built. But it's the juxtaposition of the two towers (one could never say 'twin' of these two) that amazes. It's as if Goole said "This is where we put water towers. Always have, always will".

Cool Goole No 1

Driving up through the Isle of Axholme in pouring rain yesterday, I decided to cut my losses and make for where I thought the sun was. This turned out to be Goole in East Yorkshire, and it was raining here also. I knew nothing about this east coast port except that Auberon Waugh came here once with a BBC crew and talked to the women who drove freshly-imported Renaults from the docks to, presumably, a large car park. But on entering the town in the afternoon my eyes came out onto my cheeks like those comic ones on springs when I saw this structure towering over the docks. I stared at it for ten minutes, hoping for at least a ray of sunshine to illuminate it for its portrait. I was rewarded by a single patch of blue approaching from the west, and here it is. So. It's a coal hoist, built some time between 1880-1910, and once bodily lifted 'Tom Pudding' compartment boats into the air so that the contents could be deposited into freighters. It was one of five, but, wait for it, this one was able to be floated to wherever it was wanted. It's screwed down now, Grade II Listed and a roost for at least two hundred pigeons. The little iron lighthouse was the control room. Thankyou to the Yorkshire Waterways Museum who were so patient and kind to an excitable man first thing this morning. Oh, and one more thing. When I put Goole Port into Google, it very quickly gave up and gave me 'Google' and 'port' instead.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Rust Never Sleeps

Now. Between you, me and the lichen-covered gatepost, I have been busily putting together a portfolio of pictures that demonstrate John Piper's maxim 'Pleasing Decay'. I keep showing them to my publisher who just stares at me and then out of the window. He won't read this (he thinks blog is the name of a spaniel) so if any other bookmakers fancy a punt I'll slip an example under the door in a plain brown envelope under the pseudonym Maurice Mildew. The idea is to record things (derelict corrugated iron barns, rusty signs, discarded farm machinery) that are simply disappearing, not through any overtly planned destruction, but rather by a gentle and innocent neglect that gives them an uncertain beauty. So no to burnt-out hatchbacks, yes to abandoned horse boxes with trees growing out the roofs. Which brings me to Church Lane. Leicester cares for its cast-iron street signs (I've seen blokes up ladders painting them) and it won't be long before this example gets the once-over. It's on a wall in Knighton next to the eyecatching Queen Anne-style gate lodge to the hall. But on closer inspection I noticed that the rust on the sign is an exact match for the colour of the brickwork. How does this happen? Is it that I saw it at the precise moment in time that the deepening rust matched, and next month it won't? There's got to be an obvious answer that I can't see. And it isn't that the wall and sign have all been painted from the same tin. The brick is brick. Oh, pass me a beaker of WD40.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Village of Mystery

I think there's another world going on locally that I know nothing about. It started with my friend Philip (he of the English Buildings blog) spotting the 'Road Closed' sign in my neighbouring village of Hallaton on his recent visit. It's been positioned at the top of a very green footpath that descends from a narrow alleyway between houses to the Easter Monday Bottle-Kicking stream (which perhaps explains its presence). Funnily enough, the footpath also connects my cottage with my nearest pub. And then I drove through the same village yesterday and saw this yellow sign in a farmyard. What's going on? Cosi fan hutte? It reminded me of other delightful AA signs giving directions to unlikely venues- 'Wuthering Heights' by a dense wood in a particularly flat part of East Suffolk, 'The Host of Angels' propped up against a signpost pointing to Apethorpe in Northamptonshire. The opera sign is opposite a yard where a man used to maintain mobile banks, the sort trundled out at agricultural shows, so I've been used to seeing the Lloyd's black horse peering over the wall. It's all so apparently casual and accidental, and of course very English. Happy St.George's Day.

Monday 21 April 2008

Spring is Sprung

A few minutes ago I went out onto the lawns of Ashley Towers with the intention of dragging the lawnmower out for the first cut of the season. Finding that I had syphoned all the unleaded petrol out of its tank for either a Molotov Cocktail or, perhaps more likely, to ensure that the car didn't splutter embarrassingly to a halt twenty yards from my door, I then spotted this little patch of daisies amongst the long blades of grass. Richard Mabey, in his wonderful Flora Britannica, reminds us 'that there is a saying that spring has not arrived until you can cover three, or nine, or a dozen daisy flowers with your foot'. On this reckoning spring has certainly arrived here, although you wouldn't have thought so yesterday with a day as raw as November. The name apparently comes from 'Day's Eye' after it's habit of closing up at night, as Chaucer had it 'Well by reason men it call maie / The Daisie, or else the Eye of the Daie'. After all that I think I might run the mower round them. Or sit out there making a Daisy Chain, but I think after my photography session I've had enough suspicious glances from my neighbours seeing me yet again prostrate on my lawn.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Green Credentials

"You might like to look at these", said my Neighbour Who Knows What I Like, holding out a heavy carrier bag. "But you're not to start another collection and when you've finished with them you can get them down to the charity shop". I closed the door, took one look inside and starting building another set of shelves in the Library Wing. I already had a small collection of 1950's editions, with plain over-sized green covers and illustrations by countrymen like John Nash. I love them as much for the ads for Atco Autoscythes and Cremona Assorted Toffees as for the editorial content on everything from redstarts on window-sills to the vegetation on British Railways' embankments. They were once as at home in a rural kitchen as a Rayburn and a gingham table cloth.

Founded in 1927 by J.W.Robertson Scott in the manor at Idbury in the Cotswolds (telephone Shipton-under-Wychwood 226), it was an immediate success, and although the offices have now moved from the comfortable-sounding Sheep Street in Burford to Skipton in Yorkshire, it sells 80,000 copies every month to countrymen all over the world. I think it's sad that the cover design is now a full-bleed colour photograph just like everyone else on the magazine rack, and that it was deemed necessary to lose the trademark green panels, but we now need The Countryman putting his feet up in our kitchens more than ever. Oh, I've just spotted an advertisement for Pick Knitwear with a drawing by Edward Ardizzone. Whatever else happens, this one's not going to Age Concern.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Bates Blog

I can't believe I've done all this blogging and not gone on about H.E.Bates. Many will know of him through the adaptations his son filmed of the Larkin novels (as pictured here) starring David Jason, and indeed it is on these books that his fame mostly rests. But Bates is much, much more than this, and is well worth tracking down. I continually go back to his writing, particularly the short stories and novellas, and as a start I would thoroughly recommend The Lighthouse (from Colonel Julian 1951) and The Grass God (from The Nature of Love 1953). H.E.Bates was born in Rushden in 1905 and many of his early stories are set around this Northamptonshire boot and shoe town, and in the neighbouring Ouse Valley. As his work sold he moved to Kent, and it is here that his English war and post-war stories are mainly located. His economic style is perfectly suited to his bucolic story-telling of Hardyesque figures in the landscape, although I think the sun shines more in Bates' Kent than in Hardy's Wessex. I first came across him when many of the stories were televised in the early 70s in a series called Country Matters, but I must confess my interest heightened greatly when my uncle (who knew Bates in his newspaper days) complained to me that the novelist seemed inappropriately obsessed with girls' breasts. I think I ran all the way to the bookshop.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Doing Porridge

Looking at this iconic piece of branding smiling away in my 'pantry' this morning, I was reminded of a bizarre manifestation of the Quaker man that took place in the 1970s. But first I have to justify the appearance of an American brand on these pages. And I can't, other than to say that his friendly face has stared out at me over English breakfast tables for some time. He is, of course, nothing to do with Quakers. In fact those who gather in Friends' Meeting Houses are known to still suffer in silence over the use of the image. Although it is often attempted to give Quaker Oats (what a straightforward name for a cereal. So much better than 'Oh So Oatsy' or 'Golden Grahams') a Pennsylvanian heritage, the truth is that the name was chosen simply for its connotations of 'integrity, honesty and purity'. The painting of the Quaker was executed by Haddon Sundblom in 1957, and thankfully has not yet been superceded by the stylised corporate Quaker designed by movie title designer Saul Bass in 1971. Or, indeed, had to suffer the indignity he endured for an on-pack promotion thirty or so years ago. The offer was for a discounted anorak (seriously) and somebody thought it a wizard wheeze to dress the Quaker up in it and put a speech bubble from him saying "Two quid less than thou'dst pay in a shop". It must have been enough to make a Quaker tap-dance noisily across the parquet floor of a Meeting House.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Concrete Evidence

Company dwellings have always held a particular fascination for me. It started with Gillian Darley's seminal work Villages of Vision, with the cover of my edition being by the afore-blogged Tony Meeuwissen. It has sent me on a trail that has included the vast but altruistic endeavours of industrialists at Port Sunlight and Bournville, new villages built away from the sightlines of Dukes like Edensor at Chatsworth, and the more informal estate cottages with identical paintwork as seen in Buckminster, Leicestershire. Here in Rutland are a row of bungalows built in 1930 for the families of workers employed at the Ketton Cement Works next door. Although row is not quite right. They are in fact built on a gentle curve, and called The Crescent. Each one differs slightly from its neighbour, and they are constructed with concrete blocks made at the works. "Cool in summer, cold in the winter" a lady occupant told me, her bulldog straining at its leash. Time appears to have stood still here, but they don't get the attention they deserve when Ketton itself is stuffed-full of classic limestone buildings. The cement works still sends out billows of white cloud, (at one time this was, and probably still is, the only industrial chimney in Rutland), but instead of the once ubiquitous lemon yellow Ketton tankers they are now Castle Cement juggernauts.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Pointing to The Past

More letters from the country. These old signs are the very last vestiges of a simple direction system that pointed the right way with characterful style. Screw-on letters were once the preserve of rural signposts, black on dazzling white at crossroads and junctions, white on green for footpaths. We once carefully spaced them out on our garden gates or selected just a set of numbers for the front door. Who can forget Ronnie Barker trying to buy a couple of 'O's' from Mr.Corbett the ironmonger? Out in Rutland they still send out men on summer days to re-paint the signposts, and apparently there's still a chap in Leicester who turns out the metal letters for them. I hope he does it with a Woodbine hanging on his lower lip. Now it's all to often computer-generated on reflective material. And of course the letters peel off. One near me has lost an 'n' so that it now reads 'Sha gton' which has a curiously appropriate ring to it. So look out for these signs, leaning like an old village codger pointing out the way with a knarled stick. All too soon the soulless clinical sign with a long distance footpath name made-up in a council office, reassuring the SatNav Rambler of the way downhill. Or in these days of not wanting to offend anyone who can't speak English, just a silhouette of a trainer sole.

Monday 7 April 2008

Watch Out!

This sign appears just before a bend in the village of Cottingham in Northamptonshire. From what I could see it's not a particularly dangerous bend (there are far worse ones round here without any warning), and I could only think that maybe something horrendous had happened here that still reveberates in the local community. The reason I show it is that it was such a refreshing change to see an actual word writ large on a road sign that wasn't flashing digitally or pretending I didn't know a word of English. The letter style and colour reminded me of something British Railways might have put up in a goods yard to stop you walking round the back of a Scammell parcels truck, and of course that irrisistible combination certainly stopped me in my tracks. It also brought to mind a lane in Upper Brailles in Warwickshire, called, in cast-iron: 'Caution Corner'. It was bemusingly next to a funeral director's, and when I put it in my record of such things- Pastoral Peculiars- Richard Mabey said in his preface: " ...a litany of place names captures the bizarre, heartening chaos of it all. Caution Corner! What happened there?". Perhaps this sign was erected by local residents (there's something non-Ministry of Transport about it) but it's a well-executed one, and so much better than a speed bump or a tawdry flourescent poster metaphorically waving a parish clerk's finger at you. And I love the ivy climbing up the pole.

Friday 4 April 2008

Action Stations

I can't keep away from Len Deighton for long. You will all know him as a thriller writer, but lesser known is his superb expertise as a cook, and indeed as a designer. Deighton contributed a weekly Cookstrip (his word for the comic strip style of presentation) in The Observer from 18 March 1962 until August 1966, and they were so popular with readers that they demanded them as teatowels and wallpaper. The style is very compelling, and when staring at a lump of meat and wondering what to do with it I will always see what Deighton has to say. At least he keeps it simple, as he says "Why write the word 'egg' when a simple oval drawing tells the story?". Sharp-eyed afficianados will have noticed a selection of strips pinned to Michael Caine's kitchen wall for an early scene in the film of Deighton's The Ipcress File, cleverly added-to later on. When Caine prepares a meal he hopes will be enjoyed by Sue Lloyd, he appears to break two eggs into a bowl with one hand. But the actor struggled to do it, and Deighton, who was on set, offered to help. So it's the be-spectacled master cook's hand that is seen in the film, and in the year of its release the Cookstrips were gathered together in Action Cookbook. Now, what does he say about corned beef...

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Off Duty

East Norton is a tiny village in east Leicestershire, the last as one drives out to the Rutland border on the A47. The road once wound dangerously through the actual village; now all is peace and relative quiet. This brick Police House with its lozenge windows was the first of two, built in the1850s and used for duties until 1949 when Police Sergeant Goldstone locked the door and marched briskly across the road to his new home. How reassuring it must have been to have a policeman on your doorstep, someone local and in touch with the community, so that rural crime- poaching, tractor rustling and thefts of udder cream- could not only be reported without talking to a call-centre, but also acted on decisively. Now it's down to Neighbourhood Watch and Crimestoppers, and the efforts of a single 'Agricultural & Wildlife Officer' (watch out those naughty badgers) who appears to have the vast tracts of all south Leicestershire for his beat. If you've got the best part of half a million quid handy, this Police House is currently up for sale. It's only got three bedrooms, but at least you could exact family justice from the courtroom that is still extant. When I showed this picture to my ten year-old he immediately came up with the title for the blog, so delaying his pending night in the cells for a couple of days..

Railway Echo No 7

The Great Central Railway (GCR) was the last main line to be built, from Annesley in Nottinghamshire to Quainton Road in Bucks. Opened in 1899, it connected the northern railways of chairman Sir Edward Watkin with a joint line developed with the Metroplitan Railway into London. Watkin's dream was for a fast route across the Pennines, the Midlands and the capital to a Channel tunnel and on to Paris. The GCR ran out of steam in Marylebone, a tiny station by comparison with other London termini, and in no longer than seventy years the fast 'London Extension' across Midland acres had gone.
The GCR crossed high above the historical heart of Leicester on a succession of viaducts, much of which still remain. The most impressive straddles Braunstone Gate, a magnificent bowstring lattice girder leviathan. So of course this is the one the apparently culturally-bereft De Montfort University want to destroy so that students have more room to run, jump, swim, play netball.Also hanging-on further up the line are the remaining fragments of the GCR station in purply-orange brick and cream terracotta, including this evocative sign for the Parcels Offices. I travelled on this line in the 1960s, and never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought that one day it could all disappear. And certainly not that what was left of an engineering marvel like this bridge would be erased from the townscape. Come on Leicester, take a look at the De Montfort's current buildings and decide which you'd rather have.