Friday, 30 January 2009

Norfolk Nuances

Out across Norfolk to try on some trousers in Holt, and thence to Wells-next-the-Sea to eat fish 'n' chips in that place that gets around VAT by not giving you a plate or cutlery to eat them with. Norfolk is full of surprises, and on a day like yesterday the low bright winter light pinpointed many things for me. Bayfield Hall sits above the River Glaven between Letheringsett and Glandford, an Elizabethan house with an 18th century frontage sharing the landscape with the ruined church of St.Margaret's. The sort of scene that would've got John Piper's paint brushes working overtime. And then I saw the pale brick entrance piers on the driveway, and this rusty fastening on the open gate. That's what I love about the county. Telling detail in the shadow of trees one minute, bleak atmospheric visions the next. The wooden landing stages mark the course of a creek winding through from Brancaster Bay to tiny Thornham. Treacherous marsh intersected by gurgling channels hiding their deep sucking mud from the unwary, and all the time the incessant cry of a curlew settling down for the night. Listen to their haunting cry here; so essential to any unfolding drama on the wireless that's set on these lonely wind-buffeted margins.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Railway Echo No 11

Unmitigated blogs passim have frequently explored the peeling paint impotence of abandoned railway rolling stock. Some are known to have had the indignity of travelling their last miles on the back of a low-loader, and in south east Leicestershire there are enough phantom wagons leaning against hedges to make up a sizeable freight train. Many others, however, don't appear to have strayed very far from where they made their last creeking journeys. The Dungeness Peninsular is famed for old carriages gradually metamorphosing into respectable shacks, many towed here in the 1920's from the Southern Railway (who used the shingle as track ballast all over the south). Others were brought here in the 50s to serve as homes for the constructors of the nuclear power station. But this pale ghost is slightly off piste, within yards of the little branch line that ran from Rye down to Rye Harbour. Opened in 1854 the track was only ever used for freight, mainly for bringing flints from Dungeness to a neighbouring oil firm and chemical works. By 1955 it was almost derelict, but traces of its passage can still be seen. This carriage never became the long-corridored backbone of a larger dwelling, and when I first photographed it there were lacy net curtains at the windows. I must bow to more local knowledge to tell me if it's actually still here.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Sunday Wobble

I don't think I've had much to do with jelly making since my mother waved a dark green box of Rowntree's at me, the one with the picture of a big pile of fruit on it, and allowed me to separate out the gorgeously malleable cubes of jelly and stir in the boiling water. Equally it could have been Melba's Jelly, Viota Jelly Crystals (with the empty box designed to be an alphabet cube afterwards) and of course Chivers, the same as on my Dinky Trojan Van. But Rowntree's was the one I remember, another much-loved classic name now slowly disappearing from our pantry shelves. I don't know what prompted the bout of jelly making this morning- someone eating it on television I expect or more probably an airbrushed ad. in a 1950's Good Housekeeping magazine. Of course I've hung about for weeks trying to buy a metal mould, copper preferably, but could only find plastic, and none in the traditional almost architectural and archetypal shape so necessary for the Unmitigated Dessert. Then the Mother of My Children took pity and said "Oh for goodness sake" and brought round a carrier bag full of metal moulds. Youngest Son separated the Hartley's Jelly cubes (not sure if a raspberry had actually taken part in their manufacture) and stirred in the boiling water, gently carrying his own little rabbit mould to the 'fridge. What should also be heartening for Hartley's is just how quickly their bright pink box was incorporated into the castle being built in the living room.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Creature Feature No 4

I woke up at four this morning. Very dark, very cold. So I made coffee and scurried back to bed with Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, the wonderful book by the late Roger Deakin that is now the third book of a superb trilogy that includes Waterlog and Wildwood. And I read:
The naturalness of an unnatural product. The great chrome Jaguar over the entrance to Marshall's garage showroom opposite the airfield at Cambridge. The early motor car names were all about grace and speed: Swallow, Jaguar, Alvis Silver Eagle, Singer Gazelle, Humber Super Snipe (Reliant Robin or Reliant Scimitar, you take your choice).
I exclaimed "I know that Jaguar! I've got a photograph of the very one!" (It's amazing what'll get you going in the cold, dark, early hours.) So obviously feeling very smug and self satisfied I fell asleep immediately.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Apocalyptic Golden Syrup

I have to be very careful about this one. If I start recommending Wolf Solent (1929) by John Cowper Powys, I run the risk of people pushing its burnt ashes through my letterbox. I've never known such divided opinion over reading matter. One girlfriend said she didn't want it to end, another threw her copy at me and told me never to waste her time with him again. But she still persevered to the end, and has subsequently told me she thinks it's a Bloke Book. The Penguin blurb on my Modern Classics copy (with its wonderfully appropriate John Nash painting on the cover) says that Wolf Solent has been 'described as one of the few great apocalyptic novels of our time' and the Spectator said it was 'A stupendous and rather glorious beautiful and strange as an electric storm'.. What's it all about? Well, a young man returns to Dorset after ten years in London and works as a literary assistant not far from the school where his father had been the History Master. Its narrative is sometimes overwhelming, but underneath it all is a sense of unease that starts you thinking 'I've seen / heard / felt / experienced that somewhere'. And he mentions a Lyle's Golden Syrup can. But although it was written in the USA, it is a very, very English novel. An Unmitigated English novel in fact. Here's just a little taste:

He loved the muslin curtains over the parlour-windows, and the ferns and flower-pots on the window-sills. He loved the quaint names of these little toy houses- names like Rosecot, Woodbine, Bankside, Primrose Villa. He tried to fancy what it would be like to sit in the bow-window of any one of these, drinking tea and eating bread-and-honey, while the spring afternoon slowly darkened towards twilight.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Sirens, Deightons & Mustard Gas

Sometimes I amuse myself by making notes for a book comprised of photographs of all the buildings I've lived, learnt and worked in. And then I stop because so many are uninteresting and there are obvious gaps where stuff has been pulled down. Like one of my C of E schools, even though it was designed by the Goddards of Leicester. But the location of my very first job is still remarkably as when I cycled nervously up to it in the mid 1960's. This is the Southfields Library in Leicester, known affectionately as the Pork Pie Library. It sits on a road junction between two vast housing estates and was designed in 1939 by Symington, Prince & Pike. Looking like a London Underground station, the plans could very well have been influenced by Charles Holden's design for Arnos Grove. I like it so much I photograph it nearly every time I go by, if the light's as good as it was yesterday. So many memories are locked behind the brick and glass. Here I not only rubber-stamped books, but also discovered playwright Joe Orton's old library ticket (with 'default' stamped on it), Len Deighton books and an old man coughing his lungs up in the reading room because he'd been gassed in the First World War. I also got to work the wartime siren on the roof for practice alerts (there was a nuclear attack warning device in the cellar), ate a bar of Bournville Chocolate with my morning coffee and read the very first copy of The Sun newspaper. All this for £7 a week and the chance to chat up the girl assistants on the evening shift.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Compartment Art

Some years ago I took these quick snaps of the pictures on the wall of a Southern Railway carriage on the Bluebell Line. They are both by Adrian Allinson (1890-1959), who produced posters for the GWR, SR and BR. The top picture is entitled 'Cornish Vale', painted sometime between 1945-8, the bottom one is called 'East Devon'. Both are in the soft medium of pastels. I know all this because of Greg Norden's book Landscapes Under The Luggage Rack, probably one of the most heartwarming and enjoyable books on this kind of thing in recent years. The subject of carriage prints is yet another timely reminder of just how brilliant a train journey could be, and I promise I won't go on again about how we're treated so appallingly by today's franchisees, ripping off everybody with criminal fare structures and red hot microwaved sausage buns. We won't see the likes of these gentle pictures in carriages again. We won't even see compartments again because we must be protected from the rapists and murderers that are on every train. But at least we can still trundle up and down the Bluebell Line, our Globetrotter suitcase on the string rack above us, our newspaper illuminated at the click of the switch underneath the little shaded lamp. (Pulls down blind, falls asleep with mouth open.)

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Rust Never Sleeps

After photographing a pair of rusty cast iron gravestones in a Northamptonshire churchyard, I poked my nose over the wall and was confronted by this. Scrapyards are usually very oily places with precariously stacked-up vehicles- Morris Marinas at the bottom, Lancia Deltas at the top- and boiler-suited men trying to restrain slavering Alsatians. But here is the scrapyard that even time forgot, the bucolic answer to North Circular razor wire and covert car crushing. Commentator Diplomat confirms that this is a Bedford A3, c1955. Even without its nearside wing the shape is so seductive, so reminiscent of its American GM counterparts. You won't see many around now, but diecast afficianados will perhaps remember its cab and chassis put to use as a Pallet-Jekta Van (No.930), with the Dinky Toys logo on the side and a winding handle that chucked pallets out the back. And something else I've just learnt. How many of us thought that these trucks were given the name Bedford because they were made in Bedfordshire? Not so apparently. It comes from Bedford Motors in London, who first imported Buicks in 1910. Now I wait for someone to tell me that Luton vans were made in Tamworth.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Blackpool Balloons

I feel a bit of a transport fest coming on. Trawling through some of last year's photographs I came across this Blackpool tram. I was up there to photograph the Tower for what will be Built for Britain, due to be published in June, and whilst tucking into a large cod 'n' chips in Harry Ramsden's I kept noticing the trams humming by on the promenade. Many of them were in unspeakable liveries, as you might imagine, but every now and then a good old original careened up to tram stop. I think the only thing I knew about the trams was that a character in Coronation Street was run over by one, so I positioned myself carefully to get this shot of what I hope is a 1934 Balloon Car in its original colours. The rails extend from Starr Gate in Blackpool to the ferry terminal at Fleetwood, mostly running up the Fylde coast, and on its opening in September 1885 was the first practical electric tramway in the world. Most double deck trams are now only to be seen in places like the wonderful National Tramway Museum in Crich, but non-heritage examples still only run here in Blackpool, Hong Kong and Alexandria in Egypt. I only wish I'd had time to run up to Fleetwood on this one, perhaps sitting at the front with a melting ice lolly, looking out for death-defying leaps by dodgy soap stars.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

A Tale of Two Graveyards

The top photograph is of the semi-ruined church of St.Mary in Arden in Market Harborough. Built originally in the 12th century as a chapel of the neighbouring Great Bowden, this building is what remains of a late 17th century rebuild. Until 1878 this was the market town's burial ground, a forest of 1,400 gravestones that were all swept away in 1970 to make the mowing easier. One suspects. They say some of the 'finest' were retained, as evidenced by a double row at the west end. What criteria did they apply I wonder? Probably the survivors are those for which it appeared at a cursory glance would still have surviving relatives to kick up a fuss. And who would've thought in 1970 that there would be a host of new appreciators, those that Iain Sinclair calls 'drive-by genealogists'? So at a single Blairite stroke a record of a town's history is wiped out. Thank God, literally, for the church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Great Bowden itself. Here, my second picture, the churchyard is still what it should be. Rows of Swithland slate gravestones appear to be jostling for position, to establish a good view of Judgement Day perhaps, pushing each other out of the way and leaning companionably on each other. But for how much longer? I hear disturbing rumours that a Member of The Cloth wants to chuck out all the Victorian pews and doubtless replace them with stacking plastic. Let's hope they have both more thought for their churchyard and, essentially, a good quality strimmer.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Sleeping Beauty

Searching for different viewpoints of the Midland Railway Water Point (see below), I came across the Camley Street Natural Park. Built on the site of an old coal yard, this oasis of calm sits on the west bank of the Regent's Canal and in close proximity to the railway lines of St. Pancras and the Channel Tunnel Link. Local wildlife enthusiasts campaigned in the 1980s to save it, and it's now a central London home to, amongst many others, Daubenton's Bat, the reed bunting, holly blue butterfly and the snake's head fritillary. I suppose the beginning of January is not the best time to wander the winding paths, but at least I had the place more or less to myself. Through the bare trees I could see the frozen wastes of the canal (with the obligatory beer cans stuck at impossible angles in the ice) and on turning a corner this wonderful pink blancmange of a castle. Not a Disneyland trademark pastiche, just something simple and a little bit magical to be glimpsed through woodland and across the water where visiting schoolchildren come to pond-dip. If you have a little time to spare before your train leaves St.Pancras, this natural habitat will bring the great noisy city into a truer perspective. The reserve is managed by the London Wildlife Trust.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Railway Echo No 10

Slowing up into St.Pancras station yesterday morning, I looked beyond the passengers gathering-up coats, lap-tops and Metro newspapers to see this water tower on the skyline. I took time to walk round into Goods Way and onto the Regents Park Canal. Sliding along the icy towpath past the old boarded-up Fish and Coal Depot I found this view of my quarry across the frozen water. Built in 1867 it echoes St. Pancras in so many ways. The Gothic blind-arcaded tower is in red Nottingham brick with Ancaster stone detailing, and it supports an iron tank encased in pillared masonry. The big chimney tells of the massive stove they must have got going in winter months to stop the water freezing. Towers like this were obviously essential in the days of steam locomotives, particularly at a big terminus like St.Pancras that not only had busy arrivals and departures at the passenger platforms, but also continuous workings in the goods yards. In 1998 there was talk of relocating the tower, due to the impending construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, so I'm unsure if this is the original location or not. There is so much to appreciate here, and I shall doubtless blog more about it later, but all these evocative remains are evidence that the Victorian era was like an enormous shout that still sends its echo down to us to wherever we look.
Footnote: Subsequent foragings have revealed that the 'water point', as I should have called it, has indeed been moved. 700 yards from its original position.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Message From The Skies

Starlings do many amazing things. Quite apart from their uncanny gift for mimicry- mobile phones, police car klaxons and even long forgotten sounds still residing in their genes- they also like group activities. In their superb England in Particular, Sue Clifford and Angela King of Common Ground say "This cheeky bird, with its iridescent plumage, provides us with one of the most spectacular occurrences in nature- murmurations of starlings wheeling like shape-shifting clouds in the evening sky. Twenty years ago these winter aerial displays would have comprised millions of birds, but today we are fortunate to see groups of fifty thousand...". Apparently one of the most jaw-dropping displays were their acrobatics over the old West Pier in Brighton before its final collapse in 2004. Starlings are decreasing in numbers as their food supply lessens and their roosting places disappear. So, more follies! My farmer friend David has been out recently with his camera, and with his persistence with a murmuration near The Langtons in Leicestershire he caught them arranging themselves into a perfect number two. "You must blog this" he said, and very kindly lent me this photograph. I give it to you on the number two day of January. Happy New Year!