Tuesday 29 September 2009

England. Enjoy.

Those nice people at the Guardian have asked me to blog about three things I do to enjoy England. Well, they came to the right place, obviously. But where on earth, or England, to start? The thing is I’m usually out there most of the time, enjoying it all. The sheer variety of landscape, buildings and infinite detail. Here’s a trio of tasters:

If I’m close to home then I’m invariably drawn to Kirby Hall, over the border in Northamptonshire from my home in neighbouring Leicestershire. Originally built in the 1570s-80s, this is a superb example of a ‘prodigy house’. Prodigious in scale, intimate in detail. The Hall sits alone in its park and gardens, found at the end of an avenue of chestnuts alive with the raucous calls of rooks. Part of the house is open to the skies, much more is a succession of echoing rooms- four with tall rounded bay windows that look like the sterns of a pair of galleons. My young boys simply love it, backdrop scenery to their rumbustious adventures.

Pubs figure largely in my wandering itineraries. In London this could mean the Windsor Castle in Notting Hill or the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell. But if I find myself near the Law Courts on the Strand (increasingly likely) then I can’t resist the Seven Stars in Carey Street. A pedigree going back to 1663, well- kept Adnams from the Suffolk coast, posters on the walls for films like Action for Slander, a cat on the bar called Tom Paine. And a redoubtable landlady, Roxy Beaujolais, who keeps it all how I like pubs to be. There’s the inevitable Dickens connection, precipitous stairs to the lavatory, and it survived the Great Fire of London. With the blighting of so many pubs by overt commercial concerns, this a true survivor in anyone’s book.

What else? Well, undeterred by jaded music hall gags- “It’s like a mortuary with the lights on”- we recently spent a week in Barrow-in-Furness. The town was curiously of great interest, but once we’d got beyond submarine buildings (prodigious, but not like Kirby Hall) and Victorian red-brick tenements, we discovered a long walk along the sands to the north. So lonely, so breathtakingly beautiful. The cloud-capped fells of the Lake District rose up over the Duddon estuary, a strange hinterland of alarming sand dunes spread out to the south. We didn’t really see anybody until a bloke in a tracksuit gave us unfathomable directions, but nevertheless we made it back to the car park and welcoming large 99 Flakes from a green-painted hut.
So enjoyable, so England.

Find The Fault No 41

We've all known garages like this I'm sure. The family car didn't start losing oil until the 1920's, so houses didn't come complete with a purpose-built addition to park the Austin in. We had one on the side of the Victorian house I was lucky enough to have been born in, a lean-to affair with a corrugated iron roof (yess!) that my elder brother once fell through with such force that the sound of collapsing metal still reverberates in me now. We didn't have a car until much later, so our neighbour kept his little Morris in there. Dark and somehow comforting, another memorable day in my fourth year saw me climb into its leathery interior and take the handbrake off. It very slowly rolled forward and firmly wedged itself into my father's workbench. I remember clambering out, shaking with fear and running crying round to the kitchen where my mother was boiling up tripe (I would imagine). "What's on earth's the matter now?" she asked, probably waving wooden laundry tongs at me. "I've crashed next door's car", I spluttered through my tears. Anyway, quite apart from the obvious, I think the FTF artist could have taken a bit more trouble with the decoration on the gable of this improbable garage. A nice sunrise motif would've been nice.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Back to 1662

Today is apparently 'Back to Church Sunday'. There's been some radio commercials, a website and the Bishop of Reading has come out to say, in response to the dramatic falling-off of attendance: "How did it come to this, that we have become the Marks & Spencer's option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Aldi or Lidl?". I think he's summed it all up in just that one crass statement. The Church of England has for far too long tried to re-invent itself, to appeal to a culture far more interested in being in B&Q on a Sunday. It started with the New English Bible (sic), the attempt to subvert and alter the Book of Common Prayer, ripping out pews, hiding the altar behind an Ikea table, sacking the organist and putting pimply youths in front of guitar stands on the chancel steps. The CofE had a simply irreplaceable heritage that has been squandered and vandalised. Toilet block additions, solar panels instead of lead (if it's not already been nicked) and leasing out the nave to Halfords. Listen bishops. Kick out the moneychangers like Our Lord did before he went down to Aldi, stick some decent flowers round the pulpit, re-install the organ, dust off the 1662 Prayer Books, bring back Hymns Ancient and Modern and preach proper sermons that are both intelligent and inspirational. Stop everyone embarrassingly having to hug each other and just instil calm, simple faith in people. Of course there's much more you've got to do, and Norman architecture and chucking canteen chairs out of cathedrals won't do it on its own. God help us. The church pictured is Kings Norton in Leicestershire.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Find The Fault No 40

Quite a lot going on here. Looks like my dad in the trilby on the bus. Could that green van be a Trojan? And is that a miniature Dick Tracy outside Harris's? Anyway, off you go...

Thursday 17 September 2009

Stepping Out

It's so often the little, unnoticed things. A very brief trip into the north of the Cotswolds yesterday brought me yet again to Stanway. Perched up on the escarpment just off the B4077 east of Toddington, this tiny village has so much to delight the eye. It starts with a war memorial up on the main road that sports on its limestone column a cowering dragon being given a seeing-to by St.George (and lettering by Eric Gill), from where a lane leads down to a simply magnificent 17th century gatehouse connecting the south front of Stanway House with the yew-shaded churchyard. They were doing something to either the yews or the churchyard wall, but as I wandered by I spied these steps. Such a simple thing, here was a way of climbing over the stonework into the grounds. I poked my nose over the wall to see if there were a corresponding couple of projections on the other side, and there were. They reminded me of the Grandmother's Steps on The Cobb in Lyme Regis, such a functional device that obviated the need for a timber stile or indeed a gate. One can only imagine the use they've been put to. Children incorporating them into their games, housemaids lifting their skirts as they hurried to work in the big house, swains on the lower step plighting their troths to those same maidens on Sunday evenings. More about Stanway soon, I expect.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Find The Fault No 39

Good morning everybody. I think we'll have lot to talk about here, quite apart from the fact that there are actually two faults, one deliberate and one that would appear to be a genuine error. And has the driver of the lovely open-topped car just finished asking directions from the be-gaitered chap with his stick: "Oh sir, I know how to get there, but not from 'ere".

Friday 11 September 2009

J2 Oh!

I've always had a thing about Morris J-types. Probably because they were once so ubiquitous as Royal Mail vans, but I think it was also because they somehow looked very modern when they first appeared, even though they still sported separate headlamps. Those sliding doors, and what are known as outrigger hinges that let the rear doors fold right back to the bodywork. Amazingly they were first introduced at the Commercial Transport Show in October 1948, so they're almost as old as I am, and for thirty years or so they delighted me with a host of signwriting and liveries. And it still goes on- one even cropped-up in a recent Dr.Who episode as the dark blue van of 1953 television saleman Mr.Magpie. With a raised roofline and hinged doors they of course made ideal ice cream vans, so I was very pleased to see one on my recent visit to Weston-super-Mare. Beautifully lettered, it was a perfect complement to the traditional treats of Carters Steam Fair. Stop me from buying one.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Creature Feature No 6

We haven't had a Creature Feature for some time, and then I remembered this sign, recently discovered near Cold Newton in Leicestershire. I remember Sludge Hall from my childhood, and thinking just how appropriate the name was for this isolated farm that was indeed on a lane covered in beastly excretions. I think this is vernacular signing at its best, a sheet of tin cut out to cow shape, producing a beautiful image to catch one's passing eye. I'm not sure what 'W.H.' stands for, but I shall have to be very careful that Wartime Housewife doesn't appropriate it. One off signs like this are such rewarding discoveries as one traverses Unmitigated England, (there's a pig I need to get to grips with near Oundle), a refreshing change from the ubiquitous corporate gobbledygook that all too often impinges on our peripheral vision. So thankyou to the anonymous signmaker who made this. I can see you now, bent over in the barn behind welding goggles, black, white and pink paint tins at the ready.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Find The Fault No 38

Pretty straightforward this morning I think. I like the 'plane and its cream and red livery, the Art Deco control tower and the row of hangars. Nice day too.

Monday 7 September 2009

Flinty Acres

Flint occurs where there's chalk. And nowhere was it used to greater effect than in Norfolk, where the absence of other building stone or suitable timber presented problems to builders. This is one of the very hardest of minerals, composed of almost 100% silica. Usually we will see flint knocked into smaller units (knapping) and used as outer decoration on buildings. It could be mined, as at Grimes Graves near Thetford, but in Norfolk, as in Kent and Sussex, the sea-washed pebbles on the beach were in plentiful supply to put into use as ready-rubbed cobbles. The monster piece of flint above is embedded with thousands of others in the walls of Castle Acre, just north of the A47 Kings Lynn to Norwich road. This is an English Heritage property you can just wander into free of charge, and what a treat. One of the biggest motte-and-bailey castles erected in England, it sprawls over fifteen acres, forming as it did part of a reward (that included Lewes, Conisbrough and Reigate) given to William de Warenne for helping the Conqueror out at Hastings, and probably built within three years of the Conquest. I can't tell you what a playground this became for The Boys, but the closer I got to the walls and poked my camera in, another, equally pleasurable world opened up in the fantastical abstract shapes of the giant stones.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Black Out

Not exactly a lightbulb moment for the government is it? We've seen some jaw-dropping dictats from them for some time, but this one beggers belief. So, from yesterday apparently, it's 'ban all those perfectly serviceable lightbulbs, use this crap instead because it will save a polar bear'. Ugly, dim, and utterly out-of-step. And that's just the Department of Eco Facism. Will we now have the Lightbulb Police flashing their clockwork torches through our windows- "ere, put that light out, don't yer know there's an iceberg melting?". What are cartoonists going to do if they're stopped from putting the traditional bulb above someone's head to denote 'idea'? What will happen is that it will always be the good sense symbol for a bright idea, just like the steam loco silhouette is still used for a unmanned level crossing. But I digress. I'm sorry if you find these new bulbs aesthetically pleasing, and that they do, in fact, fit nicely into your standard lamps, but Ashley Towers is going over to candles in enamel holders and hurricane lanterns. Welcome to the dark ages, let there be light.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Find The Fault No 37

I miss the insides of proper buses. It was the quality of the fittings- hardwood slatted floors, built in grab handles and little chrome ash trays like those in cinemas for your Woodbine ash. Amongst the best ever of course were the Routemasters, particularly the unrefurbished ones. A true bus for London, designed specifically for the capital's operators, crews and passengers. A far cry from the simply appalling off-the-shelf designs we have now have to endure, particularly the wretched bendy bus. But hope may be at hand if one of the winning designs for a new bus for London actually gets made.