The subdued lights of the Jaguar's dashboard gave Philip's face a greenish pallor as he eased the big car into the entrance to a farm gate. The fuel gauge was pointing perilously to the empty end of the scale, and cutting the engine dead he opened the walnut veneered glove box lid. The moon was just rising through a wood like a poacher's lantern and an owl screeched nearby. Reaching in Philip took out a yellow booklet that had been slid between a tin of travel sweets and a Bartholomew's map of Devon and Cornwall. With a sigh of relief he found his location on the A30 and realised he was only a handful of miles from Bodmin, and the indicator on the AA map told him that the Mid-Cornwall garage on Treningle Hill was open until midnight. He then checked his watch and the dashboard clock to see to his horror that it was five past twelve. The owl screeched again and as Philip looked into the driving mirror he thought he saw in the moonlight a figure crouching by the roadside hedge.
Put 'holiday car pennants' into Google and you'll get a lot of flag waving from folks offering car hire at £4 a day. All but forgotten, we were very pleased to find these on a tiny motor home pulled up in the wind on Brancaster Staithe in Norfolk. Falling into conversation with the owner we found out that they had been steamed off the windows of his first car, a Humber Sceptre. An odd status symbol from the 60s, I think they were regarded a little sniffily by my family, like my dad's reaction to post-war majors retaining their title in peacetime and my mother changing her accent to relatively posh in the butchers. But here they were, all from the confines of England and so redolent of an artist sucking his pen to find a relevant subject to illustrate, and then once again looking-up the coat-of-arms. Still, it was somehow reassuring to see them, a reminder of the pride taken in motor car travel and of the other customising that went on like James Bond bullet holes on your windscreen and a tiger's tail hanging out of the petrol tank.
Two very satisfying books to look out for. Produced by the English Country Cheese Council, and published by Harrap's in 1957, they are small but very tasty. John Arlott and Ambrose Heath write so well about what is so obviously a great passion, and photographer John Adriaan shoots scrumptious still lifes with appropriate set dressings. A hunting print sits on the wall behind a proper Red Leicester; an oil lamp, apples and walnuts accompany a Cheddar so big it would keep you going until well past Christmas. There are notes on serving and storage and what to drink with them, and these brilliant period pieces are rolled from the presses of the inimitable W.S.Cowell in Ipswich. Time I think for a decent wedge of Stilton (Colston Bassett), a stick of celery and an Adnams Broadside.
And I've just noticed that curious striped effect on the left hand cheese. It's not a new strain of Cheddar, but the result of my negligence in not taking the clear film cover off the jacket.
To Norfolk, to see dear friends in the remarkably-named village of Seething. Actually they're just outside, so perhaps it should be called 'Gently Simmering', but in truth the only sign of that was a truly wonderful fish stew. On my return I stopped-off to look-up more old friends in the nexus of Downham Market, but this time they were considerably more static. The first was a level crossing gate in Fordham on a line between Downham and Stoke Ferry that closed in 1930 to passenger traffic but kept open to service the sugar beet factory at Wissington. You can see my post about the gates here, and compare the photograph with this, taken yesterday:
Round the corner is a milestone on the grass verge. When I first took a photograph it was uncared for and slowly being covered in vegetation, but in the intervening years someone has given it a good sprucing-up and repainted the figures:
Up the road at Stow Bardolph another Norfolk example is faring almost as well:
Opposite this milestone is Holy Trinity church, and it was here that I made my last visit, to pay my respects to Sarah Hare, who died in 1744. It was thought that her demise was brought about by pricking herself with a needle, but had it coming because she was sewing on a Sunday. But not before she had directed that a life-size wax effigy be made of her complete with black curly hair and wildly-staring blue eyes. Try and avoid going into the church on a dull afternoon with distant thunder rolling. In the brick chapel on the north side are various stunning Hare monuments, but in a dark corner nothing prepares you for the gruesome Red Riding Hood that awaits you when you open the big door on a mahogany cupboard:
The quality of my photograph is impaired because there is a locked inner glass door, but back around 1994 I made a little film of this curiosity, part of what was to be a collection of such remarkable things. We were kindly given both permission and the key by Lady Rose Hare, who I found gardening over at the Hall. Around this time Sarah also had a sprucing-up, carried out by Madame Tussauds and the V&A. Probably the first time this had been done, they found her in remarkable condition, just a little moth-eaten and with the original pins succumbing to rust. I bet they took care not to prick themselves. As you can see, Sarah is in need of a little cosmetic attention now. The church is in any case (pardon the pun) well worth a visit. Another 'delight' is a hare carved as a bench end in the choir. I didn't have time for a visit to the pub next door (The Hare Arms of course) but if I had I would've hoped that they might have long forgotten my friend Ron Combo going in and barking at a bar maid.
Well, it's ten years now. Actually the birthday was on Saturday, ten years since I chose this picture of a very pink panther sitting in Crowland Abbey to be my first posting for Unmitigated England. It's all Wilko's fault, over at the celebrated English Buildings blog. I discovered it all through him, so he's to blame for the acres of discoveries, rants, oddities and madness that have followed. I had the thought last week that I would drive over to Lincolnshire and see if my pink friend was still in the abbey, upside down in the toy box if not actually listening to a long-winded sermon. But the weather closed-in so I didn't. I looked around Ashley Towers to see if there was a stuffed toy left behind by a grandchild that I could take up to my village church and perch on a pew. Nothing, but then, high up on a shelf, Noddy nodded.
He had a better idea and quickly climbed up onto the row of Penguins on the mantelshelf and leaned on his favourite tinplate Czech tractor. Noddy was found on the Romney Marsh (oh no not again, Ed.) in 2014 after I discovered Station Antiques inside the old goods shed at Appledore station. He was hiding from Big Ears behind a porcelain jug and a croquet set and whispered "Quick, give them a fiver and let's get outta here". We did, so now both of us would like to thank everybody who over the years have not only supported but also taken pleasure in touring Unmitigated England. Of course when it first started there was no Facebook and no Twitter, and this meant long and exceptionally enjoyable dialogues occurring between commentators. As Toby Savage, who takes it all in from the seat of either a jeep or a very, very early Landrover, wrote: "We used to do this round a pub table". But even though we are a much smaller band now, I hope that spirit still pervades. (No pun intended.) Thank you so much , all of you, for tuning-in for so long.
It's amazing what you can discover in the seemingly well-trodden landscape of one's own locality. I've been out there on the highways and byways of Leicestershire within a handful of miles of my home, photographing, painting, and just generally gorging on the sheer delights of my patch of countryside this summer. With a little time on my hands yesterday afternoon I decided to go down a lane that joins the villages of Allexton and Stockerston, both right up against the border with Rutland. You wouldn't go down it unless you lived on it, were making for the Sweethedges Farm Tea Shop or were hopelessly lost. And so I saw, as if for the first time, this big corrugated iron barn. With the addition of a crow-stepped frontage that one normally sees on 1930's garages with a row of globed petrol pumps lined-up in front. No fuel-hungry motorists here, the nearest main road is the A47 preparing itself for Wardley Hill a couple of fields away over the Eye Brook.
Inside it was empty apart from some odd bits of agricultural detritus and the obligatory lone sparrow chirping up in the apex of the roof. It reminded me of a photograph I snapped once as I walked down a platform at Kings Cross station. It's quite fortuitous that I came across this pastoral peculiar now, as there's a notice attached to a fence that told me planning permission is being sought for building on that empty patch in front of the barn. So I do hope it survives, both for all those who love this kind of thing but more particularly for those who are annoyed by its crouching presence.
I've been down on the Romney Marsh in Kent, (what again? Ed.) and we stayed in a hotel in Hythe that was so dreadful I can't even type the name, and anyway I wouldn't want any of my Unmitigated Readers to find themselves within a hundred yards of it. The thing is we were warned it might be bad but had an appalling compulsion to see if it was all really true. Hythe has a very special place in my heart because I had two childhood holidays here. The first time we arrived by train from Charing Cross at Sandling station and thence by a cream Bedford OB coach that squeaked down tree-shadowed lanes to the town. The second was on a maroon and cream East Kent Roadcar from Victoria Coach Station, sitting next to a driver wearing the obligatory white cotton top to his peaked cap. Apart from waiting impatiently to visit a Dinky Toy shop on the following Monday morning, my two abiding memories are of the crypt at St.Leonard's church full of skulls and the almost overpowering scent of brewing floating down the High Street from the west. I now know it was Mackeson, and the old offices are still there, but the brewing now typically done far way on an industrial estate by somebody enticingly called InBev.
So why these shop windows full of household ironmongery and cleaning products? Well, most of the time we were traversing the Marsh either by motor car or the wonderful Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, only being in Hythe to see if the source of the mysterious seepage in the bathroom had been attended to (it never was) or to drink silently and copiously in one of the pubs we quite liked. On our progress down the High Street I spotted a shop called 'Home and Hobby' with three round-headed windows and these quite randomly curated displays. The thing is, we just don't see this very often at all these days. Retail design now doesn't mean window dressing. "Is that can of WD40 still in the window Miss Jones?". Where once we had impromptu displays stuffed full of very eclectic but essential things we now have strategically thought-out minimalism. One preciously spot-lit item instead of the fun of juxtapositioning a tub of cleaning wipes next to a lightbulb.
Somehow, I suppose, this was the link I was looking for back to my childhood. Some vestige maybe of how this street looked in 1959 and I impatiently thought about the Dinky Toy I wanted to spend my holiday money on whilst my dad bought his News Chronicle and exchanged shop talk with the manager of Boots. And yes, when there were hotels that didn't keep you awake all night with a noisy and almost certainly greasy kitchen fan and, if there was such a thing as an electric kettle lead, that it was long enough so that when the thing boiled it didn't steam the mirror up and take the varnish off the frame.
On this morning of great doubt and uncertainty, I think we should consider things of far greater interest like the lookers' huts on Romney Marsh in Kent. By the sixteenth century the Marsh was unproductive and the population decreased dramatically. Large tracts of land were bought-up by absentee landlords who turned it into sheep pastures. By 1890 there was a staggering quarter of a million sheep, and freelance shepherds were hired to look after the flocks, sometimes spread over a very wide acreage.This meant spending much of their time away from their families, particularly at lambing time. And so very basic shelters were built, usually in brick with a hearth and chimney at one end. They could also be used to store tools and act as an infirmary for sick sheep. The Romney sheep are wonderful grazers, with the added bonus that they won't jump the dykes and waterways that criss-cross this open landscape. The hut above is below the Isle of Oxney at Cliff Marsh Farm, and one of probably only a dozen still extant where once there were around 350 dotting the Marsh. I spotted it from the road that runs in tandem with the Royal Military Canal, out in what are now arable fields. The farmer was very kind in letting me investigate, warning me that the door lintel was in danger of collapse, but I did manage to get a photograph of the interior:
Spartan accommodation is probably over-selling it, but I couldn't help imagining myself in here with a roaring fire and a few bottles of Harvey's Sussex Best and just the sound of the wind and pitiful bleating outside for company. Most of the woodwork was sound, the Kent peg-tiled roof now replaced by corrugated iron sheeting. A small bed would have occupied a fair part of the space, but I expect there was a chair and a small table from which the occupant would eat his mutton and vegetable Looker's Pie.
It was back in 2010 that I made my first discoveries of these sadly neglected and all but forgotten tiny buildings. And of course the now ubiquitous mobile variety. There is thankfully a fully restored looker's hut at School Farm at St.Mary in the Marsh, but most of the survivors are gradually disappearing into the soil like the one above at Cutter's Bridge. About the same time that I was wandering the lanes another photographer, Nigel P.Crick, was seeking out the last remnants, and I am indebted to his book The Looker's Huts that has both photographs and map references. The Romney Marsh, with its remote medieval churches with Georgian interiors, lonely tile-hung houses and seemingly endless vistas that end either at the ancient cliffs of the original coastline or the bleak shingle of Dungeness, will always fascinate me, will always call me back.
Oh no, another collection started this morning. I always used to wonder about these grass triangles, usually at T-junctions out in the country. My suspicions were confirmed some time ago when I read about grassy triangles in the essential England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King. It's really very simple. There's an area that gets missed by turning traffic, and they've been with us for centuries.So the grass continues to grow and when roads were first metalled they were quite substantial and so got left to their own devices, Which usually means a haven of wildflowers until council contractors mow them down like here. Often they will have a signpost on them, this one between Medbourne and Hallaton in Leicestershire has one obscured in the hedge on the left. This is on my school run, and last week we had to divert because the lane down into the village of Blaston was being re-surfaced, but it did mean that this morning I could get a shot of the junction with its pristine new road markings. One T-junction near us in the opposite direction at Othorpe is busier, so the first gravelly signs of a triangle here are not allowed to grow because the whole thing gets re-surfaced regularly. Maybe I should go and chuck some soil and seeds down there and see what happens, but the size of tractor tyres round here would soon send my effort to oblivion.
Having deposited offspring at a Kettering cinema in order for them to engorge themselves on family size buckets of popcorn whilst watching Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, and having endured blank stares when I said that I didn't understand why a chocolate bar needed defending once, let alone twice, I disappeared with a few hours to kill. After stocking up with the enormous amount of groceries needed when both are in residence I decided to lose myself in an unexplored tract of country to the east of Higham Ferrers where Northamptonshire gives way to Bedfordshire, and in the fascinating manner of these things in England, Bedfordshire decides immediately to start becoming East Anglian. Timber and thatch replacing stone, the landscape finally freed from the results of the vanishing boot and shoe industry of the Nene Valley. I didn't expect any great surprises, but they came very quickly and in the case of the above very dramatically.
This is Yielden Castle, dominating the village of the same name and still showing much of its origins in the massive motte and bailey. This is a classic example of a Norman castle quickly put up by one of the Conqueror's mates in the aftermath of the 1066 invasion. And like so many, when families and priorities changed, almost gone within two hundred years.
The road circumnavigated the imposing mounds, and across the fields I saw that inviting sight, a church backed-up against higher trees.This was St.Mary Magdalene in Melchbourne, and, as the porch notice told me about where to find the key, in the Sharnbrook Deanery of the St.Albans Diocese. Not having time to knock-up a local I contented myself with standing on tiptoe to look through the unadorned window glass. I saw a beautifully plain 1779 Georgian interior with box pews, virtually un-messed about with and still with those little openings set in each window for ventilation. The churchyard was eerily quiet, but did afford a view of a thatched house that demonstrated that we can still restore buildings with taste and empathy. Sometimes.
Pressing the lens gently against the church glass produced pictures that made-up for not gaining an entrance, but not quite pressing the lens against the glass produced something equally pleasing if slightly spooky. When I showed the boys the result they actually stopped talking about the chocolate protecting film and said "Wow, how did that happen?" I told them that I'm still very disturbed by it because "...the cottage simply wasn't there when I turned round". I was stared at again, and their conversation quickly turned back to Drax, Gamora and Baby Groot.
It must've been sometime in the late 1970s, and a full page ad. in The Sunday Times Magazine. I'm ashamed I don't know which agency to credit, because this was an utterly original idea at the time. And still would be now really. It was part of a series that included Spike Milligan's Pentax with a face drawn on the silvered upper part of the body. Naturally. But being an uber fan of Ken Russell films I got particularly excited by this, and thought of all the shots it had taken and how it might've got that beautifully distressed look. Ken was a highly original photographer even before he started making films and his career took off with Monitor and Omnibus programmes at the BBC. I like to think that the absence of a strap was a personal choice rather than an art director's whim, because all the straps for cameras I've bought still lie unused in their cellophane packaging. I know it increases the possibility of a camera taking flight to possible destruction, but I feel hindered by them. I've only had one photography equipment disaster (he says, gripping a wooden desk), and that was whilst changing a lens on a Northumbrian beach. The 28mm winged its way out of my hand in a slow but graceful arc in order to land on wet sand that subsequently gave it a very disturbing grinding feel when changing f-stops. A man in an attic in Epsom sorted it all out.
One hundred years ago today one of England's finest poets died at the Battle of
Arras. Edward Thomas didn't write about the Great War per se, but about the
countryside he was fighting for. One hundred and nineteen poems between 1914 and
1917, and those who love poetry will continually go back to them. No computer,
no smartphone, no 'tablet', no Facebook and the only twitter the birds in the
trees outside as he simply put a pen to paper:
By the ford at the town's
edge Horse and carter rest: The carter smokes on the bridge Watching
the water press in swathes about his horse's chest.
From the inn one
watches, too, In the room for visitors That has no fire, but a view And
many cases of stuffed fish, vermin, and kingfishers.
If Unmitigated England had a gallery with unlimited space, then at least one room would be entirely devoted to the Shell County Paintings. Produced in the 1950s and 60s the originals were reproduced as advertisements, calendars, and, very memorably for me, as school wallcharts. Shell commissioned some of the very best artists of the day such as S.R.Badmin, John Nash, Rowland Hilder and David Gentleman. Each picture was accompanied by a brief description of the county and a key to what were the salient points in each image, a capriccio if you like of the many things that gave each county its particular character. Above is one of my favourites, Cornwall by Richard Eurich (1903-1992). Dated 1958, I still find things that I've missed in the plethora of detail. The wheel-headed wayside cross, the train on the viaduct, the deserted tin mine and what I wouldn't have known without the key: the basket of broccoli carried by the man walking up the hill. And Eurich hasn't ducked putting in the lunar landscape of waste from china-clay workings. Sadly Shell sold all the originals of these and the accompanying series of nature paintings in 2002, and Cornwall was used for the front and back covers of the catalogue. (Which reminds me Sotheby's, you still owe me a call from last year.) Anyway, we still have the reproductions. Some will remember the Shell BP Shilling Guides that used the whole image over the covers, and the Shell Guide to Britain which could only use half of it, but the wallcharts really are the thing. Superbly printed and complete with metal strips and hook to facilitate hanging, I first saw them put up around my school hall, stared at as I went across its parquet floor with Philip Barlow to fetch the milk crate from the yard. I learnt that there were places like Wiltshire (Keith Grant, 1960) that specialised in big stones and white horses and that Middlesex & Hertfordshire (S.R.Badmin, 1963) harboured George Bernard Shaw and royal palaces embowered in blossoming trees. I recently talked to David Gentleman about them all, and his Shell series on roads, and he recalls that he was pretty much given a free hand as to what to put in his paintings (Somerset, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire). What a brief. What amazing things to put together.
'When they had finished all there was of both food and drink, he produced a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes, and they smoked for a while, contented and at rest.' A Glastonbury Romance John Cowper Powys, 1933. Some of you may remember this photograph and quote from my book The Cigarette Papers, published by Frances Lincoln in 2012. It was a eulogy for the cigarette packet, brought out as a reminder that a government directive was in the offing to dispense with any individual brand design whatever. With no proper proof that it was going to work in decreasing both smoking itself and its appeal to the kiddies. We all know that smoking is simply not very good for us at all, but no authoritarian dictates about how a pack should look will make the slightest bit of difference. I say all this again because it's about to happen for real and a totally legal product that still produces millions for the Exchequer will be reduced to taking ill thought-out orders from a grey government 'design' manual. But more than this I get very dismayed by the revisionist stance that makes anybody who talks on, say, a television antiques programme, has to make sure that any remarks about tobacco packaging and artefacts are bracketed with sanctimonious and hypocritical tut-tutting about the dreadful practices of the smoker and smoking. What would the Tommy, going over the top out of a muddy trench in 1917 with a Woodbine clamped in his mouth, have thought of us. Anyway, if you'd like more anecdotes and extracts from literature about the fabulous packets we were once able to see without the Tobacco Police fingering our collars, then you'll find the last fag ends of The Cigarette Papershere, very cheaply indeed.
Taking full advantage of the season I couldn't resist showing these snowdrops again. I'm always reminded of them everytime I see the sides of lanes and corners of gardens liberally carpeted. The photograph was sheer serendipity. Seven years ago we went into the quietness of Horninghold church in Leicestershire on a cold windy day when the sun was very intermittent. My two boys went off to have a fight with brooms they'd found in the cleaning cupboard and I walked up to the altar just as the wind parted the clouds to allow a few seconds of sunlight. Genuine genuflection took place.
Those who enjoy the idiosyncrasies of Unmitigated England will know of the trilogy of my handbooks that map out such things, and indeed I used this photograph in the third volume English Allsorts, in a chapter called Daffodils & Monsters that describes and pictures a very personal natural history. As incongruously as I could make it, it sits between Cakes & Ale (market towns) and Black & White (monochrome photographers). Elsewhere you will find amongst other Unmitigated subjects Hornby Trains, Brighton Rock and Jaguar XK120s. Still available in all good ironmongers and coalyards, or here. Or even, in complete over-selling, by clicking on it opposite.
First thing, this is in Wales not England. But having re-discovered the original transparency I had to share it with you. In 2004 I was working on the book to go with the second BBC Restoration television series. I went everywhere from a salt works in Cheshire to a gaol in Armagh, and must be the only person who has ever been to the Orkneys by ship just for an afternoon. (Apart from the crew, obviously.) But that's another long-winded story. I had the immense privilege of seeing things few people will see, mainly because all the buildings shown would've benefitted greatly from the exposure and been 'restored'. I do hope this collage of film posters and star pictures is still on the wall of a back room in the Celynen Working Men's Institute and Memorial Hall in Newbridge, Caerphilly. Celynen had a large coal mine that employed over 1,700 men who produced around 10,000 tons of coal a week. This was the centre of their relaxation, opened in 1908, and by the early 1920s boasted a dance floor, cinema and theatre. So the films would have arrived with their posters, and I like to think of a movie buff snipping pictures from magazines and creating this collage over the years. Although I can't help wishing that the Casablanca poster, and one (out of shot) for The Ladykillers had been kept intact and hidden up in the projection room which I also photographed, complete with the spare bulbs for an immense projector.
I've been looking at the work of James Bateman (1893-1959) recently, spurred on by the cover of Clive Aslet's Villages of Britain which features Bateman's probably best known painting of a Cotswold farm (above), and of which the publishers sadly only give credit to the picture library. I first saw it when it was used for another cover, this time on Ian Jeffrey's absorbing The British Landscape 1920-1950 and fully credited as Haytime in the Cotswolds, oil on canvas 1939. Yesterday I came across another Bateman painting that stopped me in my wayward tracks. This was Lullington Church, another work from 1939. It's the kind of thing that makes me yearn for springtime, much as classic Underground posters do like James McIntosh Patrick's Harrow Weald and Clare Leighton's Lambing, both from 1938.
I was immediately transported by this image of a country church, imagining myself walking up to that open gate and hearing rooks arguing up in the bower of trees. In my head it's an early springtime Sunday morning, and just as I'm wondering if the gate's been left open by the verger who's just gone in to put the oil heaters on I hear the sound of a sweeping brush and see the lady by the door. Those of you who read my Sussex blog post before Christmas will know what's coming next. At first I got it confused with Lullingstone up in my old stamping ground of the North Downs (the building bears a slight resemblance) but soon realised that the immediate environs were very different. And on finding Lullington I discovered, yes, it's near the Cuckmere river but certainly right in the nexus of the Ouse Valley that has occupied my thoughts for so long.
I've been keeping scrapbooks for over forty years now. (Takes out onion and violin.) Seven large volumes where I've taken no account that they get even larger when you've thickened them to twice the size with paper and cardboard. Anyway, here's the collage I did for the cover of the first one, the first entries being glued-in on the kitchen table of a Rutland farmhouse in 1976. Everything that appealed to me went in. Dog food labels, pictures of girls from Nova and Sunday Times Magazines, quaint parking tickets, postcards, photographs that never got stuck in an album. They have become a vital resource in sparking ideas, inflaming inspiration, or simply as curious entertainments. So I thought I'd start an occasional series on the blog where I'll choose an item that I can go on about.
Here's the first, probably found in a pocket two years after its expiry. Remarkable for the fact that it's handwritten in ballpoint and, of course, for that wondrous price for a month's travel. It brings to mind dusty carriage compartments, (either unheated or tropically hot), blokes doing The Times crossword, (getting cross because I'd sit there pretending to do it in two minutes so that I could throw the paper up onto the luggage rack seemingly completed. When in fact I'd written any old thing down just to wind them up), and girls who'd gently wake me up at St.Pancras. One morning I was late for the train and I had to drive to Market Harborough like an idiot in a borrowed Morris Minor. At one point my country road ran alongside the railway embankment, and I looked up to see my train approaching the station. I repeatedly sounded the horn, which was answered by a 'bar-bop' from the locomotive. I slewed onto the car park and ran up to the station, probably leaving the engine running. The train driver shouted down from his cab "Hurry up!" and racing up the platform stairs I found the guard holding a door open for me. Phew. Now you really won't see that anymore.
A treasured photograph from our family archive. This is a Buckinghamshire County Council road gang with their steam roller, out on a Chilterns road sometime in the 1930s (I should think). All in hats and caps, two with ties. The gentleman standing third from the right is my Uncle Joe, in fact my great uncle, being the chap who married my mother's Aunty Dora and lived in Lee Common. Readers of English Allsorts will remember my story about the faux Player's Digger packet, featuring Joe in the fifties.
I've always found the photograph curious for three reasons. Firstly it must have been unusual for a road gang to have been interrupted in their labours repairing road surfaces in order to pose for a group photograph. It makes me think that perhaps it was a picture taken by a press snapper, probably from the Bucks Examiner. Maybe accompanying a story about the gang finding treasure in a ditch at Ballinger Bottom, items of silver church plate wrapped in a hessian sack. But I digress, except to say that I checked on the Bucks Examiner and it now appears to be called 'getbucks' and has stories like 'Flasher exposes himself to woman walking in Marlow'.
Then I think that the diminutive chap second from the right must be an ancestor of Robbie Williams, but more disturbing is the third curiosity that I only noticed quite recently. Whilst the men are posing proudly in front of their steaming roller, a hooded M.R.Jamesian figure appears to have climbed up behind them in order to surreptitiously take the controls of what I see is an Aveling & Porter Invicta with its beautifully embossed prancing horse motif.
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)
"Open this book with reverence. It is a hymn to England". Clive Aslet
"Enchanting...delightful". The Bookseller "Cheekily named" We Love This Book
The Cigarette Papers
"Unexpectedly pleasing and engrossing...beautifully illustrated". The Bookseller
"Until the happy advent of Peter Ashley's Cross Country it has, ironically, been foreigners who have been best at celebrating Englishness". Christina Hardyment / The Independent
More from Unmitigated England
"Give this book to someone you know- if not everyone you know." Simon Heffer, Country Life. "When it comes to spotting the small but telling details of Englishness, Peter Ashley has no equal." Michael Prodger, Sunday Telegraph