Monday 26 June 2017

Night Lights & Mouse Traps

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.

Friday 9 June 2017

Out In The Wind

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.