Not getting out much at the moment, as you can see. My shirts have been out on the washing line for two days now, stiff with ice like cardboard cut-outs. I might as well stack them up in the shed to thaw out. However, My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like has lifted my spirits by waving this box at me through the kitchen window. It was the answer to her Christmas quiz question, "What's the earliest sell-by-date you've seen a package?". Well, I've never seen anything better than this: 11th January 1913. Anybody out there seen one earlier? Closer inspection of this large thick cardboard box revealed it to be the container for a single automobile tyre inner tube. Dunlop recommended that you immediately take the tube out of the box and keep it in one of their Waterproof Bags, to prevent friction of the rubber against the cardboard. And if the garage hadn't sold it by the prescribed date it was to be returned to the factory in Aston Cross. Dunlop first appeared in Birmingham in 1891, and at the time of this sell-by-date were just four years away from their relocation to the simply gargantuan Fort Dunlop in Erdington. Blimey, all this from an old cardboard box now used to keep Christmas decorations in. I wonder if that intrepid pioneer motorist J.J.Hissey had a handy supply stashed away on the back of his Daimler, ready for his chauffeur/groom/wife to struggle with on the grass verges of England? Almost certainly.
This is Bird's back cover advertisement from the Britannia and Eve magazine, Christmas 1946 issue. It makes its appearance to wish all my readers and commentators the seasons greetings. And as a digital substitute for a real Christmas card to all those whose address has slipped down the back of the Unmitigated Archive.
This book was a favourite of myself and my two brothers. We continually passed it around like a naughty magazine, serial reading of what was our first science fiction book. I'm not really a fan of this genre, unless it happens to be the earth-bound stories of Ray Bradbury- lightning conductor salesmen running ahead of thunder storms, that sort of thing. But this tale of three friends on a motorbiking holiday (two bikes are named- a Brough and a BSA) was utterly absorbing. The anonymous bike breaks down, and thinking that a roadside shed may provide repair tools they instead discover an aluminium spaceship. Of course they get in it, mess about with the controls and the whole thing unexpectedly roars off into space. It was written by Prof.A.M.Low, who served in the First World War in the Royal Flying Corps Experimental Works, and at the time of writing the book was President of the Interplanetary Society. Why have I been reminded of this? Well, yesterday we were in the much less arcane local Milanese-style coffee shop, and the boys had milk shakes. The impossibly pink liquid came in curious clear plastic containers that are designed to retain the contents when they take-off across the room. "What could we make of these?". Hmmm, I thought.
It's that time of year when we drop the children off at school early, leaving them aeroplaning round the playground with arms outstretched and hooded coats flying behind only attached by the head. A few parents then make their way across the road to sit for an hour in the Perpendicular St. Peter's church, awaiting the end-of-term carol service. A couple of bathroom heaters on the pillars and some bottled gas slowly warms the cold air. I'm first in, and make for a cosy back pew, but get moved by the headmaster- "You at the back there!". I'm eventually allowed to sit in the south aisle, and park my trilby on the head of Sir Richard Roberts' recumbent 1644 effigy. The vicar comes in, nods, and lifts up his cassock and holds it dangerously out over a flaming gas heater. "Air balloon principle, hot air rising. Keep me going for a bit". I like him. The children troop in in twos, but I can't see Youngest Boy anywhere. Alarmed, I imagine him on his own in the crypt, doing something to the electrics, but, no, there he is. Half way through Away in A Manger I get a sneezing fit. Anyone who's heard me sneeze knows that people two miles away take in their washing, and now teachers clasp alarmed infants to their bosoms and parents dive under altar cloths. The vicar then tells us all a story about Maximus Mouse, with a long-nosed green glove puppet on his hand that stares fiendishly out at the children on the edge of their pews. I really like him. At last it's Oh Come All Ye Faithful, but just as we're getting to the first "Oh come let us adore him" I feel another gigantic sneeze gathering. I reach out and steady myself on Sir Richard's armoured arm.
Comments and requests from adjoining bloggers gets out the unopened packet of ten Guards. Introduced by Carreras in 1960, this was the pack that started all those headlong rushes into clinical stripes and bland geometrics. But this was a classic. My intact version has the guard (apparently promoted to an officer just after the initial launch) in gold outline, but I seem to remember he was also rendered in blind-embossing. That may have denoted filter tips, more probably this was the guard's new uniform when he first went on parade at the tobacconists. Now of course he'd have to hide under the counter like a commando on a covert mission, planned, we hope, with the help of the indefatigable Player's sailor from HMS Hero. Guards, I recall, were sold to sixties cinema audiences with a superb widescreen commercial that pounced on the ceremonial possibilties. A multiscreen of vertical frames of civilians flipped on a horizontal axis (still with me?) turning them into images of marching guardsmen. All cut, of course, to a rousing drum-beating score of something like The British Grenadier. A caption came up at the end that said "People are changing to Guards". Imagine that. Show it now, in some subversive underground club and it'd be enough to give the Tobacco Police their so longed-for collective heart attack.
Driving down towards the Eye Brook Reservoir the other night my headlights caught these improvised reflectors on a series of fence posts. Obviously recycled from something, today I stopped and took a closer look. Not the least because some were useful candidates in the Country Alphabet I started with that Quenby gate fastening back in February. It took me a while to figure out what they were from. You will, I know, be much quicker to spot the donor. This is a very narrow lane, and I expect the farmer got fed up with local traffic ramming into the posts in attempts to avoid each other. It may be the same resourceful chap who some years ago put an Atlas Carriers truck body to use as a hay store, and once, unless I was seeing things, had chickens standing about on a First World War armoured car. Anyway, aren't these warning signs so much better than just about anything the so-called Highways Agency or local councils come up with. More signs made from perished white rubber bicycle reflectors please.
I hear that it was John Milton's birthday yesterday. There is a massive gap in my education over this seventeenth century poet, and I know practically nothing about him accept he was blind, thought it a good idea to take King Charles I head off and invented baby bottle sterilising liquid. Has anyone actually read Paradise Lost and finished it with a sigh and said "Ooh I could read that all over again". Sorry for my obviously philistine views, but as the history master says to Michael Travis, in the first lesson after the summer hols in Lindsay Anderson's film if...: " Ilost your essay somewhere in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, but I'm sure it was good". So why the Fremlins label? Well, all I could think about Milton when they were going on about him on the Today programme this morning was A.E.Housman's lines from A Shropshire Lad. In poem LXII he writes: Oh many a peer of England brews / Livelier liquor than the Muse/ And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man. / Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink...etc. So I rifled through the draws and found this label that had miraculously failed to get itself stuck on a cask. Afficianados of this extinct Kent brewer and readers of Unmitigated England will find a contemporary Fremlins dray loaded up with the stuff on page 97. Cheers! And Happy Birthday Milton.
Gaulby (or Galby, depending on who you read) is a tiny east Leicestershire village 'on the summit of the Marlstone uplands in beautiful unspoilt country' as W.G.Hoskins has it in his Shell Guide. Less than a mile away from the probably more visited early gothic revival church in Kings Norton, Gaulby has the equally fascinating St. Peter. Overshadowed somewhat by its more illustrious neighbour rebuilt by John Wing, this church was restored by the architect's father for the same squire William Fortrey in 1741. Inside, the contemporary pews and pulpit were ripped out in a 1960 act of vandalism, but the exterior remains virtually untouched. A limestone and ironstone tower is topped-out with such extraordinary exuberance that even Pevsner was moved to called it 'a display of the craziest pinnacles' in his Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland. The top photograph is Gaulby on a hot July early evening, the bottom was taken yesterday in uncompromising bright afternoon light and extreme cold. We had been in the Fox and Goose just over the fields, where every Sunday a dish of well-salted goose fat roasted spuds and black pudding is banged down on every table. We were therefore amused to find a 1701 gravestone under Gaulby's big churchyard tree that was dedicated to someone blessed with the name 'Goosey'. A good afternoon for a gander round a churchyard.
Sorting out receipts for petrol, books, firelighters, oatmeal stout etc. today, I thought about how terrifyingly bland and uninteresting these irritating pieces of thin paper are. Just digital print-outs reminding you of everything you don't want to know about transactions, other than how much an ink cartridge is (criminal). "Thankyou. Please Call Again" they say, or in the case of Sainsbury's "Try something new today". Hmm. Think I will, thanks. I'll put the gas on and not bother to light it. So I unearthed this for you, just to show how much better these items of print were, equally how much time there apparently was to do a job properly. B.C.Tipper & Sons were veterinary chemical manufacturers in Balsall Heath, and in March 1900 took four pounds four shillings and ten pence from Mr.E.H.Roberts for unspecified 'goods'. What could they have been? Once in November 1899 and again the following February. Flea powder? Artificial insemination lubricant? We shall never know, but we can see that Mr.Roberts got a receipt for it, and Tippers endorsed the slip with two Queen Victoria halfpenny stamps. Right, why have I got a receipt for £9.40 from Ely Cathedral?
In recognition of the agritechno element that runs through the band of commentators to my blog, I give you the diesel oil filler cap from a Field Marshall tractor. I seem to remember from my sojourn on Dartmoor that Field Marshalls were started by the alarming practice of shoving a flaming piece of oily rag into a hole in the side of the engine cover. But just look at the uncompromising casting of these letters and the unbelievably tactile nature of the finger grips. It's the sort of talisman that I would like to keep in a capacious trouser pocket, screwing it into the material when having to account for my actions (or lack of them) at the bank, or whilst queuing in the cattle pen down at the post office. I've loved Field Marshalls ever since I had Dinky Toy No 301 in bright orange with its brown overalled and capped driver that reminded me so much of my farming brother, and I think it was this tractor that also first gave me the notion that brand names could be remarkably clever. Much later the Dartmoor tractor was secretly renovated by the owner's son so that it could be the centre piece of his father's 80th birthday. He drove it across an impossibly steep field with a big pile of balloons soaring up from the back of his seat, both of them looking every inch the Field Marshall.
Never one to drive by an old railway wagon lying impotently in a field without its wheels, this one's at the side of the A1101 south of Outwell and only just in Norfolk. Almost certainly it was brought here from the Wisbech & Upwell Tramway, one of the most extraordinary little railways in the country. I say little, in fact it's gauge and rolling stock were full size, but it was restricted to tramway status. The fascination for me is that it ran (very slowly) alongside the road, every now and then lurching in front of the traffic. It opened in 1883, and in 1898 carried 114,307 passengers, in addition to cattle, root crops, vegetables, fruit, straw and corn. It also carried coal for the steam engines engaged in pumping water off the low-lying fens. Its progress was often impeded by window cleaners' ladders propped up against cottages, and cars left outside garages. The traction for most of it's time was a steam locomotive encased in cow catchers, the model for Toby in the Rev.Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine books. In this 1963 picture a Drewry diesel shunter is already carrying additional safety stripes. The tramway closed in 1966, but you can still see the space in front of the houses where it ran, and the odd crumbling shed. There is a dinner table game where you proffer a time in history you would like to visit. After Doctor Feelgood doing Route 66 at the Kursaal in Southend around 1972, I think the hour's journey on this railway amongst the cabbages and sugar beet comes a close second.
Parking the car in Wisbech, Capital of The Fens, we notice this shop window. It's one of a number in a side street attached to a large rambling shop that still announces on its fascia board that they are drapers, outfitters and purveyors of trunks- which we assumed were the cabin variety rather than lido wear. Around the corner was the main entrance to Evison's, whose paper bag tells of their stock of Ladies' Wear, Knitting Wool, Gent's Clothing, Gent's Outfitting, Bed Linen, Suit Cases and Camping Equipment. And much, much more. We went in because in another window that displayed more gloves than could ever be put to use by an acid bath murderer, I spotted the back of a particularly nice-looking green tin alarm clock. "That's £5.99" I was told by the friendly girl assistant, "But it's so slow a customer brought it back". So you get the idea. Upstairs a friendly 'gent' who looked like he'd come straight from one of my grandfather's Wisbech Zion Baptist sermons, guided me to a huge stack of flat caps in an alcove. As he wrote out a written receipt to give to the girl downstairs (pin number keypad attached to a phone socket nowhere near a counter) he says "We had Ken Dodd in here. Couldn't get rid of 'im". I asked if he was looking for tickling sticks, which will assuredly be in here somewhere.
There is something elegiac about a fallen tree. The end of all those years of growth, of providing nesting places for birds and homes to colonies of various tiny insects who relied on its thousands of crevices for shelter and nutrition. The end of shading foliage in summer, the loss of a gaunt winter silhouette; and no longer pirate ship, hideaway or just a place to think for a child. This ash was recently felled on the Rutland / Leicestershire border at Stockerston (you can see the county sign just up the road), and I hope and suppose it was beyond help, rather than a hindrance at the entrance to the field. I took the photograph because we usually see trees, dead or alive, as they should be, standing proud against the sky, and I wanted to capture it before the chainsaw whirred into action in order to feed local woodburners. The scene also reminded me of Monster Field, the last publication of Paul Nash before his death in 1946. His wife Margaret had bought him a pocket Kodak camera for his trip to the States in 1931, and as his asthma took hold and he could no longer spend long periods out of doors sketching, he relied increasingly on the little camera to provide references for his paintings. You can see two of his fallen tree photographs in this book, looking like giant stick insects grazing in fields.
Please forgive the black and white tone of this week's blogs, but I couldn't resist showing you this little gem. If nothing else it proves that photographing breakfasts isn't an entirely modern preoccupation (blogs passim). This is of 1936 vintage, taken in a brick and flint country cottage. I know this because the photograph is from a little album (entitled 'Snapshots' and sold by C.B.Keene of Derby) that has turned up in yet another box of oddments. I've no idea if the people in it are relations, or whether I just idly picked it up in a shop, but the photographs show what looks like a couple on holiday in the Peak District. This breakfast scene is printed on 'Velox' paper, which I thought was a Vauxhall, and is rich in detail. High spot on the high table is the half empty jar of what the Unmitigated Laboratory has ascertained to be Wm.P.Hartley's Marmalade. Either the host or, if the lensman is the bloke, his wife, is seen as a ghostly apparition outside the front door (which incidentally is eerily identical to my own). I can look at this scene for a long time, a very rare insight into the 1930's breakfast table amongst the more usual coy snapshots of anonymous people relaxing on a week off. It brings to mind those lines from John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells, remembering just such a scene from his Cornish holidays: Nose! Smell again the early morning smells: Congealing bacon and my father's pipe...
You know how it is. You go rummaging aboutin old cardboard boxes looking for one thing and end up finding fifteen things you weren't. This Saturday's foray into a cold garage (Albion lorry badge hanging up on a rusty nail) resurrected an early 1950's Leicester Official Handbook. I can't even start to tell you the joys suddenly released from the ever-so-slightly damp pages, but here's one. I was born half way up a cul-de-sac in Wigston Fields, and there are those who say I've spent all my time since crawling up the other half. My elder brothers were much older, so I took my pleasures on my own in exploring, inch by inch, my neighbourhood. A red letter day came when I reached the pub at the bottom of the road and I watched the Holes Newark Ales yellow brewery dray unloading wooden barrels at the Royal Oak. But next door to the pub was something much more exciting. This was Browett's service depot, where they maintained the ranks of newly-bought little grey Ferguson tractors and red and yellow Massey-Harris combines and muck spreaders. Such was the post-war demand, Browetts signed-up a fleet of Standard Vanguard vans with the evocative tractor silhouette. I just stared and stared at them over a fence that has been air-brushed from this picture. You can hear the manager can't you, the evening before this picture was taken: "I want all mobile engineers to be here with their vans (washed) at eight in the morning".
An afternoon stroll down the old Wardley Hill in Rutland. I reckon this stretch of road, now by-passed by a streamlined version a field away, hasn't seen holiday Austins desparately trying to overtake grumbling Albions for at least twenty five years. I was surprised that the double white lines were still visible, punctuated by intermittent cat's eyes in their perished white rubber holders. Except the glass lenses had been levered-out long ago with local schoolboy penknives. The undergrowth at the sides had not encroached across the road nearly as much I would have expected, and on one stretch the precipitous drop on the north side is still guarded by a crash barrier entwined with hawthorn. What's so fascinating about all this? I think it's because this was once a thundering highway, one of the very few west-east routes between the heart of the Midlands and East Anglia, and as a child I remember sitting next to the driver of a fully-laden Midland Red coach as he skillfully sorted the gears out for the long climb. The coach was one of a red and black convoy making for Norfolk, and the white-jacketed driver heaved a visible sigh of relief when the summit was reached at Uppingham. I tried explaining all this to a lady taking her dog for a walk, but she smiled wanly and hurried off over the horizon.
This is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and the nation's focus is here in Whitehall, both today and on the nearest November Sunday morning. Distant hum of traffic, scurrying leaves. Black coats, red poppies, chill breezes teasing flags and white hair alike. The Cenotaph is the physical core of a nation's remembrances, commissioned from Edwin Lutyens in July 1919. The architect won his own battle, against those who wanted a giant cross, with spectacularly complex geometry. There isn't a straight line in it- the verticals meeting at an imaginary point 1,000 feet above the memorial. The horizontals are all arcs of a circle whose centre is 900 feet underground, and author H.V.Morton saw the empty recess in the Portland stone quarry not long after its removal. 'Cenotaph' is Greek for 'empty tomb', a sepulchral monument for bodies elsewhere, and is a word Lutyens learnt from his great gardening friend Gertrude Jekyll. I took this photograph for my little book Lest We Forget, and had a very odd experience. Waiting for the coincidence of sunlight and buses, I looked down to see that the batteries, and indeed battery cover, from my camera were missing. I found them in a neat row on the steps of the monument, and I shall talk more of my encounters with war memorials here in June next year.
I love my local baker's shop. In fact I'm glad when there's a queue, (except when it's out on the pavement in the rain), just so that I can take in the Unmitigated England atmosphere. I always think the floor slopes down to the counter, but that might say more about me than the shop. On the right as you go in there's a glass cabinet with sliding doors, filled with the jars of the Unmitigated Preserve of Choice- Wilkins of Tiptree in Essex. The classic white labels line-up on everything from Medlar Jelly to Orange & Tangerine Marmalade, the jar I inevitably carefully extract. The glass-topped counter doubles up as a display cabinet for fancy cakes and cake decorations, and the wall behind is a mural of Twinings Tea packets. The staff are all, without exception, very pretty girls, but of course you will understand this has nothing whatever to do with my twice-weekly patronage. Oh yes, the bread I go in for. Some of the freshly-baked loaves stacked on the angled wooden shelves are a very tight fit in the cream paper bags, so there's always a brief interlude whilst the girl carefully slides the paper over the crust. My usual purchase is for a Scotch Tin, so of course I never tire of marching in and demanding "A large Scotch please".
Not getting out much this week, so please forgive yet another rummage in my drawers. At least it gives me an opportunity to go on about telephone service vans. Except they're not now, are they? Now they're appallingly signed white vans with mediocre graphics and that utterly meaningless marketing-speak word 'Openreach'. You can see the account team presenting it at BT Towers can't you, doing that irritating thing where they say the word whilst making quotation marks with their fingers. So, is this yet another thing where we're treated as just the next item to put its hand up in a call centre, (anyone who's had to sort out an internet problem with BT will know what I mean), or symptomatic of a much more general malaise? We see this 'Sod the Public' attitude (copyright Kingsley Amis) expressed in so much we have to just look at these days- let alone deal with- in what are supposed to be public services. Train and bus liveries, road signing, local council aberrations. Like so much else in our lives these days, as exhibited by those two unfunny arrogant idiots on Radio 2, it comes down to nobody thinking that courtesy is important anymore. Except the Unmitigated Reader of course. We know that we'd sooner have a deep bronze green telephone van with Her Majesty's crown on the side, wooden ladders and the tyre pressures marked above each wheel. It's not nostalgia, it's good order. And good manners of course.
My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like ran past my kitchen window in the rain the other day with this box clutched in her hand. I rushed out, delving in my pocket for a fiver. "You can keep your hands off" she said, "This is the Communal Mincer". Apparently it's shared between my neighbours for the odd sheep's head they need to render down, but kept safe in a central location. Memories of course came flooding back of my mother attaching one to the kitchen table, where I would watch in awe as bright pink worms sprouted out the end. If you look under any similar table of this particular vintage the chances are you will see a succession of circular indentations made by the screwing-up of the clamp. One mystery remains. The body of the mincer is blind-embossed with the word 'National'. I have a Price's Household Candles box of similar age, with 'National Wax' on the front. Rationing and short supply during the Second World War gave us National Starch, Milk and Margerine; so I can only suppose that this is a left-over, like a cold Sunday joint, from the same era. An economy issue, or simply a post war buzz word, like 'National Service'. I think I'll get a big bit of cow or similar tomorrow, just so that I can join the Monday morning queue in order to start mincing about.
As my poppy was pinned to my overcoat this week, I thought of this book. Arriving in W.H.Smith's in 1979 I think it was the fastest book purchase I ever made, sweeping it up and carrying it to the till without breaking step. The best £1.25 I ever spent, it introduced me to the poems of Wilfred Owen, but, especially for me, to the poetry of Edward Thomas, killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917. Thomas wrote not so much about the soldiers' experience, but more of the England (particularly the countryside) they had left behind. And it was this cover that did it. The photograph is by the late Tony Evans, who, over and above any other photographer, influenced the way I look at things. I met him briefly in the 70s, and it was his attention to detail and the obsessiveness of his fabulous images that had me scrabbling for my first Pentax. At first glance this is just a picture of poppies, but can you imagine how difficult they were to photograph in a studio? Anyone who has ever picked the flower knows that it dies virtually instantly in your hand, so, from what I remember, Tony dug a whole clump up, roots and all, and transported them back to his studio with his assistant watering them in the back of the van. And that black is the studio background. Penguin Books still use it, albeit not nearly as well printed, but it's still one of the best shots of poppies I know. More superb Evans' poppies, on location this time, can be seen in The Flowering of Britain and Flora Britannicaby Richard Mabey.
Knowing my predilictions, a friend lends me his copy of this postcard. The original owner is the last man in Leicestershire making proper old-fashioned mattresses, and as a boy helped dig the tank pit for the new-fangled petrol pump on the left. Apparently the landlord of The Crown in Theddingworth, George Smith, was told by a regular that he ought to be selling fuel "As there's no pump between Market Harborough and Husbands Bosworth" and paid for its installation, presumably for a cut of the ensuing profits. We reckon the safest, albeit vague, bet for a date is pre-war. But what a host of detail is in here. The petrol is Regent Super (with an added 'British'), the car is an early Leicestershire registration, and the beer is NBC. That's the Northampton Brewery Company, who took over the other firm on the sign, Market Harborough brewers Edey & Dulley. In an attempt to ensure their rightful place in heaven, Dulley's also provided the wherewithal to build the Wellingborough Strict Baptist Tabernacle where my grandfather was inducted as pastor in 1909. The local jibe that the chapel was built on beer barrels was ignored and never spoken about by his congregation or offspring. Except by my mother who thought it was very funny, considering everyone she knew as a child was not only teetotal but got very excited by the thought of a comforting bedtime Bournvita.
After the last two cough-inducing posts I have been advised to get out in the fresh air. So how about a ruined church in Norfolk at nine o'clock in the morning? Norfolk specialises in redundant churches, many falling to pieces in the middle of fields with just the odd crow or owl for company. This treasure is to be found down a cul-de-sac below the famous Appleton Water Tower on the Sandringham Estate, a drive down through a farmyard to where sheep graze around the iron fencing. Appleton church has a 12th century round tower, now covered in ivy and built in local pebbles, flint, brick and the carrstone that runs in a narrow band next to the coast of this part of West Norfolk. There are 179 standing round towers in England, of which about 140 are in Norfolk. They are assumed to be easier to build than square towers, but they're not. It's just a style thing. So here is Appleton, forgotten, but not lonely. You open a gate in the iron railings and wade chest-high through vegetation to where this porch is ablaze with colour in the autumn light. The next time you're here, turn off the coastal runs and get the Ordnance map out of the glove box. Within a very short distance of just this one ruin are two more locations marked in Old English black letter: 'Church (rems of)'.
Just a quick postscript to yesterday's Park Drive post, after receiving a request from Ron Combo asking what the Weights packet looked like. This is quite an early version, when brand names were often put in inverted commas for emphasis. Or emphysema. The design owes much to the first Weights packaging which was an envelope containing cigarettes sold by weight. Hence the name. The classic design pictured here was superceded by a pale beige pack with no excess decoration, and was the worse for it. A brand now forgotten, but immortalised in John Betjeman's Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden: "Coco-nut smell of the broom, and a packet of Weights / Press'd in the sand."
Park Drive cigarettes were Ulster manufacturer Thomas Gallaher's response in 1897 to the popularity of Woodbines. Cigarette Land had quirky regional preferences, and cheapo Park Drives were taken up as the fag-of-choice by the men of the Midlands. This was the cigarette I saw covertly cupped in the hands of road roller drivers, clamped in the mouths of hod carriers as they ascended ladders and, in my case, seen left burning on the edges of studio lightboxes and wash basins alike. In Cigarette Pack Art, Chris Mullen talks of the pack design as the most anarchic of the three snout contenders vying for the popular vote (the other two being Woodbines and Player's Weights). "...the swellings of the letters too extrovert in behaviour...". Will packaging archivists of the future talk in such terms of the Francis Bacon style photographs of diseased offal that now grace cigarette packs? "Sovereign upped the stakes with a graphic disembowelling". I love this little blank club card, and the thought of it being used to save for Christmas fripperies down at the newsagent. On the back there's an ad. for Manikin Cigars and a space for writing 'Goods Laid Aside'. Inside, above the columns for cash entries and signatures, it just says 'Park Drive For Pleasure'. Exactly.
I make no apology for indulging in a shameless plug for Mr. Meades' first DVD collection. He was very generous to me in both words and spirit by taking time (and a case of claret I think) to write a highly original preface to More from Unmitigated England, so I owe him one. Any of you out there who is kind enough to read this blog and its associated branch lines will appreciate these eleven beautifully eccentric films. As A.A.Gill wrote in The Sunday Times "Brilliant- even at his worst he's funnier, cleverer and sharper than anyone else on TV". I won't laboriously take you through every film, but if by some extraordinary quirk of fate you can only watch one, then my fervent recommendation would be for you to sit down with a metaphorical crate of Strongs of Romsey ale and glue yourself to Father to The Man (2007). Fifty minutes of corrugated iron, biscuits, Shell Guides (only Meades can get away with saying they were edited by "John Betjeman- the topographer not the poet") a Morris Minor Traveller in the obligatory bucolic green and a black stick standing-in for an eel. And always the buildings being given the Meades once-over, including the Great Disappearing Trick of the Netley Hospital outside Southampton. So sharpen your pencils and get that Christmas Wants List up the chimney.
On the way back from Norfolk, my attention was caught by this hugely atmospheric sight, dominating the flat fenland horizon. Even by fen standards this is remote country, a back road dog-legging across from the Thetford road in order to suddenly veer-off for Southery. Virtually the only thing on it is this glowering and steaming industrial plant. This is British Sugar's Wissington Factory to the south east of Downham Market, and I only went for a closer look so that you don't have to. In fact I've mentioned it before when I showed the level crossing gate in the hedge at Fordham, on a line once kept open just for this factory. (I checked it out and it's now just about completely grown over.) But back to Wissington. British Sugar reckon to process around 2.4 million tonnes of UK grown sugar beet here every year, the most impressive sugar production in the world, and in 2005 broke all records by dealing with 18,503 tonnes in just one 24 hour period. One can only guess at how many teaspoons that is. This is odd, surreal country. Virtually the only traffic is either bulging tankers or giant tractors and trailers thundering one after the other across the landscape. And for miles around the air is permanently flavoured with the all-invasive smell of cooking beet. Er, just milk please, no sugar.
An expedition into Norfolk, getting my trousers filthy in Sandringham photographing early morning fungi in oak woods. And so on to the accidental but thrilling discovery of the Perpendicular church of St.John the Evangelist in Oxborough. It was so quiet you could hear a leaf drop onto the grass that now covers the roofless nave. The north aisle remains, as does the Bedingfield Chapel (locked), but a flint wall now provides an entrance to a space for services in the old chancel. As I went through the open door I was suddenly aware of a loud viscious droning that could only be a huge wasps' nest up in the roof spaces. Craning my neck upwards I couldn't see it, but not wanting to be suddenly chased down the road by airborne attackers I tiptoed about taking quick nervous pictures of the exquisite harvest festival decorations on the window sills. I prayed that the noisy congregation wouldn't become aware of the shutter going off and wondered if I should tell a verger or passing churchwarden. I decided just to leave a cowardly note in the visitors' book, and took my leave with long purposeful strides in order to slink away in my car to Stoke Ferry.
You can still see it behind the trees, on the left once you've gone by the Stilton turn, southbound on the A1(M). The old road still passes right in front of this water tower, and my attention has always been drawn to it because somebody in the car would inevitably say "That's where Catweazle lives". A lone survivor, it once served a wartime airfield, a landmark doubtless watched out for by the anxious crews of crippled B17 Flying Fortresses swaying down to the runway. The 1943 aerodrome would have been called Conington, after the village it completely engulfed, but to avoid confusion with Coningsby in Lincolnshire the neighbouring village name was pressed into service by the USAAF. Their 457th Bomb Group arrived at Glatton in January 1944, and you can read all about their incredible missions here. One eerie postscript to Glatton, (part of which is now Peterborough Airport), is that the Second-in-Command, Lt.Col. William F.Smith, was the pilot who accidentally flew his B25 into the Empire State Building on a foggy July morning in 1945. It's worth taking the old road if you're ever near Conington, just so that you can stare up at this rusting tower and take a few minutes to remember the acts of sheer bravery and heroism that once started and finished at this aerodrome. There's a memorial on the grass just in front of the rapidly enveloping wood.
Talk about covering your backside. Believe it or not there are four of these comprehensive signs at each location where a new water main construction crosses a road in Rutland. There are even signs for a hundred yards in each direction warning you that there are going to be other signs. The fact that I've never seen anyone working anywhere near them is neither here nor there, and I expect you would wait a considerable length of time before you saw a hard-hatted construction worker get down from his Volvo Earthmover in order to study them. As with the mindless plastic signs that appeared down the road (see Round the Bend posting), all this nonsense is just to save somebody's hide if they end up in court. Still, I suppose it's better that all the safety notions are at least grouped on one board. They could be individual signs hung up all over the trees and hedges. Right, I now await one of the JCBs to come and scoop me up out of Ashley Towers to use as hardcore.
You know how we're always fascinated by other people's pantries? Well, I am. The covert look to see if there's any old brands knocking about, whether or not the owner is still hanging on to any Crosse & Blackwell's Mushroom Ketchup, whether they've got any guilty tins of All Day Breakfasts. If this looks like the contents of kitchen cupboards have just been thrown in a heap in the corner, you'd be right. This is the result of half the walls of Only Daughter's old kitchen being knocked down by a sledgehammer yesterday lunchtime so that two Men Who Know What They're Doing could put in an RSJ to hold the bathroom up. (One of them doing it with a fag on, excellent.) And so this jumble of general kitchen paraphernalia naturally caught my eye. The randomness of it all. The camcorder in the cutlery drawer, the hurried spent teabags (she'll kill me). That's it really. Just glad to see the staples of Colmans and Oxo are in there.
'Ere we go again' as the earwig said as he fell off the shelf. These crass, cheap plastic arrows recently appeared overnight like sprouting fungi at a junction near Ashley Towers. Phew, I'm so glad they've put them up, now I can stop driving straight off the road and into the field every time I come down here. The yellow jackets have so obviously been out with clipboards and biros to see where they can spend some money before a budgetary review. Any excuse that Leicestershire County Council gives about signs being put up as a result of what they call 'accidents and near misses' must be taken with a big pinch of road salt. Ever since motoring began they've never deemed this particular bend sufficiently nerve-racking to warrant even an ordinary sign on the approaches. I thought I'd ring the council's Freephone 'Roadline' to find out more. Apparently they only put new signs up if the police give them records of mishaps, real or imaginary, or we the public lobby for them. I won't bore you with all that passed between us, (I got the impression they were keeping me talking whilst they traced the call, like in The Bill), but one quote from them is worth repeating. "We don't care if we completely wreck the countryside if it saves lives". Oh. Right. That's OK then.
No, not a microscope image of the spaces between my toes but Lycoperdon pyriforme, a tiny version of the Giant Puff-ball so eagerly sought-after on these misty moisty mornings. I discovered this little group lining-up on a piece of rotting tree trunk on the margins of a wood next to the Clipsham Topiary Avenue in Rutland. Puff-balls are extraordinary, distributing their spores all around if gently knocked, or even if gently pattered upon by raindrops. The giant variety is supposed to release seven million million spores, which does make me wonder why I can't readily find them for my breakfast. But I suspect it may be something to do with my neighbour getting up earlier than me. As in blogs passim, I'm finding fungi more and more interesting, not as a supplement to my diet or as a way of radically altering my thought processes, but just for the way they look. They really are like alien invaders, the sinister infants of Ray Bradbury's Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellars! or the 'powdery prisoners' crowding to the door in Derek Mahon's poem A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford. Right, off to chop a horse mushroom into the Sunday breakfast. I just hope it doesn't squeal as it goes into the pan.
What is it about blokes photographing their breakfasts? This blog is in response to fellow blogee Ron Combo putting his half English up yesterday, an idle shot snapped whilst I listened to Martin Jones hammering-out Percy Grainger's Dished-Up For Piano Volume 1 over my toast. I also thought it very intercontinental that he has sausages and scambled egg in hot Piedmont as I pour espressos out from my new Bialetti on a foggy autumnal morning in Leicestershire. But none of this explains the need to photograph our food. I put my Sunday breakfast as the frontispiece to More from Unmitigated England, and I once travelled all over Europe with renowned lensman Carl Warner, (who has turned food photography into art, literally), snapping detergent factories, and every morning he got his Hasselblad out to go 'Ker-chunk' over croissants, wild boar salamis and giant handle-less cups of coffee. The only eyebrows that got raised in questioning surprise were in Saffron Walden. Well, it must have seemed a bit much, even there. So Ron, here's mine. The first slice of toast was spread with Gentleman's Relish, and the bottle of Badger Pumpkin Ale was the only thing moved into shot, an homage to Ron's Pedigree. I wonder if my lunchtime boiled egg will be this exciting.
Saturday saw a beautiful, sunny, placid day on the beach at Brancaster in Norfolk. The tide was in on our arrival, but it soon receded over the vast sandy levels of the Staithe harbour to be a just discernible blue line on the far horizon, leaving shallow channels streaked across the beach. Just perfect for launching one of Mr.Sutcliffe's tin model ships in order for it to bob along over sandworm casts and broken shards of razor shell. Youngest Boy had purloined said ship from the bathroom shelf, but we couldn't find the key that you stick down one of the funnels to get the propeller whirring. But it did provide some excellent photo opportunities as it drifted aimlessly about, Philip Larkin's '...steamer stuck in the afternoon...' from To the Sea. Sutcliffe Models will be remembered from seaside toy shops of the 50s and 60s- pale green Nautilus Submarines and topical Bluebirds. And dad's workshop or garage often had a bright red Sutcliffe Oil Can with its gold label on the shelf. I was fortunate enough to buy my tin liner from Mr.Sutcliffe himself. Having retired he hawked his remaining stock around toy fairs until one Saturday I spied his stall stacked with brightly-coloured tin. Which is all very well but it doesn't shed any light on where the missing key is.
As a blogger of ill repute, I am often asked "Mr.Ashley, you have mentioned Ashley Towers on more than one occasion, and wondered if there was any chance that we may see what your home looks like?". Well, I would have done it sooner of course, but it's been undergoing a lick of paint recently. This has not been an easy task, and I'm afraid that there were a lot of meaningful, if not rather heated discussions, with my decorator about the colours I wanted. As you can see, in my absence he has played a little, if rather expensive, practical joke on me with respect to the house name.
Of course those of you who are more alert and clear-headed than I am this morning will have spotted that this is in fact one of the fairground attractions at Blackpool's Pleasure Beach, shot yesterday afternoon on my first visit to this Lancastrian resort, having previously narrowly avoided it on my previous journeys to Fleetwood and Lytham St.Anne's. I could talk at much length about what I found, and probably will, but suffice it to say I could have stayed in here all day amongst the roller coaster and ghost train screams, and that sugary scent of candy floss. Roll up! Roll up!
So, while the light fails / On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel / History is now and England. T.S.Eliot wrote these lines in 1942, a tiny fragment of the poem Little Gidding that became the fourth of the Four Quartets- ..."turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade...". This tiny eponymous church was his inspiration, out in the fields of lonely Huntingdonshire. It wasn't winter on my visit, but the light was thinking about failing until I arrived at the door and the sun found its way around the clouds and through a tiny gap in the trees in order to light the west front and the single bellrope, or 'sally' as I now know it's called.Here was once a ruinous medieval church, restored by the religious community founded by Nicholas Ferrar in 1624. Much taken with hand-writing books and embroidery, they kept having to put down quills and needles in order to troop in here three times a day for services. Charles I came here three times, but by the 1650s it was all over. The west facade is of 1714, with a bellcote designed by someone who must have looked at Hawksmoor's London churches. Inside are collegiate-style pews facing the tiny aisle, and a visitors' book with biro'd comments from Eliot afficianados. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
And now the first in an occasional series of what's to be found on England's disappearing, and indeed vanished, highways. Yet another collection, and in collaboration with Commentator Diplomat, his roofless Landrover and battered motion picture camera, may even result in some little films. So I'm sure we'd both appreciate any sober and/or well thought-out comments. For my initial research for these improbable adventures, I drove on Saturday afternoon down the old Great North Road that still runs parallel to the A1(M) from Alconbury to Stilton, where huge tin motorway signs tower over the hedges. At one time this red brick farmhouse once stood right on the verge of the old road; difficult to date but I would say anywhere from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century. The doubtful bay windows would have been plonked on the front at least forty years ago. The farm has gone, broken-up in the sixties, and what you see here is about to be demolished anytime now. A very slow death for what was once a family home with everything from the latest landau to the latest Standard Vanguard speeding past the door. This banner has been up for five years and didn't need planning permission like wooden hoardings do. Look out for it over the hedge just before junction 14 (the A14) on a southbound journey, and pip your horn in recognition of the disappearance of a home from quiet, forgotten Huntingdonshire.
Stumbled over this morning, a brochure for Vauxhall Cars celebrating their 1903-1953 Jubilee. The cover sports the six cylinder Velox, seen here with five airbrushed passengers deliberately dwarfed to make the car look bigger, presumably to impress the American market, and of course owners General Motors. But perhaps of equal interest are the origins of the name Vauxhall and their recently re-vamped Griffin badge. It all started with a thirteenth century mercenary soldier called Faulk Le Breant, who inherited land on the south of the Thames in London where he built a house- Faulk's Hall. This evolved over the years via Fawke's Hall and Fox Hall to Vauxhall, the name given to the renowned Pleasure Gardens built on the site of the house. Le Breant's armorial badge used the eagle-headed griffin, which was placed over the gate when the Gardens opened in 1661. In the nineteenth century the badge was appropriated by local manufacturers Vauxhall Ironworks, who retained it when they starting making cars in 1903 and on their subsequent relocation to Luton. The griffin is also used by Saab, and other mythical beasts goaded into service on motor cars must include Alfa Romeo's serpent, Talbot's hunting dog and the Gilbern's Welsh dragon. (That's enough old car badges-Ed.)
As the world was probably going to end this morning, I thought I'd better get out and take some last pictures. (Actually, I can't work this collider thing out at all. If the cosmic ray is travelling at the speed of light, why did it take half-an-hour to go eight miles? Last night I shone my torch from the house to the garden shed and it lit up instantly. The world didn't end but my neighbour did call the police.) Anyway, apocalypse or not I had to travel across the Welland Valley for a meeting, and on the way back photographed these two water troughs served by springs. The top picture is of one set in the wall of East Carlton Park in Middleton, a tiny annexe to the village of Cottingham in Northamptonshire. A stone plaque gives a date of 1844 and the initials 'IHP', so I take the fountain to be an altruistic gesture of one of the Palmer family at the big house. The lower picture is of a less fanciful example just outside the next village, Ashley (no comment). A trough let into the grass verge that has been maintained by local farming families since 1884, built in the same blue engineering bricks that would have featured on the LNWR railway nearby. Locals once brought their cars down here for Sunday car washing. So while electron particles whizz about creating black holes under Switzerland, here by the willow-fringed Welland we'll just stick to staring at water gushing out of damp walls.
A muddy rain-sodden walk in the woods on Saturday afternoon revealed exciting discoveries on the margins. Wakerley Great Wood, seven miles south west of Stamford, is a rich mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees that conceal a number of steep-sided dips in the ground called 'swallow holes' where the limestone crust under the soil has collapsed. These were of course of great fascination to my boys, who crashed about in the undergrowth with big sticks in order to lay claim to them as I knelt trying to focus the camera on oozing clumps of bright red berries. Researches have been carried-out in the Ashley Towers Library, and the most likely creator of the eyeball-popping display shown here is the honeysuckle. I simply had no idea that such a headily-scented plant could suddenly produce fruit like this in the autumn. For botanists and gardening buffs I believe it to be Lonicera periclymenum, and certainly you wouldn't want to eat it unless you fancied a few days in casualty. I hope I've got this right and it doesn't just kill you outright if you look at it for too long, but I'm more certain about it than I was about that horror film fungus creeping out of the ash tree.
And so to London.First to a friend's first one man exhibition at the Smithfield Gallery- big, stunning blow-ups of orange peel and the like called Second Skin. And thence on a pilgrimage with Mr.Wilkinson, brought about by us both having recently gorged ourselves on Antonioni's film of things seen (or not) in the London of 1966. Our quest was for Maryon Park, a fair old leg down the Woolwich Road from Charlton station. On screen David Hemmings finds an aeroplane propeller in an antique shop and then proceeds to go snapping in the park. Back in his Notting Hill studio he blows up the black and white negatives to such a degree that he feels justified in thinking that he's inadvertently photographed a murder, and that there's a corpse in the bushes. As we see the giant black and white images revealed, the quiet atmosphere and rustle of the trees in the park is evoked once again.
Well, the shop and terraced houses have gone, replaced by 70's flats, but once inside Maryon Park the curious enigmatic feeling, given-off so powerfully in the film, is virtually intact. Again, all that we heard was the moving of the bushes and trees, and the chock-chock of people playing tennis behind the wire fences of the courts. One is normally disappointed when visiting the locations of favourite films, but I defy anyone who has immersed themselves in Blow-Up not to be moved by Maryon Park. The only trouble is, I got a thorn stuck into my thumb, which last night also started to enlarge. The image is courtesy of WilkoFilms.
Wandering about Market Harborough's 'antiques' market this morning, I espied this little booklet displayed very prominently in order to catch my eye. "Two pounds dear", the lady said. I didn't say anything so she said "Alright then, a pound". Thankyou I said and slipped it into the bag that already contained a Batsford book and a 1970's empty packet of Player's. The cover did it for me of course, I've always had a thing about girls in white-spotted red dresses, but then I gulped in pleasure when I saw the photograph of The Village Sweet Shop. I suppose I expected the sample pictures to be the usual shots of Mevagissey, people ski-ing or girls in one-piece swimsuits climbing-up out of outdoor lidos. But just look at what we have here, apart from the Cadbury's thin white metal letters on the window, glass jars of sweets and a Lyon's Maid litter bin. The girl is holding a teddy bear by its ear, the boy is wearing a proper school blazer and has sandals exactly like the ones I hated wearing about this time- 1961. I imagine that the photograph was taken in the early morning, because if you look through the door (with a 'Mind Your Head' notice above it) you can see that the ices and lollies display board has not been put out on the pavement yet. If anybody knows where this is I'll buy them a Strawberry Mivvi.
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)