Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Snip Snip

In the world of topiary, this must be the evergreen equivalent of the terracotta army. One hundred and fifty yews, painstakingly cut into representations of Spitfires, anchors, windmills, three bears, dogs, lie just off the Clipsham to Castle Bytham road in Rutland. There's apparently an elephant in here somewhere too. Estate worker Amos Alexander started clipping away in 1870 at the yews which lined the carriage drive that stretched from his gate lodge home to Clipsham Hall. Most of these green giants are over 200 years old, and every September they get a short-back-and-sides from the Forestry Commission, whose badly-designed sign at the entrance makes one worry about what might be sheared-out in the future. Yews trimmed into I-Phones, Gordon Brown's rictus smile.

It's bit like suddenly finding yourself in Alice's Wonderland, expecting any minute that playing cards will run out from between the trees, or at the very least a pig baby crying in the surrounding woods. But it is an amazing place to walk, particularly as I did on a cold sunlit winter's afternoon when the black shadows give definition to the cut-out shapes. Later it must get very eerie here, as I expect they all start to silently shuffle about in the gloaming.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Pillars of the Community

More from Exton. Everyone (including me, as you have seen), gets carried away by Exton church and the monuments. Pevsner rushed through, barking at his assistants about lucarnes and stiff-leaf; Hoskins kept coming back before going over to Tixover churchyard for forty winks. Both missed (or ignored) this little building up at the top end of the village. There's nothing grand about it, just a set of pillars carefully constructed in curved bricks holding up a roof of Collyweston slates with a ball and cross finial on top. Exton was once an important staging post between Leicester and the Great North Road, (the Fox and Hounds pub on the tree-lined green still bears witness to this), and I had thought that this was a market cross. But I am reliably informed that it is in fact the housing for a now extinct village pump. It has immense charm, and I was looking forward to saying that it doesn't take much imagination to make the grass and trees disappear, replacing them with a rough cobbled area filled with wooden crates of vegetables, trestle tables stacked with butter and eggs. Nevertheless, this was still a meeting place for villagers, albeit with buckets rather than baskets, their children playing tag around the brick pillars whilst they gossiped and sheltered from the rain.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Exton Jam

Exton in Rutland is a funny old place. At once both quintessentially English and slightly odd to get to grips with, it is a village full of good things whichever way you look. Amongst the best is the 1686 Grinling Gibbons monument to the Third Viscount Campden in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, but I don't want to spoil the surprise of it by showing the whole towering edifice here. Gibbons pocketed £1,000 for it, and must have heaved a very seventeenth century sigh of relief that it actually did just fit into the north transept. So as a taster I give you this relief panel that sits at the base, a graphic rendering of his third wife and her six children. The next wife is up above, and, like her husband and the rest of his extended family, is depicted in the de rigeur fashion of the times, viz: enrobed in (and in some cases erotically emerging from) full Roman costume. Thoughtfully the church has provided spot lights on a timer that highlight the simply colossal pile of both white and dark grey marble. It comes as almost another kind of relief to find jars of homemade jam with little cotton-print covers for sale on the visitors' book table. I came home with greengage.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Wonky Wessex

A wet morning in Dorset, trawling about the exquisite hamlets in the Cerne valley between Charminster and Lyon's Gate. Everything brooding in a very Hardyesque manner, except this is more Rogue Male country, at least for those who frequently return to the pleasures of Geoffery Household's novel. Oil lit churches, flint-walled cottages under hoods of thatch and then this, leaning precipitously in Minterne Magna. One can only hope that your phone call isn't violently interrupted by the whole thing finally toppling down the grassy bank, trapping you like Sleeping Beauty in a glass coffin. The missing sign from the the back wall is fastened into the hedge of a nearby cottage with what looks like those tags you use to tie-up freezer bags. But at least it's all a timely reminder of when a telephone company leaned over backwards to help you.

Signing Policy

Long Melford has much to please the eye. A big Suffolk wool church, a village green bordered by both a turreted gateway and a gabled garden building for the Hall, plus a red brick conduit house surrounded by the sweeping greensward.
But, whilst these eyecatchers don't exactly pale into insignificance, it was this little building that brought about the squealing of brakes and an abrupt u-turn yesterday afternoon.
In 1868 a Mr. Row was station master at Long Melford station. Possibly as a result of reading his staff magazine and newspapers, his eyes must have narrowed at the commercial possibilities of insuring passengers against railway mishaps. And so this little office opened, and was so successful that Mr. Row left the Great Eastern Railway and went into the insurance business full-time. Remarkably, that's what still goes on here, with the name Row still shining on the brass plates outside. Once restricted to just carefully-incised stone lettering, signing additions have subsequently appeared in a very ad hoc fashion over the years, creating, for me, a high spot on the high street..

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Product Support

Since there has been considerable support for my showing-off one of my most treasured Christmas presents, here it is. My neighbour brought it round on Christmas Eve, beautifully wrapped, and said 'I've been looking for a good home for this for years'. What can she possibly mean? It comes from that era of English design where certain product packaging simply couldn't speak the name of the item within. We found it with contraceptive devices, trusses and other 'unmentionables' and even though everyone understood what a 'jockstrap' was, even its polite name of 'male support' couldn't be seen here. All we know from this box is that the mystery contents are 'hygienic, washable, durable', that it 'supports and protects' and that 'Wise Men buy Two'. Apart from that, I see that it was originated and manufactured by Fred Hurtley & Son in Keighley, Yorkshire, where you'd have thought they'd have been a bit more no-nonsense about it. Nevertheless, the graphics are superb and I certainly would have been sufficiently intrigued to give the Mayfair Model a thorough roadtest.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Oil and Gravy

You don't see many of these hump-backed dispensers around much either. For those unfamiliar with their use, a garage proprietor would grab those two handles at the top and let down the shutter with the classic logo emblazoned on it. He probably did this first thing in the morning, closing it at night after the last Morris Oxford had left the forecourt. Having checked your dipstick with a greasy rag, if necessary he would pump oil up from a drum held in the cupboard underneath, straight into either a green metal quart, pint or half pint pouring jug, again with the evocative logo on the side. It was all about personal service for your motor car, rather than having a vapid youth sell you wilting flowers in stifling cellophane to leave at a road accident. I say all this because I have sourced these jugs, which are still made to the exact same specification. The thought occurs that they would make superb gravy boats, although the quart one I might put to one side until I can dispense Pimms from it at my first garden party of the summer. I photographed this dispenser somewhere in remote east Leicestershire sometime in the seventies, although by now it's bound to be the centrepiece in a singles bar called The Garage, working hard as a vodka luge no doubt.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Stamping About

I popped out to the next village just now for the paper and a scotch egg. And I thought about how lucky I was to be able to use a country village post office, not only a mile or so down the road, but also still open. I won't say where it is exactly, in case a grey suited administrator looks it up on his grey list and thinks 'Ooh, missed that one. Get the padlocks out'. Much has been said about the demise of the post office recently, and I won't add my usual acerbic comments about how I feel. But here, just behind the ironstone church, is where I can get milk in real glass bottles with foil caps (albeit often from a dairy in Tewkesbury for some strange reason), local bread, homemade pies, the odd vegetable, samosas, chocolate cake, bottles of wine, newspapers; and still buy stamps, get Special Deliveries sent and chat up the post mistress. And buy scotch eggs.

Creature Feature 2

Cattle markets are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. My local is now a shivering tin hut next to a maximum security prison, when trade once went on in a brilliant building at the centre of Market Harborough's market. Full marks to the council who made Sainsbury's restore it before it became the centrepiece of their car park. It still says 'Settling Room' over one of the doors, which a dear friend of mine thought was where they calmed the animals down after their journeys in from the surrounding farms. This gate pier is still extant on one side of the now defunct Leicester Cattle Market; hinged from it is a cast iron gate with lettering saying 'Horses' fashioned into it. There's still the clock tower and another building, but they're now marooned in a sea of used car lots and a multiplex cinema. But isn't this wonderful. The severed heads of a boar like a medieval banquet table decoration and a particularly horny specimen of a ram.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Langton Messiah

One of my favourite local buildings. This is Church Langton rectory in Leicestershire, sitting in front of you as you navigate the village (one of five Langtons) on the Market Harborough to Melton Mowbray road with a small green and signpost out at the front. I find something satisfyingly timeless about it, with sunlight on the Georgian orange brick, the feeling that perhaps the rector is within, preparing his sermon to be preached in the equally satisfying Perpendicular church at the back. Except he isn't anymore. The building, started in 1778 by one of the long line of Church Langton Hanburys, is flanked on either side by pedimented screens designed to make the building look more imposing. They are simply dummies, a nice Georgian trompe d'oeil touch. Where did all the money come from? Well, the father of the builder was the Rev. William Hanbury, a man of great means whose twin passions of music and arboriculture led to a two day fundraising festival here in 1759. Handel's Messiah was performed, a few months after the composer's death in April. The country lanes were jammed for miles with the carriages of the nobility, and once the hotels in Market Harborough were full, accommodation was offered in much humbler abodes. When the trumpets and kettle drums started up the common people became sore afraid, thinking it was the Day of Judgement.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Hot Oil & Blue Exhaust

I include this old boy because there are frequent visitors to this blog (you know who you are) who will get very, very, excited by it. Not for them the pristine over-restored specimens paraded in front of admiring crowds at agricultural shows- 'And here's Dick Blogwort on his 1953 Mudslinger, good to see you here again Dick'- but far rather something half-disintegrating into a hedge.This will be pulled out by an equally disintegrating Landrover in order to spend another five years distintegrating further in the corner of a dusty barn with sparrows twittering up in the roof, half-covered in a grimy tarpaulin. I just love it, it's that Pleasing Decay thing that John Piper introduced us to, the fact that some things are very satisfying if just left alone to disappear of their own accord. Not that this tractor wouldn't be fun to drive again- at least two of my commentators would have it going in seconds however long it had been resting-up on this patch of Rutland. A tuneless fanfare through a rolled-up copy of the Farmers Weekly for the first to identify it.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Landmark Phone Boxes

Maybe in two hundred years time intrepid travellers will start to wonder why remote crossroads are often marked with a red (or by that time a very pale pink) cast iron box with the wind whistling through the fretwork of open spaces. Futuristic fingers, which evolution has elongated by digital 'txtng', will perhaps trace the raised letters round the back that reads 'Carron Ironfounders', and wonder what this strange hieroglyph can possibly mean. The original purpose will, as perhaps for the younger generation now, be impossible to fathom, but the embossed crest will still tell of a long-forgotten monarch. Eventually some long-bearded professor will publish his researches which will tell an astonished world that DNA samples taken over a widespread area led him to conclude that they were in fact public conveniences.

Landmark Firs

Have you ever noticed how many junctions and crossroads out in the English countryside (and indeed elsewhere) are marked with towering Scotch Firs? Easily dismissed as just tall trees, either in someone's garden if it's in a village, or a nice landscape grouping if it's more isolated. But these trees were not indigenous to southern England, and whilst self-seeded from their forebears, the originals were deliberately planted in a very dim and distant past to mark critical points on trackways, be it a crossroads, junction or simply to act as a waymark. A species chosen because their silhouettes remained constant even in winter months, and certainly because they differed from almost every other tree around them. Alfred Watkins briefly mentions them in his 1925 The Old Straight Track, devoting a whole chapter to Mark Trees, and so of course we get side-tracked into the megalithic world of ley lines and long funny cigarettes. But this year, albeit only six days old, these magnificent trees have suddenly risen up into my consciousness, and I fear yet another collection is looming. The 2009 Peter Ashley Calendar of Landmark Firs. Which will sell five copies. (That many, I hear you say.)

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Aconite Acolyte

And so here we are. All that Christmas jostling and shoving, and that was just to get to the bar. So we arrive in 2008, and those dull, dark days that so often welcome in a new year. But now the nights will start getting longer until spring breezes rustle through the first hawthorn buds in the hedgerows. I once lived in north east Northamptonshire, ten years in a Georgian gamekeeper's cottage, an isolated stone lodge against sombre woods. And once the cards had been taken down from their strings and the tree lights well and truly entangled for next year, it was always a particular joy in the first days of January to wander up the garden path through the 'orchard' as we euphemistically called it, to take a look at a patch of earth under a stubborn old greengage tree. And there, pushing up through the dead autumn leaves, would always be the first tight globes of winter aconite, gathering themselves into a carpet that would very soon burst into these yellow cups. I always took them to be the first sign of hope and renewal, and I share them with you to wish you a Very Happy New Year. (That wasn't too Patience Strong was it?)