Monday, 31 July 2017

In The Pink

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.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Iron Age

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.

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.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Grass Collection

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.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Strange Beds

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.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Scrapbook Scrap No 2

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.