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.
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