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.
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