Monday, 22 December 2008

Once a year

And so it came to pass. Saturday night saw us in the East Sussex village of Rottingdean with the Mummers Play peculiar to that place. Most villages in England had their own version of this traditional drama in years gone by. Folklorists such as the redoubtable Doc Rowe have made proper studies of this bucolic street (or to be more accurate) pub theatre and have amassed scores of different texts. The thread that joins them all together however is the age-old theme of death and resurrection but their origins are lost in a swirl of time and beer. Characters vary but are likely to include any or all of the following, or more - Father Christmas, The Prince of Wales (or any other monarch) A Soldier, Twing Twang (or any other ridiculously-named village idiot), The Doctor, A Turkish Knight, Little Black Jack or Beelzebub, and a Widow. I believe the purists call this a 'Hero Combat ' play but since I haven't Wikepedia'd it I couldn't comment one way or the other. What I do know is that the Rottingdean play was committed to paper by it's last surviving performer, my wife's grandfather, Jim Copper. Tellingly he wrote beneath the text, 'Faded out 1896'. He was right, too, for his contemporaries had either lost interest or the older players had died and Jim performed the whole play himself one last time in (I imagine) a sort of Tommy Cooper fast hat changing routine. As with his repertoire of songs, however, he was determined that the play wouldn't die, but it was a long delayed fuse that was re-lit in 1971 when various members of the family resurrected it and it's been going ever since. The veracity of the play is confirmed by Angel Thirkell, novelist and granddaughter of Burne-Jones who lived in Rottingdean. The play was traditionally performed in the pubs and the big houses around the village centre and she lived in three of them; in her book 'The Three Houses' she records the annual visit of the Mummers to her home, describing the mens uncomfortable shufflings and awkwardness, also the smell of sweaty corduroys after they'd left. Still, they'd picked up a few shillings in beer money from the wealthy and great. We now confine our 'performances' solely to two pubs in the village and one back at our 'Prince of Wale's' own establishment just up the road in New Anzac. This provides more than enough opportunity to become refreshed with Harveys best bitter and the sword fights, an intrinsic part of this jolly drama, become ever more daring and vibrant. The play concludes with our ringing the ancient Rottingdean handbells, the sight and sound of which is well worth the (non) price of admission, what with there not being quite enough bells, some of the clappers being missing and nobody possessing any skill whatsoever. This does not deter however and we make a brave, if confused stab at at least five carols. The audience, all valiant with ale themselves applaude rapturously as we tumble towards the welcoming bar for a fresh injection of the Lewes medicine. Having been killed for the third time this evening I am once more resurrected, and live, I sincerely hope, to fight another year.Christmas has finally arrived and through this ridiculously charming play we've been given a small glance into what passed for entertainment in years gone by. One thing's for sure...they had fun.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Tricycles are nicycles with icicles

More petrol-based stuff I'm afraid but Sunday was my baptism of fire concerning the Morgan Trike. My bro-in-law has recently purchased one of these devices, a Morgan Aero circa 1932. The occasion of our journey was a meeting of The Morgan Three Wheeler Club in miserable weather conditions but taking us on a wondrous route through darkest Sussex. Eccentricity is the name of the game where these game little cars are concerned. Fortunately, 'ours' has three speeds and reverse, whilst earlier models have two speeds and no reverse which makes for interesting manoevering. The ice generated around the carburettor on such a day as Sunday would have gladdened the heart of Frosty the Snowman and seriously increased our fuel consumption. Naturally, once we had become lost a couple of times we ran out of petrol, and whilst contemplating our lot, what should hove into view but a half-timbered Morris Minor, the jovial driver of which made free with his spare can of the precious fluid. On our way once more we fair scuttled along scattering leaves and squirrels before us. The sensation of speed is heightened by the vehicle's being so low - you can place the flat of your hand on the road from the seated position when stationary. Nevertheless it will achieve around 80mph which I should imagine is a truly trouser-changing experience. Not being the sort of fellow who is naturally clubable I was pleasantly surprised by these Mogmen and women...a usefully eccentric bunch, they more than matched their cars which happily took them on jaunts across the Channel to places such as Latvia. Suffice to say we had such fun in this car that I have to say I wouldn't mind one myself. The game's afoot!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Gordon's for a tonic.

Another extremely poor shot grabbed on the camera phone as I went in. I almost hesitate to mention this place. It's so wonderful. In Villiers Street the institution which since the 1890s has been Gordon's Wine bar never fails to provide a haven for the weary ad man. An unprepossessing entrance takes you down into, well, a cellar, or series of them. In some parts it's barely posssible to stand upright - and that's before you've imbibed. It's quite gloomy down there as indeed it should be with candles providing much of the illumination, and the flaking walls carry an eclectic mix of printed ephemera - a brave Victorian lithograph of some Boer War action here, or an old Music Hall poster there. You come here to drink wine or it's fortified cousins, sherry or port. Nothing else. The bottles are stacked behind the bar in rank after gorgeous rank and the soft squeak and 'pop' of corks being drawn is the only musical accompaniment to the jolly badinage of the disparate clientele. A perfect spot for assignations, couples who shouldn't be, huddle at rickety tables their faces desperately longing, candlelit in a sad chiaroscuro. Tragic and romantic. Merry businessmen of the camel coat and velvet collar kind get stuck into port and talk of National Hunt Racing and the 'little filly ' who's Robert's new secretary. Tourists sit in wonder and can't quite believe where it is they are - it's so far removed from the London of gloss and glitter. It's rumoured that 'operatives' of HM government frequent the place...but how could we tell if they did? If you've had a good lunch somewhere in Town I recommend that you skip the dessert and make for Gordon's and enjoy a glass or two of Port and a plate of Stilton. Cool in Summer, warm in Winter, Gordon's is the perfect place to waste your time.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Is it a plane, is it a car?

This wondrous device was seen at Prescott earlier this year. Constructed by the omni-talented Roger Smith it is a reconstruction of the French Leyat propellor-driven car of the 1920's. There are contemporary photographs of such devices cruising the Champs Elysées although the handling with their rear wheel steering must have been 'exciting'. You'll note that there is a pedestrian strainer across the front of the prop and the whole shebang is powered with, I believe a flat twin ABC engine contemporary with the period. It seems unbelievable now that such a machine could have been developed as a serious competitor to the regular motor car and indeed its survival rate appears to be quite low. There exists a wonderful book covering the exploits of the 'constructeur' as he demonstrated his brainchild throughout France. A fine heavily patinated touring example is on display at the fabulous Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. The one illustrated is a saloon and true to the original is built entirely on lightweight aircraft principles with much wire cross-bracing and canvas seating. This crazily exotic contraption is a joy to behold as it tail-twitches its way up the road conducted by whom?...a pilot or a driver?

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Cinquecento in a corner

In Dublin for just two days last week and among the modern buildings and re-development was a phenomena which I thought had all but dissappeared. The city centre garage. High rates and property prices have driven away many lock-ups and 'maintenance' sheds that were once a feature of railway arches and the less than salubrious parts of our cities. But here in a side road not far from Pearce Street is one such place. Gleaming at the back is a Fiat 500 surrounded by the detritus of the motor trade. The shot is not brilliant because as I was busy 'Litchfielding', a surly son of Erin arrived back after a test drive and I beat a hasty retreat lest I should feel the power of his mighty knuckles which definitely looked on the cards. I remember working late into the night in such dens trying to coax old bangers back to life or through a final MOT. There's something about the heady aroma of oil, petrol and residual carbon monoxide all bathed in stark neon lighting, that makes me think '"I'm glad I haven't got that corroded Ford Anglia anymore".

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Bauhaus in Bexhill

The shabby gentility that is Bexhill-on-Sea boasts the wonderful De La Warr Pavilion. This 1935 Modernist masterpiece was the work of Erich Medelsohn who won the RIBA competition for its design. Mendelsohn, a contemporary of Bauhaus stalwarts, Walter Gropius, Breuer and Moholy Nagy came to Britain following the rise of German Nazism. The Earl De La Warr was socialist mayor of Bexhill and it was he who persauded the local council to develop this prime site for their own social purposes. Mendlesohn, in partnership with British architect Serge Chermayeff presented a radical design involving ferro-concrete over a steel frame. The building was to comprise a hall seating 1500 and also included a 200 seater restaurant and other areas which would probably be described as ‘break-out zones’ in ghastly modern parlance, which now serve as shop, galleries and public spaces. The result remains a triumph - the perfect seaside building, so light and airy and where you are always aware of the outside weather conditions. To the South there’s a fabulous spiral staircase which takes you to the restaurant and which contains this extraordinary lamp of polished aluminium and neon tubes. Set in the floor is the circular plaque reminding us of the designer and of the opening date. On a sunny day this stark white building is incredibly dramatic and still has the power to inspire. Do visit if you get the chance - the restaurant and bar serve good food and there’s usually an interesting exhibition in progress...which is why I was there. There's a Ben Nicholson exhibition until January and it's a real stunner! A well curated show of works made throughout his life, from figurative to abstract and back again. I’d always admired his father William’s work as illustrator, lithographer and creator of that beautiful graphic alphabet - his son is very different, but equally fascinating. Ben was married to Barbara Hepworth, the second of his three wives and clearly the two fed off each others prodigious talents. The Pavilion somehow seems the perfect space in which to view these paintings.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Winged Wheel

This sign is to be found on the wall of 'The Smugglers Inn' Alfriston, East Sussex and is kept in good repair. When first erected, you can imagine the Edwardian scene as intrepid bicyclists rode out from Lewes or Eastbourne to descend upon this picturesque Downland village - daring 'gels' and dashing blades speeding along on their single speed Rudges and Sunbeams with probably an enforced break or two to mend a puncture caused by the horseshoe nails that would have littered the lanes. The reward of a refreshing glass of Fryco lemonade and a plate of scones at the end of the ride would have spurred them on to greater feats of derring-do.  Long beloved of tourists, the 'tea Shoppe' trade still flourishes here and yet the pubs too have their place. The ancient 'Star' with its George and Dragon carvings over the door and its ferocious carved lion ships' figurehead is simply beautiful in its gloomy 'shaft of sunlight' saloon bar way. An early 'Trust House' Inn, it has been 'got at' over the years but still maintains a majesty that would be difficult to subdue. People like EV Lucas and the early guide book pioneers never failed to list its charms. Alfriston also supports the admirable 'Much ado about books' bookshop; run by a charming Bostonian (that's Mass. rather than Lincs) they specialise in the sort of titles that might find favour and stimulate the interest of the readers of Peter Ashley's 'Unmitigated' books for instance. It's a pleasant village probably best visited in the Autumn, Winter and Spring, for the tourist hoards can be oppressive. Not to be confused with Alciston, which Sussex in her perverse way places about four miles westward...nice and much loved by author and film maker Peter James.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

By the side of the road

All over France, just as in Britain, there are memorials to the dead of both the previous world wars. Sometimes in the middle of nowhere you catch sight of a simple engraved stone at the roadside and I've made habit of stopping and looking at them when time permits. Mostly these 'hidden' memorials are to members of the Maquis, the partisans, who continued the fight for France after she fell into German hands. Sometimes they are placed at the site of a skirmish, at other times where there had been a pitched battle. On French Armistice Day, however remote these these locations may be, they are decorated with tricoleurs and flowers. There is something so enduringly moving about the fact that young men and women who died in such tragic circumstances are sought out and remembered in this way, that it makes an old cynic like me feel not only humble but thankful too. Forgetting the politics and the machinations of nations, I think instead of the individual human sacrifice; each has a story to tell, each had a life unfulfilled each left a terrible void in a family somewhere. Here too at this time of year I make a personal pilgrimage to a lonely churchyard carved into the side of the North Downs. The tombstone in the South East corner of the graveyard bears my name, the same as that of a Sergeant Air Gunner, killed at the age of just twenty, the uncle I never knew. I spend a few moments in quiet thought, remove the small wooden cross that's still there from last year and replace it with a new one. In the unlikely event that people pass this way, they will know that this young man is still remembered.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The last, I promise...

After all my fine words, I had to stay in and do my homework last night. The nearest I got to Lewes was to experience the aural sensations of the big societies' set-pieces exploding with a noise like thunder and clearly felt down here on the coast. Judging by the number of maroons going up, the Newhaven Lifeboat must have gone in and out at least fifty times. By all accounts it was a successful night with a fine construction of Messrs. Brown and Darling being exploded by the Commercial Square Society as their set piece. Numbers were down a little with normally difficult-to-get-at vantage points being (relatively) easy to secure. A combination of bad weather and it being mid-week were contributing factors to the smaller crowds but the atmosphere was reportedly as good as it ever is. The photograph taken by my mate Paul Lucas is not from this year but is pretty representative of the scene viewed from the bottom of School Hill. As I spoke to him in on his mobile in the town this morning I could hear Rook Scarers still going off...they don't let Bonfire go that easily.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Crash, bang, wallop!

It being that most sacred day in Lewes, November 5th this is all I have to offer at the moment. This morning at 6.30am down in New Anzac on Sea I heard an explosion which heralds the days' doings in our county town some five miles distant. The bonfire boys have greeted another anniversary in their long tradition of celebrating the disemboweling of Guido Fawkes and the remembrance of the burning of protestant martyrs outside what is now the town hall. The town supports several bonfire societies whose members spend all year preparing for their day of days. Torches are made by the thousand and 'Lewes Rousers' (a particularly violent and powerful type of Rook scarer) are stuffed into bags ready for chucking around the feet of the crowds tonight. The atmosphere has been building for weeks - collecting tins shaken in the streets, collectors dressed in their costumes, programmes being sold. Giant papier maché effigies are made in conditions of high secrecy in order that the 'enemies of bonfire' are not revealed until the last moment. We've been treated to all sorts over the years from George Bush to General Galtieri, to Maggie Thatcher, to local politicians. They're always superbly crafted, irreverent, often crude in subject matter and stuffed full of fireworks and explosives... at the end of the evening having been dragged through the streets (these things are huge) they are ignited to huge applause and joysome noise. Bonfire concludes with Bonfire Prayers said around the war memorial on School Hill after which rites of passage, lunacy or substance abuse cause some persons to run through the glowing embers of the spent torches. They feel no pain - until tomorrow.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The pound in your pocket

Introducing The Lewes Pound. Well it's been around for a while now and seems to be catching on in the town. As an idea to stimulate trade within the borough, it's caught on. You can buy your pounds at certain centres including the town hall and spend them in participating shops and pubs (and that seems to include most of the places you actually might want to shop or drink) - naturally Sid the supermarket supremo in any of his guises will have nothing to do with the scheme. If at any time you feel worried that you don't have 'real' money in your pocket you can exchange your Lewes note for a gold coloured clod. You can have them as change and thus increase circulation. The note itself is properly watermarked and has all the familiar swirls and flourishes so beloved of the engraver (sorry, Mac operator), it' s numbered too and the admirable Harveys brewery has a weekly draw based upon such numbers being in the lucky winners posession. A fine study of Lewes' most influential citizen, Tom Paine adorns the front and also an image of Lewes castle creeps into the local iconography. All this as you would expect from the town whose drinkers defeated, nay trounced, the mighty Greene King in a fight to have their local beer still served in one of Lewes' favourite pubs - The Lewes Arms.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

How much longer?

This Victorian letterbox is set in the wall of the old vicarage in Telscombe, East Sussex. Allegedly inhabited by the drummer of a famous rock band, the building is in fine repair and the post is still collected faithfully from this long-serving receptacle. You can't help but wonder how much longer this will all last, what with village post offices closing wholesale and the inexorable rise of email (try sending a parcel, mind). The physical presence and survival of these cast iron symbols of another age is nothing short of miraculous and serves to remind us that there were complaints in late 19th century London that letters posted in the city were not delivered within four hours. My how times change. Still, I for one am pleased that there are so many survivors. Telscombe village by the way is 'on the road to nowhere' and is as pretty a spot as you could wish to find, sitting in a deep hollow of the South Downs just a few miles south of Lewes. The benevolent squire of the village, back in the 'noughties, 'teens and twenties of the last century was named Ambrose Gorham. A successful bookmaker, Gorham bequethed the village and farmland to Brighton Corporation and it belongs, administered by The Gorham Trust, to, I suppose, the City of Brighton and Hove to this day. There was never a pub which has kept the place quiet and largely free of visitors, but the Squire built a social club for the benefit of the villagers. This' turf accountant' owned a Grand national winner 'Shannon Lass' and photographs of various horse racing triumphs once adorned the walls of the club. There is a most attractive church (of St.Laurence) on a site where there has been one since 960 odd. It's well worth a detour as you motor between Lewes and Newhaven or are walking the South Downs Way...for the hardy, there's a Youth Hostel to rest your weary bones.

Monday, 13 October 2008

A Chateau full of surprises

If you trundle sedately South down from Dijon you will come upon the village of Savigny-Les-Beaune, and there you will find the Musee Du Chateau de Saigny-De-Beaune. A perfectly nice, traditional chateau with those pretty conical tops to the towers, it is in the heart of vineyard country and produces its own wines of that name and very fine they are too. In this rare instance though, my visit was not for purposes of alcoholic consumption but was rather that I was drawn by the sight of what must have been in excess of thirty jet fighter aircraft idling their time-expired lives away amongst the vines. Some had clearly been there a long time whilst others were relatively new arrivals - one thing was certain, they'd never take to the air again, leastways not from their present location. 'Worth a stop' I conjectured and my wife reluctantly, yet supportively, agreed. What we found was an Aladdin's cave of the most fascinating kind. Our journey took us through the wine shop and into a series of stables which housed a stunning collection of Abarth racing cars and equipment on two floors; here too was the reserve collection of unrestored and original motorcycles festering quietly in their own area awaiting either the restorers magic touch or....nothing. Outside and across into the main chateau found us climbing a vast staircase to the first floor where the premiere collectione' was displayed. From ceilings hung Victorian and Edwardian cycles, tricycles and light motor assisted bicycles - even a light aircraft. And then the row upon row of motorcycles down each side of the long narrow rooms; motorcycles of mainly French and British origin in good to mediocre condition, none apparently recently used all awaiting a turn of duty. The towers at either end of the corridors each contain a dais - on either end a collection of Vincents and Manx Nortons respectively. In the niches and fireplaces on the tower walls are shelves of engines of the most esoteric kinds, from Belgian FNs to French Motebcanes, twins, singles, 'V's and flats - everything one can imagine and all with that 'slightly unused, I want to be liberated' feel about them. I'm determined to go back, maybe to coincide with Europe's largest old 'bike event,  'Les Coupes de Motos Legendes' at Prenois near Dijon, next year...always supposing the end of world as we know it hasn't happened by then.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

It couldn't be England

The view from our motel window just couldn't be England. Corn, yes, well we have it, elephantine eye-height too, but those yellow things in the background - we don't have them. Railroad freight cars of great height and length with a suitably low entry to best facilitate the ingress of hobos. We were in Connorsville at the very east of Indiana where once well known automobiles were made, amongst them Cord and Duesenberg. Now it's a fairly ordinary place which we were passing through on our way to Nashville, Brown County Indiana, as part of an extended road trip. Arriving late and in need of both liquid and solid refreshment we were recommended and directed to 'Mousies'. Literally the other side of the tracks, we found ourselves in a packed 'bar-with-food' establishment where, on this friday night locals of all class and colour came to wash away the week's sorrows or simply gather for what looked uncannily like PTA meetings. Smoking's still allowed and virtually everyone lit up after their dinner, which made for a rather surreal experience - how quickly we forget.The waitresses were reassuringly mature, (if anyone has been to a 'Hooters' you'll know what I mean) loud and extremely efficient. Several glasses of the chilled and ubiquitous Chardonnay later we paid the bill to much "where d'yall come fraaam-ing" and exhortations to ~"y'all come back neaow, we never done had no one fraam Eeengland here afore". We probably shan't ever again visit Connorsville, although it appears we missed both the preserved steam railroad and the canal. What we did find however was a genuine, almost naive wish to please and to bid us well, often from people who'd never ever have the opportunity to indulge themselves in such exotic pleasures as we. There's a lot to dislike about the USA (and the UK come to that) in terms of world politics at the moment, but the ordinary folk are decent and friendly with an open, sometimes childlike quality which is most endearing. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Through the gate

A variation on 'over the hedge', 'through the gate' is pictured in rural France, not a million miles from St.Sauveur en Puisaye in The Yonne. Here there are still a goodly number of aging tractors doing sterling service. This little group comprising a Grey Fergie, Nuffield and a little International nestle behind the gate. There appears to be a plough of the 'towed' variety there too along with the obligatory but thoroughly modern wheelbarrow. All it needs to complete the scene is a blue-jacketed farm worker with a Gauloises drooping from the bottom lip. He will have come to work on his heavily abused Mobylette moped via the village café where breakfast probably meant a strong black coffee and a small glass of chilled red wine. As a treat there might be a tartine, but not if madame at home has any say in the matter, for this stuff costs money and it's still quite poor in the northern Yonne. Situated roughly mid-way between Sancerre and Chablis the area is known for its pottery and clay products although the local brickworks closed some time ago, it still sustains a commercial ceramics factory. Agriculture prevails here with viniculture taking over some forty miles to the south west or north east. The long straight road that leads to Auxerre almost smells of the Romans as it drives arrow-straight for kilometres whilst meandering tracks to left and right offer the most charming diversions through farm, village and hamlet. Here an old lady in the uniform of flowery pinafore and ankle boots, there a knot of elderly men with their large flat caps discoursing beneath a Plane tree - the place is timeless. Very occasionally these days we see a heavily laden 'deux chevaux', its portly driver transporting his seed potatoes or a few chickens, arm nonchalently out of the window and pipe smoking vigorously. 

And all this, just 'through the gate'.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Pub with no beer

This and another painted piece on the chimney are all there is left to tell you that this now fancy dwelling was once a proper pub. The 'HH' stands for Hampshire Hunt and is in the village of Cheriton close by Alresford in Hampshire. My dear old dad-in-law took his family there in the early 1950s and though returning to Sussex they spent two very happy years in this pretty spot. Trade wasn't what you might call brisk in those days and they competed with two other pubs in the same village, but such was the character of the old man and his natural empathy with country people that what little there was soon gravitated to the 'aitches'. The children grew up in an idyllic atmosphere where even at this late date horses were still kept for use on the local farm. Life and soul for the menfolk was generally kept together either through agriculture or working at Freeman's timber yard. Despite the lack of ready cash there was always enough for a couple of pints and a game of 'rings' in the well scrubbed wooden bar - if your fancy turned to other sports there was a skittle alley at the back in its own building. A good  old sing-song was always encouraged and there were some fine singers in and around the area - Cheriton's 'star' being one 'Turp' Brown, BBC recordings of whom are now safely lodged with the permanent library of The National Sound Archive.
Sadly, on a visit earlier this year we saw that Freeman's yard is being developed for housing. There is just one pub left, The Flower Pots with its admirable micro-brewery and there is the lasting legacy of that family from the HH Inn - ducks as far as the eye can see.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Beer, burgers and Burrels

The place - Waldron, East Sussex, almost a year ago, so it might be repeated soon. The occasion - a National Traction Engine Club Road Run with 'The Star' as its destination, coinciding with a Vintage Motorcycle Club jolly. A magical experience with the leviathan steamers parked in the village street as the boiler-suited crews drank, ate, laughed and kept a weather eye open for the water levels. A perfect day for steam and petrol heads as all persuasions conjoin for the purposes of conviviality, bullshit and a general disregard for health and safety.

Over the hedge

There's much to be discovered over the hedge. A little nosiness goes a long way and can enliven the most pedestrian of walks. Take this scene for example, not five minutes from my own front door. A derelict bungalow on the northern outskirts of New Anzac on Sea sitting adjacent to an unmade road and so redolent of the place only thirty years ago. Lots of exhortations neither to enter nor trespass, and being a law abiding citizen all that was required was a parting of the bushes to reveal this enchanting little scene. An early Renault 4 sits disconsolately rotting in the concrete garage which is in turn being taken over by the undergrowth. Not much longer for this world I feel and probably way beyond being salvageable if my experience of the tin foil thickness of the floor in these cars is anything to go by.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Signs of the times

Being frequent visitors to France, what with New Anzac on Sea being only 3 or so miles from the channel port of Newhaven, on a recent trip I noticed how much France is changing. Not particularly profound as thoughts go I know, but the changes particularly in rural France really struck me... and it was as a result of being well and truly hooked by Peter Ashley's books 'Unmitigated England' and 'More Unmitigated England'. In these the author presents a fabulous collection of photographs of the sort of urban and rural ephemera in the forms of lettering, street signs, products and the minutae of English life that he had the good sense to record over the past thirty years or so. This stuff (with seemingly no value to planners or modern historians) just goes missing - overnight in many cases - and when it's gone, it's gone forever. So hats off to Peter Ashley for such inspiring work. Anyway, back to France. When motoring (or motorcycling) through rural France it was always the small villages that gave so much pleasure, nearly always with a tabac,a boulangerie or a boucherie, they were the living embodiment of what I considered France to be; that is a France informed by visual references from Jacques Tati films, Cartier Bresson photographs, Rupert Davies' Maigret and resistance movies. Add to this the fabulous advertising signage, the triumphant car design whose quintessential embodiment was for me the Citroen Traction, and the stunning architecture - well France seemed to have it all. 

Recently, however things have gone awry. The beloved villages seem to have become pedestrian-friendly with hideous cast concrete bollards diverting the traffic and multi-coloured tarmac informing the motorist where and where not to park. The friendly shops are all too often removed to an out-of-town 'Atac' or other supermarket which serve several outlying villages. The result is a sterile place which, if close enough to large urban conurbations serves as a satellite or weekend dwelling location. It all sounds rather familiar doesn't it?

Vanishing fast, along with the village is the signage. I like the old enamel French road signs, I like the way they cross out the name of the village after you've passed through. The Michelin-sponsored signs too, rather like our own AA and RAC examples are disappearing quickly. And the charming little yellow and white concrete kilometre markers in the verges, they're being replaced by fibreglass ones. Here's a survivor flanked by its two modern counterparts not a million miles from Dijon in the heart of wine country.