Tuesday 21 December 2010

Carols at the forge

Very very rarely do you stumble across an event so life-affirming it makes you take stock and want to re-arrange your priorities. Last night was one of those however. A simple gathering in a blacksmith's forge. Mulled wine, chestnuts roasted on the hearth and carols, sung with a compelling sincerity. The smith, a talented man whose hands forge weather vanes, gates, hooks, latches and all the impedimenta surrounding local rural life. His wife, a happy contended hard working woman, organising, bustling and contriving to make their lives rich in experiences of simple artistry. The darkness of the forge, the heat from the fire playing on our faces, and the warming glow of the spiced wine conspired to successfully charge us with a hankering for simplicity, making and growing things, and being extraordinarily thankful and content with our lot. A very Merry Christmas.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Ironing in Orford

I do like a nice bit of corrugated iron.
Getting rarer in our relentless pursuit of having the countryside made all spick and span, this quintessential man-made building material seems to adapt very well to its surrounding environment. Providing it is not bothered by regular applications of paint and the natural galvanised finish is allowed to weather and lose its effect,then nature takes over in a most delightful way. This example was spotted in a lane which spurs off the road leading from Orford Village down to the quay and I especially admire the equally distressed ventilators. Goodness knows what it once was, certainly not a church, maybe a dwelling although quite large, or maybe even a hall. It looks empty now but I suspect that it's still tinder-dry inside and houses (in my imagination) all manner of redundant garden machinery, paraffin stoves (Aladdin of course), half used tins of prewar paint, old 'Flit' guns and maybe the odd Lister or Blackstone engine. Rusting spanners are hung from nails on the matchboarded walls and coils of proper binder twine still festoon the rafters. Sadly I didn't have the nerve to enter the property so it's probably had a second carcass built inside and furnished with all the latest from IKEA. If you know, please tell me.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Remember, remember...

"Look out there's a Health and Safety inspector about", mother's saying to father.
There's not long to go now. Lewes is preparing itself for the big night once again. The tradition continues despite efforts over the years to emasculate it. For the Bonfire Societies this will be the culmination of a year's planning and excitement will be running high - who will be the 'enemies of bonfire this year' - always topical, the huge effigies of these unfortunates will be dragged through the streets of the town before being consigned to the fire. Cameron and Clegg maybe? we'll have to wait and see.

Thursday 14 October 2010

The Yellow Lantern

Oh dear - nostalgia again. And possibly the most boring photograph ever taken.

This illuminated AA sign in Tetbury brought back all sorts of memories. Once a common site outside hotels all over the country these shining beacons seemed to promise a cosy and comfortable welcome within. Not sure if that was always true, but to a kid in the back of the family Vanguard looking out on rain streaked streets they delivered a strange feeling of comfort and familiarity signalling endorsement by that august body The AA; after all, weren't they the trusted friends of the motorist? (help always at hand from a friendly patrolman on his motorbike and sidecar in his leather gaiters and sturdy gauntlets) - not to my dad they weren't, he thought that anyone posessing a car should also be privy to the sort of mechanical know-how which could effect a roadside repair should a breakdown occur. Of course he forgot that not everyone was a skilled mechanic nor did they have the inclination to be one. Perfectly relishing the prospect of a disconnected propshaft or some such calamity he would fling open the boot of whatever old banger was our current family transport, throw on an ancient oil-stained macintosh and lay down in the road to scrabble under the car. It mattered not where the trouble lay, it always seemed to involve lying down in the road first - the underpinnings of motor cars were always the root, it appeared, of all maladies.

Other members of our family were less inclined to plunge around in the darkness when disaster struck. My mother's sister was a confirmed motorist and staunch AA member- her yellow 'Members Handbook' arrived promptly every year and I found it absolutely fascinating, listing, in the sort of detail in which trainspotters delight, garages, the type of cars they specialised in, petrol they sold and of course the hotels where it was suitable for members to stay. Maps too, distances to and from major towns and all the minutae deemed to be vital information for fifties motorists. She proudly carried an early brass version of the AA badge which had belonged to her father on the radiator grill of whatever was her current car. Oh yes, she was the living embodiment of what the AA liked to think it stood for - representing the middle class motorist of the Wolseley, Riley, Humber kind - motoring for the masses brought an influx of Ford, Austin and Morris drivers too, let alone the occasional (heaven forbid) Bond three wheeler owner too. Mind you, the AA was always rather eclipsed in class terms by the RAC - they couldn't fail to be, what with the word 'Royal' in the title and a very swanky club in London. It was rare for us kids to spot an RAC roadside 'Box', with the 'AA's' being far more common. For those who don't remember, both the AA and RAC had what were in essence private telephone boxes dotted about all over the country - no mobile phones remember - and every member was given a yale key which opened them in order to summon help from a patrolman. Of course each patrolman had his own patch and took great pride in maintaining the appearance of his call box. Some even planted flowers and erected miniature white painted picket fences around them. One such was always a marker for us returning home from a day at Walton-on-the-Naze, we passed it at Takely, close to where Stansted Airport now sprawls into the countryside, and the patrolman, looking very military in said jodhpurs, gaiters, cap and gauntlets would not have been out of place on the parade ground at Sandhurst. Passing him, it was a matter of fifteen minutes before we reached home, but not until the illuminated AA sign for The Foxley Hotel hove into view. All 'Jacobethan' flummery and strictly saloon bar only, this is where the aforementioned aunt and her 'boyfriend' used to stay for an illicit night or two on the pretext of visiting us. I'm sure the AA never had this sort of risqué behaviour in mind when making their recommendations - or did they? Our passed-on copies of previous AA guides had strategic hotel entries discreetly marked in pencil, mainly around the Thames Valley and Surrey area. What fun! You knew the day would be taking a turn for the better when you saw the welcoming yellow lantern.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Quocunque jeceris stabit

Or "whichever way you throw, it will stand" (Isle of Man motto)

Without doing the whole 'bucket list' there are very many things I would like to do before finally expiring. I (quite erroneously I'm sure) believe that by keeping the list long and difficult I will somehow cheat the inevitable.
Visiting The Isle of Man was one such thing 'to do' and being rather partial to motorcycles it had to be at the time of The Manx Grand Prix, a quieter event than the world famous TT held earlier in the year. A virtual monopoly of sea crossings is held by the Victorian sounding Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and booking early is advisable. I wasn't at all prepared for the beauty of the place, helped immeasurably by a week of glorious weather...vast expanses of high, wild moorland, rocky glens and lush meadows in the lowlands. Standing at Snaefell the views are stunning - you can see the Mountains of Mourne, The Solway Firth and Wales.
The beauty of The Manx GP is that racing is held on alternate days...which as racing is over some 37 miles of public roads, means that the rest days allow travelling all over the Island rather than being confined to either the inside or outside the track. From the beauty of the Calf of Man at the southernmost tip to the purple heather moors of the mountains it's difficult to believe what gladitorial mayhem is acted out on racedays.
Bear in mind that the TT lap record is some 130+mph average speed over narrow, less-than-perfect country roads and you'll get some idea of what I mean. Young men (the eldest of whom this year was 71) are flagged off at intervals and essentially race against the clock as well as each other at what can only be described as an insane pace. I have never seen two wheeled devices travel so fast and furious, made all the more breathtaking by their being on not much more than country lanes. Our group of MGP 'virgins' were so affected by these sights that we needed the following day to get over the adrenalin high...mostly by walking and in some instances circulating the course as pillion passengers on my elderly British 'bike at a less than breakneck speed.
Watching the racing means that you need to duck down country lanes to reach suitable viewing points. One such is Hillberry which has a pure 1950s feel to the facilities offered to spectators...plenty of nice fried food sandwiches and glasses of orange squash. Within feet of your nose 'bikes career past at 170mph which has the ultimate effect of driving one to the excellent 'Trafalgar' pub in Ramsey after racing's over for the day. Here I met the gentleman pictured with the ancient Norton and double adult sidecar - he arrived with two young daughters in the 'chair' and long suffering wife on the pillion having dragged the whole plot up from Gloucestershire behind an ancient bus at a stately 46 miles per hour.
One last nice touch is the way the race timings, rather like 'I'm sorry I haven't a clue's' laser display board, are offered to the public in the grandstand...a real signwriter in overalls with a bucket of whitewash, writes them up!
I think I might return.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Double Gloucester

Prescott, near Cheltenham is one of those places where the eccentricity of the English is on full display and my goodness it takes many forms. I should explain. Prescott is the venue where over the course of a weekend in early August the Vintage Sports Car Club (think cheese-cutter caps, Tattersal check shirts, plum colour corduroys and well worn brogues) holds a hill climb for members owning suitable cars. The event is held at the hill owned since the 1930s by the Bugatti Owners Club, and as I have described before is in an idyllic setting. The paddock for the competing cars is an orchard and each small 'equipe' sets up base around the individual vehicles. Most devotees have been attending for donkeys years and choose to camp in the considerable acreage set aside for such an uncomfortable pastime. They are rewarded throughout the evening by impromptu jazz sessions, outdoor cinema shows and talk of cylinder heads, superchargers and magnetos. A sort of internal combustion Glastonbury. There's a fine mix of accents to be heard too, from the decidedly cut glass "phar phar phar" of the PSBs to the "eeh lads" of the bluff Yorkshiremen to the "well oyl be's" of the West Country farmers. This is a place where millionaires mix with mechanics and some are both. There's an overwhelming sense of appreciation of the way in which these arcane vehicles are put together and the skill and verve with which they are driven. People get as much satisfaction competing in a home-built Austin 7 special as a pristine Grand Prix Bugatti and the lack of sponsorship means that it's individual effort that counts. The car above captures perfectly the spirit of the event. It was built prewar by Basil Davenport and consists of an early GN cyclecar chassis with a powerful V twin Vitesse engine. As you can see it carries the scars of decades of competition and wears no front wheel brakes, its uncompromising aluminium bodywork carries the driver in the most narrow of seats. Despite its spindly and what might by some to be considered 'unkempt' looks, it still has a remarkable turn of speed and is capable of competing with far more modern machinery. It is the essence of the spirit of the pre-war amateur driver and constructor and will always be associate with that other mecca of speed hill climbing, Shelsley Walsh in Worcestershire.

If you decide to make the pilgrimage to Prescott don't forget to visit The Bugatti Trust as well. A superb facility tracing the design and production of Bugatti cars, but also the furniture of Carlo Bugatti and the sculpture of Rembrandt, Ettore's brother.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Eric and James Ravilious

A superb exhibition opened last Friday at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne. The Towner, long a repository of some fine work by that most English of watercolourists, Eric Ravilious, has a show featuring not only his paintings but also a photographic collection of the work of his son James. Sadly the two never knew each other as Eric lost his life in a flying accident during the war whilst employed as an official war artist. James grew up with his father's eye for truth and observation though, and his recording of scenes of village life and landcsape around his home in Devon never lapse into either chocolate box or have so much 'verité' that they become inaccessible - simply, it is as if the photographer is not there, his presence never trespassing upon the scene - a rare gift and proof positive that James was completely accepted by his subjects with an ability to blend into the background. Never asked to pose, the characters peopling his work are consequently full of life and vigour. Eric's work has always been amongst that of my favourite artists...watercolours and yet not in the conventional style, a dry brush, cross hatching, muted colours, extreme detail but also expanses of landscape and sky with hard edges to the clouds. Of course I'm no Bernard Berenson so my analysis is a bit thin and it sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does, triumphantly! There's a lot about his chosen subject matter that pleases a Sussex person and indeed much of the exhibition contains work from my area, but again not always the obvious...of course The Downs, but also Newhaven Harbour and the long-gone Cement works only a couple of miles from the highly decorated Charleston 'set'.

On show too are Ravilious' wood engraving (his engravings are stunning works in miniature by the way) tools wrapped in a velvet cloth and James' beloved Leica camera with its customised lenses. Thinking I might finally avail myself of the reproduction Ravilious 'Alphabet' mug by Wedgwood at the gallery shop I was told that they are no longer available and the manufacturer's future is far from rosy...sad but there were two lovely books to be had featuring the work of father and son to which I can turn whenever I need a Ravilious fix.

Monday 28 June 2010

Without a safety net.

As life grinds inexorably towards its dusty conclusion (you're particularly cheerful today - ed.) one wonders at what possibly could excite and stimulate more than the things one has already indulged (or in some cases, over-indulged) in. Yesterday's 'first ever' was a Gliding experience. A present from my wife for the significant birthday, a mixture of apprehension and procrastination pushed the event right to the wire and Sunday was the final opportunity before the voucher ran out. Providence provided the most glorious weather and an amiable and experienced instructor. Our local gliding club at Ringmer near Lewes was the location and we opted for an aerial tow whereby an aged Piper aircraft drags the glider by what looks like not much more than a piece of washing line, up to 2,500 feet. A parachute is helpfully provided accompanied by the words "bend your legs when you land"...which makes the EasyJet lifebelt instructions sound rather wimpish in comparison. After a thorough briefing we we were cocooned in our two seater tandem cockpit and airborne almost as soon as we were moving. Cast off somewhere over Firle Beacon, the flying tug veered sharply away towards Brighton whilst we banked towards Eastbourne. Silence! except for the rushing of the air around us, this was more akin to sailing...wonderfully graceful movements and changes of direction make one feel a part of the whole plane. The flat lands of Sussex lay spread out below us whilst the high Downs in their magnificence rise up against the channel beyond, a living Ordnance Survey map with all the features beautifully defined and laid out for me to spot. I felt as if I was the first person ever to have flown, so different was the sensation from that of package travel, and imagined what life must have been like for the young men stationed at the tiny Battle of Britain airfield beneath us at Ripe. Their view was much like mine but overlaid with a terrible purpose in what could at any time have become a life or death struggle. I counted my blessings. Through lack of thermal activity we swooped low over the trees and made a most dignified landing - total time in the air, just 18 minutes, and I luxuriated in every one of them. I'd definitely repeat the experience although being caught in a turbulent storm doesn't appeal much; apparently it requires a five hour solo flight before you get your 'wings' as a glider pilot - up there, alone with just your thoughts - it has an appeal...

The sepia picture is of Herr Fokker who gave several demonstrations of gliding in Sussex in the early 1920's. The Daily Mail also ran an international gliding competition at Itford Hill, close to Lewes, in 1922. Sussex can rightly be said to be the birthplace of gliding in England - hooray!

Monday 10 May 2010

Nuclear near Romney

The little lanes of East Sussex, and there are many, afford the finest views and virtually the only remaining opportunity within the county to capture the essence of what motoring must have been like in the twenties and thirties of the last century. Our journey from New Anzac takes us to Burwash where Kipling made his home at the fabulous ironmaster's house of Bateman's and then eventually to far Dungeness. The day is far from clement and a bitter wind reddens our faces as we negotiate the twists and turns of the lanes 'Dumb Woman', 'Float' and 'Poppinghole'. Driving across the flatlands teeming with sheep and wildlife the roads brings us to ancient Winchelsea and our route leads through its ancient streets, emerging onto the Rye road. Skirting Rye, destined now forever to be an inland port, the tourists are already gathering and defiantly licking their ice creams, collars turned against the chill easterly. Towards the remote church of East Guldeford, we turn south for Camber and unlike most of the stony Sussex coast...sand! The holiday camp, so redolent of the 50's now sports a fine new overcoat but somehow you know that underneath it's still very much 'Hi-de-Hi' with red-nose comics telling questionable jokes and much boozy nocturnal activity between the 'huts'. Soon we are at our destination, although the nuclear power station curiously juxtaposed with a spanking new wind farm has been visible for quite some time. Past Derek Jarman's lonely hut with it's nature-defying garden and driftwood sculptures, we pull the Delage onto some shingle in front of The Britannia pub indulging in a pint of Shepherd Neame and a lunch of extremely good fish and chips. The unmistakable sound of an American steam whistle somewhat incongruously attached to a narrow gauge English 'Pacific' miniature locomotive draws us from the pub as one of The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch's finest drags in it's rake of carriages. We gaze at the lighthouses, and freeze quietly in the wind as the silent power station sends its charge down the arteries and veins of pylons spreading across the flatlands and beyond our view. We snap Jarman's hut as we leave this otherworldly part of Kent and and half expect to see his gaunt features framed by a hat and scarf appear in the doorway - we don't, but of course this unusual place is also one of ghosts.

Friday 9 April 2010

Hedge Fund

This is not as common a site as it once was. A properly laid hedge and right on the boundary of urban Brighton. Such skill, such precision, such artfulness in bending nature to man's will. They say that a job done well will last fifty years before it'll need doing again. Probably the finest livestock barrier devised, and growing and enriching itself naturally after this drastic surgery, although in this case the livestock is human on the eastern edge of town. Bordering land owned by the City, one can only assume some sort of unusually imaginative and benign decision was taken to adopt this far-from-cheap form of hedge maintenance. If you want chapter and verse on the craft of hedge laying, and it is poetry! - read Roger Deakin's 'Wildwood' which covers the subject wonderfully well.

Friday 12 March 2010

Brighton or bust!

The pictures remind me that this coming Sunday is the annual Pioneer Run from Epsom to Brighton for veteran motorcycles. This event always attracts the best of British eccentricity. These shots demonstrate it perfectly. Not content to hitch a wheezing ancient motorcycle to a heavy sidecar, the hopeful owner then fills it with a wife and two dogs. Obviously one wears a tie when riding such machines...and a deerstalker hat if possible too. The De Dion tricycle (I think that's what it is), being rather sporting and fast requires its owner to sport a conventional crash helmet.

Sunday 28 February 2010

Nery-a-cross word

This curious device is named a 'Ner-a-Car' and aptly too, for it is neither a motorcycle nor a car but successfully combines the bad points of each. Heralded as the new 'best thing on wheels' by its inventor, one American gentleman named Carl Neracher, it was made under licence by the grandly titled Sheffield Simplex company of Kingston upon Thames. For the mechanically inclined it has friction drive involving the forcing of a buffalo-hide covered roller against a brass flywheel which effectively, or rather, ineffectively gives speeds of slow and not-so-slow. It has two brakes, both on the rear wheel and operated independently. The handlebars are really there as a place to rest your arms, for the device is hub-steered like a car and despite the primitive appearance the motorcycle can be manouvered by moving your bodyweight in the required direction. The handling is extremely stable and quite in advance of anything of its time.

Having always been fascinated by the off-beat when it comes to transportation I heard of this device languishing in a disused fish shed in Maldon, Essex. The owner was charming but already had too many sick donkeys in his sanctuary and saw that I would give it a warm, dry stable. It is in what we old vehicle freaks call 'oily rag condition' which means that it's very original but has never received the dignity of polish - rather it has been preserved by liberal applications of a diesel-soaked rag. Consequently it looks (and smells) quite delightful. Having lugged the beast home I studied the miniscule instruction manual and it struck me that here was a machine that was quite serious in its intent; it would be laughed off the market today but must have been quite a revelation back in 1922. Apparently the Ner-a-Car was advertised in magazines like Country Life as well as in Legal and professional medical journals. Many found a following amongst midwives and country doctors, particularly attracted (it says here) by the ease of control and the comprehensive weather equipment. I can tell you that I doff my cap to the sturdy midwives of the 1920's for it is anything but easy to ride requiring octopus-like dexterity to even start the machine in motion. However, on a flat surface, like a billiard table, say, and with a fair wind behind you on an extremely quiet country road there is a certain charm with the tiny two stroke engine emitting clouds of noxious fumes which are thankfully left far behind as you buzz serenely along at around 25 thoroughly English miles per hour.

Last summer the lanes of a remoter part of East Sussex were home to me and the Ner-a-Car as I triumphantly completed a journey of some twenty or so miles, much of it spent with my 'assisting' the little 'bike up the mighty hills thereabouts. But I made it! and my triumphant return to that most delightful of pubs, the Six Bells, Chiddingly was greeted by gales of laughter by the crowds of young motorcyclists who gravitate there on a Sunday. Their mockery turned to undisguised amazement when I parked in their midst and to downright admiration when I regaled them with my (slightly exaggerated) tales of the open road. Ner-a-Car, Ner-a-Bike, Ner-a...nything really, just a huge amount of fun at the expense of its thoroughly worthy inventor - I love it.

Monday 22 February 2010

Government business...

Going through all the stuff that's left behind when people shuffle off this mortal coil there's always a quantity of what the dealers like to call 'printed ephemera'. This is an example. Nothing remarkable but somehow it sums up the austerity Britain in which I grew up. Of course I had no idea that I was living in austerity Britain at the time what with my free clinic orange juice and cod liver oil and machines in shoe shops that x-rayed my feet. The point is that we were being taken care of, and the government was providing for us. This notebook, dated (can you believe they'd bother to do that?) 1952 proudly states that it is 'Supplied for the Public Service'. The cover is set in Gill in just two weights with a little Times for the reference number and has the look of those 'Don't Panic' posters so popular these days - consequently it appears really quite modern. How nice it would be if rather than the ubiquitous 'red and black' notebooks so beloved of account managers today, someone would produce one of these little beauties or it's foolscap equivalent and start taking down the great matters of pith and moment. My aunt who worked for the 'Min of Ag and Fish' scribbled in thousands of these cream covered notebooks as she tramped the dairy farms of West Kent and East Surrey in her mission of enforcing dairy hygiene and eradicating TB. Her journeys, upon which I occasionally accompanied her took place initially in her MG 'Y' Type sporting saloon, actually a rather underpowered device which however smelled delightful and gave one the impression of traveling around in a drawing room. As dusk approached the orange glow from the octagonal dashboard instruments proved mesmerising and I was normally sound asleep by the time we arrived home. I can still catch the aroma of her Chanel Number Five mixed with Morney's Lilly of the Valley...a curious juxtaposition with her stout brogues, tweed suits and beret...there was something of P.G.Woodehouse about her. She used cattle artificial insemination rods to prop up her Chrysanthemums and took great delight in telling the vicar when he asked where she managed to find such useful items. Funny how such an insignificant object should awaken those memories.

Friday 22 January 2010

White Castle

We were introduced to White Castle Hamburgers by some American friends on a recent visit to the USA. Travelling between Indiana and North Carolina and visiting various historic Civil War sites en route we detoured especially to take in this regional chain. Our friend had fond memories of dining out 'en famille' during the 1950s with her father bringing out bags of the tiny square steamed burgers named 'slyders' to a car full of excited kids. Based in Columbus Ohio this was the first burger chain so you know who to blame. The first 'restaurant was opened in 1921 in Wichita Kansas and the whole thing grew from that. None of us admitted to being great burger fans and yet there is a sort of country innocence about these places that you don't find at a Burger King or a Mcdonalds. The company pioneered portable and prefabricated structures with wipe-clean interiors made of stainless steel and enamel, thus anticipating the bigger players by many years. Architecturally styled with crenelations based upon the Chicago water tower they emulate stereotypical fairytale castles, given a deal of artistic licence...incidentally much in the same way as some of the more 'historic' buildings here in New Anzac on Sea. For a hamburger chain it's miniscule with almost 400 outlets, none of which is franchised and the company is unencumbered by debt. They also pioneered the disposable paper hat (a bit like a printers origami hat but cleaner) for their kitchen staff who are immaculately turned out. Our sole visit to a White Castle was fun, not least in the ordering of some twenty hamburgers between four of us plus the obligitary hogshead of Coca Cola. It was all very blue collar and we lucked out in the chat with some jovial staff members who quite naturally failed to understand what the hell we English were talking about. A little piece of lost America that's still hanging on...