Saturday, 5 December 2009

Ravilious in Pictures: Excerpt

Eric Ravilious: Train Landscape (1939, Aberdeen Art Gallery)

In the previous painting we saw a train from the viewpoint of the Westbury Horse; here the perspective is reversed, with the chalk figure framed by the window of a railway compartment. We take on the role of passenger, alone in the corner seat, looking up to see the horse appear on the hillside, as it does when a train approaches Westbury station.

In this instance, though, the eye is quickly drawn back into the empty compartment, to the huge number on the door. Yellow, shaded black, this massive numeral tells us our place. We’re in third class, and the seat cushions, though exquisitely patterned with diamonds and stars, are starting to sag. These and the leather window strap, stretched out of shape by countless hands, tell us that this compartment is real and much used. Keep looking and more details appear, from the tab handles of the roller blinds to the patch of pale sunlight on the woodwork in the top left of the painting. The diagonally striped draught strips on either side of the door are both functional and decorative.

Is it significant that the compartment is third class? Ravilious worked easily alongside the printers at the Curwen Press and occasionally drew industrial workers and farm labourers, but he was equally comfortable among naval officers, or dining at the Café Royal. Rather than being an homage to the working man, the splendid ‘3’ probably reflects his own economical travelling habits.

Until his appointment as a war artist nobody minded how Ravilious travelled, but in November 1940 the War Artists Advisory Committee found itself with a dilemma. With some artists claiming for first class travel and others for third the WAAC stepped in; Ravilious, with a salary of £325 for six months’ work, should travel third. As an officer holding the King’s Commission, however, Captain Ravilious was not permitted to travel third class. ‘I think,’ wrote a committee member, ‘We must let him go First.’

Ravilious travelled constantly by train, and it is fitting that he added to the canon of railway art this inimitable work. Where Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ brilliantly conveys the violent drama of a transport revolution and Augustus Egg’s ‘Travelling Companions’ the intimate experience of travel, Ravilious focuses on the magical space of the railway compartment itself, a man-made environment in which every detail is designed.

But this story has a twist. Restorers working on ‘Train Landscape’ recently discovered that the Westbury Horse had been glued over something else, and closer examination revealed the Wilmington Giant hidden behind it. It seems that Ravilious made two paintings, both aboard trains on the Eastbourne to Hastings line, but was not happy with either. So his wife Tirzah took the best parts of each and skilfully cut and pasted them together.

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by the Mainstone Press. The book features twenty-two of the artist's finest watercolours. There's an order form here.

Monday, 30 November 2009

'Ravilious in Pictures' vol 1 - Out Tomorrow!

No it isn't like having a baby, but seeing a book in print for the first time is rather thrilling. I took this on our kitchen table in what I thought was a bright beam of autumn sunshine. About half a watt, it turns out. There are more pictures on the Facebook page, and an order form here.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Totterdown Press: Cider in the City

Now in its third year, the Totterdown Press makes a fine, dry cider from a secret blend of bittersharp and bittersweet cider apples gathered from orchards in Somerset and Gloucester- shire.

This year we ran into competition from Orchard Pig, which has been supporting Somerset growers by trading orchard maintenance (planting and pruning) for fruit. At least the apples have gone to a good cause.
Anyway, we still collected enough to press about thirty gallons of juice using a Fruit Shark scratter and small-ish press. A certain amount of rainwater may have found its way into the mix, but I'm sure that's all to the good. No rodents in there yet, but there's still time...

We pressed during Front Room, the annual Totterdown art trail. Fun to chat with passers-by, though we should have remembered that the weather is always terrible that weekend.

Now we wait... This year's cider should be reaching its peak in time for the launch of The Naked Guide to Cider. But that's another story

Friday, 20 November 2009

River Cottage Perry - A Second Glass

I went by the Days Cottage stall at Bristol farmers' market on Wednesday to find that they were selling some youthful perry - the very perry, as far as I can make out, that Hugh F-W suffered pain and injury producing.

Helen was keen to point out that Days Cottage workers are not routinely bombarded with pears. For some reason the TV people thought the nation's viewers would enjoy watching the star of the show being battered in this way, but in real life people are kept well out of the way of falling fruit.

But what about the perry? Well, it's young, green, a bit sweeter than I normally like, but with an exuberant something - not a fizz, exactly, but a kind of spring in the step. It'll be interesting to see how it develops.

I had a message from Nick Mann of Habitat Aid - a specialist nursery that promotes biodiversity - about Scotts Nursery in Merriott, near Crewkerne. Since at least 1850 Scotts has sold a fantastically diverse range of fruit trees, but the recent death of manager John Scott Wallis forced the celebrated nursery to close. Nick Mann writes:

One consequence of this tragic tale is that all their stock is now being auctioned off, with potentially catastrophic results for a number of rare traditional varieties which Scotts alone sold... Ian Roger of R.V. Roger, one of our key suppliers, has very kindly agreed to help to persuade the auctioneers to identify, re-categorize, and hopefully sell us some of the rarer trees. Let me know if you would like to be involved.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Win new Eric Ravilious book!

Think you know the paintings of Eric Ravilious? Well, if you want to test your knowledge and perhaps win a signed copy of Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs, follow this link and see how you fare in Tim Mainstone's Ravilious challenge.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Dave's Perry and Severn Cider

I enjoyed watching Hugh F-W playing Gloucestershire Roulette under a perry pear tree last night. Just so you know, those pears are hard and they hurt, especially if they happen to fall twenty feet.

Earlier I was visiting Nick and Tom Bull at Severn Cider in Awre, across the river from Days Cottage. In case you were wondering, Awre is pronounced 'Arrr'.

They make a proper drop over there - strong and fairly dry, with a good clean flavour. The sparkling cider is particularly good. I've been a fan for a while, so it was a treat to meet the makers, who were busy pressing apples for this year's cider. Big bags of Kingston Black and crates of Dabinett promised great things, and there are some unusual apples in the mix too - the venerable Hagloe Crab and rare Box Kernel.

Their perry is excellent too and they've just started doing a new bottle-conditioned product. The region between the Severn and the Forest of Dean is legendary perry pear country, and the Blakeney Red, named after the neighbouring town, is their staple ingredient. Brown Bess, Huffcap and Malvern Hills add character. Nick pointed out that the latter is also known as Moorcroft and Stinking Bishop - which is where Charles Martell's famous cheese gets its name.

I've already mentioned Days Cottage and Oliver's. There's an incomplete (and slightly out of date) list of perry producers here, with Orchard's, Gregg's Pit and Gwatkins among the best. Gwatkins was featured on Oz Clarke and James May's TV show.

Tom Bull took me for a swift half at the Railway Inn at Newnham-on-Severn - a place of pilgrimage for cider and perry fans. And a lovely pub it is too. Meanwhile, it seems Severn Cider has a bit of a fan club (thanks to the National Association of Cider Makers for the pic)...

Monday, 9 November 2009

"An Education": David's Bristol Car

Watching An Education at the Watershed last night reminded me of an unusual day out I had a couple of years ago. I'd been commissioned to write something about Bristol Cars, the Filton-based company run by the secretive Tony Crook. Geoffrey Herdman, who was then chairman of the Bristol Owners Club, offered me a spin in his car, which dated from 1956 or thereabouts.

So I drove in my lowly Astra to Frome, where the car in question was being serviced by vintage car expert Charles Russell. He downed tools to take me for a spin, which is about the closest I've had to a Top Gear moment since I was eight and rode in a Rolls Royce for the first and only time in my life.
Cars and driving are not subjects I spend a lot of time thinking about, but this was something different. This Bristol 405 Drophead Coupe was one of only 43 made, and the bodywork showed the telltale swirls and ripples of aluminium that has been hammered into shape by hand. Everything about the car - from the shape of the bonnet to the door handles - was distinctive. The engine sounded like a squadron of Lancasters.

The skills and knowledge that went into the creation of this car are now almost extinct. Making a car by hand was a quaint idea even in the 1950s, and now people like Charles Russell are as rare as old-fashioned wheelwrights. Perhaps it's time to add car making and other kinds of engineering to our vision of England in Particular.
I wonder what prompted the film-makers to give David the suave seducer a Bristol. Perhaps they were aware that this was Peter Sellers' favourite marque. In 1963, with his addiction to expensive cars already legendary, Sellers persuaded the company to make an abandoned prototype 407 convertible roadworthy for him – a one-off, in effect – and it became famous as Britt Eklund’s car of choice.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Ravilious in Pictures vol 1: order now!

Hot off the press: information and order form for Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs, which will be available at the end of the month. Click on the images to make them legible; you can download an order form or contact The Mainstone Press direct.

By coincidence Ravilious was the subject of The Essay on Radio 3 last night. Robert McFarlane has recorded five short pieces about a walk along the South Downs, and episode four was a haunting and rather beautiful evocation of the artist's life. I'm not sure Ravilious was quite the mystical figure McFarlane conjures - he was more interested in the visible than in metaphysical phenomena like ley lines - but definitely worth a listen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Days Cottage on River Cottage: Perry for Beginners

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage crew descended on the Gloucestershire orchard of Days Cottage last month to film a segment on the fine art of making perry. It should be in the first episode of the new series, showing on 12 November.

The perry pear is a strange and wonderful thing. By tradition a tree will only prosper if planted within sight of May Hill, but a healthy tree can grow as tall as an oak, live three hundred years and produce a ton of fruit or more annually - the tree in the top picture is a perry pear. The one below, at Holme Lacy, was described in 1790 as covering three-quarters of an acre and producing 5-7 tons of fruit per year. The Blakeney Red is the best-known variety; curiously it was once used to dye military uniforms khaki...

The fruit is not for eating. Each small brown pear is a stone one day, a bag of mush the next. This is one tree you don't want to walk under in late October, when the grass underfoot is slick with pear mush and missiles are constantly dropping from above.
Perry is made in much the same way as cider, in that the fruit is first milled or 'scratted' to break it into small pieces, then pressed to get the juice out. A few months' fermentation in a barrel does the rest. A good perry is a fine drink, dry and light, and better than many wines. So good is it that the Slow Food Foundation has recognised Three Counties Perry (made in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire) as the UK"s foremost artisan drink.

Try the perry made by Days Cottage (available at Bristol or Stroud farmers' markets) or Olivers.
Dave Kaspar of Days Cottage
Find out more about the county's orchards and local varieties from the Gloucestershire Orchard Group, which conserves, promotes and celebrates traditional orchards in Gloucestershire.

And if you want to know more about orchards and their history, then have a look at this.

Monday, 2 November 2009

How to Build a Bee Condo

One day last summer I noticed something strange. In one corner of our tiny urban garden there's an old brick wall - an ugly old wall that probably needs fixing. In fact the mortar has gone in some places, and in one particular spot I saw a bee crawling into a hole. It looked like a honey bee but it was carrying a piece of leaf, a neatly cut piece shaped like a shield; dragging this leaf-shield it disappeared into the hole in the wall.

Not wanting to cause a panic I kept quiet about this. One bee wasn't going to hurt anyone, I reasoned. Besides, the willow hedge on the other side of the garden was infested with wasps, which fed off the sticky sweet stuff produced by a colony of aphids. The wasps left us alone, and so did the bees.

I forgot about them after that until, a couple of weeks ago, I met someone from the Global Bee Project at the farmer's market in town. They campaign on behalf of the thousands of species of wild bee that are declining along with many other insects, and they have a pleasingly simple approach. The needs of bees, as with other wild things, are not many.

Bees need food, which comes from flowers.

Bees need shelter, usually a hole in the wall or in the branch of a tree, or in the ground.

Bees need not to be poisoned. Insecticides aren't very good for bees.

The project's website offers tips on what to plant and also gives instructions on how to build a bee condo. Unfortunately our modern love of neatness means that insects and birds lack places to hide away or nest, but instead we can put up nesting boxes for blue tits and bee condos for bees. Have a look. They're pretty nifty.

My mystery bee, incidentally, was a leafcutter. Info and pics here.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

10 Reasons To Save Windmill Hill City Farm

1. When the shop's functioning it sells the best pork in the West (sorry Rosie).
2. The farm nursery has apple trees in the garden, chickens for neighbours and a playground in a wood.
3. More than a hundred people with mental health problems volunteer at the farm or use it as a place of refuge.
4. Many others learn ICT skills at the farm's Computing Centre.

5. Local children know more than most about the realities of food production. They know who lays the eggs and where the sausages come from.
6. Where else can you have a sandwich and a cup of tea and watch ducks waddling about a farmyard?
7. Getting pecked by a chicken is surely a vital rite of passage for any toddler.

8. Everyone is welcome.
9. The adventure playground gives older children a chance to let off steam. And there's always a sympathetic adult to talk to.
10. Don't forget the farm's services for older people, adult education classes, the much sought-after allotments, Rosie the pig, a second chance for numerous people who had a rough childhood, the collective memory of every child raised in south Bristol...

Right now the farm is in a bit of a pickle, finance-wise. If you want to help, pledge £25 here before 31 October. More info on the farm itself here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Ravilious at St Bride

If you're interested in the work of Eric Ravilious, you may want to come along to this evening of illustrated talks at the St Bride Library in London, on 2 December. Four of us are speaking, each with a very different approach. I'll be looking in-depth at half a dozen watercolours painted by the artist around the Sussex Downs, exploring stories and characters behind the scenes. It should be a great evening.

Apple Day 2009 - Days Cottage

Sunday was Apple Day at Days Cottage, the Gloucestershire orchard I featured in Man-made Eden. Dave Kaspar and Helen Brent-Smith sell apple juice, cider and fruit at the Bristol and Stroud farmers' markets, and also run an excellent Orchard Skills Centre. As Dave puts it,

My aim is to demystify the processes of pruning, grafting and budding, and to give people hands on practice. The pruning courses teach people to create productive and beautiful trees - whether its one small tree in a garden, or an orchard of old trees. Grafting and Budding are methods of propagating fruit trees.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall will feature Days Cottage in a River Cottage feature about perry, to be shown on Channel 4 on 12 November.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Forgotten City

For a while it looked like every forgotten corner of Bristol was going to have apartment buildings and office blocks built on it. After the failure of a low-key campaign to save this overgrown orchard its disappearance under the developer's bulldozer seemed inevitable. Then the recession took hold and the developer's urgent need for land evaporated.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city... I go past this corner most days. Who wouldn't? There is no dog. A giant alsatian guards the back of the ice cream place up the road but there's nothing within these walls of corrugated iron except a thriving population of buddleia. With a facade like that, who needs a dog?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Paul Nash: how to write a guidebook

They don't write them like this any more. In 1935 Paul Nash edited the Shell Guide to Dorset under the general editorship of John Betjeman. His erudite, informative and opinionated essay on the county focuses on the primeval and picturesque, and he has this to say about Maiden Castle:

It is a phenomenon which must be seen to be believed if you consider that it was constructed throughout a series of occupations, the earliest of which can be ascribed to a period approaching 2000BC. Its presence today, after the immense passage of time, is miraculously undisturbed; the huge contours strike into even the most vulgar mind; the impervious nitwits who climbed on to the megaliths of Stonehenge to be photographed slink out of the shadow of the Maiden uneasily.

Perhaps he had been given some style pointers by Betjeman.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Thoreau's apples

"It is remarkable how closely the history of the Apple-tree is connected with that of man."

Henry David Thoreau was not a big fan of the fat, red, commercially-grown apple. He liked instead to harvest apples as he roved around the countryside, and made his own list of fruit to rival any pomona or nurseryman's catalogue:

There is, first of all, the Wood-Apple (Malus sylvatica); the Blue-Jay Apple; the Apple which grows in Dells in the Woods (sylvestrivallis), also in Hollows in Pastures (campestrivallis); the Apple that grows in an old Cellar-Hole (Malus cellaris); the Meadow-Apple; the Partridge-Apple; the Truant's Apple (Cessatoris), which no boy will ever go by without knocking off some, however late it may be; the Saunterer's Apple - you must lose yourself before you can find the way to that; the Beauty of the Air (Decks Aeris); December-Eating; the Frozen-Thawed (gelato-soluta), good only in that state; the Concord Apple, possibly the same with the Musketa-quidensis; the Assabet Apple; the Brindled Apple; Wine of New England; the Chickaree Apple; the Green Apple (Malus viridis) - this has many synonyms; in an imperfect state, it is the Cholera morbifera aut dysenterifera, puerulis dilectissima; [Footnote:The apple that brings the disease of cholera and of dysen-tery, the fruit that small boys like best.] - the Apple which Atalanta stopped to pick up; the Hedge-Apple (Malus Sepium); the Slug-Apple (limacea); the Railroad-Apple, which perhaps came from a core thrown out of the cars; the Apple whose Fruit we tasted in our Youth; our Particular Apple, not to be found in any catalogue, Pedestrium Solatium [The tramp's comfort.] also the Apple where hangs the Forgotten Scythe; Iduna's Apples, and the Apples which Loki found in the Wood; and a great many more I have on my list, too numerous to mention - all of them good.

Most of these, he goes on to say, need to be enjoyed where they are found. Indoors they lose their magic and their taste.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs

'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs' should be out next month, and the cover will look something like this. In December I'm giving a talk based around watercolours in the book at the St Brides Library in London, as part of a Ravilious evening, and other launch events are being planned.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Watching the Ships Go By

Writing the last part of 'Discovering Harbourside' was an odd experience. The closure of the Bristol City Docks seemed to represent the End of an Era: the ships are gone and all we can look forward to is another museum. The business of moving things from one place to another has become so efficient that we can no longer see it. Huge ships travel between ports that are almost empty of people and to which the public at large has no access.

Looking out to sea from Southwold in Suffolk one might see a dozen such vessels, shadowy forms that seem to belong to a different order of things. They carry the goods we will buy and use but these products are kept hidden until they appear, as if conjured out of nothing, on the supermarket shelf.

If Jim Hawkins rode into modern Bristol he wouldn't find too many old sailors, with rings in their ears, and whiskers curled in ringlets, and tarry pigtails, and their swaggering, clumsy sea-walk.

So where might a new 'Treasure Island' come from? Is there any romance left in the business of trading in ships? It's tempting to think not, but perhaps we need to look in a different way at this new world. The container was a dull metal box until the wreck of the MSC Napoli; now, every time I see one, I wonder what's inside.

Modern life gave us the container ship, but it also gave us a new way of looking at ships. Go to the website ShipAIS, and you'll see what I mean.

Look out though, time tends to slip away as you watch the ships go by.

Thanks to Ian Marchant for opening this window.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Photographing Cider

I met Somerset photographer Bill Bradshaw when we were selling our wares at the Bath and West Show last year and particularly liked the picture shown here. Bill's been taking pictures of orchards and cider-making for five years or so, and has now put a travelling exhibition together. IAMCIDER has already shown at the Cider Museum in Hereford and in October 17 it will open at the Somerset Museum of Rural Life in Glastonbury. You'll find well-known faces like Roger Wilkins alongside some unsung heroes, plus some wonderful landscape photos.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Forthcoming Book: Eric Ravilious and the Downs

Exciting news: later this autumn the Mainstone Press will be publishing 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'. I'll post an image of the cover as soon as its available. This is the first in a series of affordable, stylish books in which a selection of the artist's finest watercolours will be reproduced; 'Sussex and the Downs' features twenty seminal paintings of the South Downs and chalk figures like the Cerne Abbas Giant.

I've written a short essay to accompany each painting, telling stories about place, artist and time. Rather than dwelling on artistic influences and techniques, these essays explore the stories hidden within the paintings, about Ravilious and his circle, about English culture in the 1930s and about the constantly evolving landscape in which he chose to work.

The aim isn't to explain the paintings - far from it. Rather, I hope to make the viewer's experience of painting and place a little richer. In spirit, my approach is like that adopted by John Betjeman as editor of the Shell Guides in the 1930s, which Candida Lycett Green, speaking in 2006, summarised as "human reactions to places, rather than academic reactions."

Further details will be available from the Mainstone Press soon.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Rainy Day Book

Guardian Books has just published this collection of short pieces from the newspaper's entertaining 'If I had the time...' column. Here's one of mine:

Go trainspotting

Most young children like playing with trains, but my two-year-old enjoys watching them too. We live a few minutes' walk from a suburban station, and when he's grumpy we go down there and sit on the platform.

Admittedly, it isn't much of a station. Once there was a splendid footbridge but that is long gone. A metal shelter offers passengers protection from the elements, but we sit bundled up on an exposed bench and wait. Nothing happens. We chat about the trains we are going to see, count crows and look for planes. My son is patience personified. Half an hour passes and he is still perfectly happy. Suddenly a signal turns from red to green. The rails start to hum. We hold our breath. Will the train have trucks or coaches? Will it be a huge one or a tiny one? The local bus-on-rails trundles into view and stops. We say hello to the people getting off and then wave as the train departs. A minute later a woman comes breathlessly up the ramp. "I thought I'd missed it," she says. "Then I saw you."

"I'm afraid you have missed it," I tell her, embarrassed. "We're not waiting for a train."

She looks confused.

"We watching trains," my son says importantly. He peers down the track, looking out for the next one.

Discovering Bristol's Harbourside: A Guide Book for Time-Travellers

The transformation of Bristol’s ancient harbour into the modern Harbourside - the latest chapter in a long and eventful story – is almost complete.

'Discovering Harbourside' tells this story, more a guide book for time-travellers than a conventional history. Starting with a re-enactment of John Cabot’s return to Bristol from Newfoundland in 1497, it brings Bristol’s port to life in new and entertaining ways, encouraging readers to look at the city around them and imagine moments, scenes and characters from the city’s past.

With one eye on the present and the other on the past, we walk and cycle around the Floating Harbour and down the Avon, looking for clues and retelling stories – some familiar and others new. Did Bristol fishermen discover America before Columbus? What was life at sea like in the age of exploration? How did Llandoger Trow get its name?

Pirates loom large, with an account of Blackbeard’s startling career and violent last battle, and so do more respectable sea captains, from Sir Woodes Rogers to Captain SG Smith, hero of the Atlantic convoys of World War II. There are disasters and triumphs, from the wreck of the Demerara to the return of the ss Great Britain.

'Discovering Harbourside' is both action-packed and thought-provoking. Bristol will never seem quite the same again. Due for publication, January 2010, by Redcliffe Press. Photographs by Stephen Morris.

Discovering Harbourside: Excerpt

John Cabot must have returned to Bristol on an August day much like this one, following a similar route, with a similar caution; though the topography of the Avon’s mouth has changed out of all recognition, the tide and the wind remain the same. Admittedly he had come from further afield than Portishead, but we’re only after a taste, a frisson of the Caboto experience.

Where the rivers meet, tidal currents compete to drag us north up the Severn and east towards Bristol, and skipper Rob Salvidge goes about his business of getting the Matthew home with the same sharp eyes and feel for the vessel’s motion, the same gestures even as the generations of sailors who have navigated this particular corner of the world’s oceans for a thousand years and more.

As we motor safely into the Avon we are passed by a pilot’s boat – a gleaming vessel bristling with antennae and businesslike intent - which reminds Salvidge of a modern nautical experience. In training for his Boat Master’s Licence he spent time with the pilots, and vividly recalls going out late at night to meet a container ship.

As the pilot’s boat approached, he said, the giant ship turned so that it formed a barricade against the wind, then a hatch opened twenty feet above in the steel cliff of its hull and a rope ladder came rattling down. He and the pilot climbed up this ladder, to be welcomed by the Asian crew – a crew, it has to be said, far smaller than the seventeen sailors Cabot took to find America. Up on the bridge a steward served them tiny Malaysian cakes as the ship made its way up the Bristol Channel.

In 1500 there were no containers bigger than a barrel, no Avonmouth, no motorway bridge, just farmland and woods crowding down to the water’s edge, while the river itself twisted and turned, taking the anxious mariner deeper and deeper into the unfamiliar land.

Even now it’s rather exciting. Beyond the motorway bridge buildings cluster round a tiny harbour at the mouth of a muddy creek. This is the village of Pill, famous – according to John Wesley – for its ‘stupid, brutal, abandoned wickedness’, but for centuries the guardian of the Avon and its shipping. It was Pill that provided umpteen generations of pilots, not to mention the towboat men and hobblers who pulled craft, either from rowboats or from the bank, up the river.

Between stories Salvidge is keeping a keen ear on the radio, which tells us that another vessel familiar to Bristolians is heading downstream towards us. As we approach the ancient anchorage of Hung Road, the Balmoral comes racing round the bend and flies past; the passengers lining the rail respond enthusiastically to a call over the tannoy for ‘Three cheers for the Matthew!’, and then we’re alone again on the river, bobbing in the pleasure boat’s wake.

Now we’re approaching Horseshoe Bend, a delightful stretch if you’re cycling along the path, but for mariners an age-old hazard. The shape of the bend and the sheer volume of water can turn the slightest miscalculation into a fatal error. How many captains have watched in horror as the deep water is sucked away, leaving only a narrow channel between steep, glistening banks of mud, on which their craft lies broken or rudely upended?

Constructed in the Bristol shipyards of William Patterson, builder of the Great Western and the Great Britain, the Demerara was launched with great ceremony on 10 November 1851. But an anxious tug captain, his eye on the clock and the state of the tide, approached Horseshoe Bend too fast and the Demerara ran aground. She was successfully refloated, but by now the tide was going out fast and the newly launched ship was dragged sideways across the river. As the water receded, the famous shipbuilder watched his ship and his career slowly break apart, with the sound of thousands of shiny new bolts snapping one by one.

Thankfully, we’re cruising gently around Horseshoe Bend on the most mild-mannered of neap tides. As Avon Gorge rises on either side I’m again trying to imagine what a sailor of Cabot’s time must have made of this singular passage upriver. The gorge then was wilder, the rock face on the Clifton side much closer to the water, but you can still sense the grandeur of the setting in the crags and steep forested valleys of the Somerset bank.

One imagines Odysseus and his crew approaching some magical isle, and yet this was Bristol, the country’s second or third most important port after London. No wonder the city and its waterways have attracted so many artists, with this fabulous contrast of mythic landscape and mercantile bustle. Today the artists are in the ascendant, but what would John Cabot make of it all, I wonder, as we cruise under the Suspension Bridge? Would he recognise anything?

This excerpt was first published in the 'Bristol Review of Books'. Photography by Stephen Morris.

The apples are here!

Apple season again and, while the newspapers lament the decline of British varieties, I'm looking forward to tasting some favourites, in particular Ashmead's Kernel and Blenheim Orange, though we'll have to wait a while for those. You can eat locally-grown apples pretty much from August to May, but the finest fruits are those that mature the longest on the tree. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere...

Some lovely books out there on apples and cider, among them the fabulous and original 'Man-made Eden'.

OK, I"m biased, but this is the first ever history of orchards and it passed muster with Joan Morgan, apple expert extraordinaire and author of 'The New Book of Apples'. She described it as "a thought provoking, engaging and informative book that everyone interested in the countryside will enjoy."

For an introduction to the book, why not have a look at 'Orchard Country', the feature I wrote for Geographical magazine.

In the spirit of fairness I should mention James Crowden's wonderful book 'Ciderland', follow-up to 'Cider - the Forgotten Miracle'. In some ways I like the earlier book better, perhaps because it's a bit looser and more spontaneous.

'The Common Ground Book of Orchards' is also a must-read, more focused than 'England in Particular' and illustrated with exquisitely earthy photos by the late James Ravilious. If you haven't come across Common Ground before you should check them out. Sue and Angela's writing about landscape and culture is hard to beat.

The subject of orchards and apples can get rather depressing, given the continuing decline of small-scale fruit growing. But there is a simple way to support the growing of old varieties: BUY APPLES, JUICE AND CIDER! Farmers' markets, car boot sales and farm shops are your best bet.

Cover pic by Stephen Morris. Published by Redcliffe Press.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Man-Made Eden: Excerpt

At the western edge of Kingsbury Episcopi, overlooking the surrounding Somerset Levels, Burrow Hill stands like a Neolithic monument – a miniature Solsbury topped by a single sycamore. You can see it from miles away, across the flat land of central Somerset, and from its summit the view is a delight. Around the base of the hill curve rows of standard apple trees, and the landscape beyond them resembles an image from a seventeenth century book on orcharding. It’s an ordered landscape of geometric shapes, with rows of trees in different shades of green, and almost uniquely in the West Country, this landscape hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.

Around Burrow Hill orchards proliferate, great and small, young and old, but mostly of standard trees, and just below the summit of the hill, across the lane, is the main reason. This is Pass Vale Farm, formerly owned by Mr Charles Duck, whose cider was well known, but for perhaps forty years now the domain of Julian Temperley and, since 1992, the home of Somerset Royal Cider Brandy.

This is a business that knows its public. The entrance is pure rustic, with an antique wooden door inviting visitors into the cider house and an ancient mobile still standing like a sentinel under a walnut tree in the yard. Beyond it, the land falls away, with row after row of apple trees covering the hillside, and when I visited in October each tree was laden with yellow or red fruit, as they have no doubt been for many many years.

I had just read Cider – The Forgotten Miracle, which is based on James Crowden’s twelve or so seasons making cider at Burrow Hill, and I walked around with a ghostly sense of déjà vu. Things had changed, however, particularly in the matter of pressing the apples, a process Crowden describes with his characteristic admiration for toil and community. In his day the apples were still pressed in the old way, with the apple pulp wrapped and layered as it still is at Wilkins, but more recently a little of the silvery steel of the Thatcher’s factory has infiltrated the rural idyll, in the form of a new automated press.

I was mulling over the possible significance of this shiny piece of kit – heir, some might say, to the machines of Hardy’s day – when Mr Temperley himself appeared, the imposing, rumpled figure familiar from press photos going back thirty years. Once he’d established that I wasn’t a complete idiot, or in any way connected with certain government-sponsored schemes to boost the rural economy, he launched into an extraordinary monologue that lasted, with interruptions, for the rest of the morning, wandering with the freedom of an earlier century from the derivation of ‘chesil’ to the position of gypsies in modern Somerset, with a ready-made quotation every so often.

First, he led me into a wooden building and up the stairs to a meeting room with a view over the orchards, and pointed out varieties one after another at high speed: Brown Snout; Chisel Jersey; Kingston Black; Yarlington Mill. Burrow Hill cider contains a blend of forty varieties, all grown locally to give a flavour it is impossible to replicate anywhere else.

As he put it, “A variety is married to the land.”

Picture of Julian Temperley by Stephen Morris.

Ravilious at the Towner

At Easter Alan and I gave a talk on the book to the Friends of the Towner Art Gallery, in Eastbourne. Frances Lloyd had this to say in the Towner Times, Aug 09 edition:

WITH TOWNER HOUSING the largest collection of his work in the world and the fact that he was an Eastbourne man, Eric Ravilious is always popular. He proved a big draw when the Friends recently welcomed writer and historian, James Russell to the Gold Room in the Winter Garden to share his knowledge about the shops featured in Ravilious’ seminal book, High Street.

The book, published 70 years ago, featured lithographs of 24 high street shops of the late 1930s and James Russell has been on a quest to identify and locate the shops – all real places but, in many cases, offering only tantalising clues as to their name or location. Only 2000 copies of the book were printed and what is left of remaining copies are much sought after, particularly as the lithographic plates were destroyed during the Blitz. Now, the Mainstone Press of Norwich has published a new limited edition entitled The Story of High Street, which reveals James Russell’s findings.

Lecturer and authority on Ravilious, Dr Alan Powers placed the book in historical context, sharing new and significant insights into its conception, production and publication. Two other experts, Christopher Whittick – the Ravilious archivist at East Sussex Record Office – and Tim Mainstone of Mainstone Press, also made contributions to this engrossing evening.

Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street

Published by the Mainstone Press, 'The Story of High Street' contains a beautifully reproduced version of 'High Street', the seminal book of twenty-four shops illustrated by Eric Ravilious and originally published in 1938, together with two major essays.

First, Alan Powers explores the making of 'High Street'. He introduces the people behind this remarkable book and details the technical and artistic developments that allowed it to happen. This wide-ranging, absorbing essay offers experts a wealth of new material while providing newcomers an engaging introduction.

My contribution, meanwhile, is the fruit of a remarkable quest to find the shops chosen by Ravilious. A combination of detective work and serendipity led to the identification of almost every shop and revealed new insights into Ravilious and his work. At the same time, amid mounting concern over the future of the English high street, the essay investigates the fate of the twenty-four shops portrayed by Ravilious, an artist who would surely have appreciated the concept of ‘local distinctiveness’.

The book's been well-received by Ravilious fans and critics:

“Buy this book: you’ll think Christmas has come again.” Clive Aslet, Country Life

Perhaps most fascinating of all is the essay by James Russell, 'High Street at Seventy', which endeavours to locate the original stores so evocatively depicted by the artist. Given our modern obsession with authenticity … this quest is not only a nostalgic return to 'a nation of shopkeepers', but a chronicle of the shifting patterns of consumer demand... Mainstone’s revival is a welcome one…” Wallpaper

And, despite a £160 price tag, the limited edition of 750 copies is rapidly selling out. Check out The Mainstone Press website for further information.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Story of High Street - A Game of Shops

This is a passage from my essay 'High Street at 70':

The publication of 'High Street' in 1938 seems to set it at the end of a pre-war golden age, and one might expect to discover shops destroyed by bombing or put out of business by the more subtle effects of World War II. Yet change was already altering the appearance of the high street when the book was published, and this is confirmed by an observant chronicler of London life in the mid 1930s, Thomas Burke.

Contrasting the pre-war years to those of his youth at the turn of the century, he noted the transformation of small shops into large stores, with a corresponding loss of character and distinctiveness.

He writes of, “Provision-merchants selling sporting equipment; gramophone makers selling refrigerators; tobacconists selling cutlery; cutlers selling foreign stamps; greengrocers selling butter and eggs, and bookshops selling gramophone records.”

Looking back, Burke makes an unfavourable comparison between contemporary retailers and the shopkeepers of his youth:

“In the past, shopkeepers knew their own minds and minded their own business. They described themselves on their shop-fronts in terms of definition. The butcher was a ‘purveyor of meat.’ The greengrocer was a ‘pea and potato salesman.’ The man who sold hats was a hatter and it was useless to ask him for overcoats or skis.”

Historian Dorothy Davis describes the role of this old-fashioned shopkeeper in more detail: “Grocers had to understand how to choose, blend and grind as well as weigh and package much of their stock. Even haberdashers bought cotton and thread by the pound and disentangled it and folded it into hanks for sale…

“Every trade,” she continues, “Needed its own knowledge and skill.”

This is the world Ravilious set out to explore in 'High Street', a world of defined spaces and roles that was already falling apart when the book was published. With the development of manufactured or semi-prepared goods, and with the spread of advertising, the modern shopkeeper found himself dealing in products that were not only made and packaged but also, in effect, sold beyond the walls of his shop. In this environment there was no reason for a retailer to specialise, hence the diversification noted by Burke, and the accompanying loss of distinctiveness. What he notices in particular is the disappearance of olfactory stimuli.

“The store has one large and nondescript smell,” he writes, “But when I think of shopping I think of each separate shop and its separate smell. There was the smell of the draper's shop; the smell of the chemist's; the smell of the grocer's; the smell of the pastrycook's - what a smell! - the smell of the oil-and-colourman's… You could range the gamut of the human nose from pungent to mawkish.”

We are now so unused to shops having a smell that it comes as shock when, walking into a shop like Paxton and Whitfield, our nostrils are assailed more powerfully than our eyes. The supermarket environment is visually stimulating but odourless, with smells suppressed by refrigeration and plastic packaging, and the same is true of the DIY store, with its pungent products sealed into branded containers. For a child, the experience of shopping must be far less intense than it was twenty years ago, let alone seventy. True, there are some shops that retain their atmosphere: the shoe shop still has a leathery aroma, and the secondhand bookshop its dust; the weary smell of the charity shop might even be new to Ravilious and Burke. However, the greater thrust is towards uniformity and ever-higher economies of scale.

In the Foreword to 'High Street' Jim Richards argues that, “It is no use regretting the coming of the multiple store and the standardization of shop fronts, as these… make better goods available to more people.”

The logic of this attitude, played out over the subsequent decades, has brought us to a crisis point. In 2004 2,157 independent shops either went out of business or became part of a larger company, compared to a previous average of around 300 per year. Our love of convenience and low prices has given us the great supermarket chains, but as the giants tighten their grip we begin to see that shopping is about more than price and efficiency. As we drive down the high street we despair that charity shops and fast food joints have taken the place of butcher’s and baker’s, greengrocer’s and boutiques selling ladies’ fashions.

Yet some independent retailers have survived. Look at the hardware store, which started out as the ironmonger’s, trading in raw materials like lamp black and brick dust, and which then evolved with changes in production and demand. Some traders transferred their allegiance to the new labour-saving devices, like washing-machines, while others responded to the explosion of interest in home decoration and gardening that accompanied interwar suburban expansion. The 1930s saw a huge increase in multiple stores specialising in decorating supplies – the ancestors of today’s DIY superstores – but on many high streets the general hardware store adapted and survived.

Meanwhile, concern over loss of distinctiveness in the retail world has given us several recent books, whose authors share Ravilious’s love of the idiosyncratic. In 'Still Open: the Guide to Traditional London Shops', Sally Venables highlights a selection of businesses that might have been included in 'High Street', suggesting that this vision of the English shop persists today. Indeed, the success of internet-based retail operations like eBay has encouraged the growth of a new generation of specialist shops funded by the proceeds of online businesses, niche outlets that double as storage facilities for the internet trade.

The specialist, whether selling cheese or stuffed animals, still has an important role to play, and in London particularly whole streets of independent businesses continue to prosper. Consider Jermyn Street, home of Paxton and Whitfield, which can claim among its famous shops Taylor of Old Bond Street (gentlemen’s hairdressers and purveyors of toiletries), Floris (a perfumery dating from 1730) and Bates the Hatters, the latter still overseen by Binks, the stray cat who wandered into the shop in 1921.

Jermyn Street is of course unusual. On most streets dramatic changes have occurred since 1938, and this tour of 'High Street' at seventy will show how a particular set of twenty-four shops, divided between London, Suffolk and Essex, has fared in the intervening years.

Each shop is a gateway that will lead us into a new realm of historical, biographical or artistic discovery. In part this process of exploration is a kind of game, a treasure hunt in which we follow the clues left by artist, writer and friends, to try and piece together not only a historical record but also a more private story that brings together places and characters that are otherwise unconnected. High Street is not just a book of shops, after all, but also a kind of autobiography: a portrait of one man’s geography of pleasure.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Landscape of Lead

The mineral riches of the Mendip Hills were well known in Europe, and it didn’t take the Romans long to reach Somerset and start mining. As early as 49AD their engineers were digging up lead and smelting it to extract the silver, and their activities over several hundred years have left a lasting impression on the landscape around the village of Charterhouse.

Uphill to the east, Ubley Warren looks as though a giant’s child played with it long ago, before the grass grew over the furrows, pits and nodules. Below the road, a dry, flat-bottomed valley twists between more odd-looking hillocks; the nature lover may wonder why the valley floor is bereft of bracken and other plants. Only grass seems to grow here.

This is Velvet Bottom, a destination to inspire even the most reluctant young walker. Today this odd valley is a nature reserve managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, but its formation and character are anything but natural. When the Romans came here lead ore was so plentiful and so close to the surface of the ground that it could be dug out of shallow trenches. Water was diverted from local streams into so-called ‘buddle pits’ in the valley floor, where the ore was separated from other impurities.

There was a Roman mining town in the vicinity of Charterhouse, commemorated in the Townfield nearby. Archaeological investigations by Sir Richard Colt Hoare at the end of the eighteenth century revealed little, but recent aerial photography has shown the distinctive pattern of a town, with a main street and houses laid out on either side. A circular structure in the next field seems to have been an amphitheatre, although it takes quite an effort to imagine this quiet landscape filled with the cries of Romans at sport.

It’s equally hard to picture the traffic that must have been moving constantly to and from this remote outpost of Rome, via the main road that ran south east to join the Fosse Way. In fact the mines were intermittently busy for centuries after the Roman legions departed, with extensive activity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1844 Cornish tin miners arrived, hoping to exploit the lead deposits further by digging deeper; when their efforts proved worthless they turned their attention to the spoil heaps of previous generations, resmelting the slag and leaving the newer mounds we can see today.

So today’s landscape owes its character to Roman mining and a typically Victorian thoroughness in reprocessing. The hillsides above the road are pockmarked with pits and the sealed entrances to mineshafts, the grass tinted yellow by the presence in the soil of lead, cadmium and other metals.

In the valley itself the land is so poisoned that most plants struggle to grow, giving the impression of a river of grass flowing between banks of bracken. On either side are constant reminders of the industrial past, from the general unevenness of rough or ‘gruffy’ ground and worked-out mineral veins known as ‘rakes’ to the heaps of shiny black slag that looks like glassy coal. On these inhospitable mounds you can see plant colonies taking root and spreading, mostly grasses and alpines that have somehow adapted to life with few nutrients and an overabundance of lead and zinc.

Some rare species, such as alpine penny cress, are found only in this kind of metal-rich environment, while others appreciate the lack of competition from less tolerant plants like bracken and willow herb.

Local guide Adrian Boots, an expert in the ecology of the Mendips, admires the varied habitats around Charterhouse. While the rabbit-grazed limestone grassland of Ubley Warren supports numerous reptiles, adders included, and Velvet Bottom provides an unlikely refuge for rare alpines, a short walk leads to the rich ancient woodland of Long Wood.

Adrian leads foraging parties in search of wild food and so perhaps is biased towards the wild garlic and fungi of the woodland. He is understandably wary of lead.

“Velvet Bottom,” he says, “Is definitely one place I wouldn’t take them, but it is amazing. Quite a unique landscape.”

The woods, he adds, are part of the story too. Cut down for fuel by generations of miners, they have now grown back to cover the largest area in two thousand years.

When I first visited with my young children they shared Adrian’s enthusiasm for this enchanted place, playing happily for hours among humps and hollows that could only have been made by fairies. At the time I was happily ignorant of the potential hazards: I would certainly brave the adders again, and potential mine shaft accidents, but it might not be the best place for a picnic.

Extracted from an article in The Bristol Magazine

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Cool Camping

It's a subject that divides people pretty clearly - I've noticed it with old friends who now have families. Some can’t wait to chuck the tent in the back of the car and zoom off for the weekend. Others would sooner eat coal than spend a night under canvas. It seems to be the people who camped as children who love it now, perhaps because we enjoy reconnecting with our childish sense of wonder at being grubby and free, outside all day long.

But why do non-campers have such a problem with the roving life? Is it the lack of everyday luxuries – electric light, a bed that isn’t the ground, toast? Or is it the apparent unsuitability of our climate for outdoor living?

We go every summer to a wood in Suffolk to meet up with a load of friends, and whatever weekend the great get-together takes place it always rains. I’m talking stair rods. So reliable is the annual downpour that we should probably tell the Met Office of our plans so they can factor them into the long-range forecast. Last year the wood ended up looking like Glastonbury and every car had to be pushed out of the mire. Of course the kids were deliriously happy, running around covered in mud and doing dangerous things with sticks, but what about the adults?

Can I honestly say that it’s fun to be soggy for three days? Hand on heart… I love it! Yes, a supply of cider or (insert favourite tipple) is absolutely essential, along with a phlegmatic outlook on life in general and mud in particular, but for anyone who lives in the city but loves the countryside nothing beats walking around a wood – even a wet wood - in the middle of the night or waking up with the birds singing all around.

This is my favourite kind of camping, the composting-toilet-and-one-tap experience that makes non-campers shudder with revulsion. Last year, on that glorious August Bank Holiday weekend, we camped in a field with no facilities whatsoever but with a Dorset beach only yards away. Did anyone care about the hike to the nearest public toilet? Well, yes, but with the sun shining by day and owls hooting by night it was worth it.

It sometimes feels as though your options are either this scenario or the big, suburb-style campground with its amazing facilities and total lack of atmosphere, but there is a middle way.

I just got hold of the new edition of Cool Camping, a wonderful guide to the best campsites in England (different books cover Wales and other parts), and when I say ‘best’ I’m talking about fantastic locations, excellent facilities and charm. The book itself does for life under canvas what Nigella Lawson has done for sweating over a hot stove, with gorgeous photography and mouth-watering descriptions.

Jonathan Knight, the book’s author, agrees that location is key to the new wave of camping.

“It’s about finding that remote location and getting back to nature,” he told Folio. “It’s about finding those amazing, really quiet places that are off the camping thoroughfare. The first edition had only forty sites in it, and this one has another thirty-five – people write in and tell us about the places they’ve been visiting for years, sometimes through several generations.”

A typical site is Stowford Manor Farm, which lies on the river Frome not far from Bradford on Avon. This is a working farm with historic buildings of Cotswold stone, some of which are rented to local craftsmen, and a luxurious tea garden. The site itself is small, with access to the river for aquatic pursuits from paddling upwards, although the more adventurous can pop down the road and join the Farleigh Hungerford swimming club – the only river swimming club in the country. Founded in 1933, at a time when river swimming was a popular pastime, it has survived the boom in foreign holidays and is now enjoying a resurgence.

Jonathan Knight thinks this is true of camping too.

“My perception,” he says. “Just kind of talking to people – people you wouldn’t expect to be passionate about camping – is that the glamour of air travel has gone. The kind of people who used to go on weekend city breaks are getting fed up of waiting around at airports and finding cities overrun with people. They’re starting to see the attraction of throwing their tent in the car and going off for the weekend.

“People may not be looking at camping as their main holiday option, but as one of a range of things. Not because it’s cheap, necessarily, but because it’s pleasant.”

Extracted from an article in Folio Magazine, summer 2008

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Walter Raymond and Withypool 1/2

Walter Raymond ought to be Somerset’s favourite literary son. As it is his work is long out of print and obscure with it, so he’s a writer you have to go out and find – much as he sought out the characters he described a hundred years ago. Though Raymond enjoyed a career as a rustic novelist in the 1890s, the books that formed his unique contribution to the literature of the countryside were all written in the tiny Exmoor village of Withypool, in the decade leading up to World War One.

“My heart was yearning for a simple life,” he begins in The Book of Simple Delights, a collection of sketches published in the Spectator and elsewhere. Dreaming of a pre-industrial Arcadia, he remembers a village he once passed through on an Exmoor ramble, and a particular cottage where an old woman gave him a glass of milk. He rushes off to find it, only to discover the place semi-derelict.

“’Well, you see,’ the owner John Creed explains, ‘They won’t have this sort o’ cottage now. ‘Tis ill-convenient, I do own. I offered to do un up for a man, but he looked roun’, an’ wouldn’ live in un rent vree, zo he said. No. His day’s gone. ‘Tis kingdom-come for un, I do suppose. An’ zo ‘twull vor you an’ I, one o’ these-here days.’”

But Raymond took the cottage, and his landlord became the first of many local people to have their characters drawn over the next ten years. Whether or not the facts are strictly correct is irrelevant, because Raymond was neither historian nor social scientist but an observer in the manner of Thoreau or Gilbert White. His eye for detail and exquisite rendition of dialogue, not to mention his deep immersion in the place he disguised as Hazelgrove-Plucknut, make him an important chronicler of times past.

Though a Somerset native, Raymond was an exotic figure in Withypool. Born the son of a Yeovil glove manufacturer in 1852, Raymond worked in the glove trade himself until he was forty, only then embarking on his literary career. By this time he was married with eight children, and while he lived in solitary splendour in Withypool his wife and family were in London – as were his readers, of course. In his Exmoor cottage, Raymond was a cross between foreign correspondent and anthropologist, describing the last years of an ancient rural culture to a generation raised on Hardy.

Thoreau wrote that you should set out on a walk prepared never to return, and Raymond shared this spirit. He was a wanderer, and his wanderings took him deep into the countryside where he encountered people whose lives are now unimaginable, people subsisting on what they could garner from the land. On one walk he meets an old woman out gathering crab apples.

“’Beautiful weather,’ said I.

‘Zo ‘tis, said she, and stepped aside to pour a stream of little yellow, rosy apples out of her apron into the open mouth of the sack.

‘But what be about then, mother? What good is it to pick up such stuff as that?’

‘Lauk-a-massy, master,’ she laughed, ‘I do often zay to myself this time o’ year I be but like the birds that do pick a liven off the hedges.’”

She picks blackberries at blackberry time, and crabapples, and privet berries, and sloes, using her unique knowledge of place and season and working with a network of buyers. So the crabapples go to London for jelly-making, and the privet berries to a dyer and the sloes to ‘the gentry’ for gin.


Walter Raymond and Withypool 2/2

Like so many of Raymond’s characters – like the old stone-cracker and the snail merchant of The Book of Crafts and Character – this old woman is poor but free, her existence rooted but precarious; she is well aware of how the world is changing. While she has lived her whole life under one roof, her children have all left for the city, and the economic system of the village – exemplified by the local mill - is breaking down.

“’The little grist-mill down to brook,’” she tells Raymond, “’He is but vower walls an’ a hatch-hole now. He valled in years agone. Miller couldn’t make a liven, an’ zo he gi’ed un up. ‘Tis the big mills, zo the tale is, do zell zo low.’”

The feeling of ‘last days’ fills Raymond’s work, and he knew well that he was recording near-extinct crafts and characters. To this end he invited Cecil Sharp to Withypool, and took him to hear the songs of the gypsies who camped periodically on the Common overlooking the village.

Of the whole scene, this moorland is the part that has changed least, though the gypsies are long gone, and on the day I drove down the hill into the village it formed a dark, ominous backdrop to a scene that is otherwise idyllic. Like so many Somerset villages Withypool has emerged from hard times to find a new prosperity in the twenty-first century, and people like Walter Raymond showed the way.

In fact his type has become the norm. Like him, many modern residents have come from elsewhere – often to retire - and get their income elsewhere. New houses stand on what was once the orchard adjoining the pub, and the older cottages now boast slate roofs and extensions, and have well-tended gardens. One of these, up the lane beside the pub, is ‘Raymond’s Cottage’, recognisable from old pictures but missing the thatch the author predicted would soon be a thing of the past.

But what of life in the village? The schoolhouse, built in 1876 and thriving thirty years later, is now closed, awaiting development, but the Royal Oak does a good trade as a restaurant and inn. In his whimsical way Raymond called it the Rose in June, and he spent many an evening sitting quietly near the fire, not so much listening to as immersed in the local gossip.

I followed his path down from the cottage and walked into the bar of the pub, which had the cosy dimensions of an old village hostelry, and smelled of woodsmoke. The hunting trophies and memorabilia came as a surprise, until I realised that my guide had little interest in horses. He was a pedestrian, the urban flaneur transplanted to an Exmoor lane, and this was why he encountered the last of the old rural poor who at that time dwelt virtually unseen, close to the earth. Did anyone apart from him, in fact, even notice them and record their presence?

A few regulars sat at the bar discussing the fortunes of a horse, then a family came in – grandparents, parents and three tow-headed kids – and took the biggest table. Suddenly the place livened up, as the children asked questions about the hunting pictures and the grandmother tried to stop the youngest boy shaking salt everywhere. Perhaps, like Walter Raymond, the grandparents had found the place years before, and now they had joined a population living a dream.

I walked up the lane again and on up the hill, following a route I’m sure the author travelled a thousand times. I didn’t meet anyone, but on the moor I noticed the same abundance of linnets he observed. And I found myself looking and listening more carefully than usual, aware that every tree, every stream and every rock had once been vitally important to somebody.

This article was first published in Countryman magazine

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Gants Mill: Hydropower Revolution

Water was for centuries Britain’s main source of power, and at Gants Mill in Somerset it is making a remarkable comeback. Looming over a quiet valley a mile downstream from the ancient town of Bruton, the tall stone edifice gives the visitor a first impression of great antiquity and power. But though the walls are old and the foundations medieval, this watermill has a new role – generating electricity.

The first recorded watermills in Britain date from the eighth century, when Saxon invaders brought with them new technology and engineering skills, and by the Norman Conquest there were over five thousand around the country. With bread the universal staple, the watermill revolutionised food production and made the miller’s role vital but not always valued. Aloof from other folk in his castle above the water, the miller was neither churchman nor landowner yet he had power, and this made him a decidedly equivocal figure in medieval society.

Chaucer’s Miller, to take one famous example, is both an outrageous drunkard and one of the most complex and interesting characters portrayed in The Canterbury Tales. His irreverence so offends the Reeve that this stern gentleman retorts with the story of Symkyn, a miller whose type would have been familiar to Chaucer’s readers:

A theef he was for sothe of corn and mele,
And that a sly, and usaunt for to stele.
(A thief he was, in truth, of corn and meal,
And that a sly, accustomed well to steal)

The miller was resented for his monopoly on waterpower, but that power shaped medieval England in a way we tend to overlook.

It is no accident that Gants Mill retains the name it derived from John le Gaunt, who built a fulling mill on land granted to him by Hugh Lovel, Lord of Castle Cary, in about 1290. John’s venture would enjoy success for half a millennium, and it was motivated by a Royal decree that shaped the medieval economy: the imposition, in 1275, of a tax on the export of raw wool.

Previously wool had gone more or less straight from the sheep’s back to Flanders, but now it had to be made into cloth. In a long and elaborate process, the raw wool was first spun and woven, then the rough cloth was taken to a fulling mill to be scoured and felted. Before the invention of the fulling mill, people had no option but to remove dirt and grease by stomping the cloth in buckets of water mixed with pig’s urine, so the introduction of wooden hammers driven by waterpower constituted a genuine industrial revolution. The addition of fuller’s earth – a limey kind of clay – improved the cleansing process further. Nevertheless, it still took twelve hours to process a batch of cloth, after which it was hung up on racks to dry.

Merchants continued to export finished wool from Somerset for more than four hundred years, and for most of that time Gants Mill was owned by the Westons of Stalbridge, Dorset, who leased the mill to a succession of wool merchants. A still-extant document of 1619 describes a lease to William Yerdburie, including “all those two water milles commonlie called and knowne by the name of Gauntes Milles”, along with various parcels of land. Amazingly, the annual rent of forty shillings and four pence was exactly the same as it had been back in 1360.

But the end was not far off for the Somerset wool industry, which could not compete with the factories of Yorkshire and Lancashire as the Industrial Revolution took hold. In a few short decades, techniques and methods that had changed little since Chaucer’s time were rendered obsolete, and lacking the concentration of resources and modern communications to compete, industrial Somerset began its long decline.

It remains a fully functioning mill, however, and I took advantage of one of the regular open days to take a guided tour with Brian Shingler, the current owner, whose parents bought Gants Mill in 1949.

In tune with changing times, the mill now relies on tourism for most of its revenue, but Brian introduces himself as ‘the miller’ and he does indeed continue to grind barley for animal feed. The interior of the building is crooked and dusty, and when the miller turns the giant wheel that opens a valve below us and sends water rushing to drive the Victorian turbine the whole place begins to rumble and shake. Dust fills the air as the belts and shafts connecting the turbine to the millstones on the floor above us grumble into life, followed by the millstones themselves. After a minute or two, in a wonderful display of simple but effective mechanical engineering, coarse ground barley begins to flow down the antique wooden chutes above us, to fall into hessian sacks.

But the demonstration is not over yet. After closing the valve, Brian goes over to a hi-tech control panel on the wall and flicks a switch. Now the water is forced along a different pipe and a second turbine comes into play, only this one, installed as recently as 2003, is connected to a generator. On the control panel, revolving numbers tell us that electricity is flowing into the National Grid.

Once again Gants Mill has responded to a new government policy, in this case a commitment to producing 10% of Britain’s energy by renewable means by 2010. The resulting grants and tax breaks encouraged a flowering of technological invention that may one day be seen as the start of an Energy Revolution, and when Brian Shingler brought together a dozen Somerset mill owners to study the feasibility of installing hydropower equipment, the results were positive. Now Gants Mill generates 30,000 kWh per year, enough to power about ten households.

This is just the beginning. Around Britain there are more than twenty thousand functioning or salvageable watermills, and word is gradually spreading among their owners. In Somerset alone, work is progressing at more than a dozen sites, each one, like Gants, rich both in history and potential and possessed of a unique sense of place.

Hinton Mill is supplied with water from the River Yeo via a tunnel 1500 feet long, dug out of the rock in the eighteenth century, while Carey’s Mill near Martock functioned as a snuff mill before becoming part of the well-known Parrett Works. At Tellisford Mill on the fast-flowing Mendip river Frome, the twenty-first century miller has installed generating equipment powerful enough to supply the whole village. Tellisford has a history dating back to the Roman occupation, when a road crossed the river at a point later chosen by Saxon engineers as the site of a corn mill.

When the new machinery was being installed at Gants Mill a stone was found in the medieval foundations with the letters ‘R En’ carved into it: the mark, possibly, of Robert Edwyne, the miller before John Le Gaunt. Now, as it did then, the watermill faces a long and productive future.

Extracted from an article in British Heritage, autumn 2007