|Eric Ravilious, Halstead Road in Snow, 1935 (private collection)|
Tyre tracks disappear down a snow-covered lane, beside an elegant Georgian house, as if the people who made them were here just a moment ago. We are in Castle Hedingham, at the junction of Queen Street and Sheepcot Road – also known as Halstead Road – and snow is falling, large flakes covering the picture surface and pulling the eye this way and that. Ravilious was fascinated by winter, relishing the light and colours peculiar to the season, and on this occasion he hurried over breakfast so as not to miss a morning snow shower, starting a drawing outside and then finishing it in his studio.
He was fortunate to live in a village with many fine buildings, some dating back to the 15th century. Sheepcot House, which can be seen behind the tree in this painting, was built during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and was the birthplace in 1682 of naturalist Mark Catesby. He became later in life a distinguished painter, so much so that his painting 'A blue grosbeak (passerina caerulea) and sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana)' was included in Tate Britain’s 2011 exhibition Watercolour, in which ‘The Vale of the White Horse’ by Eric Ravilious also featured.
Today the horse chestnut tree still stands on Chapel Green, as the patch of grass at the junction is known, but the lanes are not so quiet. The tracks shown here – loose, flowing lines in contrast to the hard geometry of the buildings - were made by bicycles and prams, and they remind us that pre-war Castle Hedingham was a predominantly pedestrian settlement. Local shops catered to most needs, while coal, bread and milk were delivered. On one occasion Ravilious wrote,
‘The milkman made me laugh today. We write up any money owing on the side of the door, and I asked if we owed tenpence. He put his head in and said, “Yes, the writing’s on the wall.”’
And then there was the postman, on whom Ravilious relied almost totally for communication with the world outside the village. With telephones still comparatively rare and unreliable, all arrangements, commissions and payments were made by post, and waiting for the postman was a national pastime.
‘I woke up with a feeling that I wouldn’t sleep any more and might as well get up,’ Ravilious reported one winter morning, ‘And saw the aged postman down the street. He took his time of course – he has a zigzag course and a shuffle that has all time before it – and until each letter has been looked at carefully with a lamp you don’t get it.’
This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', published by The Mainstone Press.