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 CafĂ© 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

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.

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

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Willow Man: M5 Mascot

Motorway designers are pragmatic people. They want us to get from A to B quickly and safely, and other considerations - such as whether travelling is fun - tend to be put to one side. It’s unlikely that the engineers who steamrolled the M5 across the Somerset Levels ever imagined that one day a giant Willow Man would thrill millions of travellers and become an unofficial symbol of the West Country. But he does.

In fact those civil engineers of the 1960s and 1970s saw the motorway itself as an art form, a dream of speed brought to life in concrete and tarmacadam, but most art-lovers are more likely to lament the destruction of the landscape than to extol the aesthetic virtues of junctions. This being said, it’s difficult to approach either of the Severn bridges from the Bristol side without a feeling of awe. Whether you’re looking at the simple lines of the first suspension bridge or the swooping, snaking curves of the Second Severn Crossing, it’s hard not to admire the mixture of lightness and strength embodied in these splendid structures.

During the summer of 2000, travellers crossing the Somerset Levels had something new to look at: surrounded by scaffolding a giant figure was taking shape as artist Serena de la Hey wove bundle after bundle of black willow around a steel frame. Willow Man was commissioned by South West Arts (now part of the Arts Council) to celebrate Year of the Artist, no doubt with an eye on Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North.

“One aim of Year of the Artist,” Serena de la Hey remembers, “Was to introduce the arts to a wider public. So various people suggested I look for a site close to the motorway. Now thousands of people see the piece every day, whether they like it or not!”

A local resident with a decade’s experience in working with willow, de la Hey battled with the elements to get the sculpture finished.

"Usually on a Friday it was raining very hard and the wind was blowing from a north-westerly direction,” she said at the time. “It was pretty grim. But because we had set the deadline, it makes you work through those extremities."

Planned as a temporary work that would be in place for three years the 40’ figure survived less than one. As the funeral pyres of the Foot and Mouth epidemic burned across the region the following summer, arsonists destroyed the Willow Man. And because of the restrictions in place the artist was unable to get back on site until September of that year.

When she did, she immediately rebuilt the wicker giant, assisted by donations from local businesses and ordinary people who had been horrified by the mindless act of vandalism. The new version was protected by a moat, and has so far escaped human interference. A pair of buzzards made their home on its head, however, necessitating an expensive refurbishment two years ago. As things stand, the Willow Man is due to be decommissioned in 2011, but it has become such an iconic Somerset figure that it seems unlikely that this will happen.

“I do hear from quite a lot of people who say they enjoy driving past,” says de la Hey. “You don’t get feedback normally when you do a piece of public art – you just let it go and it becomes a different thing to different people – but I regularly get emails about the Willow Man.

“People drive past it so often that it becomes woven into their lives. There was a woman who used to go by when she visited her daughter at university in Exeter, and someone else who passed it on the way to visit her mother when she was in hospital. I suppose it’s become a little piece of different people’s stories.”

Other artworks now adorn this stretch of motorway, including Peter Freeman’s sculpture Travelling Light, a 50’ column covered in LED lights that change colour with the seasons and to mark particular events. Welcoming drivers to Weston-super-Mare, Travelling Light offers a more hi-tech vision of the South West, one that is more like the Severn bridges – amazing but not personal.

To the people who trundle daily up and down the M5, the Willow Man has become a familiar presence and not one that they necessarily revere as art.

“The truck drivers love him,” Serena de la Hey says. “They call him Alan, after Alan Whicker.”