One of my pleasures at this time of the year is watching big bits of kit at work in the fields. And avoiding them on the road. This afternoon I came across a huge New Holland combine harvester coming down the hill from my village on a narrow lane that was about a foot less in width than the yellow monster. There was simply nowhere scratch-free to go, so I made for the ditch and Mr. New Holland neatly combined a twenty yard stretch of hedgerow. We both made sympathetic gestures at each other. He probably guessed (quite rightly) that country boy though I am I never get my hands dirty unless I put the black ink cartridge into the printer upside down. This picture was taken in the Lyveden Valley in Northamptonshire as my neighbour lurched around the field doing something with bales of straw. We were regularly distracted from our respective pursuits by his extremely perceptive wife arriving every half hour with ice cold Stellas, placed like fairground targets on the bonnet of the Landrover.
I've got a thing about lettering, particularly when it crops up in unexpected places. You will always find stuff like this in the remoter reaches of scrapyards, but sometimes they can be a joyful surprise. Like when you trip over an old plough left in a spinney between fields, and when you've finished having a good swear you discover the maker's name embossed on a crossbar shouting back at you, albeit somewhat rustily. This Simms Thingy is still relatively unscathed, but the briars are starting to twist and turn, slowly but inexorably perpetrating a cover-up job.
You don't see many Austin Allegros around these days. Ask anyone who had one and they'd probably give you a few good reasons why. I seem to remember they had a peculiar almost square steering wheel. But I couldn't resist this one, parked up at a local garage. It was an extremely rare convertible model (I think you had to do the conversion yourself with a chainsaw) in an impossibly bright shade of orange. But just look at the badge. Not just redolent of the age, anytime between 1973 and 1983 surprisingly, but of every Yes album cover, 70's boutique window and post-hippy designer's letterhead. In their absorbing book My Dad Had One of Those, Giles Chapman and Richard Porter come up with the astounding fact that the Allegro was 'supposedly more aerodynamic in reverse than going forwards'.
These simply gigantic buildings have been arresting the attention ever since they were first built at Cardington in Bedfordshire, in the early twentieth century. They are airship hangars, the first one built here in 1917, the second brought here from Pulham St. Mary, Norfolk, in 1926. My father first pointed them out to me from a train as it left Bedford station, later he showed me little sepia Kodak snapshots he took here of the prodigious R101 just prior to its tragic demise in a muddy French field near Beauvais in 1930. After all that I obviously couldn't resist including them in my book Pastoral Peculiars. They are 812 feet long and 275 feet wide, Nelson's Column would fit inside- and upright. The doors are opened on their own little railway track.
Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by well-known brand names that could be seen on factories at the side of railway lines. It started with a big neon sign saying 'Weetabix' between Wellingborough and Kettering at Burton Latimer. Then of course there's Horlick's at Slough (a copy of their U.S. factory in Racine, Wisconsin) and the sadly empty Ovaltine factory at Kings Langley on the Euston line in Hertfordshire. A cut-out timber Ovaltine Dairy Maid could also be seen up on an embankment above the factory. Another household name apparently about to disappear from the railway sightlines is probably my favourite, Louis de Soisson's 1925 factory in Welwyn Garden City. A machine age, wipe-clean, eau-de-nil and white masterpiece just next to the station. I suspect the prospect of turning the whole thing into massively over-priced loft-style apartments is just too tempting; a brand that was once at the heart of one of the first garden cities exiled to a soulless industrial 'park' somewhere.
Until my Dorset pals told me, I didn't realise what a big thing rhubarb was in these parts. This little hut (three sticks for a pound) was just outside Winterbourne Whitechurch, between Dorchester and Blandford Forum. I particularly like the stencilled farm animals on the side and, just discernible against the early spring branches, a cut-out metal sign for the farm. I haven't had rhubarb for a long time, but I notice that my neighbour's patch has self-seeded itself through the fence into my garden. So I think I'll get stocked-up with custard and see what happens. I told my two small boys that if they put their ears very closely to the rhubarb they would hear the sticks going 'People, people, people'. They looked at me in utter astonishment and carried on fighting with two runner bean sticks.
Every now and then someone really gets it right. Forget all those faux Irish pubs with e-bay bought set dressing, forget the pastiches of traditional pubs that are as thin on atmosphere as the high-gloss varnish on the tables. And come to Britton Street in Clerkenwell, but only on Mondays to Fridays. If you like drinking beer you'll know of the St. Peter's Brewery in Suffolk. That's the one that puts its beer into those wonderful green glass bottles that always (for some strange reason) remind a friend of mine of an eighteenth century churchyard. Well, this is their London pub, and if I hadn't had a fairly heavyweight meeting round the corner I'd have stayed in here all afternoon. I leave it up to you to find out what I'm going on about, but suffice it to say you'll find the full range of St. Peter's beers and ales racked-up behind the bar.
I have a great friend who insists on living in Italy, even though he is possibly the most English Englishman I've ever met. Although very happy to be with his gorgeous wife on a mountain top in Piedmont, he is continually homesick for the hidden pleasures of England. So I frequently rub it in by sending him pictures like this one of an abandoned boat on the shore just south of the quay in Orford, Suffolk, knowing it will send him into decline for a few hours. He loves, as I do, the flotsam and jetsam of maritime life. Once you get past the all-pervading weekend cottaging atmosphere of red-brick and pantiled Orford, the waterfront still reminds us of why it's all really here. Black tarred huts sell fresh fish, oily hawsers lie on the shingle. And an old pleasure cruiser creakily sighs as each tide gently nudges at its peeling decay.
There's something about scarecrows. And I don't really mean those made with Scarecrow Festivals in mind, but the genuine article, made from throw-aways in the farmer's wife's charity bin bag in order to earn their keep out in the fields. This particularly fine, if slightly sinister figure (aren't they all, actually) is working guarding a field of peas near Rattlesden in West Suffolk. I think he's quite upper crust for a scarecrow, with his sports blazer and white trousers. At night he (I'm assuming a male, but you never really know) perhaps shuffles off to a Scarecrow Regatta in the moonlight, other compatriots moving silently past the dark oaks at the edges of cornfields. Much like the figures in Richard Eurich's painting Men of Straw.
Out in lonely east Leicestershire is a lane that leads over to the little village of Owston. I often go there just to wander about in the churchyard, looking at the lettering on the Swithland slate gravestones, listening to the constant racket of rooks high in the beeches overhead. On my way there one afternoon I saw this signpost pointing down a bridleway. Just as I was ranging it up in the camera a white horse serendipitously moved into the background.
I think this picture sums up much about how I feel about England. Crowland Abbey is out on the Lincolnshire Fens north of Peterborough, creating a gaunt silhouette for miles around. Only the north aisle is still standing, together with the great skeletal arch that once formed the west front. On a dark and sombre day it can be very foreboding- there was once a glass case up on one of the pillars with the skull of an abbot in it, and just for good measure a huge slit where a sword or dagger had been plunged into it. Somebody stole it of course, it's probably now a novelty ashtray on a coffee table in Spalding or somewhere. But one day I went in and the Pink Panther was sitting there as if in rapt attention of a particularly compelling sermon. I assume he normally spent his time in the little Sunday School area, but for me he lifted the spirits, a vivid reminder of everyday life carrying on outside this austere building.