Monday, 22 March 2021

Zoom sessions with ENO Breathe


This is the view of the final Zoom session of the ENO Breathe programme I've been attending; it's a six-week course for people recovering from the effects of post-Covid breathlessness lead by singing experts from the English National Opera and Imperial College Healthcare Trust. It may not have turned me into an opera singer – it will take longer than six weeks to do that – but it has been great for the breathing and relaxation. Those opera singers certainly know how to breathe. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Landscapes in lockdown

Most of my drawings are about where I’ve been, what's caught my attention, what’s been going on. In these grim days of the UK’s third lockdown, things inevitably change and opportunities shrink, which needn’t be a bad thing. As well as the view out of the front windows and the view out the back, there are also the places where the imagination leads. 

Here are a few of the ink drawings - all postcard sized - that I have been working on over the recent months. Some refer to sketchbook drawings done on a trip to our farming family in Cornwall, and perhaps others have echoes of the Devon countryside where I grew up, but there’s no specific place about them and they’re all done from the imagination. 

The process of making them has been a kind of escapist release. 

You can see more of my work on Instagram at jameshobbsart.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Caught in the rain on Dartmoor

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

At Tavistock, having loaded the van with food from Gateways and filled it with petrol, climbing the roads towards the moors became ever slower, and it was no surprise to find myself (and the ever present cortege) crawling into dense clouds. Once past the cattle grids it is a relief to be driving along hedgeless roads, except for the tendency of sheep and ponies to wander onto the road. On summer evenings especially they huddle together on the tarmac, which retains its warmth into the night.

It is cold and miserable turning in to Princetown (top image), the tors occasionally glimpsed through the mists. It is weather that suits the town well enough – it is remote and exposed with a sense of rising as well as falling damp. Down a walled road I get a first view of the prison for which Princetown is best known. 

["Mad" Frankie Fraser, the Acid Bath Murderer John Haigh, and Axeman John Mitchell were among its inmates. The prison is due to be closed in 2023 and – just possibly – turned into a hotel.]

There are yellow lines to stop parking by the prison's walls, but a coach has pulled in anyway by the gates, its occupants lurching over to one side to show a wall of faces against its windows. There isn't really so much of the prison to see except these great excluding walls and a barrier rising and falling for cars to enter a line of successive gates. But what there is transfixes. It is like looking at a dead body washed up on a shore; you don't really want to look but you know you must. These blank walls have added significance for being all there is to show for lives spent inside.

James Hobbs, Dartmoor Prison, Devon, 1990

The town would not be here without the prison. Built for US and French prisoners of war in the 19th century, the prison and the town itself have struggled to survive. To hold out against elemental forces that threaten to dissolve the very fabric of everything except the tors is almost enough. If Princetown was abandoned tomorrow, you would half expect all remnants of human habitation to be washed into the rivers and streams within months, devouring its past.

Prisoner officers come out in small groups to go to their sad-looking houses up the road. They are disgruntled and reluctant to talk. I have heard on the news that they are voting on taking industrial action today. A few months ago there were prisoners sitting on the roofs of prisons up and down the country, a phenomenon Dartmoor did not entirely escape, a lone figure being picked up by a photographer with a zoom lens from across the moors.

The prison is the town. Either you are trying to make a living in the prison or from the tourism it generates. Otherwise you are a tourist or one of the prisoners that are seen occasionally working out in the fields. The tourist office is empty enough, the man behind the counter startled by my entry. There are photographs of the moor's sunnier days, of streams that tinkle just to look at them, when the terrain is a release rather than a confinement. There is a map on the wall showing the old mining railways that used to run across the moors here.

James Hobbs, Dartmoor Prison, 1990

They are gentle walks now through a landscape it is easy to imagine as being unspoiled, but which are really scarred with the quarrying that has gone on over the years. Following one former line just out of the town, I found rabbits hopping around heaps of granite rubble and sheep as surprised as the man in the tourist office. It is hard to get lost with the TV mast perched over the town acting as a marker, but even this appears to move against the drifting clouds.

James Hobbs, abandoned granite blocks for London Bridge, 1990

Among the rubble, further around, are the shapes of twelve carved blocks prepared for the building of London Bridge in the 1890s, crooked but far from overgrown. Now they still sit by the rotting wooden sleepers that once held the track. It is the railway that has departed instead. A number went when London Bridge was sold and shipped off to Arizona and some repairs were necessary. It is just down to these dozen now, a bizarre but cheerful reminder of some madder world.

A woman by the road at Two Bridges is pointing out a farm where I could camp when a car speeds by with its hooter on, scattering a group of ponies that stood at the edge of the road. "No offence," she says, "but it is the youngsters that come out of the pubs at night and don't give a second thought – until they see the dent in the bonnet the next morning."

James Hobbs, Dartmoor, Devon, 1990

The farm she directs me to is down a track that leads to a small stone bridge among low trees. Pulled in on one side are a couple of long caravans, a lorry and an estate car. They look to be here to stay. A child stares at me through a window as I pass. The farmhouse is further on, the door open showing a messy, deserted kitchen. Two upturned buckets are on the floor and a pile of socks are on the table. I knock and shout, but nobody comes.

Walking back trough the yard they catch sight of me from one of the outhouses where they are watching a rejected calf being fed by another cow. A group of blond-haired children look on too with the young farmers and then we pretend to help by sealing off escape routes as the calf and cow are coaxed back into a field. They seem to know which way to go without our help.

Soon the farmers are telling me what tough land it is to farm, of how it takes social security and family credit to keep them solvent. They have a thousand acres, a huge size, "but it takes that much to keep it profitable up here," she says.

He is young and bearded, and she is a throwback to some sixties pop festival. I ask them if they dislike farming so much why they don't just sell up and go. "Firstly this isn't ours to sell – we're just Prince Charles' tenants – and secondly we are trying to get out," he says. "We work 90 hours a week and still rely on handouts – of course we're trying to move."

So I pay him the 50p they charge for a night camped by the river. On the water's edge are two tents owned by a nurse, his partner and a boy from a special needs school in Wales who skips around the field in a wide arc. They are as vague as he is energetic. In the evening we all go into a pub in Princetown in their Land Rover where I rattle around in the back with their two dogs.

I get on with camping by the river and use it as a base for a few days. I have neighbours who drop in from time to time for a chat. The children from the caravans, Holly, Megan and Luke, bring me a bunch of flowers. There are no toilets or showers, but it is cheap. Occasionally, fleetingly, it even stops raining.

James Hobbs, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, 1990

After a visit to Widecombe-in-the-Moor I drop in at the Warren House Inn, a quiet place in the middle of nowhere. When Morton was here this pub had a fire that had burned for 100 years. It burns on as pathetically as when he was here. Two logs are perched on a thick bed of ash, only the odd spiralling fleck giving away that it is alight at all. The landlord admits it is almost impossible to let it go out.

"Sometimes we go out for the day, down to Plymouth or somewhere, and come back and it will be there looking dead and all you have to do is drop a couple of logs on and it's away again. No problem."

He'd never heard about In Search of England and so he reads about Morton's visit leaning on the bar while I sip my low alcohol cider. The old stuffed fox is gone (the landlord had disposed of one not so long ago) and there are the murmurs of conversation over the clinking of eating and drinking. That this pub is here at all is again thanks to the tinners who once worked nearby. Now it attracts hikers, salesmen and watchers of the useless fire.

Back at the campsite I cook in the van with the rain still falling, listening to Brazil beat Scotland in the World Cup on the radio. I leave the moor in the morning, nearly getting stuck in the muddy field and driving up the road to cheers and waves from the children. I stop in Princetown to do some shopping and take a last look at the prison going in and out of focus through the mist.

The van will not start when the moment comes for me to make my own Dartmoor escape. A man appears from nowhere with a can of WD40, which he sprays liberally around the electrics, and I am gone.

James Hobbs, 1990

James Hobbs, Clovelly, Devon, 1990

[Further posts about this trip will follow here soon. This is a link to details about my journey, which started 30 years ago in spring 1990. I'll be posting images from the trip on Instagram.] 

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Rock bottom at Land's End

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

There is no mistaking that England does come to a conclusion at Land's End. I pull in at a lay-by on the top of a hill and, in the breeze, look around me. There is a 270-degree view of the sea from here, from St Michael's Mount around to Cape Cornwall. Tonight it is deceptively soft and gentle, belying the enduring strength of the last bleak stretch of granite pointing into the teeth of the Atlantic. Suddenly there is nowhere left to go.

But just as civilisation loses interest and the A30 winds down from the dual carriageway just a few miles up the road, here you realise less means more. Here you can sense the age old battle that has gone on between land and sea; land pockmarked with signs of prehistoric man and riddled with forgotten mines, and a sea with a past record in wrecking that demands an awesome respect.

Standing on the hill as darkness falls, I have never been as aware of this battle. It is a heroic panorama. It is no wonder that the Cornish think of themselves as ruggedly independent from the rest of the country. They are surrounded with water; even their border with Devon follows the line of the River Tamar until it is a trickle near the north coast.

I knock on the door of a nearby house to ask for water. A little boy answers, and he is then joined by one of a jumble of young people inside. There is a look of envy when I explain what I'm doing and where I'm going. In the yard outside nature is gradually reclaiming a converted ambulance and a VW Beetle, a reminder of past travels. Maybe this is how it all ends; mechanical breakdown and a slow rehabilitation into four walls. I settle with them, drinking a can of beer while they regale me with stories of benders, alternative sites and the dying breed of sympathetic field owners.

If they were going to settle down, Cornwall is to them a better place than most. One of the men shows me the shed where they earn their livings from weaving baskets. He has country craftsman written all over him. As he shows me around he says: "You know what they say about Cornwall? It's like a Christmas stocking. All the nuts fall to the bottom."


I freewheel down to the coast in the morning, to the tip that I remember from my childhood as nothing more than a car park and a tea house. At least, that is how I like to remember it. 

Until a few years ago Land's End was little more than a few buildings on a cliff with a car park, not very beautiful I'm told, but where people came to pace the cliffs until they were almost bare of grass and buy postcards and tea. As such it was a fitting scene of things petering out before rather more spectacular elemental forces took over.

James Hobbs, Land's End, Cornwall, 1990

But this is now changed. The public, it seems, need to entertained in family-sized packages and with this in mind Land's End was bought by the entrepreneur Peter de Savary. It became the relaunch of Land's End. It is, in a region of so many firsts and lasts, the First & Last Theme Park, where, we are told, "the Atlantic Ocean confronts England's romantic last outpost".

It is the romance of freshly made doughnuts, self-service restaurants and information desks, a sprawling amalgam of white buildings to detain you and your wallet on your way to the cliffs that are presented almost as a sideshow. And so, if it all becomes too much and you jump into your car and just drive and drive to escape it all, this is what you will find.

A woman hangs out of a displaced gazebo, wodge of tickets and glossy leaflets at the ready.

"Just you dear? Four pounds please." [Only £6 in 2020! See]

Maybe it is a place you enjoy most with children and it makes me feel as if I am kicking down sandcastles to say it detracts from what Land's End is all about, because this really could have been built on the top of any cliff in Cornwall. As with Stonehenge, the way it is presented shows that its significance is just not understood, the emphasis being on packing them in and keeping the cash tills ringing.

The sea is still flecked with surf, even on this increasingly becalmed day, a deception that is unlikely to lure any craft onto the rocks, not least because none are visible. There is nothing serene about it. Waves crash in slow motion over rocks around the Longships Lighthouse about a mile away, hanging unreally in the air. The granite cliff is uneven and ragged, not the most spectacular but the most under siege. At Sennen Cove, about a mile around the coast to the north, it is sheltered enough to be a different day, the sting taken out of it.

James Hobbs, Land's End signpost, Cornwall, 1990

One of the most recognised features of Land's End is the signpost that points to cities around the world, the usual point of arrival and departure for those travelling to and from John O'Groats. As I arrived there was somebody just setting out, being photographed before the signpost holding up a copy of the Guardian like a kidnap victim. He is struggling with his rucksack and sponsorship forms for Multiple Sclerosis Charities before setting out to hitch-hike north and then back down again. Land's End's resident photographer gives him a note to deliver to her counterpart at John O'Groats, and he was away on the 870 miles up and 870 miles back.

"See you in about ten days," he said glumly. I could have offered him a lift – I will be near Scotland (in a couple of months).

"We had four here in one day last week," a grey haired lady in the gift shop was telling me. "One came in so late there was hardly a soul here to see them, and the signpost had been taken down, the poor lovey."

There is a selection of photographs in the hotel of some of those who've undertaken this trip, from cycling nudists to wheelchair racers, although it is such a common event now there is nothing extraordinary about it.

There is the hardy air of visitors who have ventured out in the wind and rain swathed in fluorescent waterproofing only to be caught out by fresh sunny weather. We watched it rolling towards us over the sea from behind the Wolf Lighthouse, like a curtain pulled back. Standing on the cliffs today is like a seat in the stalls watching effortlessly spectacular sea and weather. With the wind coming directly from the west, it is a supply of fresh air that has done little more than brush over the Isles of Scilly on the trip over the Atlantic.

The skies are busy with helicopters and small planes heading for the Isles of Scilly, which are just a thin line on the horizon. On the clearest days you can make out the sandy beaches. Their reputation for early flowers and leisurely holidays rather goes against the diet of shipwrecks and smuggling we've been fed in the centre.

But with all this crashing and blowing going on, salt on the lips and warmth of the sun, just why a "multi sensory experience unique in Europe" has had to be created in a great cavernous studio is hard to understand. While we queue to go in, and a girl from Wolverhampton tells her friend, a little too loudly, how her mother had been injured by a sheep in Australia, there is a announcement for those of a nervous disposition that they may be letting themselves in for a rough ride.

James Hobbs, Land's End, Cornwall, 1990

Leaning on barrels in a dark open space we are flashed back in history, even unto Neptune himself, to imagined sunken villages now thoroughly submerged and largely forgotten and I gradually came around to the realising, as I suppose I was intended to do, just what a fearful thing that sea stuff can be.

Torn into the modern day, the moment for the nervously disposed arrives in the shape of a simulated rescue by a Sea King helicopter. Lights flashed and spun above us while over the deafening sounds of its whirring engines, orders are barked to us over a megaphone.

I look up, longing for the sight of a rope to descend that can take me away. 

James Hobbs, 1990

[Further posts about this journey will follow here soon. This is a link to details about my journey, which started 30 years ago this spring.] 

Read on: Caught in the rain on Dartmoor

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Donating plasma at Westfield shopping centre


I recently donated convalescent plasma at the Westfield shopping centre at Stratford, east London, which was a surprisingly uplifting experience. The space used to be a Mothercare store but is now an amazing, busy, cheerful place of mostly men attached to machines that circulate the blood back into the donor once the plasma is removed. Plasma can be frozen in readiness to help those in intensive care during the next surge in Covid cases. 

If you've had the virus and are eligible to donate, I'd urge you to consider it.

It's not the greatest drawing: I was perhaps a bit lightheaded and my drawing arm had had tubes sticking out of it shortly before, but it felt like a time and place to be captured.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Through the lanes of Cornwall

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

I camped in a green lane last night, a narrow unsurfaced track that connected two even narrower roads. Up at a farm they tell me it will be quietness itself up there and that the only problem will be which gateway to park in, which view to have when the side door is swung open. I try each gateway for size, and pick on one that looks over the wheatfields to the tall tower of Probus church (above), its bells carrying on the wind this practice night.

Within minutes a motorcycle shoots by. In those few seconds we exchange startled glances, me with a kettle in my hand, him from beneath a blue peaked helmet before he's gone over the hill. By the time I have cooked another minor classic from my two saucepans and been for a walk around the fields he comes back and pulls up shaking his head.

“I’ll be sending a report about this to County Hall, yes I will. Built a shed right across the track further along they have, so you can hardly get by at all. Would you believe it?” There is more head shaking.

This is how he would spend his summer evenings, he tells me, going up and down the lanes on his bike. There is, he goes on, a danger that green lanes such as this are to have their status changed to footpath or bridleway, which would prevent entry to motor vehicles, such as his bike, few as they are that want to use them. His journey was a kind of modern beating of the bounds.

Just why this was so important to him he had trouble in explaining and I had trouble in understanding. In fact it was as if he'd never asked himself the question before.

“Now this shed is the sort of thing that will get these lanes closed to folks like me.”

“But," I dare to ask, “you say you only use it to make sure that you can still use it and that's the only time it really gets used by motor vehicles.”

He gives me a hurt kind of expression, but rallies.

“Ah,” he says, “but you have used it too.”

And with that, mercifully, he heads off.

James Hobbs, Bohortha, Cornwall, 1990

Roseland is a peninsula off a peninsula, a splinter of land off the south Cornish coast. Winding down the roads this morning, my pace having collected the usual trail of traffic behind me, I'll admit to being particularly keen to reach St Anthony-in-Roseland. Whereas Morton's enthusiasm for this little village had sprung from the magic of its name, mine was a matter more of seeing just how well the perfect idyll he had described had survived, how it had coped over the last 60 years, because in many ways it had the most to lose. There was an inkling that perhaps the sleepy, thatched village would have been adorned with bungalows, mini-markets and satellite dishes.

For a start, it is no easy place to find. There are no signs welcoming careful drivers to St Anthony's or brown signs to heritage centres. I had driven to Roseland's extremity, where the lighthouse sits, without uncovering it. My map omits all references and sitting looking across the tanker-strewn estuary to Falmouth I began to entertain the idea that the village he had described was nowhere to be found but in Morton’s own head. 

It is a landscape of hidden places, of glimpses of water in unlikely directions, of houses that disappear immediately the moment you pass. I start working my way back, turning up side lanes until I find what I think I am looking for: St Anthony is at the end of a no-through-road signposted Bohortha. If the village has a secret, it's going the right way about keeping it.

There is a bend in the lane lined with a few cottages before the road peters out into two grass tracks. It is all wonderfully unexceptional, so much so I need convincing it is the village Morton wrote about. For the first time I have to get out In Search of England to try to piece together whether I am in the right place; there is a little surviving thatch weighed down by tarpaulins and ropes, a farmhouse and the old school, already closed by the 1920s when Morton came.

A woman comes down the road wearing a floppy camouflage hat and carrying a basketful of strawberries. She introduces herself as Betty, and at just the mention of Morton, I know I have arrived.

“We do have a few people around asking after him. He stayed up at the farm around the corner there, where he sat and listened to the wireless. But his chauffeur stayed at Pink Cottage,” and she points to the house we are standing right outside. 

Chauffeur? This is certainly news to me. Having scoured his book countless times, I have found no evidence to point towards a chauffeur whizzing him around the lanes, and I don't like the sound of it too much. While I have been rattling up and down the coast using hedges for a toilet, he was sauntering from, perhaps, hotel to hotel in the back seat of a car trying to act the part of an intrepid explorer. He waxes so lyrically about the virginal simplicity of his room at the farmhouse, it does suggest it is something of a unusual change for him. But a driver? I can hardly believe how he could have kept it from his readers if it had been the case. [We know now from Michael Bartholomew’s book In Search of HV Morton that Morton was hiding much more heinous truths.]

The cottage is thatchless with dull paint and frosted glass in the front door, a holiday home. [It now seems to be available to rent.] There is an old water-pump in the garden. A vicar in Bath owns it, Betty tells me. A thick airport novel is inside on the window sill. It is a cottage with a glazed expression waiting for visitors.

This is the closest I have been to Morton since I left and I wonder if there is anyone who would remember him, unlikely as that may be.

“My father would have met him,” Betty tells me, promisingly. She pauses. “But he died 30 years ago.”

For all thesigns of a fairly timeless way of life, there have been changes here. Like when the defences for the war were built out on the Point, and when mains electricity arrived in 1945. Mains water waited until 1963. But there's no public telephone and no shop, and Betty didn't know anyone with satellite television. Instead there is the silence and wind of an island, its remoteness interrupted by a white milestone outside a house.

“London 272 miles.”

It had been put there by the owners of the house as a joke for their visiting friends, but now it is little more than a rude intrusion. London seems further away than that.

James Hobbs, Place Creek, Roseland, 1990

There is a church, but it is away across the fields behind the manor. The route leads over a hill, the grass thick and green with smells of dampness and scents of hedgerow flowers. The path splits and follows on under overhanging branches of trees along the edge of a cornfield.

The tower of the church only becomes visible through the trees when you are nearly on it, but it is wrapped in red campion, white leeks, rhododendron and roses. At least, this is what I am assured they are by a woman gradually sniffing and poking her way around the paths. On either side are steep banks of trees that threaten to swamp the scene with even more foliage than there is already. 

Birds swoop low over my head as I enter the dark church. You make an involuntary effort at ducking in these circumstances, but by the time you do they are well past anyway. The interior has not, I find when my eyes grow accustomed to the dimness, fared well under a regime of neglect. Plaster has fallen from the ceiling, the altar is stripped bare and paint is blistering and bubbling from the walls. Only the windows and memorials to those from the manor next door give the impression that any care has been taken at all. A stack of dishevelled, damp hymn books suggest that the Occasional Services notice is something of an overstatement. 

A man passing outside can help me with this. It started as a question as to when the next service might be and ended in the story of a village. Soon he was slumped next to me on a bench telling a long tale of animosity between the manor, who had kept the church in repair since 1650, and the local diocese.

“The manor had spent £7,000 on lead for the roof and £4,000 on the windows and then the vicar, strange man, refused to come out for a wedding and the next thing, before you know it, one thing has led to another... Normally I would be the one to come and give the graveyard a strim, but now I only feel embarrassed about it and I don't like to have to explain why it's in the state it is. You can almost see it being demolished... You're not a journalist are you?”

The most polished and quaint of rural scenes are all too easily taken to be a reflection of the tranquillity and equanimity of life in the country, so to find the relative worldliness of this situation is like catching the village with its trousers down.

James Hobbs, St Just-in-Roseland, Cornwall, 1990

It is a Sunday morning at St Just-in-Roseland at five minutes to eight and the church bell is ringing. I have slept in a corner of its car park and heard the clock striking each hour through the night. As the cars begin to surround me, I get dressed and watch the churchgoers on the walk through the gardens, following the trail of umbrellas. 

The care and attention that has been given to this church is a mirror image to to that I had seen bestowed upon St Anthony's yesterday. Heading through the tropical vegetation (a memorial to the eccentricities of successive clergymen who have devoted themselves to it), weaving between palm trees and ponds, I can imagine us for a moment as a group of expatriates making our way through some outpost of the Empire. Someone shouts, “But Dorothy, how frightful!” without a trace of a Cornish burr. Watching the little crocodile of elderly congregation disappearing towards the tower set against a creek, I half expected them to be gradually picked off by sniper fire from the rear.

Trekking back to their cars afterwards, the creek is revealing acres of mud through the ebbing tide. There are fallen trees from the winter's storms and a £10,000 appeal for them to be cleared by floating them down the river. Later an American contingent arrive with their camcorders. They avoid the sight of an oil rig moored in the estuary around the corner, a bizarre vision in the circumstances.

James Hobbs, Oil rig, Cornwall, 1990

A woman is working in her garden overlooking it, but I have trouble in making myself heard in the wind.

“Excuse me,” I try again, “could you tell me about the oil rig?” She continues to struggle with a support for a flopping plant, shoving and hammering with no sign of a reaction.

“Hello!” I shout this time. Still nothing. She is evidently as deaf as the post she is now beating into the ground with an axehead, so I leave her to it. I can only assume the oil rig is not a permanent feature.

James Hobbs, 1990

Read on: Rock bottom at Land's End