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 https://landsend-landmark.co.uk]

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.] 



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 



Thursday, 6 August 2020

Over the Tamar to 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.] 

On the road to Exeter (above), where the slopes become hills and there is no mistaking that Devon is somewhere different, there is news coming through on the radio of a collision off the south coast between a trawler and the oil tanker Rose Bay. The report tells how the trawler crew were more interested in watching the Cup Final on a TV below deck than what they were likely to run into as they floated along [Manchester United and Crystal Palace drew 3-3 after extra time]. The result is an oil slick that is bobbing away at sea, but which may yet meet the very coast I am heading for. All eyes are on the weather forecast and the wind directions.

A strip of road passes along the edge of the River Avon near Bigbury Bay, a quiet, narrow lane that is little higher than the level of the receding water. I have pulled in under the craggy little cliff next to it watching the tide drop as I cook. There are signs of a high tide mark along the road, a line of assorted twigs, but the rider of a horse that passes assures me I should be safe to park here tonight. She says the tides are not so high at the moment, so I shouldn't wake up to water lapping around my bed. Anyway, it will be even quieter later, she goes on, as the road gets completely flooded fat high tide further along, which will effectively cut me off.

James Hobbs, Devon gateway, 1990

This estuary would have been one of the most affected had the oil spillage been much worse. Sensitive wildlife areas are still threatened even though booms are being positioned across the mouths of rivers to keep what there is out. In the same way, roads to this stretch of coast have been closed too, to keep out people coming to gawp at the mess there is. “Road closed – no access to beach” signs block the routes to the blackened shoreline.

The warnings for people to stay away have worked. The roads are largely deserted. When I later find my way down to the beach at Bigbury, there are only a few cars in the car park and a couple of people walking across from the pub on the island. There are tyre marks in the sand and I can persuade myself that in the wind I can smell disinfectant. But of the sludgy oil and blackened wildlife that are pictured in the local paper, there is no sign.

[About 1,100 tonnes of crude oil were spilt in the Rose Bay collision, polluting about 12 miles of the Devon coast. I'm not sure how I missed the damage: it was reported in Hansard that Challaborough beach, close to where I camped for the night, was damaged by oil up to 18 inches deep.]

***

True enough, I am not flooded out in the night. The road is still wet, but I have lost no sleep. I eat my breakfast cereal watching swans and a heron on the river, untouched by oil from the Rose Bay, and then head further west.

Plymouth is studded with plaques and memorials to prove its great pride in its history. They pop up everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Hoe, a vast green brow along the front that looks over the Sound. There is Smeaton's Tower which used to be the lighthouse perched out on Eddystone Rock, and a statue of the Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer [and slave trader]. Today he seems to be waiting at a bus stop, having to be content with the view of the back end of a line of vintage buses that are being clambered and drooled over by enthusiasts.

[Drake's statue has, for now, survived the toppling that those of other figures with links to slavery and Britain's brutal colonial past have undergone in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police in the US.]

James Hobbs, Drake's statue, Plymouth Hoe, 1990

As if this wasn't enough the Army Display Team are on hand too, standing over young boys holding rifles and explaining the finer points of the camouflaged tanks and jeeps. The last time I had seen this such a vehicle was on the sea front at Bournemouth keeping an eye on the Leeds supporters. The idea of this event is probably to get the kids before they get you. It is mostly young families looking around, some with pushchairs, as nonchalantly as if it was a village fete, kids pulling dads towards different stands.

"Fire a service rifle. Five shots for 20p," reads a sign. A few youths shoot down a small gap at the back of a camouflaged lorry.

It is not surprising to find this here because Plymouth's name has been made by war and by the sea, and to look out from the Hoe, it is easy to see why. It is a marvellous harbour view, a stage that makes each arrival and departure an event. There is everything from dinghies to cross channel ferries passing through it even now. 

But what it also does is tame the idea of what it is to cross oceans. It is like a gentle introduction, seductive, impossible to ignore, its two headlands a gateway that asked to be passed through. There is a terrace down to the water's edge and bare rocks, cafes, deckchairs and two floating white islands offshore where swimmers are sitting and resting. The Rose Bay cannot be far from their minds.

There is another outbreak of plaques at the Barbican, the old fortified area of Plymouth whose narrow streets show that it, at least, survived the bombing raids. It was from here the Pilgrim Fathers left on the Mayflower. Number 9, the house where it is claimed at least some of them stayed the night before they set sail is no longer the coal merchant of Morton's time, but a shop selling junk art to the American tourists, who are in no short supply. 

But it is not really a tourist atmosphere here; it is a place to see and be seen on this afternoon, bump into friends, watch people pass from the benches. The narrowness and irregularity of the Barbican stands out – after the massive destruction of the second world war Plymouth's centre was rebuilt with sweeping dual carriageways and straight, yawning thoroughfares. For a while it was as if Chicago had come to Devon as a grid system of roads was laid out and 14 storey buildings were called skyscrapers. Built for the age of the car, many of the shopping streets are closed to them now, filled instead with fountains, trees and playgrounds. Charles Church remains roofless as a memorial to those lost in the war, its shell embalmed in the middle of a roundabout. Plymouth is still getting used to being its new self.

James Hobbs, Devonport Dockyard, 1990

The city's dockyard at Devonport, started under William of Orange, struggles to survive in these post Cold War days. This is good news and bad news to Plymouth's workers of course, but for now it survives in competition with Scottish dockyards, fighting to have nuclear submarines in its waters. In search of an entrance to the waterfront, I have turned down a road to be stopped by a policeman.

"Sorry sir, no public access here, but if it's cranes you're looking to draw, may I suggest Cornwall Beach. Right at the lights, left at the mini-roundabout, down a cobbled street..." His suggestion is perfect. The road, lined with blocks of flats, slopes down to the water and a couple of pubs, but is dominated by the view of the bow of a ship. There is about 10 feet of shingle and a few rowing boats. Music is in the air and children are playing in the street.

James Hobbs, Cornwall Street, Plymouth, 1990

"I did a drawing of a balloon at school today," a little girl says, and runs to get it, but comes back with her younger brother instead. They sit and chat with me as I draw, oblivious to warnings about talking to strangers. When I tell them I am going to Cornwall, she tells me they have never been, and yet there it is just across the River Tamar from us.

The Sound narrows at Devil's Point and opens again into the deep landlocked harbour that is marked with cranes and docks. For all the prosperity it has brought Plymouth it is rough and stark, an area used to dealing with the demands of sailors finally making it ashore after voyages, used to the freight thundering in and out and the tourists on their way to France and Spain on the ferries.

James Hobbs, Tamar bridges, 1990

For those that have charged down the A38, skirting the south of Dartmoor on their way to Cornwall, there is the Tamar Bridge to mark the event. It stands beside Isambard Kingdom Brunel's suspension bridge built 100 years previously, and together they make an interesting pair. While a woman feeds herself and her dog with ice-cream by the next car, I watch the trains cross the bridge, and disappear from view until they cross a more distant viaduct.

But rather than take the bridge, I stick to Morton's route and take the Tor Ferry. I queue for longer than the trip takes. Immediately things do change and something does take over. The roads are quiet and the sea is calm as I make along the coast, but it is a step that signifies that the land is running out, narrowing, and soon we will be left at the tip of Land's End.

James Hobbs, 1990

[Further posts about this journey will follow here soon.] 



Friday, 17 July 2020

Weymouth, Portland and a cow


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.] 

Having parked overnight on the site of an old silage clamp, I realise, browsing over the map eating my Weetabix, that I'm only a mile or two up the road from Stinsford, which is where Thomas Hardy is buried. Morton didn't go here but I see no reason why that should put me off.

As I listen to the 6am news on the radio, I pass all the signs marking the route to Hardy’s Cottage, his birthplace [owned by the National Trust], which won't be open for hours, and make straight for the churchyard. He is – mostly – buried in Westminster Abbey: only his heart remains here. The grave is hard to miss, coffin shaped and beneath a yew tree, but there is more than one Thomas Hardy here, along with a Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis. Even death has its attractions. This is a churchyard to be seen dead in.

I stop off at Dorchester to collect some mail, stock up with a few tins of food and UHT milk, which doesn't go off too quickly in the fridge-free van. I pass down through “Hardye Arcade”, a dreary little line of shops, on my way to the post office. Poor old Hardy. What makes me even more aware of what part of the country I'm heading for is the way that I am called “m’dear” by the woman who sells me a newspaper.

There is a regal air to Weymouth's seafront, a gently bending terrace of Georgian buildings along the esplanade rubbing shoulders with gift shops and restaurants. The scene is overlooked by a slightly frivolous statue of George III, like a brightly painted outsize Airfix model in his full regalia. This the king who bravely tried out the modern bathing machine of 1789. His ghost still haunts the town in a sense, his name popping up wherever you go, like continually following footsteps in the sand. It’s surprising he doesn't appear more in the gift shops in one form or other, as in him, for once, there is something that sets Weymouth apart from other seaside towns. Instead they sell the typical racks of pink fluffy animals, personalised teacups, and plastic novelties in willie or knocker shapes. [Alan Bennett’s play, The Madness of George III, which led to the film of a similar name, was published in 1991, the year after my van trip.]

The sea front is taken over by a cavalcade of motorcycles that cruise down and back, serious bikers in serious leather jackets on their way to nowhere in particular. Anita Lee, “daughter of the famous Gypsy Lee”, is in her caravan by the beach waiting for custom, but she would have done well to have listened to the weather forecast; it has started raining and she could have stayed at home. She is visible through the door of her van killing time by leafing through the pages of the Sun. 

Down one of the little streets behind, Mr Sanny is on his synthesiser, entertaining a pub full of lunchtime drinkers with Abide With Me as a heated argument breaks out between two drinkers. The loudest shout of all is a “You keep out of this!” although whether it is aimed at Mr Sanny, who stoically continues, it is hard to say.

Weymouth feels as if it is on an edge, utterly English, but ferries leave its terminal for Cherbourg and the Channel Islands and there is a little Frenchness about its river harbour. There is a gentle pomposity to the town, which I just can't help liking.

***

Portland is not the beautiful place I had somehow expected it to be. Dangling from the umbilical cord of Chesil Beach, it is almost, but not quite, an island. It his an industrial landscape, ugly to approach and not at all remote as I had imagined. There is the naval base and quarries that have supplied materials for buildings around the world, but quite what Portland has received in return is hard to spot. The houses are low and terraced in a treeless terrain. Footpaths riddle the stone-walled fields, purposefully signposted at the outset but ending on more than one occasion in sheer cliffs left by quarrying. It is as if fields have dropped down out of sight one by one.

James Hobbs, Portland, 1990

The quarry cranes are motionless today, in suspended animation, interspersed with rubble and numbered blocks of stone. The exposed country roads are dusty, wrapping around rubbish in the gutters like larva to fossilise it. It is so dry it makes me thirsty just to be here.

At Portland Bill I open a tin of beans and listen to the FA Cup Final on the radio. There is the spectacle of the meeting of the tides to watch, the collision of waters known as the Race that results in fierce currents that the fishing boats of Weymouth have to battle their way through. This is how Weymouth and Portland seem - two pieces of a jig-saw that do not fit but are hammered together until they do so. It is an odd marriage of industry and holidays, cosy south coast warmth and exposed barren nudity.

Hounded back through Weymouth by supermarket trolley pushing youths in fancy dress demanding money for the ITV Telethon charity appeal, I find myself looking to camp at the bottom of a hill with the chalk figure of George III riding a horse cut into it. There is a farmhouse, which, considering it is at the bottom of a lane lined with thatched cottages, is a disappointing bungalow on a corner. The woman who answers the door directs me to a field down a track where I can park for the night. She gives the van a funny sort of look over my shoulder that I'm accustomed to now. A dull, homey smell comes from the doorway.

The field is ringed with a high fence, perhaps a relic of the farmer's failed plans to diversify into taking campers, now long past by the state of the crumbling toilet block that remains in the middle. I do not have the place entirely to myself; I am sharing with a cow, its calf and scattered assortments of farm machinery abandoned to the weeds. I spend the evening in the pub up the road making half a pint of bitter, which took 60 of the 83 pence in my pocket, stretch across the night.

The offending cow

Later, I lock myself into the field with the cow and calf by tying the gate shut with the binder twine left for the purpose. It is six in the morning when I am awoken with a jump as the van lurches from side to side. My friend the cow has discovered that it is the ideal height for relieving an irritating itch on her back.

James Hobbs, 1990




Thursday, 25 June 2020

Leeds go mad in Dorset



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.]  

It's May Day Bank Holiday weekend in Bournemouth, 25C and queues of cars are edging open-windowed or roofless towards the seafront where the beach is already packed. It is the fulfilment of all those winter yearnings for a tan. The most unlikely looking windows are being used to sell refreshments from, but the busiest and loudest is a pub near the pier from which comes chanting and a sort of singing.


I had parked under the shade of trees at Branscombe further up the coast, once, and not so very long ago, a separate town but now congealing like the rest of the south coast into one long line of development. It is easy to see on a day like this how Bournemouth could have become so popular in the last 200 years: long sandy beaches, pine trees, and green, south-facing cliffs. The traditional and familiar attractions of days out at the seaside seem to be alive and well: there are the smells of fish and chips and sun lotion, a Punch and Judy tent, waterskiers, acres of pale bodies, family arguments and amusement arcades, all these, but with sun too.


But sun and alcohol are not mixing too well at the pub by the pier (top image). Today is the last day of the football season and the visitors, Leeds United, are expecting to get promotion into the first division [the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season] at the expense of Bournemouth Town, and to this end they have set about trashing the place. 

Apart from the drinkers, who are watched by groups of police, there is a larger and yet more ugly gathering further on by the beach. It could be 1,500, it could be 2,000, but they are a mass of young men that seem to have come from just a handful of moulds. Short haired, T-shirted, wearing shorts or jeans, holding cans of alcohol that are crushed and discarded on the pavement as quickly as they are emptied, they are seething, singing, chanting, kicking footballs high into the air so that three or four of them keep popping up as they gather for the march up to the ground for the game.


I cannot take my eyes off this sight. It is almost like an old circus sideshow where those with hideous deformities are paraded for the public. This crowd is ugliness itself, unlike anything I have seen before, a bundle of fascism and bigotry I gather from the songs they are singing. It is frighteningly magnetic to watch. As a group they are all of a single mind, and not a very broad one.


[This weekend of violence by Leeds fans in Bournemouth grabbed the headlines in a way I didn’t really recognise at the time. I didn't even draw the fans, for instance. There were more than 100 arrests and 12 police were seriously injured over the weekend I was in Bournemouth. There were even questions in Parliament about the violence that unfolded.] 

The Bournemouth Evening Echo has not missed out. “Thugs on Rampage” runs the headline above stories from the night before. Beach huts have been set alight. In the town centre windows are boarded up, some in anticipation, others evidently repairing what has gone before. Mounted police roam the pedestrianised centre while fans wearing “Bournemouth Invasion” shirts pose for souvenir photographs next to them.


Just to get into a supermarket is not easy, the way in barred by a policeman. I first have to convince him that it is food I want to buy rather than anything alcoholic. There are more police inside roaming around the aisles. They call everyone “lad”, trying to defuse the tension with a forced good humour.


For no apparent reason, the crowd by the beach takes it upon itself that it is time to leave for the walk to the ground, and, as one, it makes off leaving the debris that until then it has been impossible to see. The shouts and singing seem to hang in the air long after they have all leaked away up the road.


What surprises me is just how prepared people are to accept that this is the way things must be, to go on regardless as if this ugly violence is entirely normal. Half naked women push their way through the fringes of the fans to join the queue for ice creams, going barefoot through the empty beer cans littered around as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Police stand around to almost heighten the crowd's sense of importance, a sign of the fans’ power to disrupt, acting as escorts to a roving lawless zone. A camouflaged military vehicle I associate with the streets of Belfast looks on. I am amazed that a kick around between two teams of eleven can be worth all this.

James Hobbs, Bournemouth sea front, 1990


The more usual beach noises return as kick off approaches. Some of those without tickets turn on radios to listen to the commentary so that they overlap across the sands, never out of earshot. The air is freed from sirens for a while but it is replaced by racist chants from groups draped in Union Jacks who troop up and down the beach looking for topless sunbathers.


We hear the game won by the Leeds team down on the beach, looking out to the still sea that few people actually bring themselves to swim in. The sight of a large offshore structure for drilling oil must be as responsible for this as anything. I plan to get well out of town for the night before the ground empties and the Leeds celebrations begin. I am well up a very deserted country lane before the late kick-off results come over the radio.


Two days later and the wind and rain are back, the deserted beaches marked by tractor tyres where the sand has been raked and cleaned. The flashing orange lights of council cleaning lorries have taken over from the blue ones of Saturday’s police cars. A few people are about. There is a children’s roundabout in the shape of a teapot around which seated toddlers turn in teacups at the end of which they head with their carers, like me, to the domed cafe on the pier. 

James Hobbs, Happyland Amusements, Bournemouth, 1990


It is more likely to be like this when you visit Bournemouth, you and a few others wondering where everybody else is. An elderly lady strolls in the gardens to the relaxing cry of seagulls, leaning on her only slightly younger companion, enjoying the flowerbeds and pointing her walking stick at shrubs. I pass just in time to hear her lean towards her friend and say: “You know Mrs Thatcher looked a picture in the paper today...” Bournemouth is back to its old self. 

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.] 



Thursday, 18 June 2020

From Romsey Abbey to Southampton docks


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.] 

Knocking at an old farmhouse near Romsey, I’m told by a correct, middle-aged woman that I can park overnight in the track to their house but that her husband will be back soon and will want to meet me. The temptation is to say that I only want to camp overnight rather than marry their daughter, but by the time I’ve put the roof up he has swung around the corner in his Range Rover and stopped by the back of the van.

Touring vans have not had the best of publicity around the south of England recently and, apart from the running battles with travellers around Stonehenge at summer solstice time, there are farmers who have resorted to court injunctions to move on unwelcome convoys, and outbursts to local papers on the subject of the damage they were left with. A solitary van is often seen as the thin end of the wedge by landowners – let one in and more will follow – which is probably why the husband is now bearing down on me as if I had pitched camp in the middle of his croquet lawn.

I get out to meet him halfway, surprise him by shaking his hand and try to persuade him I am not someone he ought to be moving on. I summon all my efforts into coming across as respectable as I can be, and he calms before too many blood vessels are burst. I know I have made a reasonable impression when he comes out to see me again later while I’m washing up to invite me in to the house for coffee and a glass of port. “We don’t like to think of you up here on your own,” he says.

Soon I am sitting in a huge wheel-backed chair with a cat on my lap, glass of port in hand, listening to their worries about their daughter’s boyfriend, who has just arrived to take her off to a party to the sounds of much wheel spinning in the drive.

This is still commuter heartland. He is a solicitor dividing his time between London, Bristol and New York. She fusses around him, a woman apparently given to Good Works. The kitchen’s working surfaces are as clean as an operating table. There are three cars lined up in the drive.

We chat about Romsey (top image) and Lord Mountbatten of Burma, who lived in Broadlands on the edge of the town until he was blown up by IRA terrorists on his yacht in 1979. You can’t be in Romsey for too long before his name crops up. He was obviously very popular here and could be found occasionally drinking in the town’s pubs and getting up to the sort of thing that goes down well with the locals.

“The whole town went into mourning when he died,” the husband said, leaning against the Aga, “and there were these great public shows of grief. So much so that the shopkeepers all had black window displays as a sign of respect.” They laugh at the thought of something that occurs to them both at the same time. “Even the lingerie shop got involved – they filled their windows with black underwear.”



Leaving early in the morning – the night only disturbed by the daughter arriving home in the early hours as I am unburdening myself of too many cups of filter coffee, momentarily flashing my shadow across the farmhouse wall – I head up into the town.

James Hobbs, Market Square, Palmerston statue, Romsey, 1990


In the market place it is a surprise to find that rather than Mountbatten it is a statue of Lord Palmerston, twice prime minister, whose family had previously owned Broadlands, that gazes out over the square. On the corner of one building hangs a bracket that was used to hang Cromwellians in 1642. The building now houses the local Conservative club, in which there is a lot of activity.

[The statue of Palmerston – who favoured the abolition of slavery – seems safe from toppling during this time of scrutiny of the UK's historic and current racism.]


Romsey Abbey is a thing of beauty and certainly a bargain at £100, the price paid by the town when it was sold at the Dissolution, even at index-linked prices. Inside there is time to see the Anglo-Saxon rood screen and the rather gruesome tress of hair found in a Saxon coffin, but, talking to a helper in the Abbey it isn’t long before she too gets around to Mountbatten. He is still a great unifying force in the town. There is a large stone to his memory inside.

James Hobbs, Romsey Abbey, 1990


She directs me down to a bridge on the way out of town where you can get a good view of Broadlands, the large porticoed house where he lived. It will be open to the public later in the day, but for now I have to make do with the view photographers with long lenses had when Charles and Diana spent their honeymoon here in 1981.


When I reached the bridge there was every reason to suppose she’d been pulling my leg, because no large mansion was visible. An elderly man walking his dog stopped to help me.

“Come down this way and you’ll see it – I’ve spent hours here myself painting it,” and he leads me further down. His surprise is apparent when he too can see nothing of it through the bluish morning haze into the sun. It is as if it has disappeared.

“You know,” he says, “it used to be there.”



*****

James Hobbs, Southampton docks, 1990

Southampton is almost like Istanbul from the docks, if less busy. People are on their way down to the ferry to cross the water to Hythe from which chimneys puncture the sky like minarets. “Come Dancing” a battered sign announces from the next pier, a warm welcome from a tangled mess of girders and barbed wire. There is peeling paint and high fences, no unauthorised entry. It would be an eyesore in many places but here it can almost be overlooked. Cranes are everywhere and there is the great container port further up. There is little traffic today apart from a tug and a vast tanker.

The ferry is about to leave, and confusing its destination of Hythe with Ryde on the Isle of Wight, I quickly get a ticket and jump on board. Instead of the Isle of Wight I get a quick trip across Southampton Water and back. It is less momentous than other voyages that have started out from here. For 500 years it was one of the country’s leading ports, with massive city defences facing out to sea. Ships left from here for the Napoleonic wars, the Mayflower in 1620 before stopping off at Plymouth, and going into passenger transport in a yet bigger way at the beginning of this century, the White Star and Cunard Lines ran from here.

So a short trip on a ferry is a token gesture even if I did get back almost before I’d left. On board there are bicycles stacked, and work suits and ties have been discarded for shorts and trainers for the ride home to the far bank. Its passengers sit with the resignation that comes from commuting, but there is the sun, a cool breeze and even the occasional shower of spray, a class above your average ride home on the underground. Most sit inside to shelter from it, locked into books or personal stereos. I am reminded of a ferry ride up the Bosporus when shortly after leaving Istanbul a young man moved among the packed benches taking off his artificial limbs one by one waving them above his head in an attempt to collect money. I wonder here if they would even raise their eyes from their books. 


Everyone gets out at Hythe’s long pier except me, and nobody boards except the ticket collector’s granddaughter, who he chases around the deck. We, meanwhile, chase the real Isle of Wight ferry as it returns to Southampton. Ocean Village is a part of the waterfront with a typically 1980s look, a new development packaged as a place to be seen flaunting boom-time spoils. It’s like a scene from the Boat Show, except here it goes on all year. There are shops and bars to go along the jetties, a scene of conspicuous consumption that was built as a playground for those riding high on a succession of tax cuts.


But the tax cuts could never go on forever and it is as if the party is moving on to somewhere else now. Things are evidently not so easy. Among the trendy cocktail bars near Canute’s Pavilion are the empty shells of shops and ‘To Let’ notices that have been left by the receding economic tide.

James Hobbs, Southampton docks, 1990

Less conspicuous and more enduring is the sight of a couple come to sit in the sun by the old "Come Dancing" pier - eyes closed, faces looking up, ample white flesh on show where clothing has been peeled back to feel the warmth. Another tanker passes down Southampton Water. Children eat ice creams rocking forwards and back on their bicycles while a dog sniffs around them.


At the bank to get some money before I leave, the cash machine gobbles up my card and slides its cover abruptly over the keys. The bank is shut and I have this horrible feeling it could be weeks yet before a new bank card finally catches up with me.

James Hobbs, 1990

Read on: Football violence in Bournemouth