Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Bucklebury, Combe Gibbet and the RAC

James Hobbs, Bucklebury, Berkshire, 1990

Read an introduction to my drawing journey around England, which started 30 years ago

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

The first night out. I have ducked off the A4 down a narrow road that, by the speed they are going, is well known by the commuters rushing home. I get the idea that the van and I are a rude intrusion into their well-ordered lives, getting under their feet. I dawdle along in the same direction, trying to find the village of Bucklebury: it is spread thinly through the lanes, and I never know quite if or when I have found it.

In looking for places to camp each night I am going to avoid the camp sites whenever I can and knock on peoples' doors to see if they can direct me to some quiet corner, and at least give England's reticent population the chance to say something to me and save money into the bargain. I have driven miles searching for the right sort of place when I come across a large white house at the end of an intimidating gravel drive that I select as my first target for somewhere to stay.

The door flies open to reveal a man in plus-fours and a mobile phone hanging from a belt like a revolver. A lean, elderly, military looking man, barks over to me, "What can I do for you m'boy?" in a colonial sort of way. I tell him what I'm doing and how I am looking for somewhere I can pull in for the night, words I was to repeat hundreds of times over the months.

"Morton! Aha, of course! My father had a bookshelf full! Never did get around to reading any myself."

But he leads me to a small gate down one side of the garden, which goes into a narrow field where I can stop for the night. He leads me past firewood stacked against a hedge to show me where I can park. The pile, he says, has not gone down over the past mild winter - "but it's a dreadful frost valley down here. Down to minus ten last week."

Expressing surprise here was a mistake on my part, and he jumped as if he'd caught me out.

"Towny! You're a towny! Only a towny wouldn't know it's been so bad!"

The sky is ominously clear, and I feel I am about to find it out tonight.

I heat a tin of soup and then follow the footpath that leads through the field to a horse-smelling criss-cross of tracks behind the hedges. There is a leafy wood that muffles the footsteps and every other sound, the acoustics of the English jungle.

But it isn't as silent as it seems. Over the birdsong is the white noise of the M4 and a ceaseless rumble of Heathrow traffic, two inescapable links with another pace of life. Coming back out of the fields as darkness falls I pass a line of bungalows that look over to the woods and click, click, click, their security lights come on one by one.

James Hobbs, Bucklebury Church, 1990

In the morning, my host is up in time to chat with me while the toast burns, painting a vivid picture of the whole of the south of England being overrun with deer, stripping trees of their bark as they go. He's really got it in for me now.

"If you'd been up at a decent time this morning, your..." he points at the van, struggling for the right word, "thing would have been surrounded by them. No education!" he concludes.

I offer him a cup of tea, but he has, after all, not yet concluded, and turned instead to his views on letting the starving of the third world die out naturally rather than being "mollycoddled" by the likes of "us". "Thinning out" he called it.

He waves me off, and I think he will miss me being around to shout at. I stop to draw in a gateway on the way to Bucklebury Church, listening to a cuckoo somewhere across the valley while a stack of pornographic magazines blow around the road. The church is hemmed in between the rectory and post office, now The Old Rectory and The Old Post Office. This is ideal commuting country, encouraged by all those country living articles in the colour supplements. The migration of rich and poor between city and country continues. It seems quite possible though that one day there will be no such thing as a "local".


Even if you are driving around the lanes of Berkshire looking for a gibbet on a hill, it still comes as something of a surprise when you finally come across it. And today probably more so, as, chugging up the hill towards Combe Gibbet, I can make out the unmistakable form of a figure hanging from it.

James Hobbs, Combe Gibbet, Berkshire, 1990

From the twinkling lights reflected from car windows parked on the hill on this hazy warming morning, there is evidently a crowd out to see it. I have never considered myself an ambulance chaser but there is an allure to this macabre sight, and one I can't resist.

Getting closer, leaving the car park and its drowsy occupants with their BBC Radio 3 and vacuum flasks, I can see they are not concerned with the gibbet at all but giving their attention to group of grounded hang-gliders in the next field.

"'Not enough wind, just not enough,"' a helmeted man is saying. He turns to the little group and just for a moment I get the idea he's going to ask us all to blow.

The limp legs hanging from the huge T-shaped gibbet are way out of reach, but a soft stuffing is still visible oozing from one of the trouser-legs. The jacket is packed so tight that the few buttons that are left are popping off. The head is of stuffed sacking. It droops weightily, the noose giving it that same jerked angle you see in old black and white photographs from the hanging heydays.

On the opposite arm of the T, a sign has been hooked, awkwardly written, weathered and calling for good neck muscles and eyesight.
I am a farm worker who earns £120 a week. My rent is £30 a week, food for my wife and I is £60 a week. This leaves me £30 a week for clothes, transport, furniture and all the other things in life. I cannot afford a holiday. How can I afford £4 a week for our poll tax. This is the only way out. Please help to change this unfair system.
[The poll tax or, as the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher insisted on calling it, community charge, was a flat-rate tax that fell disproportionately on the poor. Her insistence on its implementation helped bring her down later in 1990. I came across a few other poll tax demonstrations on the tour.]

As a site for such a protest, you had to hand it to him. How can you resist such an apparition visible across half of Berkshire? The gallow's uses are now certainly few, but the farm nearby is obliged to maintain it in the condition it was in when it was erected to hang two child murderers in the 17th century, the only time it was used. There are signs of recent repair, new wood and metal plates to show it is still observed, and a steady supply of walkers over the hills to stand and watch.

James Hobbs, From Inkpen Beacon, 1990
It is a small point, and one no doubt lost on those about to have the noose about their necks, but there can be few finer views from any gallows. There is a massive expanse of countryside laid out below us, almost totally still except for flocks of birds and a tractor gradually working left to right across a field perhaps a couple of miles away. There are two palls of smoke, one very black, the other blue and emerging vertically from woodland. Several patches of oil seed rape stab yellowness into receding diamond-shaped fields.

The air moves a little, enough to set a body rocking on a gibbet, but still not enough for the hang-gliders.

The second night out, and I'm feeling pretty good having parked up a long, disused lane, waking to silence from the fields around, silence even from the skies, but then too silence from the engine, which splutters but does not start. And so my second morning out brings my first appeal to the RAC. With the help of a farm labourer who was happened to be spraying a field nearby we pushed the van to within sight of the road and I set out to look for a phone. [Mobiles were a rarity in 1990.]

There are few more uplifting sights than an RAC roadside recovery van coming around the corner and one I was to find did not diminish with frequency. A man jumps out with a precise moustache slicked into place. He is the nearest thing to Salvador Dalí I have seen. He fiddles with the spark plugs, and I have to turn the engine over from time to time as they are tested.

"And again." It is like a doctor asking me to say "aaah".

"The compressor," he announces. I am still dreading that this may mean the whole journey is over before it has hardly started, when he asks for £1.50 for a replacement. A rummage through my pockets only brings to light £1.24 in assorted change, which he accepts.

As I'm pulling away, he calls to me, words I cannot quite make out. They may well have been: "See you again!"

James Hobbs, 1990

Next: Winchester. Read about it here.

[See more of my drawings on Instagram.] 

Friday, 24 April 2020

Buying, waiting, setting out: Heathrow

James Hobbs, A40, West out London, 1990

Read an introduction to my journey, which started 30 years ago today, here. 

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

It is hard to know quite where London ends now. Even when you think you have finally escaped it, reminders sneak through. It seeps undetected well past the outer membrane of the M25 into towns beyond, its influence unmistakable. The skies are hardly ever silent to the sounds of aircraft nor the fields to some dual-carriageway or another. Heading west, the greener expanses are undeveloped plots rather than pasture, a padding of cotton wool around Heathrow. 

Everything is built for speed and everyone is straining for more. "We can be out of London in an hour," people say, not mentioning the dangers this entails, the jumped lights, the rubber burned into the tarmac. At 50mph, I am the slowest. Black taxis rush to the airport, and business people bored with travel sit reading in the back seat. The City and Heathrow are London to them. Holding onto my shaking steering wheel I want to catch their eye and laugh.

I pass beneath a gridlocked M25, queues of sales reps held ransom so they have to rearrange appointments on their carphones, lorry drivers leafing through tabloids snatched from their dashboards. A scrap metal yard of stacked rusted cars in the shadow of the motorway is just another lost irony.

Suddenly I'm not quite sure why I am doing this. After all the delays it is a surprise to find myself on the road. The van is perhaps something of a joke, a pocket dormobile that often squeezes smiles out of people when they see it. A Volkswagen would be more serious, proof of a greater dedication to a nomadic lifestyle. This little 1972 Fiat, for all the wonders of Italian design, is not exciting or glamorous. It has the aerodynamics of a brick. Signs of rust are reappearing already through the recently sprayed white paint. The man who sold it to me from his home in the shadow of the Hinkley Point Power Station had smiled too much perhaps as we agreed a price.

"The wife and I were going to have our summer holidays in it," he had said, "but – but we've different plans now." He didn't expand on this and I didn't dare ask. It looked to me that he'd bought it cheap, had done it up and was selling it quickly to some mug at a profit.

Good for six months (nearly): the Fiat 850T

I took a friend along to check it over before I bought it. Chris claims to know Something About Engines and so I watched him slide underneath it with a grimace while I kicked the tyres purposefully and checked that the gas rings worked.

Inside there are a hundred bolted flaps hiding storage spaces, a table that emerges from the kitchen to make it a dining room from which unfolds a mattress to turn it to a bedroom. The roof unbuckles and concertinas up in a red and white striped canvas so it is nearly but not quite possible to stand up straight. From the roof a strange uncomfortable hammock comes out, a precarious pretence of a second bed. A tap pumps water up from a plastic container stowed away in a cupboard. Brown curtains with poppers seal the inside from the outside world.

The "kitchen"

Before Chris has wriggled back out from underneath I know it's exactly what I want. It didn't really matter what he was going to say.

"Hey, this is it," I tell him. "I'll offer him £850."

"James," he goes, "let me take you home now at great speed because this machine here can only be a source of sweet anguish and possibly eternal misery for whoever owns it."

I consider it. "OK, OK. I'll try £825."

It's true: later, there are problems. It will need a new water pump, not an easy thing to find for this model. In the weeks I wait for one to arrive, I practice packing in everything I need to take and then take it all out again, much to the amusement of the neighbours. I try a few short runs to camp overnight in the hills on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge. The bed seems unnecessarily fiddly to assemble and takes up all the space inside the van once it is up. It needs to be made and unmade while still in it, a skill not easily acquired. The whole operation seems so time consuming I wonder if it's even worth my while going away.

It is the middle of April [1990]. I have the van booked for a service at a little local garage before I set out. I have given up on waiting for the water pump. The old one will last a little longer before it completely disintegrates. People have started saying to me "Haven't you gone yet?" each time I see them. The service goes reasonably well but before I can leave it needs a new brake light switch. They say this will be quicker to get than the water pump, but may be several days before it arrives from Warrington.

My late brother Dave: it looks like he knew what he was doing, and he probably did

Then I get flu, and spend days lying on the sofa wishing for an early death. [Thirty years on I did again, Covid-19, and wished for nothing more than a long life.] By this time a few people are even beginning to ask if I'm back already. The boxes are packed in my room waiting to be loaded in to the van at a moment's notice, and I start to eat the food I've packed into shoeboxes to take on the trip. There is a photograph of Hadrian's Wall in the paper one of these days. Right then, I couldn't envisage reaching London, let alone that remote outpost.

But then, and it's odd just how much of a surprise it comes as considering how long I've been waiting and expecting it, news comes from the garage that the switch has arrived and they can fit it straight away. Immediately I feel fit and well and ready to go.

I have a pile of sketchbooks and pencils, Morton's book and a road atlas. I have packed the provisions of a round-the-world yachtsman. I have a Shell Guide to England that can help me distinguish between what comes from the 13th century and what from the 14th century, but should the van collapse tomorrow it will all be over. On a budget of £40 a week there isn't too much scope for disaster.

James Hobbs, Datchet roundabout, 1990

The faster we can travel the further London spreads. Through Windsor where a crowd is gathered around the lights of a film crew shooting outside the castle, and Datchet where the green embossed with mini-roundabouts is overlooked by estate agents and antique dealers. The churchyard is shady and calm, and a woman passes by on her wicker-basketed bicycle as I draw, but the planes still rumble away and we may as well still be in London.

James Hobbs, 1990

Next: Bucklebury, Combe Gibbet and the RAC

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Following Morton: the 1990 introduction

This is the original 1990 introduction to the story of my van trip around England with sketchbooks and pencils. Find out more about it here.

[Bracketed sections are comments added in 2020.]

It was at a car-boot sale near Winchester School of Art one Sunday morning in 1989 that I first came upon a battered paperback edition of HV Morton's In Search of England. First published in 1927, it tells the idiosyncratic story of a man's looping journey around England in his bull-nosed Morris. Once I had it in my hands, the temptation to flick through its pages to find his reactions to places I knew was irresistible.

It is a book that has hardly been out of print since. Morton blended an informal, humorous style with an interest with history that brought the country's past within reach of anyone who wanted it. The growing popularity of the motor car was making the towns and countryside more accessible to the public than ever before. Within 14 years it was into its 27th edition.

Morton had an aim, one that his readers evidently shared with him, and that was to "find" England. He knew what he wanted and he set out to discover it. His journey was loaded with many of the views you may expect from a gentleman's tour in the time of the Empire, so much so that by the last page he is able to turn to a country parson and pompously tell him, "You have England."

[Pomposity was the least of Morton's many failings: you can find a bookful more in Michael Bartholomew's 2004 biography of him, titled In Search of HV Morton.]

But flicking through this paperback more than 60 years later, I wasn't so sure what the bombs and bulldozers had left to be found today. I had an idea that the "heritage industry" would have packaged much of what he had described into neat bundles of visitor centres, gift shops and theme parks set against a rising tide of satellite dishes and out of town shopping centres. But before I knew it, I had bought a small camper van, loaded it with pencils and sketchbooks and had a summer of drawing stretching out before me.

As it turned out, almost everywhere had its surprises. It came as a shock to find some places exactly as he had described them, just as it was to find others so changed. But it was those unlikely events that popped up out of nowhere down country lanes looking for somewhere to park overnight that I enjoyed most, the people ready to invite you into their homes or help push the van. They were the things you could never plan. The English people don'’t seem nearly as wary of strangers as we are led to believe.

But it made me aware, too, of just how much colour and history there is a short drive up the least likely roads. We rush to the international airports with only the haziest idea of what is just over the hedge. What is closest to home is so often what is most overlooked.

James Hobbs, Bridge Street Rows, Chester, 1990.

We are regularly spoon-fed the heritage trail hype, shepherded about as if we are incapable of original thought, depriving us of any sense of discovery. Perhaps that is the natural conclusion of what Morton was encouraging in his book. But if you have the time to slow down and stay off the motorways and dual-carriageways and see what you can find, there are many more rewards. England is a compact island and it never fails to respond to the slow, patient search.

With that in mind it was at times frustrating restricting myself to follow Morton's route. We were hardly ideal travelling companions. There were times when I would have happily thrown his book out of the van window and struck out on my own way. There were roads off his tracks that I found impossible not to take, and few were disappointing when I did.

Ultimately, however, I remained faithful to Morton and his book and I suppose I'm glad of that. Had I not remained faithful I would probably still be out there somewhere even now, driving the lanes looking for somewhere to camp or, more likely, waiting yet again for the RAC man to arrive.

James Hobbs, 1990

Next: Buying, waiting, setting out: Heathrow