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Saturday, 17th May 2008

eople have a mental image of what England looks like, even the English; and we should know better.

Lie back and think of England and you might well be thinking about a village scene full of stone cottages with thatched roofs. Roses will be growing around the door having escaped the confines of a small but well cared for garden. A small stone path, crowded on both sides by sweet smelling herbs will saunter through the garden and kiss the small wooden gate which opens directly onto a road.

The road itself only contains slow moving traffic, nothing as ghastly as a motor car will be heard. More likely the steady hum of insects and the velvet silence of butterflies.

These places do exist but they will be packed full of tourists for large parts of the year and can be absolutely hell to live in.

Why do the tourists come to these classic country villages?

Because there are not enough of them to go round that's why. They just do not exist, in fact, so rare are they, even the English go and visit them. Most of us want to earn a pile and retire to the country retreat, most of us never do it but there are enough that do to ensure there is no rural retreat. Once you get there you begin to wonder about the little practicalities like getting to the shops (they will be 5 miles away at best with no public transport to get you there).

I will never forget seeing the cellar walls weep water when there had been a lot of rain.

I cannot tell you when this vision of England came about but I suspect World War Two had something to do with it. Fighting for a country built in that image could well have been a lot more appealing than fighting for the back to back slums of Victorian England. Then for some reason as the past faded we created a Dickensian Britain as he would have written it if he had written verse for Christmas cards.

The sad truth is thatch cottages are pretty thin on the ground, they burn pretty easily and are the devil to insure. Keeping the roof over your head is a major headache and reroofing is a major undertaking. Built a long time ago the upkeep is misreable and usually a preservation order ensures you cannot change the doorbell with permission.

Then there is the day to day living people were shorter in those days. For anyone over six foot a cottage is not going to be a pleasure and by the time you have opened one door you have walked into another.

England is not a very big place to start with so the thought that over 50 million people can fit in it and still leave room for vistas of green fields is perhaps stretching it. There are green bits but they are usually around factories and installations so unpleasant that nobody dares live next to them or that the Ministry of Defence of busy blowing up.

That is the irony, Salisbury Plain is one of the most undisturbed piece of England left. Still in regular use by the army, it is now so full of unexploded devices it is just too dangerous for the public to go there. If it was vaguely habitable huge housing estates of mock tudor developments would have filled the landscape. All wanting to live in the country, so long as they do not have to come into contact with any of the original locals.

Actually this might be a bit cynical even for me. There are bits of greenery owned by the National Trust, which is owned by us, but they try to keep us out because we would ruin it for future generations. Countryside management is a very important topic and I should not belittle the efforts being made. I mean without a green belt policy I would not have known developers were able to buy large parts of it and build houses on it.

Enough moaning, these cottages do exist and Players, Picturesque Cottage 1929, a large format series of 25 cards got a few onto cigarette cards The cards have a certain oil painting quality about them, some looking as if they have been 'blown-up' from a background detail. The end of the 1920's could well be the last time these cottages could exist, it is almost like those sad films you see of the last animal of its breed dying in captivity.

All the ingredients of the myth are there, gardens in bloom, dirt tracks, chickens in the yard and the like. If there was snow on the ground it would be a Christmas card view. Without the snow, it look slick the illustration on the top of a chocolate box.

Details from Card 4
Beer, Devonshire
Less than one hundred years ago this beautiful little village with its white cliffs, shingle beach and fishing boats, was still the scene of smuggling activities. The tiny cove formed a convenient haven where with shaded lights and muffled rowlocks, many a forbidden cargo was landed and hurried away to its hiding place. Thrillin gtales are told of a famous smuggler Jack Rattenbury, who going to sea at the age of nine, spent most of his life privateering and smuggling. The cottages at Beer are often very irregularly thatched and are generally white washed. They are grouped round the top of the cove, a small stream flowing down through the main street to the beach outside.

I have to admit I have visited more of the subjects of Wills, Old Inns than I have this set. Some of the oldest buildings in Britain are Inns. The very fact they have been in constant economic use for hundreds of years has saved them whereas cottages often fall pray to decay and development.

One place I have been to and can recommend as an area is Beer, Dorset. I kid you not, card 4, shows the place as it might have been seventy years ago.

The stream has been tamed somewhat and now runs in gullies either side of the main street. The gulley is a bit of a fright for people reversing their car into a space. I did not see anyone back straight into this gulley, but it looked all too easy to do. The little cove is still there and the fishing boats still exist, although they are now more likely to earn a living by taking tourists out.

Smuggling was a big business in the area and although the card does not mention it the whole area is riddled with caves. I spent a happy weekend struggling about those caves (under supervision I add) which were commerically mined for the Beer stone. This stone has a high water content and can be very easily carved within the caves. Once it is dragged out into the sunshine it sets hard. This property made the stone very popular for church architecture. Most of the cathedrals in Britain use Beer stone for the ornate carving on display.

Card 12 has some appeal for me as it shows a cottage with what looks like the village pump in the garden. I owned such a property once. The village pump sat grandly in the back garden and the well went deep into the ground just outside the back door. Over 250-300 years the water from the well had eroded the sides and it had become rather like a bell chamber. I will never forget seeing the cellar walls weep water when there had been a lot of rain. The well just ran straight down beside that crumbling wall. Needless to say the cellar was filled in pretty swiftly. Horrifyingly you could life flag stones in the courtyard and you would be confronted with the abyss. It makes me shudder to think of it now. Needless to say the backdoor was not used, access to the garden (and the bakehouse) was via the side entrance. If you pumped the handle hard enough and long enough eventually a brown trickle of fetid water would run from the pump. The fact that the effort employed made the seven foot pump shake violently did little to add to the appeal of the venture.

Anyway Ledbury, Herefordshire looks similar, it notes the passage way that gives access to a courtyard which was crowded on all four sides by other properties. In troubled times the courtyard would be closed so access could not be gained to the properties and was a regular feature of older towns. Now I do not imagine shutting out the mob was in your vision of rural England but it was very much a part of life where fortification was necessary. The card also notes the 18th century window was a later addition to an Elizabethan cottage. That is frighteningly old when a 200 year old window could be considered a modern feature..

Remember when you were thinking of England, roses round the door and all that?

Well card 16, Weobley, (which I thought was a word that only existed on TJ Hooker records until now) Herefordshire displays the cottage you were thinking off. The reverse of the card also gives you an idea of why the Victorians were great reformers.

Details from Card 16
Weobley, Herefordshire
The delightful cottage illustrated was built in the 17th century. It stands at the junction of three roads outside Weobley and was originally a toll-house. Flowers climb over the doorway and the windows which were once latticed, and around the cottage is a roadside garden with a wealth of simple flowers. A century ago Weobley was rich in choice examples of English cottage architecture. These old houses were, however, too expensive to keep in repair, and as they were very difficult to pull down they were destroyed with explosives about 1846.

That card also brings another aspect of country life into focus. A building existed for a reason in a way that is not quite so obvious today. That house was a toll house, it was there because there was a junction of three roads. Today the house would be built and a road would be run up to it. Although the roads were man made they were built to go somewhere. Nowadays roads are built to stop people using other roads, village by-passes are big business today.

The cottages in this set are old because they were built a long time ago, blindingly obvious but it brings a lot of things into focus, which can easily be blurred by the modern mind set. For example, when the place was built there was no mains water supply, you built a house near water or you did not have any.

Many of the cottages in this set have some sort of water feature close by, be it a stream, river or pond. Given a lot of the motive power for industry was water it was an incredible important resource which dominated the positioning of towns for thousands of years. Admitedly card 18, Borwick, Lancashire does not but it does have a young woman struggling with a pail of water.

Rural Bliss at Borwick, Players, Cottages #18

Also the modern mind reels with the audacity of our Victorian ancestors. Imagine a four hundred year old cottage proving so tricky to pull down they had to resort to dynamite. Today if you painted the windows the wrong colour the council fall on you from a great height.

However you have to remember the Victorians were building a modern world for the future. Almost everything they did was because they were 'the greatest people, of the greatest nation; owners of the greatest empire'. Things were built because they could be and they were fantastic improvements on what went before. Nowadays we have lost that belief in ourselves. That is partly why we build Mock Tudor housing estates, there is no great vision of the future, we have misguided visions of the past instead. Victorian morality is considered something we should be trying to aspire too. Such beliefs do not bear more than momentary examination, or at least people should read Dickens rather than watch musical adaptations of Jane Austin.

There is rural poverty today as the infa-structure of the public services unravelled during the 1980's and 1990's and recession hit the traditional farming methods but nothing like the poverty which was endured during Victorian England which was considered a paradise in comparison to what had gone before it. Downshifting is popular today, but only amongst those that can afford too. If you were born downshifted a bit of upshifting is all you ever want to do. These cottage have come to represent an England that never did exist, then or now, but it is always nice to have those dreams.

On a final note, card 15 shows things have come full circle. many modern houses are being built without chimney's. A good few hundred years ago there were plenty of houses built without chimneys but this made things a bit trickier then as modern cookers had not been thought off and central heating was not going to happen for a good few years to come. Instead when the fire was lit for purposes of heat and cooking the smoke would have to find its way out of the property as best it could. Card 15 shows a cottage that has had a chimney butted too it at a much later date from the original construction. Just imagine a world where a chimney was a major home improvement. When I first moved into this house it had no phone, nothing unusual, what was unusual was it never did have a phone. It seemed like destroying a bit of the old world installing all the plumbing that represents this phone system.

The card set is beautiful and the cottages are wonderful but only because we no longer live like that and maybe we never did, a vision of the past which creates far more questions than it ever hopes to answer.