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It’s been a tricky couple of days. Yesterday’s winds prevented us from going out to the cinema to see the very appealing movie ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’, which I really wanted to see and last night was, well, the last night. Maybe it will come round again in a couple of months. We like to go to the delightful small independent cinema in Aldeburgh, on the coast about ten miles east of home. This gorgeous little place has the air of an intimate movie club where it appears that all the movies are selected for you alone. If you happen to be in the area the list of films being shown over the next two months or so can be seen here: http://bit.ly/1rurg3B

But as I said, the storm winds blowing on the east coast were pretty threatening and our route takes us along too many tiny country lanes lined with some mighty trees that I’m sure wouldn’t hesitate to fall on us if we ventured out. And how stupid would we feel if we ended up dead for a movie? You don’t really have to answer that.

The other matter that made yesterday less than perfect was the news that our beautiful village pub, The Crown, has been put up for sale. It closed in August while we were holidaying in America. Devastated doesn’t quite do justice to how I felt, I don’t mind telling you. But sadly, I have to admit it was kind of inevitable.

It was bought just over a year ago by a guy who promised to be our salvation, and before that it was owned by an imbecile. But at least the imbecile kept it open for five years or more, despite a list of scandals and cock-ups that would make you gasp.

The current owner made a wonderful job of refurbishing the interior, including a Suffolk pamment floor, opening new fireplaces and furnishing throughout with beautiful antique tables and chairs. That’s his trade actually, antique furniture restoration. But sadly not a publican. He’s a well meaning guy with boundless enthusiasm for country pubs and real ale, but not for giving the customers what they want.

You can get frequent glimpses of the place on a new BBC4 sitcom shown on Thursday evenings called ‘Detectorists’, as the pub was chosen as one of the interior locations when filming began in the summer. We were all very pleased at the time. But now it’s all a bit mournful seeing our pub on TV as it used to be, filled with jolly customers (well, maybe jolly is pushing it a bit in this case. They are detectorists after all).

Anyway, after opening the pub last summer we found that he had no enthusiasm for selling food, essential in a rural pub, and only sold beer that he liked, most of it hoppy yellow stuff that tasted of kumquats. He refused to sell Guinness or any well known brand of lager or cider, which alienates half his potential customers at a stroke. So slowly trade drifted away while the owner ploughed on regardless, refusing to see the folly of his ways. Eventually he was left with no customers and common sense prevailed when he closed the doors after just one year of trading. Daft, really.

So now he’s trying to sell it for the ridiculous sum of £550,000, having bought it for £350,000 a year ago, and that was probably too much. I think the poor guy might have to take a loss. Ho hum.

Still, tomorrow my good friend and I may well venture off to find a local pub that’s open and discuss the meaning of life over a pint or two of Earl Soham Victoria. Lovely beer.

So in the end I did boldly go camping. ‘Never again’, I said. ‘Never again’, I always say. But I allowed myself to be persuaded by my very persuasive wife, and set off at an ungodly hour of the morning from the sunny South to the frozen North of England, to that bleak and beautiful wasteland that is The North Yorkshire Moors. And we were, as always, greeted on our first night’s stay by the obligatory gale force winds and driving rain. How does that happen? Every time. It’s never forecast and is always unseasonal, and we get it. But I withstood manfully and uncomplainingly all that the elements could think to throw at me, as you can clearly see from the picture on the left.

And another thing. For the second camping holiday in succession we have an inflatable bed that has deflated by morning. How does that happen? Six months old and punctured. And in the morning the weather is grey and damp and cold and Northern. I awake deflated.

Fortunately my son, who has inherited his father’s resilience and pragmatism in the face of this grim northern climate, wraps himself in arctic clothing and simply gets on with the many tasks in hand like tightening guy ropes, stressing braces and battening hatches and all the other basic hurricane procedures. Felicia, however, has awoken to the realisation that her inflatable bed has deflated.

Things have not started well. But hold on. What’s that unfamiliar shining object making a brief appearance in the sky? Can that really be sunshine? In June? In Yorkshire? And look, the tent’s drying out. The holiday seems to be beginning.

We take a drive across the moors heading north to Beck Hole and one of The World’s loveliest pubs, the Birch Hall Inn. This tiny place by the side of a tumbling river can hold no more than about a dozen customers inside, serves it’s fabulous local beer through a small hatch in the wall and offers just a roll or a pork pie by way of solid nourishment. But what a gem!

Next day we are emboldened enough to go walking. We find on the Ordnance Survey map a gentle stroll from the tent, through the woods and along the valley, a distance of about three miles, to bring us to a hotel called The Everley which has a garden overlooking the valley from the other side, and serves the most excellent food and fine Yorkshire beer. Things are getting better and better. I love Ordnance Survey maps and in time I’ll write a little eulogy to them, I’m sure. They are unique to the UK and one of our great institutions. Read them well and you can know exactly what kind of terrain you may be up against in your chosen route, and in this case it was obviously gentle and we were able to walk in flippy floppy plimsolls. Deep joy in the morning!

As the week progresses the days are becoming sunnier and we’re off to the beach with Paul, Dupe and Felicia to splash in the sea and paddle among the rock pools. Felicia just loves the fairground attractions and demands rides on scary stuff like the dodgems and the big wheel, and we old ‘uns are dragged onto these stomach churning, bone breaking ‘amusements’. What larks!

Then we are back to less trivial matters and another glorious little pub is discovered. The Moorcock Inn (titter ye not!) just a few miles away at Langdale End is that perfect English pub tucked away along a small country lane heading nowhere that you’ve always wanted to find. Here again the beer is served through a tiny hatch in the wall, and I’ve no idea exactly what the appeal is about such an arrangement except that it is unusual and age-old and I love it. You are offered only one choice of local bitter here which changes whenever the barrel is empty. And the bars inside are like well preserved Victorian parlours, complete with the most beautiful marquetry-inlaid upright piano. With the number of pubs in this country closing every week at an alarming rate we are very fortunate to still have beauties like these, but as is always the case, we must use them or lose them.

And then, all too soon, the week is over. With a tearful sob its time once again to pack away the tent and load it into the car. Its been a fabulous week under canvas, communing with nature. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Camping? I love it.

And I’m reminded of the Alan Sherman song from distant decades ago, ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.’ which concludes, ‘Wait a minute. It’s stopped hailing. Guys are swimming, guys are sailing. Playing baseball. Gee, that’s better. Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter.”

Dodds Wood cock day

February 28, 2010

Cock day is a much anticipated end of season event when the brushes who beat Dodds Wood throughout the winter for very little pay plus a brace of pheasants or partridges for their pot, get to have a day’s free shooting. The idea is essentially to thin out the cock birds to leave the hens for breeding through the spring ready for next year’s shoot.

Maybe some of the terms here require a little further explanation. The pheasant shooting season lasts from October 1st to February 1st and I beat on syndicate shoots as opposed to commercial shoots. The difference between the two are that the syndicate shoots are formed by farmers who provide the land, raise the birds and grow the cover crops (maize or sunflowers etc. in which the birds will seek shelter from the winter winds) and the farmer’s friends who chip in the cost of all the above. Generally speaking, the number of birds taken on these shoots is relatively low. Commercial shoots, on the other hand, are organised more with an eye to profit making, and interested customers will buy a days shooting, usually at an eye-watering cost.

Beating, or brushing, depending on where you come from, involves teams of men (and sometimes women) driving the birds over quite long distances along ditches, through woods and across farm land towards the guns who will be waiting patiently on their ‘pegs’ often in the teeth of a bitter blizzard, the crazy fools.

Although I beat these and other wooded acres two or three times a week throughout the county I don’t actually shoot, so I spend cock day as sort of official photographer, and over the last three years have got some quite nice images, I do believe.

I love Dodds Wood. It sits atop a hill overlooking the Alde valley surrounded by farmland, and is really well managed both by the gamekeeper and by Jumbo, the woodsman who delivers my winter firewood. To walk through this wood and over the neighbouring farmland in good company, clambering through worryingly deep ditches, thick hedges and dense brambles, all in pursuit of game for the larder is a mighty pleasure not widely appreciated. It keeps me fit and healthy throughout the shooting season when I might be tempted to spend my time sitting by a cosy fire, and also brings in a little pocket money in the bleak midwinter when income is scarce.

The season is over now and my boots and leggings have been put away until next winter, and so today, on this grey and drizzly Sunday lunchtime, we fine company of country gentlemen and ladies drove gamely and eagerly through the flooded landscape to meet for the annual end of season beaters lunch at the Blaxhall Ship, as fine a pub as you might ever wish to fall over in, and recounted yarns of mishaps and adventures on shoots all over the county. Perfect.

My Dad and his brothers enjoyed taking their fun in pint glasses, a healthy attitude to life that I’m pleased to have inherited. There was a time before the war, Dad told me, when pubs in his neighbourhood in London’s East End would have different closing times, so the brothers would start the evening in their favourite pub until they got thrown out, then move on to the next pub which stayed open longer, and ending up in the least favoured pub until the early hours. I can only imagine what kind of a dive that place must have been.

In this picture they are outside The Fortune Of War Hotel on the Southend Arterial Road at Laindon in Essex. I presume they were off on a day out by the coast when someone had the foresight to suggest they pull over for a few pints just in case there are no pubs in Southend. Yeah, right.

On the left of this trio of rogues is my Uncle Sonny looking rather suave in his plus fours. Sonny was always a bit of a dandy and as we can clearly see, was not above striking a cool pose for the camera. In the centre is Dad, bottle in hand, and on the right Uncle Fred, stripped down for the serious business in hand.

Here is that same pub today. Who said the British neglect their institutions?

Then and now #2

February 10, 2010

A friend of mine, Louis Lyne, took this picture of Lianne and me in 1989, when Lianne was 21, in The Carlisle Arms in Soho, just across the road from my studio at that time. Louis was a commercials editor then and Lianne was working for an independent production company nearby. But I lost touch with Louis until he began contacting Lianne from Detroit a couple of years ago.

Maureen and I had lunch with them at a restaurant in Frith Street just before Christmas, and afterwards we decided to revisit some of our old stamping grounds in Soho and, twenty years after the first event, Louis took this picture once again in The Carlisle.

In a couple of weeks Lianne, Molly and Sam will be moving to Grosse Point in Michigan to make a new life, and in April Louis and Lianne will marry.

Funny old world.