Thursday, 29 July 2010

Bristol Harbourside Cider


This weekend's Harbour Festival has plenty to offer - including easy access to some of the world's finest cider. Come to think of it, the cider is there all the time, and you could take a very pleasant boat tour that combines great views, an opportunity to test your sea legs and car-free drinking...

Make your way to Temple Meads station and go round the back to the ferry terminal. From there you can take a boat to the Centre and trot across Queen Square to The Apple, the now-legendary bar-on-a-boat moored on Welsh Back. A swift half there, then back to the Centre and off again to the ss Great Britain.

The essential trick here is to walk past the entrance of the museum, up Gas Ferry Road to the alleyway on the right opposite Aardman's offices. Dodge down said alley, past the back of David Abel's shipyard and across the road to The Orchard, a fine local boozer with the most challenging list of farmhouse ciders in town.

If that doesn't finish you off, sail away again to the Nova Scotia, hard up against Cumberland Basin... You can sit on the quayside and enjoy a pint of Thatchers, and a very reasonably-priced one at that, then take a ferry home again...

There's more on Bristol Cider in The Naked Guide to Cider, out in September from Tangent Books...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Bristol Harbour Festival


This weekend the crowds will descend on Bristol's Harbourside, reminding us that the city is still a port and that people haven't forgotten their thousand-year old heritage. What we do tend to forget is that boatbuilders, marine engineers and others whose work is concerned with ships and the sea are still hard at work around the periphery of the old City Docks.

One of my motivations in writing Discovering Harbourside was to seek these people out and place the work they do now in the context of a long and colourful history. Stephen Morris went one better with a series of fabulous photographs that show just how vibrant the culture of the harbour still is.

That's enough of a plug for the book. Enjoy the Festival!

Here comes The Naked Guide to Cider!



Tangent Books launches The Naked Guide to Cider on September 15, just as the apples are starting to ripen and thousands of people are asking themselves ‘I wonder if I can make cider out of those?’

The answer is a resounding Yes! and The Naked Guide to Cider shows you how to do it. The book’s premise is that anybody can make cider out of any apple. It’s that easy. Of course, to make very good cider you need very good apples and a great deal of skill and The Naked Guide to Cider contains profiles of many of the country’s most accomplished craft cider and perry makers many of whom share their tips and hints.

The Naked Guide to Cider also contains an area-by-area guide to all of Britain’s cider-making regions, chapters offering an entertaining, in-depth introduction to cider culture and history, and a comprehensive listings section which will be invaluable for makers and drinkers alike.

This is the third in the Naked Guide series alongside The Naked Guide to Bristol and The Naked Guide to Bath. It is sponsored by Thatchers, one of the country’s leading family cider makers. The Naked Guides set out to be sharp, informative and witty guide books, packed with information.

Martin Thatcher, Managing Director of Thatchers said: “The Naked Guides are a well established brand and the modern, witty but informative tone is ideal for the new generation of cider drinkers.”

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Ravilious & the Sussex Downs, part 3

Ravilious may have been sitting at his worktable when he painted the view north towards Mount Caburn. Here is the hard-working Mr Barnes again, in rather better weather, with a team of horses and that familiar roller. Another team pulls a harrow, while the solitary and almost imperceptible figure in the distance is sowing seed. This may seem a nostalgic picture, but in 1935 half a million Shire horses still worked on English farms; only after World War II did ploughman become tractor driver.

Mr and Mrs Barnes lived next door to Furlongs and, like the postman who handed letters in through the open window, and Mrs Soames the laundress, they were an integral part of everyday life. When alone at the cottage, Ravilious sometimes relied for sustenance on ‘scraps that fall from the Barnes’ table, gooseberry pie and whatnot’, but relations were not always good.

In April 1935, while he was working on this painting, there was a frightful row. Some sheets, a saw and other items had gone missing from the cottage and Ravilious was asked by Peggy to deliver a note to Mr Barnes on the subject. Mrs Barnes stormed in, protesting her innocence – yet somehow managing to produce the missing saw – and then threw a fit and collapsed. Ravilious carried her to the sofa.


A rather different painting from this productive period is ‘The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes’. In startling contrast to the wide open spaces of ‘The Waterwheel’ or ‘Downs in Winter’ this greenhouse, which seems to be roofed with nothing more substantial than tomato plants, pulls us into an intense, slightly threatening world.

Tim Mainstone was particularly intrigued by this greenhouse – one of a series painted by Ravilious - and we set about trying to find it. Helen Binyon teased us with a reference to Firle and an old nurseryman who had, as a boy, been up the Amazon on a plant-hunting expedition. Tirzah Ravilious gave him a name: Mr Humphreys. Armed with this scant information, we went into the village and started poking around. At the Firle Stores we were directed down the lane, past a disused boiler house and into a walled garden, where a scene of considerable devastation met our eyes.

The garden had been built in the nineteenth century to supply Firle Place with vegetables, fruit and flowers. The walls had been covered in espaliered fruit trees, while the hothouses included a mushroom house and an unusual strawberry house in which plants were grown in the warm air close to the roof and were lowered by pulley for picking.

Add caption
But in 1944 a Spitfire brought down a doodlebug nearby and the resulting explosion shattered every pane of glass in the village; the walled garden never fully recovered.

In fact only one greenhouse has survived in any way intact, and as current nurseryman Jim Piper opened the door to show us, we realised that this was the very house that Ravilious had painted. And Jim still grows tomatoes, which you can buy from a stall outside.

So far we haven’t strayed more than a mile from Furlongs, but we’re going slightly further afield now, to visit a local landmark. P Known variously as the Wilmington Giant or Long Man of Wilmington this chalk figure seems to have intrigued Ravilious. P He portrayed it in two of the wood engravings he made for the Lanston Monotype Almanack of 1929 – this is Taurus - and also in the celebrated Morley College murals.


First recorded in 1710, this is one of the world’s largest representations of the human figure. But is this supposed to be Baldr, the Norse sun god, pushing aside the gates of darkness? Or a pilgrim, advertising the Priory below? Ravilious had his own, rather exotic interpretation, comparing the figure to a painting of Virgo by Bartolo di Fredi, the 14th century Italian painter, and suggesting that the giant was really a giantess. He might have enjoyed a recent TV stunt, in which eighty women, dressed in white, lay down in formation to turn the Long Man into the Long Woman.

In the summer of 1939, while staying at Furlongs for the last time, Ravilious made this watercolour, in which the antique figure is framed by the fence posts and barbed wire of the modern countryside.

He planned to paint more chalk figures in September but the war intervened and he ended up making a whistlestop tour of Downland hill figures just before Christmas. These were to form the basis of a book, called ‘Downland Man’ or ‘White Horse Hill’. Ravilious was working on a dummy at the time of his disappearance, but it has never been found.

I don’t want to end on a gloomy note, however. Even as a war artist Ravilious saw light and beauty in the world, and much of his work was devoted to life’s pleasures. Tea, for instance was a subject he addressed in a variety of ways. His wood engraving of a garden tea table advertised Green Line Coaches in 1936, and a year later he designed a service for Wedgwood entitled ‘Afternoon Tea’.



Then, in August 1939, he painted ‘Tea at Furlongs’ – which I like to think of as a celebration of the life and companionship he had enjoyed at Peggy’s cottage. So vivid are the details – from bone-handled knives and mismatched chairs to that incongruous umbrella – that one can easily imagine two people sitting down at this table, bathed in the pale light of the Downs.

When Ravilious painted this scene both Tirzah and Peggy were pregnant. James Ravilious was born in Eastbourne on 22 August. As for Peggy, she went into labour one night when the only other adult in the house was Ravilious – probably not her first choice of midwife.


Fortunately a woman friend was camping nearby, so he was dispatched by bike to wake her and then to call a doctor from the nearest phone box. He rode off down the rutted lane to Glynde and made the call, but the doctor remembered the lack of electricity or running water at the cottage and refused to come out. So Ravilious went to the Trevor Arms and threw stones at the landlord’s window until he woke up. Though not particularly happy at having his slumbers interrupted, Mr Lusted shoved his trousers on over his pyjamas and jumped into his car. So Peggy was conveyed to Lewes, where her baby was safely born.

“How we laughed on that journey,” Peggy Angus remembered later. “An adventure to tell around the fire.”

Ravilious & the Sussex Downs, part 2


The cycle of the seasons recurs frequently as a theme in Ravilious’s work, and while staying at Furlongs he portrayed harvest and seedtime, ripening corn and the bare fields of winter. This is winter at a northern latitude, winter as the still point between one year and the next.

But though Beddingham Hill seems ancient and unchanging, this country was constantly evolving, alternately grazed and ploughed as the agricultural economy fluctuated. And while the roller in the foreground may look like an antique, it was used everyday by the long-suffering ploughman.

‘You can hardly see country at all from the windows,’ Ravilious wrote during one horrendous winter storm. ‘Barnes can just be seen with the roller – he has sacks tied round with string so looks much larger than usual. He looks pretty miserable.’



Though Ravilious’s paintings are often empty of people, he frequently had company on painting expeditions. In this case maybe Peggy Angus, since she painted a winter scene from more or less the same spot, only facing east rather than south. On other occasions Ravilious painted lanes and paths with great relish, but here he was drawn to the austere expanse of the ploughed fields – a landscape at once old and, in painterly terms, novel.

There’s something similar in his approach to the interior of the cottage, which he chose as a subject around the same time. Again this is rather a haunting image, with the coat behind the door adding a frisson of mystery.

But what was Furlongs really like?

Well, life was certainly simple in a shepherd’s cottage on the South Downs. There was no hot water, no running water for that matter, no electricity… mod cons consisted of a coal fire, calor stove, kitchen sink and outhouse. When Peggy evacuated her two young children to Furlongs during the war she used to bath them in an enamel tub in front of the fire.

But though life was basic, the interior of the cottage was anything but dull. Ravilious, after all, had grown up around his father’s Eastbourne antique shop, and with his friend and collaborator Jim Richards he frequently went on junking expeditions to the rich hunting grounds of Lewes, returning with a Victorian mirror or a set of long-legged bentwood chairs, or a birdcage, or a dumb waiter that might do as a drawing table.

On the walls there were paintings, of course – how could there not be? – but the cottage was also decorated with Peggy’s marvellous wallpapers – you can see an example here in this photo by Edwin Smith.

Peggy became well known after the war as a designer of wallpaper and tiles, and some of her designs are still available. Earlier, in 1934, Tirzah Ravilious had brought her marbling equipment to Furlongs, and set about decorating the kitchen. So the interior of the cottage must have been a treat P, full of bright colours; in the evening, in the light of the fire and an oil lamp of ruby glass that was another present of Eric’s, guests sang Elizabethan rounds and Scots folk songs, with Percy Horton playing the fiddle… you have to wonder what the ploughman and his family made of it all.



But, as the open door in his painting suggests, Ravilious was most inspired by the country surroundings Furlongs, which offered not only the wide skies and sculpted valleys of the Downs – shown here in the painting Chalk Paths, but also more unusual subjects.



Walking on Beddingham Hill in the spring of 1934, Ravilious looked down to see the exposed chalk face of the Asham Cement Works. Back in Essex he had painted a series of idiosyncratic paintings showing abandoned machinery in rural settings and now, approaching the works, he was excited by the strangeness of chalk-whitened buildings, dolly engines and a landscape dusted with fine white powder.

He went with Peggy to see Mr Wilson, the manager of the works, who was surprised but pleased to meet artists who could see beauty in an industrial operation that others tended – understandably - to regard as a blot on the landscape. They returned together many times to sketch and paint the chalk pits and works, the chimneys, sheds and railway lines.
In Cement Works no.2, the contrast between pristine buildings and damaged trees suggests some sympathy between the artist and conservationists who had opposed the opening of the cement works in the mid-20s. Though forgotten now, the battle over the works was a cause célèbre at the time, not least because the new venture engulfed Asham House, where Virginia Woolf had lived between 1912 and 1919 - she wrote The Voyage Out at Asham – before her move across the River Ouse to Rodmell.

Amazingly, the house endured until it was demolished in 1994, by which time the cement works was closed and the chalk pits put to new use as a landfill site; P today the landfill site has also closed and is being capped with chalk, bringing the history of this particular place full circle.

Back in 1934, Ravilious wasn’t just looking for interesting subjects to paint, however. With the Bawdens wanting to settle permanently in Great Bardfield, he and Tirzah needed to find a house of their own and, with nothing available in Essex, they started looking near Firle. Peggy took them to see an abandoned farm called Muggery Pope, which Eric loved for its name – he called it Muggery Poke – and its romantic situation. But it was in a terrible condition and inaccessible except on foot or by horseback, so the idea was reluctantly abandoned.

Then one day, walking back from the Cement Works along the Newhaven Road, Ravilious and Peggy spotted two strange-looking vehicles almost concealed among the dust-whitened vegetation of an overgrown lane. Curious, they crawled in closer, finding bunk beds in one van but no clue as to where the vehicles had come from. So they asked Mr Wilson, who explained that these were fever wagons, used thirty years earlier in the Boer War - or perhaps as long ago as the Crimean War - and then shipped back to Newhaven. They had been brought up to the cement works when it was first being prospected, he thought, to provide accommodation.

Mr Wilson was happy to sell the caravans to Ravilious for fifteen shillings each, then the artist hired a breakdown lorry from Lewes to tow them up the lane to Furlongs, concealing them in the bushes to appease Mr Freeman and avoid upsetting the Glynde Estate.

Tirzah painstakingly decorated the caravans, one of which became their bedroom. The other Ravilious converted into a studio, with a skylight and large window looking over Mount Caburn, and a worktable beneath the window. Here the caravans remained, gradually falling into the derelict condition in which they were photographed by Edwin Smith after the war.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Familiar Visions: Eric Ravilious & the Sussex Downs

Last weekend I was in Eastbourne, where I attended the opening of 'Familiar Visions' and gave a talk on Eric Ravilious and the Sussex Downs. The show, of watercolours and woodcuts by Eric Ravilious and photographs by his son James, is beautiful. In part it's a celebration of two fascinating areas of England - Downland Sussex and North Devon - and in part an opportunity to view the work of two related artists. James photographed people, whereas Eric tended to leave them out of his paintings. Both, however, share a feeling for light.

Robin Ravilious gave a wonderful, personal talk; she is James's widow and the only person who fully understands the vast archive he left us, and she presented us with a loving, but not sentimental portrait of her late husband.

I talked about Eric's paintings in relation to the places and people he knew. For people who couldn't be there, or would like a reminder, I'm going to post highlights of the talk in a series of posts, with pictures. So here goes...


Though a Londoner by birth Eric Ravilious moved to Eastbourne as a boy, and the hills and valleys of the Downs inspired him tremendously.

He painted this watercolour of Firle Beacon in 1927, a couple of years after graduating from the Royal College of Art. He was looking to the west and outward, from the countryside he knew intimately to a landscape that was less familiar. A strange, archaic land still ruled by two ancient Estates. Below the Beacon, the village of West Firle was – and is - the domain of the Gage family, owners of the Firle Estate, while the land to the north belonged to the 800 year-old Glynde Estate.

The young Ravilious taught part-time at the Art School here in Eastbourne and liked to take his students by bus or bike to Alfriston, Wilmington and other villages nearby. Although becoming known primarily as a wood engraver he professed to students his ambition of reviving the English watercolour tradition, and you can see his vision beginning to form in this painting. The fence, with its missing slats, shows the clarity of his gaze.

But it would be a while before Ravilious entered this country. In 1930 he married his best student, Eastbourne native Tirzah Garwood, and the couple moved away, to London and then Essex. Then, in 1934, Ravilious met an old friend from the RCA, Peggy Angus; she came to stay at Great Bardfield with the Raviliouses and Bawdens, and invited them, in return, to her cottage on the Downs, just to the west of Firle.


I say, her cottage. In fact Furlongs belonged to the Glynde Estate – as it still does - and had been let to a tenant farmer, Dick Freeman. Peggy found the place during an eccentric househunting expedition in which she walked along the ridge of the Downs, descending to explore each house she passed.

The cottage was empty, the door locked and enmeshed in ivy. Peggy asked Mr Freeman to sublet it to her, but he refused, so she set up camp nearby and painted under an umbrella until he relented. She was not a woman who gave in easily. A patriotic Scot and a Communist to boot, she was not afraid to upset those of more conservative leanings like Tirzah’s father, a retired Colonel - he nicknamed her the Red Angus.



But she and Dick Freeman became friends, and to numerous fellow artists, students and guests, Peggy was an inspiring teacher and an entertaining host – a singer of folk songs and maker of elderflower champagne. For Ravilious, coming to Furlongs proved life changing. It was here that he fell in love with Helen Binyon, and it was here that he found the landscape that inspired some of his best work – country that didn’t remind him of other people’s paintings.



In this 1934 watercolour, Furlongs, we see the distinctive flint walls of the cottage, with Beddingham Hill beyond and the wide sky overhead. The hay would feed the horses that were stabled nearby – the ploughman, Mr Barnes, lived in a cottage that occupied the other half of the building, and the girl standing in the garden is his daughter, Lena.

Constructed for the shepherds of the Glynde Estate, the house became a retreat for artists and a base for their explorations. Over the following years visitors included Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Percy Horton, John and Myfanwy Piper, Olive Cook and Edwin Smith, not to mention Eric and Tirzah’s children and their families. Edwin Smith took the picture below in the 50s.



Next time you visit Vanessa Bell’s house to the east of Firle or Virginia Woolf’s house at Rodmell, you might consider this alternative Charleston, or even go past and have a look. If you felt particularly energetic you could make a long circular walk that takes in Charleston, Rodmell, Beddingham and Firle.

Alternatively, you could follow the route Peggy’s visitors took, travelling by train from Lewes to Glynde. The sight of a car coming up the lane was likely to send Peggy and Eric running for the hills, lest Tirzah’s father be at the wheel. Guests more often arrived at Glynde Station and set off through the village on foot, past the Trevor Arms and across the main Eastbourne to Lewes road.



“They continued,” Helen Binyon tells us in her biography of Ravilious, “Along a narrowing tree-lined lane, until they reached an open field, with the swelling slopes of the chalk Downs beyond P, their rounded tops bare against the sky. They turned to the right, along a deeply rutted track, past a little copse, over which towered the wheel of a creaking wind pump; on its vane the mysterious word ‘DANDO’. Ahead and still some way off, they saw the cottage.”

On my most recent visit a torrential rainstorm was in progress and the water running down the lane was ankle deep. I looked out for the wind pump, but alas it is now hidden among the trees. It must once have resembled this one, painted by Ravilious in 1934. In fact it might have been this one, since waterpumps of this kind were rare out in the fields; they tended to supply large houses like Little Dene, which lies just downhill from the now-overgrown copse.

But let’s carry on towards Furlongs, passing the spot where Ravilious painted this haunting evocation of winter; the scene today is much the same, except for the TV masts on the summit – an addition Ravilious might have enjoyed.