Friday, April 30, 2010

Hol(e)y Sunday

It was World Pinhole Day last sunday, as well as being the day of the London Marathon. A beach hut is a fair bit easier to capture with a three-second exposure than Tsegaye Kebede, so I took my pics a fortnight early.




The technical stuff: These were all taken on a Zero 2000 pinhole camera on Agfa APX 100 film which was out of date ten years ago. Exposures varied between 1-ish second to about 3 seconds. The negs were scanned on an Epson 4900 and contrast tweaked slightly in Potatoshop. I was taking the picture of the boat in Appledore, when someone very like this bloke appeared and said "Whaddya wanna take a picture of that old rubbish for?". For the next half hour he lectured me on what I should be photographing and how I should do it. Then I pushed him off the quay.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Season Of The Witch

I'm fascinated by folklore and superstition. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in the modern but rural fringes of a mill town, but some neighbours never refused to buy the pegs the gypsies came round selling. Better keep them happy, otherwise, you might get cursed. Happened to a friend's auntie didn't it? Never been the same, she hasn't. I remember seeing milk left out for the 'Hob', the local name for a Boggart - a sort of mischievous Yorkshire pixie - at a farm gate in the Worth Valley. If you go to the Grouse Inn not far away, you'll drive down Hob Lane. Until at least the early 80s many houses in Langcliffe up in Ribblesdale had smooth stones on thresholds and window ledges to keep evil out.

It may be full of second homes, Volvos and easier to buy a William Morris tea cosy than a light bulb in the Cornish village of Boscastle, but it's a lovely place. Apart from the catastrophic floods of a few years back, the village is chiefly famous for the medieval harbour - where the tide comes in so quickly it's like a giant filling his bath - and the Museum of Witchcraft, a place I'd wanted to visit since I first read about it the Fortean Times.

The museum was first opened in 1951 by former MI6 agent Cecil Williamson. Back then it was on the Isle of Man, and it's had several homes since - not every community was happy with such a collection in their presence. It's been in Boscastle since 1961. Amazingly, in this era of 'relevance' there is not a single mention that I could see of Harry sodding Potter. It's just exhibits with captions, and that's the way I like it.

A tale did the rounds after the floods that while the Christian bookshop was washed into the sea, the Museum remained untouched. Actually, that's not quite true - on the ground floor of this utterly unique collection there are markers at chest height showing the limit of the inundation. Given the fragile state of many of the exhibits it does make you wonder if magic played a part in their survival. Some items did get lost, alas. We'll never know what 'baked grave dust' looks like - just the container remains.

Many of the exhibits here are surprisingly recent - one of the latest additions being a tumescent flint nodule long used to encourage fertility. The custodian of this stone - the last in a very long line of keepers - had donated it because nobody in her village 'believes in that stuff any more'. There's a ram's skull that was once part of a witches shrine on Bodmin moor that was venerated as lately as 1967.

I always thought that witch balls were fairly rare, so it came as a surprise that there was a factory in Nailsea churning them out in the latter years of the 1800s. You'd hang them in your window to keep witches out. Surprisingly many pubs have a desiccated cat on show. It's likely this had been found in building works and was left by the original constructors to keep out rats. Over here's a collection of charms worn by troops in the trenches of Flanders. Down there, a human skull fashioned into a drinking cup by Eggy 'Bald Head' Roberts - stonemason and warlock. He'd drink beer from the skull in pubs and recite poetry for a few extra shillings. In another cabinet a lock of hair from a redheaded virgin - keep that on you and a life of prosperity is assured. Look - a red shoe which contains a (dead) sparrow encased in wax. This was the work of a Plymouth witch, 'Black Doris' - a charm against jealousy. Next to that is a number of what most would term voodoo dolls, but are more correctly known as 'poppets'. The one of the wartime ATS sergeant hanging from a noose was very effective, apparently.

Of course, most witchcraft was (and maybe still is) used for nothing but good, wholesome ends - making sure that the season's crop would be a good one and to ensure the health of livestock. Has all this died out in our age of soya lattes and broadband? To paraphrase Laurie Lee, do the old ways still persist where the roads are bad? I do hope so.

PS - I made very sure that it was OK for me to take pictures. You don't want to upset a witch.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Days Of A New Spring

The cherry tree outside our house has a magnificent blossom this year. On a bright day, it's so luminous it looks like a photo taken on infra-red film. I love that tree. I'm always alert for council blokes in hi-viz vests who might want to chop it down to 'improve' the pavement. All that pollen played havoc with my hay fever last saturday as I converted Bella, my 1974 Vespa Sprint Veloce from a sort Fisher-Price Activity Centre for cats into what will be my summer ride. A good scrub removed the slick of protective WD40 and with four kicks she awoke from hibernation. Scooters don't like being put away for winter. When I remove Bella's covers for the first time, it always strikes me how much her headset looks like a dog sulking with its ears back. She'll cheer up when I put some miles under those Ten Inch Wheels.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Grass. Cut.

So - farewell then, Supergrass. One of the best bands of the last three decades has chucked in the towel after 17 years. They never really became household names like other so-called Britpop bands Blur and Oasis, but for my money they were best of the lot. They were a classic British group with hints of the Kinks, The Faces, Humble Pie, the Stones and even Madness and early Adam And The Ants. I only got to see them live once, a storming set at the old Billingsgate Market. Mick and Rob plonking along, with Gaz out the front singing his lungs out. Danny at the back hitting everything in sight and panting like a racehorse in the gaps between songs. It was a a very hot night. The moment the applause finished after the encore, Mrs TIW fainted in my arms.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Inconstant Craving


I'm getting bored with trying to find a consistently good pub in Barnstaple or Bideford. I've been visiting what are now my in-laws for the best part of 20 years. I still haven't found what I'm looking for, though I'll probably keep searching. I've even brought my down old Specialized Hardrock (above, on Westward Ho beach last week) so In the future I can explore the more remote pubs.

Take Appledore. Being custodian of a pub in this Georgian fishing village could be like owning a cow that craps solid gold. As well as the 'real' Devonians - amongst the friendliest people anywhere - the place is full of affluent second-homers with kids called Georgie and Arabella, and well-heeled couples, families and groups who descend on the place at Easter and in summer. Whoever they are, they're all after a good pub experience, but they'll be lucky to find it here. We were in the Coach and Horses last saturday afternoon - for as long as it took to swallow one drink. The other punters were an over-familar, swaying drunk ("You a photographer? Take a picture of me cock then! Harharharharhar"), his visibly embarrassed mates and a group of loud and sweary footy fans in the back room who sounded as if they were outside seven or eight pints at two in the afternoon. We counted no fewer than three groups of potential customers who came in, surveyed the scene and turned on their heels. In the current climate, that's a lot of lost money.

Next door at the Royal. Half empty, no real ale and the interior completely dominated by two lads who'd been there several hours, and effin' at the top of their voices. More visitors came and went instantly. More lost trade. I'm not being pious here - i'll drink with anyone, even someone with a pottymouth if they keep the volume down. But I might not enjoy it if i'd popped in for cod and chips and a quiet pint with an elderly aunt on Easter Weekend.

Round the corner, The Champion Of Wales - now called 'The Champ' - was empty. They're making an effort here - the new licencees have spruced up what was a distinctly rough and ready place with big comfy sofas and a real fire. The Doom Bar was in reasonable if not brilliant nick, but the Tetley Green Shoots was a pint of opaque, stinky, vinegar. It was changed with no drama, but shouldn't even have made it out of the pump - they could probably smell it in the chip shop next door.

I haven't drunk in the Royal George for a couple of years because the service was so indifferent, the beer so joyless and the punters so cliquey that it made a visit to this handsome old place an utter chore. I probably should give it another chance. Thank God, then, for the village's only decent pub - and probably the best pub in the area, the Beaver. It doesn't have much in the way of old, organic character, but the service is great, the beer (in general) the best I've had in the town and get this - packed. I haven't seen a pub so busy for years. Three deep at the bar, pints passed over heads back to your table.

Any ale fan visiting won't be surprised to find that Bideford town itself hasn't got a single pub in the Good Beer Guide. The pint of vinegar was an historic low, but drinking round here you get used to beer past its best and pints with a faint but distinct whiff of eggs. It also proves my theory that the Cask Marque can be safely ignored as a symbol of quality. The Kings Arms in Bideford has the marque and is as inconsistent as it gets, though to be fair it has served up the odd cracking pint. The tiny and friendly White Hart up the quay is another decent place where an effort is being made. It's run by two ladies of a certain age and their elderly collie, Dexter*. It's a great community pub. I always enjoy a visit here, even if I only have a couple of pints of Jollyboat's distinctly utilitarian brews. When I was in on friday, their pint of the Otter Brewery's imaginatively named Ale was great - but as with all the other pubs in the area that I've tried, a good pint can't always be guaranteed.

If I lived here full time I might start to see that Cooking Lager definitely has a point.

* This is the old lad. His beermat-catching days are way behind him, but he still likes the odd crisp. I've also seen him visibly offended when one drinker remarked that he looked like 'a man in a pantomine dog suit'.