Silver End Modernism

IMG_1303Silver End village near Braintree was developed in the mid-1920s by the Crittall family to accommodate a new factory (the eponymous steel windows, which, as I recall from Grandad’s flat in Willesden, were very cold to the touch) plus housing and amenities for employees. The designers were the Crittalls and Thomas Tait. Although little of the deserted factory survives, many of the homes and public buildings have plenty of life in them. Silver Street is a long row of white or cream flat-roofed houses with large windows (originally Crittall, of course!) in varying states of preservation. Many of them are simply painted brick, and the triangular oriel windows with finials look very New Ways. Sadly some of the most forlorn houses are the larger ones at the main crossroads.

Further along there is a magnificent former village hall (now library and children’s centre), which looks into a large playing field (all sporting facilities provided by the factory). It gives some sense of the magnificence of the village and the munificence of the Crittalls. In a more individualistic, less paternalistic age like ours, this generosity can appear infantilising or dreadfully conformist . . . but with the notion of a steady job and a well-designed home receding for so many, I’m not knocking it.


Silver End “village hall”

I decided to cycle to Colchester along National Cycle Network route 1 to pick up my train there. It mostly small country roads (many hedgerowless) and a few bridlepaths, and my favourite find was this Art Deco waterworks building outside Tiptree:


IMG_1323Isn’t it wonderful – a temple to Hygieia! Judging from the hum emanating from it, it’s still in use.

Colchester is definitely built on a hill and is linked to the sea via the River Colne. Once I found the centre, I rather liked it. The town hall is ridiculously grand; the Victorian water tower behind even tries to rival it.

I had a quick look at what remains of the enormous castle, and zig-zagged through quaint streets to the less quaint railway station. (I also discovered that there are in fact two railway stations.)

So, a pleasant day exploring by Brompton. I often regret how unattractive British roads are for cycling: I would like to explore my own country more. I wish I could pedal around as easily and in as relaxed a fashion as I do in Germany or the Netherlands, for there is so much to see and learn here.

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Frinton-on-Sea Modernism


Shades of the Weissenhofsiedlung and Södra Ängby: Modernism in Frinton-on-Sea. The Frinton Park estate, begin 1934, was intended to be a very modern housing estate, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – only a small part of it was built. The lead architect was Oliver Hill (Midland Hotel in Morecambe: I remember how forlorn that looked before it was renovated). Given that the estate is now infilled with pitched-roof brick bungalows, it is clear that the English prefer the conventional. (Shades, here, too of the Parc Saurupt in Nancy, where all of 6 Art Nouveau houses were completed.)


Beach huts on stilts at Frinton

It’s interesting to see examples of the roads not taken: Modernism obviously didn’t appeal to enough people. I thought the houses were lovely and was quite disappointed that the plans had been abandoned. An estate of well-maintained gleaming white houses under a summer sky would have looked like something out of the Cyclades.

It was a pleasant ride from Clacton (my base) to Frinton. Frinton was not as quaint as I had been expecting (which was, if not Portmeirion, at least Southwold), but Clacton has exceeded my expectations (which, admittedly, were low). It has a lovely long beach and a pier: unlike Southend, it looks out to the sea proper.


Clacton Pier

I pedalled out to low-lying Jaywick – the polar opposite of Frinton. It started out as self-build holiday chalets for Londoners in the late 1920s, but now residents are permanent and the chalets have been extended idiosyncratically to the edges of their boundaries. Its plotland development and unadopted residential roads give it a shanty town air . . . or, more picturesquely, it is reminiscent of a delightful and very basic dwelling next to the sea that we stayed in on Tilos many years ago.

I’ve seen three Martello towers and a couple of concrete pillboxes. The towers just slot into the surrounding developments.


I think I might be causing a bit of gender confusion to casual interlocutors, since my middle-aged appearance and dress conform to neither the male (no hair and portly) nor female (ultra-feminine) stereotypes here.

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Molly Drake

I first read about Molly Drake a couple of years ago when the CD was issued of home recordings made by her husband in the 1950s. She sang with the English vowels of Celia Johnson in “Brief Encounter” and accompanied herself simply on the piano. Her songs are slight and short (and en masse somewhat samey) but their evocative, plaintive quality knocks me flat.

The first song of hers that I heard was “I remember”. She captured me immediately with “rainy April weather” and “harebells”, and the melody is perfect for the sentiments. I  particularly like the ghostly comment of her husband as the tape fades (“I think that was very good” . . . which rather rubbishes my idea of Molly Drake as W Somerset Maugham’s “The Colonel’s Lady”).

Of course, one imagines oneself as the lover who remembers firelight . . . but can you be sure that you’re not the one who remembers smoke?

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Dir: Christopher Nolan, with Fionn Whitehead and Mark Rylance

In retrospect, I can pick holes in this film, but while I was actually sitting in the cinema I was totally immersed in it. (More than I could bear at times: the drowning scenes were unwatchable.) The film covers three aspects of the retreat – land, sea and air – played out, but dovetailing, over varying time periods. The action is full-on, and the long waits (for the tide, for rescue) are suspenseful, but it lacks a wider narrative setting (unlike the impressive 1958 film of the same name). It shows both stoic heroism and desperate cunning to queue-jump.

Goodness knows how plausible it is (really, how long can you pilot a Spitfire without fuel?), and I found the splicing of the scenes too rapid at times. The music was sometimes too obvious and Nimrod-lite, and – surprisingly, as all the characters are British – I sometimes found it difficult to make out what they were saying. However, it’s impossible to ignore or underplay the courage of those civilians who sailed to Dunkirk to rescue the forces, or the horror of being target practice on the beach, and this film covered both those angles very effectively.

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The Bofors Gun (1968)

DVD, Dir Jack Gold, with David Warner and Nicol Williamson

I first learned about this play (by John McGrath) from an early 1970s edition of Pears Cyclopedia, the cultural sections of which I used to read endlessly. In retrospect I might have done better to immerse myself in David Bowie, but that would have involved making an unacceptable noise on the record player or hijacking the one radio in the house. As a consequence, I have an esoteric nodding acquaintance with 1950s and 60s playwrights and synopses of plays I have never seen.

And this is one of them. I saw the film a few days ago and am still ambivalent about it. The fact that it was made in 1968 – around the same time as If . . ., Blow-Up and The Graduate – surprises me: it seems so stagey and traditional and belongs in the 1950s. (But it might not have seemed so at the time.)

And yet . . . it has left a lingering impression on me. They play is very well and tightly constructed. The events of a night have much wider resonance. The animosities and the antagonisms between individuals, classes, regions, religions, countries (they are in Germany to guard against the USSR after all). The horrors of National Service if you didn’t fit in and the pointlessness of so much manpower and discipline dedicated to defending an obsolete weapon in the atomic age. And yet it’s also a very human play: O’Rourke’s manic-depressive behaviour (hinting at a brutal childhood . . . which is also one way of viewing the establishment of an independent Ireland) and Evans’s ineffectualness and desperation to escape.

So, probably better than I gave it credit for as the titles rolled.

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The Great Stone of Fourstones


DSC_0504The weather is so lousy this summer that a day with no rain forecast must be seized with both handlebars. So the Brompton and I set off to find the Great Stone of Fourstones (there are no others, which makes the name quite Monty Pythonish). I made into a proper ride – it must have been at least 4 miles from the station! – and got damp feet walking over the moor to look at it. I then got cold feet at the thought of climbing up it – the carved steps were very worn, and I had my dignity and my bones to think of – so I was happy to admire it from ground level.

It may be a glacial erratic, and it’s not as big as I had imagined, but anything would be dwarfed by the bare moor it sits in. The view towards Ingleborough was, of course, tremendous.


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Leeds-Liverpool Canal


Five Rise Locks, Bingley

As it wasn’t raining today, I took the Brompton and went to Keighley to cycle along the canal towpath to Leeds. (Perhaps not the best bike for the rough surface, but definitely the best bike for the crowded trains.) I discovered that the staircase lock I have seen many times from the train at Bingley isn’t Five Rise Locks but only Three Rise Locks (I had always assumed the missing locks were out of sight). Both sets of locks are stepped very steeply, and I was sorry that there was no boat to watch going through them.


Five Rise Locks from the top

Next came Saltaire, which I visited a few years ago. I recall being particularly impressed that Titus Salt built his mill downwind of the workers’ houses so that they could live with less polluted air.


The canal at Saltaire

Towns thin out a little between Shipley and the outskirts of Leeds. I made a short detour to visit the extensive ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, which was less isolated than most ruined abbeys I visit. This one was next to a retail park.


Kirkstall Abbey, ruined Cistercian monastery, founded 12th century

A very pleasant day; some might think the scenic train journeys were disproportionately long for an 18-mile ride, but not me. What struck me, though, was how cramped England is. The narrow canal (I compared it to wide Dutch canals); the busy roads; all the infrastructure – road, railway, canal, industry and housing – crammed into the Ayre valley; the cramped trains. I guess the topography doesn’t help: you can spread out more in a flat land like the Netherlands.

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