Hut Man

I have started sending my new novel to agents (working title ‘Hut man’). It’s very different from anything else I’ve ever written. Hut man lives alone in a hut in the woods, talks to his Ikea furniture, and thinks hard (or believes he does) about everything around him. At a jumble sale he finds a book about hamsters with an inscription saying ‘This book belongs to Helen Jacobs. If you find it, return it to 33 Riverside Close, Budleigh Salterton’. He has to obey and sets off on his bike with Ken the plastic iguana on the handlebars. The first few pages are below (there should be indents instead of line breaks, but it’s difficult in WordPress):

“I live in a hut. It’s in the woods and not a shed at the bottom of the garden like some people’s because I haven’t got one.

It leaks so I banged nails in the roof to make it watertight. When I stretched the felt it broke into pasta strips like Sally makes. I don’t think they’d taste very nice.

I use a pencil to write, not pens. What I write’s there, and when I rub it with a bread crust it’s not. If I feel peckish I eat my words. The better I get at writing the better they’ll taste.

I won’t say where my hut is, I don’t want anyone to find it. We’re down a combe. Or up one, depending which way I’m coming or going. Things get complicated when I think hard.

I think I think hard, but how can I know? Whichever way, I’m along a track, through a gate that bangs you on the foot when it doesn’t know you, past a holiday cottage with screechy children, and along a muddy path. At a point I won’t tell you I go into trees.

And that’s where I am.

Sometimes I’d like to turn into a tree. Trees are good. I’d spread my arms and feel sap rising, fill my head with green. Green’s good.

I like mauve too.


The drips are worse. I’ve moved my table with my boxes to the far end where there’s more felt. I try hard to like drips, it’s important. Sometimes when I get up I find them in dents in the floor shining. They go off somewhere by lunchtime. I think water turns into air. Which is clever.

We’re in a corner of a bumpy field that belongs to Sally’s neighbours. They had it for a pony that died. They don’t know I’m here but Sally does. I like Sally. Very much. Luckily they’re old and walk with sticks so I think they’ve forgotten about it. And their dead pony. Old people don’t remember much. Dad can’t remember where he left his socks. Or who mum is sometimes.

I’ve friends here – Billy, Nils, and Nita – so I’m not alone. They don’t say much. Billy’s a bookcase, Nils a chair, and Nita a pair of curtains. After a difficult start we get on. I call them by their names. Why not? That’s what they call themselves on the boxes. I say Time to shut up shop, Nita, and I pull her across the window. She’s a bit long and picks up dust from the floor, but it helps with the cleaning. I’m no good with a needle, and I’ve told Nita she’ll have to stay too long.

Sometimes I say Let’s choose a book, Billy, I’ll read that Penguin on your top shelf. Billy wobbles on the bumpy floor when I tug it out, but he doesn’t mind. Nils doesn’t mind being sat on either. I don’t talk to Nils as much as the others.

I’ve brewed a cuppa.

My friends came in what they call Flat Packs. I carried them along the path to the wood. A man Sally knows called Bernhard left them in his room when he left her and she gave them to me.

Poor Sally.

Sally got me a job. She knew the girl who brought dead plants back to life at the garden centre. I’ve saved money I got working at the garden centre to buy things. People are funny. They asked what this bush was and whether this plant liked sun or shade, and if it liked wet or dry. How should I know? I said a bit of both, it can’t be far wrong. We all do, and plants can’t be any different.

I got the hose twisted once and an old lady tripped and fell down. But I think she was disabled before. I put her plant in the ambulance with her. I don’t think she paid for it, but that’s no loss. Patients like plants by their bed, even if it was one of the dead plants Sally’s friend brought back to life. I hope the doctors brought her back to life too.

When I unpacked them Billy, Nils and Nita didn’t look like themselves. I used the little key with the funny square top and now they look fine. Billy looks like Billy in the picture and settled in straight away. Like Nita he’s too tall. His top shelf’s jammed under the roof, so he slumps a bit. I use Nils the chair as a table sometimes. He’s really a coffee table but I don’t drink coffee. He’s got a bump down the middle like chairs have, so he’s really better as the chair he is on the pack but he’ll have to adapt. We all do. I’ve used the cardboard packs as carpets.

So here we are. Our new life together.

What now?

This is the only life I’ve got if the non-believers have got it right. It’s my life and I want it to be exactly how I want. Christians who believe in another life up in the sky I don’t like. Too many have big cars and houses, cheat in their businesses, sell people things they don’t want during the week, do things in bed without their clothes on with people who aren’t their wives or husbands, then make it better at church on Sundays.

I search for things that live on other things with dad’s microscope. I prise off bits of oak bark and poke them under the glass. Then I turn the magnification up, and there’s another other world.

I watch things move for hours, creatures with tiny waving legs and snouts and twisty feelers. Where are they going? Where do they think they’re going? How can I know? But it’s somewhere very small. They must breathe like us, otherwise they’d die. Their lungs must be small, too. Air must be even smaller to be tiny enough to get into lungs. Lots of things are small when you stop looking at things that are big and search for them.

I’ve talked to Billy and he doesn’t mind me using his top shelf for storing some of the interesting things I find living on other things. He’s shiny and plasticky and doesn’t mind slime.

What now?


I don’t sleep well because I watch for invaders. Invaders come at any time, they don’t work nine to five. Day and night don’t mean much here. Sometimes my day is night and other times the other way round, and I eat my dinner at three in the morning and my sugar snapcrackles at teatime. So what? A day’s a day. Who set that in stone?

Sometimes I wear dark glasses in the day. I found them on the path. I think a lady hiker dropped them because they’re purple with gold dots. Things look like night all day through them, but that’s because they’re dark. It’s no crisis because I use them for looking when it’s sunny. I wouldn’t sell dark glasses in Greenland. Half the year you wouldn’t sell any because Nature makes it dark. Maybe they sell twice as many pairs in summer to make up. I’ve thought hard about this and I doubt it because people only wear one pair at a time. Maybe they sell fish instead, you eat fish whether it’s light or dark. I do. I like fish fingers.

It’s holiday time. Not mine, my life’s a holiday. I like being alone but I’m interested in walkers, you can’t miss them in their bright clothes. I ignored them first. Now I catch their attention, but I do it away from my hut. Why? To intrigue them. I like that word Intrigue. It makes things sound interesting. And not just for me – I want to make their lives as intriguing and interesting as mine.

What do these people do when they ask themselves What to do now? Watch a video, eat a doughnut, do some shopping, clean the car? Or cry. I bet a lot have a good cry when they think how terrible their lives have become. It’s sad they don’t have friends they can rely on like Billy, Nils and Nita.

More drips. Or water’s coming through the mud floor, how should I know.

Poor Nils caught foot rot like a sheep. I got out my saw, turned him over, and told him this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, Nils. I hacked an inch off his bad foot. It wasn’t a carpenter’s cut so I went round each of his legs three times, cutting them more level till he wasn’t wobbling. I have to lean down to Nils now when I want to write or eat, and sometimes my plate falls off and I have to scoop up my fish fingers. But it’s no crisis.

I walked to the stream this morning and the sun came out and I wrote about it. I wrote how it dusted the pebbles in the shallows. Can the sun dust? It’s liquid in one way and air in another. But I don’t think it’s dust. And I wrote that water in the stream splashes light. Can light splash? Or is it the water? Writers write about things by comparing them to other things. Lambs are feather dusters, and birds and skies like fishes and water. But they aren’t, are they? Things should stay themselves. What’s the point in writing about a bee and saying it’s not a bee but a striped humbug?

I like watching the stream. It’s on its way somewhere, somewhere elsewhere and not here. Water’s always the same but different every moment. When I toss a stick in it snags on a rock as if it likes being where it is and doesn’t want to be moved somewhere else. Water never snags, which is intriguing. When I think hard about it I see it pouring into the pond by the hotel, then flowing out into the sea where it becomes something else but is still water with salt. Sticks look bent in water but straight when you take them out. I don’t think water really bends things. I’ve thought about it a lot because a stick can’t be in and out of the water at the same time, so how can you tell? But sticks may be cleverer than we think.

Sally came. She didn’t stay long.”


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The trials of calotyping

I wrote recently about the trials of black and white darkroom photography. They were nothing, however, compared with the hazardous and uncertain business of taking a calotype, the photographic process pioneered by Fox Talbot at Lacock in the late 1830s. I included an account of it in my novel ‘Riven’, available as a Kindle book. The topographical painter Thomas Genoa encounters novice calotyper James Jacks on the Blackdown hills near Taunton in 1849:

“Recent developments in calotyping are sending a chill through our profession – its effects haven’t escaped even the appalling Roger Potts. Three of our number have already defected to the new Photographic Club. John Shanks, who admittedly can put on a show of gloom, had us all tossing back the claret and preparing to thrust knives into ourselves. Twelve months on, and with a slump in business, some of us are beginning to believe that commissions are being prised away from us by pimply young men like Mr Jacks, peddling ‘truth to nature’.

But my suspicion of my new acquaintance in no way killed my curiosity when he invited me to cast my eye over his equipment. Bowing to his boots and tittering, Mr Jacks stumbled backwards across the grass as if he were ushering in royalty, then propelled me into the back of his wagon. He flung a curtain across the door so we were standing shoulder to shoulder in complete darkness. Gradually, my eyes deciphered elements of the interior, which felt like a Puseyite shrine, the row of tiny oil lights on the bench jiggling in saintly communion.

‘Watch how I coat my paper,’ he bellowed, adding the regulation quota of giggles.

But I was barely able to see a finger’s length ahead of me, and the little man might have been changing his suit for all I could tell. Chattering incessantly, he kept elbowing me in the chest as he reached for invisible bottles, and hardly seemed a suitable candidate to be risking life and limb with volatile chemicals.

I’m afraid most of what he prattled on about passed over my head, as I’ve no patience with chemical formulae. I remember he spoke of silver nitrate and some acid derived from what sounded like Aleppo gauls, whatever these delicacies may be.

‘Now I’m coating the paper with acid utilising a fine brush (how very exciting). I’ve formerly employed a mixture of 140 units but I find superior results with 150. Now I’m rinsing the paper in water, distilled, of course (what else? Pond water with newts?). Now I’m drying the sheet with blotting paper.’

At first I found the whole rigmarole diverting, and once or twice sniggered into my cuff. But by now the fumes were turning me nauseous and I wanted more than anything to be let out. Just as I was about to swoon the curtain was swept back and the energetic little man jumped down to the ground. Then he ran as if a mad bull were after him in the direction of his tripod, carrying his picture-taking device and calling for me to follow.

‘Come, there’s no time to waste. I’ve already inserted the sensitised paper. The mixture goes quickly off.’

The contraption he attached to the tripod was no more than a plain wooden box with a lens, and a cork projecting from one end. He pointed it in the general direction of the hillside and whipped off the lens cap.

‘ I presume you’ve already composed the scene?’ I made no attempt to disguise my contempt.

‘No time,’ he replied with a dismissive wave, ‘It’ll be satisfactory.’

There spoke a disciple of the moderns.

For close to a minute Mr Jacks hovered impatiently over the camera and stamped his feet, peering nervously at his fob and fussing over the tripod. Meanwhile, a glorious sun crept out from behind a cloud and streamed down on us, causing him to curse like a publican. And when a straggle of sheep hove into view (I thought they added a decent touch of the picturesque) he squealed with irritation, and snapped the cork lens cap back into place. He shooed them impatiently by, then removed the cap again. Seconds later he slid the bolt, opened the back of the box and drew out the paper, which curled immediately round his wrist like a shirt-cuff.

‘Look!’ He waved the paper in my face.

I waited for the miracle as I remember it described in a recent issue of the Art Journal. According to the sycophantic correspondent I should already be savouring a heady sense of ‘delight’ at the results. However, the sheet stayed stubbornly blank.

‘Can’t see a thing.’

‘You won’t, there’s the alchemy! Quick, come!’

Once again we were stumbling over each other in the wagon, the little man’s arms flailing around as he snatched up more bottles. There was a sudden shattering of glass and I felt something damp running down my leg, I told him I’d had enough of this tomfoolery, and thrust the curtain aside and stepped out into the bright light of day.

‘Look!’ He brandished the dripping paper an inch from my eyes. I watched what looked like a sizeable tea stain, purple in colour, permeate the paper and a similar one permeate the cloth of my trouser leg. I didn’t hide my contempt. If this was an example of the wonders of the calotype I was having none of it. (I confess, too, to being more than a little relieved.)

Mr Jacks tossed the paper over his shoulder. ‘Nitrate’s gone off. I must hurry and mix more before the light goes.’

Before the light goes! As it was only mid-morning with barely a cloud in the sky I got the distinct impression that calotyping was a hazardous business, with no certainty of a result even after a busy day’s toiling over the dishes. I left Mr Jacks to his own devices and started to paint.

My brush moved swiftly, my washes flowed, and I soon had the bones of the piece sketched in. I paused for a pipe and looked across to see how my curious friend was getting on. He was darting back and forth between wagon and tripod, wedging sheet after sheet of damp paper into his contraption. His stance during the exposure of each scene was oddly affecting, and in complete contrast to his accustomed clumsiness: poised athletically on one leg, and with the lens cap held delicately between outstretched fingers, he peered out at the scene before him, and apart from his ludicrous head of hair, he was as graceful as a piece of statuary. I went back to my own work and within an hour or so had finished my sketch. It was, to use the calotypist’s watchword, satisfactory.

‘Capital, Tout, capital. It’s a fine study. Now, come and see the fruits of my labours.’

We set off for the wagon, with Jacks glancing sheepishly down at my trousers. He urged me to enter.

‘I think not,’ I replied, rubbing my trousers with the back of my hand.’

I stood outside dousing myself in sunlight, tracing the line of feeding flocks across the belly of the down. Our calotypist shouted a constant commentary from behind the curtain.

‘I’m waxing the negative with bees wax using a hot iron. It’ll soak into the paper and impart to it a translucent quality’ (I’m afraid I’d reached the point where I didn’t give a damn). ‘I’m now placing a previously prepared sheet of salt paper in contact with this waxed negative. I’m coming out to expose it.’

I wish he’d warned me a little earlier – he jumped down from the wagon and cannoned into me, almost breaking my leg, then turned an acrobatic somersault, somehow managing to keep the papers out of the dust. He attached them to what looked like a music stand and suggested we go off for a quarter-hour and share a pipe. I’m afraid I’d had enough and left him to it, and spent the rest of the time cleaning my brushes and palette.

Some while later he called me over, and we were back together, our eyes fixed like twin lenses on the surface of the sensitised paper hanging from the stand. To my surprise I watched an image appear: the vaguest outline of hills, woods and downs tinged a truly bilious hue of purple. But they faded as quickly as they’d emerged, as if a fog had come down over the miniature universe he had conjured.

‘You see? I allow the picture to over-darken, then I dunk it in Mr Herschel’s celebrated hypo.’

What picture? There was no picture. By now he was back in the wagon, which resumed its characteristic rocking motion.

As Mr Jacks went about his business I decided that calotyping was hardly a restful occupation. We artists may complain about our job, yet bring any one of us a bright morning, an acre of open down, a ruin, a palette of paints and a sheet of Harding’s paper, and we’ll be the merriest grigs on God’s earth. Our preoccupations slip gently away until the view before us, and its image on the easel, sink deep into our consciousness and we become, in that sublime phrase of Wordsworth, ‘living souls’, lost in the immensity of the creation. Mr Jacks, in contrast, gives the impression that he suffers constant disorientation, adrift on the unknown seas of calotyping chemistry, well out of sight of land.

‘There! So, what d’you think?’

My heart came close to stopping. Wonder of wonders, the purple stains were gone and in their place I saw a Sunday afternoon amateur’s charcoal sketch in heavy sepia. It was terrible, rubbed and over-worked, the subject ill-defined and speckled. What could I say? Should I be honest and tell him the entire composition was flawed, the foreground too high, the middle ground congested, and the distant lands flat and devoid of focus? I turned it to the light and looked more closely and saw something very different: it was as if I were viewing the reality of the sunlit scene itself, albeit through a smoked glass. Glancing at my own ‘faithful’ painted record of this self-same scene, I understood for the first time that no matter how sternly I school myself to paint what I think my eye sees, my sketches are never more than careless impressions, and furlongs from the truth.

‘You’re excited? I hear Ruskin himself is keen.’

So what do I feel about this odd collision with the world as it actually is? I’m unimpressed. Why? You’ll know that things blur with distance. We painters express this using the device of perspective and varying densities of washes. Such subtleties are entirely absent from Mr Jack’s calotypes.

My conclusion is that recording reality in this most simplistic of mediums may well conjure complete fidelity, yet it doesn’t result in uplifting art.

But I didn’t want to hurt the fellow’s feelings, so kept my opinions to myself. I saw how this curious young man was perfectly adapted to the new process of calotyping. He seemed, admittedly on a few short hours of acquaintance, a man without a soul. This was obvious in the way in which he enthused over his leaden images.

‘I can guess what you are thinking. But, remember, my art’s in its infancy.’

An art he was already calling it!”

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Not another bird list, please

From our Victorian Picture Library (

Lists of birds can seem dull when they’re not your own. What they never convey is the huge enjoyment you experience at each sighting. Nor can they reveal the excitement of a dawn walk along a Quantock combe when you are startled by a wood warbler flitting silently among the leaves; the surprise, sudden glimpse of a red kite sailing unobtrusively high overhead; the excitement as you hurry towards the hide at Steart hoping the spoonbills and avocets will be feeding in the scrapes; or, after six years regular patrolling of Hodder’s Combe, at last seeing the reported resident dipper.

Anyway, here are my lists for what they’re worth. I’ve probably forgotten a few birds. They cover the year from July 2017 to July 2018. At least the exercise has forced me to work through a heap of unruly notes and turn the sightings into some sort of order.

Stolford, Steart, Wall Common, Lilstock

Little egret, swift, great spotted woodpecker, lark, martin, swallow, kestrel, golden plover, lapwing, heron, dunlin, ringed plover, little grebe, spoonbill, shoveller, redshank, knot, bar-tailed godwit, reed bunting, reed warbler, wigeon, snipe, brambling, grey plover, curlew, shelduck, green woodpecker, peregrine, siskin, avocet, pintail, brent goose, reed bunting, marsh warbler, linnet, turnstone, redwing, fieldfare, sand martin, meadow pipit, hen harrier, merlin, oystercatcher, turnstone

Quantock combes and ridges

Whitethroat, green woodpecker, wheatear, raven, stonechat, buzzard, willow warbler, wood warbler, yellowhammer, rock pipit, chiffchaff, spotted flycatcher, red kite, jay, peregrine, redwing, fieldfare, missel thrush, meadow pipit, grey wagtail, wood warbler, blackcap, pied flycatcher, whitethroat, linnet, sparrowhawk

Ham Wall

Great white egret, glossy ibis, marsh harrier, water rail, Canada goose, cettis warbler, bittern, wigeon, teal, pochard, gadwall, tufted duck, coot, shoveller, merlin, greylag goose, great spotted woodpecker, snipe, goldcrest, great crested grebe, reed bunting, reed warbler, black-tailed godwit, common sandpiper

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Our Victorian Picture Library

The Victorian age saw a huge growth in literacy, and the subsequent burgeoning of illustrated books and hundreds of magazines. Until the advent of photo-mechanical printing processes in the 1880s, the illustrations were drawn by highly gifted artist-craftsmen, engraving on wood or metal blocks. Deadlines were very often tight and they had to work fast, yet the overall quality of their work is outstanding.

Their work was immensely varied, ranging from humorous drawings and cartoons for magazines like ‘Punch’ and depictions of contemporary events in news magazines like ‘The Illustrated London News’ to the painstakingly accurate illustrations required for scientific, technical and educational works. They also provided charming illustrations for children’s books and annuals and family gift books.

The best of these Victorian illustrators had the supreme skill to copy paintings by eminent artists. These engravings might be used to embellish special editions and exhibition catalogues – for example, the Dalziel brothers worked with the painters Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais and Whistler. The Dalziel brothers were perhaps the most successful and eminent firm of engravers of the Victorian age. Active from 1840 to 1890, they contributed drawings and cartoons to magazines as well as working with authors and artists.

We have been running our small specialist picture library ( for several years now. Customers download high-resolution jpegs on a wide range of subjects. Here are just a few of the ‘Cs’: cafes, cookery, courting couples, circuses, Canada, cossacks, canoes, Chartist riots, children, coaching, criminals, canals, cheetahs, China, cockatoos, cricket, croquet, carpenters, cutlers, coal mines, cycling, chimney sweeps, charcoal burners, clerks, cobblers, corner shops, cottages, crofting, child labour – we’ve thousands, A to Z!

The images on our website have been carefully chosen from Victorian encyclopaedias, monthly news publications, art books, gift books, educational books, and magazines. They epitomise the vast range of subject matter demanded by a society hungry for education and entertainment, as well as the extraordinary skills of the artists who helped to provide it. Humour and history, politics, social history, science and sport, fashion and fun – all these and more are reflected in these high-quality  Victorian illustrations.

A good number of our images have been chosen from ‘Illustrated London News’ volumes. This influential publication appeared first in 1842, and was the world’s first illustrated news magazine. Its images were expertly drawn and engraved, mainly on wood but occasionally on steel, by Victorian artists at an astonishing speed. They were also printed at a furious rate to keep up with weekly or monthly publishing schedules. Overseas wars and political upheavals were covered in depth, with detailed illustrations showing the various armies, battles, and characters involved. Often large-size illustrations were divided into sections, each worked on by a different engraver to hasten the process. These component woodblocks were then combined and bolted together for the final printing. As a result we often find a slight misalignment, particularly in the sky areas of an image. However, we repair these imperfections as carefully as we can.

If you’ve ever scanned a Victorian line illustration you’ll probably have been very disappointed by the result. The white page margin around the image will show as a dull grey, and the illustration will be smothered in spots and dust marks – see the before and after examples here. Any print you make from this ‘raw’ original will be flat and uninspiring, and a world away from the Victorian original.

Many of the volumes we buy have seen better days. Spines are split, images badly foxed, and pages nibbled at by insects. We spend time digitally restoring each illustration, carefully removing the dust and marks of age, brightening highlight areas and adjusting shadow and contrast levels. Our finished images have all the crisp sharpness of the Victorian artist’s original.

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Trying again

I’ve taken a lot of photographs down the years, and had a black and white darkroom in the attic of our Dorset house. It was a place of joy and despair. Joy when I managed to produce what I hoped was a perfect print after a number of failures – Ilford matt photographic paper was prohibitively expensive – and despair.

Picture me: I’m standing in the dark swearing myself hoarse, trying to feed my latest prize film into the plastic developing spool. My fingers fumble, I stink of sweat, and I’m pressing and pushing at the thing, knowing that the negatives with my precious pictures have just slipped out of my hands and are collecting dust on the floor. Beyond rescue. It was a rite of passage for every black and white photographer.

This was the pre-autofocus and exposure era. I had a Pentax  SV, a lovely camera. It was little more than a solid, reassuring metal case to carry the film with an attached lens, and no battery and no electronics. To calculate the exposure I used a Weston Master meter, another beautiful device. You point it at what you want to capture, get a reading and transfer it to the camera settings. Easy? But that wasn’t the end of it. You then had to work out if you were shooting against the light or with it, and compensate by stopping up or down. Once I tried Ansel Adams’s influential zone system. You allocated the various gray tones in your chosen scene to one of ten specific zones. It was fiddly and totally maddening. It worked well in Californian sunshine which rarely alters in intensity from day to day. But here in England it wasn’t so successful, because by the time I’d done all the maths and clicked the settings on the camera the weather had turned round making the light and shadows completely different.

And then the complex palava in the darkroom: developing the film, fixing it, and working out the correct number of seconds to give the print under the enlarger light, helped to a point by a series of test strips. But, nevertheless, I often wasted half a dozen sheets of paper before I achieved what I hoped was an acceptable print.

Digital photography, when it came along, made life ludicrously simpler. You press the shutter and rely on the camera to focus and calculate the exposure. If the image is disappointing and suffers colour shift or is too dark or too light there’s always Photoshop to sort it out. I became a dab hand at the program, and it helped correct a multitude of mistakes – and my own ineptitude.

I always printed my photos at A3+ size, and had a wonderful inkjet that produced perfect prints almost every time. But I failed to use it for a few months and the jets clogged and proved impossible to clear. So I bought a second-hand extra printer – a professional quality machine – but again the jets were prone to clogging, and both printers ended up unused and moribund under my work bench.

Since then I’ve grown tired of taking hundreds photographs on walks and trips and seeing them only as pixels on a screen. I’m now buying a new A3 printer with the aim of trying again. And to help reconnect myself with photography I’ve been scrolling through the thousands of pictures stored away in God knows how many folders on my computer.

Below are some images I took several years ago during the rebuilding of the quay in a port in the West Country. For several months the quay was a chaos of rusting steel bars and  building materials, all stacked haphazardly. Early morning and late afternoon, when the sun was low in the sky, I made a series of abstract studies, poking my modest Fuji camera through the wire mesh fence, focusing on detail. I show a few of them here. It was an enjoyable and exhilarating project.

I also waded out into the River Torridge with thick estuary mud up to my shins, and stood alongside some sad, abandoned hulks. I’d go in close with the lens to capture flaking paint and fragments of rotting wood and metal. Three of them are shown here.

DCF 1.0

They’re not great art, but it was fun taking them. Photography makes me look hard at things, and I’m hoping to start again and see what turns up.

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Swinburne’s romantick, holy place

This image comes from our Victorian Picture Library (

During the early Victorian era there was scant respect for old churches, and the fabric of many was allowed to deteriorate. The walls were damp, ivy invaded the mortar and prised apart the stones, and slates fell from the roofs during storms, leaving the rafters exposed to the skies. The churchyard paths were often impassable because of the invading ranks of stiff nettles, and many old neglected headstones and monuments slumped and toppled.

In some unlucky villages ‘restorers’ were called in. Their remedies were invariably worse than the disease they had come to treat: they removed the patina of age, ripped up old stone floors and replaced them with brightly-coloured industrial tiles, demolished arcades to raise roofs or to create further aisles, and installed stained glass bought from a jobber’s pattern book. They saved their direst deeds for the chancel, for the fashion was for garish decoration, and the plain old stones were not considered holy enough.

Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight is a strikingly picturesque village between the sea and a steep down smothered with deep green trees. Dickens stayed close by at Winterbourne in 1849 and praised the landscape fulsomely: ‘There are views which are only equalled on the Genoese shore … the variety of walks is extraordinary.’ From the early 19th century Bonchurch was highly fashionable with well-to-do visitors, and it expanded quickly, with villas marching relentlessly over the down.

The ancient church of St Boniface, just 48 feet long and with space for just eighty worshippers, was not able to seat all those who wished to attend. Its minuscule size mercifully spared it from the restorers: in the late 1840s it was found more convenient to build a new church on ground close by, part-bequeathed by the poet Swinburne’s family.
St Boniface was built on an ancient site. The atmosphere is romantic and sublime, bosky and damp, with a stream purling by, and water cascading noisily down to the sea far below. After the old church had been deserted it fell gently into a long sleep. Ivy colonised the porch and roofs and creeper wound its way over the old fabric.

Algernon Swinburne was born at East Dene, a long, low house set close by the church. He spent many hours wandering the paths of the old overgrown churchyard and the wooded slopes of the down. Phrases from his evocative poem A Forsaken Garden summon up the deeply romantic atmosphere:

In a coign of the cliff between
lowland and highland,
At the sea-down’s edge between
windward and lee, …
If a step should sound or a word
be spoken,
Would a ghost not rise at the strange
guest’s hand? …
Through branches and briars
if a man make way,
He shall find no life but the
sea-wind’s, restless
Night and day.

Swinburne died in 1909 and his funeral took place in his beloved church. He was buried beside other members of his family among tall grasses in the old overgrown churchyard.

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Through the dappled green aisles

At Goudhurst and Paddock Wood, and in many other villages throughout the south-eastern county of Kent, are the great gardens and oast-houses devoted to the growing and processing of the hop. Introduced to England from Flanders in the 1600s, this ancient plant, well known to the Romans, is cultivated for its very special catkins, which bring to beer its unique aromatic bitter taste.

A mature hop-garden in late summer is an exquisite sight, with bines trained over numberless rows of wires and lofty poles, called hop alleys, forming vistas of green foliage, gilded with garlands of golden hops. However, this glorious sight is not won easily by either farmer or picker.

Hops demand warmth and shelter to prosper, and much skilled cultivation in their long growing season – it takes three years for them to mature. At Goudhurst during the days of traditional cultivation, there was laborious and painstaking work to be carried out during every single season: in winter the old bines had to be cleared away and burned, the land ploughed, and the poles and wires on which the hops were suspended had to be fully refurbished. Throughout each growing season, the hop plants required continual spraying with nicotine or quassia to fight the swarms of insect pests that preyed on them. Varieties were selected by the grower for their hardiness, the size of the catkins, and resistance to disease and pests. Some of the most popular and widely-grown varieties were the Bramling, Fuggle’s and Golding’s, all named after the growers who bred them.

Towards the end of the summer of their third year, the ripening fruits began to swell and to acquire a scent. In the final stage of cultivation the ‘stilt-men’ appeared. On lofty stilts eighteen feet high, they picked a path between the rows, tying the topmost bines to the tallest strings to keep the ripening plants aloft. Once the plump cones were firm and crisp in the hand it was time for the pickers to enter the fray.

Many hundreds were employed by Kent growers. At hop harvest armies of the London poor travelled out by train and waggon to enjoy a few weeks of healthy open-air labour. It must have seemed like paradise, with the sun streaming down and with the fresh country smells and greenery. Men, women and children laboured from dawn to dusk in the dusty hop fields, sweltering in the sultry heat. The work was onerous and repetitive, but it not only provided them with a welcome income, it renewed their bodies and spirits, so they returned home to their cramped tenements and slum streets considerably restored. No matter that the rain sometimes fell pitiless and unrelenting, or that their clothes were scratched and torn and their boot soles worn paper-thin on the rough ground, they never failed to return the next year for more ‘opping.

This ragged army had to work fast, for the hops needed to be picked as soon as they were ripe. It was one man’s task to cut the supporting strings that held the hops aloft with a bill-hook, causing the plants to collapse and fall haphazardly down on the heads of the assembled hop-pickers below. Straight away, the bines were stripped of their harvest by a thousand nimble fingers. The pickers worked in small groups, each having a bin to fill with hops. The bin was in the form of a large sack spread out over a rough wooden frame, which could be moved gradually across the field as the work progressed. Bushellers employed by the grower made their rounds several times a day, collecting and measuring the hops. They offloaded them into pokes, which were loose sacks holding up to ten bushels.

Towards the day’s end the call went up over the fields, ‘Pull no more poles!’ and the brigades of pickers trooped off to kindle fires, prepare their evening meal, and to enjoy a well-earned rest. It was a time of joy and comradeship, despite the gruelling work under the hot sun. The humour was boisterous and a little too much beer could be drunk by some, but in general the atmosphere was good-hearted, and enjoyed by everyone.

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