Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road, by Roger Protz

Coaching InnsI learnt to drive on the Great North Road, or rather its modern incarnation, the A1. My soon-to-be wife taught me. Her technique was to sit patiently while I crunched the four troublesome gears of her elderly Austin Metro, a tiny city car not intended for long distance travel. It was noisy, cramped, twitchy at speed, and lost power when it rained. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but I see now that we were lucky to be travelling in the 1990s: a journey along the Great North Road by mail coach from London to Edinburgh, took eight or nine days. Coaching inns made an arduous journey just about bearable.

Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Roada sturdy paperback tough enough for the glovebox or door pocket–is published by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and arranged linearly, as a journey, starting in London. The holloways and open roads of the past have long since given way to tarmac and motor traffic, and part of the appeal of this book—and the pubs it describes—is in the glimpses it offers of a slower-paced world now bypassed, and in many cases almost entirely erased. These twenty-first century pubs in all their variety–including those, like the Queen’s Head at Morpeth, Northumberland, that have closed down—carry in their long histories a collective memory, of old battles, famous visitors, and journeys taken, when to travel was to endure hardship barely imaginable today.

It is difficult now to visualise the road as it was—terrorised by highwaymen, all but unusable in winter—but some of it is still visible. Much of the old road between London and York, away from the modern A1, was based on the Roman road known as Ermine Street, laid down in dead straight miles made for marching soldiers. And many of the coaching inns along the way have also travelled to the future with us. There is the Bull and Last, on Highgate Road, so-called because it was once the last stop before London; and the George of Stamford, an inn with a six hundred year history that grew, Roger Protz tells us, to “it’s present pomp and glory” in the eighteenth century. Back then it handled 20 coaches, and their horses, each way, every day—the stables must have been enormous. Others have been less fortunate: The Golden Lion, at Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire, is the last remaining coaching inn in a village that once thrived as a crossing place on the River Aire. Now, completing its fall from grace, the only beer it serves is “John Smiths keg ale”. When I checked this last point for the purpose of this review, I discovered it currently serves Greene King IPA, which many people will not consider a great improvement.

Protz’s descriptions of the inns are vivid and opinionated. The sin of being a gastropub is absolved by a good range of cask ales, while the historic and preserved are celebrated generously. The ancient and splendid Angel and Royal at Grantham—perhaps the oldest coaching inn in Britain—gets a potted history going back to 1203, though the obvious enthusiasm and affection in the description includes what might be a slightly waspish mention of “Bertie’s Bistro,” named after King Edward VII. The Yorkshire town of Doncaster is not so easy to like. Protz says that its “importance as a Roman camp, and an Anglo-Saxon fortress, lie buried” under car parks and a shopping centre. Thankfully, marks are awarded for effort, and the Red Lion, a Wetherspoons pub dedicated to the St Leger horse race, and to Thomas Crapper, inventor of the ballcock valve system, sounds comfortable and unpretentious.

Historic Coaching Inns includes 46 featured pubs, charting a wavy course up the East Coast of Britain from London to Edinburgh, and taking in York (204 miles from London, 219 miles from Edinburgh), where every pub seems either to have a connection with highwayman Dick Turpin, a ghost, or a combination of the two. An old favourite of mine in York is the Olde Starre, off the Shambles. The collection of pubs in the book seems ready-made for people ticking things off lists, but there is plenty of background material too, on the history of the road, the people who used it, famous or otherwise, and topics such as how the Great North Road was built, the types of mail coach that used it, and the process of making Stilton cheese. Shorter sidebars offer places to visit during your stay at one of these historic inns.

I don’t recommend learning to drive on the A1. When I finally had a proper driving lesson in a modern car, after thousands of miles of practice, the instructor reminded me gently, as we joined a dual carriageway at an ear-bursting 70mph, that his car had five gears, and I should use them all. And that goes for pubs too. For its role in commerce, and the transmission of ideas between North and South, the Great North Road is just as important to British history as the great cathedrals. The coaching inns that punctuate it–the cared for, and the neglected–are as significant, in some cases, as any cloister.  Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road is not going to make the modern A1 a tourist destination, but if you ever find yourself driving on the Great North Road, and looking for somewhere interesting to rest, this book should be with you. You can buy it direct from CAMRA:

Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road: A Guide to Travelling the Legendary Highway, by Roger Protz. St. Albans, Hertfordshire: The Campaign for Real Ale, 2017.

Crime Fiction

Yesterday (July 23) was Raymond Chandler’s 125th birthday. I meant to write a post about that, but as seems to be the case in general with my blogging at the moment, I didn’t get round to it. Anyway, today I found time to add my short biographical piece on Raymond Chandler, which appears in Steven Powell’s 100 American Crime Writers to my Articles pages. You can read all 2500 words of it here. There are quite a few Chandler-related posts and pages on this blog now, so here is a round-up:

Raymond Chandler at Dulwich College

Raymond Chandler’s Early Life

Raymond Chandler on Writing

Raymond Chandler: A Matter of Disguise (an early academic article of mine).

Also, I just posted something about In a Lonely Place (novel and film) over at the Venetian Vase.

The Normality of Beer: Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay


At the European beer Bloggers’ Conference this past weekend there was a lot of talk about moving on from discussing the ingredients and statistics of beer and concentrating on the people. Beer is a social drink. It needs to be tasty, and that’s all; what matters is the company. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a while now and have reached a conclusion that one of the problems beer has is that it’s not normal enough. There are lots of times when drinking beer would be a bad idea, but it struck me reading George Ewart Evans’s Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, that there was a time when beer held the same position in family life as tea or coffee does now, and that it has somehow become too special: not quite a luxury, but not a staple food either. By becoming a “leisure drink” beer has to compete with other drinks, such as WKD; drinks that make no sense at all outside a marketing meeting. In that context, trying to be “special” might not be doing beer any good.

Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay was compiled by Evans from interviews he conducted with the inhabitants of Blaxhall, Suffolk in the 1950s, and looks back a further 50 years or more from there, to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Farming in postwar England was mechanising rapidly, changing both the work, and the culture of English villages. Evans believed it was important to record the memories of those who had lived and worked in such villages before these changes took place, to make sure that the customs and activities of an era in farming that had lasted several hundred years would not be lost forever.

The book covers many aspects of English village life, from the social structures of masters, servants and agricultural workers, to sheep shearing, bell ringing, superstitions, the church, and the old farming methods. What struck me, reading Evans, was how communal life was in the few decades before World War I, and how interdependent people were. That interdependence still exists of course, but it is less with our neighbours and more through formal infrastructures provided by corporations and governments. We pay our dues largely in cash, rather than sharing effort, and although we depend absolutely on the electricity supply and the stream of trucks supplying  the supermarket, it feels at least as if these things are not precarious. You take a can of beans from the shelf, and before long another will appear.

And that brings me to what Evans has to say about beer. The people he spoke to, mostly born in the late nineteenth century, made or grew almost everything they owned or consumed. What happened on the farm, or in the kitchens of cottages, affected everyone. Surrounded as they were by fields of barley, beer was the usual drink for most people in the village. Sometimes the farm brewed beer centrally for the men who worked there, but most families brewed beer too, a task that fell to “the wife” of the household. The yeast was shared between households, each brewing in turn and taking yeast from whoever had brewed most recently and had the freshest supply:

…home-brewing was an important event, demanding the utmost care and vigilance; for there would be a great loss to the household if the brew went wrong. Moreover, beer at that time was recognized as an essential part of the farm-worker’s diet; and at times of extra work on the farm allowances of hops and malt were made by the farmer to his men. Robert Savage, for instance, got a “lambing ‘lowance” of two bushels of malt and two pounds of hops so that Prissy often made two brews during the lambing season.

One lady from a nearby village remembers how, as a child, she hurried down with her brothers and sisters on the morning after brewing to see whether the crown of yeast had spread all over the top of the beer. The children that if they saw the welcome froth of yeast the brew had been successful; and they were glad …

Back in the nineteenth century the status of beer was different from what it is now; it was drunk by just about everyone. It was a drink for the workplace and the family table, and a staple part of the diet. Imagine the joy of seeing that “the beer was smiling” on the morning after brewday, and knowing that the ingredients you had grown yourself, or shared with your neighbours, had not gone to waste. Quite a different experience from dropping a few bottles in a shopping trolley. What we gained in convenience we’ve lost in magic.

Curiously, beer was replaced as a family staple, according to Evans, not by another alcoholic drink, but by tea. Tea became cheaper in the late nineteenth century and was promoted by the Temperance movement. It is an intriguing idea that if things had gone differently commuters who now carry takeout tea and coffee might instead be toting mugs of bitter beer.

By Chris Routledge

Walker Evans: American Photographs

I first came to Walker Evans through his collaboration with writer James Agee in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Then about a month ago I bought a copy of the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs (US edition at the MoMA store) first published in 1938 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’ve been looking at it every day since. Many of the images in the book are familiar. In the case of Evans’s well-known portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, two different images (see above) were chosen for the two projects. Perhaps Evans’s views about what he and Agee saw in Alabama in 1936 had hardened by the time Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was in preparation, but the version which appears in that book, one of four frames exposed at the time, is tougher and less trusting.

What I like about these photographs is the sense they have of trying to show us everything and letting you make up your own mind. “Here it all is, untouched and unchanged,” says Evans, and presents us with buildings photographed face-on, filling the frame, wrecked cars strewn across a landscape, or a bed in a room snapped at a thoughtless angle. Evans’s effort to remain (or at least appear to remain) focussed on documentary realism makes his work dramatic, even stark, but that doesn’t mean it is unemotional. He captures the eyes of a farmer trying and failing to clothe and feed his family, a couple in a parked car surrounded by the blur of passing traffic, or a street lined with cars and slick with rain. In his accompanying essay Lincoln Kirstein compares Evans with T.S. Eliot and like Eliot, Evans keeps himself–his admiration, his amusement, and his pity–out of his work so that we can find the meaning there.

Evans was 35 years old when the American Photographs exhibition and book first appeared. By then he had a decade of photographic work behind him, much of it undertaken on behalf of the Resettlement Administration, a government agency set up during the Depression to document struggling rural communities. Evans’s photographs of store fronts and roadside buildings, as well as his images of ordinary Americans going about their business, are in contrast to the grand landscapes of his contemporary Ansell Adams. Where Adams celebrated the natural beauty of North America and did so in a quasi-Romantic style, Evans concentrated on its people and the farms, small towns and cities where they lived.

The images in American Photographs often have a narrative quality to them, perhaps reflecting Evans’s early ambition to be a writer. They are arranged in the order in which they are intended to be viewed–the book began life as an exhibition catalogue–and there are many juxtapositions that seem important. For example in Part One, a 1932 portrait of an exhausted coal dock worker (plate 33) precedes a minstrel showbill from 1935 (plate 34). These are different kinds of blackness, and black experience, played off against each other.

On a more structural level the portraits and faces of Part One give way to the architectural photographs in Part Two. These are two separate and distinct incarnations of America: the human and the made. The human forms in Part One–wry, defiant, proud and, despite their sometimes miserable circumstances, vividly alive–are overtaken in Part Two by vacant buildings, empty streets. Part One ends, perhaps significantly, with an image of a classically-inspired Louisiana plantation house partially obscured by the massive trunk of a fallen tree; Part Two begins with a battered representation of a scrolled capital from an Ionic column made in stamped tin.

In American Photographs we find a detailed visualisation of an America that is somehow cold and unforgiving, and yet where real people live. In many of Evans’s photographs everything is in focus, to be scrutinised and pored over. Meaning is something you have to search for, but you might find it anywhere: in the detail of a poster, or the pose of a figure at the edge of the frame. Complex composition, beyond simple foreground and background, creates its own narrative.

In this, it occurs to me, Evans anticipates the style of Greg Toland, whose cinematography in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Citizen Kane (1941) brought a new way of looking to moving pictures. In those movies Toland often uses ‘deep focus’ to show concurrent narratives within individual scenes. Similarly Evans keeps foreground and background in focus, using layering, shadow and perspective as narrative tools in his still images. Using relatively slow film and, most of the time, large negatives, such photography required long exposures even in bright light. To look at one of these photographs is to observe a scene frozen not for a fraction of a second, but over many seconds; although still, many of them describe a significant passage of time.

That this was a conscious decision on Evans’s part is evident in the photographs from the book that were taken in the early part of his career, before around 1932. Although there is no moment when his style changed decisively, images from the 1920s, such as Part One plate 11 “Coney Island Boardwalk” (1929) suggest a lighter, more playful approach. In this image we see, from behind, a woman in a summer outfit printed with a balloon motif, leaning over the boardwalk rail. The blurred bathers in the background, and the waist-level view of the woman’s hips, leave no doubt about where we are supposed to look. Later photographs pretend to leave those decisions up to us, but as the two Allie Mae Burroughs portraits show, it’s not quite as simple as that.

American Photographs has been in and out of print several times since 1938, but it is one of the most important photographic books of the twentieth century. This beautifully-printed 75th anniversary edition is well worth looking at. (US edition and UK edition).

Review of Moby Dick at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, 17 October 2012

Over at Moby Dick on the Mersey I have reviewed last nights excellent production of Moby Dick at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, adapted for stage by Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett from the novel by Herman Melville, with music composed and performed by Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival. I was impressed. Here’s an extract:

This is a gripping, and intense performance, with sustained tension and high drama. Ishmael’s story is accompanied by the perfectly-judged music of Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, performing on an instrument I had never seen before, but which turns out to be a Norwegian Setesdalsfele “5+5”, a fiddle with five played strings, and five resonating strings below. Together they recreate the atmosphere of melancholy stillness and suppressed danger that pervades the novel itself, from the first ‘loomings’ to its desolate epilogue, and yet do so with a lightness and humour that make this show a joy.

Guy walks on stage and starts telling this crazy story …

Dead Sharp–Review on the Venetian Vase

My review of Len Wanner’s collection of interviews with Scottish crime writers is on the Venetian Vase blog. Here’s how it starts:

Len Wanner’s book Dead Sharp (Two Ravens Press, 2011) contains nine informative, and entertaining interviews with Scottish crime writers, and a Ten Commandments for successful interviewing. In his Ten Commandments Wanner asks “Am I a good enough interviewer to tell you how to become a better one?” On the evidence of the interviews here, he is. He picks his questions well, is friendly without being gushing, presses his point to get an answer, and manages to bring a lightness and humour even to such glum and serious subjects as gender politics.

It is probably inevitable that the book begins with Ian Rankin, and that his name, and the description “Tartan Noir” should turn up more than once, even in interviews with other writers. Wanner’s interview with Rankin sets the tone for the questioning throughout the book; that is, unexpected, and revealing. The question “If Rebus is an ‘Old Testament sort of guy’, what kind of God are you?” elicits the response from Rankin that “I’m a much more forgiving God than Rebus would accept”, which tells us something about Rankin, and Rebus, but also leads to a discussion about Presbyterianism and guilt in Scottish crime writing that brings in Christopher Brookmyre and Stuart MacBride, both subjects of later interviews.


Beer Defects iPad App

The Beer Defects iPad app, produced by Applied Sensory, is a guide to the various “off” flavours in beer. Primarily aimed at those who review or taste beer, it is essentially a digital version of Applied Sensory’s Defects Wheel for beer. The app itself is a rough and ready affair, consisting of two main menus, such as the one above, from which the user selects characteristics by sensory experience, or from a list of chemicals. A third ‘general’ menu gives information on such subjects as good sanitation techniques and ‘Diacetyl’. Clicking on a sensory description takes you to a page showing the causes, and possible treatments of a given defect. It is simple, and quite efficient.

On the whole this is a useful app, but it has some drawbacks. For one thing, it forces the iPad into portrait mode, rather than allowing the orientation to switch as the device is rotated. And for another, the formatting of the text is crude. While some attention has been given to the way the app looks, it does not seem very polished. In fact, apart from the convenience of having an app on the home screen, there is nothing this offers that wouldn’t have been possible in an ebook. This feels very much like version 1.0, and doesn’t really take advantage of what the iPad has to offer. For example, a landscape mode might show the menu and the information page side by side, while links within pages might make the information more usable. A further improvement might be to do away with the Back button, so that switching between pages could be done by swiping across the screen, which, on the iPad at least, seems the natural way to do it. Back buttons are for web browsers. I hope there is more development, because a general note taking, scoring, and sharing app for beer reviewers would be extremely useful.

As far as the quality of the information goes, the handful of facts I checked seemed to be accurate, but I am neither a brewer, nor a chemist. I will certainly refer to this during ‘Baron ratings’ and will no doubt learn quite a lot from it.

The Beer Defects app is available for iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. There are more screenshots, and links, on the Applied Sensory apps page.

Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution

In 2005 Alex Johnson began publishing a magazine called The Shed for those of us who, like him, work from home in outbuildings and sheds. The magazine was soon joined by a blog called Shedworking, and the blog became this beautifully made, smartly written book, which landed here yesterday. What a lovely, passionate, well informed book this is. It is difficult to read it and not want to build a shed and get to work.

Like the blog that inspired it this book is essential reading for anyone considering setting up to become a shedworker; if you are already a shedworker you’ll want it on the shelf too. It contains a history of shedworking and famous shedworkers, from Pliny, to Gustav Mahler and Roald Dahl, musician Peter Gabriel, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, and journalist Andrew Marr. There are many, many marvellous pictures of sheds and garden offices, shedworkers’ stories (a lovely surprise was finding my own shed on page 56), advice on building your own, what you might do there, on green shedworking and possibilities beyond the shed: canal boats, railway carriages, airstream caravans and treehouses. What comes across most of all is the happiness shedworking brings to the lives of those who have arranged to be able to do it.

A preview of the first chapter is here. More on sheds and shedworking on Alex’s Shedworking blog, and at Uncle Wilco’s Readersheds where you can vote for Shed of the Year 2010 and follow the build up to National Shed Week 2010, which begins on July 5th.

In the mean time, why not buy Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution

Moby Dick on Stage

MobyDickOn a rare night out last night–people with kids are not allowed out unless they are very good–we attended Spymonkey’s Moby Dick at the Liverpool Playhouse. With a cast of four, including a Spanish Ishmael, half a ship and a cabin boy called Pete (or is that Pip?) this is a deranged attempt to cram 900 pages of literary epic into a couple of hours. I mean that as a compliment. The show is a mix of pantomime, vaudeville, slapstick comedy and–sometimes–Melville’s words. The comedy is fast-paced, well timed and utterly silly, though this is clearly a literate and affectionate homage to the novel. In a strange sort of way it does justice to the absurdity of Melville’s masterpiece.

Spymonkey’s Moby Dick is at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday October 24th.

Vulpes Libris on Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin's Elmet

Last week Moira at Vulpes Libris wrote a terrific review of Elmet, a collection of poems by Ted Hughes with accompanying photographs by Fay Godwin. I owned a copy of this book–or rather its earlier incarnation–when I lived in West Yorkshire in the 1980s and this review convinced me to buy another. What I love about the place is perfectly captured in the book: the harshness of the landscape and calm domesticity of the villages and towns. These are solid, practical places, built for a purpose in a landscape that provided raw materials for industry, but is not kind to humans:

The Calder Valley in West Yorkshire (just in West Yorkshire … although it flirts dangerously with Lancashire) was carved from the local millstone grit  by ice, wind and rain.  When man first arrived in the area he inhabited the higher ground, along the spring lines.  With the coming of the Industrial Revolution –  and the industries that needed water – he migrated downwards, leaving the old villages deserted and the old dwellings decaying on the hillsides.  The valley bottom filled with people, mills, chimneys, and cramped, overcrowded  housing  – all fighting for space between the canal, the river, the road and the railway that weave through it.