Recording Britain

Last week the Persephone Post published lots of beautiful images from a series of books called Recording Britain, which contain hundreds of watercolours by many different artists of buildings and landscapes across the UK. These paintings were commissioned in 1940 by the Ministry of Labour as a way to record the changing face of Britain, and also, presumably, as a celebration of the beauty and history of a nation for whom many of its citizens were currently risking their lives to protect. I was immediately intrigued and made a note to put a recent ‘best of’ compilation of the watercolours, which were published in four volumes in 1948, on my birthday list. However, I was casually passing Charing Cross Road the other night after work – I had gone to Regent’s Street to visit Liberty (to look at a pair of Mary Portas’ Kinky Knickers for myself – has anyone else watched the programme and shed many an unexpected tear?!) and Anthropologie (to buy these shoes, which they sadly didn’t have in my size), and genuinely did have to walk to Leicester Square to catch the Northern Line home – and as my favourite book shop is right by the tube station, I thought it would be silly not to pop in and look to see if they had Recording Britain on their shelves. Unlikely, I thought, but always worth a try!

While browsing in the basement, I found, much to my delight, two of the original 1948 volumes of Recording Britain, for a bargain £1.50 each. Irresistible! I carried them home with a big smile on my face, and could barely wait to get indoors before I opened them and explored the beautiful images inside. I was thrilled that one of the volumes included Kent, my technical ‘home county’ as the London Borough I grew up in uses a Kent postcode, and several of the stunning images are of my favourite places in the county. The first image is a view of Sevenoaks High Street, which is the town where my mum now lives. From what I can tell, the view is taken from just behind Jane Austen’s Uncle’s house, which is fronted by the railings you can see on the right. Just behind these railings, where the artist would have been, is the entrance to Vita Sackville-West’s childhood home, Knole House, which is in a surprisingly central position – the main clusters of shops and supermarkets in the town begin where the artists’ view ends.

The second image is of The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, an old spa and market town about half an hour’s drive to the south of Sevenoaks, near the border of East Sussex. The Pantiles is a lovely cobbled marketplace surrounded by beautiful Georgian buildings. There is a fancy hotel, lots of delicious cafes, and some very nice independent shops. About a decade or so ago it used to be famous for its antiques shops, and I remember my parents taking us there on weekend outings quite often. However, the economy has forced many of these shops to close in recent years and sadly I don’t think there are many left at all now. Just at the edge of the Pantiles is one of my favourite book shops, Hall’s, which is a real treasure trove and often has plenty of middlebrow favourites for a song. Well worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity.

The third image is a painting of Whitstable, which is a beautiful coastal town near Canterbury. It’s my favourite seaside town to visit, at any time of year – the fish and chips are delicious, there are many lovely shops selling all sorts of unique and interesting things, and the light on the seafront is spectacularly beautiful. The beach is only pebbles, as you’d expect in this part of the country, and the sea is often quite violent, but that’s what I love about it; it’s a proper British seaside experience. The air is always bracing, the sea is always cold, and the smell of fish is always in the air. I adore it, and I’m pleased to say that the view really hasn’t changed much from the painting made in the 1940s.

The fourth image is a street in Canterbury that overlooks the river. The buildings here are medieval, and if I’ve got my location right, there is still a wooden ducking stool on this stretch of river that was used to duck women suspected of being witches in the 17th century. Canterbury dates back to time immemorial, and is absolutely steeped in history. Canterbury Cathedral, the original of which was built in the 11th century, dominates the skyline, it still has its Roman wall surrounding the town centre, and Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales are a reminder of how, after the murder of the martyr Thomas a Becket in the Cathedral, it has been a key site of Christian pilgrimage for over 900 years. Unfortunately, since this portrait was painted, the presence of two universities and the building of a huge shopping centre have caused a lot of the history to be hidden behind bars, clubs and chain stores, but this still doesn’t detract wholly from what is an amazing opportunity to step back in time. No one can fail to gasp upon walking inside the Cathedral, and there are myriads of little back streets filled with lopsided medieval timber houses to marvel at. It’s a wonderful place – and there is also a brilliant Oxfam bookshop that is the best in the country in my opinion!

Finally, I was delighted to find that the volume of Recording Britain which includes Kent also includes Dorset, my 90 year old grandmother’s home county. She grew up in Corfe, a tiny village in the shadow of the ruins of the 11th century Corfe Castle, and I couldn’t believe it when I saw that one of the Dorset paintings – the final image I have posted – is of the street she was born in. I actually think her childhood home is depicted, and you can also just see the spire of the church, which has a memorial inside to my Great Uncle Edwin, who was killed during the war. It’s an absolutely beautiful, sleepy village, quintessentially English and with little rabbit warrens of streets filled with low cottages dating back hundreds of years. I must go back and visit one day soon. In fact, I plan on taking my time looking through these volumes, which are arranged county by county, and perhaps using them as a basis for mini breaks…it will be fascinating to see what the views depicted look like now, 70 years on.

27 comments

  1. The fishermens’ huts are still there and that view of Canterbury hasn’t changed a bit, it’s where the little boat trip goes. Must check out that Oxfam shop!

    1. I love Whitstable – I’m jealous you have a base there! You MUST go next time you are down – that shop is stacked to the rafters with cheap gems. No idea where they come from but I always manage to get a haul whenever I go!

  2. You have just mentioned some of my favourite places – Sevenoaks – I love, my sister used to live in Oxted – not so far away. Canterbury is one of my favourites too, a friend used to live there so it was often a weekend destination plus I love wandering around the Cathedral. Finally, Whitstable – so often a holiday destination as we were growing up and now is a must for at least one day during the School holidays, love Harbour Street.

    1. Glad you love Kent too, Jennifer! Sevenoaks is lovely but a bit ‘Boden Brigade’ for my tastes – I prefer Tunbridge Wells as there is just a bit more to do. You really can’t beat Whitstable for a day out by the sea though can you? I love it!

    1. Thanks! Sad they are not on my feet!😦 There are a few Jane Austen connections in the vicinity as she had family who were clergymen in surrounding villages – I think I should set up tours!

  3. How I love to read your posts. I have only been to England and now am surrounded by too much civilization which tends to be suffocating. I hope to return someday to visit the many lovely places you describe.

    1. Thank you Marilyn, I’m so glad to hear that! I hope you’ll get to come back to England one day soon and enjoy our beautiful countryside a little more!

  4. Roman loved his flying visit to Whitstable so I mentioned your description of the seaside there. He made me laugh because he said that looking out over the sea he found himself picturing where St Catharines, Hamilton and Toronto would be on the horizon! Sometimes no matter how far from home you are you still seek the familiar.
    Very pretty knickers by the way says the fan of Bridget Jones-style full-sail granny pants. And hopefully all is not lost in the shoe department, they’re lovely!

    1. But Darlene, the only thing on that horizon is Southend … maybe you shouldn’t let him take up sailing! You might never see him again.

    2. Oh I’m so pleased Roman went to Whitstable! Next time you’re down you must go too.

      I know, they’re nice, aren’t they? I might buy myself a pair next time I go in. I think the shoes are a lost cause but it’s not really a problem – I do have about 6 similar pairs!!

  5. Such a great find! Little moments of history caught on the page, gorgeous!

    And I always love hearing about your adventures in London, what fun!🙂

    1. Thanks Lucy! I know – it’s so fascinating to have a record of snapshots of what the world looked like in those simpler times, not so long ago now.

      Thanks! I do my best to get out and about!🙂

  6. I read this when first you posted it, Rachel, and kept meaning to come back and tell you how much I enjoyed seeing this and reading this post. What a wonderful find. I just smiled and thought to myself that these two books of Recording Britain couldn’t have found its way into more ready hands.

  7. I love your description of Whitstable it just how I love it – many a childhood holiday was spent there. Even now when I visit UK I manage to find a day to visit the pebble beach!

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