Thursday, May 19, 2016

Harold P. Clunn: The Face of the Home Counties (1936)

High Wycombe in the 1930s

[Image source:]

Harold P. Clunn: The Face of the Home Counties (1936)

... Portrayed in a series of eighteen week-end drives from London. I am in fact looking at the New and Revised Edition, produced some twenty years later. It has new illustrations and a few references to e.g. the great flood of 1953 that devastated Canvey Island, and the burgeoning growth of Crawley, first of the post-war New Towns, but in essence the ethos of the book remains that of 1936.

Leisure motoring was then something dramatically new, and yet something very unlike what it connotes today. Clunn exulted: "the construction of the new arterial roads leading out of London, and the widening and reconstruction of the older roads, have made the Home Counties seem like one vast playground laid out almost at our doors". His eighteen intricate routes take us through every town and in some areas nearly every village in the south-eastern corner of England.

DRIVE SEVEN: From the West End to Colchester, Dedham, Ipswich, Felixstowe, Dovercourt, Walton-on-the-Naze, Clacton-on-Sea, and back by Brightlingsea, Tollesbury, Maldon, Danbury, Billericay, and Brentwood to the West End.

That sounds like a lot of driving, leaving little time for pausing at even the major stops (i.e. the ones that get named in this outline). Oddly, Clunn's hefty book didn't bother to include route maps. There was as yet no naming-system for the roads themselves.  Clunn did not seem to anticipate any difficulty in following his directions, though there would be difficulties now, and Sat Nav would be hopeless at this. I started to realize after a while that these drives are ideal conceptions, an elegant means of avoiding the tedium of a mere catalogue. A medium of portraiture, as the subtitle says. 

Still, I think the challenge of following each of Clunn's routes over eighteen successive week-ends would make a fine project for a retired person with plenty of time and spending-money.      

What transformed leisure motoring most of all is the motorway network, which began to emerge in 1958. For us a week-end away is usually about getting as far away as possible in a straight line, and then pootling about in exotic surroundings, getting a chance to wind down a bit before shooting back down the motorway on a Sunday evening. "Touring" (the origin of "tourist") is almost an obsolete idea, except for owners of camper-vans.

The town of High Wycombe consists principally of a very long continuation of the main street extending all the way along the valley of the little River Wye from Loudwater almost to West Wycombe, a distance of five miles. (The Wye enters the Thames near Bourne End.) Thus, excepting in the centre of the town, which is old and dignified, High Wycombe bears the appearance of some large London suburb of little interest to the motorist.

That last phrase catches us up short. The "motorist", in our own time, is a person of very limited interests: chiefly, getting from A to B and the price of fuel. In Clunn's work, however, the motorist is interested in guild-halls, Norman churches, sea defences, the hotel balcony from which Disraeli made his first speech, and important local establishments such as the Royal Eastern Counties Institution for Mental Defectives (Colchester), the Masonic Girls' School (Rickmansworth), the Meltis Chocolate Company (Bedford), etc. Local manufacture is noted: High Wycombe is a centre of the chair and furniture trade; the industries of Bedford include agricultural implements, engineering, brick and iron works, and hand-made lace. Harlow New Town is worth a visit for its modern town planning. Clunn's idea of what touring the Home Counties means is to some extent still Victorian in spirit. His motorist is a moneyed professional whose "tours of inspection" are indeed not purely hedonistic, but still retain a sense of visiting and assessing the inheritance of Empire.

Clunn's prose style is, you will already have gathered, a little buttoned-up. He will not address the reader as "you", sometimes speaking of "the motorist" but most often of "we" (a doctor's we) : "About one mile west of Seal we come to the cross-roads for Sevenoaks and Farningham, and here we turn to our right..."  Views are "spacious", spires "lofty", hotels "stately" and "commodious". He betrays hardly any sense of humour, and his enthusiasm is more apparent in the thoroughness of the work than in ecstasies, though there are exceptions, as here, of "the largest and finest garden-city in the British Isles",

A week in Bournemouth affords pleasures and charms which can hardly be matched even by the most famous pleasure resorts on the Continent. Here there is something for everybody. To be able to choose between pine-woods, the sea-shore, and streets of the most elegant shops, all in a mild yet sunny climate - that is something rare. The very idea of anybody feeling depressed in a place like Bournemouth seems preposterous.

I don't know Bournemouth particularly well, but the generally pristine elegance of Clunn's seaside towns is impressive, comparing them with their state today, e.g. St Leonards on Sea, then adorned with a pier (since demolished) to match that at Hastings (finally reopened three weeks ago, after a decade's closure), not to mention Warrior Square, "considered by many people to be the largest and finest square in England", now a neglected space of melancholy public gardens adorned with notices about antisocial behaviour, surrounded by cheap lets and buildings too dilapidated to let at all. But change creates new centres of attention, too. Clunn had comparatively little to say about Hastings Old Town, "a congeries of narrow medieval streets and fishermen's huts, though many of these are being demolished under a local slum-clearance scheme." Today the black-painted net-houses are the iconic image of the town. Here at Rockanore and around the Cafe on the Beach at Glyne Gap our excitatory centres are connected with wildlife and heritage: we're much more interested in a turnstone than a smart terrace. We don't even glance at Warrior Square, but we greedily photograph the sea-front notice about the marine life of Goat Ledge, and dream of spotting dolphins.

Peacehaven already had the "by-word" reputation from which it has even now not quite recovered. Bad reputations take time. The pretty village of Hawkhurst (Kent) was already in Clunn's time only picturesquely associated with the notorious Hawkhurst gang. But the gruesome murders at the Crumbles (Eastbourne) (1920, 1924) were still too fresh: it would take another half century to quiet them sufficiently for people to flock uninhibitedly to the marina complex with its multi-screen cinema, chain restaurants, retail outlets and everything one could desire.   

Of smaller places along the way Clunn will at minimum give the population and tell us what the church is made of, its architectural style and the number of bells. He is also very interested in elevation, perhaps because steep roads were still something of an adventure, but also because he has a high appreciation of good air and of extensive views ("from which seven counties can be seen"). Thus Caterham and Hindhead are little Switzerlands, and in Ashdown Forest "the scenery is wild, the air most exhilarating, and the views over the undulating green forest-country delightful". But he shows no interest in wildlife, though he admires fine woodland from a distance.

Clunn's own routes may be an ideal to be admired rather than studiously followed, but motoring excursions were certainly popular, as reflected in the new roadhouses.

One and a half miles from Watford and situated on the beautiful by-pass road which skirts the town on the east side is the Spider's Web, a palatial roadhouse with a French restaurant, a swimming-pool, and a ballroom with a balcony leading out on to a delightful terrace.

Or, at Hook:

the new 'Ace of Spades Roadhouse and Swimming Pool' which has been erected on the north-west corner of the Kingston by-pass road. This is one of the pioneer roadhouses, and here meals can be obtained at any hour of the day or night. The 'Ace of Spades' is an informal sort of place much favoured by London motorists who come here to enjoy themselves. Dancing takes place every evening until 3 a.m. except on Mondays, and ample accommodation is provided for cars.
These roadhouses vied with the magnificent cinemas as the icons of democratized leisure.


Dagenham... a vast new garden suburb of London with 115,600 inhabitants... The population is almost a wholly artisan one, and there are no better-housed workers in any other great city in the world. 


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