Although we didn’t pick the destination for our week off just to provide material for this blog, it was certainly our intention to treat ourselves to a break in a part of the country where we knew there would be lots to indulge our passion for the past. Part Two of this post will cover the vintage shopping opportunities outside the retro mecca that is Brighton’s North Laine, but we’ll start with a few venues where shopping isn’t the main aim.
Arundel Castle isn’t what one wouldnormally associate with MidCentury – even the ‘new’ bits are 19th Century – but quite apart from being one of the most castle-y castles you could imagine (pipped only by Bodiam in the South, which looks like it came out of an Airfix kit) and thus well worth a wander in its own right, the gardens are an inspiration to the vintage gardener. Bed after bed is filled with classic English varieties, often in surprising combinations, and the restored greenhouses are enough to make a lover of old garden ironwork and mechanical window winders start drooling (sorry, that’s just a bit too niche!). We came away full of ideas for the flower beds at MidCentury villas, helped by the handy legends by each bed explaining what was in it, and what function it served in keeping the garden going. It’s also worth checking the Castle’s events programme – our visit coincided with a rally and display from a particularly nice collection of classic MGs, providing the opportunity for some photos with the stunning backdrop of the Castle itself.
I won’t attempt to make a MidCenturyconnection with the National Trust property at Petworth, but our trip over that way took us handily close to the Military Aviation Museum at the former airfield at Tangmere. In the 30-odd years the Museum has been going, it’s amassed a vast and very personal archive to tell the story of military flying, and Tangmere’s very special role in WW2. The personnel of its Battle of Britain squadrons contain just about every famous name you can imagine, from Bader, to Malan, Fiske, Johnson – the roll goes on and includes many who made their last take-off from the grass at Tangmere and its satellites. The cabinets abound with personal momentos and the Museum has yet to suffer from the disease of museum minimalism, whereby the bulk of its treasures are hidden away, and cabinets left housing just a few ‘representative’ items. Every display demands attention, and the legends are informative, articulate, and heart-breakingly poignant. It’s not all about the aircrew either – Tangmere took a pasting at the height of the Battle and the story of that day is well told. The years before and after WW2 are equally well covered, and the adjacent hangar contains a carefully-selected and well-presented set of aircraft, including several speed record breakers that point to Tangmere’s post-war role as a fast jet station up to its closure in 1970. If we’d realised how much there was to see, we’d have dedicated at least half a day there; as it was, we got distracted by the chance to send Mrs M off in a Lightning fighter jet simulator under the tutelage of one of the very friendly and helpful staff and, by the time she’d finished boring a hole in the skies over Portsmouth (and getting it back to land far more successfully than I would have done), we ran out of time. We did, though, work our way round to the far side of the airfield where we could get out to the old wartime control tower, now sadly in an advanced state of decay and too far from the Museum building to come under its wing. As I stood in front of it, looking out onto the old runway, it was strange to think of my grandfather serving on the same station as an anti-aircraft gunner in 1942 – the ghosts there keep good company.
We couldn’t go that close to the coast without doing a bit of classic British seaside town, and in pursuit of a top recommendation for a vintage cafe, another day say us headed for Worthing. Lots of very nice 1930s architecture in good condition in the town itself and that increasingly rare beast, an intact pier. On the cafe front, we thought we were going to be disappointed. Having found the Dome – the original cinema and cafe building featured in ‘Wish You Were Here’, we discovered that whilst the cinema foyer is still nicely original, the cafe upstairs is only used for private functions and looks pretty bare the rest of the time and the one downstairs, although calling itself ‘vintage’ was pretty modern in its decor. Surely this can’t be whatwe’d been recommended to try? A wander up the pier revealed all – the original pier tea rooms beautifully restored from their more recent nightclub usage and a great spot for lunch looking out on the sea through great Crittall windows. A quick trip a mile or so down the coast took us to Ferring, and a chance to walk off lunch before indulging in something sticky at the Bluebird Cafe – not original per se, but everything a classic beachfront cafe should be.
Sadly, the disappointment of the week was a pilgrimage to Bognor Regis. Tony Hancock’s film, The Punch and Judy Man is one of my all-time favourites, with elements – particularly the scene in an ice-cream parlour where he sets about a Piltdown Glory confection with abandon – that represent for me what Hancock was trying to achieve and what so often eluded him (in his mind, if not ours). Much of the film was shot in Bognor, masquerading as Piltdown, and stupidly I’d omitted either to dig out the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society magazines, where articles have detailed the locations used, or even to check the Reel Streets website which is an invaluable resource for film locationgeeks. I think I’d just assumed that I’d find the pier and everything would look just as it did in 1962. Well, the pier’s there – or some of it – but the rest of it is about as recognisable from its 1962 incarnation as I am! Time has not been kind to Bognor and what business its seafront does attract clearly doesn’t look for originality. So I didn’t get my Piltdown Glory, but I stood on the bit of beach where Hancock’s Punch and Judy show was staged, and where the scenes with John Le Mesurier were played out – and it’s still one of the best films in my collection.
Links to all the relevant websites/Facebook Pages are built into the text above. Check in for Part Two, and a surprising encounter in the Arundel vintage shopping arcade…