Every so often I feel the need to 'run away' from the humdrum domestic environment for an hour or two; in my case it is almost always to the little town of Hungerford in West Berkshire, which is about a twenty minute drive from Autumn Cottage. When I arrive, my well trodden pathways usually include a ramble around the Antiques Arcade, which I have been visiting for at least twenty five years.
Through that hallowed portal, my feet always carry me first to 'The Junk Shop' - not far inside the main door and a repository of a complete and mysterious miscellanea. Its contents span a spectrum from 'undiscovered treasures' (until they are discovered my me!) through weird and wonderful 'stuff' right down to the frankly trashy (but keeping in mind *always* that what is my trash will undoubtedly be another person's treasure - so there is a place for all of it).
A recent 'find' in the Junk Shop - watercolour of Wallingford Bridge, late C19th
After a first look in the Junk shop, I then make straight for 'Countryside Books' - the permanent showcase of Martin Smith, the second-hand and antiquarian book dealer from whom I have bought many, many treasures over the last fifteen years - some of which have sent me off on intriguing searches and wonderful adventures.
Northern Golden Plover (Shorelands Summer Diary, C.T. Tunnicliffe,1952)
I had several happy 'finds' in Martin's unit yesterday - most particularly two books illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe - whom I consider one of the finest wildlife illustrators of the 20th century.
His watercolours so skilfully capture the intangible but essential nature of the animals (mostly birds) which he closely observed over many years from his home on Anglesey - but it is also to his striking wood engravings that I am drawn - I think even more closely than his colour work.
Ruffs (Shorelands Summer Diary, C.T. Tunnicliffe,1952)
I also purchased a translation and printing of a fascinating illustrated journal, originally created by one of Napoleon's offiicers - on the ultimately disastrous Russian campaign. The artwork is talented, capturing the costumes of both invaders and invaded, the landscape and the gradual dawning that victory was about to turn into terrible tragedy of freezing and starvation as the Imperial army retreated through the cruel Russian winter.
Napoleon Outside Viasma, 30 August 1812 (Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812/2001)
I happily left the Arcade with these 'treasures of the day', making my way back to my car (which I park at a friend's house, some hundreds of yards away) but was distracted on my way by some brightly coloured china in the window of a charity shop on the other side of the road. Did I need more 'stuff'? - no, of course not, but…it was just across the road. No harm in looking!
Having peered into the window and discovered that the items which caught my eye were nothing that I wanted, I turned to go to the car - but the little voice on my shoulder was whispering to me. 'Oh, go ON - no harm in just taking a look inside, is there?'. I was unable to resist the little voice!
I poked around the shop for a minute or two, but there were no other visible items of any interest, and my bag of books was now getting heavy. I asked to put it down near the counter while I took a VERY last look around, and as I did so, there, beside my bag, was a box of books which looked neglected and in poor condition, but the Inner Radar deemed worthy of taking a look at. All piled in a jumble, and pretty 'tatty' but some old illustrated children's books were included on top - which I have collected for years. So I asked the price - and was told that they were not really for sale, but had been placed there ready to go 'for pulping - they are old and damaged and nobody wants them'. Ahem - at least one person did!
I asked permission to look through the box - which was happily granted, and was excited to find, further down in the box, two old and stained but interestingly covered cookery books (dated 1890) and also a tiny little leatherette bound book with 'Burial Service' embossed on the front. Treasure was mine! and even better - treasure rescued at the last minute from almost certain destruction.
Along with two modern, but original and very nicely framed little watercolours of Venice, I offered ten pounds for the lot. I left the shop with a very happy smile on my face.
My smile got bigger when I came home. Looking through the little 'burial book' I discovered both the full name and date of burial of the person (Captain John Wright Westby - 03 May 1912) for whom it had been used. The name was printed inside the front covers of what seems to be a pro-forma book produced by the undertakers, Hanningtons of Brighton). Inside one of the other books was inscribed a woman's name (Constance Westby) with the same surname as that of the deceased in the Funeral Service. Ten minutes of an internet search has already furnished details of his marriage, (to Charlotte Sarah Constance Westby) his military career and - sadly - the death of their son on the Somme. What more of their story can I now discover? This treasure hunt is waiting for me to begin.
This is the delight of these finds to me - the books themselves are worth almost nothing as saleable books - but to me, the details inscribed incidentally inside their pages both tell a story in itself and offer the possibility of further searches and revelations which may take me to visit places and meet people who are as yet unknown to me..
The second 'cookery' book is intriguing in its own right. It is actually a manual for bakers and confectioners - filled with advertisements for bakers supplies and recipes for all areas of the profession.
Interesting in itself, it is much more so to me, as it is exactly the sort of book my grandfather - also a baker and confectioner - would have consulted. More story telling - more 'filling in the gaps' - more many happy hours spent discovering the bigger picture.
Not a bad outcome for an afternoon of running away!