Tag Archives: Travel

Call me a cab

In Search of London 2008

While reading HV Morton’s 1951 “In Search of London”, reader Peter Dron came across this quote in section 6 of chapter 10:

The men who drive the taxi-cabs of London are naturally a race apart. I have known them, and have admired many of them, for years. Some of the old stagers used to drive horse cabs, but that generation is now vanishing…

The other day I struck an old driver who might have been a thin relative of Bairnsfather’s “Old Bill”. I sat looking at the nape of his aged neck, his greying hair, the way he dodged in and out of the traffic and wondering what age he was. When we parted I gave him an unusually large tip because I liked him and because he was old. He looked at the money in the palm of his hand, smiled and winked at me and said:

“Thank yer Guv’nor. Don’t often meet a toff these days, and that’s a fact!”

What a strange conversational throw back to a dead age! He remembered the age of “toffs”, “swells” and “nobs”.

“You see this ‘ere,” he said, still gazing at the money. Do you know what I’d rather ‘ave than this ‘ere? I’ll tell yer… a blinkin’ fat rump steak and a pint o’ porter.”

He then leaned towards me and deplored the age in wich we live. He was an old snob. He loved toffs. He liked “a gentleman”. You could always tell a “real gentleman” from the other kind. Not ‘arf you couldn’t! But nowadays, driving a “keb” in London, blimey what a queer collection of odds and ends you meet. Not ‘arf you didn’t! But in the old days… Ah, the old days, when you could get a rump steak and a pint o’ porter… them was the days, guv’nor, them was the days, and we shan’t see them again. Not ‘arf we shan’t…

And away he went.

Peter was reminded of an article he had written for the Telegraph in 2001 about the London taxi (the TX1 apparently) and, in particuar, those mysterious little green huts which act like docking stations – little taxi Shangri-Las – across London where black cabs and their drivers congregate to be among their own kind for a while, out of the public eye. Had his wish been granted, it is likely that Morton’s driver would have enjoyed his “blinkin’ fat rump steak and a pint o’ porter” in one of these.

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Peter informs us they are something of an endangered species, with considerable provenance and great historical and cultural significance; while at the same time possessing a rather amusing air of having been dropped down, more or less at random, from somewhere above, just like Dr Who’s police box.

They are certainly captivating and when I came across one during a recent family visit to the capital something told me I had to photograph it, and I’m glad I did. Having read Peter’s article I heartily agree with him – it’s rather splendid and surprising that so many of those cabmen’s huts have somehow survived wars and ‘planners’ – not ‘arf it ain’t!

Niall Taylor 20 May 2014


Filed under Connections, HV Morton, Quotations

Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Pope Pius XII
(image courtesy of wikipedia)

I am just reading HVM’s book “A Traveller in Rome” – AGAIN, and with much pleasure – and am interested in his views on Pope Pius XII which are very positive. This pope was very much defamed after the war – quite wrongly, but Morton published this in 1957! Possibly “they” decided to have a go at the Pope after this date – for what  he was supposed to have not done during the war. As it happens he did a great deal but had to be quiet about it. I can’t imagine Hitler taking much notice of anything he had to say about the situation, he would simply have shut him up one way or another.

Bearing that in mind I have put together the short piece that follows. Really, surely this should go on TV  like Bradshaw’s journeys by Michael Portillo on the train round the country, which are very interesting – but HVM knocks spots off old Bradshaw!

I once started to write a travel book of my journey round the Middle East and some time later read HVM – frankly I threw my stuff in the bin. The amount of sheer hard work and research – before Ye Internet – combined with his wonderful writing skills and connections to people wherever he went is, to me, genius.


HV Morton, the celebrated travel writer, states in his book “A Traveller in Rome”, published in 1957:

There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonised that Pope Pius XII and the stories I heard about him made me anxious to see a man who will one day be numbered among the saints”.

The cover of "A Traveller in Rome"

The cover of “A Traveller in Rome”

Morton obtained a ticket for an audience at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer home, among thousands of others. His holiness appeared on the balcony, seated on a red and gold chair, an elderly, frail white haired man, wearing gold rimmed spectacles and  “radiating holiness”.

Even if I been unaware of his ascetic lifestyle and his saintliness,” HVM wrote, “I should have felt this. He is a thin aristocrat whose hands are of the thin and attenuated kind that El Greco loved to give to his saints. His face is slim and sallow, his eyes dark and deep set. He is so upright and precise in his movements that it is difficult to believe he is eighty years old.”.

HVM goes on to describe the Pope in more detail: He speaks eight languages, he says, and was the first Pope to have flown, to descend into a mine and to visit a submarine. In 1917 he carried to the Kaiser the offer of Benedict XV to mediate in the first World War. He knew Hitler before the last war and he was elected in 1939, on his birthday, when he was sixty three years old. An unfortunate time to become Pope indeed!

Morton does not comment on the Hitler connection which, of recent years, has been the cause of so much defamation of this Pope since, in 1957 – when “A Traveller in Rome” was published, the campaign to condemn Pius for not sorting Hitler out had not yet begun. At this audience the Pope gave a short speech and a blessing in several languages and clearly was hugely popular and much loved.

HVM later had a private audience with his holiness. It was a simple ceremony in which Morton received a blessing and, while down on one knee, found himself fascinated by the beautiful scarlet velvet papal shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of the Pope’s spotless white soutane. Again HVM states his belief that he was in the presence of a truly holy man, who led a frugal and ascetic life and who loved birds, keeping two pet canaries which he allowed to fly around his apartments in the Vatican.

With hindsight, looking back from the year 2014 at Morton’s pleasant and  fascinating account of his meeting with Pope Pius XII sixty years ago, it is relevant to mention the unjustified attacks this Pope has been subjected to since that time.

From around 1963 Pius XII has been accused of being a friend of Hitler and not speaking out against the Holocaust – this is not the place to discuss these accusations which, in any case, have already been strongly refuted. It is difficult to know what Hitler would have said or done had the Pope made a public denunciation of him anyway, but it is hardly likely that he would have taken any notice.

In the event Pius XII did much to help the Jews, as well as many other victims of the war, in a quiet and – of necessity – secret way for which he should be thanked instead of defamed. When HV Morton met his holiness in the 1950s, he perceived Pius XII as a man of goodness, holiness, courage, intelligence and concern for all. If negative and defamatory things were being said about the Pope in Rome at that time surely, as a writer who missed little in his travel books and researched his material thoroughly, HVM would have been aware of it.

Barbara Green, West Yorkshire

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Filed under Book reviews, Religion

In Praise of Simple Fare

“How, I wonder, have I refrained so long from praising bread, cheese and beer, the most delicious, satisfying food that can pass the parched gullet of a wayfarer! Fat men in saloon cars can nose the French menus for Sole Colbert or Bordelaise, and for the many dishonest hashes devised by otherwise honest English cooks, but when I am hungry and the white road lies behind me mile on mile, give me bread, cheese and beer.”

HV Morton, “In Search of England” (1927), chapter 7, section 3


September 28, 2013 · 9:52 am

Blue Days at Sea – a review

I have just finished reading “Blue Days at Sea and other essays” by HV Morton. While attending an enormous conference set in a magnificent edifice of concrete and glass, this slightly battered little book made perfect reading. It was a good companion to me in largely anonymous crowds as I carried it around to read between lectures and in coffee bars and restaurants, Morton’s highly readable style provided much welcome light relief from the subject matter at hand just as its slightly shabby cover contrasted pleasingly with the slick, plush interiors of the venue.

Blue Days at Sea, medium

The first thing I was looking forward to knowing more about was the unusual title. I had a vague idea the book was about the sea but was puzzled about the origins of the title. On opening the book I discovered that it is taken from a poem entitled “Romance”, by a young Robert Louis Stevenson. The first verse is given before the book begins:

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

“Blue Days at Sea and other essays” was first published in1932 and is dedicated “To All Who Serve on the High Seas”.

The book is a collection of short essays and vignettes, many of which are original, others having previously appeared in the Daily Express, the Sunday Express and the Daily Herald. It has nicely managed structure and form and is laid out in three broad sections – starting in serious and sombre mood in the section “About Men”, shifting into lighter gear for “About Women”, and offering a touch of introspection and a hint of the exotic as Morton travels far and wide across Europe and North Africa in “About Places”, until the final joy of coming home – “to a country which has no need to chain nailbrushes to a lavatory basin” – rounds off the collection.

The section titles are applied fairly loosley. In fact “About Men” concerns life in the Royal Navy, being an account of a period Morton spent as a journalist with the fleet, assigned to a ship referred to as HMS Impenetrable (although there is no reference an actual ship of this name anywhere to be found on the internet), initially anchored at its the base in the Cromarty Firth and later, during deep sea exercises and weapons training. These chapters clearly portray the great respect the author has for the personnel he encounters. We read his affectionate descriptions of the various manly goings-on and eccentricities he comes across, from the young “snotties” in the gun room to the god-like Captain on the bridge; all the time managing to convey a state of constant readiness, a willingness to face adversity and of extreme, calm and considered professionalism. These chaps, Morton seems to suggest, will get the job done, come what may, and still be back in the ward-room in time for a tot of rum and a round of “Priest of the Parish” before bed-time.

After the thrills of high speed manouvers in the Atlantic we are taken to the other extreme where, in the languid setting of a mediterranean naval base, the reader is given a touching account of the death and burial at sea of humble, loyal, Stoker Davis. Again Morton paints a picture of reserve and British stiff upper lip –

“‘Hullo! Where’s the wedding?’, asked a friend, nodding at the flowers.
“‘It’s Stoker Davis,’ replied the engineer commander, finishing his drink. ‘Dead.’
“‘Bad luck… What are you drinking?'”

HMS Dreadnought on manouvers

HMS Dreadnought on manouvers

The next section, “About Women”, while tending to the patronising as might be expected in a book of its time also reveals refreshingly modern attitudes in places. “The Wife” for instance, while describing the subject’s love affair “with a dress in a shop window”, also has a swipe at the husband as he is taken to task for not appreciating the work performed by his better half. The author also expresses disapproval of the husbandly hold on the purse strings which would have been the norm at the time. In another chapter Morton describes a business woman as she delivers financial advice to a male client to the accompaniment of simpering comments from a couple of “chaps” at the next table, “By Jove, pretty hot stuff that!”. To be fair, this isn’t Germaine Greer but in its day it must have been a bit of a revalation, particularly coming from a male author.

The reader is treated to a touch of pathos with the mysterious “Woman Nobody Knows” and a little light humour with “The Bad Girl” (a disconcertingly modern-sounding account of 1930’s “yoof”) and “The Head Huntress” ruthlessly stalking the jungles of London Society in dogged pursuit of a suitable marriage for her daughter.

The final section, “About Places”, starts in the tourist office with an account of the “Man of the World” who works there (and isn’t all he seems!), before Morton is off, across the globe with tales of his travels as he visits Paris, sees snow in Rome, rides across the Sahara on Ferdinand the Fiery Steed and encounters a link with the past – a proud man fallen on hard times – as he relates the touching story of Mr Snap in Cairo. There are several chapters concerning Rome, including an account – of interest to any Scot worth his salt – of a visit to the final resting place of Charles Edward Stewart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, at his tomb in the Church of St Peter. Morton gives a moving account of the life of the Young Pretender, contrasting the romance and chivalry of his youth with his sad fall from grace in later life. The romance of House of Stewart, he observes with disconcerting insight, is “the appealing romance of misfortune wedded to good looks”.

Then, after stopping off for a spot of night fishing in the seas around Capri where he is horrified by the throes of an expiring calamaro (or squid), it is back home once again with a loving homage to homecoming in the form of an account of the Dover to Victoria train as it takes Morton back to “reliable” London, a city populated entirely by “splendid men and beautiful women”. He is realistic about the fleeting nature of such feelings of elation after long weeks spent travelling abroad but nevertheless he notes the railway platform at Dover harbour as a symbol of something he would be willing to fight to defend in the event of war. I wonder if he could have guessed that only a few short years later he, and millions of others, would be called upon to do just that.

“Blue Days at Sea and other essays” is an engaging assortment, demonstrating Morton at his strongest as he explores a wide range of moods and emotions, all the while rooted in the everyday happenings of the world of the 1930’s. Once again Morton’s exquisite use of pace, structure and language reveals intimate details of life overlooked by grander, more self-important accounts elsewhere, and even today, after the best part of a century, we can still delight in it.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, England
5 March 2013

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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Quotations

Mortonian Meanderings: “In Search of Cuckoo-Land”

Walking in to work each morning gives me time to think, to get away from the ubiquitous Information Technology that surrounds us all these days.

Today I am musing on some recently aired, light hearted grumblings about the country I live in and, specifically, whether images, conjured by authors like HV Morton, merely feed impressions of an idealised fantasy world (let’s call it “cuckoo-land”) to readers with a rose-tinted view of somewhere that is always just around the corner, forever out of reach.

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Is it right or wrong to fuel this alleged delusion, does such a delusion even truly exist? It’s certainly food for thought.

Locking the front door behind me, I step out onto a road which bears the name of an empire whose citizens, some two-thousand years ago, walked the same route and allegedly grew vines on the now frozen slopes above, and moored boats in the valley beneath, before the marshlands were drained to make way for productive green fields. Many a time, in the hope of uncovering Imperial Artefacts, our family has staged excavations in the front garden, only to encounter broken pipestems, fragments of pig trotter and shards of Edwardian crockery.

I am most envious of my daughter who I have just packed off, blinking and pale-faced at this unaccustomed hour, on a school trip to visit what the English refer to as the Mother of Parliaments, at Westminster. I wonder if I reminded her frequently enough to take plenty of photographs which I can purloin for future Morton-related projects?

I trudge on, swathed in warm and weatherproof garments, the cold nipping fiercely at any extremities injudiciously exposed to the elements, my breath billowing ahead of me. I imagine myself to be a stealthy ninja warrior, only my eyes visible, as I stalk the silent streets in search of my hapless quarry. To anyone with a more rational outlook I am more like the Michelin Man, after he’s let himself go a bit.

This morning the sky is clear and blue, something I’m sure I haven’t seen for months. Everything – red-brick houses; old, stone bridges;  even the slumbering, hollowed-out shells of former industry – is given a pleasant hue by the warm colours of the rising sun.

There is a smooth, flattering cover of frost over field, hedge and fence, lending an unblemished, slightly unreal quality to mundane things – even parked cars are transformed into works of art, courtesy of this freezing makeover. Looming out of the low-lying mists along the banks of the meandering river below are the tops of the highest trees, groping upwards, like skeletal hands; and tall, disembodied chimneys from a lost industrial past – which JB Priestley and HV Morton would probably have spat teeth at and ignored respectively – but which now, softened by the passing of time, are part of our landscape, history and culture and have become as familiar as old friends.

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As my walk continues, I realise the everyday world around me has been elevated to Turneresque heights – a dignified and distant silvery etching of trees, higgledy-piggledy houses and little hills which is suddenly astounding. I try to imagine it captured, frozen and in a frame, gracing the most exalted of art galleries.

It is part of the human condition that only after months of mud and mire, of rainfall and floods are we able to appreciate mornings like this – without the proverbial “rough”, we cannot enjoy the “smooth”. We need the contrast. But it’s difficult sometimes to avoid becoming preoccupied by the “rough”. It requires effort to appreciate what we have on our own doorstep, to be able to count our blessings and “see things with new eyes” – as those infuriatingly smug “New-Age” types are wont to say. It is too easy to become bogged down with the ordinary, the minutiae, the every-day blandness.

Misery and depression, death and destruction, murder and mayhem all sell newspapers (or their e-equivalents) far more readily than good news. So we have to look hard for that good news – the little chat with Tony the taxi driver down the road as he tells me his cat is much better now, thanks; a chance meeting with a grumpy lorry driver in day-glo yellow, who has probably been on the road since the crack of sparrows’ knee-caps, but who can still be persuaded to raise a smile when the driving skills of those Kings of the Road, the artic. drivers, are remarked upon in complimentary manner.

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“In the early morning before the sun is strong, a man standing on this hill looks down, not upon the neat flat pasture lands of the Vale of Avalon, but upon Avalon, an island again, rising from a steaming sea of mist… the mist rises from the fields as if it were the ghost of that sea which covered the valley in the age of legend. In the cold wind that runs before the dawn a man looks down upon this faint, moving veil, watches it writhe in spectral billows over the land, steaming upward in faint lines in the high places and so exposing the darker objects beneath which, in this hushed hour, seem almost like the bones of heroes, or the hulls of legendary barges sunk in some old poem.”

HV Morton, “In Search of England”, chpt 6

This country is different – it couldn’t be anything else (nor should we truly wish it to be) – from that of nearly a century ago. It is no longer (if it ever was) the place described by Morton’s amiable narrator, as he bowled along in his little car. True, nowadays bad things happen and times are tough, but they are not nearly as bad or as tough as they were (and were shortly to become) in Morton’s day, regardless of the alluring optimism of his travelogues. This country is still a pretty good place to be, if one can rise above the petty clamour as HVM did in his day, and I would still recommend it highly as a place to visit or to stay. We live in a cynical age, when it’s difficult to admit to being content with one’s lot, and we are all much more inclined to grumble than to eulogise. One book which claims to be a modern successor to Morton is in fact entitled “Mustn’t Grumble”, although in it, by all accounts, the author does indeed grumble, quite a lot.

If there is a heaven (and I’m yet to be convinced), it may not just be be a place where things are pleasant and comfortable, but one where we are able to appreciate that which is pleasant and comfortable without the need for the unpleasant and uncomfortable – now that would be a trick!

Until then I’ll continue to take life as I find it, one day at a time, and endeavour to appreciate the things around me more.

As I arrive at work I see the daffodils in the flowerbeds around the front-door are in bud – pioneering spears of lime-green, courageously poking out of black, frozen soil – Spring is in the air. It won’t last of course!

Now I need to hope I can find a spare moment, when I can sit down to catch these fleeting snippets of thought before they are snowed under with everyday normality – amateur writers, who needs them!

Niall Taylor February 2013


Filed under HV Morton, Quotations, Travel

HV Morton: Travelling into the Light

In the Steps of Morton in the Moor
(or, “I’ve had a ride in a Bullnose Morris!”)

being the story of the recording of a BBC radio 4 programme presented by John McCarthy, produced by Stephen Gardner, entitled: “H V Morton: Travelling into the Light”, broadcast on Friday Sept 21st 2012 at 11.00am (originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets no’s. 140a and b).

Anyone who wishes to hear the broadcast can do so, until roughly September 2013, using the BBC’s “Listen Again” facility on this link: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mqr4t


Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all


On the 22nd of June I was approached, via the HV Morton website, by Stephen Garner of BBC Radio 4 who announced he was making a programme about HV Morton. He said the broadcast was intended to “to retrace one of Morton’s journeys as featured in the book In Search of England and mark the differences which have taken place in England since its publication whilst reflecting on his memoirs and diaries, discovering the life and personality of this intriguing and charismatic man whose influence continues to this day“. Cunningly, he also made complementary remarks about the web site and suggested it would be useful to have me along on the recording which was scheduled for some time in August. Well, how could a lover of both Radio 4 and an admirer of Morton resist such an opportunity (or indeed, such flattery) – I agreed to help by return of post.

In subsequent correspondence I discovered that the programme was to be presented by John McCarthy, the well known journalist who was also a lover of Morton’s writings and of Devon, which he had visited many times as a child. As we got closer to the time of the recording the date was set for Tuesday the 21st of August, when we were to visit 3 locations in Devon to recreate parts of chapter 5 of “In Search of England”. The actual broadcast was finally scheduled for 11.00am on the 21st of September.

I was asked if I could track down a Bullnose Morris car of the sort driven by Morton which could be included in the programme as this was an aspect of the journey which they wanted to explore – and a recording of its Hotchkiss engine during an interview would make for excellent radio!

This task proved somewhat tricky, almost impossible in fact, as I was told repeatedly by everyone I asked that the amount of notice was insufficient and besides, this was the height of the motor show season when many owners would be tied up with other things. Finally however, and to my great relief, Malcolm McKay of the Bullnose Morris Club, showing incredible patience in the face of my repeated pleadings, came up trumps by personally phoning the few members in that area who didn’t have email so hadn’t been contacted earlier. It was one of these, the last on his list infact, who finally answered my call.

I managed to book the day of the recording off work in order to visit each of the three scheduled locations to get a feel for how the programme was to be made to mark the occasion for the HV Morton society by giving this account. I had also been asked to take part myself by giving an interview.

I arranged a photographic unit (my wife Alison, to whom I am incredibly grateful, acting above and beyond the call of duty!) to record the day for posterity and before we knew it the day had arrived.

The day arrives, controversy at Widdicombe:

“… I saw Widecombe! A line of tiny, white thatched cottages lying in luscious hedges, a hollow full of thick green trees, the tall grey tower of a church above them, a village green, an inn; and over the roofs, whichever way you look, the smooth, bald heads of the moor making a curve against the sky”

HV Morton – In Search of England 1927

We set off from Glastonbury at 8.00am on Tuesday 21st August and made excellent progress heading South West to our first destination, Widecombe in the Moor, where we were to meet Stephen and John. We got off to a lovely start, the weather was beautifully warm with fleecy clouds in the sky and patches of sunlight on the tors as we got closer to Dartmoor. Finally we were treated to the magnificent approach to Widecombe itself, down a steep road to a collection of cottages at the bottom, dominated by a large church, surrounded by a patchwork of green fields, each bounded by neat dry-stone walls. We arrived in the centre of the village which, unlike so much on the modern tourist trail seemed utterly unspoilt. With the pub, the tea-room and the village shop all completely in keeping with the rest of the village, we felt that we had actually stepped right into chapter five of “In Search of England”. Surely this had to bode well for the rest of the day to come.

We had arrived about 9.45am so had some time to spare which we spent meandering around and taking a few photographs. During our wanderings we met, leaning on a walking stick of indeterminate direction, a robust and merry silver haired gentleman with whom we had a most pleasant chat while we waited. Morton’s “Uncle Tom Cobleigh” made flesh to be sure!

Pretty soon a small blue car appeared from the end of a little lane and out stepped John McCarthy with notebook in hand and Stephen Gardner clutching armfuls of audio equipment. They had both stayed in the Warren House Inn the previous night.

Hands were shaken and we were introduced properly to “Uncle Tom” whose real name it turned out was Tony Beard, retired farmer, broadcaster, historian and past president of the Devonshire association, otherwise known as “The Wag from Widecombe” who, as the local expert, was here to be interviewed for the programme.

John McCarthy and “The Wag from Widecombe”

Tony guided us to the beautiful church yard set at the bottom of the green bowl of fields and moorland all around us. John and he sat on a low bench, Stephen presented the microphone, and the interview began.

Well, I suppose controversy makes for good journalism but I don’t think anyone was expecting it when Tony’s first comment, delivered in his lilting Devonshire accent, was to the effect that, having read Morton’s section on Widecombe, he was of the opinion that Morton had never even visited the place.

This assertion was based on the report of the white thatched cottages which Morton describes as he approached the village in the mid 1920’s after having visited Cornwall. Tony, born in 1936, stated with great certainty there had never been white thatched cottages in the village so Morton’s account couldn’t be authentic.

As I looked around (once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor!) I noted the cottages in view were indeed of dark, ruddy, Dartmoor stone. I also recalled however, several cottages we had passed on the way (and later we were to see many other similar ones) which although not actually in Widecombe itself were close by, and which were of a pale stone or even whitewashed, and thatched to boot. Morton would certainly have driven past such dwellings on the way to Widecombe nearly a century ago, and they may have caught his eye as being typical of the region therefore worth including in his account. Perhaps a combination of a changing village landscape and a touch of artistic license might account for this apparent anomaly, who can say.

The interview progressed well despite this slightly wobbly opening with John, an admirer of both Morton and Dartmoor, managing to keep things light and with Tony imparting many fascinating facts about the village and its legends, people, history and landscape. By way of compensation perhaps for his initial remark Tony conceded happily that he had particularly enjoyed Morton’s description of the charabancs bringing tourists to the village at the time of his visit, something he himself remembered from years gone by. At the conclusion (and after some prompting from the producer) Tony suggested that John should see the prison at Princetown next (in fact they had been there the day before and done interviews at that time, such is the magic of broadcasting!).

In fact we were off now, not to Princetown but to the village of Bow, near Exeter for the highlight of the day (for me anyway) when we were to come face to face with a real live Bullnose Morris…


part 2…

The Bullnose Morris:

“He asked me where I was going in that little blue motor-car.”

HV Morton – In Search of England 1927

We arrived just after 11.00am at the house of Nicholas Rhodes, owner of a two seater “sports type” Bullnose, circa 1923. This would have been similar to Morton’s (also a two seater), the most obvious difference being the colour of the body work which in this case was a deep maroon rather than blue as Morton describes his car. Other parts were a mixture of polished brass and gleaming chrome with a varnished plank of pine which served as a dashboard into which instruments were set, screwed or nailed apparently at random.

There was a large clock which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a mantelpiece, which Nicholas assured me was extremely accurate but only twice a day! Next to the clock was an old fashioned brass light switch which in turn was set next to a large brass lever. The driver’s foot-well was stuffed full of more impressive-looking levers and pedals of unfathomable purpose. The eponymous Bullnose shaped radiator was surmounted by a device of brass and clear glass within which was set a tiny indicator needle I was informed was a thermometer, to give the driver an idea of engine temperature.

Finally the moment had arrived and, after John McCarthy had been for a spin and done his interview, it was my turn to play. Without such modern luxuries as doors it was was one foot on the running board and a low hop over the gunwale to get settled into the somewhat small passenger seat. As soon as I had a decent grip on the brass handles inside the car (which seemed to be the nearest anyone got to seatbelts in the 1920’s) we were off into the byways of Devon.

The Bullnose Morris in full flight

The first thing that struck me was the impression of speed as we bowled along at what felt like a considerable rate of knots. Doubtless this feeling was enhanced by the precarious nature of the ride; open topped roof, no seatbelt and a worrying proximity to the solid walls of those notoriously narrow lanes; but actually we did seem to be going at quite a lick for such a tiny and venerable old vehicle. We whizzed along, frightening passers-by with the rich whine of the engine and the rattle of the superstructure, at one point bellowing a hearty good morning to a lady and her Jack Russell terrier as we roared past leaving them pressed into the hedge in our wake. It was all I could do not to shout “Poop poop!”.

As we drove Nicholas told me a little bit about the car which Morton, in his original Daily Express articles had christened “Maud” to lend a little light hearted colour to his accounts. The Morris-Cowley Bullnose was the most popular car of its day, being turned out at a rate of 10,000 per year at peak production in the 1920’s. It toppled the spindly Model-T ford from its premier position by virtue of being simpler to run and to maintain and went on to become the real “people’s car”, a direct precursor to the Minis and Morris Minors of the modern age.

Accordingly it suited Morton’s needs perfectly, lending a popular touch to his accounts as he set out to encourage a love and understanding of the countryside as the road network improved and personal transport developed and became affordable. According to Nicholas the car was also incredibly robust and when I mentioned Morton had taken “Maud” to the Scottish Highlands at a time when the roads in that region were even more wild and untamed than they are now he replied that he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same today. Apparently the Bullnose is “built like a tank” underneath.

Finally, with a roar and a waft of petrol we were back and shooting up the drive into the garage where, despite a frantic flicking of the big brass switch, the Bullnose obstinately continued to rumble and shake, and pour out a rich exhaust. I was told by Nicholas that this “running on” was because the magneto was failing to earth (I nodded politely at this, even though my understanding of things mechanical is approaching zero). It was only when he turned a tap under the dashboard to cut off the fuel supply that the racket finally subsided. Was this, I wondered, a case of “hysterical engine” as reported by Morton?

After politely declining the offer of a cup of tea and promising to send on photographs of the occasion we hopped back into our decidedly more mundane steed of the road and headed North, on the long trek to Clovelly.

Clovelly, the interview and home:

“Somewhere a donkey brays; and you walk slowly up the hill.”

HV Morton – In Search of England 1927

Clovelly harbour at low tide from Morton’s “In Search of England”

Clovelly harbour today – a very well preserved village!

We arrived at Clovelly just before 2.00pm, somewhat later than scheduled. Stephen and John had already descended to the harbour to continue the recording and, after contacting them via the wonders of the mobile phone, we were shown past the reception point and through into this most precipitous of villages. It was the first and almost certainly will be the last time I have ever been able to say “Let me through, I’m with the BBC”!

After a precarious wobble down the steep cobbled street towards the harbour, taking in donkeys en route, we arrived breathless at the bottom, where I prepared to hold forth on the subject of my favourite author. Having now driven around 150 miles in hot Summer weather my old pate was becoming somewhat addled as we walked round the harbour wall to find a spot which was quiet enough to conduct a recorded interview yet still had enough background noise to lend a bit of atmosphere. A small part of me was beginning to question the sanity of my bright idea of following the recording all day as it processed around Devon.

Nevertheless I hope I acquitted myself passably well and managed to convey some of the reasons for my love of Morton’s works and the role of the HV Morton society in trying to promote the man and his writings, as well as talking a little bit about Morton and his Bullnose Morris into the bargain. How much of it will make sense when played back or, in fact, will survive the editor’s scalpel remains to be seen. Responses are always so difficult when one is put on the spot in-front of a microphone; it’s always so easy to think clearly after the event about what it might have been better to have mentioned or indeed, not to have mentioned.

Stephen, who did the interview, was first class however. The questions were straightforward and he managed to put me at ease as the consummate professional he clearly is.

Finally it was the parting of the ways, after a quick chat with the people responsible for marketing Clovelly in the competitive tourist business and a quick photo of John and me against the beautiful (and, yes, still “quaint”) harbour. Everyone shook hands with a feeling the day had gone well and then it was that weary, but oh so picturesque, climb to the top of the village, a quick ice cream from the gift shop and back into the car to begin the journey home to Somerset.

A career highlight – John McCarthy gets to be photographed with the coordinator of the HV Morton Society!

So, all things considered, a great day out which I wouldn’t have missed for all the tea in China. Tiring certainly and occasionally a little nerve racking to one unused to being interviewed and unversed in media techniques but a once in a lifetime experience for me. I now have a greatly increased respect for those professionals who do this sort of thing every day for a living, as well as for those amateurs we see being interviewed on the news from time to time who seem to come across so well; not at all like my tongue-tied ramblings!

The highlight of the day for me was without doubt whizzing precariously through the country lanes in a Bullnose Morris, getting a real, first-hand idea of how Morton might have felt, all those years ago, as he set out on his adventures, leaving his beloved London and going “In Search of England”.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, UK
17 September 2012

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