This year we spent our summer holidays in lovely north Norfolk, a very beautiful part of Britain which is one of our favourite places. We were lucky enough to be there for the monthly auction at Burnham Market, a brilliantly mad and wonderfully English experience where a bizarre assortment of items are laid out on the village green, given a number, and sold to the highest bidder, usually for next to nothing. A leathery faced man with a money belt and a stubby pencil moves up and down the lines calling out the lots, followed by a knot of onlookers.
Last time I went, I came back with an oak picture frame and a little wooden box. This time, along with an enamel bread bin and a galvanised watering can, I proudly struggled back to the car with this funny little suitcase, once the property of Colonel Hallet of Blakeney, Holt:
I expect you are wondering why?
This is why...
Inside the suitcase were ten beautiful blue tins with handpainted lettering on the side that read Tapioca, Currants, Raisins, Sago, Rice, Sugar, Tea, Coffee, Sultanas, Semolina. In addition, there was a little box full of tiny tins of spices.
I can't begin to convey how excited I felt when I opened the case and found this wonderful little piece of someone's domestic history. What were all these tins were doing in Colonel Hallet's suitcase? Were they Mrs Hallet's? It seemed that none of these tins had been opened or used since about 1972. Each one contained the most exquisite little packages of ingredients, many with their original price labels, which immediately transported me to the magical shelves of my Granny's little pantry. I used to be allowed to shut myself inside and just stand marvelling at the rows of jars and packets and tins and cooking utensils.
I loved that pantry partly for its own beauty but also because it invoked yet another deeply loved and special image: the magical, miniature world of the dolls house kitchen in Beatrix Potter's Tale of Two Bad Mice:
Look closely and you will see that Hunca Munca's tins are almost exactly the same as my blue Norfolk tins. Sadly, for her they proved a terrible disappointment, as they contained nothing but red and blue beads, but for me, they summoned a deep nostalgia for everything that comforted, reassured, inspired and delighted me as a child, as well as fulfilling the deep-down belief that we all share - that magic and surprise and undiscovered delights are still to be found in our world.