Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travelling in Style?

I named this blog carefully, in the belief that attention to the small things is often what transforms mere existence into Living. It is also a study in how this happens – and rather too often fails to.

I think that the truest reflection of the nature of a place or people is found not in the grand gestures, but in the small, everyday matters that contribute to making life what it is or isn’t. Sheer experience has shown that the approaches to this are not the same everywhere: some cultures appear to attach more importance to both pleasing appearance and high quality than others; one of my perpetual gripes about Britain is that so much here feels temporary and insubstantial, even when it is perhaps not. Maybe we need to pay more attention to the details.

Or rather, it’s not that we can’t do things well – but the average British mindset seems to view everyday life as a fairly rudimentary affair, and any grace as a luxury for which one must pay heavily.

This is a great pity, given the tendency of the British to grumble about everyday life, because I firmly believe that the solution is actually in people’s own hands. Special occasions may be great, but what we do with each and every day has a larger impact on the full experience of life. Hence my valuing of the notion of sprezzatura.

I am going to take several posts to examine some rather esoteric example of how different nations approach everyday matters. This post is one of two about transport design. On the face of it, this may not seem an important matter – but quite apart from the technical complexities of the subject, the way in which nations treat their travel spaces is a small but accessible window on the national psyche (I recall a senior Ford marketer once telling me that in Britain people buy cars on the strength of the exterior, whereas in Germany it is the interior that counts…)

Getting transport design right has the potential to transform a trying necessity into a stylish, enjoyable experience.

Railway carriage design might be expected to be important to the British, given the length of time many of them spend commuting. It is also a challenging design problem, given the many constraints that bear on it – from the inherently awkward, tube-like shape of the vehicles, to the increasingly stringent health and safety requirements, let alone the need to squeeze huge amounts of functional technology into confined spaces while keeping the whole usable by the public. I have travelled thousands of miles around Europe by train, and have experienced many approaches to this conundrum, some much more successful than others from the passenger’s perspective. One cannot but help compare and contrast. A comfortably-executed train journey is one of life’s pleasures, and with the need to get people out of their cars, one might have thought attention to that experience would be high on operator’s agendas. It is – sometimes.

So here is a selection of interiors from around the railways of Europe, with a little cultural commentary…

We’ll start with the home offering. Given the fragmented nature of Britain’s railways, there is no standard design. Companies do their own thing, and it is fair to say that maximising bums-on-seats is their top priority. One can forgive them the inherited problems caused by vehicle dimensions significantly smaller than those on the continent (notably 300-plus mm less width) – but arguably this is all the more reason for creative solutions. In the 1850s, regular-class accommodation was little more than cattle wagons; while standards have obviously risen across the board, the mentality for standard-rate travel in the U.K. is still largely the same…

FGW interior

Exhibit 1 is fairly typical of a British inter-city train today. This is a First Great Western example, and shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a bus company. The high back seats are a legislative response to rail accidents, while the airline configuration does provide leg room and a little privacy in a high-density interior. But the lighting is stark and far too bright, while the colour scheme is naive and garish – precisely the wrong shades of pink and blue. The overall effect is bleak: I can say from experience that this is not a restful environment in which to spend a couple of hours. In fact, if it were not such a challenging assault on the senses, it would be downright unpleasant.

The same company is taking delivery of a new fleet of government-specified trains, and exhibit 2 shows the latest offering:

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I have yet to travel on one of these trains. I find the pared-back, more ‘streamlined’ interior an improvement, though apparently the seats are uncomfortable. Streamlined is a good approach for rail vehicles, given both their inherent shape and the safety considerations involved. But it is still just rather dull, and a real disappointment compared with the sleek enticement to travel that these new flagship trains could have been.

Virgin is also taking delivery of the same fleet. Exhibit 3 shows an original Virgin Pendolino interior, which shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a cut-price airline. I found to be extremely cramped and claustrophobic, not helped by the sloping walls (needed to keep the vehicle within its dynamic envelope when tilting). I also greatly dislike Virgin’s overly funky, pop-approach to design (and affairs generally – note to marketers, I don’t want to be told I’ve successfully bought a ticket with the word wayhey!!! in huge letters – where’s your dignity, let alone mine?)

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We have more garish primary colours, naff blue lighting in the luggage areas and the generally low-brow feel of a fast-food outlet.

The refurbished fleet on Virgin’s East Coast route fares a little better; this is the company’s second attempt at a train interior; perhaps they are slowly learning. (Exhibit 4):

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…while the same company’s interior (exhibit 5) for the new Inter-City fleet (not yet in service) is at least a little less gloomy than the Great Western offering for the same train – but is still garish in its primary brightness. I suppose this might play well with Virgin’s core youth market – but what about the other segments of the travel market? Still, compare and contrast with exhibit 1…

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One of the chief failings of the private companies that entered the British rail market was that they has little ‘feel’ for rail design issues such as the inherent form of the vehicles, something exacerbated by the ‘need’ for loud branding.

Chiltern is a long-term franchise, and it has been a good innovator over the years. Exhibit 6 shows the interior of one of its latest inter-city offerings. I must admit I am not sure what to make of this, and I have not sampled one in the flesh. Chiltern evolved from an old British Rail sector, and I think the its inherent feel for the design of rail vehicles shows, but while this arguably has atmosphere and ‘presence’, it is also perhaps rather drab, and just too subdued.

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We start to look a little further afield now. Exhibit 7 (below) shows the interior of an Irish inter-city coach from the flagship Dublin-Cork service. The outside ‘face’ of these trains is daringly raked – but as a result, the interiors are all the more of a disappointment: dull, cluttered and visually noisy, with little design credibility at all. Not sure the Irish have really developed much design cred as yet. Straight out of the 1980’s – and they haven’t even got the excuse of a restricted loading gauge.

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Things start to get more interesting when one crosses the Channel. Deutsche Bahn is a highly efficient operator, and as expected its best fleets are high in quality. German design perhaps lacks a little visual flair, but everything feels very solid, with lots of leather, glass and blond wood; there is a hi-tech sleekness to it all. Exhibit 8 shows the interior of an ICE high speed train. I like the imaginative use of glass partitions to keep the interior open and airy, while the snazzy mirror-fronted information display is much less obtrusive than those in British trains. What’s more, the electronic seat reservation system always seems to be working…

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…and who can resist this opportunity (Exhibit 9 – which I have taken more than once)? In a move that would give British H&S bods nightmares, it is possible to sit in the driving vehicle, and watch the route ahead unfold at 300kph over the driver’s shoulder. The driver can blank the screen out if (s)he needs, as it is liquid-crystal glass. The seats are even banked for a better view…

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Heading to the rail paradise that is Switzerland, we find low-key restraint. SBB has a very modish image, but its interiors are quite sober. However, the quality is again high – more like the fittings on a luxury car. Exhibit 11 (below) shows the upper deck on an inter-city set; the careful lighting mitigates any feelings of claustrophobia in what is a fairly restricted space.

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Exhibit 12 shows another glory of Swiss railways – the retention of proper restaurant/bistro cars. This is the design for the latest upper-deck incarnation, and they still have proper table linen, cutlery and china… The monochrome colour scheme is nicely relieved by just the right hit of purple…

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More of a surprise comes from some of the nations traditionally associated with good design: Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. The Italians have never quite translated their mastery of automotive design to their railways, and the results often look as though they are trying too hard on the outside, and not hard enough on the inside (exhibit 13). Interesting to note that the same capacity preoccupation exists on private trains in Italy as in Britain…

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First class on the FS Frecciarossa is a little more like it (exhibit 14) –

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but in fact some of Italy’s slightly older trains actually seem to have more style, here almost a classic mid-century feel… (exhibit 16)

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At least first class on the privately-operated Italo has a little more Italian brio about it (Exhibit 16). I’m not sure that all that shiny caramel leather really works, but I like the sleek partition behind them and the generous sense of space. The same preoccupation with advertising seems to be present…

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Spanish railways also major on cool design (Exhibit 17). This is the interior of one of RENFE’s AVE high speed trains. Admittedly this is first class; the leather seats are nicely tailored, and the colours scheme cool – but I wonder how long that pale wood floor will stay looking pristine. All in all, a good offering from a network that has been extremely successful in attracting travellers from their cars in recent years.

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In design terms, Danish trains are very disappointing. I suppose they do reflect the low-key organic Scandinavian approach to design, but despite the abstract end-panel graphics, I would have hoped for something more achingly stylish than this…

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(Exhibit 18)

I am of course saving the best until last. Of all the nations of Europe, when it comes to rail, the French seem to have the best, most innate design sense; from their graphic design to the chic announcement chimes that are almost a national institution, and the contemporary daring of some of their station architecture, they seem to have the right conditions in place to perceive a rail journey as a stylish rather than functional matter. Their train interiors reflect that. This is the nation that put its best fashion designers to work on its train interiors, and the latest offering from Christian Lacroix strikes an excellent balance between the inevitable constraints of a railway coach and doing something chic, different and yet accessible with it. (Exhibit 19). From the asymmetrical seat backs to the integrated reading lights, the funky carpet and the quite daring choice of colours, this is a stylish yet fun environment in which to travel.

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The following images show a refurbished elderly regional train in France, and the latest experiments for the next generation for inner suburban design. Can you imagine such things happening in Britain?

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By contrast, Exhibit 22 shows the latest British offering for the forthcoming Crossrail service in London; no contest. (I refuse to call it by the fawningly sentimental name Elizabeth Line). Even the upholstery (which I suppose is meant to be stylish) looks as though it is trying too hard and yet simultaneously fails to make any impact.

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Exhibit 23: Credit where credit’s due: the interiors for the new generation of Eurostar trains is up there with the best, something close to what this service should have offered from the start. It was always the best offering on British soil – probably because the designs were French. The latest version, of which this is the buffet, is a German designed train, with an Italian interior by Pininfarina. Why aren’t all trains like this?

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It is perhaps pushing the point a bit far to claim that national train interiors reflect national temperaments and priorities – but there is nonetheless a wide variety of approach. As I said at the start, the design of things like train is a significant factor in the whole experience of using them, and it is not as though there is no precedent – from Pullmans to Wagons-Lits, style has always been part of rail travel. But in the case of modern British offerings, there is as usual, still too much reverence for traces of ‘heritage’ in the use of bulbous chair shapes, swirly carpets and soft-font signage, while the actual (hidden) agenda is pack ‘em in cheaply in Standard and fleece ‘em for First.

It is a huge disappointment that Great Western Railway (itself a self-conscious resuscitation of a historic brand) has seen no better than to regale its state of the art trains with fake-heritage insignia and a dull, supposedly historic livery. It is a far cry from the strong contemporary image of British Rail in the 1960 and 70s.

There is insufficient clarity and simplicity of line and surface in the interiors of modern British trains, and too little reference to the form that the design needs to follow. This is all the more apparent when one sees some of the crude exterior treatments that have also proliferated, which make no reference to the inherent shape of the train whatsoever. Likewise, the choice of colours is often ill-considered: there is a world of difference between a chic acid green and a dull bottle green, such as GWR have seen fit to throw wholesale over the exterior of their ultra-modern new trains. Graphic art is another field where the French excel, whereas too many British efforts are just dull and clunky.

This is not, however, to say that the continentals always get it right either, as the preceding pictures show.

But there, in one, is the difference in temperament after all – between the sleek chic of the best continental design, and the dull clunky norm in Britain. From the way they dress to the way they furnish their homes, it seems to me that the average Brit has learned little from the supposed design revolution of recent decades. Even IKEA modernism was just another passing fad. So I very much doubt that the average Briton even notices poor design when it comes to public transport, even if they still suffer its ill effects. For all that we bang on about being a world-class nation, when it comes to matters of public utility – not to mention the ‘shop window’ that public transport presents to the visiting world at large – too often we are plain, simple disappointing.

I suspect visual literacy just isn’t in our genes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Speaking truth to power

I can find little to quibble with in Aeron Davis’ conclusions to his book; part is worth quoting:

We are long due an overhaul of many of our systems and institutions. So many have become something they were never intended to be. Yet leaders and the public continue as if they still operate as they once did. Progressive change in all of them would certainly rein in leaders and re-attach them to publics in various ways.

He singles out:

  • The electoral system which is ‘not one that any emerging democracy would choose now’.
  • The lack of a written constitution with poor checks and balances.
  • The secretive, insular and now market-orientated civil service.
  • The Financial Services sector that extracts far more from the economy than it contributes (and upon which, scarily, we have based our entire economy)
  • The system of corporate governance which is far too orientated towards short-term shareholder returns.
  • The news media which is (even) less independent and more in hoc to those in power and media moguls than it appears.
  • Intermediary professions whose role is too often to reinforce the system – for example accountants advising on tax law and then offering tax avoidance services.
  • The ability of many of these institutions to self-regulate, which is not sufficient to face down vested interests.

Davis avoids the error of demonising those at the top, many of whom, he says are complex, conflicted individuals often operating in a contrary and highly contradictory system.

His conclusions are not exactly new – but this book is the most substantial piece of evidence I have encountered to suggest that they are generally valid, and not just the product of an alternative political agenda. The pity is that he only dedicates four pages of 140 to solutions; that may be significant.

Events in recent times – including the last week – suggest that he is overwhelmingly correct. But what is to be done about a regressive, entrenched establishment that only ever argues for its own self-interest, dressed up as the status quo?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Reckless opportunists

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It just isn’t done, even today (or perhaps that should be especially today) to criticise your country. Patriotism seems to be on the rise, rather than as one might hope, declining as people achieve wider world-views and realise that there is more to human life that binds than divides, everywhere.

I’ve never had an issue with pride in things that genuinely warrant it – but that is very different from the mindless, drum-banging jingoism that seems to be re-awakening. I am entirely serious about this: I recall one occasion when we took parents to a ‘replica’ Last Night of the Proms at the Albert Hall (sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, which had thoughtfully provided every seat with a branded, plastic Union Jack to wave at the appropriate moment). It was an uncomfortable experience, when that moment arrived, for my wife and me to be the only people in the Hall who felt unable to surge to our feet in what felt like an outpouring of cheap, plastic, branded jingoism – or more likely, a worryingly easily-induced expression of the national herd mentality. In fact, it was almost scary to be the refusenik couple in a crowd of several thousand – but I hope this incident in a small way vindicates the sincerity of my position – my national pride needs to be justifiable.

At present, it feels anything but. Britain is currently rocketing up my list of the world’s nasty countries. With yet another improperly-sanctioned military outing, this time in Syria, the Windrush scandal – not to mention the institutionalised, exceptionalist arrogance which still dominates relations with the rest of Europe (if not the world), it is very easy to come to the conclusion that this is a bellicose, toxic, hawkish nation, for all that it hides it beneath a supposedly-mild manner.

For anyone doubting the wider significance of all this, I suggest a read of Aeron Davis’ new book Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of Establishment. Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. He has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media.

The book describes the vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now function, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to achieving and retaining power for its own sake. Almost as alarming are the changes that have taken place well out of the public eye in recent decades, which completely transformed the way the ‘system’ operates, from a moderately benign if elitist old-boy network, to something altogether more rapacious and vacuously short-termist.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to be allowed for, and I still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. In any case, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin-doctors at the Mail, Express or Telegraph. Even for those who tend to support the status quo, the book’s strap line ought to be worrying, for he shows how in addition to everything else, the current arrangements risk destroying much of the system that supports it. Personally, I wouldn’t be especially concerned about that – provided it was possible to replace it with something more transparent and less toxic. But, if only for the fact that my patriotism simply takes a different form from normal, I would be extremely concerned that its collapse would drag the rest of us down with it as so nearly already happened in 2008.

The sad thing is, there has never been more coverage of the more benign conditions in other comparable countries. There is really nothing to stop Britain taking on the enlightened views of the Dutch, Swiss, Scandinavians or Canadians. Nothing at all to stop its hawkish drum-banging on the world stage, and to start it on a route of genuine social improvement. Except the self-important, puffed-up national mindset, and the corrupt systems that feed it, and on it.

It is not unpatriotic to face up to one’s country’s shortcomings: in the case of Britain, the worst of all is the delusion that it really is a proper, well-functioning democracy, when what we actually have is something between an oligarchy and an elective dictatorship .

Until this country changes to become a proper liberal, social democracy, with decent standards for all, adequate social and environmental protections, a less punitive attitude towards the majority of its own citizens, a more reasonable relationship with neighbours from whom it might actually learn a lot – and a more forward-looking approach to its problems, I am afraid I will not find much to feel genuinely proud of about Britain, no matter what the group-think might require. And no, appeals to history, even if justified, are not enough.

Strongly recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more about the way power now operates in this country.

 

 

 

Food

Polignano from Puglia

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Chelmsford in Essex is not the most obvious place to have connections with Italy – until, perhaps, one remembers that it was here in 1898 that Guiliemo Marconi set up the world’s first radio factory and in 1910 made the world’s first public broadcast. So the precedent is good.

It is rather more of a mystery why there are Italians in the town today, for despite its recent achievement of city status, this is still – ahem! – a rather optimistic moniker for a place that is hardly Bath or York, let alone London or Los Angeles.

And yet it is using its new-found status to make the best of its fairly modest lot. When I lived there in the early 1990s, the talk was mostly of how soon one would be able to escape the boring, declining dump of a place. But today, it is lively, with a good selection of retail outlets, a busy market and the recent addition of some higher-end stores, anchored by John Lewis, that has been made possible by the easterly exodus from London of a number of financial companies and the high-earners they bring.

While John Lewis is a bonus anywhere, personally I prefer the smaller independent stores which give a place individuality – and it was by pure fluke that last weekend, while waiting for some friends, we chanced upon Polignano, tucked away in a side-street. I have already mentioned Pastaciutta, the market-place Italian kitchen – and now Chelmsford has a very genuine Italian delicatessen/eatery at the other end of its town centre too.

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Polignano seems to be a real labour of love – formed to echo the Pugliese owners’ home life – though how they came to find themselves in Essex is not explained. The place is modest in size, though with a small outdoor terrace and more tables upstairs. It has apparently been there since late 2014, yet I had never noticed. Despite this, it is one of those places that draws the attention from fifty paces – and it did not take long, peering through the windows for us to ascertain that this was no fake. Enthusiastic gestures invited us inside – where the unaffected display of cured meats, home-baked breads, marinaded aubergine slices, out-of –the-ordinary wines and less-known southern specialities on the menu led to a swift change of lunch plans.

Service was leisurely, so it was just as well we were not in a hurry, but the place was well-filled, and the quality of the food, when it appeared fully explained why. Likewise, my glass of Negroamaro was so good that I just had to buy a bottle on the way out. On his equally modest website, Marino Polignano explains that a pallet of specialities is sent fortnightly from his father in Puglia – and it shows. I wonder how many other places in Britain have cactus fruit jam on the menu. Another point of interest is that Polignano is in Italy too, where other members of the family run a restaurant and hotel.

One can only wish such a place great but limited success: it deserves much – but I hope that Marino’s ambitions are modest enough that he will not yield to the temptation to expand, as so many other ventures have over the years at the expense of the character that made them in the first place. In this case, small should definitely remain beautiful.

 

 

Food

Easter Lamb for one

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Cooking larger cuts of meat is not often a viable proposition in a two-person, half-vegetarian household. Even where there are suitable cuts, the need to produce two separate meals can be off-putting when time is short. In the last couple of years, though, I have started marking Easter with the cooking of a lamb shank. I became aware of the possibilities of what was once considered an inferior cut after a glorious meal of Welsh lamb shank braised in red wine at Yr Hen Fecws, a small restaurant-with-rooms in Portmadog, Gwynnedd.

I do like preparing casseroles, and this is very easy: just the usual base of onion, celery and carrot coarsely chopped, leeks if available (which they weren’t here due to a memory slip) and a couple or three crushed cloves of garlic. The meat is browned in oil before being removed while the vegetables are softened. The meat is then replaced, thyme and rosemary added, as is about 1/3 bottle of red wine and a little more than that by volume of meat stock. The pot is left to cook in a low oven (about 150C) for around 2 ½ hours.

Lamb has a lovely flavour, and this cut is just about right for one, served with Jersey Royal potatoes and spring vegetables.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

The High Life

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After my previous complaints about the state of Britain’s town centres it was a pleasure, a few days ago, to visit somewhere that it still getting it right. Norwich (in Eastern England) has always been a law unto itself; I lived there for a year in the mid 1980s, when it was still a haven for as many alternative and offbeat scenes as you can imagine. Being rather out-on-a-limb geographically speaking has helped: only recently has it received the mixed blessings of a dual-carriageway road to the outside world, and while a modest 200,000 in population, its position as the centre of a large and quite remote rural hinterland lends it a big-city feel.

The building of the University of East Anglia in the 1960s added to its instinctively liberal character, especially after the construction of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, an early work of Normal Foster, put it on the map forty years ago.

Even today, while it has ‘normalised’ somewhat, Norwich is still a city of great character, of course helped by a fine medieval, Georgian and Victorian architectural legacy and a network of narrow lanes still crammed with independent shops. As was the case everywhere, the sixties and seventies were generally less kind, with the usual bland corporate construction on the margins of the city centre. However, it was to one such building that my visit took me.

I was there for a professional rendezvous, and Chris had suggested meeting at The Rooftop Gardens, a restaurant atop a six storey office block not far from the station. This really is a case of making the best of the available opportunities in a way that provincial Britain rarely manages.

There is something appealing about getting high up in a city: it’s as though one has found an eyrie, tucked away yet simultaneously with a commanding view. Even for one who struggles with heights, the reason why penthouse apartments command a premium is immediately clear: an enviable 360 degree view taking in one of the city’s two cathedrals, its many medieval churches, the castle, the handsome railway station and the whole sweep of the city on its rise in the centre of a meander of the River Wensum. It’s a pity that so many such places are resolutely private.

The restaurant itself is smooth, exuding the kind of lounge-bar appeal I have seen in similar places on the continent, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the cool of somewhere like Bar Rouge, on the 20th floor of Basel’s Messeturm. But then, it doesn’t come with the vertigo either… The food is modern British in style, attractively produced if not especially generous of portion, and the staff attentive,  even a little eager.

There are two outside seating areas, with clear screens and a large awning to mitigate the climatic extremes in what is quite an exposed position; I can imagine it is an excellent spot on summer nights. There is also the advantage that it is the one place in that part of the city from where one cannot see the rest of the host building…

While Norwich is clearly a city of some means, the essential ingredient for remaining a “fine city” (as Norwich bills itself) is making the most of one’s assets. In that, imagination and vision are as important as hard cash. This is the city that, when its library burned down some years ago, built itself a fine contemporary mediathèque in the middle of the old town. In many British towns, the missing factor seems to be any kind of vision, which can work wonders even when money is short. As I have found more locally, there is a kind of dull, downtrodden provincialism about many smaller towns, a lack of any sense of urbanisme – civic pride or sophistication that is the necessary spark for places like Rooftop Gardens. I barely need to say that one gets a far wider sense of this on much of the continent.

Norwich is one example of how a place can have the best of both worlds: a city small enough to remain personable and eminently walkable, yet big enough to achieve some sophistication.  The Rooftop Gardens an excellent example of how to capitalise on an otherwise rather doubtful 1970s ‘asset’, and as such could easily be replicated elsewhere.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

What is becoming of the British town centre?

When Richard Beeching closed many of Britain’s branch line railways in the mid 1960’s, he was probably doing some necessary pruning – except that he didn’t realise that he was cutting not branches but roots. It later became evident how those smaller operations fed nutrients – in the form of custom – into the bigger lines. The consequence was a decline in use of the railways that took decades to reverse.

One might have hoped that we had learned the lesson – but it seems as though Britain’s town centres are going the same way. Walking around my local one (which had better remain nameless for fear of doing it more harm), I was shocked at its state of decline. I must admit, we go there rarely these days – which probably tells its own truth – so it was saddening to see the number of empty premises, tatty-looking streets and rather unsavoury-looking characters hanging around. Perhaps more frequent visits would have concealed the steepness of the decline.

This is not one of the centres of despair in the post-industrial wastelands of the North, but a major town of over 120,000 people, in one of the more prosperous parts of the south – and it is growing quickly. So what is happening to its urban fabric?

I think a number of factors are playing a part – and just as in the case of Beeching and the railways, own goals feature strongly.

I am part of that problem. I don’t mind for one minute being thought of as having obscure or even rarefied tastes – but be that as it may, my local town simply no longer caters for them as it used to. Consequently, I rarely find any need to spend money there, because it provides little that I need or want. The internet is of course a major part of this – but equally culpable, in my opinion, is the retail sector of Great Britain which has increasingly been dominated by chains such that anyone whose taste does not fall within the mainstream is less likely to be catered for. If you want to buy leisure-wear, you have the entire town to play with; look for any other form of decent menswear and you are struggling (except for a couple of very expensive shops). The same is true for music: the high street stores used to keep reasonable selections of minority genres; mostly now gone – so I buy my music from online specialists. I could go on: the point is this – by narrowing their offerings, and simultaneously putting many local specialist shops out of business, the retail sector has in effect excluded many of those smaller tribes who nonetheless collectively brought patronage to town centres.

There then followed a downward spiral – not helped in the least by three other factors:

1) the insistence of the local council on bleeding people dry for parking in the town, while for many years failing to provide workable alternatives in the form of good public transport. I know many people who will not use the town on account of its parking charges. I am talking here about often well-heeled people who live in the surrounding hinterland. Those who are left are the ones who cannot afford to go anywhere else.

2) The same council’s granting of permission for yet more out-of-town retail and leisure developments ostensibly to cater for the town’s growth – but which in reality only deprive the centre of trade.

3) The bleeding dry of funds from central government that has prevented local councils from maintaining their urban fabric, let alone innovating. But that is not the whole story: the town received a spectacular new art gallery some years ago – but the approach path is still half-screened off behind rusty, corrugated iron in an area where a redevelopment scheme never seems to happen. It can only be off-putting to potential visitors and the public image.

I am puzzled by one thing: towns on the continent must be encountering the same challenges from e-commerce (though I gather the Brits have been early adopters, as usual with anything that allows them never to leave their couches) – and there is no shortage of out-of-town retailing on the continent either – but the same hollowing-out effect seems not to be present.

Maybe it comes down simply to the fact that people in those countries simply have greater spending power to support more retailers – but I also wonder whether it is also something to do with the fact that continental towns have never been simply retail machines in the way British ones were allowed to become. There still seem to be more inner-urban dwellers on the continent (though it does also seem to be increasing in Britain) – and perhaps more significantly, people in France, Italy and elsewhere know how to inhabit their towns in a way the British have lost – or never had. The variety of cultural events seems to be much greater – and the food scene is not dominated by the increasingly tacky-looking chain restaurants that now line most British town streets as retail has fled. They also tend to have better public transport to bring people in from outlying districts.

I am sure the desire for greater choice has something to do with the problems in Britain: while I don’t buy often, I do spend money on good quality when I need something; but I will not part with cash for something sub-standard and no doubt I’m not alone in that demographic. People of that profile have been repelled by mainstream retail as I described. They also happen to be mobile: I can buy premium goods more cheaply at a nearby outlet village, likewise those and specialist goods online – and when I want the full urban experience, I am less than a hour’s drive from one place that is noticeably bucking the trend: Cambridge.

Cambridge also shows that while money clearly speaks (it has an evident glut), town centres can still work in Britain by providing for people with diverse needs and by offering more than just bleak, clone-retail. While Cambridge does have its critics, the sheer attractiveness and liveliness of its townscape makes up for a lot.

My local town also has an attractive townscape – indeed one of the more dramatic High Streets in the country – which the local council has repeatedly failed to pedestrianise it properly. It has other fine buildings too – some of which have been left to become weed-covered eyesores for want of an enlightened planning policy.

In the end it is the ability of local worthies to capitalise on what they have that I think has made the difference between Cambridge and my local centre. Quite what all the extra thousands who are expected to come to live in the newly-built acres of rabbit hutches are going to get out of their lives there is anyone’s guess.

A little vision goes a long way. And a lack of it can create a disaster where there need be none.