Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Blame it on Mary.

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Mary Plain was a small bear. She lived in the Bear Pit in Bern – at least in the imagination of Gwynedd Rae, who wrote her children’s stories in the 1930’s, and which were a youthful favourite of mine. She has a lot to answer for.

Every time I pass through Bern, a necessary ritual is to go and say hello to Mary’s descendants. The bear pit as drawn in the books was quite accurate: a pair of round, sunken stone compounds, with various (rather denuded) trees for climbing, a large bath and sleeping quarters at the back. As I child, I was delighted to see that you could indeed buy carrots and sugar lumps to feed to the bears.

We made our latest visit a couple of weeks ago, on the way back from Lausanne to Basel, when the city was looking especially mellow in the late-afternoon glow of a sunny September day. Pleasingly, the Swiss have moved with the times when it comes to animal welfare, and in a neat reversal, the original bear pit is now an exhibition space and gin bar containing humans, while the bears roam a much larger and more naturalistic enclosure outside, on the steep hillside leading down to the river Aare. Now the trees have grown, however, it is much more difficult to spot them…

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(Library picture)

Despite its being their capital, amongst the Swiss the Bernese have a reputation for being slow and lumpen. (“Why shouldn’t you tell a Bernese a joke on a Wednesday? Because he might laugh in church on Sunday…”). On the train into Bern earlier in the day, we had an impromptu conversation with a not-at-all lumpen young Bernese man, who was returning from visiting his girlfriend in Basel. He told us, though, that he does indeed like Bern because although it is the capital, “it is just like a large village”. But it still has some pretty swish quarters, if my experience is anything to go by, of the one where, a good many years ago I once went to a rather smart party. Even if it did go by the name of Bümpliz…

There can be few capital cities where you can see wooded hills at the end of the main street (and on some days snow-capped Alps too), and yet at the same time indulge in a spot of serious shopping or eat at a top-notch restaurant (avoided, given the distinctly non-provincial prices…). Bern has a wonderful character, and as with the other larger Swiss centres, its conservatism is pleasingly spiced with a noticeable undercurrent of trendy urban rebellion. It is a place that moves slowly and deliberatively, but always with its eyes on the future.

The centre of the city lies on a neck of land surrounded by the deeply-incised valley of the Aare, giving a dramatic setting, the main streets gradually sloping down towards the sharp point of the meander, while both road and rail routes are forced to approach over dramatic high bridges. The outer sides of the valley are scattered with desirable villas, while it is possible to indulge in a spot of river swimming here in the city centre, as in Basel. Topographically, the city has a superb natural arena.

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Many of the timeless buildings have decorated shutters, and are built from a sandstone that is a particular shade of mustard-green that seems to be found nowhere else. Quintessentially Swiss. It goes without saying that the public transport is peerless, even if the main station was rebuilt in the seventies in the style of Birmingham New Street. Here, twice an hour, inter-city trains from all over Switzerland draw up at adjacent platforms so that easy interchange is possible from almost anywhere to anywhere.

We love the arcaded streets, a larger version of those all over Switzerland which were, of course, never flattened by the ravages of the Twentieth Century. It’s all original. The old clock tower and the square outside the parliament building are straight from a fairy tale; visiting them, on the way to the bears, is another ritual. Even more than elsewhere in Switzerland, the shop-keepers seem to take a pride in making the most attractive window displays imaginable, which promise to turn the most mundane of purchases into a super-stylish adventure. I decided to make a small photo-survey of some of the present ones – see below.

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I like the scale of Swiss cities: I know exactly what the young traveller meant: it is a capital built on a very human scale, just as Switzerland is a nation built on an equally human scale. Ironic really, considering the physical grandeur all around. Maybe the ever-present mountains give the Swiss a sense of their own, human, insignificance?

My amusement with Bern’s slowness got its own back, however. As we were leaving the station, I was stung by a wasp. Being Bernese, it moved slowly enough that I was able to bat it away before it did its worst. But it left its venom to work a very gradual inflation of my right arm over the following two days, which then lasted a good week. Even the smallest inhabitants know that slow and steady brings results that are both progressive and unchanging over long periods of time.

I like Bern precisely because it feels both thoroughly modern and timeless. Thanks to Mary Plain, we have come to know quite well another Swiss city which subtly, perhaps unintentionally, drives home all that could be so much better about the life that, inexplicably, one has to live somewhere else.

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Below: a short photo-study of Bern’s shop windows…

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Food, Travel

Beyond Schoggi

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Schiesser, Basel

I am very partial to a grand continental café. A classic of the kind is the Cafe Romand in Lausanne (below), its unchanging parquet-floored, wood-panelled interior a place where old men still come to pass the afternoon with a paper and coffee, and grandes-dames take afternoon cakes. In the evenings it serves fondue in traditional ceramic caquelons. It is immensely popular, a local institution, even though it’s a youngster, dating only from 1951. I’ve been an occasional customer since the late ’80s, and it is one of those places that somehow move with the times without ever changing.

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Cafe Romand, Lausanne

Then there is Schiesser, an institution in Basel dating from 1870, another darkly-panelled tea shop on the upper floor of the eponymous confisserie opposite the town hall. Proper black-and-white-dressed waiters still prevail here, and the heiẞe-schokolade most definitely comes not out of a Cadbury’s tin.

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Elevenses by Schiesser

Swiss cuisine doesn’t have a particularly high profile abroad, partly perhaps because it, like the country itself, is so heterogeneous. The obvious features are fondue and – of course – cheese in general, together with the increasingly-known raclette and rösti. Like the country itself, the diet is a sometimes-perplexing mix of Germanic, French and Italian influences, which can crop up in disconcerting combinations. But there are also delicacies such as filets de perche, which have almost cult status on Lake Geneva. And we shouldn’t forget the fresh apricots and peaches, and the wine, even though it is something of an acquired taste, and not widely available elsewhere.

Food is done with the same care that the Swiss attach to most things – and they don’t forget the importance of the visual, either. Their food is tasty, and often cosmopolitan, but the thing that really stands out is that it is so enticingly presented.

Visiting food shops in Switzerland is a feast for the eyes even if you don’t purchase, and this is something else that to me gives the place a solid sense of well-being that is often lacking in Britain (and sometimes elsewhere). Sorry, but Greggs is just not the same. Somehow the Swiss manage to make their food outlets classy without being elitist, in a way that even their neighbours often fail to match – and that is saying something.

Britons might consider the approach quaint; there are still quite a few restaurants where waiting staff are traditionally formal, and even on the trains one still eats off crockery with proper cutlery. Old-fashioned, or simply maintaining high standards? There are plenty of street-food stalls of course, but the things that really appeal to me are the more solid outfits.

A much-missed attraction in London is the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square, which used to contain a Mövenpick Marché self-service restaurant in its basement – a bit like a culinary version of an IKEA marketplace, only much tastier. One could, for a while, imagine that one was in Bern or Zurich, and it was (presciently) where my wife and I went on our first date.

Mövenpick is a reputed Swiss brand, which covers restaurants, hotels and more. For me, its crowning glory is its ice cream, which unlike the company’s other offerings can be found scattered (thinly) across the U.K. I most recently came across it, bizarrely, on the menu of a pub in deepest Cambridgeshire. Recommended.

Even department stores and motorway service stations get in on the act as foodie destinations. While the up-market Globus might be expected to have a seriously sexy food hall, even the more mid-market Manor offers its own Marché. One proceeds with tray to various ‘stalls’, from which to mix and match salads, patisserie, fruit smoothies and more, or to have various dishes cooked while one waits. To top it off, the store in Basel has a great roof-top terrace, where one can park for a good while, looking out over the city.

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Globus food hall
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Manor Marché, Basel
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Manor Marché, Basel
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Rooftop terrace, Manor Marché, Basel.

But I suppose we must inevitably come to chocolate. Forget Nestlé. An up-coming company is Läderach – first founded in the 1960s and producing superb chocolate. While Britons at last seem to be learning a serious chocolate habit (for which, sincere thanks Hotel Chocolat) this is on a different level entirely, with comparable prices; good chocolate is not a cheap commodity, but then a small amount goes a long way. Once again, the Swiss elevate an everyday transaction to the level of serious luxe; it is also rather more grown-up than Hotel Chocolat’s sometimes-gimicky presentation. It is noticeable that this brand has been expanding vigorously in recent years, and has now spread to several other countries, though not yet the U.K. It is possible to order online, and they do seem gradually to be addressing their shipping costs.

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Above and below: Läderach

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I suppose it is possible to argue that presentation doesn’t make any difference to the product. But I think it does: if it is true that consumers are shifting their spending from goods to ‘experiences’, then presentation and quality of service are part of making the purchase of something into a feel-good experience. It is something that too many retailers in Britain seem not even to begin to understand. I might have been tempted to suggest that large chains simply aren’t capable of delivering such experiences – but the Swiss show that to be incorrect, too.

As I wrote in my previous post about Morges, Swiss streets seem to be little-harmed (as yet?) by the online shopping revolution, certainty compared with the free-fall being seen in the U.K. Maybe that is because they understand (or just care) more about these matters.

The proof of the theory is in the eating.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Morges please!

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Some places are just naturally blessed. Consider, for example Morges, a small town of 15,000 people on the shore of Lake Geneva a little to the west of Lausanne. I have known it for many years –and it was the place where I once took my wife-to-be, to cure her leg-pulling that my near-obsession with Switzerland was nothing more than rose-tinted imagination. It worked.

I suppose it’s the geographer in me that means I rarely go anywhere simply to switch off; travel is an opportunity for gentle, observational research. I am drawn to examine the differences between places, why they exist, and the effect they have on people’s lived experiences. It is patently not true that people and places are the same everywhere – but precisely how and why they are different can be complex, and behind the physical exterior lies a cultural landscape that is even more difficult to divine. In the case of Switzerland, as well as my general appreciation of the country’s more well-known attributes, I have become fascinated with what makes it tick. And yes, on occasions that can appear quite obsessional.

As with much of Switzerland, it’s not a matter of being on a different planet; it’s just that things there tend to fail to work badly, in the way they can do elsewhere. Morges is the kind of place that I suspect many would agree would be something close to a dream or ideal – and yet it is entirely real – and therefore realisable. True, it has an exceptionally beautiful setting, but more than that, the Swiss always make the most of what they have: a small town centre that in some countries would be peeling and faded, half the shops either boarded up or filled with junk shops is, instead, beautifully maintained, artfully lit, and full of genuinely interesting small shops and eateries.

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The main street.

The traffic, while busy, is generally subordinated to pedestrians, and there is plenty of opportunity just to enjoy being there. What puzzles me rather, as a Briton, is that there is very little sign of the town suffering from the onslaught of online retailing, as is so obviously happening in my own country. The only evidence I found was the hoarding of a new mixed development near the station which talked about boosting the life of the town centre.

I think the answer is one that Britain would do well to note: the shops are not the cloned bulk-warehouses of conglomerates; most of them appear to be small, and individually-owned. They offer a range of goods that is genuinely enticing, high quality, and often displayed with panache. There is not a fast-food outlet or chain restaurant in sight. It makes using the town centre a desirable and rewarding experience, and this surely has to be the way forward.

As a non-native, it’s hard to get to the bottom of Morges’ seemingly charmed life. It is hardly ordinary – that would be nigh-on impossible given its location on the Rivièra Suisse, former home to the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Roger Moore, Charles Chaplin and Freddie Mercury – but it is seems largely by-passed by those on the Geneva – Lausanne – Montreux tourist drag. Judging by the levels of social interaction observed in the streets, most people there are locals – though that can perhaps conceal who those ‘locals’ are.

A little research shows that nearly a quarter of residents were born in the town, another quarter elsewhere in the Canton (region); a further 20% were born elsewhere in Switzerland and the remaining 30% is from elsewhere in the world. That is perhaps not surprising given Morges’ position between two international cities (ICRC and UN in Geneva, International Olympic Committee in Lausanne). But it is not unusual in Switzerland, where nearly the same percentage nationally is not Swiss. It is, in many ways a ‘just’ a local, provincial town. It has a well-known tulip festival in spring which brings in the tourists – but otherwise it is largely configured for its local population. I once went to an evening class on motor mechanics there.

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The waterfront.
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Art Deco restaurant on the lake front.
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Lausanne in the distance.
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The lakeside promenade.

 

It’s too easy to dismiss the solid, refined quality of the place as the product of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Undoubtedly, that is a significant factor – but more important is how the money is spent: invested in a high-quality public realm, excellent public transport, a well-maintained historic centre and beautiful landscaping, all of which are accessible to the whole population. It is not wealth, for example, that stipulates that lake shorelines in Switzerland must maintain continuous public access – something that elsewhere even Roger Federer is struggling to overcome.

It is not wealth alone that established the tulip festival, or the year-round programme of cultural events. Nor is it wealth alone that seems to make the Swiss populace take so much care over everything they do, from personal appearance, to the cleanliness of the streets and the beauty of even quite ordinary shop windows. Twenty years ago, I bought a shower curtain with a silly cartoon Swiss cow on it in the Morges branch of Interio. It is still as good as new.

Unlike many places with glossy exteriors, Swiss quality is real. Judge for yourself from the quality of this small town’s municipal website here.

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The tulip festival.

It is easy to dismiss Morges as a place living a charmed life – but many of my observations about it could equally apply to almost any similar town in Switzerland. What’s more, in Britain I suspect that not only would many equivalent small towns be struggling with the effects of decades of under-funding, but they would be desperately clinging to what is left of their ‘heritage’ And yet Morges is busy, in conjunction with Swiss Railways’ property arm, building an entirely new urban quarter next to the station, that will combine public space with a school and crèche, offices, shops and apartments – all built in a modern style that would do credit to some of the smarter bits of London. So different from the fight a few of us have had in our local town to get anything other than Disney-esque fake cottages built.

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Apartment in the new quarter being built near the railway station.

It was good to be back in Morges after several years in which we lost our local connection. We did the customary walk along the lakeside, had the ritual (superb) ice cream from our regular kiosk and enjoyed a crêpe lunch in the lovely main street. But the real wealth of the place is simply its superb natural setting, looking across the Lake with its constant animation of paddle steamers, yachts and water-skiers, to a grandstand view of the Mont Blanc massif. It is just as glorious, in a quieter way, in winter.

The problem with Switzerland is that one is daily confronted with one’s ideals made real. Morges is the kind of place I would love my actual home to be, a place where one can imagine putting down deep roots, and feeling really proud of where one lived. Of course it does not do to be taken in purely by physical appearances, but I know the country well enough after a lifetime of visits, to know that Swiss quality is not a sham.

My sense, from being in the country, is of a place that is generally content, stable and reassuring: a place where the balance between what you put into life and what you get out of it is right, where life is lively without often being fraught, where it is possible to live genuinely well. That Switzerland regularly appears at or near the top of global life satisfaction surveys would seem to confirm this.

Maybe it is true that people are conditioned by their environments. All the Swiss need to do, in which case, is to capitalise on what they inherited. And they do. As I said, some places are just naturally blessed.

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Mont Blanc, seen from Morges.

 

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Coming home

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On Eurostar in The Tunnel

I’ve always found coming home difficult. Perhaps it is because for me, home is such an important place. I’ve heard it said that for most of us, it is the one place in the world where we can shape things more or less to our own, unconditional liking. And for us that seems to mean something rather at odds with the norms of the country in which we live. Of course it is well-known that part of the pleasure of going away is the renewed appreciation of home that it brings when you return; perhaps with it can come a resolution to do things a little differently, a little better, inspired by what you saw when you were away… It probably depends on where you’ve been: perhaps sometimes you are just relieved to be back?

But home is a nested concept. At its most intimate, it is the specific building that you inhabit, and in our case we have an extra layer, namely our specific part of the old school house that we share. In another sense, during our recent week in Switzerland, we never left our European home in the first place, something reinforced by the fact that we know that country and a few of its people well enough to consider it home from home.
What gives me the problem is the bit in the middle: the national level. And that is, of course, all the more difficult at the moment given the current state of play in this country.

I think it stems from my thoroughly English up-bringing, at a time between the 1960s and 1980s when European countries were nowhere near as integrated as they have since become, and the sense of superiority that it is now evident has been a part of this nation’s problem was barely identified. It was just an unspoken part of the national narrative.

As I travelled abroad much more often, more widely and for purposes other than conventional holidays, it became clear to me that Britain was not always the enviable place we had always been led to believe. Other places do some things as well, if not better. It is only logical: why should one small island have a monopoly on The Best? It’s nothing other than our own particular national myth – but it seemed so deeply embedded that it was almost invisible. Perhaps that’s the whole point.

Yet as so often, empty vessels make the most noise. I fear that the drum-banging that many in Britain still seem to feel they need to engage in, is a subconscious reaction to the above fact. I wonder how many stop to think – or care – about how this appears from the outside. We spent a week travelling across borders between France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Sometimes it was only cursory – such as the evening we had a meal in a Greek restaurant in Germany – a mere 15 minutes’ drive from our friends’ home. The whole thing was unremarkable in the extreme, now that the Schengen Agreement covers all of those countries.

Why, then, on reaching the Eurostar check-in at Lille Europe station, do things so noticeably change? The first things one sees are large boards detailing all of the things that are prohibited on the train. These were followed by notices instructing visitors from Canada, Australia, The USA, Japan and South Korea that they are “granted” leave to visit for six months (how condescending), but that they are not entitled to work or any access to state funds while they are there. Welcome to Britain! As they are only in English, I wonder how many South Koreans take any notice.

One then passes in front of stony-faced Border Force staff (notice the choice of wording in the name) and endures the ritual humiliation of removing watches, belts, loose change and personal technology while struggling to haul luggage up into the X-ray scanners.
Once through this obstacle course, one is assaulted by repeated loud-speaker instructions decreeing insistently what one should and should not do at every moment of one’s progress onto the train. At every point, progress is micro-managed by Eurostar staff. It is not surprising that people start to behave like harassed sheep.

On the train, the same recorded and live loudspeaker instructions persist; perhaps they were just trying to be helpful, but how many people really need to be told to press the door-open button in order to open the door? On arrival at somewhere like Ashford, one hears urgent-sounding announcements telling people that they are not yet in London. At least they are now tri-lingual.

It doesn’t take much to notice the change of culture that such behaviours communicate. One is left with the impression that Britain is still more about keeping people out, and if not that, then treating them like idiots whose every thought and action need to be controlled. I think it is an unconscious extension of the way the authorities and elites in this country perceive the rest of the population. Britain is fundamentally about control, not liberty – even if, thus far, it has generally been achieved by ‘soft’ means.

I have also been told recently that the reason the British government does not want regional services through the Tunnel is that it wants to be able to control entry points closely – and that means keeping them at a few specific places. Who knows? Elsewhere, facilities make it increasingly easy for people to come and go as they please; why should Britain be any different?

I can only wonder at the mindset that still has this view of Britain in the modern world. Where does this assumption that the U.K. must be bulwarked against the outside world come from, in a way that no other European nation seems to think? Just what is it that we have that they are supposedly all intent on stealing? And why do the authorities seem to believe that people in this country need to be controlled and told what to think and do at every turn, rather than liberated to live their own lives?

When I mention such things in conversation, the reply is often that it is “very important” that the country keeps “undesirables” out. Well really? So much more than any other country – some of which are quite possibly far more attractive to migrants than the U.K. And at the cost of the freedom to move of the rest of us? Who told us this? Answer: the same people who put gave the Border FORCE its aggressive name.

From what one overhears in places like Lille station, plenty of other Britons feel about this as I do. And I when I asked one of the French security guards (in French) how he felt about subjecting visitors to Britain to such treatment, he gave me bemused shrug. Those Britons who are in the know can see the idiocy of this mindset: it is the authorities whose thinking is lagging, not us plebs.

At least Eurostar now has interiors that can hold a light to the TGV and ICE – so we needn’t feel quite so like second-class citizens while under the sea. But in between getting off the train and reaching our little haven, we had to cross what increasingly feels like hostile territory, parts of South-East England which despite their physical proximity to the continent, are populated by those who can’t or won’t see what we had just experienced – and perhaps never do. Those who can’t see that Britain’s increasingly scruffy, congested and sometimes-aggressive public realm is not “just like everywhere else – only better”. And we all know what they, and their attitudes, have done to the country.

Then we got home to our apartment, which increasingly feels like a retreat, a little bubble of Europe-inspired sanity adrift on a sea of hostile, xenophobic madness. It’s not anger, but sadness that makes us feel like this – because after all, ultimately, there is no place like home.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Jerusalem?

There’s nowt like a bit o’ hardship to make you appreciate the good life… which, as I’ve written before is, in a way, where Sprezzatura came from. When your back is against the wall, it certainly does make life’s more pleasant experiences seem all the sweeter, even if (or perhaps because) they may presently be unattainable.

England’s North was built on such prospects – though it’s of course debatable whether shares in muck and brass were distributed as fairly as they should have been. Our first stop outside Leeds was Saltaire, a short train-ride away. Now a World Heritage Site, Titus Salt’s model village is one of Britain’s better-known examples of Victorian philanthropy: appalled by the general living conditions of the time, the wealthy mill-owner built a residential quarter for the thousands who worked in his immense premises next-door.

Titus Salt’s enormous mill.

It is difficult to imagine how the neat grid of stone cottages was received by those who lived in them; much is made of Salt’s munificence – but I found myself mulling the contradiction set up by the knowledge that for many in Victorian times, the most basic elements of a decent life were almost completely at the discretion of private individuals – who in many cases did not care as much as Salt apparently did. But with the improved conditions came a dictated, morally-upright way of life (down to the number of baths one was required to take). Salt himself lived in considerable grandeur, with a private entrance to the mill. The work for the rest was still hard; egalitarianism, this was not.

There is also an irony, however, in that the Trades Unions which were a response to Victorian conditions would presumably have been quite happy to see Salt deposed from the position in which he was able to administer to his flock. Would that have been a victory? I think in the long run, people’s wellbeing should not rest on the discretion of more powerful others, and listening to the views of certain political figures even today, it is not clear that such lessons have been learned even now.

But we should still be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

Saltaire today is a slightly strange assemblage of Italianate and other buildings somehow rather too grand for their rural setting. It works, but still feels somewhat contrived. The vast mill itself is now a combination of business units, apartments, shops and a gallery largely devoted to the works of local artist David Hockney. His ‘The Arrival of Spring’ series, drawn on iPad and turned into large prints was an interesting and likeable expression of the creative potential of digital media.

Much of the nearby town seems contentedly inhabited, and there are a number of the chi-chi galleries, craft shops and cafes that tend to cluster in such places. Nowadays, it’s the strictures of listed building and World Heritage status that are the overlord. It’s all quite pleasant, if a little self-conscious.

Above and below: The mannered streets of Saltaire.

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We moved on further up the Aire valley, to Keighley and thence by Worth Valley steam train to Haworth, another famous location that majors on high Victorian drama. When it comes to dour Victorian novels, I very rapidly find that a little is too much, but the home of the Brontë sisters is picturesque – another place that I hadn’t visited for many years. All along the valley, the harshness of the industrial decline that rather horrified me when I first visited as a child is being mellowed as buildings are re-purposed and the profuse greenery returns. Some may yearn for the days of heavy industry, but in my eyes the removal of so much polluting harshness is a (qualified) good thing.

Above: KWVR steam train leaving Haworth. Below: the attractive and steep main street in Haworth.

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Haworth too is rather overdosing on Victorian sentimentalism these days – nearly every shop seems to be some form of nostalgia-laden giftware emporium. But again, I suppose one shouldn’t scoff – they are, in the end, a means for locals in an area that has seen its share of hardship, to make a living from the million visitors it receives each year… In general though, I have many reservations about the still-strong tendency in this country, to wallow so heavily in the past. We all know where that world-view has led, which may only restrict opportunities in the future…

The third stage of the trip was by bus over the moors to Hebden Bridge. The rather cringe-worthily-named ‘Brontë Bus’ turned out actually to be bright and modern, with USB sockets and satellite tracking, and it was interesting to do the circuits of the distinctly non-tourist parts of the area – many of which do look much better cared-for than last time I visited. I suspect that there is a fair amount of commuting to Leeds and Manchester now taking place.

That is certainly true of Hebden Bridge, which we reached after a pleasant bus-borne amble over the moors. This small town of 4500 has become famous as the ‘least cloned town in Britain’. Again it is picturesque, helped (when not being hindered by flooding) by its dramatic location deep in the valley of the Calder. The Rochdale Canal runs through, and the Pennine Way long-distance footpath is nearby, both of which no doubt feed tourism.

But the town’s main claim is the assertive localism of its residents, many of whom are creative types who came here in the seventies when property was cheap, and inadvertently turned the place into a kind of eco-mecca and focal point for the LGBT community.

The town centre has been sympathetically restored, while the presence of both an independent cinema and a highly successful arts venue are somewhat unexpected. Swanky interiors shops suggest that there is money around. Lessons can be learned for my own small town in Essex, which is of a similar size and which equally needs to seize the initiative for its own destiny at a time when the pressures of large-scale commercialism are taking their toll.

Above: Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge Below: The attractive streets of the town centre.

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A different kind of enlightenment from Saltaire? Certainly: this is one that is self-directed, even if the actual mechanisms by which Hebden has come to thrive are not entirely clear, intentional or controllable.

Maybe that is the secret of a genuinely good life?

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Leeds by example

The silence was noticeable. Several times, when I told people we were taking a holiday in Leeds, the response was slow coming. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time… ”

We, however, were reasonably confident in expecting more from the city at the heart of Britain’s fourth-largest conurbation. We have been working our way through visits to all of the country’s big cities, to see what these places, still often despised in popular opinion, are really like today after several decades of urban renewal. In only one case were we disappointed – and Leeds was the last big place on the list. I think it is fair to say that after several decades in the doldrums, Britain’s city centres are now generally worthy of the nation’s civic pride.

It was about 25 years since I had last visited Leeds, briefly, for a friend’s wedding, so I had few recollections of the city – but I knew that it had stolen a march even on Manchester in being quick out of the blocks of urban renewal. Even some of the new waterside developments are nearing thirty years old. It is now the largest financial and legal centre in England, outside London. Its high productivity has generated income whose consequences have had time to bed in, and have had a lasting effect on the city. There is still quite a lot to do when it comes to the areas just outside the city centre – but we observed the early stages in the creation of a new city park, alongside which, in a decade or so, will eventually rise the new High Speed 2 rail station, thus extending the already impressive new districts to the south of the River Aire.

For once, I had been organised, and booked our visit several months in advance. As a result, we had a room in a 42 The Calls Hotel, an early conversion of a grain warehouse into an attractive hotel, even if its early-nineties decor is now in need of a lift (forthcoming, we gather). A room upgrade saw us installed with a river view, and the roof trusses and machinery of the former hoists to look up at in bed each evening. The rest of the building is an attractive blend of Victorian beams and pillars and modern interventions.

The area around the former wharves on the River Aire is now redolent of similar dockland-style schemes across the country, but no less interesting for that. The backstreets just to the north seem to be doing a good impression of Shoreditch or Hoxton in London, with many creative businesses and bearded types in evidence… Edgy – but just sufficiently so.

Above and below: mixed modern and restored architecture on the Aire waterfront.

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In fact, that is a good summary of the rest of the city, which has cleaned and restored many of its fine Victorian buildings, while making some appealing modern interventions and reinterpretations. The city has not been ‘over-cleaned’ – or perhaps the process has now been going on for long enough that the patina of reality is re-settling. Some rejuvenated places can feel just too pristine…

Much of the centre has been pedestrianised, with a number of new arcades being added to the very fine Victorian ones for which the city is known. As a retail centre, it now ranks with the best in the country, having Harvey Nichols as well as a large new ‘statement’ John Lewis. These have been the anchors around which many lesser known brands and a fair number of independents have clustered.

Above and below: Leeds’ famous arcades – old and new – in the Victoria Quarter.

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The city centre is a pleasant place to walk around, though I gather Friday evenings can still be “interesting”… There is an ornate Victorian indoor market, while the beautiful Corn Exchange now hosts a selection of esoteric independents.

The Corn Exchange

Leeds has a lot to offer culturally too, with Opera North being homed here, as well as the Yorkshire Playhouse repertory theatre. Unfortunately, there was a lull in the programme during the days of our stay. The visual arts are perhaps slightly less well represented; the city Art Gallery is not on the scale of that in Manchester or Birmingham, though it does hold a significant collection of 20th Century art. Unfortunately this too was largely closed in preparation for the forthcoming Yorkshire Sculpture Festival – as was the Tetley Contemporary Arts Centre. Sculpture is perhaps the one visual art that bucks the trend: West Yorkshire has become something of a centre for it, on the back of the area’s associations with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (in nearby Wakefield), together with the well-regarded Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

We still find that many British towns and cities’ Achilles’ Heel is their eateries. Leeds does have Michelin starred restaurants – but for more ordinary mortals, the choice seems to be very largely restricted to the usual chain suspects. We try to escape these wherever we can. On our first night, we found a well-reviewed Italian not far from our hotel in another nicely-restored warehouse near the river. Unfortunately, the food was ordinary to say the least; we are not fastidious, but we do know our Italian food, and we can do better than this at home. More indicative, if this is considered locally to be outstanding, then expectations cannot be very high… Much renovation of British cities has found inspiration from the continent – and while there are now some very pleasing public spaces and architecture, it is a shame that the regular gastronomic offerings still mostly don’t come near our experiences of a place, for example, like Lille – let alone those further south.

We were able to see most of central Leeds in a day – it is fairly compact and easily walkable. The redeveloped areas along the river are extensive and attractive, though the main museum offering – the national Royal Armouries Museum was not really our cup of tea. Interesting building though.

Canal basin with the Royal Armouries Museum on the left.

On our second day, we travelled out of the city to some of the smaller places nearby – of which more another time.

As expected, Leeds proved to be a very successful choice for a short city break. It has a big-city feel without being overwhelming, and has made very successful use of its assets to emerge as another fine British city, whatever lagging public opinion might still be thinking. We’ll be back.

Opinion & Thought, Travel

The state of the nation – no – region.

Regionalism is a concept that is perhaps overlooked in much of England. While I can think of several parts of the country where people might immediately taker great exception to that claim, I still feel that as whole, English culture is not one that celebrates its regional diversity – and this has been all the more so as our capital city has grown in dominance over the rest of the country. I suspect that once again, the other nations of the British Isles perhaps have somewhat different perspectives on this, as my sense is they still root themselves in much more local identities even within their own national ones.

What makes a regional identity is perhaps open for debate. Matters like accent and food are inevitably strong – but I would add simple on-the-ground knowledge of one’s patch is important too. Having a sense of place about where one lives is important for feeling rooted. Much as I have an internationalist outlook, having a sense of regional identity is something I value, and I would like to see steps taken to strengthen England’s regionalism.

With this in mind, we took advantage of last week’s good weather to make a trip that I had been planning for some time: a circular tour of our own region of East Anglia. Despite having lived in the region for 33 years, there are still a few parts I haven’t visited – and there were a number of others where my last visit was quite some time ago. What’s more, the rail enthusiast in me wanted to complete my coverage of the region’s routes, and now seemed like a good time as major change is afoot on the region’s rail network in the next couple of years. A valedictory to some of the old order and an inspection of the current state of play of the region’s rail infrastructure seemed like a good excuse to take advantage of the Greater Anglia Day Ranger ticket, which gives unlimited travel for a day within the region for a very reasonable £24, or £18 with a railcard.

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We started with a drive to Ipswich (GA cannily excludes the Essex commuter routes from the ticket) and thanks to the usual unpredictable state of the A12, we missed our planned train. Before the following hour’s train, we had time, therefore, to inspect the excellent job that has been made of the renovated facilities at Ipswich station, which presents a clean and modern impression to the traveller. It is good to see it being remembered that rail stations are important gateways to their communities, and being treated to some of the improvements we regularly see on the continent. The fact that GA is owned by Dutch Railways probably has something to do with it; I am a fan of what they have done during their tenure.

Inter-city and regional trains at Ipswich’s well-maintained station. Both are scheduled for replacement soon with new Swiss-built trains.

I had artfully concocted an itinerary that would both cover the lines I wanted, and take in pretty much the whole range of East Anglian landscapes – for while this region is entirely flat, it does not want for variety. It is by no means all wheat prairies, as people seem to think.

Our first train took us via Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket to Cambridge. This a very pleasant 80-minute crossing of the gentle Suffolk countryside, seen at a green time of year. The short stretch through Newmarket, past the racing studs, to Cambridge was new to me.

Cambridge station is another that has benefitted from much investment, and now presents a crisp gateway to the city. Since my last rail visit perhaps 25 years ago, the whole of the station forecourt has been redeveloped with multiple office blocks and apartments. It has been a controversial scheme, but I found it impressive, having created a very pleasant public square in front of the station, as often seen on the continent. Morning refreshments were duly taken.

Above and below: modern developments on old railway lands adjacent to Cambridge station. The ‘sculpture’ is actually the central pivot from the old railway turntable, unearthed during redevelopment.

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Our next train required an add-on to the day ticket, for the unknown line to King’s Lynn. This journey is around an hour long, and heads out across the depths of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The main landmark is Ely Cathedral, before the line singles as it heads for the backwoods. The Fens can be bleak, but I find them an interesting landscape, with a large vistas and huge skies that are not common in Britain. There are few places in Britain where the trains actually rise to pass over the local rivers – the whole area was marshland, some below sea level, drained by Dutch engineers from the 15th Century, and now some of the nation’s most productive farmland. But dead flat.

King’s Lynn is a place we did not previously know. It has an attractive, small railway station that has been well maintained, though it gives onto what at first sight looks an unappealing town. Regrettably, modern retail developments have not exactly enhanced the impression – but if one perseveres, one can find a well-preserved Medieval town in its midst. There are some impressive buildings along its Ouse waterfront, dating from the time when it was a prosperous port. We had a little over an hour, which was enough to gain an impression and grab some lunch.

King’s Lynn’s well-preserved station. Perhaps on account of royal visits on the way to Sandringham?
Medieval buildings in King’s Lynn. I suspect that were this town nearer to London, it would be very sought-after.
King’s Lynn waterfront, where the Great Ouse exits to The Wash.
The attractive Custom House.

We had to retrace our steps to Ely, where a quick change gave us a train over the Breckland Line to Norwich. My last traverse here was in 1987, and indeed was my first entry after University into the region that has since been my home. The Fens give way quite abruptly to the sandy heathland of Thetford Forest, a quite extensive area of uncultivated space and forestry plantations – a place of unexpected wildness, deer and dramatic sunlight. It is very appealing.

More quiet countryside follows, and then arrival in Norwich, along the valley of the Yare, and under the viaduct by which the main line from London soars in (well, by East Anglian standards) from the south. As expected, the railway sidings outside Norwich’s impressive station are now full of the new Swiss unit trains with which GA is replacing every train on its network over the coming two years.

I had been hoping that our train to Lowestoft would be formed from what is known locally as the Short Set – a few old coaches topped and tailed by two class 37 locomotives, some of the oldest remaining in service, and due to stand down in the coming months. The set was standing with engines running adjacent to the platforms – but it was not to be, as another unit set rolled into sight. The train to Lowestoft was packed, it being late afternoon. The journey is scenic in a different way, as it passes many of the southern Broads, former peat workings now flooded and full of attractive leisure boat activity. The East Norfolk countryside can be surprisingly remote, and shafts of sunlight lit it dramatically as we chuntered slowly past windmills and over the swing bridges that still characterise the route. The signalling is still mechanical, though its colour-light replacements are now installed, awaiting commissioning.

The ‘short set’ in its siding at Norwich station – where it stayed. These class 37 locomotives have been around since the early 1960’s.
Above: the most easterly bit or railway line in Britain at Lowestoft station. Below: signal set for the route home. All the old semaphore signals will disappear shortly too…

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Lowestoft is the most easterly point on the British rail network, indeed the most easterly town in the country. It still has some fishing activity, but otherwise looks to be struggling. But its station is clearly looked after by the local community rail partnership. Our final train was another bucolic 90 minutes via the East Suffolk line back to Ipswich. This single-track route nearly closed some years ago, but was saved by innovative radio signalling which allowed cost-savings to be made. It is a delightful ride though quiet, deep countryside and past the boatyards at Woodbridge, before it joins the line from Felixstowe – also single track – on the outskirts of Ipswich. I find it unbelievable that this is still the state of the route along which a major part of the nation’s imports flows from the deep-sea container port there – though enhancements are in hand.

We landed back at Ipswich some nine hours and 220 miles after we left. An excellent way to re-acquaint with the less visited parts of our home region. One gets a sense of integration – of how the various parts relate to the whole, and without the hassle of driving. It’s a pity that modern, sealed trains don’t easily allow photography on the move, but it was good to see all of the trains punctual, clean and well patronised, and the stations for the most part looking well kept. Something every region needs as part of a decent sense of self.