Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Seeing the urban light

Fete-des-Lumieres-Place-des-Terreaux-Lyon

Fête des Lumières Lyon 2017

One of the things I admire about continental European countries is the way they ‘inhabit’ their towns and cities. While we in Britain have made great strides with revitalising our main urban areas in recent years, I always feel that the continentals, and in particular the French and Italians have a superior sense of urbanism. And it often extends to the smaller towns in a way that it often doesn’t in the U.K., where many of their equivalents feel half-hearted, if not hollowed-out.

Continental towns are not simply machines for shopping; they do not seem to have suffered from the corporate erosion of public space as has been highlighted here recently: for better or worse, squares and streets belong to all the people, and are not the sanitised pathways between shops that one sees here, with any ‘undesirable’ elements rapidly being moved on by private security guards. Consequently they seem to me to have a more authentic life to them, not that that is to diminish the hardship felt by the homeless, for example.

Another aspect of this is the number and scale of the festivals that take place; again Britain is catching up – we seem to have caught the habit of Christmas markets recently – but somehow we still don’t quite have the ‘conviction’ that comes from such festivities being long-established. Perhaps it will come with time.

I have always enjoyed the genuine communality of such festivals, amongst them the Herbstmesse and Fassnacht in Basel, and the Christmas market and Fête des Géants in Lille.

One on my bucket list is the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, which is has been happening this week. I like Lyon a lot: for a large city, it is remarkably civilised, and has a cosmopolitanism and sophistication that its British equivalents have yet to learn. The FdL is one of the most spectactular festivals I know, its technical accomplishment and, it has to be said expense, something that is beyond the ambitions of most cash-strapped British local Councils. That said, I think a large amount of it has to come down to vision, and it probably helps that the French have a great sense for graphic art, and they originated the ‘son et lumière’ spectacles of which this is probably the greatest. Every time watch, I am amazed at the creativity and technical accuracy of these artists of light. Enjoy the clips from this year’s festival.

 

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Modernism on a marshy coast

bh04

Having been born a westerner, to me the coast always meant towering cliffs and rocky outcrops with crashing waves or at least a decent swell. By contrast, the eastern coast of England is deeply uneventful, as the land (sometimes literally) slips apologetically into the sea. On this side of the country, you have to go to Yorkshire before anything more dramatic happens. I recall looking at maps of the country as a child, and thinking that the bit of the coastline north of London looked particularly untidy, before it sorts itself out north of Ipswich into the distinctive bulge of East Anglia.

The sea (well, the nearest salty inlet) is a mere ten miles from my home, and yet much of Essex feels distinctly un-coastal. By a strange fluke of geography, the country actually wraps itself around its coast, so that you can travel a good forty road miles, approach the coast and find yourself looking across at a place not very far from where you started. But if you add up the total length of the salt marshes, inlets and creeks, it adds up to the longest (salt-water) coastline of any county in England.

It’s a chaotic landscape of salt marsh, mud flat and low-lying islands, some of which can be reached by causeways at low tide. It’s also one that human activity has done its very best to mess up further, with a legacy of jerry-building extending from some of the earlier fishermen’s sheds by way of oil refineries to acres of sprawling mobile home camps clamped desperately around little apologies for beaches, which for most of the time lead you not so much to water as vast expanses of mud. The recent addition of off-shore wind-farms tames the scene further, though I must admit an admiration for those graceful and slightly surreal structures, which I think are at least an improvement on Shell Haven refinery. I suppose if you grew up in Tower Hamlets, it’s a welcome release. Yet, over the years I have come to appreciate that it does have a rather melancholy atmosphere of its own.

bw01
The Blackwater estuary at low tide

 

And it does yield bounty, even if one might have reservations about the water-quality of the North Sea. Mersea Island near Colchester has been the source of oysters since Roman times, while further south, Maldon’s marshes are home to a particularly fine sea salt. The area is internationally recognised as a sea-bird sanctuary, and I have seen seals just off the beach at Walton on the Naze.

I do wish, however that more had been done to prevent the particularly sad kind of sprawl that I mentioned earlier: it takes a lot to see even a little of the picturesque in the rows of caravans, and blingy housing estates. So it was pleasing yesterday to walk out past Maldon to the beginnings of open coastline on the way to Goldhanger. A cold wind was blowing in off the sea (special delivery from Norway) so it was wrap-up-warm weather. We (two former colleagues and I) headed for what passes as a headland where a set of rather unusual-looking structures could be seen, and not far from where we knew there was one of the excellent Tiptree Tea Shops. These have spread in recent years to become a much-appreciated highlight of the more visit-able places in this ambivalent county. They are the creation of another eminent local concern, Wilkin Jams of Tiptree (by Royal Appointment), and they serve excellent lunches, cakes and cream teas.

The structures, built by Osea Leisure Park, turned out to be a modern take on traditional Indian Ocean beach hut no less, a line of ten in contrasting pastels, perched on stilts and just 20cm above the water at high tide. They were designed to have minimal impact on the protected beach beneath. It’s pleasing to see some genuinely innovative, high quality architecture being put into such a place – even if the cost of purchasing one, around £25,000, means it’s hardly a democratic gesture…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The nearby tea room offered a refuge from the wind, and served up warm drinks and cakes before our return to the cars at Heybridge Basin. Looked at from the right angle, it could almost have been somewhere much more romantic, even a little Arthur Ransome. Just shows what a little imagination can do to the way humans intervene in even relatively mundane places.

ts01
The Osea View tea room

https://www.tiptree.com/index.php/tiptree-tea-rooms/locations.html

Food, Travel

If dinner’s good, life is good.

BPC

A wet Wednesday afternoon in Bournemouth. The day was being frustratingly spent almost failing to communicate with the elderly relative we were visiting in a nearby care home. (We eventually pinned the problem down to dead hearing-aid batteries, but it was hard work…) On top of two hours of rather tiresome cross-country travelling to make the visit, it was proving hard on my still-tender head.

We sought a breather in a local pizza restaurant which we knew, and just as we started to walk, the heavens opened. We reached the restaurant in its rather uninspiring side-street and sat there, the only people eating in, while the kitchen staff chatted away brightly in Italian; that was enough for things to start looking up. The guy doing the home-delivery runs was working on double, though. It’s a popular place.

A couple of glasses of decent red arrived, followed by a bowl of olives and eventually the excellent wood-oven pizzas we had been looking forward to. I’ve eaten enough pizzas in my life, including all over Italy, to know when I’m getting a good one; forget the chains (Pizza Express probably excepted) – there is nothing like a properly-made, wood-cooked pizza. You need a puffy, springy base, a well-judged topping, and that unmistakeable wood-charred flavour.

Just as we started to eat, the door opened and a dark-skinned man wearing a Ryan Air crew tabard entered. He spoke to the chefs in Italian and proceeded to check out the quality of their dough. He was a good way from the airport, so we assumed he has sought the place out deliberately while on an away shift. All seemed to meet his approval, and he eventually went away with his pizza in a box.

We followed the pizzas with a dollop of home-made tiramisu and espresso. The day was looking much better and we returned to the fray at the care home in much higher spirits. If you know that you are going to eat well, then most things are manageable. We have a collection of such hide-aways around this and other countries, and we like to return to them when we can. Nothing pretentious or expensive, just decent honest food that knocks spots off the ubiquitous chains. All just a matter of a little discrimination and detective-work.

I don’t know what Brexiteers find so abhorrent about having other nationals in our midst. The musical patter of Italian, and the serendipitous cameo of a culture that is still discriminating enough to check out the quality of the dough in a takeaway pizza brought a little Italian sun into an otherwise dank and difficult September afternoon. Diversity is fine by me – bring it on!

http://bournemouthpizza.co.uk/

(usual disclaimer)

BPC2

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

Missed again – or why Britain’s public transport lags behind its neighbours’

657_Electrification_of_Ardwick_Depot__Stabling_and_fuelling_roads_from_eastern_end_looking_west

In 2012, the government announced the largest investment in railway electrification since the 1970s.  Lines to Bristol and South Wales, Sheffield and the East Midlands, and across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, and from Southampton to the Midlands were all due to be wired. We were told that it would bring journey savings, efficiency gains, environmental gains, removal of freight from the roads, and more – all of which in technical terms is true.

Last week, the same party scrapped most of the schemes due to cost over-runs on the one that has actually got underway between London and Bristol. We are now told we don’t need electric trains and the ‘visual intrusion’ they bring. They can’t both be right.

Why does this county so often fail in matters of national investment? By comparison, virtually all of the French, German and Italian main line networks have been electric for decades – and in Switzerland the coverage is 100% – even down to rural branch lines. Then there is the money that has already been wasted raising bridges and tunnels for wires that will not now appear, and designs for trains whose performance will be compromised from the start by the need to carry round heavy diesel engines.

What the government never admits is that the problem here is of its own making: by privatising the railways, a great deal of technical expertise has been lost: private franchise holders are not interested in this kind of long-term investment, and much of the skill-base that was present under British Rail was simply pensioned off. Replacement expertise can be, and has been bought in – at a cost. The new infrastructure was developed in Switzerland – but as with all private ventures, the costs of the profit motive, delay compensation and legal complexity ratchet up overall costs and have resulted in a huge cost-overrun on the Great Western scheme even before it is finished.

The other unspoken matter, I suspect, is the imminent loss of EU moneys that would have funded some of the work under the Trans-European Network programme and for instance, the follow-on electrification of suburban lines in the Welsh Valleys, which will presumably not now happen either. In the past few years, schemes in this country have been funded to the tune of €43 million by the E.U. Also note that it is the provinces that are going to lose out yet again – I wonder whether the same decision would have been taken for London’s network. The graph below shows per capita investment by English region in public transport in 2016. It makes salutary viewing in that respect.

transport spending

A  fast, modern and efficient rail network is an essential piece of infrastructure for any nation, but yet again our masters have failed to grasp the opportunity to make a radical step forward – a valuable scheme torpedoed by short-term political expediency. Once more, this country is failing to deliver something than many of our neighbours have had for decades, and which will be all the more necessary to allow the British economy to compete when or if Brexit occurs. The contrast is notable between the fanfare with which the programme was launched and the way it was unceremoniously buried on the last day before the parliamentary recess: standard procedure for failed policies. Yet again, our sclerotic, indecisive political system will have wasted money planning but then failing to  deliver what a few years it told us we urgently needed.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Market Hall in Leicester

Leicester-Food-Hall-106
image: leicestermarket.co.uk

When I was a student in Leicester, I economised on food bills by hitting the local market at the end of a Saturday afternoon, when they were virtually giving the food away. On a recent visit, I was glad to see this hadn’t changed (1kilo of superb cherries for £1.20 anyone?)

One of the things that makes me proud of Britain is the ongoing renaissance of its major cities, and at last Leicester is getting its share. We are starting to see some of the vibrance of continental cities coming to the U.K., and my wife and I are mid-way through a programme of visiting them all to see what is happening.

Leicester was traditionally a city that went below the radar. In the Early 1980s when I lived there, it was pretty dowdy – but then, so were most British cities. The discovery of Richard III’s remains and the local soccer team’s rise to fame seems to have given new life to a place that always did have a buzz, thanks to its multi-ethnicity. The city also houses the National Space Centre, and an excellent steam railway on its doorstep.

We were particularly struck by the new indoor market that has replaced the gloomy 1970’s structure. I like the tensions created when contemporary architecture is juxtaposed with the old stuff, and all the more so when it is a working building rather than a trophy. In this case, the new hall sits beautifully alongside the 1850’s Grade II listed Corn Exchange. What’s more,  the old indoor market has been demolished to make way for a major new square in the heart of the old town.

Leicester has a lot of great Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and also a new theatre to replace the excellent but now-gone Haymarket – The Curve designed by Uruguyan architect Raphael Vinoly, which is leading the revival of another inner-city quarter. Well worth a visit.