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.

Opinion & Thought, Travel

An M25 for high speed trains?

HS4a schematic

Our last two trips on the continent were both by train. The first was to Lyon, the second to Basel via Strasbourg. In the past it has always been necessary to change trains in Paris, and using the RER (fast metro) with luggage was never the easiest of experiences. However, recent high-speed openings have changed the landscape. The trip to Lyon involved a twenty-minute wait at Lille Europe, which is just one hour from where we parked our car at Ebbsfleet, just off the M25. At Lille, we switched to a TGV duplex (double deck) which was heading for Marseille. The trip from Lille to Lyon was three hours, making a car-to-hotel time of a little under six hours, not very much longer than the time by air with all its attendant mucking around. The second trip was very similar, with a change in Lille onto a Strasbourg train again around about a three-hour direct time. Back in 2006, the last time I travelled to Strasbourg by train, it was four hours just from Paris.

What has made this possible is the completion of further high-speed rail in France, most particularly the extension east to Strasbourg. It seems to have prompted SNCF to re-cast its connections in Lille so that they are now useable by British travellers. The key section of track was built some time ago, which is the Paris by-pass, which means that trains can travel direct between provincial centres using this by-pass line as a hub-and-spoke network.

In my opinion, London desperately needs something similar. With the construction of High Speed 2 to Birmingham getting tentatively underway, the time to think about this is now. The original intention was to link the new line to the Channel Tunnel line under London, but this was abandoned due to the cost. Those making the decisions seemed incapable of conceiving that people from north of London might ever want to travel anywhere beyond our capital. As a result, people seeking a connection will need to make their way along the Euston Road and check in all over again at St. Pancras, which one estimate suggests could add two hours to the journey time from, for example Birmingham to Paris, thus rendering it utterly and hopelessly uncompetitive with air. One might have hoped that the extra millions spent to facilitate better connections with the entire north of Britain might have been worth it – but it seems not. Such is Whitehall bunker thinking.

At last, however, it seems as though there is a little creative thinking going on about the nation’s transport needs. It’s a pity it is coming from a private sector company rather than a forward-thinking State, but anything is better than nothing, and the company concerned is highly credible in the engineering and transport sector. A proposal has been tabled for a connecting line from HS1 to HS2 called HS4air. The name makes more sense when one remembers that HS3 is the putative trans-Pennine route and the new proposal will also link Heathrow and Gatwick with a high speed (fifteen-minute) shuttle, thus allowing them effectively to operate as one airport.

The line would re-use the longest straight on the existing railway in Britain, from Ashford to near Gatwick, whence it would tunnel under the airport and the North Downs before paralleling the M25 to Heathrow and HS2. It would cost about £10bn for the 140km line.

HS4air map

Personally, I had always envisaged a London by-pass paralleling the M25 north of London where it could link to the other main radial main lines, but in many ways this new proposal make better sense, and it would offer many parts of the provincial U.K. vastly improved access not only to the airports but potentially the continent too. We might even end up with something that looked like an emergent network.

This is the kind of thinking that has long been present on the continent – hence the possibility to those trips that I described above. Unfortunately, it is much rarer to see this kind of vision in the U.K. and it deserves to be taken seriously. It would be good to see some serious efforts being put into improving the options for those who live beyond London – but given that approval will presumably lie with Westminster, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Food, Travel

Harriet’s

 

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It sometimes seems as though aesthetic tastes are expected to be mutually exclusive, but this needn’t be so. For example, my tastes are resolutely modernist, but I am still perfectly capable of appreciating the ‘old stuff’. My only reservations are that the styles of the past are in effect dead, and while old buildings, for example, clearly endure into the present, there seems to be to me little point in replicating them when there are so many more opportunities offered by the styles and techniques of the present day. So what I really dislike is fake-old, pastiche attempts to recreate past styles that rarely work even when carefully done.
Harriet’s however, treads an admirable line between its relative youth and the ambience of a very glamorous yesterday.
This is a small chain of three tea rooms in Cambridge, Norwich and Bury St. Edmunds (in eastern England), the last of which is the original. Conceived in the mid-1990s and opened just after the millennium, Harriet’s revives the lost era of grand tea rooms. The Bury branch is by far the grandest, set in the neo-classical Cornhill buildings dating from around 1900, it has high ceilings, splendid chandeliers and often features live piano music. Unlike so many recreations, no detail has been spared: the marble table tops and the Thonet bentwood chairs are the real thing; the staff are appropriately turned out had have clearly been properly trained – and even the toilets are done out to the same high standard – always a good sign. The introduction of the usual modern cash-desk technology is very unobtrusive. Likewise, the food and drink on offer is of a high standard, the highlight perhaps being the very attractive macaroons.
However, what makes it most successful is that it does not feel like a pastiche, despite being less than twenty years old. What’s more, the populace of Bury seem to have made it their own, with queues for tables at weekends. Once inside, the ambience is, I assume very much what a grand early twentieth century tea room would have been – though I am also reminded of some the great cafes of the continent, such as the Cafe Central and Cafe Sacher in Vienna. The room hums with quiet conversation, and the place is enough of a spectacle to be able to carry this – there is nothing fake about the result – it has become a genuine ‘society’ spot in the centre of Bury.
In fact, the chief sadness is that so many of the original tea rooms were closed in Britain – had they not been, they might have represented the continuation into the present of a tradition similar to the cafe culture that has never died out on the continent – and for which the modern, themed chains that we mostly now have in the U.K. can only ever be the palest of imitations.

Harriets 04

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Seeing the urban light

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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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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)

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