To be frank, for the principal town of an attractive county, Ipswich is rather a disappointment. Having been a major port, it suffers from many of the post-industrial problems of much larger places: derelict land, low incomes and a workforce widely lacking many currently-marketable skills.
The town centre has some fine buildings, though it also suffers from more than its fair share of bland sixties and seventies development. The town was bombed during the second world war, and some of its inner areas seem never to have fully recovered.
The local authority seems aware of the difficulties and has made efforts to rebalance the town. It is an intractable problem: on the one hand, the local population has pressing immediate needs, and yet on the other, as many places have realised, the only real solution to urban decline is to try to attract new blood, hopefully in the form of high skill, high income arrivees, who will bring different lives and habits with them. But how to attract them to places that may not cater for their expectations?
The town centre has had several facelifts over the years, the latest of which seems to have improved some of its streetscapes – but there is only so much that can be achieved while those unappealing buildings remain… and the sad reality is, the local population does not much resemble the chic mannequins that populate the architects’ visualisations either in appearance or some of its behaviour. More Marseille than San Tropez…
Ipswich does, however, have one major ace: its waterfront, which for those interested in industrial archaeology, includes some iconic building such as the R&W Paul warehouses. I last visited the area maybe twenty years ago, when much of it was still semi-derelict, with just the early shoots of revival beginning to show. It was indeed starkly atmospheric, even near death.
In the meantime, a wholesale redevelopment has occurred, which is belatedly reaching its latter stages, after a stop-start experience following the 2008 financial crash, which hit a number of the developers hard. The aspirational role-model is not hard to see – a kind of Monaco or Cannes on the North Sea. A mix of renovation and new-build has created what I feel is a generally successful new quarter, with the planners’ habitual recipe of shops, restaurants and residential development. Some of the buildings are more successful than others (I do dislike post-modern re-interpretations of historic buildings, especially when the two sit cheek-by-jowl; it only devalues the real thing. The contemporary architecture, while uneven, is better). Fortunately, the decision was made to adopt modern street furniture rather than the fake Victoriana that was the default choice in early such schemes.
The fearless use of tall buildings echoes the old warehouses and grain silos, and has created an ‘amphitheatre’ with a skyline that successfully gives a sense of place in otherwise flat surroundings. The new University of Suffolk has also been lured to locate its campus on the waterfront, in the knowledge of a potential permanent supply of young for the bars and cafes and it has invested in reasonable examples of a building style that I fully expect in due course to become known as “University Modern”.
It is permanently high tide behind the inner harbour’s lock gates, which give out onto the Orwell estuary, a scenic ten-mile ria that stretches to the North Sea proper at Felixstowe. This means that the sleek yachts and cruisers that now populate the water need never sully their keels in the east coast mud… The still-working chandlers and marine estate agents lend an edge that means the area does not feel over-preserved.
If this were indeed Cannes or the south of France more generally, most of those units would be occupied by a mosaic of small independent traders, rather than the usual-suspect chain restaurant that normally invade such places in the U.K. and instantly turn what could be distinctiveness into just another sad high-street clone. Luckily, this has not entirely happened in Ipswich; while some of said chains are present, there also seem to be a number of local operations and the overall mix is reasonably successful.
Unfortunately, at present the waterfront remains disconnected from the town centre; while St Peter’s Street offers an interesting mix of independent shops, there is a tract of no-man’s-land of car parks, yards and indeterminate spaces that presumably were once home to a historic quarter, and really needs to be filled. There are some signs that this might be happening, but it is a large area and there is a long way to go. Hopefully it can be seen as an opportunity to create something genuinely characterful.
Our recent visit took place on a dull day in a disappointing August, when even the best imagination in the world could not make the climate look like the Riviera. However, in general, I think this area works; it doesn’t feel too contrived, and it is certainly a better use of this asset than the decaying wreck that I last saw. It has a more up-beat, and dare I say glossier, atmosphere than the rest of the town; in that, it seems surprisingly successful.
Coming decades will tell whether the area matures gracefully, or is allowed to go downhill again – all such areas tend to have hesitant gestations and can easily end up feeling permanently windswept and lost. It seems as though those in charge in Ipswich do have the right idea – maybe it is not in vain to hope that one day the county town may be a worthy centre for the rest of Suffolk. Cannes-do attitude needed…
After the somewhat underwhelming experience of Nottingham, we were still feeling the urge to be out and about and indulging in a little café life. So, on the spur of the moment, we hit the road last weekend and found it in…. Felixstowe.
Felixstowe is not a place you go to by accident; what’s more, its main reputation as the U.K.’s principal deep-sea container port quite possibly makes it not the kind of place you would expect to go to on purpose either. I had passed quickly through once a number of years ago – but more recently, my hairdresser, who is one of the cooler men I know, had commended it. Coming from a natty dresser who likes a glass of something chilled with his jazz, there had to be a reason why…
And so we discovered Baby Biarritz. Well, perhaps that’s a bit optimistic; Baby Bournemouth more like. I think it was the large villas on the clifftop that put both resorts in mind. It has the same restrained, slightly faded charm of the more tasteful better-known seaside resorts, today infused with a gentle hint of continent.
A little research revealed that Felixstowe indeed had form; it developed as an upmarket Edwardian coastal spa town complete with a steamer service from London – and thus it retains a legacy of rather grand old villas that have mostly withstood the redevelopment pressures of the larger resorts. Biarritz is known as the also-slightly-faded seaside hang-out of deposed European aristocracy: so much more discrete than Saint Tropez… Felixstowe had Wallis Simpson, who lay low here for some months in 1936 in a mansion she considered far too small, awaiting the divorce that would allow her to marry the abdicating Edward VIII. And in 1891, Empress Augusta Viktoria of Germany spent most of the summer here, in between visiting her mother-in-law the Queen in London. I said it had form…
Based on my first visit’s impressions, we had not expected to do more than cruise through on the way somewhere more interesting. But in the event, we felt the urge to park up and look closer. I find myself increasingly attracted to the laid-back atmosphere of the coast; someone once said that it is the only place where the British ever even marginally relax their buttoned-upness. You find slightly less prim, more exotic planting, a greater prevalence of picture windows and balconies than elsewhere – and despite the general coolness of the climate, the coastal light and vistas do lend something to this most understated of countries… But I am still repelled by typical kiss-me-quick bucket-and-spadeness, much preferring the style of French and Italian resorts. We loved Viareggio when we visited – and I have fond memories of Dieppe on the Cote d’Opale – whose northern French climate is not so markedly better than ours. But what they do with their resorts most definitely is…
In Felixstowe’s case, it has the distinct advantage of being the only East Anglian resort to face south. Combined with a sloping cliff that relieves it of the flatness of most of its neighbours, it has a microclimate that the Edwardians exploited to create some appealing coastal gardens, recently restored. On a distinctly cool early August day, it was enough to lend a warmth that could have been somewhere distinctly more balmy…
British seaside resorts have had a rough half-century – ever since the Brits discovered they could go to Spain. But there are signs that some are rising to the challenge, no doubt helped this year by the travel restrictions. While there is not much we can do about the climate except wait for global warming, there are signs that Felixstowe at least is raising its game. Perhaps the very fact that it lies below the radar of the masses helps, as no doubt does the presence a little further up the coast of the much more chichi Suffolk towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold. Unlike those, however, which are very much pebbles, fishing boats and hearty doses of Benjamin Britten with everything, Felixstowe has rather more of that faded Riviera feel; at least enough to make it worth the thirty-five-mile drive, bypassing the distinctly mixed delights of Clacton and Frinton on the way…
The container port at the mouth of the Orwell is dredged to 15 metres, which allows it to accommodate the largest container carriers in the world; it’s the eight busiest port in Europe and nearly half all UK containerised imports pass through it. Facing Rotterdam across the southern North Sea probably helps. As a result, it has excellent transport connections. The southern horizon is dominated by a dozen gantry cranes, which are impressive enough not to be the complete eyesore that one might expect. The coming and going of the huge ships, not to mention the passenger service from nearby Harwich to Hook of Holland, adds interest.
The town itself is a mixed bag of low-end chains but with some more interesting independents sprinkled in; it seems to be making efforts, as I said, to raise its game – the main street is well enough cared for compared with many of its peers. It does have the expected amusement arcades and other trashiness, but the north end of the town is a rather different matter, with the cliff gardens, and the more imposing villas. What’s more, some pleasing eateries have moved in, with more on the way, thus addressing one of the regular downsides of the British seaside experience. That, and a shipload of imported palm trees, made for a pleasing, escapist afternoon, all the more so for being unexpected.
The renowned East Anglian brewers Adnams have opened a brasserie on the sea front; another similar venture is due to open soon. But we opted for Alba Chiara, a surprisingly good Italian restaurant, also a new arrival, and set up in an appealing building that had seen a previous life as a chips and burger bar. We got the better deal: anywhere that makes its carbonara with guanciale and pecorino knows what it is doing; nicely seaside-y and without being overly themed, it is a pleasant spot with great sea views. Later, we discovered that the owners are indeed Italian and escapees from one of our favourite restaurants elsewhere in the region. Full marks.
The promenade is worth a stroll; the beach is partly sandy, and a definite rise in the quality of kiosks is visible – several were selling “gelato” from proper scoop-chillers; a big improvement on the traditional lolly-on-a-stick. And then, joy of joys, we found one that was selling Mövenpick ice-cream: quite a rarity anywhere in the U.K., let alone at a lesser-known small resort like this. At the south end of the town, Beach Street Felixstowe is another recent addition: a Camden-style collection of independent traders, all housed in redundant shipping containers. We didn’t get far enough to check this in person, but it looks intriguing.
We rounded the afternoon off with a prowl around some of the cliff-top residential streets: a mix of villa and apartment blocks, several which have been recently renovated and (later research showed) commanding quite steep figures… And a couple of newly built contemporary additions, with some attractive looking balconies.
It’s not unusual to overlook the attractions of one’s near-region. Daily life tends to get in the way of exploring as thoroughly as one should – particularly when prejudice gets in the way. In this case, it was a good decision to take the risk; some of my family roots are in Dorset, and Bournemouth has always been – climatically, topographically and architecturally – my benchmark for the British seaside. But now we know that we at least have Baby Bournemouth, if not Baby Biarritz, much closer at hand…
Cities, according to Ben Wilson in Metropolis, his impressive new book, are humanity’s greatest invention. The close interaction between many thousands of human lives, and their messy, continuous cycle of decline and renewal are the heartbeat of human civilisation. Cities are where the heights of human sophistication are found – and also the depths of its failure.
A day’s flânerie in Nottingham recently provided ample evidence of this. Almost eighteen months after our last city trip, we finally took another. My wife’s new employer is based in the city, and she needed to show her face; I mostly went along as chauffeur to take the strain of the 270-mile round car trip. But it also gave me the chance of a day walking a city I last visited as a student in 1986.
The point of flânerie is as much the thinking one does as the shoe leather one wears through – and in about 13km around the city centre, there was plenty of both. It’s about observing city life in all its aspects from a slightly detached, even philosophical viewpoint; no surprise that it’s a French invention rather than a British. My academic interest in urban geography lends itself too, and always provides another reason to investigate and ponder, even (or perhaps especially) the nuts-and-bolts of the city that visitors and shoppers are not supposed to see. Wilson contends, as do I, that the British (and Americans) don’t really ‘do’ urbanism – not in the way continental Europeans do. Their instinct is to head for the cleaner air, quiet and privacy of the suburbs, which size-for-size sprawl far further in this country than in their continental equivalents where higher-density living does not only have extreme social connotations of penthouses and slums that it does here.
All three East Midlands cities (Leicester, Nottingham and Derby) are largely products of the rapid industrial expansion of pre-Victorian market towns through textiles and engineering. All three have signs of the decaying aftermath of their boom times: swathes of red-brick Victoriana of varying quality, areas of post-industrial dereliction, and vast tracts of terraces and bland, early 20th Century suburbs. But they never quite managed to acquire the full, high Victorian civic and cultural grandeur of their larger equivalents further north and west, let alone rival those of the continent, and conventionally are thought of as, well, rather dull.
Sadly, despite my best efforts, I still struggled to like Nottingham; despite its claim to be the principal of the three cities (population 330,000; metropolitan area 770,000), it feels to me like a missed opportunity. Leicester, for my money, is making far more of its modest assets.
Having left my wife at her workplace, I headed for the city centre; it was pleasant to stroll down a wide, tree-lined pavement for the first time in a while, as the city began its day. Unsurprisingly, there have been significant interventions in the time since I was last there; the most successful by far is the introduction of a tram system that both carries large numbers and lends animation to some of the streets. I wonder whether transport planners give consideration to the theatrical potential of their proposed networks; they should. Nottingham has got this right: the trams descent a steep hill before sweeping dramatically around into the main market square, in front of the imposing City Hall.
The square itself has been given new paving and fountains, and ought to be a grand civic space with few equals in provincial Britain. But it somehow misses the mark. I suppose I need to allow for the impact of Covid: all day long, the city had a slightly under-populated feel. While this made proceedings more comfortable, it also meant the absence of ‘buzz’. There are many empty premises, proportionately far more that in my local town, which seems to have survived lockdown relatively unscathed. The closure of Debenhams department stores has left holes in town centres across the country, but I would still have thought that the larger cities had more resilience to weather the storm than smaller centres. In Nottingham’s case, the boarded-up prime site is a large hole indeed.
I suppose I shouldn’t completely blame the city either, for the grubbiness. Local authorities in the U.K. have been so starved of funds that I suspect they simply can’t afford the daily cleaning that one sees in, for example, French cities. But it makes a noticeable difference when the dressed stone is not covered in the stains of takeaway food spills and worse…
A greater ‘miss’ is the lack of imaginative planting: at the height of an admittedly cool summer, the flowers should have been at their best – but the square mostly contained a selection of rather unkempt shrubs, only the display of cannas along the balcony of the city hall really making the grade. It could all have so much more flair…
The geographer in me seeks to assess the underlying socio-economic health of places I visit. Again, Covid may well be affecting the balance: the well-healed professional types are the most likely to be safely working from home, while the low-paid and less-fortunate were perhaps more likely still to be frequenting the city in person; it certainly seemed this way in the first part of the day. The numerous police patrols did not augur well, and I witnessed two altercations in the streets that morning…
For all my appreciation of life’s niceties, I am not an elitist. While the presence of a ‘top end’ is perhaps the most visible indicator of a city’s economic health, I dislike the exclusivity that it can create; cities need to be a mix, and good quality environments and opportunities should be available to all. But it is a two-way street: I am equally bemused by Britons’ inability to ‘inhabit’ their cities in the way the continentals do. This is not a product of wealth, so much as civic attitudes – and for all there were children splashing in the fountains, sadly I saw many people who seemed not to be treating their city centre particularly well, let alone with joy or pride. For many Britons, the city is a purely functional thing…
Once again, I suspect that this is partly a matter bigger than individuals: opportunity and conditioning matter. Like nearly every British town and city, Nottingham has become little more than a huge retail machine for the benefit of the same mainstream chains found across the nation. Meanwhile, I look for the presence and variety of independent shops; in most of the city centre, there were few of note. Nottingham has a reputation as a great shopping destination; I suppose it might be – if your idea of ‘great’ is large branches of all the predictable chains and fast-food outlets that appear everywhere… Expectations and perspectives also matter; the sense of the city as a proud, civic entity seems lacking.
Feeling rather dejected, I pushed on into the more peripheral parts of the centre, and here, things started to improve somewhat. Having done my homework, I knew where I was going – but the experience was still underwhelming: the billed “bijou cafés” in the city’s finest arcade, where I had planned to find an espresso, turned out to be a branch of Patisserie Valerie; alright as far as it goes – but hardly outstanding or distinctive. Again, it all depends on expectations – and mine have been tuned over the years by the superior experience of too many continental cities…
The Lace Market area is somewhat more successful: tucked away in the older part of the centre, it is home to the National Justice Museum, slightly more choice shops, numerous professional services and buildings of indeterminate use, some rather fine. There I found a few more interesting premises, not to mention a rather different type of inhabitant – but still relatively few of the really interesting outlets one might expect in a large city. Precious little, for example, by way of independent food or clothes shops – or even evidence of where they might previously have been.
In the early Seventies, Nottingham received some of this country’s earliest indoor shopping malls: the Victoria Centre, built on the remains of one of the country’s most atmospheric Victorian railway stations – but it is the other, the Broadmarsh Centre – which has recently made headlines. A vast, brutalist bunker between the remaining railway station and the centre, pre-pandemic it was being bulldozed – when the developer went bankrupt. It has been left, part-replaced, part ruin and work has only just resumed.
The whole area to the south of the centre is being rebuilt; the billboards suggest a much-improved environment will result, but still dominated by large-scale retail and commerce. The addition of a new central library and bus station is laudable – but whether this new generation of comprehensive redevelopment will prove superior to its predecessor, only time will tell. Trying again to be charitable, we perhaps take too much for granted in a long storyline here: the lifetimes of city buildings are measured in decades or centuries. We are only just getting round to replacing the disasters that too often were thrown up in the Sixties and Seventies just to fill the bomb sites created in the Forties… Many cities right across Europe suffered the same fate – though the success of the recovery was most certainly not the same everywhere…
Post-Covid, there is a debate in the city as to whether more retail capacity is still the best use for this site. The outcome is awaited, with a new city park having been mooted as an alternative. Again, time will tell, but loosening the dominance of big retail in the urban mix need not inevitably be a bad thing.
I eventually came upon two areas that proved the point: Hockley lies to the east of the city centre and is described as the city’s bohemian quarter. Well, I’ve certainly seen substantially more bohemian than this, but the narrow streets of this area are nonetheless occupied by precisely the independent shops and cafes that are so conspicuously absent in the rest of the city centre – and the vitality of the area did indeed prove the point.
After lunch with my wife’s new colleagues, I headed for the second: Nottingham Contemporary, an externally unprepossessing but nonetheless internally convincing modern art gallery. A pleasant hour was spent mooching around its three exhibitions and sitting out a passing rainstorm with a hot chocolate in an attractive (and once again in-house) café. I dwelt on the fact that five decades ago, express trains ran through this very spot on their way into the now-vanished Victoria Station: another building that the city would have done well to keep, rather than replace with a concrete bunker. Hopefully, we know better these days. One of my fellow rain-refugees was thinking the same, and a good conversation followed…
As I said, I wanted to like Nottingham; there is little that pleases me more than time spent in a lively and attractive city centre. But even allowing for Covid, Nottingham just isn’t there yet. There is a lot of redevelopment going on – but even more needed to the fabric of the historic city, much of which is still rather shabby compared with that in other city centres. Maybe it will be better in another decade, but what has taken so long? I can accept that Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow’s needs were more pressing – but there is in any case, only so much that physical renewal can do, no matter how much money is available. What is needed is ambition, imagination and flair – things that can lift rather predictable urban renewal into a genuinely vibrant and characterful place. It’s needed not only from the city leaders, but also by the regular citizens who populate the city day in day out. The clone-shopping experience does not encourage this, but nor does the willing complicity of the junk-food-and-trainers majority, which the architects’ drawings never show.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Nottingham with the greatest European cities – but I have seen plenty of second-division equivalents on the continent that far outstrip it – Montpellier in France, for example is a similar size, even if its enviable climate gives it a head start… The problem, I suspect, is that really successful cities are cosmopolitan and even sophisticated – things the British, instinctively, as a nation are not.
Even at their Victorian height, British cities were about imperial bombast – but also mass squalor, the legacy of which is still with us. Nottingham is trying – but I’m still not sure most British cities really ‘get’ vibrant, spontaneous, democratic urbanism any more than they ever did, which is why so many of their more self-conscious efforts never really come off. It will be interesting to see what future visits reveal…
It is hardy news that the British national sense of self has taken a battering in the past half-decade – but in fact, the decline has been going on for far longer than that. It is deeply ironic that the political party that claims to represent most strongly the national sentiment has been most instrumental in demolishing many of the physical expressions of that nationhood, which spoke to people of a coherent sense of community no matter where they happened to live.
A nation exists to a significant extent in the minds of those who experience it; symbolism is important for fostering a sense of common identity and belonging. That in turn is important for creating familiarity with, and loyalty to, a national identity in a way that can embrace the multiple individual identities and ways of life that co-exist in any nation. Done well, they can become a source of shared pride in the institutions that we all use.
I wonder if the politicians who have spent the last four decades fragmenting and privatising most of the key institutions of this country realised what they were dismantling; not only was the disposal of the “family silver” often done at a huge mark-down, but in the process, many of the institutions that embodied the national identity of this country were abolished. We lost a sense of national infrastructure, and a significant part of our sense of cohesion as a result. I am by no means a nationalist by inclination, but that does not prevent me from regretting the way in which this nation’s symbolic institutions have been destroyed in a way that others have not permitted. Having a national “sense of self” need not be incompatible with internationalism, even if some see it otherwise: what I would like to feel about this country is that it can look its peers in the eye as equals, neither better nor worse than they.
This is not about the economic performance of sometimes-inefficient state enterprises, though experience has shown that their private replacements have been only a patchy improvement at best – but the fact that in breaking them up, an important intangible quality of nationhood was also lost. It is perhaps telling that the only one that remains reasonably intact, the NHS, has increasingly become a focus for precisely such national pride.
The infrastructure of a nation needs to stand for more than shallow commercialism; it is a statement of confidence and pride in that nation. It also represents one of the relatively few ways in which citizens can interact directly with the machinery of the State. As such, I have always felt that things like hospitals, schools, post offices and railway stations merited the best ‘identities’ that could be devised: national ikons of sorts.
If that sounds bizarre to British ears, then I can only suggest that we have become so used to seeing such interactions as a simple economic race to the bottom, that we no longer perceive the more symbolic value of belonging that can be a part of them.
Unfortunately, the organs of the British state were run down for years before they were abolished; their supposed inefficiencies were hardly surprising given the low and intermittent nature of their funding. Even in our small town of 5000, the local post office was a civic space; sadly, in its latter years it was neglected to a point of semi-decrepitude, and then replaced by a ‘position’ on the counter of a local convenience store. True to name, its extended hours are indeed convenient – but the loss of civic pride and focus was nonetheless the price we paid. Across the nation, Post Offices have been dumbed down until their civic function was all but unnoticeable.
Another major expression of this idea is the national rail network – but a quarter of a century after it too was privatised, dismantled and fragmented, it seems there is finally hope of a better future. The recent Williams-Shapps report seems to have accepted that fragmentation was a mistake, and that there is a need to re-establish a coherent, national institution.
There has already been plenty of criticism from both left and right; for some, nothing short of full renationalisation will do, while for others, anything that impedes red-blooded commercial competition is anathema. There is plenty of detail to be worked out in the next couple of years, but what matters to me is the fact that we may get a unified national institution back. And that ought to be good for the nation’s sense of self, in the way that Scotrail has become an emblem north of the border.
I’m not hung up on who ultimately runs such institutions and am not unsympathetic to the suggestion that commercial innovation is not something the State does well on its own; maybe there is indeed a place for partnership with the private sector. But I am most definitely unsympathetic to the notion that communal aspects of the State’s identity and purpose should be run solely has hard-driven commercial operations – not least because they have little or no time for the more symbolic values mentioned above. The establishment of a national co-ordinating body (even one with the naff “Great” on the front of the obvious British Railways) is a recognition that railways are inherently an integrated network, whose purpose is more societal than commercial.
If they get the branding and wider planning right, in due course we may end up with a national carrier to be as proud of as the Swiss are of theirs. The signs are again promising: the retention and up-dating of the classic double arrow symbol and the re-adoption of the Rail Alphabet font. Yes, these are seemingly-superficial aspects of a much more profound restructuring – but they can hopefully become the “shop window” for what could become a matter of national pride. I just hope that the final designs are as sleek and forward-looking as the best continental equivalents, and not some horrible, fake-heritage return to the “golden age of the Big Four” pre 1947, or some bombastic confection that majors on in-your-face Union Jacks. There are more subtle ways – but on this, I am less confident…
The key things needed are adequate funding, long-term certainty and operational freedom; if those are delivered, it will indeed be progress in this short-termist nation. The signs are surprisingly good – we now need to see them converted into practice, with simpler ticketing, more coherent timetables and trains designed for quality not capacity-maximisation. Whether the private sector will be sufficiently interested in fixed-profit concessions remains to be seen, though it presently seems they will: after the Covid bail-outs, they are in no position to argue.
Equally, it should be made impossible for them to boost their profits by cost-cutting, which is inevitably reflected in the quality of the service. I am encouraged to see this government (which I mostly despise) accepting that state oversight of state assets is a desirable thing, in the name of public service. I think that is a more major shift in mindset than has yet been realised, and it would be good to see it extended to other sectors. Covid has made clear the necessity of good public infrastructure, and the limits of the commercial sector for providing it. If a sweet spot can be found whereby private-sector skills are harnessed for the public good, in return for a reasonable payment, that is indeed very encouraging, and I think ideologically acceptable.
The key thing is that the public interest (for which read the state) that should be calling the shots, not opportunist private profiteers. That includes valuing the more symbolic aspects of national life that have been ignored for far too long: when I am moving around the country, I want to feel as though I am in the care of the State in which I travel, not just a figure on a private company’s spreadsheet.
I’ve always liked Leicester – one of the UK’s rather under-rated cities. My maternal grandparents lived about 12 miles from it, and a day out to the city was an exciting treat for a small child more used to a rather dull west-country town. In those days, the city retained the last faded elements of its Edwardian grandeur, though the scars of declining industry were all around, and a particular memory is the gaunt and weed-infested approach to what I now know was the Great Central Railway station, its signals still standing, awaiting a train that was never to come. I remember too, the ages spent waiting in The Midland Educational, a grand old bookshop and stationer’s on Market Street while my mother browsed what seemed like the entire shop…
More than a decade later, I visited again while searching for a degree course, and felt a surprising sense of ‘home’ – though those early memories were probably too general to be much of the cause. As cities go, Leicester is just quite homely. And so a second relationship with the city commenced, extending for a year after graduation, before I moved east for a teaching course. By the early eighties, like most British cities it was feeling rather tired, though the first tentative shoots of rebirth were even then appearing, and there was still plenty to appeal to us small-town students.
I go back from time to time, most recently a week ago. While perhaps not as glossy as the reborn Manchester or Leeds, Leicester has recaptured some of its civic pride. There has been a boom at the two universities, while the retail centre has been expanded with several new malls and the reworking of the historic centre as the “Leicester Lanes” (though I do wish that all and sundry were not now jumping on this Brighton-originated moniker…) There are plenty of small independent shops and an excellent selection of eateries. The area around the distinctly modest cathedral has also been upgraded, thanks to moneys humped in on the back – so to speak – of the Richard III discovery – and the hideous seventies monstrosity that was the indoor market has been demolished to create a new public square. The outdoor covered market remains – reputedly the largest in Europe, with a smart contemporary extension providing new room for fish, meats and cheeses.
We parked near the University and walked into the centre down New Walk, a pedestrian promenade created in Georgian times to link the city to the swankier new suburbs to the south, and still lined with grand buildings. There is much fine Victorian architecture in the centre, including the original Thomas Cook building, with its frieze of Cook’s first ever excursion from Leicester to Loughbrough. There are several fine art deco facades, and a number of early arcades, though it is often necessary to look up, as not all of the modern shop fronts are particularly sympathetic – something that needs rethinking.
The Townhall Square is another fine example of Victorian civic building, which I feel could still have slightly more made of it.
We had an excellent lunch in a small Italian trattoria, a chance find tucked away down an unpromising side street , and we also found time to visit Queen’s Road and Allandale Road, two of the more distinctive areas of the Victorian suburbs, the former slightly studenty-bohemian, and the latter now the hang-out of the local chi-chi set.
Having visited Lille a month earlier, this was an interesting opportunity to compare former industrial cities in two countries. Lille is considerably larger, and considerably more stylish – but Leicester can hold its own, in a rather more low-key way. I tend to find Victorian and Edwardian architecture bombastic and overblown – but there is no denying the grandeur of it. Given that so much of the earlier quarters of many British industrial cities have been lost, at least it provides a civic presence, which at long last is being enhanced rather than further spoiled by some imaginative contemporary additions.
The British still seem to lack the creative flair that really give some of the re-imagined continental cities their sophistication – but at least we are heading in the right direction. *Ratae Corieltauvorum
Geography still suffers from an image problem. It has never had glamorous TV presenters or highbrow authors to make its case as has, for example, history. And yet, as one of the few books to buck the trend shows, History is the prisoner of Geography. What happens in places is, fundamentally, dictated by the spatial configurations of those places.
For better or worse, Brexit has prompted an increased focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK – something that I felt had largely been put to bed by the early 1990s as free market economics (and in my view the Single Market) provided at least the veneer of a much more successful country. As I worried at the time, it was merely papering over cracks that have been cruelly exposed again in the last fifteen years.
And yet we seem not to learn the lessons of Geography. British people widely seem to have almost as little real appreciation of the lump of rock they inhabit in the eastern Atlantic, as they do of the continent next door. At present, this is particularly apparent in the discussions about regional disparities and the role that new transport infrastructure may have in addressing it. Yet even the politicians seem not to have noticed that history is littered with initiatives to solve this particular problem, as though it is nothing more than a slight political oversight, rather than the more enduring forces of geography that they are dealing with.
So here is a brief explanation.
The British Isles are not “an” island – nor just two – but about 6000 – of which about 130 are inhabited.
Many of those islands are highly indented in shape. Great Britain alone has a coastline of around 17,800km (setting aside the controversy about how this is calculated). It has an area of just under 210,000 km². The Hausdoff Dimension for the island is a high 1.25 – in other words, there are lots of separate, sticky-out bits into the sea, on the way to nowhere.
This means that useful distances between places are often a lot longer than they appear. For example, Pembroke to Penzance is 175km as the crow flies, but 500km in human travel terms. From my home, Dover is about 90km away in a straight line but double that by the shortest road. In practical terms, this means that regional economies that in a country of a more consolidated shape would be able to interact, are often barely able to.
In addition, Britain’s position on the margin of a vast ocean means that there are few reasons to go to, let alone beyond those outlying places in order, for example, to reach other countries. Italy suffers from a similar peninsularity problem, but at least one can head to the Balkans or North Africa from the extreme south. There are very few places to go from northern Scotland. So they remain culs de sac.
As a result, many of Britain’s regions are remote, underpopulated and underdeveloped – for example, the further south-west, west Wales, and progressively, the whole of the north.
The shape of the island naturally dictates that routes from the extremes all converge in south east England. London is not where it is by accident.
While the country’s topography is not as challenging as say Italy’s, when combined with the indentation, it still presents problems. Those radial routes manage to cross lowland England without too many problems – but they are then divided from each other by ranges like the Pennines and the Welsh uplands. This makes travel to London easy, but cross-country travel much more difficult. There is only one proper East-West motorway between the M4 (London to Bristol) and M8 in Scotland.
Equally, linear geographies make the emergence of parallel routes more difficult – there is nothing approaching the ‘net’ of motorways seen in Germany and Benelux, thus focusing traffic – and hence congestion – on a few routes. See the maps below (though note that some British dual carriageways not shown would almost be considered motorways on the continent). There is still no direct continuous dual carriageway between the English and Scottish capitals, nor along the south coast.
The same shape only gives rise to one major non-London axis, from south-west to north-east – but this was historically neglected by transport companies that were much more interested in serving London. It also has to dodge or cross many of those ridges of upland.
Recent history has not helped either: when Britain was the world’s workshop, it was as easy to dock a ship at Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow as London. This was aided by the fact that the hinterlands of those cities produced goods (cotton, wool, steel) for which wet, hilly terrain was a positive advantage when it came power sources and raw materials. Nowadays, such areas are perhaps less attractive. In many ways, the population distribution of the UK is a relic of 150 years ago. If you were planning a new city today, you would probably not choose Glasgow or even Newcastle as the location. The large populations of northern England and central Scotland are marooned in places which in geographical terms have little competitive advantage – and lots of disadvantages.
The increasing links between the UK and the continent have placed the regions at an ever greater disadvantage. Any trade or travel between them and the continent encounters the London region as a major blockage, in both practical and economic terms. And coming the other way, too much investment gets as far as London – but no further.
This has not been helped by policies that have privileged the London region at the expense of the rest. In simple terms, the UK has focused development in the most favoured areas and abandoned the outlying ones. Many countries would use infrastructure to do exactly the opposite. But regional services through the Channel Tunnel never got off the ground – cancelled due to low predicted demand – even though there was equally low demand for train services from London to Paris before the tunnel opened. Quite apart from the practical impact, the effects on provincial perceptions of ‘Europe’ would have been great.
A lot of current discussion centres on, for example, whether the country needs High Speed Two – or whether the money would be better spent linking the northern cities. This is to miss the point: we need both. The fact that the cost is now so enormous is the result of decades of failure to address the problem. We are half a century behind the French, for example, in building high speed rail lines.
Too often, they are still seen as discrete projects, rather than as an integrated network. It seems to have been too much to expect High Speeds One (to the Tunnel) and Two (to the north) to be linked together, for instance. It was also too much to expect Crossrail to be linked into HS1, or to be used to provide regional services from East to West across southern England, rather than a simple commuter shuttle for London.
High Speed Three (Liverpool to Hull) makes most sense if it is linked into HS2 in Manchester and Leeds – it is the overall connectivity that is important, and would make the projects both more cost-effective and user-friendly. It would also reduce the risk of HS2 simply sucking more growth into London. And the option of building it from Plymouth to Edinburgh to link almost all regional centres to provide a counter-balance to London seems never even to have been considered – despite the fact that that route could have been built with money saved from expensive construction in the London area.
An imaginative private sector proposal to link HS 1 and 2 via Heathrow and Gatwick has apparently been rejected even before the drawing board (too many Tory seats in the way?)
All of these things are entirely within the ability of this country to solve – or would have been, had they not been neglected for so long that the cost is now enormous. The real problem has been a lack of understanding or foresight – of the benefits of joined-up thinking in particular. And that is perhaps the most British failing of all.
“Don’t be ridiculous: European is what I am when I don’t want to be British!” She had form, too, the woman who said this to me some years ago – as she divided her time between Sussex and Paris.
I’ve always felt “European” ought to be something Europeans do at home, though, not just when they’re playing away. But there is no doubt about it, even a quick shot of “continental” does wonders – which is why we had planned to take advantage of Eurostar’s cheap anniversary tickets for a post-Christmas day in Lille. This time, however, it was tinged with notes of both sadness and defiance: our day was to be our last blow-out as EU citizens – but also an act of defiance that the European life will go on regardless. Here’s a photo report.
Crawling out of bed at 06h00 on a Saturday in January is not to be recommended – but an early train to London (50 minutes) and a quick hop to St Pancras saw us ready for a departure around 09h00. It could all be so much quicker, of course, were it not for the paranoia that still treats Anglo-French travel as though it is a trip to the moon…
That aside, we had an excellent day in Lille. I have been countless times and know the place pretty well. I like its fine old town – but also its slightly gritty, post-industrial feel. It’s our nearest continental city – and certainly a better proposition than Paris or Calais for a day out. We arrived at around 11h30 local time, followed by a good mooch around the city centre, lunch at Paul – involving rather too much molten hot chocolate – and some retail therapy, even if mostly the window-cleaning variety. (Lécher les vitrines: literally, licking the windows). We did come home with a new table lamp, though, some of our ritual pates de fruits from Méert and some crazily-reduced purple leather gloves from Printemps (not for me…)
My wife had never done the city tour bus before – rather surprisingly we find these a good way to get a slightly wider perspective than one would on foot. (The Lille one takes in some of the new, modernist business districts too, for instance). When we called to book in the morning, it was not certain that the tour would run because of some expected demonstrations. We called back, to find the decision taken to go ahead. So the tour was undertaken – albeit with certain delays and diversions as we did manage to run into the middle of a manifestation gilets jaunes…
I really like Notre Dame de la Treille, Lille’s cathedral: dour on the outside but a surprising clash of tradition and colourful modernism on the inside.
By afternoon, the city was packed, as the sales are still in full swing, as is the Winter Fair that runs to the end of January.
We had decided to branch out in terms of dining; the particular challenge being to find somewhere that could cater for my vegetarian wife while giving me a traditional Flemish hit. France is slowly cottoning on with vegetarianism, and we had a number of places to check out. In the end, though, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into the Estaminet de Gand (Estaminet being a traditional Flemish eatery) on the Rue de Gand, with an hour to linger over apéros and cheese before they could serve meals from 19h00. You need to get in early if you haven’t booked…
Le Welsh is supposedly a Flemish speciality – basically a version of Welsh rarebit using Flemish beer, Maroilles cheese and just about anything else you want in it. More like fondue with floating toast… and frites. My carbonnade (beef stew with beer) contained about half a cow, Then I found the other half lurking under the salad. A very friendly and accommodating restaurant.
A much-needed walk across the city centre saw us back at Lille Europe for just after 20h00, and home at 23h00.
I don’t care how subjective the impression may be: French cities have a charm and style that is simply missing from most in the UK. And the people still know how to dress properly for winter, too.
They say that travel broadens the mind. Sometimes, I think it just confuses it.
Over the years, I have been a house-guest of perhaps half a dozen French people, sometimes for a week or more at a stretch. I have visited the homes of a good many others, not to mention some of their schools and workplaces – and have hosted a similar number in return.
Hardly a representative sample of a populous nation, of course, but perhaps rather more than average for a Brit. It’s hardly surprising that those people were all quite different in both personalities and life-styles, just as individuals are anywhere – and yet my dominant memory of them, collectively, is their overwhelming Frenchness.
I had similar experiences in Germany, with the added complication of being nowhere near as competent a German-speaker as a French. Luckily, my hosts all spoke good English, and the same is true of Switzerland, where I have the most enduring friendships. Once the language issue is minimised, you can progress.
I recall the timidity with which I first made such connections, something that has fortunately lessened over the years. While this was doubtlessly partly a matter of personality, I suspect that neither is it an unusual experience. Anxieties perhaps hinge most obviously on language and food, tinged with a less-focused fear of making an unintended faux-pas. At a deeper level again, I was aware of a self-imposed sense of being an “ambassador” for my country. It ought to be possible for people just to be people, no matter where they come from!
But for all that the British may carry the extra baggage of their self-perceived ‘apartness’, I doubt that such anxieties are a one-way affair; indeed the comments and behaviours of those who have stayed with me suggested as much. To some extent, it is a simple matter of unfamiliarity.
What this perhaps betrays is the fact that national identities still matter; that despite several decades of intensifying integration between the nations of Europe, we have yet to cast off those national characters and become some kind of bland, homogenous Euro-citizen, the kind of thing of Eurosceptics’ worst nightmares.
I think the cultural dissonance that we experience on such occasions is entirely natural, and nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes sense to try to overcome it. In fact, it is just as possible to experience similar feelings in an unfamiliar part of one’s own country, or with people whom one does not know well. All the nationality issue does is raise pre-existing stakes somewhat. Yet despite that, when travelling around one’s own country one is not, I think, struck firstly by its homogeneity. From the ‘inside’, such things are taken for granted, one notices subtle differences more quickly – and it takes something exceptionally symbolic to prompt the “so English” response. I’m pretty sure that the same phenomenon applies elsewhere: we just take our own cultures for granted.
Yet our tendency to “other” people is more difficult to overcome than we like to think. There is evidence to suggest that it is a natural survival instinct, and such things are not easily over-ridden: it takes a great deal of work to remove all illiberal thoughts. Even though I am entirely comfortable in the countries that I mentioned earlier, and despite the fact that I know some places and people in those countries better than plenty in my own, it can still be difficult to get beyond that first-level sense of ‘otherness’, even when it is a wholly positive experience.
I still tend to think of Swiss friends, French friends, German friends – not just friends; I expect it is reciprocal. In recent years, I have made progress in this respect. Some of my Swiss friends, in particular, are now so familiar that the nationality issue has (almost) disappeared, and I just think of them as discrete individuals like any other – until they say or do something that re-emphasises their otherness… Can it ever disappear completely?
But it has taken a lot of years and shared experience to get to that point. With people I know less well, it is less easy to do; again, I suggest this is quite normal, and not only an international problem. (I sometimes wonder what lies behind the public bonhomie of EU leaders’ meetings: do they really share so much that the national differences are secondary?)
The same is true of places: those that I return to year in year out have eventually become just places (almost) like any other where I spend part of my life. When we are in Basel, it is almost impossible not to flit between three countries just in order to function. Our friends live within about ten minutes’ drive of both France and Germany; their son went to school in ‘another’ country; they own a second home in Germany – about a hour’s drive away. Eventually, you start forgetting which country you are in – certainly between Germany and Switzerland; France is a little more ‘different’ – and that difference therefore perhaps intrudes more. (I wonder, though if that is true for the Swiss and Germans too: I don’t think I would ever mistake Scotland or Ireland for England, for all that we share so much…)
I suppose it would be possible to criticise all of the forgoing quite heavily. It could be a purely personal difficulty, that many people don’t experience at all. But I somehow doubt it: my feelings are born from many years of deliberately confronting the issue. I remember just how (needlessly) intimidating my early trips to other countries were – and I can see the journey I have travelled. Much evidence suggests that the bulk of the British population, at least, is still in the starting blocks. I don’t think an annual foreign holiday comes anywhere near adequately addressing it: you have to access local people and places for a start – and you have to keep going back.
I suppose that it could even be seen as a form of racism: the confession of a limited mind that can’t escape its own constraints. Perhaps – but it is not for the want of trying. It is born of decades of experience – and I suspect that anyone who claims it isn’t remotely that difficult really hasn’t thought about it very deeply. The more I understand these issues, the more complex and intractable they can seem…
Where does this leave us in terms of our own national identity? I ended part one by saying that I don’t like much of what I see of my own nation’s modern identity. I find little there that I wish to “own” – which is why I have gone looking elsewhere for something that is meaningful to me.
Yet I suspect that we can’t ever fully escape the culture into which we were born. Emigrating to another country might be a valiant attempt – but the extent to which one can ever really become someone else is doubtful. Despite citizenship tests, taking another nationality is fundamentally a legal and financial matter; I doubt if that act alone ever really changes one’s mindset very much. I suspect that people who live abroad are ultimately destined to be perpetual outsiders, perhaps eventually in their native lands too. They risk becoming – dare I say – “citizens of nowhere”. Perhaps that is why many are so sensitive about the label ‘ex-pat’?
So, much as I love my perceptions of certain other countries, I remain highly suspicious that they are anything more than romantic stereotypes, born of one’s inescapable tendency to generalise. Neither am I convinced that fleeing a country in which I feel almost as much a foreigner as anywhere else, would actually solve anything. The daily routines might change; familiarity would definitely increase – but would that experience destroy precisely what I appreciate about those places as an outsider? Would greater familiarity just breed contempt of what I previously admired?
There is, however, no law that says one should only be influenced by one’s birth-nation, no matter how nationalists might want it that way. People have been inspired by what they encountered abroad for centuries: it was the whole raison d’être of the Grand Tour. Somewhere along the way, we can cross a rubicon from infatuation to genuine adoption. Part of that no doubt involves getting past infatuation and moving onto marriage. By doing that we both remove “foreignness” and simultaneously make ourselves a little more cosmopolitan. Now that panettone, for example, is eaten throughout Europe, is it now less Italian – or are those doing the eating a little more Italian? (And what happens when we Brits do what we always do and adulterate it, or turn it into bread-and-butter pudding?)
I think one thing is certain: this is neither a quick nor easy process: extending one’s cultural horizons beyond one’s national ones can set up all sorts of conflicts. Maybe this is, too, what the much-derided “Little Englanders” are afraid of. Perhaps it is all the worse because of the relative weakness of their home culture?
Facing it can be a challenging proposition – but especially so for those who rarely venture (in their heads, if not their bodies) beyond their own little island.
When we were in Lausanne last month, we stopped at another grand cafe that I have occasionally frequented. Moutarlier is situated in the Place de la Palud, near the city’s central fountain and glockenspiel clock, so an outside table normally does nicely. In fact, I don’t ever recall going inside before. However, use of the facilities dictated on this occasion – and quite a revelation it was.
I’m mentioning this because for me it exemplifies the Swiss outlook on their simultaneously historic-yet-modern country. Popular image of the country is, of course, very twee – all wooden chalets and Heidi meadows. There is indeed a lot of ‘heritage’ to look after – and yet once again this belies the real country – a nation that is not afraid to take a very progressive approach to much of what it does.
I didn’t take my camera with me – so I am relying here on images from Moutarlier’s own website. From the outside, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is another institution unchanged for decades (in fact, it opened in 1996). The exterior is rather grand – and largely intact. And yet… inside one encounters a pretty avant-garde modern decor quite deliberately at odds with the quaint exterior. But somehow it works: the basics of grande confiserie have been respected, as have the specific needs for whiling away the afternoon in strikingly auspicious surroundings. I also like the nods to traditional Swiss architecture, such as the wood panelling. The quality of the design and materials is also excellent – and I fully expect it to be the same in however many years’ time it is before I visit again.
In some ways it is the complete opposite to Britain’s approach, where it still seems that everything either needs to be made to look “historical” even when it isn’t – or superficially modern in a way that will fade and date in just a few years. Much of the time it is in fact nothing more than flimsy shop-dressing which will need to be ripped out and replaced with something else when fads change – and before it has even got an established identity. Even when we British do contemporary, we somehow mostly lack the confidence to give it the ‘edge’ that makes it work, let alone something that will last for decades, as I suspect the interior of Moutarlier will. In fifty years time, it will be renowned for its period interior… We by contrast, are too timid by half – and then we wonder why our modern design often doesn’t deliver the goods. Like anything else, quality counts, and so does continuity – even when it is radically reinterpreted. In fact, perhaps that is the secret of the Swiss success.
At a retail centre near me, the original fake village ‘High Street’ is presently being reconfigured with something rather more contemporary – but again very ‘safe’ and quite probably equally ephemeral. In the end it is just the latest engineered-consciousness stage-set backdrop against which people can part with their cash. But at least it has a new Lindt shop, so the chocolate will remain constantly, Swiss-ly good, even if the architecture isn’t.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Below: a short photo-study of Bern’s shop windows…