Travel

The joys of (near) home…

How often is it the case that one overlooks the benefits of the familiar? I suspect I’m not the only one who tends not to venture out into my nearer region as often as I should. Though my new walking regime has at least encouraged a move in the right direction.

East Anglia is not exactly known for its dramatic scenery – but what it does do well is miniatures – small, quiet and often very picturesque corners. Dedham Vale, part of the Stour Valley, on the border between Essex and Suffolk is one such area: now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it was the subject of many paintings by John Constable.

Even though both the A12 trunk road and the main railway line cross the area, the tranquility is surprisingly rarely broken, though the small road in one of the pictures below was a lot busier than one might expect, it being a cut-through to the railway station at Manningtree, whence commuters head for Liverpool Street Station in London.

The weather was on its best behaviour yesterday, for a walk from Dedham to Flatford Mill, which Constable painted several times, and back. There is a pleasant National Trust cafe at the Mill, which has become a centre for nature studies in the area. A selection of pictures taken along the river and back in Dedham, itself give a taste…

Very pleasant for an early-autumn walk; with thanks to my two companions for a good day out.

 

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Opinion & Thought, Travel

Bologna la buona

What better way to start the day?

After far too long a break, we found ourselves back in Sprezzatura’s spiritual homeland this week. After a couple of years in which travel has been difficult, we spent a few days in Bologna – and much good it did me. It was my fourth visit to the city, which is rather overlooked in comparison with Florence, Venice and Sienna. A business centre it may be, but in some ways all the better for it. Unlike the honeypots, the city is not drowning in tourists, and you do feel as though you are seeing something close to the real place rather than a pastiche put on for visitors. You don’t hear very much being spoken in the streets other than Italian.

While it perhaps lacks the top-division attractions of those other cities, it has plenty of very attractive quarters, and is also a great place just for wandering. Many of its streets are lined with colonnades which make walking a pleasure, shielding both the summer sun and winter rain. And there is an infinite supply of entrancing shops and bars just asking to be sampled. A visit had to be made to the local branch of Boggi, albeit for only a small treat…

I prefer this to Lakeside.
Pity about the red plastic

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It is home to the oldest university in the world, and also some of Italy’s best food. And it has an airport that is a mere 30 minutes away by shuttle bus.

Equally welcome was the fact that despite the current sterling-Euro exchange rate, Bologna is still affordable – again it escapes the ritual milking of the tourist market.

We rented a small but nicely contemporary apartment in a small street right in the centre; the nearest espresso was about 30 seconds away. We were also spoilt for eateries within about a ten minute walk, and just around the corner were the entertainingly chi-chi boutiques of the Via San Felice. Within about five minutes’ walk was the Mercato delle Erbe, an indoor market where cheeses, hams, bread, fruit, vegetables fresh pasta and just about every other culinary product of Italy could be bought – useful for ad hoc lunches.

Most of the sights can be covered on foot in a couple of hours – but the good thing about Bologna, as previously mentioned, is that it is just a great place for hanging out, wandering and people-watching. You don’t really need to be doing very much at all: the free show of great style and the natural vigour of Italian street life are entertaining enough on their own. You can be pretty sure that every classic image of Italian life will come by within a few minutes….

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Could you wear those colours in Britain?

On our second day, we caught the train to Parma, a place to which a pilgrimage has been long-overdue. The hour on the regionale cost a mere £11 return. We were surprised at how low-key Parma is too: another (smaller) very attractive town, but seemingly mostly still ‘owned’ by its locals, with only relatively restrained evidence of its exquisite culinary wares. Nonetheless, insalata parmenese was an indispensible choice for lunch…

Parma doing what Parma does best
Parma: duomo

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You can pack a good amount into a mere three nights away, and the trip proved to be an excellent tonic after the trials of the past two years. And the temperatures still in the low thirties in mid September were welcome too, though we are feeling unseasonably chilly now back home…

It’s always very difficult to know how accurate an impression one is getting when visiting foreign places, and it is all too easy to draw inaccurate conclusions from what are inevitably generalisations, and perhaps not fully realistic ones either. Italy has many difficulties, but its general deficit vis à vis the U.K. has clearly shrunk in recent years: much work has been done to tackle the decline I saw when I first visited in the late ‘80s. Even the trains are much less clapped out than they were, and while I hesitate to admit this, the wider presence of English does make functioning easier than it used to be, when one hadn’t a hope against the torrent of Italian one generally received in return for venturing even a little in their own language…

I wouldn’t dream of living in most cities in Britain: despite their own good progress, they are too often too large, too characterless and too suburban to be pleasurable, with the good bits being out of the reach of ordinary mortals. By contrast, Italian cities throb with down-to-earth vitality, no doubt in large part due to the fact that many people do still live right in the centre. Many of the same urban pressures must exist in Italy too, and yet they still manage to produce places that are chaotic, intense and immensely vibrant, where one could easily imagine living. And it is that verve for everyday good living, rather than its organisational abilities, that makes Italy simply a fantastic, inspirational place.

Food, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Whatever happened to the Great British food revolution?

 

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Great architecture; food less so…

 

Not so long ago, this country spent much time congratulating itself on how it had transformed itself from the culinary dunce of the modern world into its finest destination. New eateries seemed to be popping up on a weekly basis, and the quality and choice on offer was always improving. So what happened?

I have no doubt there are now many more good places to eat in Britain than used to be the case, some of which I have mentioned previously in this blog – but as always, we seem to have fallen victim to faddism, of which veganism is probably just the latest manifestation. This, in my mind, is not the transformation that was being claimed, and given the disparities I see between the foodie culture being purveyed in the media (much of which I suspect is consumed vicariously) and what trundles down the average supermarket checkout conveyor, I wonder whether anything has really changed.

For the increased niceties of the top end do not a revolution make. Far more important in my view are the daily habits of the population at large. Here at Sprezz. H.Q. I can claim with pride, but more importantly honesty, that food is prepared from scratch on a daily basis, wherever possible using fresh ingredients from the unassuming local farm shop. It is not posh food, more often than not a bowl of pasta or a salad with a few comfortable old favourites regularly thrown in for good measure. But even this may be unusual – who knows?

A recent visit to Lincoln reinforced my doubts. I hadn’t been to that city since childhood, and it was indeed a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. The cathedral and its close are very fine, and even the more mundane parts have benefitted from a seemingly-attentive local council and the arrival of one of the country’s more successful new universities.

The place clearly has some wealth (which I mention inasmuch as it may indicate the existence of foodie types), but it is by no means all gentrified. We enjoyed our couple of days there – but the one disappointment was the food. This is not a ‘pop’ at Lincoln, for I suspect the issue is equally true of most British towns; we certainly found the same to be true in Newark, where we called en route, and our local towns don’t seem to be very different either. In fact, things seem to have gone downhill in recent years. The vast majority of eateries that we found were either the usual clone-chains (which have colonised Lincoln’s pleasant waterfront as predictably as they have in Poole, Ipswich and most other places) – and those independents that we did find seemed largely intent on pretending they were chains too.

There was a preponderance of burgers (sometimes posh, sometimes not), steak, chips, and various things covered in melted cheese. Even the several eateries in our hotel were pretty much the same. To the annoyance of my wife, many of such salads as were on offer contained meat, and nothing to suggest one might ask for anything different. We tried what was reputedly the best Italian restaurant in town – which was also noisily trying to pretend it was actually a fast food joint; the food was passable but nothing special, and the service abrupt, though definitely not in the French way…. Much of the menu still came with chips, sad lettuce leaves and slices of under-ripe tomato – and if that was acclaimed at the best….

Compare this to the average French, German or Italian town, where in our experience, one has a fighting chance of finding decent, basic food even at the most average pavement cafe. The produce is fresh, the variety wide and the willingness to accommodate individual needs normally present. I know climate plays a part in this – but it is not as though imported produce is not available. And in any case, the real trick is to use local produce, of which Lincolnshire is hardly short. To be fair, there were a number of decent independent butchers and more selling local produce; it just didn’t seem to be making it into the restaurants.

On the second night, we repaired to Carluccio’s – which while a chain has at least stuck to its founder’s vision, and reliably offers good food in pleasant surroundings; in our opinion it exceeded the previous night’s experience.

Despite the nation’s crowing about its food, I suspect there is now a general decline going on. The ‘casual dining’ chains are losing customers and closing branches. I’m not surprised given the uninspiring offerings they too often have – but I’m not confident they are falling from grace in favour of superior offerings. Unfortunately, even Carluccio’s is suffering – though I was pleased to ascertain that the Lincoln branch will remain. The place needs it.

And just to conclude (partly for the benefits of the Lincolnites who may read this) this piece is not a slur on that city; we very much enjoyed our visit. It is a fine place that warrants attention, even if a little tatty round the edges. It just a happened to function as a semi-random test of the current state of public dining in the U.K. – and it would seem that other than trophy-dining at the upper end of the market, not as much has changed as we seemed to believe.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travelling in Style?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FGW interior

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

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

gwriep02

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

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

virgin pend01

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

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

vtmk403

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

azuma

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

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

chilternmk3

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

cie mk4

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

db1

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

db2

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

sbb01

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

sbb02

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

italo2

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

fs freccia

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

fs old

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

italo

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

renfe01

 

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

dsb02

(Exhibit 18)

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

sncf lacroix

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

corail

banlieu

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

eliz line

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

eurostar01

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

The High Life

rtg03

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.