Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Leeds by example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Corn Exchange

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

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

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

Canal basin with the Royal Armouries Museum on the left.

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Travel

The state of the nation – no – region.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel

Google-bombing Europe 6

Returning after a short break to my random drop-ins on various parts of Europe, courtesy of Google Earth. The aim of the exercise was to re-calibrate my perception of Europe, which I suspect is, as for many people, disproportionately formed from  impressions of its highlights and other places I have personally visited. One thing that is becoming clear is that visited on a random basis, more often than not one lands in a the middle of fairly undistinguished ruralness. The cultural jewels of the big cities and towns are not much more than a pin-prick in their nations’ overall territories. Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of ‘ordinary’ out there…

Today: Austria and France in ten pictures each.

Austria

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France

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria, Travel

Anti-sprezzatura

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Anhedonia is a word that does not seem to be widely known. This is perhaps not surprising as it is a medical term, relating to the inability to feel pleasure: a kind of anti-sprezzatura.

It is a symptom widely reported in people suffering from depression, and they often describe it as feeling ‘flat’, when none of the things that normally give pleasure any longer does so. It goes hand-in-hand with a loss of motivation, and an ability to find life worth living, which is perhaps not surprising either when one thinks about what does motivate people in more normal circumstances.

It is extremely difficult to describe such experiences to those who have not had them. With anhedonia, one simply has no feelings for anything. One is left just staring at the music, food, places, possessions, experiences – and people – that one loves without any feeling of warmth, or indeed any feeling at all. But it is not the detachment of the critical thinker, more a sense that a handful of sand has been chucked into the gears of one’s mind. It is deeply unpleasant.

And at that point, one easily starts to wonder whether life is even worth living: it is bad enough not being able to feel those normal emotions, but it is compounded both by a sense of loss, and an utter inability to do anything about it. There is no point in trying to ‘jolly along’ someone in this condition, let alone telling them to ‘snap out of it’. It just can’t be done, and forced merriment is only likely to make matters worse.

I started Sprezzatura during just such an episode, which has lasted formally (i.e. diagnosed) for over two years, but which I think was incipient for a good while before that. It may seem strange to have started a blog dedicated to living well at such a time – but while the basic appreciation has always been there, amongst all the irrational things that happened during my illness, I developed a renewed appetite for all of the good things discussed in this blog. I was largely not able to derive much pleasure from them at that time, but that somehow made it all the more important to focus on them, to remind myself that they were still there – and starting this blog helped to do that.

I made significant efforts to overhaul my wardrobe (not necessarily a wise thing at a time when one is susceptible to splurging), to revisit certain recipes that I had not used in a long time, and to remind myself about the places (such as Italy) that were normally a source of great pleasure for me.

I’m pleased to say that matters have improved greatly in the last few months: I’m back playing music, making models, and enjoying most of the things I used to, though I feel the path has still not been fully travelled yet. What’s more, finally biting the bullet and making myself travel to Italy again in September proved to be a great tonic. I started to realise that forcing myself to immerse in those things may have been hard work, but it was also part of the recovery process – perhaps a form of re-wiring all of the disrupted mental circuitry.

Indeed, in some ways my appreciation is all the greater for now knowing what life is like without these things. But I also started to wonder whether there is a bigger pattern here. For all that one can catch Stendhal’s Syndrome in Italy, statistics suggest that reported incidence of chronic depression is significantly lower in Italy than in Britain. (There may of course be all sorts of cultural, as opposed to medical reasons why this is so). But listening to a group of British men a few days ago trying to out-bid each other in the bargain-basement stakes, I wondered again what it is about our national mentality that does this.

The active avoidance of anything with refinement or quality – of consciously ‘living well’ – seems to be almost a badge of honour. I suspect it has something to do with inverted snobbery and the social order in Britain, where any form of apparent ‘show’ can seem pretentious.

But eschewing things that can genuinely lift the spirit doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. Ultimately, life is what you make it, and I can’t see much benefit in rejecting an honest appreciation of the better things in life, however they are defined. It need not be a matter of money: one does not have to own things in order to appreciate them, and an appreciation of quality is more a matter of how you approach things than the size of your wallet. In any case, it is quite possible to find ways around budgetary constraints – and remember, sprezzatura is as much about what you do as what you have. I am deeply puzzled by a country that sets such store by working hard and earning money, but which generally seems to have little time for appreciating the fruits of its labour.

While ironing a pair of trousers earlier today, no less, I found myself appreciating anew the fineness and craftsmanship of the Italian fabric I had chosen. It is nothing to do with show: it was (until now) an entirely private moment, a minor epiphany and reminder that the good things in life are still there, if only we can remember how to see them.

For people suffering from anhedonia, I would suggest that refocusing on your personal sprezzatura is as good a therapy as it is possible to find, even though it is hard work. And all the more reason to discover in the first place.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

It’s a bit late for that Now! Announcing my third book.

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I’m pleased to announce the publication of my third book, It’s a bit Late for that Now! Britain’s relationship with the continent (before and after Brexit).

To speed things up, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and self-publish this one.

The book is pro-Europe, not specifically pro-E.U., and addresses long-term issues that will be important whatever happens in the political arena. I hope it will be of interest no matter which side of the argument is preferred.

You can purchase print-on-demand copies direct from the publisher here

You can purchase the e-book edition here

You can  read the first fifteen pages online for nowt!

In the next couple of weeks, the book will also be available via Amazon and to order from bookshops.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Google-bombing Europe – or a nation in ten pictures.

One way of assessing the condition of a nation is to look at its landscapes. There are of course many factors that influence the physical appearance of an area: the topography, the climate, the ecology, geology and so on.

But part of the equation is also the prevailing social and economic conditions. The landscapes reflect the way in which a nation manages its territory: the levels of investment, the planning systems, the architectural requirements, the attitudes and expectations of the people towards their surroundings, the history of the nation.

Google Earth presents a fantastic opportunity for surveying such things, so I thought I would conduct a small experiment to see what could be found with as objective an approach as is reasonably possible.

In coming posts, I am going to present sequences of ten photographs chosen more or less at random by ‘dropping in’ on places. I will mostly leave readers to draw their own conclusions, but if I do have a point to prove, it is that the care and effort put into the surroundings in different countries does vary significantly – and that it makes a material difference to the places in which people live, physical conditions notwithstanding. I suppose I should also confess my expectation that the U.K. does not fare particularly well in terms of its built environment.

The ‘rules’ I set myself were:
1. Set the camera at an altitude of about 500km (high enough to take in a large part of the country, and to obscure any obvious features).
2. Drag the peg-man and drop before the map has stopped moving, thus making the destination as random as possible.
3. When the image resolves, ‘permission’ is granted to take a 360 degree look around and choose the most interesting view.
4. Not to move the camera laterally from where it falls.
5. One reject allowed in each ten samples to allow for tedious repetition or utterly bland images that show nothing of interest.
6. The above accepted, aim for reasonable spatial coverage – e.g. don’t just drop the peg in the middle of the country each time.

In some cases, it is even possible to land inside a building, which can reveal things about the style and quality of interiors.

A perhaps surprising thing is how rarely one lands in the centre of a major urban area: while these dominate the social climate in a country, in spatial terms, they are very small. One lands far more frequently in open countryside (which is reassuring in a certain way) and, in the U.K. at least in identikit suburbs (which is perhaps less so).

Ten pictures are hardly enough to present a coherent impression of a country, and by definition a random sample may be neither consistent nor representative. But as a random slice through the combined effects of physical and human activity, they can perhaps tell us something. The first two countries presented here are Germany and the U.K. More to follow in subsequent posts.

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The U.K.:

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Empty vessels….are world class.

We in Britain are regularly regaled with the claim that every next new thing is going to be ‘world class’. Methinks the country doth protest too much: anywhere that needs to bang on like this with such tedious regularity deep down knows that it is way off the mark. But it’s cheaper and easier to slap the ‘W-C’ label on something than actually do anything about it. But too often, that abbreviation really does have a better meaning.

Case in question is the new Swiss-made trains shortly to be delivered for my local Greater Anglia rail service. (Non rail-enthusiasts bear with me here – there is a wider point coming…) Knowing Swiss Railways inside out, I leapt with anticipation when the announcement was made a couple of years ago that Anglia would be the first British franchise to be buying Swiss in a big way.

Now I generally have a favourable view of Greater Anglia as being one of the more enlightened franchisees – probably something to do with their in reality being Dutch. And it is true that excellent cycle facilities now abound at stations all over their network.

But an article in the industry-journal Modern Railways suggests that once again, the new trains represent a missed opportunity. The first train is due in the U.K. about now, and I await visual confirmation that we do have proper Swiss build-quality.

But the insides are as dull as every other British train. Anglia claims to have focus-group tested the designs – but as the MR article points out, people can only compare against what they know. And in the case of British trains, that is not a great start.

Comments from the manufacturer also sound underwhelmed with the end result – but they pointed out that they only deliver what the customer asks for. How Swiss. But that lays the blame for this lost opportunity firmly back at the British end of the contract.

It is of course true that British trains are smaller than continental ones, and that does create real problems – but why does Britain have seat-specifications (supposedly in the name of safety – read litigation) far in excess of what the EU requires – and which rule out most of the better seating in use elsewhere? It leaves us with ultra-high backs which render the interior claustrophobic, while fire standards mean that almost no padding can be provided – hence recent widespread complaints about how hard the seats are in new trains. It is most definitely NOT that pesky EU spoiling our chance to have good old British rubbish here.

The real problem is that those who specifiy British train design are more concerned with maximising capacity (hence revenue) and minimising repair costs. It is also the case that many who profess to be impressed quite possibly haven’t seen the alternatives available in other countries. And yet the country persists with the ridiculous nonsense about world-class everything. It kids no-one with a slightly wider perspective.

While train design might hardly seem to be a world-stopping issue, this matter serves to illustrate some wider issues:

1) Poverty of expectation in this country is alive and well and expressed in things as everyday as trains. It is partly because so few experience what happens elsewhere.

2) Short-term, profit-driven so-called public services will only ever deliver bargain-basement quality because of the need to make a quick return.

3) ‘World-class’ actually means precisely the opposite. It is an excuse for having to think genuinely hard about getting something right.

4) This country never learns. And that includes the fact that in many cases, standards really are higher on the continent. I expect that these trains really will represent an improvement on what went before – but that is more an indictment of the past, rather than much to crow about. We are still a good way off the best.

Never mind, soon with our World-Class Brexit we will officially soon be officially rid of those pesky continentals and their ludicrous ideas – and we can carry on doing World-Class mediocre to our hearts’ content.

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The new Greater Anglia ‘Flirt’ unit. Not bad from the outside, though it would be better without the non non-obligatory yellow end.
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Yep, this is definitely the same train – albeit built to rather larger continental dimensions…
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The cramped and grey standard class interior of the GA unit. Still, at least we have continental-style window blinds.
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The equivalent interior for the Swiss Sud-Ostbahn. Respective interior specifications courtesy of the customer consultation.
First-class, Swiss-style. Admittedly, also a bit grey.
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On-board catering. When will British providers (of almost anything) stop banging on about being world-class while diluting standards for the U.K. market?