Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Saffron Modern

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Britain’s popular image of itself has always been so intimately connected with its past that it has always struggled with the concept of Modern. Even when the ripples of the Bauhaus belatedly hit these shores, those buildings that emerged in that style were largely built using traditional techniques, and failed to adopt the forward-looking philosophy that it represented.

The Brutalist experience of the 1960s and 1970s hardly endeared modern architecture to popular opinion either – and the interventions of Prince Charles and others caused a definitive move back towards pseudo-traditional architecture across the country. While modern design has since enjoyed something of a re-birth of interest, as always, bulk developers responded slowly to changing tastes, and we have been left with a four-decade legacy of pastiche, a mish-mash of superficial, confused historic references only made worse by the pressures to build both at higher densities and to accommodate high car ownership.

The effect, far from enhancing the country’s traditions, has been to blight every place it touched with a sprawl of cloned, characterless, flimsy, disneyesque fake-heritage. And its effect is not only visual: by creating a imagined past, one effectively distorts the population’s sense of rootedness in its real past: a toothless re-engineering of a false arcadia that only devalues the real thing.

There is plenty of good modern architecture in Britain; it is just not generally accessible to the public. But things are slowly changing again, and the bulk developers are gradually realising that the public is more open than hitherto, to a type of contemporary design that takes its very human inspiration from experiences particularly in The Netherlands and Scandinavia, to create modern environments that are human in scale and still respect their heritage settings. I would go further, and suggest that it is far more respectful to genuine history not to imitate it badly, but to have the courage to build something ‘of its time’ in the way all those historic buildings were in their day.

I recently visited an excellent test-case of this theory. In the search for inspiration for the large development pending in my own small, historic town, I visited The Avenue in Saffron Walden. SW is a very attractive East Anglian town in north Essex, about 25km south of Cambridge. It has a fine collection of medieval buildings and an extensive conservation area. Into this, Pollard Thomas Edwards architects inserted an imaginative development of 75 homes, on a mature site in the south of the town. They chose to produce a range of apartments, terraced and detached housing and sheltered housing that is contemporary while strongly echoing the local vernacular. It won an RIBA regional prize in 2016.

The architects have made great use of the avenue of mature lime trees on the site to provide a public path through the development, while grouping many of the houses round courtyards that diminish the dominance of road vehicles within the setting. The buildings are credibly eco-sensitive and have provided a popular new residential district which even this self-avowedly traditionalist town has welcomed openly. A short film about the development can be seen on the architect’s website here.

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The clever use of standardised components in a variety or permutations reduced costs, while not compromising the observed individuality and distinctiveness of the buildings. Walking through the development, one gains a sense of continuity with the ancient town around, and a strong sense that a characterful ‘place’ has been successfully created – the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at modern designs.

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If such a development can work in a place like Saffron Walden, I don’t see why it shouldn’t work anywhere – and one is left with a strong sense that this is an architectural intervention that will stand the test of time, to become an integral part of the town’s evolution and heritage, unlike the pastiche shoe-boxes that remain developers’ more standard fare. It would be great to see this kind of imaginative thinking being used more widely in Britain. It might even start to persuade the general population that modern design is not inevitably terrible.

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Eco-litism

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I’ve just ‘treated’ myself to this year’s Lacoste polo shirt. I buy one each year, and never one to neglect good value, I always buy from the outlet shop which I’m fortunate to have five miles down the road. The outrageous for the merely pricey; last year’s colours, but who cares?

I like this item because the colours are much more appealing than the dull navy-blues, maroons and taupes that one finds in British shops. I don’t know how they do it, but the French seem to have an eye for just the right shades. These polos are 100% cotton, they last well, too, and for me are a nod to a certain kind of Euro-chic that brings back memories of happy times – for they seem to be as close as continental men come to a summer uniform. It’s the only item of outwardly-branded clothing that I will wear.

But what they don’t do on the continent, it seems, is make a social statement, which is the main purpose of wearing brands in Britain. I haven’t come across anywhere else where using the ‘right’ brand supposedly makes you a superior person – or where a certain sector of society has needed to adopt certain brands (think Burberry) as a counter-statement. While there is definitely respect for quality, I just don’t get the impression that the continentals attach social status or exclusivity to them in the  way the British do. What we are seeing here is yet another expression of Britain’s still class-bound society, that just doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way elsewhere in Europe.

One might argue that it doesn’t matter too much when it comes to a polo shirt. But it seems there is nothing that the British will not misappropriate in order to make a class statement. The latest is eco-credentials. I have got into the habit of buying Enki magazine, a new-ish interiors thing, which is full of floaty, scandi-blond cool flaunting the ultra-eco-chic that is definitely to-die-for – with the death in question coming to the bank account of anyone who isn’t a fully-subscribed member of The One Percent.  It portrays a very appealing lifestyle, with a generous side-helping of clear conscience, flaunts products gorgeous in every way except the price tag.

What’s more, a planning application has just gone in to build such a property in the grounds of the large house next door. I’ll be excited to see it go up (they are nice people who are building it), should it survive local conservatism and Britain’s sclerotic planning process. What bothers me about this is not the ideal (let alone the aesthetic, which really is lovely) – but the fact that sustainability is being turned into just another ultra-expensive fashion accessory for the very privileged.

A week ago, I sat opposite regional executives of the national conglomerate that is going to build a new housing development on the edge of our historic town. Given that it was forced upon us, we are trying to ensure that it is as positive a thing as possible. We presented them with a vision for an eco-friendly, contemporary-styled new quarter for the town, complete with ideas for renewable energy, water recycling, passive solar heating and reduced car use. I hope I’m wrong, but the expressions on their faces  suggested that we are not going to get it.

So we see a situation where the wealthy can blow vast budgets (as several have in this neighbourhood recently) buying the latest in earth-friendliness, but when it comes to providing the same for the mere mortals who buy mass-produced housing, what is on offer is the same boring, resource hungry boxes, where the nearest thing to sustainability is a power lead to the garage to allow the owner-to retro-fit a charging point for an electric car if they wish, before they drive out and add to the local congestion. At the end of the day, it seems the bonuses of the executives of such companies trump the need  to address the green agenda on a mass (and hence more cost-effective) basis.

And so something that ought now to be delivered as an essential to the whole population has become a cachet-statement for the small elite who can afford domestic geothermal heating systems and smart energy management tech in their minimalist weekend homes in Suffolk. I wouldn’t mind a bet that some of those executive bonuses in the construction industry are being used to install just such systems in their own homes.

Yet again deeply embedded British social attitudes conspire to maintain not only material but also attitudinal differences between the haves and the have nots, even when it comes to something that should be as egalitarian and universal as the green agenda. Unfortunately, despite the easy-living ethos of Enki, this is morality for the very wealthy.

Sprezzatura is all about the good things in life – of which I consider green living to be one. But its aspiration is democratic. This kind of elitism it most certainly does not support, and I’m heartily tired of the way our society misuses such things as statements of social superiority. For all our protestations of equality, this is still a nation deeply divided not only by its £2000 boiling-water taps – but more profoundly by the snobbery that misappropriates them.

And yes, I know 100% cotton polo shirts are ecologically-dubious too…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

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Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of the earlier perspective.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

(previously posted on my blog Teaching Personally)

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Jerusalem?

There’s nowt like a bit o’ hardship to make you appreciate the good life… which, as I’ve written before is, in a way, where Sprezzatura came from. When your back is against the wall, it certainly does make life’s more pleasant experiences seem all the sweeter, even if (or perhaps because) they may presently be unattainable.

England’s North was built on such prospects – though it’s of course debatable whether shares in muck and brass were distributed as fairly as they should have been. Our first stop outside Leeds was Saltaire, a short train-ride away. Now a World Heritage Site, Titus Salt’s model village is one of Britain’s better-known examples of Victorian philanthropy: appalled by the general living conditions of the time, the wealthy mill-owner built a residential quarter for the thousands who worked in his immense premises next-door.

Titus Salt’s enormous mill.

It is difficult to imagine how the neat grid of stone cottages was received by those who lived in them; much is made of Salt’s munificence – but I found myself mulling the contradiction set up by the knowledge that for many in Victorian times, the most basic elements of a decent life were almost completely at the discretion of private individuals – who in many cases did not care as much as Salt apparently did. But with the improved conditions came a dictated, morally-upright way of life (down to the number of baths one was required to take). Salt himself lived in considerable grandeur, with a private entrance to the mill. The work for the rest was still hard; egalitarianism, this was not.

There is also an irony, however, in that the Trades Unions which were a response to Victorian conditions would presumably have been quite happy to see Salt deposed from the position in which he was able to administer to his flock. Would that have been a victory? I think in the long run, people’s wellbeing should not rest on the discretion of more powerful others, and listening to the views of certain political figures even today, it is not clear that such lessons have been learned even now.

But we should still be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

Saltaire today is a slightly strange assemblage of Italianate and other buildings somehow rather too grand for their rural setting. It works, but still feels somewhat contrived. The vast mill itself is now a combination of business units, apartments, shops and a gallery largely devoted to the works of local artist David Hockney. His ‘The Arrival of Spring’ series, drawn on iPad and turned into large prints was an interesting and likeable expression of the creative potential of digital media.

Much of the nearby town seems contentedly inhabited, and there are a number of the chi-chi galleries, craft shops and cafes that tend to cluster in such places. Nowadays, it’s the strictures of listed building and World Heritage status that are the overlord. It’s all quite pleasant, if a little self-conscious.

Above and below: The mannered streets of Saltaire.

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We moved on further up the Aire valley, to Keighley and thence by Worth Valley steam train to Haworth, another famous location that majors on high Victorian drama. When it comes to dour Victorian novels, I very rapidly find that a little is too much, but the home of the Brontë sisters is picturesque – another place that I hadn’t visited for many years. All along the valley, the harshness of the industrial decline that rather horrified me when I first visited as a child is being mellowed as buildings are re-purposed and the profuse greenery returns. Some may yearn for the days of heavy industry, but in my eyes the removal of so much polluting harshness is a (qualified) good thing.

Above: KWVR steam train leaving Haworth. Below: the attractive and steep main street in Haworth.

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Haworth too is rather overdosing on Victorian sentimentalism these days – nearly every shop seems to be some form of nostalgia-laden giftware emporium. But again, I suppose one shouldn’t scoff – they are, in the end, a means for locals in an area that has seen its share of hardship, to make a living from the million visitors it receives each year… In general though, I have many reservations about the still-strong tendency in this country, to wallow so heavily in the past. We all know where that world-view has led, which may only restrict opportunities in the future…

The third stage of the trip was by bus over the moors to Hebden Bridge. The rather cringe-worthily-named ‘Brontë Bus’ turned out actually to be bright and modern, with USB sockets and satellite tracking, and it was interesting to do the circuits of the distinctly non-tourist parts of the area – many of which do look much better cared-for than last time I visited. I suspect that there is a fair amount of commuting to Leeds and Manchester now taking place.

That is certainly true of Hebden Bridge, which we reached after a pleasant bus-borne amble over the moors. This small town of 4500 has become famous as the ‘least cloned town in Britain’. Again it is picturesque, helped (when not being hindered by flooding) by its dramatic location deep in the valley of the Calder. The Rochdale Canal runs through, and the Pennine Way long-distance footpath is nearby, both of which no doubt feed tourism.

But the town’s main claim is the assertive localism of its residents, many of whom are creative types who came here in the seventies when property was cheap, and inadvertently turned the place into a kind of eco-mecca and focal point for the LGBT community.

The town centre has been sympathetically restored, while the presence of both an independent cinema and a highly successful arts venue are somewhat unexpected. Swanky interiors shops suggest that there is money around. Lessons can be learned for my own small town in Essex, which is of a similar size and which equally needs to seize the initiative for its own destiny at a time when the pressures of large-scale commercialism are taking their toll.

Above: Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge Below: The attractive streets of the town centre.

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A different kind of enlightenment from Saltaire? Certainly: this is one that is self-directed, even if the actual mechanisms by which Hebden has come to thrive are not entirely clear, intentional or controllable.

Maybe that is the secret of a genuinely good life?

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.

map

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.