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.

Food

Espresso international

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The British may still (just) be a nation of tea-drinkers but trends are a-changing. In fact, there is evidence that we now drink more coffee than tea – and the generational shift has quite a lot to do with it. Britain is one of the few countries in the world where coffee consumption is still rising, whereas there has been a slow but steady decline in tea since the 1970s.

Personally, I don’t see this as zero-sum matter – but as usual the reward is not so much in what you do as how you do it. Neither plonking a cheap teabag (procedurally guilty – but at least I stick to Twinings!) nor a spoonful of equally cheap instant coffee in a mug really hits the mark. Both drinks have elaborate rituals attached to them, and while I suspect that the aforementioned procedures are the dominant ones the length and breadth of the nation, at least the growth in coffee shops means that nowhere in the land is probably more than a kilometre from a proper espresso machine now, where said rituals do exist.

The making of proper coffee repays the eye, ear and nose as well as the taste buds – (who remembers the 1980/90s adverts (for Nescafe I think) where a guy entertaining a new date goes into the kitchen and makes all the necessary noises orally, while popping instant in the cafetière?), and it is a most satisfying punctuation point on the morning, even for one who needs to restrict his caffeine intake.

Well, we do own a decent little Gaggia, and there is no instant in the house, so anyone asking for coffee here is in for a wait. It’s always worth it. I’m encouraged to have visited several other households recently where the same situation seemed to obtain. We have owned a couple such machines over the years, prior to which we used the much-loved Lavazza Principessa stove-top shown in the header photo – though the rubber seal has rather perished in the meantime meaning we get a lot of leaking steam but not much pressure.

All of which is by means of introducing a rather pleasing emporium which we found while looking to add a couple of plain Illy cappuccino cups to the roster.

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                                            https://www.espresso-international.co.uk/

The store is actually in Germany but delivery was quick and the products arrived very well-wrapped. In fact, this is a gold-mine for all things coffee-related and a little delving can be  rather bad for the wallet. Not only did we find said Illy cups (not easily available in the U.K.), but we also ended up with a couple of Lavazza ones that I had been hunting for some time. There is also a huge selection of coffee types and configurations, equipment there that you never even knew you needed, a very tempting array of coffee-related biscotti and more.

I shall be paying a return visit in due course.

(Independent review – no interest except as a satisfied customer).

Opinion & Thought, Travel

An M25 for high speed trains?

HS4a schematic

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

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

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

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

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

HS4air map

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

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

Food, Travel

Harriet’s

 

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

Harriets 04

 

Uncategorized

The Great Exception

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I don’t often cross-blog from my professional activities, but this event warrants it: my book The Great Exception: why teaching is a profession like no other is now on sale. It’s quite a moment after more than three years’ work.

Published by John Catt Educational, it is of most relevance to those in the education world – but no reason why curious others shouldn’t read it too! It also makes an excellent door-stop.

My thanks to John Catt for doing a great job with it.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Exception-Ian-Stock/dp/1911382578/

 

Sartoria

Cut your cloth…

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A few months ago, I purchased Hugo Jacomet’s new book The Italian Gentleman. It is a celebration of Italian bespoke tailoring, and a rich treasure-trove into which to dip. But as becomes clear on Jacomet’s blog The Parisian Gentleman, this is a rich man’s game. When a pair of shoes is discounted to €2000 and a shirt to €300, it’s time to admit when one is seriously out of one’s league. But the limits of one’s means do not necessarily dim the enthusiasm of those so-inclined for sartorial excellence. It is necessary to find other ways.

Last spring, I dipped a curious toe into the world of made-to-measure clothes, and now having had three items made, it is clear to me that the benefits of properly-fitting clothes are not illusory. That is all the more so when one is something less than a standard, idealised shape. It’s not only that they look better – they feel better too.

My first venture was with Studio Suits, an online tailor based in Mumbai, who appear to offer extraordinarily good value clothing. We all know how they manage it. However, the cotton shirt that I ordered was something of a disappointment, not because of the tailoring but on account of the rather cheap cotton used, which has proved impossible to keep even remotely un-crumpled. Sometime later, I discovered Camiceria Olga in Milan, and had a much more satisfactory shirt made by them, reviewed in the early days of this blog.

However, recently the issue has been trousers. There are several Italian tailors who offer an online service, though their prices (excluding sales) begin at a couple of hundred pounds –  more than I really want to pay for an item that I tend to wear out rather quickly. And to be honest, their fabrics are rather uninspiringly conservative in design, if not quality. So I decided to look again at Studio Suits. I had noticed that they offer ‘bespoke’ manufacture in a good range of Italian fabrics from around £100. Hopefully that solves the fabric quality issue. In fact, their range starts at nearer £60 – but I decided on an attractive wool-silk mix (‘carat’), with lining and side adjusters as extra. I was able to specify the style of the trousers (double pleats and turn-ups being my preference) and input numerous measurements. I’m not sure that their claim to be ‘bespoke’ is accurate: given that there is no intermediate fitting involved, I think it comes nearer made-to measure. However, one can split hairs…

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The trousers arrived this week, around three weeks after ordering. Initial impressions were rather disappointing: as with the shirt, the item arrived looking very crumpled, and it is not really clear why this should be so. However, the fabric is good, and after a careful press with the steam iron, things looked up significantly. The fit of these trousers is very good – certainly good enough to convince me that made-to-measure is worth the effort, and the general impression is much more satisfactory than the earlier shirt. Interestingly, the trousers have a more ‘homespun’ feel to them that the ultra-pressed products of the bulk manufacturers – perhaps not surprising when they are 70% hand-made, and quite endearing when you get used to it.

The tailoring is again of good quality too, with careful stitching and ample spare fabric provided on the inner seams.

The ethics of buying from India are of course somewhat debatable – but it is probably no different from where many high-street clothes come from in any case – and I am at least cutting out the middle men. I do wish the Studio Suits website allowed closer inspection of the fabrics than it sometimes does – it is a little inconsistent on this score – and they really need to sort out the state in which their goods arrive at the customer.

£100 is not a cheap pair of trousers by my (or high street) standards – but for a hand-made, non-synthetic item in a fine fabric, it is something of a bargain. While one can buy 50% acrylic ‘wool blend’ trousers for half the price or less, even the high street chains are charging £80 – £100 for a pair of 100% wool tailored trousers, and the slightly more select end of the spectrum goes higher than that.

I know which I think is the better deal – even if I do have to forgo the Italian tailoring.

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Authenticity and the modern Brit.

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I know: a post about Brexit and a Scottish folk band is going to have most clicking straight on past – but that is my point: hear me out!

There is much in modern life not to like; that ultimately seems to be what the Brexit vote was about. I am not however going to enter the fray here as to whether it is right or not – but it is unarguable that it has provoked a national debate in this country the like of which I have never seen. After several decades of somnolence, the conspiracy of ‘events’ has finally woken the British up to what their nation(s) have become – and plenty (on both sides of the debate) don’t much like it.

I would argue, however, that the reasons for this have little to do with our membership of the European Union, so much as the free reign that the forces of globalised capitalism have been given in this country – see the previous post. It is that which has really generated the crisis of identity currently being experienced in Britain. We have willingly been fed a diet of mass-produced, commercialised everything, whose main purpose is to hoover up as much of the nation’s disposable income as possible, as efficiently as possible. That means products that are cheap to produce and so bland that they will offend no one. As a result, they also come completely devoid of any cultural references that might make them distinctive – and this is no less so with the music industry as any other.

So it saddens me that for all the bashing many have been giving our country, perhaps justifiably, there are plenty of things of which we can still be proud – but which are regularly overlooked or ignored by the national mainstream. The fact that we have a vibrant folk and roots music scene is one – our musicians are in demand around the world within their own relatively small pool. Breabach, the subject of this piece are off to Australia next month, and regularly play across North America and continental Europe, where people seem to appreciate our native music if anything more than many British do. Possibly the strongest elements of a varied tradition are found in Scotland and Ireland – but while the Union endures, I am going to claim part of them for myself. In particular, the Scottish music scene has benefitted from the cultural confidence that devolution has brought, and a generation of young musicians has grown up shamelessly bringing new takes to something anciently British.

Breabach may well look like a traditional pipe-and-fiddle band – but that is not the half of it. Their music is almost entirely original, for all that they introduce traditional motifs and instrumentation. They are superb musicians, as tight as anything you would expect to find from people with a far higher profile. You won’t find much more than a hint of strict traditional music here – much of it ranges from a ‘wall of sound’ associated with much more contemporary genres, to lengthy pieces that verge on the symphonic on occasions. They are unafraid of sophisticated, syncopated rhythms, in amongst which they weave elements of Gaelic song and traditional tunes as well as many of their own compositions. There is even step-dance, used on an amplified ‘floor’ in part for its percussive quality.

They played to an appreciative full house and standing ovation in The King’s Place in London on Thursday, the first of a few warm-up gigs for the slack period between the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and their Australian tour. There is little affectation and few huge egos about these people: for a first encore, they went completely unplugged on a Gaelic song – and in the interval and after the concert, they were out front-of-house in good folk style, chatting with their audience and selling the inevitable CDs themselves.

The Scottish scene is but one part of a lively music genre that is affirmative and authentic. It exists not in a few large stadia for the financial gain of large international promoters, but in small venues the length and breadth of the nation, where it is a real and distinctive part of community and national identity. Breabach, however, show that it can also put its best clothes on and become something of much more contemporary relevance – a mark of a newly-emboldened national consciousness – in a way that is entirely of the present, even as it pays its due respects to the long and ancient history of these isles. Those in search of genuine Britain for a dose of national pride could do a lot worse than listen in.

http://breabach.com/

Sceptics also see also: https://tommygirard.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/breabach-the-desperate-battle-of-the-birds/

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