I first went to Georgia in 1998, when there was no street lighting (often no power at all), foreigners were being viciously mugged in Tbilisi, and Svaneti was a no-go area unless you had bodyguards. Jo Seaman arrived in February 2001 to take over the nascent British Council operation, and stayed until August 2005, having fallen in love both with the place and its people. My memories of the time are a little vague, but her book ‘Roses Down the Barrel of a Gun’ brings it all back with wonderful clarity. Not only does she well describe the feeling of those early days and the transformation that followed, but she also lays out the political progressions in parallel with the development of the British Council’s mission.
The title refers, of course, to the Rose Revolution and Misha Saakashvili’s ascent to power, with the massive clean-out of corrupt officials that followed. I have to say that Jo’s rôle was more activist than I expected, verging on a political stance, despite always being aware that the British Council had to be apolitical – there’s a heartwarming moment near the end when she was told the Rose Revolution might not have happened without her support for exit polling.
My experience was different to Jo’s because I spent much more time out of Tbilisi – in fact this may be the only book about Georgia you’ll ever read that doesn’t once mention Kakheti and its now semi-compulsory winery visits. Just a couple of hours from Tbilisi, but it seems it wasn’t the place for romantic weekends away at that time. Which reminds me that one of the book’s attractions is the love story, which is nicely handled – although there are so many casual mentions of a certain somebody as ‘the man from the Embassy’ that it would be hard not to guess that something was brewing.
We had one or two friends in common, but we didn’t overlap that much. Still, it’s great to see so many familiar names – Mark Mullen, Amy Spurling, Peter Nasmyth, Giorgi Margvelashvili, David Lordkipanidze, Wato Tsereteli, not forgetting the Hotel Apollon in Bakuriani. But I regretted that she didn’t always name and shame – who was the strange British jazz musician? And the annoying video artist?? But happily HM Ambassador the MacLaren of MacLaren is not spared for his possibly alcohol-related unpunctuality.
The book is slightly under-edited (some commas are missing, and a few words – has anyone else noticed that this is increasingly common, presumably as missing words just aren’t noticed by spellcheckers?) – but that didn’t stop me from greatly enjoying it. Jo’s account of her hectically successful time in Georgia (and all in unsuitable shoes) is illuminating and also lots of fun.
Between Lancaster and Carlisle, and thus between my two latest cycle rides across Yorkshire, I stopped for a couple of nights in Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District. This is another place (see my posts on Wensleydale and Suffolk) that was made very wealthy by the wool trade (Kendal Green was almost as big a thing as Robin Hood’s Lincoln Green), and then in the nineteenth century the shoe industry took over. The Somervell brothers were leather dealers until in 1857 the first sewing machines were imported from the USA; in 1862 they produced their first complete shoes and in 1865 introduced the ‘K’ trademark. Howard Somervell went to Everest in K boots as a member of the 1922 and 1924 exhibitions. K Shoes and Clarks Shoes (in Street in Somerset – I remember a school trip to the factory many years ago) dominated the sensible/school shoes market for many years, and the two companies merged in 1981; but foreign imports and recessions shrank the industry until the last shoes were made in Kendal in 2003 (there is still a distribution centre on Natland Road). The factory outlet shops, opened in 1988, were rebranded as K Village but have finally closed and are now being rebuilt as a Travelodge. The kitchenware company Lakeland began in the 1950s selling chickens in Kendal market – in plastic bags, which proved far more interesting to the public. They’ve always been based in Windermere, but there is a distribution centre in Kendal.
As elsewhere, wealth from wool translated into a church largely rebuilt in the fifteenth century to be much bigger, particularly in the window department. It’s the largest church in Cumbria, with a nave and two aisles on each side. It’s close to Abbot Hall, a Grade-1 listed mansion built in 1759 that houses a surprisingly decent art gallery, largely due to its collection of works by local boy George Romney (1734-1802, one of the many fine portrait painters of the period); it also has drawings and watercolours by Ruskin and a good collection of modern art by painters such as Bomberg, Lowry, Sutherland, Nicholson, Schwitters and Hockney, and sculptors such as Arp, Hepworth and Frink. Unfortunately it’s currently closed, not because of Storm Desmond in 2015 and now Covid-19 but to improve access, security and exhibition conditions; it should reopen in 2022. Alongside is the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, which covers the region’s social history with some excellent preserved shops and rooms, but it’s also closed for refurbishment.
On the other side of the town centre (near the station), the Kendal Museum reopened fairly early after the lockdown and has a remarkable range of displays – on the history side it starts with pieces from Ancient Egypt, Mesolithic and Neolithic stone tools, a dugout Viking boat, and coverage of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s last wife and a London girl, although her family held Kendal Castle for centuries) and Adam Sedgwick, father of modern geology, who was born in Dent in 1785. There are also displays on local geology and natural history, including birds, beetles and butterflies, a moose head, and a stuffed lion, elephant and polar bear. And in an awkward bit of corridor there is of course a display on Alfred Wainwright, who was Kendal’s Borough Treasurer (1948-67) and Honorary Clerk to Kendal Museum (1942-85) – he also wrote the definitive illustrated guides to hiking in the Lakes and the Coast to Coast Walk. The Coast to Coast doesn’t pass through Kendal, but I still come to see friends every couple of years.
Kendal has other mountaineering links – there’s the horribly sweet Kendal Mint Cake, which also went on expeditions to Everest (thankfully healthier sources of energy are now available) and the excellent Kendal Mountain Festival, founded in 1980, with lots of talks and films, the presentation of the highly prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and other events.
Reopening in September, the Brewery Arts Centre opened in 1972 on the site of a brewery opened in 1853; in addition to live performances, there’s a good arty cinema, decent food and drink, and a youth hostel, opened by the YHA in 1971 and sold off in 2011 – it’s doing just fine as an independent (Covid-19 apart) so once again I’m left wondering about the YHA’s management. The Brewery garden is one of the last remnants of the burgage plots that sat behind the houses along the main north-south street, reached by about 150 yards (ie alleys), most of which survive. The town’s newest art gallery is at Cross Lane Projects, in a converted garage just south of the centre – I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had folded since I was last in Kendal, but they’ve come though the lockdown to reopen with interesting new sculpture exhibitions.
Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t interested in the town-centre pubs, acceptable as they are, but had a couple of pleasant outdoor pints at Castle Mills, across the river (the Kent) from the town centre. The Factory Tap claims to stock ‘the most rewarding new hand-crafted beers around’, while the Barrel House is the brewery tap of Bowness Bay Brewing; also here is Joey’s Café, for excellent coffee, salads and pizza.
The first village north of Kendal (along National Cycle Route 6) is Staveley, home to the Hawkshead Brewery and its Beer Hall, opposite Wilf’s Café and Wheelbase, which claims to be the largest bike shop in the UK (the Eagle and Child has been recommended too, as a good place to stay and eat). And in the next village north, Ings, the Watermill Inn also has good food and beds and is home to the Windermere Brewery.
Just south of town is Lower Sizergh Barn, a superb farm shop and café which also has windows over the milking parlour so you can watch the action daily (3.30pm) and also buy raw milk from a vending machine outside. It’s on the edge of the National Trust’s Sizergh estate – the tower house (c1350, transformed in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) has not yet reopened, but I have enjoyed its panelled rooms and paintings by Romney, Opie, and ‘after Kneller’. In any case the gardens are lovely. As a travel writer, I was interested to learn that Thomas West, a Jesuit priest and antiquarian, wrote A Guide to the Lakes (1778) here – the first guide to the Lake District.
About a dozen miles further southwest from Sizergh is Cartmel, a small village known for its Priory, founded in 1189 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, which has a superb east window and a unique bell tower set at 45 degrees on top of the original tower, and more recently for Simon Rogan’s gastronomic ventures – having begun with L’Enclume in 2002, which now has two Michelin stars, he established his own farm in 2009, with a produce shop in the village, and in 2018 the more casual Rogan & Co neighbourhood restaurant, which has also acquired a Michelin star but remains relaxed and affordable. Also on the village square is Unsworth’s Yard, with brewery and bar, bakery, a wine shop and a wonderful cheese shop where you’ll find the products of Martin Gott and Nicola Robinson of nearby Holker Farm – their sheeps’ and goats’ cheeses are at the forefront of the revival of British raw cheese-making. The Cavendish Arms seems to be a pretty decent pub too.
We also passed through Grange-over-Sands, just south on Morecambe Bay, where £2m has been found to stop the Lido (built in 1932) from collapsing – being familiar with the success of the spectacular Deco lido in Penzance, I hope they can manage something similar. I was also reminded of the salt marshes of the Baie de Mont-Saint-Michel, and the similar tradition of guided walks (at low tide) across the bay.
Between the two parts of my cycling trip in Yorkshire I spent time in Lancaster and Cumbria, though not exactly the Lake District. Lancaster is a city I’ve always liked, though it’s a shame the university is out of the centre and so self-contained, though it does give the place a bit of a cultural lift. It’s pretty lively on a Saturday night but not as bad as Carlisle. There’s something about the colour of the stone that reminds me of Edinburgh – I always wonder if people live in tenements here. I was struck by the Baronial architecture of what is now the White Cross Business Park, opposite the Royal Lancaster Infirmary – it turns out to have been Storey’s Mill, built as a cotton mill in 1854-80 and restored in 1987, rather than a misplaced Highland chieftain’s castle. Clearly it shares some history with The Storey, built in 1887-91 as the Storey Institute and now a centre for the creative industries, with office space, a performing arts venue, ‘contemporary eatery’ the Printroom Cafe & Bar, and a tourist information centre. It was all closed when I was there but has since re-opened.
In the absence of the Printroom, I ate at Aquila, where a wood-fired oven pumps out authentically Neapolitan pizza, mostly vegetarian and using carefully sourced ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes, n’duja, walnut and gorgonzola. It’s a real barebones place, essentially a takeaway with a few stools. I also liked the look (in very different ways) of The Borough, a bar and restaurant with rooms on Dalton Square, and Single Step, a wholefoods co-op. For breakfast, Filbert’s Bakery is on King Street, next to the attractive Holm Coffee, with scandi-style open sandwiches and pastries.
Lancaster is lucky to have both an attractive canalside area and a riverfront with a lot of potential – the Maritime Museum is down there in the former Custom House (1764) on St George’s Quay, flanked by largely disused warehouses that are ideal for conversion to loft apartments or indeed a hostel. All the city’s museums are currently closed due to Covid-19, which is a bit of a double whammy as the county of Lancashire was so badly hit by austerity cuts in 2016 that it had to mothball five museums including the Museum of Lancashire in Preston and the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster.
From Lancaster it’s a very easy cycle ride north along the Lancaster Canal towpath (dead level, with no locks) to Carnforth, once a major railway junction that no longer has platforms on the West Coast Main Line to Glasgow, so that it is served only by regional trains from Manchester and Lancaster to Barrow-in-Furness and from Leeds to Morecambe. But of course it’s really famous as the location of the greatest railway film, David Lean’s Brief Encounter – this was based on a short play by Noël Coward, Still Life, and I was the production manager of the play on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the early 1980s, with Hugh Grant and Imogen Stubbs. The excellent Heritage Centre on the southbound platform has the film showing on a continuous loop, a David Lean exhibition, lots of railway material including a 1940s ticket office, and above all the Refreshment Room where Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson had their desperately repressed cups of tea – the Heritage Centre is now partly open, but the Refreshment Room remains closed. But despair not, the northwest’s first micropub, The Snug is in the main station building (built by Sir William Tite in 1846).
From Carnforth I continued north on quiet lanes to Kendal – the Lancaster Canal used to continue all the way to Kendal but has been severed by road-building in various places; nevertheless parts of it remain as a footpath, with the original bridges in place, and the final couple of miles into Kendal are now a useful cycleway. I spent a couple of nights in Kendal (which I’ve written about separately), and then took a train up to Carlisle, which strikes me as a blunt northern city, with a strong military tradition and not many students to dilute the bluntness. My previous visit was on a Saturday night, which was lively… and this time my hotel was on the same street as not one but two Wetherspoons pubs, a Brewdog and a Walkabout (as well as Timmy’s Always Vegan!). They like to go out for a drink – and there are also lots of Italian restaurants, which were heaving on a Tuesday night thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out post-lockdown promotion. And there are lots of barbers too, presumably a preliminary to going out drinking.
But this was also the only place on my recent trip where the museum was open as usual (without pre-booking, although with limited hours), and I was also happy to visit the castle even if I did have to book online. The Tullie House Museum covers local history from 450 million years ago (when Cumbria was part of the continent of Avalonia and the neighbouring bit of Scotland was in Laurentia) but really goes to town on the Romans, who arrived in AD 72. Hadrian came here in 122 and built his wall by 128; at the time 10% of the Roman army was stationed in Britain (just 4% of the empire’s area). In 208 Septimius Severus also came here and repaired the wall, and made Carlisle a civitas (as opposed to a military base) before dying in York in 211. As author of various guides to Romania, I’ve long been aware that it was Dacian (ie Romanian) auxiliaries who garrisoned forts such as Birdoswald – one always wonders how they coped with the weather.
Later history was largely concerned with the border with Scotland, agreed in 1222 and formally fixed by the Treaty of York in 1237; however there were plenty of battles between England and Scotland, including Robert the Bruce being driven back from Carlisle in 1315. However I hadn’t realised that the Reivers, who rampaged around the lawless border area from the late thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, mainly stealing cattle, were totally indiscriminate in terms of national allegiances – anyone was fair game. Still, it was the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603 that finally led to the imposition of law and order in the borderlands.
Industrial history focusses mainly on the railways, with no fewer than seven independent routes meeting here (surprisingly six are still open, with only the Waverley line to Edinburgh having closed); from 1876 they all used Citadel station, designed by Sir William Tite, who claimed this was the first Gothic Revival station, being designed to sit alongside the Citadel, built by Henry VIII in 1541 and modified in 1810 to house law courts. The citadel, at the south end of the old city centre, is not to be confused with the castle, at the north end (in between there’s the cathedral and just a few attractive old buildings on the north side of the main square or, strictly speaking, triangle). Night Mail (the documentary film of an Auden poem, with music by Britten) plays on a loop at Tullie House – however, it starts when the train is already north of Carlisle (This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order), and they miss a trick by not mentioning TS Eliot’s Skimbleshanks (from Practical Cats), who was also on the Night Mail (You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle). Living in Cambridge, I was interested to learn (from Wikipedia, not Tullie House) that Night Mail was premiered at the opening of the Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1936.
Carlisle Castle, founded by William Rufus in 1092, claims to be the most besieged place in the British Isles, notably enduring a nine-month siege in 1644-5, when it was more or less the only Royalist stronghold in northern England after the battle of Marston Moor. It was the base of the Border Regiment, formed in 1881 by the merger of the 34th Cumberland and 55th Westmoreland Regiments (dating from 1702 and 1755 respectively); in 1959 they merged with the King’s Own Royal Regiment and became the King’s Own Border Regiment, and the army finally vacated the castle. It’s open to visitors, but there’s not a lot to see at the moment apart from Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, ie the Border Regiment museum, which does a good job of condensing a lot of history into a manageable form. My grandmother’s brother, killed at Ypres in October 1914, was in the Border Regiment for some reason – the other branches of my family have gravitated to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy.
I found the cathedral relatively plain, but with some very attractive features, notably the East Window, completed by 1350 in the Flowing Decorated Gothic style –it’s the largest and most complex example in England. There are also fine misericords and wooden screens, and four sets of unusual painted panels on the rear of the choir stalls, dating from 1485–90.
For those interested in beer and the history of the English pub, Carlisle is of interest because its pubs and brewery were nationalised in 1916, to prevent workers in the huge ammunition factories just north at Gretna from going to work drunk or hungover, by banning ‘treating’ or buying rounds of drinks (until 1919) and by paying managers a set wage to remove the incentive to sell more drinks. Astonishingly, they were not returned to the private sector until 1973!
So this is it, the Staycation Summer. The hordes that are usually drinking and vomiting by the Mediterranean are not risking quarantine and so are having their holidays in Cornwall and the Lake District instead (following their much publicised visits to Brighton and Bournemouth beaches, with associated anti-social behaviour and total absence of social distancing). I’m in Cornwall now and I was in Cumbria last week, and it is definitely not what local residents want or are used to.
My first real trip after the Covid-19 lockdown was with my bike to Yorkshire and Cumbria – I’ve written about them before , and definitely plan to focus on York itself before too long. It was fun, but fundamentally I miss my old life. It’s all very well cycling from town to town, but I want to see something interesting when I get there. A few churches at least are now open around Cambridge, but not so many up here, and there are very few museums or stately homes open. How am I meant to gather information with which to confuse or amaze you? So when I do find something open, I don’t care how pricey it is, I’m in, even though in fact various parts are closed because they don’t fit in to a socially distanced one-way system or pandemic staffing levels. And I can’t breathe in my mask and my glasses are steamed up. And don’t get me started on pubs which insist on ordering via a QR reader rather than just saying ‘Two pints, please’ and waving a card at a contactless reader.
One surprise was how few establishments are taking Track and Trace details – I know the whole system is discredited, but still, it’s hardly a big deal to give a name and phone number. Another oddity of the lockdown has been its environmental impact – it seemed great at first, as skies and rivers cleared and cars vanished from the roads to be replaced by hordes of cyclists, joggers and walkers (those poor dogs, dragged out three or four times a day). But then it became clear that throwaway culture was the big winner, with deliveries and takeaways leaving huge amounts of waste, not to mention the mind-boggling amounts of single-use plastic PPE being dumped by the NHS and care homes. But I hadn’t realised until I went on this trip how hard it has become to recycle waste when you’re out and about – home collections still work, but in many towns the street bins seem to have gone.
Doncaster to Tadcaster and Lancaster
Anyway, I took a train to Doncaster and then cycled a branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail (a typical Sustrans route – going great distances on poor surfaces (former railway lines, even a former airfield) to avoid traffic, although in this case without the unnecessary hills they sometimes give us as well) to Snaith, where there’s an attractive priory that I’d never heard of, and Selby, where I knew there was an attractive abbey, and then the Solar System Greenway. On the original Selby-York alignment of the London-Edinburgh railway (where Mallard and the Deltics may have got up to a dizzying 100mph), this is indeed a scale model of the solar system, starting with the Voyager probe and the outer planets, about 2.5km apart, and ending up with the inner planets, about 250m apart, and the sun by the York ring-road. I’ve seen a few of these in my time, including on an alp above St Luc in Switzerland, and in Barrow, Alaska, but they’re always good, illustrating how very lonely the outer reaches of the solar system are.
From the edge of York I turned west through quiet lanes to Tadcaster, a Roman town near the crossing of the Great North Road (Ermine Street, now the A1) and the Leeds to York road (the Roman road from Chester to Bridlington, now the A64), that is now known as home to the Sam Smith’s and John Smith’s breweries.
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery claims to be Yorkshire’s Oldest Brewery, Established 1758, but the truth is slightly more tangled – in 1847 John Smith bought an existing brewery, founded in 1758, but then moved to new premises next door and left the old brewery to his nephew Samuel, who founded Samuel Smith’s Brewery in 1886. Sam’s is still independent and is known in Britain for selling decent beers in its own pubs at a remarkably low price (about double what it used to be, but still good value) and in the USA as the inspiration for early craft brewers such as Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island. Unusually, they produce only one real or cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, as well as a range of keg and bottled beers, and all their beers are vegan except for OBB and Yorkshire Stingo, a rich treacly beer matured for at least a year in oak casks and then bottled. I was intrigued by the name because the Blue Anchor in my home town of Helston in Cornwall, a pub-brewery which has been active continuously since the fifteenth century, calls its beer Spingo. This is a traditionally sweet Cornish bitter, while it turns out that Yorkshire Stingo refers to a stronger ale.
You can enjoy a good pint of OBB at the Angel and White Horse in the centre of Tadcaster, which is not only the brewery tap but also home to their fine grey shire horses, who deliver beer to local pubs five days a week – you can look in to the stables across the courtyard.
On the western edge of town, the much larger John Smith’s Brewery (now owned by Heineken UK) mass-produces a gassy bitter, as well as Amstel and Kronenbourg lagers. Enough said.
From Taddie I cycled on quiet lanes to the edge of Leeds (a great city which I’ve written about before) then followed their new Cycle Superhighway 2 to the city centre and switched to the Aire Valley Greenway, ie the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. In the western outskirts I stopped at Kirkstall Abbey – founded in 1152, this was one of the great Cistercian abbeys that became rich on the wool trade (see the Suffolk wool churches in my last post, and indeed Kendal in my next post), along with Jervaulx (which I visited a week later – see below), Rievaulx and Fountains. Kirkstall is now ruined and there’s not much to see, but it’s at the heart of a popular park. I’d have revisited the David Hockney Gallery in Salt’s Mill in Saltaire if it had been open, but alas no; so I cycled past Bingley’s Two-Rise and Five-Rise Locks to Keighley and then struggled (it was the UK’s hottest August day for 17 years) up the hill to Haworth.
Usually Haworth is swamped by Brönte fans and purveyors of romantic Brönte souvenirs, but the Parsonage Museum is closed, so they’re all staying away. In their absence, I could see that it’s quite attractive and not really that different from Hebden Bridge, with its Haworth Wholefoods, its Haworth Steam Brewery, its book and vinyl shops – but because it’s not on a main-line railway it doesn’t have the same potential for commuting into Leeds and Manchester. It has some decent pubs too, and as I cycled on I saw some more that looked pretty decent on the wuthering heights to the west.
I spent the next six nights in Lancaster and Cumbria – see my next post – and then returned to Yorkshire, taking the wonderfully scenic Settle and Carlisle railway line to Ribblehead. It’s known for the 24-arch viaduct, opened in 1874 as part of the last major railway to be built in Britain, but this wild and remote moorland was crossed long ago by Roman roads, some of which my friend Rob (with whom I cycled in Belgium, Taiwan and other places) is very keen on as cycle routes. His account of this Wensleydale ride is here. I was due to meet him in Hawes, down at the head of Wensleydale, which I thought would be a swift belt downhill but turned out to be quite a slog. I have visited the Wensleydale Creamery, famed for the eponymous cheese, but not this time. Eventually we got going, through Askrigg (where the pub apparently played a rôle in the James Herriott TV programmes) to Aysgarth, where Rob was amazed that as a proud Yorkshireman he’d had no idea the falls were so spectacular (we caught them after a reasonable amount of rain) – the River Ure drops over three separate sets of limestone slabs over almost a mile and the tea-coloured water puts on a pretty lively show.
Our next stop was Wensley, after which the dale of the Ure is named, although no-one really knows why – see below. It’s a tiny village, with an impressive little Grade-1 listed church that’s usually open – it’s not used for worship but is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Built circa 1240, it’s as notable for its furnishings as for its architecture, notably the Scrope family pew, a grand piece of seventeenth-century woodwork with at the back a sixteenth-century carved screen brought from Easby Abbey when it was dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1927 whitewash was removed from the walls, revealing fourteenth-century paintings of Jacob and Esau. Nice wildlife churchyard, too.
I knew Middleham Castle as Richard III’s base, but I have no idea why the village would now be twinned with Agincourt. In fact Middleham was a bit of a surprise – not only is it ‘the Newmarket of the North’, with lots of racehorse trainers here, but it also seems to be evolving into a bit of a foodie/boutique hotel destination, with various pubs serving good food (including the Blue Lion in East Witton, the next village we passed), one of which, the White Swan, transformed itself into The Wensleydale Hotel in 2019. Just to the east we were able to divert onto the footpath through Jervaulx Abbey, the only one of Yorkshire’s great Cistercian abbeys that is privately owned, with an honesty box to pay for admission (Paypal also welcome). It seems like an attractive garden (and tearooms) with an ace abbey attached, as there are few of the detailed information panels you might be looking for.
The next stop was Masham, which shares a similar brewing history to Tadcaster, with a well-known brewery, Theakston’s, founded in 1827, and the breakaway Black Sheep Brewery, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston, who left the family firm in 1988 after its takeover by Scottish & Newcastle. In fact the four other Theakston brothers bought back control of the business in 2004, and its website proudly proclaims it as an independent brewery, although in fact Heineken UK (successor to S&N) still owns 28% of the shares. Their Old Peculier is a really special beer, a strong old ale that’s dark, rich and smooth. Black Sheep Best Bitter, meanwhile, has been a huge success, spreading across Britain and indeed usually on tap in my local in Cambridge. I enjoyed visiting the Black Sheep Brewery over two decades ago and hoped to repeat the experience, but paying with a contactless card was far too simple for them – so we ended up getting our pints of Black Sheep at a pub-hotel on the town’s square, which rather bizarrely turned out to be owned by Greene King, the East Anglian regional brewers that I’ve moaned about before.
Then we passed through West Tanfield, where the fifteenth-century Marmion Tower (Grade I-listed and managed by English Heritage) stands almost up against the thirteenth-century church (which houses some fine old tombs) – the tower is just a shell, but you can still go up to the first floor for views through the oriel window.
Virtually traffic-free lanes took us via Wath to Ripon for our overnight stop – it’s a small historic market town, whoops sorry, city, where the main sight is the cathedral. Built in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, it only became a cathedral in 1836 when the Diocese of Ripon was created, and Ripon therefore became a city – but in 2014 the diocese became part of the new Diocese of Leeds, with three co-cathedrals, here, in Wakefield and in Bradford (but not Leeds). The ways of the Church of England are indeed mysterious. The Early English west front, raised in 1220, is a highlight, but overall I found the furnishings more interesting than the architecture, notably the misericords in the choir, carved between 1489 and 1494, and the wooden hand sticking out above them from the base of the organ, used to beat time for the choir. This summer there are also some 10,000 paper angels hanging in a net high in the nave, in the very striking A Wing and a Prayer installation.
Ripon’s Market Square is spacious and attractive, with an eighteenth-century obelisk, perhaps by Nicholas Hawksmoor, in the centre, and some fine buildings such as the Town Hall, built in 1799 by James Wyatt, and the half-timbered Wakeman’s House, built by about 1600. The Wakeman was (until 1604) the predecessor of the mayor, and can be confused with the Hornblower, who traditionally blows a blast on a horn at 9pm every night at each corner of the obelisk. There are in fact currently three hornblowers (one female) with four historic horns to choose from, and during the pandemic the tradition has been maintained by one of them at home – there’s no public notification of who or where to avoid public gatherings, of course. Otherwise, Ripon has a three-fold museum complex that might be interesting, but as it was just an overnight stop we couldn’t visit; but we did enjoy good Italian food (and wine) at Prima as well as grabbing breakfast pastries at Thomas the Baker.
From Ripon it’s not far to Boroughbridge, an historic coaching stop on the Great North Road, which shows signs of possibly rediscovering its foodie vocation with attractive shops and cafés. First we saw the Devil’s Arrows, three large standing stones that are part of a ritual landscape that stretches to the three Thornborough Henges, back near Masham, sometimes referred to as the Stonehenge of the North. In the almost conjoined village of Aldborough we visited the few paltry remains of a Romano-British township where a couple of mosaics are preserved in their original locations, but they are unimpressive compared to ones I’ve seen in the last few years in places like Trier, Istanbul, Plovdiv , Butrint and even St Albans.
From here there was nothing much to detain us on our ride to York – we were still following the Ure, but it’s rich farming country rather than a dale. But Rob needed to show me the Ousegill Burn, a very minor stream about 2km long, and vent his disgust at the geographical quirk that means that the Ure (having absorbed the Swale, though both are in fact pretty equal-sized rivers) suddenly becomes known as the Ouse after the confluence with this little stream. Ouse was the Celtic word for ‘water’ (just as Avon was the Celtic word for ‘river’), so there are various rivers called Ouse (and Avon) across Britain – but it seems obvious to Rob, and I can’t disagree, that Jorvik, the Viking name for York, derives from the Ure (never mind the orthodoxy that it derives from the Saxon Eoforwic, thought to mean wild boar settlement, or Eofer’s trading place). And Jervaulx is an old French form of Ure Valley. So there are in fact two mysteries, why the dale is named after Wensley rather than the Ure, and why the river through York is called the Ouse rather the Ure. The Ure can definitely feel hard done by.
After crossing the Aldwark toll bridge (free for bikes, and busy with cyclists on the coast-to-coast Way of the Roses) it was nice to pass through the grounds of the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall (still closed, though the gardens, café and restaurant are open) before the pleasant riverside ride into York, for a refreshing pint and a train home.
As a Rough Guides author, I was of course carrying the Yorkshire guide – which turned out to have no coverage of Selby, Tadcaster or indeed Ilkley, but eight pages on Rotherham and seven on Doncaster – is this because the author perhaps lives between them on the southernmost edge of Yorkshire (ie almost in London), or is it a metropolitan obsession with post-industrial re-invention?
For those of us living in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, 30 miles to the east, seems like an uninteresting market town that became an unattractive agroindustrial centre. The truth is, however, that (leaving aside its spell as Roman Durovigutum) Cambridge is not as ancient as Bury, which was a Saxon royal borough. An abbey was founded in about 633 and re-established in 945 to house the remains of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia who was killed by the Danes in 869 (or possibly 870). He either died in battle or was captured and then killed after refusing to renounce his Christian faith – legend has it that he was decapitated and that his followers were guided to his head by a wolf calling ‘Hic, hic, hic’ (Here, here, here, in Latin). It’s not clear to me (ie to Wikipedia) when he was actually canonised, but a cult soon developed over his remains, with pilgrims, including kings, coming from far and wide. King Cnut (Canute) built a stone church in 1020, and the abbey was rebuilt again after 1095, by which time it was the most famous and well-funded in England. Edmund was effectively the patron saint of England until he was replaced by Edward the Confessor (around 1200) and then St George in 1348 – it’s odd that he’s so generally forgotten now.
In 1214 the abbey was the natural place for a group of barons to meet in the guise of pilgrims, to draw up a set of demands to put to King John; they swore at the altar to force him to sign what of course became known as the Magna Carta. However the abbey, like so many others, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, and has now almost totally vanished – a few eroded teeth of stonework stand in what are now the lovely Abbey Gardens, immediately east of the town centre, and part of the west front (aptly described as like petrified porridge) was converted in Georgian times into something like multi-storey hobbit houses. These are adjacent to the current cathedral, which was a parish church (founded in 1503) until a new diocese was created in 1914. It had already been expanded in the 1860s, and then in the 1960s and ‘70s a new choir and crossing were built, as well as the porch. In 1998 an appeal for £10 million was launched to complete the cathedral with cloisters and a lantern tower, and funding was obtained from the National Lottery – this was controversial, because many people thought the money could be better used for social projects, and because it’s all been built in a pretty unadventurous Gothic style which doesn’t really set the pulse racing. Slightly oddly, the diocese (and the local authority area) are called St Edmundsbury rather than Bury St Edmunds (Bury being a variant of Borough).
When I last visited – my first post-lockdown excursion – the cathedral and the gardens were just about all that was open to visitors, other than shops and cafés, but usually you can visit the Moyse’s Hall Museum, in what is claimed to be one of Britain’s few remaining Norman houses, dating from around 1180 (in fact the Norman period ended in 1154 with the accession of the Plantagenet King Henry II). It’s a good museum of local history, and also houses the relatively famous clock collection that was housed first in the National Trust’s Angel Corner (built in 1702, at 8 Angel Hill and now housing council offices) and then in the Manor House on Honey Hill (built in 1738, and sold off in 2007 to be a private house). [It turns out that Moyse’s Hall re-opened the day after I was there – there was absolutely no information then.]
The National Trust also owns the Theatre Royal (built in 1819), which is still a working theatre, and Ickworth (built in 1794-1830), a stately home 3 miles west of town that I haven’t visited for many years but certainly would have gone back to if it hadn’t been still in lockdown – it’s not too huge a bike ride from Cambridge, especially if you take the train home from Bury St Edmunds.
The other thing that I would regard as worth visiting is the Greene King brewery, just south of the centre – although GK are not the most popular across the region, because of the way they swallow up small breweries, promising to preserve their local ales and then ruining them, and because of the way they treat their pub tenants. The Greene King Beer Café has reopened, but brewery tours have not yet restarted. Unfortunately, Britain’s smallest pub, the Nutshell, has not yet reopened either – precisely because it’s too small for safe social distancing, with space for about half a dozen customers, seating and standing, and drinking is not allowed outside.
However, I did quite the look of the Old Cannon Brewery (with restaurant and rooms), just north of the centre, although its post-Covid restrictions made it too much of a pain to check out at the time.
A couple of weeks after my last visit to BSE I was cycling in the countryside about 15 miles south of the town, from Long Melford to Hadleigh via Lavenham (which is lovely and very well known) and Kersey (which is also lovely, but I’d never heard of it before). This part of Suffolk was very wealthy in the later Middle Ages, thanks to the local wool industry which provided clothing to much of Europe at the time. This paid for many churches to be rebuilt with high roofs and huge windows, creating a specific local style of buildings flooded with light. There are lots of lovely half-timbered houses, and again the National Trust owns some key properties, notably Melford Hall and Lavenham Guildhall (both currently closed).
Bury St Edmunds has the reputation of having lots of literary connections, but even the town’s tourism website doesn’t come up with many good examples, although Dickens and Shakespeare mention the place. I’m quietly pleased with my guess that King’s Crypt, in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, is actually Bury St Edmunds. On the other hand I was indignant to read a review of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, saying that it was set in the ‘fictional everytown of Edmundsbury’ – it’s not fictional, and it’s not an everytown.
I haven’t been able to travel far, of course, during the Covid-19 lockdown, but I have been able to get out on my bike every day, and I’m very aware that I live in a very attractive area. We have the Paradise Nature Reserve and Grantchester Meadows (too crowded at the moment, alas), but we also have lots of beautiful buildings on what are currently very quiet streets. Obviously Cambridge University and the colleges are architectural patrons of distinction and over the centuries have built many fine edifices – but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I was looking at my Pevsner (The Buildings of England – Cambridgeshire, the 1970 second edition), which caught my attention with its reference (on p.255) to ‘The Villenviertel of Cambridge’. It’s a distinctly Germanic concept; I can’t really think of any other English city with a ‘Villa Quarter’, but the western Berlin suburbs of Wannsee, Grunewald and Dahlem are defined by their lakeside villas (it’s a little-known fact that there are lakes in West Cambridge, but they are totally surrounded by houses and visible only from the air for most of us). Vienna and other cities also have their villa quarters, but in Britain by and large we had Metroland.
Thinking about this, I came across this paper: ‘West Cambridge 1870–1914: building the bicycle suburb’ by Philomena Guillebaud (Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society XCVI), about the transformation of this same area from farmland to a ‘gentry housing’ area. ‘Bicycle suburb’ is an equally odd concept, given that the whole of Cambridge is a bicycle city now, and that this area is easily close enough to the city centre to walk. But it did mean that pretty grand houses could be built without stables (which would later have become garages) and that domestic staff did not have to live in if they could easily cycle to work – a hint at a social revolution there, perhaps.
Effectively, the history of West Cambridge begins only in the 1870s when fields were enclosed and largely ended up in the hands of St John’s and a couple of other colleges; plots were then allocated for the construction of Newnham and Selwyn Colleges and Ridley Hall (from 1875, 1879 and 1877 respectively), and then for housing development. It’s widely believed that this was driven by the end of the requirement for college fellows to be bachelors, in 1877, but this was really just one factor. From the start of the twentieth century colleges were themselves building grand buildings on Grange Road to house students and staff, eventually followed by the university library and further colleges.
Most of the houses were designed by London architects such as MH Baillie Scott, ES Prior, and then slightly later Edmund Kett, AW Rose and AL Champneys, who are still remembered as among the best architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The dominant style is probably Arts and Crafts, although there are plenty of Jacobean, Baroque and Georgian features too.
Pevsner describes his Villenviertal as lying around Grange Road and Madingley Road, but, looking at the detail (pp. 241 and 255-6) the area described stretches from Millington Road in the south to Storey’s Way in the north. Since Pevsner’s time, Madingley Road has become a busy main road into the city and most remaining houses now have dense high hedges to cut themselves off; but over the years I’ve delivered leaflets along Grange Road and I’ve always been aware of some very fine buildings there. My favourite is no.11, known as Upton House, which was built in 1912 to designs by Algernon Winter Rose; it’s one of a quite a few Grade II-listed houses in the area, and I found that English Heritage’s web pages not only give useful information about individual listed buildings, but also cite others which give ‘group value’ – in this case nos. 4 (1898, by Baillie Scott), 5 & 7 (c.1893, by Edmund Kett). It’s also hard to miss nos. 60 and 62, both built by Champneys in 1906 as student accommodation for Trinity College, and no. 71 (1911, by AB Mitchell), with a plaque marking it as the home of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947), awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929.
Personally I quite like 31 Grange Rd, described in passing as Victorian, but to me it seems a throwback to the Georgian style, with its bowed frontage.
On the north side of Madingley Road, Storey’s Way is named after Storey’s Charity (now the Edward Storey Foundation), named after a Cambridge bookseller who died in 1692 or 1693 and left money to buy land in order to fund almshouses for the poor (it’s still active). It runs between Churchill, Trinity Hall and Fitzwilliam Colleges, splendid ensembles of twentieth-century architecture but beyond my remit here; more to the point are the lovely Arts and Crafts houses and gardens, several by Baillie Scott, that were built in the golden age before the First World War (the Rupert Brooke years). The first to catch my eye was no. 76 (1913, by Arthur Hamilton Moberly), which has a blue plaque in honour of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died there in 1951 – a month or two back, on an earlier lockdown cycle ride, I found his grave not far away in the Ascension Burial Ground. Just north is Atholl Lodge, built in 1931, and now the Fitzwilliam College’s Masters Lodge; it’s not particularly highly rated but makes a nice statement with its distinctive corner turret on a bend in the road. It’s followed by several Baillie Scott houses, of which no.48, just before the next bend in the road, seems almost perfect to me. I have a newspaper article from 2016, when it was for sale – internally it’s apparently open-plan like a medieval hall, with the latches and window fittings etc all designed by Baillie Scott to fit his concept of the ’ideal home’ (similar to the ideas of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland).
At the other end of Grange Road, Millington Road is a private road, with anachronistic gas lights, that was developed slightly later – there are seven fine houses by HC Hughes, notably no.11 (1922), as well as a classic example (no.26 – designed by Marshall Sisson in 1931) of the kind of flat-roofed Modernism that Pevsner had grown up with in Germany. While I was cycling around thinking about this piece, I came across a similar (but more Corbusieresque) example which I thought he’d missed – but of course he hadn’t (9 Wilberforce Road), although he doesn’t give a date or any other details. According to other sources, it was designed by Dora Cosens in 1937 – she was a student of Checkley at the university’s School of Architecture, then married (Thomas Hardy was at her wedding – he began as an architect, after all) and gave up architecture.
Pevsner then mentions Barton Court ‘on the other side of Barton Road’, terrace houses (we’d probably call them maisonettes now) by Dry Halasz Dixon Partnership (1966-9) – as far as I can tell, this is now called Archway Court, and is on the same side of Barton Road as Millington Road.
Just west is Grantchester Road –in the second edition, Pevsner added Nos. 2 & 2A and described them as ‘among the best recent houses in Cambridge’. They were designed in 1963-4 by Colin St John Wilson, who taught architecture at Cambridge and went on to design the British Library. Pevsner described its ‘cast-stone blocks of a pure white’ which unfortunately now look like grubby breeze-blocks – it may be wonderful in its use of internal space, but externally it really hasn’t dated well. Enough said.
Across the world countries are moving towards ending their lockdowns and returning to something closer to normal life – even the UK, which is in no fit state, is inching in that direction. Although international travel remains virtually impossible for at least another month, the ways in which countries are beginning to open up for their citizens and residents do give some clues to what the new normal will look like.
Museums and art galleries are reopening in cities like Berlin, Zurich and Antwerp, but it’s clear that the experience will be very constrained and lacking the freedom that we have taken for granted. After booking online (or possibly making a contactless payment, which is of course key to the new normal), you’ll have a timed entry slot before using hand sanitiser and donning a face mask, then following a one-way system, with the doors jammed open so no-one has to touch them, and you won’t be allowed to linger in front of works that especially speak to you. All at a distance of at least 1.5m metres from other people – in Britain we seem to be specifying two metres, which is probably wiser but may be even less practicable than the rest of the farrago. There’ll be no maps or leaflets, no audio guides, and no groups of school kids or tourists (at last, a positive!).
China is leading the way in developing more sophisticated new systems, but only for those already resident in the country – you apparently now walk through temperature scanners all the time, to enter the metro or shopping centres, and barely notice them, much like metal detectors. People also have a ‘health pass’ on their mobile phones with a QR code that links to their name and ID number and gives a red or green reading depending on whether they’ve been in proximity with an infected person; if it’s red, they can’t go into shops and restaurants for 14 days. If you do get into a restaurant, there’s mass sanitising, and widely spaced tables, of course, with no more than three people (oddly) at each. So some kind of going out is possible – but as you may know, I have an interest (both emotional and financial) in British pubs, and their future looks far more complicated, until we have effective widespread vaccination. With restricted numbers and table service only, it’s hard to see how they can either be much fun or indeed survive financially.
The most difficult aspect of travel, and the last to resume, will be long-haul intercontinental flying – quite apart from needing to allow four hours to check in and get through the airport, what with all the social distancing, facial recognition and contactless temperature checking and sanitation (of passengers and luggage) that will be required (and probably no lounges, no carry-on luggage, no inflight mags and no in-flight catering either) there will also need to be a system of immunity passports, perhaps requiring blood tests at the airport itself. Even then if you arrive with a raised temperature you risk being sent back, or at best quarantined for two weeks – just in time for your flight home. And the air fares will have to be higher, to cope with extra sanitation requirements (and the increased time needed to clean planes between flights) and the lower seating densities. But airlines have billions of [insert unit of currency] worth of planes doing nothing, so are desperate to start flying one way or another.
Travel within a continent or region should be a bit less complicated, probably with less onerous health requirements – free travel zones are planned between Australia and New Zealand; Vietnam and Thailand; and between the three Baltic states, and new quarantine laws won’t apply to travel between Britain and France, or Britain and Ireland. One might expect the same to apply eventually between the United States and Canada (but not Mexico, I fear).
However the easiest option for most of us and for quite a while will be domestic travel – even without the hassle of airports, visas and test certificates, I won’t want to be getting on a plane any time soon, as someone who picks up a bug whenever he flies anyway. Trains are also confined spaces with dry air which helps the transmission of viruses, but you’re less likely to find them fully occupied, apart from peak-hour commuter services into major cities. Really, the most stress-free option will be cycling and camping, but by and large that will require a train journey to get to the starting point.
Cities across Europe (which currently doesn’t include British cities, apart from one seafront road in Brighton) are creating ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes with cones and paint – Paris, Berlin and Milan are leading the way, with hundreds of kilometres of safe new routes. This is to deal with two issues – first, that people don’t want to be on buses and trains at the moment and so are likely to use cars when they go back to work, unless they can be persuaded to cycle, and secondly that people are trying to walk but there just isn’t space to keep a safe distance from other people on the pavements (what with the queues outside shops as well) so there needs to be space to step into the carriageway. Shared-use paths, where cyclists are encouraged to use the footways too, make things far worse, so the more that cyclists can be persuaded to use the carriageway the better. Here in Cambridge cyclists are tending to use the carriageway and leave the off-road cycleways and shared-use paths for pedestrians, but that may change as cars return. E-bikes are going to be part of the solution, although the supply chain may dry up for a while – get your orders in now. Electric skateboards and similar monstrosities are also bound to grow in number and will have to be catered for.
Georgia leads the way
Georgia, which has done a great job so far in keeping Covid-19 to a minimum, is now racing to be the first country to open up to international tourism again. I have an interest in Georgia, of course, and my colleague Claire is planning to be there this summer to research a new edition. That will be an interesting experience, to say the least!
Domestic tourism is to be permitted again from 15 June and international tourism from 1 July, dependent on creating ‘safe corridors’ at the borders and presumably on specific air links, though I don’t know what that will involve. In addition to the mere 10 deaths thus far from Covid-19, the government is also touting its ‘enormous experience’ in quarantining over 19,000 people (in 83 hotels).
In fact Greece also hopes to open up for tourism on 1 July, althoughit’s not at all sure that bars and restaurants will be open – so inclusive resorts, yachts and agrotourism will be fine, but other holidays may be frustrating. Other countries are also beginning to open up, one way or another – mostly for internal travel, with quarantine (14 days, not the full 40 as in Venice when the term was first coined) as a rule for international arrivals. But Austria, for instance, offers two alternatives, allowing visitors to either show a certificate of a negative coronavirus test within the last four days, or pay €190 for an on-the-spot test. Hong Kong Airport has introduced full-body disinfectation booths (nasty chemicals in a confined space? I’m not keen). London’s Heathrow Airport is talking of contactless procedures such as ultraviolet sanitation and thermal screening, which is fact fits perfectly with the British government’s hands-off approach thus far – they are now talking of quarantining arriving passengers, roughly three months too late, while about 18 million people have apparently entered the UK without any form of check. Just one of the reasons why Covid-19 is cutting such a swathe through the British population.
We need to talk about testing
The only solution to this crisis, the only way to get back to anything like a normal life, is the development of a vaccine and its global deployment. It’s not 100% certain that will happen as all, and until it does there will be new outbreaks and new lockdowns, and happy relaxed travel is going to be difficult to achieve. We also need much better antiviral treatments for those infected with the new coronavirus, but that alone won’t solve the problem.
In the meantime, we have two types of tests. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test looks for genetic traces of the virus and is fairly reliable but only detects a current infection; it’s a robotic process which is already carried out on a huge scale by drug discovery companies, so it’s been easy to ramp up for the new coronavirus. On the other hand, antibody or serological tests pick up evidence of someone having been previously exposed to the virus as well, but produce a lot of both false negatives and false positives (due to similarities to other coronaviruses such as the common cold). There’s a huge number of new testing kits being produced for this new virus, and testing the test kits is in itself a huge challenge. The British government went ahead and bought four million fingerprick testing kits from China, at a cost of £16 million, before finding they weren’t good enough. The best options at the moment will require a blood sample and lab analysis, which will be much slower and more expensive. One great unknown is whether having been infected gives some kind of immunity, and for how long, which might allow governments to issue, and accept, ‘immunity passports’. It’s possible that you need to be seriously affected to achieve any kind of immunity while those who’ve been slightly unwell or indeed asymptomatic will not ‘benefit’ at all. In any case, don’t expect immunity passports any time soon, so quarantine is going to be required for travel to many countries.
Just to be clear, this is not a disease that you want to risk catching. It’s becoming clear that the virus can affect not only the lungs but pretty much any of our organs, including the nervous system; many people who survive it will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems and never return to normal lives. It’s possible to die from a cytokine storm, when the immune system doesn’t recognise what it’s fighting and goes into overdrive. What’s more, the virus can disappear while the system goes on struggling for a month or more, so that some people need hospitalisation even though they test negative for the virus. Stay home, stay safe remains the best advice.
I’m now a month in to the (first?) Covid-19 lockdown, and maybe it’s time to think a bit about the future, specifically the future of travel. So many questions, so many unknown variables… but it won’t be how it was, that’s certain.
The most important factor is that even when we move away from lockdown, as some countries are beginning to do, this pandemic won’t be finished until we have a vaccine (or some other treatment) available to just about everybody in the world, and that is going to take a couple of years.
And I personally feel that even when we can reliably test and treat people, it will still be asking for trouble to get on a plane – as someone who usually picks up at least a sniffle whenever I fly, I’ll be happy to confine my travels to the UK and Europe for a few years at least. At the moment it looks as if the new coronavirus is liable to mutate significantly, and that being infected does not necessarily produce antibodies and lead to immunity – we don’t yet know, but the signs are not great. And it doesn’t just kill by choking the lungs with pus, but attacks other organs too in ways we don’t yet understand.
The most current research, published in Science by a team of Harvard epidemiologists and immunologists, suggests we’ll still be social-distancing in some form or other until 2022, and can expect to see new outbreaks of Covid-19 for many years to come. Likewise, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, has just said the coronavirus is not going to go away and we will have to learn to live and work with regular flare-ups of Covid-19. We will want to get out of our homes as soon as possible, but I imagine most trips will initially be to catch up with family and friends around the country.
Even so, there are billions of dollars worth of planes on the ground doing nothing and there will be huge pressure to get them back to work. Similarly, there are billions of dollars worth of idle cruise ships, but they are even more likely to turn into seething pits of infection so it’s hard to see the cruise industry getting back to what it was. And there are billions of dollars worth of hotels standing empty. With about 10% of global employment in the travel and tourism industry, it’s vital for the world economy to find a way back.
The era of travelling freely, with no visas required or with visas on arrival for many countries, won’t be coming back in a hurry, and we’ll doubtless need to carry medical certificates and to accept being sent home if our temperature is too high when we reach a new country. We will travel with a new awareness of our own mortality – obviously we’ll shy away from hotspots like Iran, but travel to Asia and Africa as a whole will be greatly reduced, I’m sure – heck, even London (epicentre of the pandemic in the UK) will be seeing less of me, I dare say.
A background of misgovernment
It has to be said that we always knew there would be another pandemic – I thought it would be more like the bubonic plague or Ebola fever, and this is actually perhaps less awful than it might have been. But the point is that we, that is all the countries of the world, should have been better prepared. Not just me, Bill Gates was also telling world leaders to prepare from 2015. Even when it was obvious what was coming our way from China our governments did very little – in the UK, the prime minister didn’t attend any of the first five COBRA meetings (from 24 January), and throughout February the government failed to organise supplies for testing or ventilators. They asked people not to go out, but didn’t actually close the pubs and restaurants for several days (not to mention the Cheltenham Festival and other huge sporting events). It took over three weeks from Sage, the scientific advisory group on emergencies, recommending a lockdown at the end of February to it actually happening. When the government finally had to act, after it was obvious that the Italian health system was being overwhelmed, they flirted with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would effectively cull the weakest and oldest part of the population, before finally buckling down to creating new intensive care wards and testing facilities – although without the follow-up contact tracing which was so crucial in allowing Taiwan and South Korea to keep their death toll so low. The UK government wasn’t even testing people coming out of hospital and going into social care until mid-February, so it’s no surprise that elderly people in care homes were soon dying like flies.
When there was a chance to join the EU’s schemes for procuring ventilators and protective equipment the British government refused to have anything to do with it, on purely ideological anti-European grounds, choosing instead to make up stories about missed emails and to lie about ordering equipment both from British companies and countries such as Turkey and China. And when every sane voice was saying that the transition period for Britain to finally leave the EU had to be extended beyond the end of 2020, they continued to say this was inconceivable – well, we’ll see how that plays out, but a no-deal departure from the EU will be absolutely terrible for an economy already knocked sideways by Covid-19. The fact that British supermarkets are still out of flour a month after the lockdown began does not bode well for a no-deal Brexit – I know the problem is with the packaging lines, not the supermarkets themselves, but it’s all part of the much-vaunted supply chain.
As for the USA… President Trump also missed his opportunities to act and then consistently treated the new coronavirus as an opportunity to find new countries and people to blame. Both countries have handled the pandemic particularly badly, but there’s no point my going on about it. Still, there’s a strong sense that just when the world should be acting together, the countries that should be taking the lead are undermining this, most notably Trump’s withholding funds from the World Health Organisation and the UK’s refusing to work with Europe. This applies equally to the global climate crisis, which has been put to one side for the duration of the pandemic – although of course the planet is breathing a little more easily with so few cars, planes and factories belching forth their fumes. Will we return to business as before, or will people want to keep their clean air?
Obviously co-ordinated global action is also needed on the climate crisis, for instance to levy a worldwide tax on aviation fuel (at the moment no country will act because airlines just say we’ll buy our fuel elsewhere and you’ll lose out) – let’s be clear, air fares were, until the pandemic, at historically low levels and while this is great in terms of seeing the rellies in Australia every year it is totally unsustainable in terms of its environmental impact. Adding a major tax just when businesses are trying to recover from the lockdown is unlikely to get much support, but at least the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the world can pull together to take global action when it needs to.
As for guidebooks
The guidebook industry is perhaps in even worse straits than the airline and hospitality businesses which do, at least, have capital assets such as planes and hotels as backing; travel publishers, however, are paying to store guidebooks that are rapidly going out of date. I work for the Rough Guides and for Bradt Travel Guides, neither of which is able to pay royalties (Bradt had the decency to ask first, Rough Guides just failed to pay) and both may indeed go out of business soon. Lonely Planet has just closed two of its four offices, including its spiritual home in Melbourne, and is also in trouble. I’m working on updating guides to Wales and Georgia (and soon Transylvania), but who knows if I’ll ever be paid? Still, it’s a lockdown, so what else should I be doing? No, don’t answer that.
If you want to support Bradt, and to have some exciting reading to prepare for future travels, please click on this link and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this half-price offer will end, but don’t leave it too long!
PS I also meant to say something about hostels – sleeping in a dorm with unknown companions is going to seem a lot more unattractive in the future. The big trend in independent hostels recently has been a growth in the number of private rooms (ensuite or not), but for the next few years this is probably going to be the mainstay of their business and they should probably get on with subdividing dorms as fast as they can. Even so, shared washing facilities are going to be a concern and lots of cleaning products will have to be on hand at all times.
I’m in lock-down in Cambridge at the moment, but a few months ago I did make a flying visit to the other place, Oxford, where I studied many years ago.
From the cultural tourism point of view, the most notable developments in Oxford recently have been the reopening of the Ashmolean Museum (in 2009) and of the Weston Library (in 2015). The Ashmolean, of course, is Britain’s oldest museum, founded in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford in 1677 by Elias Ashmole, treasures acquired by him from the gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger. It’s housed in the Cockerell Building (opened in 1845), one wing of which is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the university’s modern languages faculty, where I spent a certain amount of time as a student (as an undergraduate and in my glorious two-term research career). The £61 million revamp by Rick Mather dropped a huge concrete-and-glass box into the courtyard behind the original museum, creating a spectacular lightwell/staircase that provides easy connections to every floor and gallery, plus of course a new rooftop restaurant. The display space has also been doubled in size, allowing bigger and better temporary exhibitions – I’m very keen to see the current Young Rembrandt show, but of course it’s closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I didn’t spend much time in the New Bodleian Library as a student, and just saw it as a drab pile that I had to pass frequently – built in 1937-40 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Wikipedia sniffily notes that it’s ‘not generally considered his finest work’, although it is listed as a Grade II historic building. It too has been hollowed out behind the original façade in an £80 million pound project to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material and better facilities for readers, including a digital media centre and 2.5km of open-access bookshelves. It also welcomes outside visitors for the first time; a new entrance from Broad St leads to a shop and café and spaces for free temporary exhibitions, which I strongly recommend. Journalists crowed that ‘the dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod’, but it is in fact now called the Weston Library.
I’ve just seen that the University Museum of Natural History is next in line for a major revamp; in 2014-6 it was closed to fix its leaking roof (comprising over 2,500 Victorian glass tiles), and in 2020 the displays in the main court are being moved out in shifts (allowing the museum to stay open throughout) and reinstalled in new high-tech conservation cabinets. The new displays will, they say, ’address the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment’.
Not all of Oxford’s museums are doing so well – just last month three paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa were stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Christ Church itself had recently been in the news because cases of fine Burgundy and Pouilly Fumé had been disappearing from the cellar. Hmmmm, I wonder if there could be a connection.
Architecture old and new
In fact though, every time one returns to Oxford after a few years away, there are plenty of new and converted buildings to catch the attention. At my alma mater, New College, the stylish new Clore Music Studios were completed in January 2019 and the Kimbel Wing (fantastic accommodation for the disabled in the original Morris Garage, where the first Bullnose Morris cars were assembled in 1912) was opened in March 2019 (I’d love to see my nephew living there one day, but that’s another story). More recently, the plans for the new Gradel Quadrangles, which received planning permission in June 2018, were greeted with general approval and even excitement – crammed in behind Savile House, where I lived in my final year, they’ll allow New College to provide rooms for all its students.
In the future I’d like to wander north of the centre, where there’s all sorts of interesting new architecture, starting with the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, in and around the old Radcliffe Infirmary between the Woodstock Road and Walton Street. The Observatory itself is now the focal point of Green Templeton College, a new graduate college founded in 2008. The former St Luke’s Chapel (built in 1865) is a venue for events, and not to be confused with the Freud café in the former St Paul’s Church on Walton St, built in 1836. There’s new accommodation for Somerville College here, and the Jericho Health Centre and the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the Mathematical Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government (by Herzog & de Meuron) have also opened; the new Humanities Building was granted planning permission in 2010 but has been delayed by funding issues, with construction now expected to begin in 2021 (leaving aside any Covid-19-related complications). I love good modern architecture (and thankfully Oxford and Cambridge can both afford to pay for it), and I especially enjoy projects that fit in new buildings among historic sites like this. A little further north, colleges such as St Anne’s also have similarly striking new buildings to be examined.
Other small projects caught my eye too, for instance the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre (part of Wadham College), opened in 2012 in the former Blackwell’s Music Shop at the rear of the King’s Arms (I’ll get to pubs later, don’t worry, but the KA is also owned by Wadham). I have no idea what the Oxford Ice Factory building was when I was a student (1978-82) but it now houses the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre opened in 2017 by the Saïd Business School, aiming to build a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs to leave society and the planet in a better state. It too has a nice café, naturally. And just a couple of blocks west, at the corner of Hollybush Row and the new Frideswide Square, the Jam Factory, opened in 2006, is a restaurant-bar-arts centre in the building where the famous ‘Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade was produced from 1903 to 1958. Immediately to the east. ie slightly nearer the city centre, I wandered around what used to be an area of breweries and other industries straddling various side-channels of the Isis (Thames) – not an area I’d ever known before, but there are still traces of the former Lion (Morrell’s) and Eagle Steam Breweries, now incorporated in fairly pricey residential developments. Immediately to the east again, Oxford Castle and the old prison are well known as a fairly upmarket regeneration area, with posh hotels and restaurants.
Just a few pubs
And so to the pubs – I headed first to the Turf Tavern, which was my local for some years. It’s expanded, now stretching almost all the way back to New College tower, and has got more touristy, with more emphasis on food. It’s still hard to find and still has skull-bashingly low beams though. They claim that both Bob Hawke’s Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds and Bill Clinton’s ‘not inhaling’ marijuana both took place here in the 1960s; they may be right about Bob Hawke (he was later Australia’s most charismatic prime minister ever), but I’ve met people who knew Clinton at Oxford and the ‘not inhaling’ seemed to take place at private parties. They also make much of the fact that the Harry Potter crew hung out here after filming, which is probably true – some scenes were shot in New College and, for what it’s worth, Emma Watson’s father was a student there with me.
The KA (see above) is largely unchanged except for the addition of an attractive room with leather sofas next to the back bar (which lost its male-only status just five years before I came up); I found that it’s been a Youngs pub since 1991 – I have no idea what it was in my student days but would be happy to hear any ideas. The White Horse was closed for a mini-refurb over New Year but is probably not greatly changed (there’s not room to do anything much with it); and the Welsh Pony (famously basic when I was there, with amazingly cheap fry-ups) closed as a pub about twenty years ago and is now a generic seedy bar. The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child) and Flamb and Lag (Lamb and Flag) are still there but both indelibly linked to Tolkien and CS Lewis and thus of no interest to me.
I was intrigued to see that the local Wetherspoons (I wouldn’t drink there either, due to the founder Tim Martin being a berserk Brexiteer who made himself even more unpopular by his reaction to the new coronavirus) is calledThe Four Candles – I wasn’t sure why, until someone told me that Ronnie Barker was a pupil at the Oxford High School for Boys, and the pub is now in that building (which was the History Faculty in my day). Or is it the Fork Handles…? If you don’t know the sketch you should look it up at once.
I didn’t get there, but I was delighted to learn that the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road, which was my own secret pub in my final year, is now fully vegetarian – no idea what the beer is like, but I look forward to visiting as soon as possible. And we used to love going out to rural pubs such as the Plough in Noke (now closed, I believe), the Boat by the canal in Thrupp (great for bar billiards) and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, which a friend visited fairly recently – it’s now community-owned, with good local beers, good-value meals, and a plaque stating that Evelyn Waugh ‘wrote, drank and loved here’– which I hadn’t known. Apparently Waugh stayed here regularly with a male lover, and then honeymooned there with his first wife (who was also called Evelyn, confusingly; she left him for another man, and I can’t blame her), before spending time here to write books including Vile Bodies.
From Oxford to Adlestrop
And finally – I’ve just read Oxford by Edward Thomas (of Adlestrop fame), which I can’t particularly recommend, it’s stuffed full of quotations and allusions to show how well educated he was (Hertford College, don’t you know) and the footnotes (in the 2005 Signal edition) don’t explain them all. The introduction stresses his Welshness, even though he’s known as a writer specifically about English countryside and nature, which is of some interest as I’m updating the Rough Guide to Wales at the moment. In fact he writes about a visit by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, now remembered mainly as a train), who ‘for three days read aloud his glorious book to large audiences’. My last blog post was largely about Jan Morris, whose Oxford is a definitive account and a wonderful read. Thomas does mention pubs and taverns quite a lot, and cycling, and also bonfires, which were very common in the college quads in his day but must have been extinguished quite soon after. In his opinion, the major change in his day from historic times was the advent of organised sport (especially rowing) – fives was the exception, which had been popular but had died out by his time – but it has now been revived, of course. Long country walks, not necessarily to pubs in Noke and Beckley, were also popular.
Adlestrop, incidentally, where his train stopped unexpectedly on an Edwardian summer’s day, is north of Oxford near Stow-on-the-Wold (which I visit from time to time), in a location now best known for the Daylesford Organic Farm. But my next objective is to finally read Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (published in 1911), another classic Oxford tale which I think will be more fun than Edward Thomas.
Due to the coronavirus lock-down I’ve turned my hand to something more like a book review…
I joked in the introduction to my Bradt Guide to Dresden that I’d misheard and signed up to write it because I thought they’d said Trieste. Not actually true, because after all, Dresden is stunning and I loved being there and have been badgering them to do an update ever since. And I never got to write about Trieste, in fact I’ve not been there for several decades – but I have been reading Jan Morris’s classic Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.
Born in 1926, James Morris was just old enough to join the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (the same regiment that occupied Montevideo in 1807, as it happens) at the end of the war and served as a subaltern in the forces occupying Trieste. The city had been liberated by the Yugoslav partisans, with New Zealand troops (and the Lancers in their tanks) arriving two days later – they were led by General Bernard Freyberg VC, whose grand-daughter Annabel I later knew at Oxford, playing Gertrude to Hugh Grant’s Hamlet, with me as production manager. Morris later got one of the greatest scoops of the century, covering the first ascent of Everest, and then James became Jan, and one of our most beloved travel writers (not that she likes the term).
She said that Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001, would be her last book, although happily that turned out to not quite be the case; she’s also called it her favourite non-fiction book (ie of the ones she’s written herself). It’s also clear that the city is one of her favourite places, with its ‘sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place’. You could just about use the book as a guide to the physical city (as it was twenty years ago, at any rate), but it’s really a metaphysical investigation into the nature of a city that was essentially created in the eighteenth century as a highly multicultural outpost of the Austrian empire and is only accidentally part of Italy today. It’s also a meditation on nostalgia, ageing (after over five decades of visiting Trieste) and her lifelong sense of self-exile.
She pays particular attention to the city’s literary strengths, concentrating on James Joyce, who did much of his best work here, and Italo Svevo, taken as a pseudonym by Hector Schmitz to express his joint Italian and Swabian background – The Confessions of Zeno and As a Man Grows Older are both firmly set in a very recognisable Trieste (I haven’t read either, I confess [but see below]). Robert Musil is mentioned several times (and I did once read his three-volume magnum opus The Man Without Qualities), but without going in to so much detail. And Richard Burton (the translator of The Arabian Nights, not the Welsh actor) is examined too, although he fails to light my fire.
Morris mentions Morpurgo as a quintessentially Triestino name, but was clearly writing too soon to be aware of the name’s current literary significance – War Horse was published as a novel back in 1982, but took off as a phenomenon only after the play opened in 2007. It’s an Ashkenazi Jewish name (which Michael Morpurgo acquired from his stepfather), and I also find it odd that Morris never mentions Trieste’s admittedly small Sephardic population.
I was also assuming that Morris had totally missed Rainer Maria Rilke’s connection with Trieste – his greatest work, The Duino Elegies, was conceived at the castle of Duino, just up the coast – but no, he gets a passing mention in the penultimate chapter. Morris often mentions the bora, the wild north wind that frequently buffets Trieste, and it was while walking on the cliffs in a bora that Rilke claimed to hear a voice calling to him with the first line of the first Elegy, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?’) – which vaguely reminded me of how Morris refers several times to that moment when a conversation falls silent (often at ten to the hour, it seems), allegedly when an angel passes overhead. Anyway, I assume Morris just doesn’t much like Rilke – he was a sort of Austrian equivalent of TS Eliot, but without any of the humour.
I’d already read Last Letters from Hav (1985), Morris’s one novel, which she thought was ‘about an entirely imaginary Levantine city’ but found that ‘between every line Trieste was lurking’. It’s not a masterpiece, and doesn’t add much to our understanding of Trieste. Thanks to Covid-19, I’ve had time to look at it again, and at a couple of other books that describe Trieste. They certainly agree about the faint melancholy and sense of displacement that pervade the city.
Claudio Magris is another Trieste author referred to in TATMON – his great book Danube, which I’ve referred to when writing about Romania and Bratislava, was published in 1986 (and in English in 1988), but the rather slimmer set of essays published as Microcosms appeared in 1997 and in English in 1999, just in time for Morris to refer to them. The first essay is about the life of the Caffè San Marco and the last about the Public Garden, both mentioned by Morris. One discovery is the poet Juan Octavio Prenz, born in Argentina in 1932, who lived in Trieste from 1979 until his death in 2019 and was a typical example of the multicultural Triestino beloved of Morris, as well as of Musil and Magris.
Last year I also read Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules, published in 1995 and mentioned by Morris – passing through on his tour around the Mediterranean, his take on Trieste was similar to hers and that of other writers, although he paid a bit more attention to the food and the women, in addition to Joyce, Svevo and Burton.
Morris mentions Abbazia (now Opatija), just down the coast, but misses a trick by not noting that Nabokov described (in Speak, Memory) going there as a child in 1904, when it seemed like a haunted version of Menton. And it seems odd, given what a major cultural totem the eponymous fizz now is in Britain, not to mention that Prosecco is just 8km north of Trieste, and less than 1km inland from Archduke Maximilian’s castle of Miramar, which Morris knows well. The populace of Prosecco is over 90% Slovene, calling it Prosek, and most of the wine is now produced 100km away to the northwest.
Last tram to Opcina
Of course, this wouldn’t be Unraveltravel without a mention of public transport –wrapping up the book in the summer of 2000, Morris mentions ‘tracks laid for a magnetic tram service’, which I found a bit baffling – maybe she meant the tram up to Opicina (see below) which has electromagnetic emergency brakes as well as rheostatic and air brakes? But no, it turns out that an experimental bus (not a tram), powered by magnetic induction from rails laid in one of the city’s busiest streets, ran briefly in 2000 but fell foul of a new city government and was soon abandoned.
Opicina (Opčine in Slovenian) is the main crossing point to Slovenia, but theconnections are notoriously awful. It’s up on the Karst, the limestone plateau that similar formations around the world are named after, and direct trains from Venice to Ljubljana stay up there rather than dropping down to Trieste and crawling back up again. The link from Piazza Oberdan in Trieste is a fascinating tram-funicular hybrid, with automated cable-hauled tractors giving a boost on the steepest section; this terminates in the centre of Opicina village, 1.2km short of the railway station (an extension was opened in 1906 but closed in 1938). In any case this has been out of action since a collision in 2016, with a replacement bus service, although it will supposedly reopen early in 2020. Fingers crossed!
Help us to help you
And finally – as I said, half the world is currently shut down due to the new coronavirus and Covid-19. Lots of people and businesses are in trouble, but one of the worst affected is the travel industry. I do most of my writing for Bradt Travel Guides, which is the only major British travel publisher to still be wholly independent. It’s a company that has always tried to make travel work for the greater good, not just helping tourists have a good time, but encouraging education (in both directions) and trying to boost tourism in smaller, off-beat destinations rather than the obvious honeypots (and I’m proud to have played a small part in this). The Slow Guides series, focussing on community involvement and active/sustainable travel, is particularly welcome. To get through the lean times, and to encourage people to start thinking of what they might do afterwards, they’re now offering a 50% discount on all books (so, as they say, a guidebook will cost less than a luxury pack of loo roll).
Click here and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this offer will end, but don’t leave it too long! And yes, there is a Bradt guide to Trieste and its surrounding province.
[August 2020 – I have now read The Confessions of Zeno, and it is a modernist masterpiece – and funny too. Zeno really is an awful character – a self-centred hypochondriac procrastinator who has a terrible attitude to women – but the novel is written from his viewpoint at the time of the story, his later viewpoint during World War I (when he has unexpectedly turned out to be a very good businessman after years of failure), and that of his psychoanalyst who claims to be publishing Zeno’s letters as revenge for stopping treatment. It’s the psychoanalytical background that to me makes the novel seem very Viennese, akin to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities which laid bare the sickness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire immediately before World War I. The last production I saw of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (online, during the Covid-19 lockdown – with Kate Royal making time stand still as the Marschallin) featured Dr Freud sitting by the couch taking notes, which I though was an inspired touch.]