Rouen in renewal (also Amiens)

I visited Rouen as a teenager and hadn’t stopped there since (although I did change trains) – crazy, as it’s so close to England and is so attractive! And I do go to Caen and Bayeux in Lower Normandy most years. I remember it as very half-timbered, but really I had no idea, there are half-timbered buildings everywhere (not just in the centre but well into the suburbs, and in the heart of the modern hospital complex) – and not just black and white but a whole palette of colours. I also particularly remember the Danse Macabre, in the Aître Saint Maclou – which is just as well, as it’s being refurbished until 2020. It’s generally possible (Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00) to stand in the middle of the courtyard (yes, half-timbered), but there’s nothing to be seen as it’s all safely wrapped up. It was built in 1526-30 to expand the cemetery of the church of St Maclou, and was decorated with wooden sculptures of the dance of death, inspired by the plague epidemics that swept across Europe so often at the time; in turn they are said to inspired the rattling bones in Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre and also in the Fossils movement of his Carnival of the Animals.

The porch of the Saint-Maclou church, Rouen

Rouen has at least three fantastic churches, close together in the heart of the old town, but only the cathedral actually functions as a church, the others being decently maintained by the state and opened three to five days a week. In the case of St Maclou, open only Saturday to Monday, it’s not tragic, as the porch is a triumph of Flamboyant Gothic stonework, with carved wooden doors in Renaissance style, that can be enjoyed at any time. Just to the north, the Abbey of St-Ouen was founded in the eighth century, on the burial site of the saint, bishop of Rouen from 641 to 684, but most of it was demolished after the Revolution, except for the monks’ dormitory which was incorporated in the new Hôtel de Ville – there are now gardens to the east on the site of the abbey and a grand square to the west. The church (daily except Monday and Friday) was rebuilt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and is huge and bare, and houses the great organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll’s last masterpiece – it features in many recordings of organ music, but to be honest it didn’t exactly seem to fill the acoustic when I heard it. The seats in the nave are the wrong way round, facing the organ at the west end, although it makes no difference to the musical experience.

Rouen cathedral

Finally, the cathedral is one of the great Gothic masterpieces, mostly built in the thirteenth century, although the great western façade dates from the twelfth century. The metal spire (which briefly made it the world’s tallest building) was added in 1876 – this is now rusty, and is being restored between 2016 and 2023 (it took a year just to install the scaffolding and workers’ facilities etc). The cathedral was badly damaged in Word War II and didn’t reopen until 1956 – during the rebuilding the remains of the earlier church, dating from c.1000, were found; this is where St Olaf was baptised in 1014, a year before returning to become king of Norway and effectively create a new nation. You won’t need reminding that Normandy was created by Norsemen, and you can still see the odd Viking on the streets of Rouen and Caen. Several Dukes of Normandy are buried in the cathedral, most notably the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion (see this post for the rest of him), the great crusader who moonlighted as King of England from 1189, as well as his older brother (and perpetual adversary) Henry the Young King, who was crowned King of England in 1170 and ruled on behalf of his father but died six months before him.

There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, who was burnt to death in Rouen by the English in 1431 – you’ll see other memories of here here, notably the Historial Jeanne d’Arc in the north side of the cathedral, where you can enjoy a multimedia ‘retrial’ of this supposed heretic. I also remember the striking modernist church of St Jeanne d’Arc in the Vieux Marché, which I saw as a teenager but didn’t get back to this time.

There’s a huge amount of urban renewal and beautification (€30 million’s worth) under way from 2016 to 2023, much of it linked to the construction of the new metro line T4 (due to open in 2019) and the refurbishment of the existing underground section of line T1 (1.7km long, opened in 1994, and totally closed for July and August of 2018). The metro connects with bus rapid transit lines which use tram-style articulated buses that have traffic-free routes through the centre marked with dotted white lines to allow the Optiguide system to bring them as close as possible to the platforms. Other projects, bringing greenery and pedestrianisation, are focussing on three areas, Seine-Cathédrale (south from the cathedral to the river), Quartier des Musées (towards the station, containing most of the city’s museums) and Vieux Marché (just west of the centre). Square Verdrel (laid out in 1862, with a cascade and statues), has already been refurbished, and there’s a huge Calder mobile presently sitting between it and the Musée des Beaux Arts, although I’m not sure if it’s a permanent fixture or not.

Urban renewal, Rouen
Fine Arts in Rouen

The Musée des Beaux Arts is very good, with a large and reasonably varied collection but minimal captions with no dates (but with a few errors, eg a painting of the first modern investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 is dated 1891/2) – there’s far more information on the frames than the art. It starts with some anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine paintings, as well as Giampetrino, Perugino and a terracotta by (Luca, presumably) Della Robbia. There’s a nice anonymous portrait of Henri III of France, looking just like an Elizabethan dandy, with designer stubble and a huge pearl in his ear, and a lovely Roman marble statue of Omphale, Then there’s plenty of Flemish art, including Jan Claesz, Jan Massys, Gerard David (a lovely The Virgin among the Virgins), Gerard Ter Borch, Thomas de Keyser, Jan Steen, van Dyck, Nicolas Berchem, and four pieces by Jan van Goyen. Later Italian art includes Palma Il Giovane and Lavinia Fontana, and then upstairs a couple by Guercino, Luca Giordano (a Good Samaritan with the victim of robbery looking like a dead Christ), Veronese’s Saint Barnabas and another by Veronese and his  studio, and Caravaggio’s superb Flagellation of Christ flanked by a great Rubens (The Adoration of the Shepherds). From Spain there’s a de Ribera and Velasquez’s Democritus (a very Spanish-looking chap with a globe).

French art is dominated, naturally, by locally born painters, such as Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824), Jean Restout (1692-1768), Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine (1751-1824), who all painted dull academic works, and Joseph-Desiré Court (1796-1865), a rather more interesting portrait painter. Every one of them was born here, moved to Paris and died there, but that’s normal in France. There are also three paintings by Nicolas Poussin (born in Les Andelys in 1594), but the greatest of the Rouen-born painters, without a doubt, is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – there’s a roomful of his paintings plus a sculpture of a nymph and a satyr with his hand where it definitely shouldn’t be. You’ll also see an Érard fortepiano and harp, commemorating François-Adrien Boieldieu, an opera composer known as ‘the French Mozart’, who was born in Rouen in 1775.

The impressionist galleries are what most people come for, with several paintings by Monet, including one of his famous thirty versions of the west façade of the cathedral (1892-3), two by Pissarro, nine by Sisley (always my mother’s favourite, and one of mine too), two by Renoir (probably my least favourite artist), and also Guillaumin, Jongkind, Caillebotte and Gustave Moreau. There were half a dozen decent Rouen-born Impressionists too, but oddly, later painters tended to be born in Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, rather than in Rouen – above all Raoul Dufy (born 1877), as well as Othon Friesz (1879) and Jean Dubuffet (1901).

Finally, back near the entrance hall, there are two fine paintings by Modigliani (not female nudes but portraits of men with their clothes on) plus various works by the Duchamp/Villon brothers, born nearby in Blainville-Crevon in the 1870s and 1880s – the oldest was the Cubist painter Jacques Villon, the next was Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor who was like a big clumsy version of Henri Gaudier-Brezska (whose work is well represented in Kettle’s Yard back home in Cambridge) and the third was Marcel Duchamp, founder of Dadaism. Why they used both surnames I don’t know; but they also had a younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, also a painter, about whom I know nothing.

More tramways and trains – Caen and Amiens

I came to Rouen from Caen where, oddly enough, the city centre is also in disarray due to construction of a modern rapid transit system (mentioned here). From Rouen I went to Amiens, which has one of the biggest and very best Gothic cathedrals – but of course you knew that already. But you probably didn’t know that the Musée de Picardie is closed for refurbishment until the autumn of 2019. Instead I was very happy to visit the house of Jules Verne. Some urban improvements are happening here too, with segregated bus-only routes being created.

The house of Jules Verne, Amiens

I mentioned in my previous post on Normandy that the region was taking charge of its rail services and that there’s now a fairly intensive Paris-Caen intercity service with regional connections from Caen to Cherbourg, rather than regular Paris-Cherbourg trains; the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre service has evolved slightly differently, with semi-fast trains from Paris to Rouen, stopping at all kinds of places you’ve never heard of, and intercity trains that run non-stop to Rouen and then on to Yvetôt and Le Havre. I came from Caen to Rouen on a non-stop train – nice for me, but it seems bizarre not to stop at Lisieux at least.

Meanwhile, the SNCF has almost stopped printing timetable leaflets and there are no timetable posters in the stations – apparently everyone has to be digital now, which sounds much like the banks closing branches in Cornwall (see here) ‘due to changing public demand’. People seem to be coping, but I suspect it’s putting some occasional travellers off (or maybe they’re wasting their lives away holding on the phone).

In addition Rouen airport is expanding its activities (with new services to Lyon and Bastia), Flixbus coach services come here, and an increasing number of cruise ships are making their way up the Seine (not the huge ones, thankfully, but still bringing 20,000 passengers in 2017). There’s a cycle route from Rouen downstream to Le Havre and in 2020 this will be extended to Paris – I was already thinking of a trip linking the many Impressionist sights along the Seine (not just Monet’s garden at Giverny), so maybe I’ll wait till this is open.

Art in West Yorkshire – it’s all about sculpture – and triangles

Historically, Wakefield was known as the key corner of the Rhubarb Triangle (Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU in 2010), but nowadays it is also being marketed as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, as two of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century sculptors were born in the area, Henry Moore in Castleford (in the rhubarb triangle) in 1898 and Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield itself in 1903. I recently visited all three corners, the others being at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (just outside Wakefield) and at Leeds Art Gallery (incorporating the Henry Moore Institute). In Wakefield, the city’s art gallery (originally founded in 1923) moved in 2011 to new premises and now calls itself The Hepworth – it achieved a huge impact and was Museum of the Year in 2017.  Rising out of the River Calder by an unimpressive weir, and looking across at the less attractive environs of Wakefield Kirkgate station, the museum, designed by David Chipperfield (whose fine work I’ve come across across the world, from Berlin and Essen to Anchorage), has a fairly anonymous exterior but good exhibition spaces. The collection features a good range of early-twentieth-century English artists such as Spencer Gore, Roger Fry, Ben Nicholson and William Scott. There’s a room dedicated to Moore (including the intriguingly Hepworth-like Stringed Figure and Bird Basket (both dating from 1939) and several rooms on Hepworth, with plenty of background on her working techniques. Of course, she moved to St Ives (Cornwall) in 1939 (with Ben Nicholson), where her studio, now managed by the Tate, is a popular attraction.

From medieval times Wakefield was a prosperous centre of the wool trade, establishing itself as a inland port on the Calder, and from the nineteenth coal mining was important too; Wakefield gained a cathedral in 1888, and was capital of the West Riding of Yorkshire from 1889 until 1986. However the coal pits closed and the city was increasingly overshadowed by Leeds, now firmly established as the regional capital, and the diocese of Wakefield was dissolved in 2014, to put the final stamp on the process of decline. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the cathedral, in reality a parish church that gained cathedral status in 1888 but seems not to have lost it when the diocese was dissolved. An extension was added in 1905 by John Loughborough Pearson, who also built Truro cathedral, and the high altar was added by his son Frank.

Another medieval highlight is Wakefield Bridge, near the Hepworth, with its Chantry Chapel, both built between 1342 and 1356 – the chapel is now one of just four surviving bridge chapels in England, and oddly enough I cycled past one of the others, in St Ives (Cambridgeshire) just a month or two back. This is close to the rather optimistic Wakefield Waterfront, a few warehouses being revitalised near The Hepworth, where a Riverside Garden is also being developed.

Near Westgate station, a rather more dynamic area than that around Kirkgate, a modern library opened in 2012, and The Art House took over the old library on Drury Lane, offering fully accessible studio space and an exhibition hall; however The Orangery, right by the station, has closed.

Although it’s busier than Beverley, which I visited a few days later, the area still bears the scars of the pit closures – but I’ve seen some great stories about the fight against obesity here, in children and others, and schools are busy setting up wild gardens, along the lines of those I saw in Todmorden (and in Liège).

I don’t want to say much about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – it’s wonderful, with lots of sculptures (what else) by all the big names (Moore above all) dotted around some lovely parkland, as well as a few temporary indoor exhibitions, and it seems to me that it’s best to call in from time to time and see a bit of it, rather than trying to see everything in one go.

In the big city, the Leeds Art Gallery also specialises (after the Rodin and the Calder by the entry) in twentieth-century British art, including Auerbach, Bomberg, Matthew Smith (two rather good paintings), William Roberts, Wyndham-Lewis, Gertler, Lowry, Brangwyn, Sutherland, Clausen, Orpen, Lavery, Sickert, Wadsworth, Paul Nash, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Bacon, Blake, and Lubaina Hamid (who is suddenly everywhere after winning the 2017 Turner Prize). There are also a couple of artists that I’m more familiar with through their Cornish connections, Atkinson Grimshaw and W Scott Tuke (born in York in 1858, and the founder of the Newlyn School – though most of his paintings are of Falmouth Harbour). There are also half a dozen paintings by Jacob Kramer (1892-1962), born in Russia but regarded as a key figure in the Leeds collection – although I don’t think he really cuts it on the broader stage. Some foreign artists are represented, such as Vuillard, Derain, Gaudier-Breszka, Diego Rivera and Naum Gabo, as well as four paintings by Jack Yeats (brother of the more famous William Butler) – he was really very talented, but these are not his best.

But of course, the sculpture is the important thing here, and the LAG and the next-door Henry Moore Institute (you can walk through from one to the other) have built up one of the world’s strongest collections of sculpture, covering the last two centuries but especially strong between the years 1945 and 1965. Sculpture’s not altogether my thing, but I noted the pieces by Epstein (Maternity, created in 1910 for the British Medical Association building), Hepworth, Canova (his last version of Venus, 1817-20), Lynn Chadwick, Pasmore, Paolozzi, Mary Martin and Richard Long.

Terracotta students?

The LAG’s former sculpture court (originally the city library’s main reading room) was renovated in 2007 and is now the Tiled Hall Café, of note both for the lovely décor (yes, tiles do feature) and for its food.

I do still plan to write about York at some point, but I should say here that what sculpture is to West Yorkshire, ceramics are to York – well, there’s no triangle, but the Centre of Ceramic Art at the York Art Gallery is a real centre of excellence.

It never produced the greatest beer, but the Tetley Brewery has been a Leeds icon for two hundred years – when they finished brewing just south of the city centre, their grand Deco headquarters block was reopened with great fanfare as a cultural centre, The Tetley – there’s not actually a lot happening there as yet, but it has a pleasant bar and restaurant, serving pub grub such as Tetley’s ale and beef stew, what else. There are some far funkier community-driven arts spaces here, such as Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton, the Brudenell Social Club and Hyde Park Book Club) (yes, really), both to the northwest of the centre and putting on a lot of live bands as well as other events.

There are some other good museums here, such as the Thackray Medical Museum (far more fun than you might think) and the Leeds City Museum, which gives a great overview of its development from near-total obscurity (Leeds may be on the site of the Roman settlement of Campodinum, later a minor residence of King Edwin of Northumbria) to developing as a town in the seventeenth century followed by mass industrialisation in the nineteenth century. It was the monks of Kirkstall Abbey, established just three miles to the west in 1152-82, who created the local textile industry, but the wool was processed in rural homes until around 1800, when factories began to take over. Leeds had been connected to Hull and Europe by the Aire & Calder Navigation since 1700, but in 1818 the Leeds and Liverpool Canal connected it to the Atlantic and the rest of world. The Middleton Railway, opened as a horse waggonway bringing coal in to Leeds, became in 1812 the world’s first railway to use commercially successful steam locomotives (it’s now a volunteer-run heritage railway), and the Railway Foundry, opened in Hunslet in 1838, was the first to produce a standard range of steam engines (notably the Jenny Lind class), rather than each railway building its own. A prosperous manufacturing centre, Leeds also became known for its grand shopping arcades (still pulling them in), and as the birthplace of Marks and Spencer (as the ‘Penny Bazaar’ stall in Kirkgate Market) in 1884. The museum also galleries dealing with Life on Earth and Ancient Worlds (Egyptian, Greek and Roman), as well as one of the Leeds Clocks made by John Harrison (born in Foulby near Wakefield in 1693).

The ruins of Kirkstall Abbey are worth a visit (and have a new railway station), as is Temple Newsam House. I also like the look of Thwaite Mills, on an island in the Aire & Calder Navigation; less than three miles east, where there are two waterwheels over two hundred years old and the Georgian Thwaite House, restored to its 1940s condition – opening hours are fairly limited outside local school holidays, but I hope the place will gather momentum.

A few foody places

The area between the Aire and Calder Navigation and the new south entrance to the station is a lively regeneration area, with canalside cafés and hipster bars under the railway arches – the most striking way to reach it is by the virtually traffic-free roads under the railway that cross the long-hidden river, its arches and tunnels artfully lit in changing colours. The Kirkgate area is more genuinely hip, with places like Crowd of Favours (a food-focussed pub, but it serves food only to 19.00 on Sundays, by which time they’re worn out after serving Sunday ‘lunch’ all day – a trend I don’t really agree with) and Wapentake, a rather amazing combo of café, bar and artisan bakery, with lots of vegetarian/vegan options (they serve brunch from 07.30 (10.00 at weekends) to 16.00 and the main menu from noon to 21.00 (19.00 Sun/Mon), which works a bit better for me). I also like the look of Knave’s Kitchen, a vegan junk food stall (lots of seitan and tofu) near the Corn Exchange (built in 1861-3, an amazing space with a very striking roof that now houses speciality shops). Of course there are hundreds more eating and drinking options in Leeds, especially in the student areas north of the centre.

Transport (briefly)

Leeds station is now amazingly busy, and can be quite a bottleneck. The TransPennine rail axis is one of Britain’s busiest commuting and leisure routes, and has not been well served by a policy of cramming in lots of three-car trains (between Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York) rather than accepting the need to just double the length of the trains (and the platforms). Electrification has been cancelled, but a few longer bi-mode and diesel locomotive-hauled trains are to be introduced from 2019.

Beverley and around – minsters, priories, pubs and three Saint Johns

I do like Beverley – it’s your classic East Yorkshire market town, not as posh as Malton in the foodie stakes but with some lovely cafés and restaurants and particularly characterful pubs. The town’s Great Charter was granted in 1359, when it was perhaps the tenth-largest town in England (or at least one of the twelve largest, depending on your source), due to the wool trade, what else – it had a complicated system of self-government, with two Keepers or aldermen chosen each year from a court of eighteen, but reverted in 1573 to a more normal mayor and corporation system. It also boasts not one but two fine churches that would be larger and grander than many towns’ parish churches.

There’s the Minster, of course, almost a mini-cathedral built between 1220 and 1425, which has no fewer than three chapels dedicated to the fallen members of the East Yorkshire Regiment as well as plenty of other military memorials dotted around the church. There are also fine fourteenth-century stone carvings of musicians in the north aisle and 68 misericord seats in the choir (more than any other church in England, and some very amusing), dating from 1520; near the altar is a rough stone seat dating from the eighth century, which might have been a bishop’s throne.

At the other end of the town centre is the equally striking St Mary’s church, which was built in no fewer than fifteen phases between 1120 and about 1524 (although flying buttresses had to be added by Augustus Pugin and his son in 1853 to keep the south porch in place). In the northeastern corner is St Michael’s chapel, a Gothic masterpiece dating from 1325-45 (with priest’s rooms above), where you’ll see a carving of a rabbit dressed as a pilgrim which is said to be the origin of Tenniel’s White Rabbit illustration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The great west window, dating from the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century, is supposedly reminiscent of that of King’s College, Cambridge, where of course I occasionally go to concerts or evensong – but it’s a little-known fact that the west window of King’s actually dates only from 1879.

Interestingly, in 1188 the town and the Minster were hit by a disastrous fire, and sometime soon after 1213 the Minster’s central tower collapsed (and was rebuilt by 1270); likewise in 1520 the central tower of St Mary’s collapsed (and was rebuilt by 1530).

The town’s other historical building that’s worth a visit is the Guildhall, now the local history museum – bought by the town in 1501, it was rebuilt in 1762 to create a courtroom with a lovely stucco ceiling by Giuseppe Cortese, and the present facade was added in 1832 – medieval timbers were revealed at one end of the courtroom when it was refurbished in the 1980s. You should also find your way to The Treasure House, a modern combined  library and museum incorporating a bit of tourist information, a tower with views over the town, and a bridge to the Art Gallery, which proudly displays paintings by Fred Elwell (1870-1958), a well-loved Beverley artist whose depictions of local scenes are definitely worth a look.

This area has lots of other fine large churches, due to the wealth of wool produced here in medieval times – by chance, cycling towards the Roman road out of the seaside resort of Bridlington, I came across Bridlington Priory, which used to be absolutely immense and is still huge, even with only its west end standing. Founded in 1113, it was dissolved in 1537 and stripped of its treasures for the king; the central tower transepts and chancel were demolished (with some of the stone used to repair the town’s harbour) – the west towers were added only in 1874 to give the church its present more balanced appearance. The much-loved Prior John died of the plague in 1379 and was canonised in 1401 as St John of Bridlington – he is easily confused with the more famous St John of Beverley, Bishop of York, who retired to a small hermitage near his birthplace and died there in 721. To add to the confusion, there’s also St John Fisher, born in Beverley in 1469 and executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for upholding the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy and refusing to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Hull Minster

From Beverley it’s an easy hour’s cycle ride down to Hull, which I wrote about in the run-up to its stint as Britain’s City of Culture – that went very well, and delivered many good results for the city. The Ferens Gallery is looking great, and although they insist it was nothing to do with the City of Culture, Holy Trinity Church (built c.1300) has had a thorough refurb and was promoted to Minster status in May 2017 – happily, it can still claim to be the largest parish church by area in Britain. Thanks to regeneration funding, it now has mod cons such as underfloor heating, so events such as beer festivals are being held in this rather amazing space! I also cycled past Selby Abbey but couldn’t get in due to a wedding – oddly enough, its central tower also collapsed, in 1690, and was rebuilt. And of course there’s the amazing York Minster, the grandest cathedral in northern England, where my ‘god-brother’ (my mother’s godson) sings in the choir – I’ve briefly mentioned York before but will try to get around to a full post at some point.

It’s also worth mentioning, especially for those of you with kids, that most of these churches house oak furniture by Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson (1876–1955), who developed a trademark of carving a small mouse (obviously) on most of his work.

 Pubs in Beverley

Beverley’s pubs should really be listed above with the town’s historic buildings – no fewer than 17 of them are Grade II-listed, and the White Horse (universally known as Nellie’s) is a wonderful period piece with its gas lighting and wonky floors (no, you’re not that drunk) – a seventeenth-century coaching inn, it was enlarged in the mid-nineteenth century, and owned by Samuel Smiths since 1976, so of course their standard bitter costs just £2 a pint! From a beer-drinker’s perspective, the most interesting are The Chequers, Yorkshire’s first micropub (so no lager, no spirits, just interesting beers from small mainly local brewers) and the Monk’s Walk, another seventeenth-century inn that stresses its old-fashioned no-TV-no-canned-music credentials, but there are plenty of others – the Sun Inn claims to be the oldest in town, closely followed by the Lord Nelson, while the Cornerhouse is worth a visit as a Black Sheep pub. At the upper end of the scale, the Beverley Arms Hotel has been bought by the Daniel Thwaites brewery and refurbished, and reopened in July 2018 – in the 1770s Mary Wollstonecraft was taught in a house on this site, and in 1868 Anthony Trollope based himself here for a parliamentary election in 1868 (annulled due to corruption, as expected – in this notoriously corrupt constituency, all the Liberals could hope for was to push the Conservatives to more outrageous bribery than usual and then expose this, but in this case the borough was actually disenfranchised) – his novel Ralph the Heir was based on his unhappy experience here.

Trains and beds

On the transport front, I was impressed by the rail service – there are generally two trains a hour from Hull to Bridlington (via Beverley), some to/from places such as Sheffield. However there’s a thinner service on from Bridlington to Scarborough – with the development of an hourly TransPennine axis from Liverpool to Scarborough (via Manchester, Leeds and York), the line south from Scarborough has become something of a poor relation. There’s also a daily train from Beverley to London and back.

Finally, I’ve posted before about the disfunctional Youth Hostels Association – I stayed at the delightful Beverley Friary hostel, where the notice below was posted outside the front door. It was totally false, there were plenty of beds, what they didn’t have was a volunteer warden. There were two members of staff who could check in the few of us who had booked well in advance, but no more than that. Their wages were certainly not covered by what we paid, so no wonder the YHA is in trouble.

PS I now know that the same thing happens in Belgium, where the staff at the Mons youth hostel cleared off at 20.45, although there were definitely still beds available.

Norwich – not just an amazing cathedral

Norwich is a lovely city, once the second largest in England, which had a huge number of both pubs and churches, many of which survive – though not all are used for their original purpose. It also has one of the great Gothic cathedrals, which is just as described in the guidebooks and needs no help from me.

The town is dominated by the keep of the Norman castle, one of the finest and most unspoiled remaining (only that of Falaise is comparable) – although the façade of Bath stone was in fact added in 1834-9. It became the city’s museum and art gallery in 1894 (following the museum in Nottingham Castle, opened in 1878) – nowadays the keep is a striking but under-used three-storey space, and the galleries are arranged around the Rotunda, created in 1969 by filling in a courtyard. Over the next two years a major project will reinstate the floor inside the keep and recreate the Great Hall (see below for more on the museum). Until then the basement and Prison Stories gallery are closed.

The city has an interesting history that’s relevant to our own times – it became wealthy and populous through trading with continental Europe, but was also the site of the first blood libel in 1144, when the Jewish community (French-speaking, and closely linked to the Norman rulers) was accused of killing a boy in what was alleged to be a ritual murder. From Norwich this evil notion spread across Europe and has been commonly rolled out in outbreaks of antisemitism.

Rather more uplifting is the story of Julian of Norwich (c1342–c1416), a nun who had mystical visions and whose Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman (yep, Julian, not Julia). In about 1414 she was visited by another female mystic, Margery Kempe (c1373 – after 1438)  from Kings Lynn, who dictated The Book of Margery Kempe, possibly the first autobiography in the English language, telling of her many pilgrimages as well as her mystical conversations with God.

Norwich also received many Protestant refugees from the Low Countries, known as the Strangers, who revitalised the city’s weaving industry with modern know-how, and introduced printing and brewing with hops (until then, English beer was just a safer alternative to water). They also brought canaries with them, hence the nickname of the city’s football team. Alas, the city, already badly hit by the Black Death, lost a third of its population to plague in 1579, including many of the Strangers, but they were reinforced by Huguenots, exiled from France, and the city was effectively tri-lingual (English, French and Dutch) for some time.

Dutch influence in Norwich

Even in the eighteenth century the city had not expanded beyond its medieval walls. It did grow to around 37,000 by 1800, but other cities were growing much faster. However, the Norwich School of Artists (a club more than a teaching establishment), founded in 1803, was the first such body outside London, and benefitted from the area’s historic links with the Netherlands (and the similarity in their landscapes) – many of the local nobs owned paintings by the great Dutch artists. Their fresh realism was striking, but the finest of the Norwich artists, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) became increasingly impressionist and indeed Turneresque (alas, he was forgotten by the time of his death, and there were no obituaries). In 1814 Colman’s of Norwich was founded and its mustard is still England’s best known – Jeremiah James Colman (1830–98) bought many paintings by the Norwich School’s leading artists, and donated them to the Norwich Castle Museum.

As well as the Norwich School, the museum has odd works by Jacob van Ruisdael, Hobbema, Aert van der Neer and Gainsborough, as well as a Hogarth of a drunken friend vomiting (painted at the wife’s request), a big double portrait by Zoffany and Gilpin of a couple with horses, a Van Loo of Horatio Walpole (younger brother of Sir Robert and a Norfolk MP for 54 years), a David Roberts of Jerusalem and a Burne-Jones Annunciation. There’s also a limited amount of twentieth-century art, notably pieces by Gwen John, Marie Laurencin, Bridget Riley, Maggi Hambling, Sandra Blow, Ana Maria Pacheco and Mary Potter. For some reason the art galleries are also home to Nelson’s hat from the Battle of the Nile and a Spanish admiral’s sword captured at the Battle of Cape St Vincent- there’s no doubt that he was very aware of his image and indeed took care to promote his brand as far as possible.

Other galleries cover natural history, decorative arts, and history, from ancient Egypt via the Snettisham Treasure, Boudica and the Iceni, Roman settlements such as Venta Icenorum (now Caistor St Edmund, three and a half miles south of Norwich) and the Saxon and Viking invasions, to the arrival of the Normans and the foundation of Norwich. It seems to end there, except that, like most of the city museums I’ve visited recently, the local regimental museum has been incorporated, covering the twentieth-century campaigns of what is now the Royal Anglian Regiment. I was interested to learn of the regimental almshouses built in Norwich and Kings Lynn after both world wars, which are still in use.

The huge Market Place is the heart of the city’s commercial core – unusually, it’s filled by a tightly-packed grid of semi-permanent booths, many serving food, and almost all seemingly claiming to be ‘bohemian’ – it’s obvious that anything that claims to be bohemian cannot actually be so. Anyway, it’s dominated by the massive City Hall, a classic Deco block completed in 1938, and on the south side by the church of St Peter Mancroft, the largest of the 32 medieval churches within the city’s walls – it’s known for its superb Perpendicular architecture and 15th-century stained glass (above all in the east window), and also as the burial place of Sir Thomas Browne, who was a doctor in Norwich from 1637 until his death in 1682 and is occasionally remembered as the author of some remarkably polymathic books in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose. The most obviously relevant to Norwich is Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial, a meditation on death, burial practices and the ephemerality of fame, inspired by the discovery in Norfolk of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels. Browne was perhaps the favourite author of another adopted Norfolk writer, WG Sebald, who taught at the University of East Anglia until his death in a car-crash in 2001.

On the north side of the Market Place, the Guildhall (1407-24) was the seat of the city’s civic bodies until the City Hall was built; it looks a bit like a church, with its flint-coated walls. In the maze of largely pedestrianised streets behind the Guildhall are other medieval buildings, such as St Andrew’s Hall, completed in 1449 as the nave of the Blackfriars’ church and used as a public hall ever since the Reformation, and the fifteenth-century church of St John Maddermarket, now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust and open three days a week, its interior crowded with monuments, Georgian woodwork and Victorian stained glass. Almost as central is the Strangers’ Hall, with its Tudor Great Hall atop a fourteenth-century undercroft – its name comes from the immigrants who were put up there in the sixteenth century. The magnificent staircase and its window and the Walnut Room were added in 1627; it’s now a museum of domestic history, open two to four days a week. Finally, the Dragon Hall, a medieval trading hall built in 1427-30 and known for its spectacular crown-post wooden roof, is now home (the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust having been wound up in 2015) to the National Centre for Writing, but is open roughly monthly for volunteer-led tours. Known as Writer’s Centre Norwich until its relaunch this year, this led the drive for Norwich to become England’s first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012, and now supports both writers and readers in many ways. Of course Norwich’s contemporary literary fame is based on the University of East Anglia’s creative writing courses, established by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson back in 1970.

Speaking of the university, do not fail to make the pilgrimage out west to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a superb building (built by Norman Foster in 1976, one of the best of the high-tech buildings of that period) housing a simply amazing collection in which art from British Columbia and Alaska, Ecuador, Egypt, Mesoamaerica, the Cook Islands and the Marquesas and Africa (for instance) is displayed alongside paintings by Soutine, Modigliani, Giacometti, Moore, Degas and above all Picasso and Bacon, as well as a few oddities by the likes of Zoran Mušič, Edmund de Waal and Mark Gertler. Labels tell of a ‘production place’ rather than a nationality, putting all the artefacts on a level playing field.

And finally… the pubs

There’s only one pub that you have to visit in Norwich – no, I’ll rephrase that, there’s only one pub in Norwich that I own a share in, but it is a goodie. The White Lion has real ales from Milton and elsewhere, but it’s even better as a cider pub, with 19 varieties available when I was last in, and it just feels like a great local pub. It’s just north of the river from the centre, in the area where most of the Strangers settled – known as ‘Over-the-Water’, this is still a slightly odd area, within the walls but still semi-detached from the main part of the city. Nine of its seventeen churches still stand – it’s remarkable that so many of them have been taken over by theatrical or musical groups.

I’ve also enjoyed visiting the King’s Head, which has at least a dozen real ales on tap (and mild is always available, but keg isn’t), and the Vine, right in the centre, which is the city’s smallest pub and serves good beers and better Thai food. For something totally different, the Belgian Monk offers a wide range of, yes, Belgian beers and food (mussels and all that) – it’s more restaurant than pub, but still, pretty authentic and not bad value.

As you’ll recall from my post on Cambridge’s pubs, the dominant breweries in East Anglia are Greene King and Adnams, but there are a couple of smaller ones in the Norwich area. Lacons in Yarmouth was founded in 1760 and closed in 1968; it reopened in 2013, with the original yeast strain retrieved from deep-freeze in the Norwich-based National Collection of Yeast Cultures. I’ve also enjoyed the Weizen (wheat beer) from the Grain Brewery, not in the Isle of Grain but a few miles south of Norwich.

Cornwall – home thoughts from upcountry

I visit my beautiful home county quite often, most recently to lead another hiking group on parts of the wonderful coastal path, so this is written with my tour leader’s hat on rather than the guidebook writer’s. Above all I was struck by what a lousy choice there is of fair-sized hotels, above all in St Ives – we only need eight or ten rooms but, even so, there’s almost nothing available, presumably because the market is dominated by B&Bs and self-catering, and a few boutique hotels. We used to stay at the Harbour Hotel, but gave up due to poor service and their obsession with noisy tacky weddings. We tried the Chy-an-Albany, which was alright but closed suddenly when it was sold to become luxury flats, so the only remaining choice within walking distance of the harbour is the Tregenna Castle, which we all remember as the place sailing clubs and so on used to have their dinner-dances in the winter. It’s large and expensive, but it seems to be aimed at low-budget sales reps and coach tours – the rooms, though big, have tacky flatpack wardrobes and very soft beds, and breakfast is totally self-service, with mass-produced food (here’s an idea, why can’t British hotel staff forget the obsession with taking people’s room numbers and placing them at tables and do something helpful like serving tea and coffee instead?).

the Tregenna Castle Hotel

Also in St Ives, none of the restaurants will take reservations for groups, basically because they don’t need to, but also because their kitchens can’t cope with producing a dozen dishes at once – we’re happy to pre-order, but they’re not interested. In any case, the fine Back Street Bistro has closed – but don’t worry, the owner has moved to the pub in Barripper, just outside Camborne, now trading as the St Michael’s Mount Inn, a free house that offers a fine range of food and beer.

Near Newquay, we always eat at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, which I love – it’s had a revamp, with a new head chef, and there are fewer weird dialect names for dishes specific to one village on the menu, but it’s still a very long way from generic Italian – although I did notice pangratatto (breadcrumbs, basically) on the menu both here and at Rick Stein’s in Padstow – maybe this is set to be the new arancini?

Back in St Ives, the Tate has reopened after a four-year expansion project – so the town will be even more insanely crowded and hard to reach. There’s a busy Park-and-Ride train service from Lelant Saltings station (opened in 1978), and now a huge car park is under construction next to St Erth station, the junction with the main line to Penzance. This was first proposed as a Park-and-Ride site for Penzance, and was then to be the site for a replacement for the Penzance heliport after that was closed in 2012 to make way for a new supermarket. Now it’s being spoken off as a Park-and-Ride for both rail and bus services to St Ives – so it looks as if the County Council basically agreed to buy someone’s fields and then had to find a use for them. It may make sense when the Plymouth-Penzance train services are increased to twice-hourly at the end of the year (although a new station near Marazion would make it more useful). In any case a new helicopter service to the Scilly Isles was started recently from Land’s End Airport (near St Just), already used by the fixed-wing flights to the island – this does nothing about the problem of this airport being closed by fog far too often. A proper new heliport on the edge of Penzance is needed and will with luck be approved very soon, despite the delaying tactics of the company that runs both the ferry and the flights from Land’s End.

 

Cornwall Council really is pretty useless – while the sections of the coast path owned by the National Trust had been strimmed by early June, the rest was overgrown with nettles, causing problems not just for our hikers but also for runners trying to survive the epic race from the Lizard to Land’s End. Talk of waiting until wild flowers had seeded makes sense on road verges but not here, where it’s an obvious ploy to save money. Recycling is also a problem for visitors – there’s a home collection scheme, but there are no visible recycling bins in towns – I try to take mine to the Lost Gardens of Heligan (and the Eden Project, created by some of the same people, is even more eco-aware).

Fowey really is my favourite Cornish town – it’s just as difficult of access as places like Mevagissey, but it avoids the crowds and traffic jams, because somehow it’s managed to project a middle-class image that keeps the shirtless hordes away – it has literary associations (Daphne du Maurier, Quiller-Couch, Kenneth Grahame) rather than artistic (the Lamorna, Newlyn and St Ives Schools) or – the horror! – TV (Poldark, Doc Martin). There’s nothing as nice as sitting on the terrace of the Gin Bar at the Fowey Hotel, watching the early evening light on Polruan and hoping to see a pod of dolphins or a china clay ship slip into the harbour. But this idyll is threatened, because the hotel’s owner, Richardson Hotels, is bankrupt (due to over-spending elsewhere) and is being bought by Harbour Hotels, who are bound to ruin it, given our experience with their St Ives hotel.

Polruan from the Fowey Hotel

Another problem arises with banks and ATMs – there’s one cash machine left in Padstow and one in St Ives, and now the last bank in Fowey has announced that it will close in October, taking the town’s only ATM with it – they and the town council are committed to finding a replacement site for the ATM, but there will doubtless be a gap before it’s available. The bigger towns such as Truro, Bodmin, Falmouth and Penzance are well served, but it’s the tourist towns that are being abandoned.

A final thought – there are defibrillators all over the place now, but I was struck even more by how omnipresent the RNLI has become. When I was a kid we sometimes went out for the day on a former lifeboat, all polished teak and gleaming brass, called the Lizzie Doy – as the Duke of York, she had been the Lizard lifeboat, geddit? Since then the classic lifeboats have been joined by swarms of inshore rescue boats, but the RNLI has also taken over lifeguarding on most beaches (surfing is a much bigger deal here than when I was a kid). I even spotted RNLI lockers for boat-users to leave lifejackets in when going ashore at Polruan – notoriously one of Britain’s best-funded charities, they’re clearly having to find inventive ways to spend all the loot. We have enough trouble with the compulsory cycle helmets lobby, I hope we’re not going to have a compulsory lifejackets lobby too!

The Padstow lifeboat station

‘My’ pubs in Cambridge

I’ve lived in Cambridge for just over twenty years now, and before that ten miles outside the city – I just washed up here because it’s where my last salaried job was. But I was cycling down Marylebone High Street in London one day in about 1999 when a fellow travel writer (working as a cycle courier) saw me, did a swift U-turn, and told me that he was moving to Cambridge because he had identified it as the best place to start a brewery. He then destroyed my electric drill constructing said brewery, but that’s another story. Richard turned out to be a very good brewer and a better businessman, so when in 2001 he suggested investing in a new pub company I was willing. That too was very successful – our first three pubs, in Peterborough and London, have since been profitably disposed of, and we had to wait ten years to see a dividend, but since then it’s ticked over very nicely. We now have three pubs in Cambridge plus the White Lion in Norwich (another city I’ll be writing about before too long).

The first of our Cambridge pubs to open, in 2010, was the Devonshire Arms, which used to be a Jamaican dive, with a massive sound system, sticky floors and no beer other than White Stripe – at that stage we pretty much did all the remodelling ourselves, and the amount needed here was massive! But it’s been a very popular and lively pub ever since reopening (although the clientele has got a bit more alternative) – definitely a real ale venue (mainly Milton ales, of course, but plenty of others too, as well as real cider, a Moravian lager, wines and malt whiskies), but there’s decent food (notably pizza). It’s in the so-called ‘beer quarter’ on either side of Mill Road, with other great pubs such as the Cambridge Blue, Kingston Arms, Alexandra Arms and the Live And let Live, as well as the Salisbury Arms (see below), which is a bit more towards the station.

The Dev was followed by the Haymakers in 2013 and the Queen Edith (the only pub that’s anywhere near the huge hospital complex…) in 2015, both of which have a similar offering.
Actually, I’ve been prompted to finally write this post in part by reading Brew Britannia by Boak and Bailey, which I mentioned in my previous post on Penzance – I wasn’t aware that Cambridge had played such a rôle in the real ale revival, with its first beer festival in 1972 and then annually from 1974 (when they offered 25 beers, including Schumacher Alt from Düsseldorf). I was at the 2018 festival a week or two ago, and I couldn’t begin to count the number of beers on offer, or the number of people attending. It turns out in the book that the Salisbury Arms was one of the first pubs to be run by CAMRA’s business arm, opening in 1976 – it has long since been spun off, and is now a very successful Pizzas Pots and Pints pub (along with the Carpenters Arms on Victoria Road and a few others in neighbouring towns) – this is a new brand developed by the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford, who also own my local, the Red Bull on Barton Road (which does good pizza too, with a very popular two-for-one deal on Mondays). I find it interesting that there are several new mini-chains of largely food-led pubs, such as the City Pub Group (Cambridge Brew House, the Mill, the Old Bicycle Shop, the Waterman and the Petersfield, all pretty decent). The Old Crown in Girton has just re-opened and is along the same lines (though a bit posher) – it’s owned by Greene King, the dominant regional brewery, but is now run by Stuart Inns, who also manage a select number of other posh pubs across East Anglia, such as the Greyhound in Lavenham and the Swan in Long Melford.

Greene King is unpopular, owing to its grasping way of doing business (driving competitors out of business) and the way it squeezes its pub managers and landlords; Suffolk’s splendid Adnams brewery only has one pub in Cambridge, the Castle Inn, which is very popular with all those who have sworn to avoid Greene King. The days when GK otherwise had a quasi-monopoly of Cambridge’s pubs have long gone – in addition to the Milton pubs, there are other Charles Wells places, such as the Elm Tree, which does an amazing line in Belgian beers (with a huge folder of tasting notes to help you choose). In fact the Elm Tree has been leased by Charles Wells to B&T, a smaller brewery in Shefford, Bedfordshire, but it usually has a beer or two from Charles Wells or Young’s (a historic London brewer), which merged in 2006.

The Elm Tree is very close to the Free Press, in an area called the Kite which was once expected to be cleared and replaced by a massive shopping centre; both pubs closed for a while. but the area survived and gentrified and the pubs are both very popular. The Free Press was for a long time Cambridge’s only non-smoking pub (and the best place to find mild), and I regarded it as my local when I was actually living ten miles south of the city. Again, it’s more food-oriented than it used to be, as its URL reveals, but that’s ok. (Actually, now-Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett cooked here way back before I ever came in.)

The other current trend in pub ownership is for them to be closed by the big pub companies and then re-opened in a community buy-out – this is usually because a village is about to lose its last pub (having already lost its shop, post office and bus service) and comes together to save it. Therefore this hasn’t happened in Cambridge itself, but it does apply to the Ancient Shepherds in Fen Ditton, the Hare and Hounds in Harlton and the Green Man in Thriplow, for instance. All well worth supporting.

Other Cambridge pubs worthy of note are the Maypole (known for its great range of beers and for its very affordable cocktails – the only true city-centre pub mentioned here, although the Champion of the Thames is a fine traditional boozer too), the Portland Arms (known for live for music) and the Punter, which doesn’t offer a huge choice of beer but does good food in a pleasant setting, as well as the Blue Ball, the nicest pub in Grantchester and the nearest to Cambridge (my ‘other local’ in a way), which didn’t do food under its previous, rather grumpy, ownership but now offers a few decent dishes. I wanted to like the Thirsty Biergarten, a summer pop-up in a churchyard, but over-priced pasteurised ‘craft beers’ and a food van are really not my thing, though young people seem to like it. Nor am I interested in NOVI, which used to be the Fountain Inn and now is a trendy modern venue serving espresso, craft beer and cocktails. Two pubs have just opened at Cambridge’s main station (yes, we have two stations now, and with luck a third in a few years), but I’m not too bothered. It’s not that I’m dead set against craft beer and keykeg as such, but I can’t see why they cost 20-25% more than cask ale, or why people pay those prices.

2for1 pizza and a pint at the Red Bull, Barton Road (whoops, all gone!)
No comment needed

Georgia – a new edition

This is just to let you know that the sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia is published today – I’m very happy with it, I was able to add all the new material I wanted and generally bring the book up to date (the previous edition felt just a little twentieth century – in a Georgian context – when I used it in the field). The editorial process went remarkably smoothly – I assumed that the fact that tourism was increasing by no less than 20% a year meant that sales of the 5th edition were also up by 20% and that Bradt were happy to cover the cost of extra pages – in fact they used thinner paper which doesn’t look great, but it’s not too awful.

 

The most annoying thing, in fact, was using booking.com, with the meaningless slogan ‘We speak your language!’ and the constant repetition that the most basic guesthouses have a 24-hour front desk and luggage can be left there, not to mention ‘Couples particularly like the location — they rated it 9.7 for a two-person trip’ – all made-up nonsense.

As for recent news – in November 2017 a fire at the Leogrand Hotel and Casino in Batumi (not listed in the book) killed eleven people and shone a powerful light on the downside of the free-for-all policies behind the city’s tourism boom, hinted at on p.286 of the book. It’s obvious that safety standards were ignored by both businesses and local government, and I hope that has changed now!

There are serious proposals from the government to build roads into the mountains of the High Caucasus, past Juta and (via a tunnel) into Tusheti, which everyone who knows anything about sustainable tourism is totally opposed to – on the surface, of course, better access is good for residents trying to get to hospital or the shops, but it will destroy the tranquility of this beautiful area which is becoming more and more popular for long-distance hiking and horse-riding. It reminds me of the sad decline of the Annapurna Circuit, which was one of the world’s great hikes but has now been largely replaced by roads – there’s far more of a population in the Nepali mountains, so there’s more need for roads there, but the Georgian mountains are much emptier.

Finally, having written in the new edition about the liberalisation of social attitudes in Tbilisi, led in particular by nightclubs such as Bassiani (p.124), it’s sad to see that there’s recently been a backlash against these changes, with police raids and public marches. This is also in part a backlash against the increasing numbers of foreigners living in and visiting Tbilisi, which fits into wider narratives about over-tourism and populism. I hope this will calm down quickly, as tourism and western influences have generally brought positive change in Tbilisi.

PS at the moment I’m reading The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (a bit dated in style, but still a classic), which is set in the part of Turkey right by the border with Georgia – which she refers to throughout as Russia. Grrrrr!

PPS As of today, 22 June 2018, Georgia has a new prime minister, after Giorgi Kvirikashvili was pushed to resign due to disagreements with Bidzina Ivanishvili – there had been protests in Tbilisi for a couple of weeks about a poor investigation into a schoolyard fight that left two sixteen-year-olds dead, along with the death of a Pankisi man in an anti-terror raid, both in December 2017. The new man is Mamuka Bakhtadze, who was in charge of Georgian Railways and then Minister of Finance; born in 1982, he’s apparently a friend of Ivanishvili’s son and had been groomed for high office. However the norm is for Ivanishvili’s picks to lose favour and be removed from politics within a couple of years.

Boston and Portland compared (public transport and cycling)

This is an article that I wrote for the Cambridge Cycle Campaign’s newsletter that I thought I should post here (with a few added photos), as I’ve recently posted separate pieces on Boston and Portland – if you’re not interested in public transport and cycling, read no further.

Boston and Portland compared

Editing Tom Culver’s article on San Luis Obispo, I was reminded that I was in North America over the New Year and by chance experienced what seem to be among the best and the worst US cities for cycling. On the cool, liberal West Coast (well, close to it) Portland, Oregon is doing a good job of boosting both cycling and public transport use with a continuing programme of infrastructure improvements. But on the East Coast, Boston, Massachusetts seems stuck in a primitive mindset, not just preferring cars to bikes, but also assuming that public transport users simply want to travel in to the central business district and go home again.

Boston – sticking with the old

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, known as ‘the T’) transit system looks fairly good on paper, or on a map, with subway and ‘commuter rail’ lines covering a wide area, but timetabling and ticketing are very poor, and the trains are old and unattractive. The subway and buses provide a decent all-day service, but the commuter trains basically run into the city in the mornings and out in the afternoons (although other American cities are far more extreme cases) with virtually no service in the evenings or at weekends. Modern cities need frequent services all day every day, and not just to the central business district. They also need a fare system that encourages multiple trips and off-peak travel – in Boston a single ticket costs $2.25—$2.75 and a day pass costs a stonking $12, which is basically telling people they’re not wanted beyond the basic commute (weekly and monthly passes are a better deal, though). A day pass should cost little more than two singles. In November 2017 a contract was signed with Cubic and John Laing to introduce a new smart fares system, so this may be sorted out in the 2020s. The T does at least carry bikes outside the peak times on most routes, and more secure cycle parking is being provided at stations.

Cycling is more or less invisible in Boston (less so in Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT), and facilities in the city centre are largely limited to white paint on the roads, along with a good riverside route. Notoriously, from 1991 to 2006 Boston spent $24 billion (almost ten times the original budget, and it was eight years late too) on the Big Dig, the project to put I-93 – the Interstate highway through the heart of Boston – into a tunnel and didn’t even manage to put a cycleway on top where the highway used to be. In fact there’s still a dual-carriageway there with a linear park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, in the middle, i.e. patches of grass and a footpath between the cross-roads, and signs telling cyclists to use the on-road lanes. There’s a bike-sharing scheme but the docking stations seem few and far between, and there’s no dockless sharing scheme yet. Ofo Bikes launched in September 2017 in nearby Worcester and Revere, but can’t operate in Boston or Cambridge because the operator of the bike-sharing scheme there has an exclusive contract until 2022.

Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. [Source: Wikipedia Commons. Author: Hellogrenway. This image file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]
It’s true that some decent segregated infrastructure is being provided in Cambridge and the suburbs, and the city authorities are beginning to make the right noises, but it’s a dreadfully slow and sclerotic process.

Boston drivers are much pushier than those on the West Coast, honking and cutting up pedestrians on crossings; at these crossings, lights change to Don’t Walk ridiculously early, and change to Walk ridiculously late, legitimising bad behaviour by drivers; the result is that pedestrians tend to ignore them. In central Portland, in contrast, I was impressed by how short the traffic light phases were at intersections, disadvantaging drivers but meaning that pedestrians were happy to wait the relatively short time till the green phase. (This was less the case slightly further from the centre.)

Portland – trying something new

In the 1960s the I-5 Interstate highway was rammed along the east bank of the Willamette River through Portland, but since then Portland has worked consistently to create a sustainable city, and not just in terms of public transport. It had the first electric trolley system in the US which opened in 1907. This closed in 1950, but then in 1986 the first Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail line opened, the first half of what is now a 33-mile east-west route. There are now six routes, including one to the airport, and it’s a popular, modern regional express system (and it carries bikes). In 1975 the Transit Mall was created, two parallel one-way streets in the city centre largely reserved for buses (and from 2009 light rail); also in 1975, the Fareless Square was introduced, a larger downtown area in which travel was free (this was abolished in 2012).

In 2001 the Portland Streetcar system began operation with smaller, lighter cars running on more tightly curved tracks. A north-south line through downtown (parallel to the Transit Mall) was extended in 2005-7 to the South Waterfront regeneration area, and in 2012 the new Loop line was opened. This is a massive extension to the east of the Willamette River that crosses on the modern Tilikum Crossing bridge, opened in 2015, that carries light rail and streetcars as well as pedestrian and cycle paths, but with no access for cars and trucks – a major statement in the USA.

It’s not quite a turn-up-and-go service, with streetcars every 15 minutes, but they’re more frequent on the shared section downtown. The details have been well thought out, with intersections where cars in all directions have red lights so that the streetcars can cut through on the wrong side of the road; in some places doors also open on the ‘wrong’ side. Although MAX and the Streetcar are owned by separate municipal bodies they (and the buses) are operated by TriMet and tickets are valid on all systems. All in all, it’s a good example of how public transport can bring organic growth to the city centre and especially to regeneration districts (even though it’s become hipster central, Portland still has plenty of formerly industrial areas to be developed as residential property).

It’s also worth mentioning the Portland Aerial Tram, a cable-car which opened in 2006 linking two parts of the Oregon Health & Science University (the city’s largest employer) in the South Waterfront district.

In the early 1990s Portland had a Yellow Bike Project, providing free community bikes (just as Cambridge (UK) did around the same time), and it also turned out to be comically disastrous, lasting just three years before the bikes fell apart or were stolen or dumped in the river. However it did, for better or for worse, fix cycling in the Portland mindset, and since 1999 Portland has invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure. By 2009 traffic fatalities in Portland had declined six times faster than the national rate. In 2016 a modern app-powered bikesharing system opened, sponsored by Portland-based Nike – it’s called Biketown, pronounced Bike, not Bikey as in Nike. One interesting aspect is that you can lock bikes for a brief stop and unlock them again with the same PIN.

Another interesting innovation is mini-sharrow markings at traffic lights to show where the magnetic sensors are, so cyclists don’t just sit like lemons until a car arrives. Helmets are only mandatory for under-16s, but there’s strong pressure from the city to wear one.

Traffic on the century-old Hawthorne Bridge increased by 20% between 1991 and 2008 – but only 1% of that was cars, the rest being cycles; the bridge would have had to be replaced otherwise, at great expense. There’s now a cycle counter here, showing that 5,000 cyclists a day cross the bridge on an average weekday, which I think is pretty good, although in London, about 5,000 cyclists cross Blackfriars Bridge in the morning peak alone.

Clearly Portland provides a better model for us in Cambridge to follow, with its cycle-friendly bridges rather than car-clogged tunnels, but I’d hope that Boston is also paying attention and able to move in a more sustainable direction.

The road above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel, with cycle facilities of a sort…
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel – they created a meaningless bit of park and tell cyclists to use the roads.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel – the sign says that they don’t clear the snow in winter.

 

Sharrow and bike-sharing station, Portland OR.
Cycleway on the Tilikum Crossing, Portland OR.
Cycleway to the Tilikum Crossing, Portland OR.
Cycleway and rapid transit stop, Portland OR.

Penzance

Penzance is, of course, the westernmost town in England and thus the commercial centre of Penwith, the far west of Cornwall – while St Ives is the tourism centre. My sister lived for quite a few years in a lovely Georgian villa in Penzance which is now available on AirBnB, so I used to spend quite a bit of time there. After a rough recession when many shops closed, the town is now seeing a bit of a renaissance, with a well-established artistic community being joined by some excellent food outlets, most notably seafood restaurants such as Shore and Harris’s and just west in Newlyn the Tolcarne Inn. There are some lovely delis, cafés and pubs too. Falmouth, which I wrote about recently, now has a branch of Rick Stein’s Padstow seafood empire, but without a university Penzance is not going to see the rapid gentrification that has recently hit Falmouth, alas.

Apart from restaurants and the county council’s shocking decision to close the heliport (a vital link to the Scilly Isles) in 2012 so the town could have another big supermarket, the most exciting thing to happen in Penzance in years has been the rebirth of the Jubilee Pool – saved by being freed from the dead hand of the county council. Opened in 1935 (the year of George V’s Silver Jubilee), it’s a classic Art Deco lido or salt-water pool, with a triangular pool set against gentle curves and Cubist changing rooms. It was badly damaged in the storms of early 2014 and then more or less abandoned by the county council; however a community group raised funds to restore it and it reopened in 2016 to a chorus of acclaim. The café, relaunched as a social enterprise in 2017, is doing well, and now opens on Friday evenings to serve pizza as well as the usual daytime offering. The big news in 2018 is that they’re drilling to find geothermal water, in order to have a naturally warm pool as well as the ‘brisk’ sea-water.

Community groups are also behind much of the town’s artistic activity (so far from London, the Cornish are used to having to do things for themselves), in particular the revival of its pagan festivals. On December 21 last year the ancient Montol festival celebrated its tenth anniversary (yes, I know…), but the midsummer bonfire festival, Golowan, has taken place annually since, oh, 1991. Actually this was a longstanding tradition that was closed down in the 1890s by the town council for the usual bureaucratic reasons of risk and inadequate insurance. In fact they’re both wonderful events, very lively with locals and not tourists (and nothing like the mobs at the bonfires in Lewes).

Not a pub, alas – this is the Egyptian House.
Drinking in Penzance

I was prompted to finally write this post (which has been brewing for a while…) after being given a copy of Brew Britannia, an excellent account of the recovery of real ale in Britain, by (Jessica) Boak and (Ray) Bailey, a pseudonymous pair who I knew from their fabulous blog about drinking in every pub in Penzance. They have done very well and are now known as ‘the beer blogger’s beer bloggers’ and, alas, have moved to Bristol. But the book is great! (even if they barely mention the Blue Anchor in Helston, 20 minutes from Penzance, which has been brewing its own beer for 600 years or more, and where I passed much of the misspent portion of my youth.) And they don’t really have a bad word to say about any of Penzance’s pubs.

My local here has always been the Crown, because it’s handy and friendly and because they brew their own (not at the pub, in fact just around the corner from where my sister now lives); sometimes they do a decent quiz too. Just down the hill is the Lamp and Whistle, a pleasant but slightly odd place – I went in once and they didn’t have any beer on at all, and even normally they prefer so-called craft beers (on gas) rather than proper hand-pumped real ale. But they certainly do like their Belgian beers and Polish vodkas (and the like).  There are other good pubs, such as the Yacht Inn, a striking Deco treasure near the Jubilee Pool, the Alexandra, with a good selection of beers from smaller Cornish breweries, and the Admiral Benbow, which I actually remember above all for its banana splits when I was a kid. Outside Penzance, the Star Inn in Crowlas also brews its own (Potion No.9 is a great golden session beer), and the White Hart in Ludgvan is a splendid gastro-pub (with plenty of vegetarian options).

Of course the Ginaissance is a big deal here too, with local distillers such as Caspyn Gin, St Ives Gin (producing Cornwall’s first cold-compound gin, flavoured with local gorse flowers) and Curio in Mullion, a little further away, making fabulous quadruple-distilled gins flavoured with rock samphire and other local botanicals.

Railway improvements

And finally… I was told that there was no need for my usual coverage of public transport because ‘the railway ends at Penzance and that’s that’. Well, actually… there are some interesting changes coming this year. Penzance was of course the western terminal of the Great Western Railway’s main line, served since 1904 by the legendary Cornish Riviera Express, which reduced the journey time from nine hours to seven when it was introduced; it is currently timetabled to take just over five hours. The train starts off quickly from London’s Paddington station on the most modern railway in Britain, recently rebuilt for Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) services and electrification to Bristol and Cardiff, but after a 125mph sprint to the splendid new station at Reading it turns off onto a less impressive route which gradually gets twistier and slower; there’s a maximum speed of 110mph, then 100, then just 60 over the southern fringes of Dartmoor and not much faster on through Cornwall (but with more frequent stops, so that you lose the will to live west of Truro). In addition, the signalling on the line through Cornwall is ancient and spaced out in long sections, which has made it impossible to schedule a regular hourly service. However, resignalling in 2018 will allow a consistent ten-minute headway along the main line and let two trains an hour run in each direction.

In addition to the London trains (every couple of hours) and Cross-Country trains to Bristol, Birmingham and beyond (generally northbound in the morning, returning in the afternoon), there are local multiple-unit trains to Plymouth and Exeter. As the long-serving High Speed Trains on the London run are replaced by new bi-mode trains in 2018, they are to be re-formed into so-called GTI trains, with two power cars and just three passenger carriages, to give a huge boost to the local services.

In Penzance station, look up at the row of huge paintings hanging on the south side – they’re by Kurt Jackson, West Cornwall’s finest (and now, alas, most expensive) painter, who does amazing things with landscapes, incorporating words and grit and even feathers in his paint. He’s recently opened a gallery in St Just, which really is virtually the last village in England, a windswept place out on the cliffs between Cape Cornwall and Land’s End.

Nottingham – there’s nothing wrong with it

I’ve always been interested by pairs of ‘rival’ cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne… Usually one has more economic clout while the other has the cultural kudos, but – sorry, Derby – when it comes to the pair in the East Midlands, Nottingham is well ahead on both counts (and it has a whizzy new tram system too, and two good universities). And my friend from Derby even admits that if he had a job there, he’d live in Nottingham! I’m not going to say that it’s anywhere amazing, but still, it’s a decent place to visit or to live in.

The main news from my recent visit is that the Castle and museum are about to close for a huge £30m project to transform them by 2020. At the moment you can’t get beyond the gatehouse without paying, which is a huge waste of a lovely park that gives good views over the city, but a modern visitor centre will be built here and there’ll be free access to some of the park. There’ll also be a new entrance from Brewhouse Yard (seventeenth-century cottages that currently house the Museum of Nottingham Life) at the bottom of the hill – a lift will be built in a cave to reach the castle (these are already the only wheelchair-accessible caves in Britain). Of course there’ll be new galleries too, notably a double-height space in the service yard.

With a great big block of what is now known as Nottingham Sandstone overlooking the River Trent, this was the perfect site for one of the most important castles erected by William the Conqueror to control the Midlands and northern England; it’s also riddled with caves (reminiscent of Saumur, where I was a couple of months before). The wooden motte and bailey castle, begun in 1067, was rebuilt in stone from 1170 by Henry II, and improved from 1220 by Henry III (including building the present gatehouse). Sir Roger de Mortimer (the Earl of March), who may have killed Edward II and then effectively ruled England for three years, was arrested here (in bed with Edward’s widow, Isabella of France) by the young Edward III, who entered the castle by a secret tunnel now known as Mortimer’s Hole. In 1485 Richard III raised his standard here before riding out to defeat at the battle of Bosworth, and likewise in 1642 Charles I raised his standard here (in several places, now marked with plaques, as he was attracting very few volunteers), triggering the civil war which led to his execution.

The victorious parliamentary forces demolished the castle in 1651, but after the Restoration the site was bought by the new Duke of Newcastle, who built a modern Palladian palace in 1672-9. In 1831 this was attacked and burnt down by a mob angered by the fourth Duke’s blocking of the Reform Bill. The Duke took the compensation he was offered but left the palace in ruins, probably as a rebuke to the people of Nottingham; it was eventually converted to a museum, opening in 1878. The city’s history of rebellion, starting with the twelfth-century tales of Robin Hood, is a key theme that will be emphasised in the remodelled museum, as will the city’s proud history of crafts production. This started with Nottingham alabaster (actually mined in Derbyshire and Staffordshire), which was well known across Europe from the late 14th century until the Reformation, and was followed by salt-glazed stoneware in the 17th and 18th centuries and lace-making in the 19th century (later came Raleigh cycles, Players cigarettes and Boots pharmaceuticals). The museum has a good Decorative Arts gallery, with family-friendly educational displays, and also houses the nationally important Ballantyne Collection, with 370 pots by 60 post-war British potters, including all the big names such as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Michael Cardew, Richard Batterham, David Ballantyne and at least four members of the Leach family.

The museum’s sculptures are poorly presented (with one by Lynn Chadwick wasted on the stairs), but it has an excellent art collection, featuring local artists Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) and Laura and Harold Knight, who I’m familiar with because of their Cornish connections. Otherwise they have a lot of twentieth-century English art, by William Nicholson, his son Ben and Ben’s first wife Winifred Nicholson, George Clausen, Carel Weight, LS Lowry, Lawrence Gowing, Augustus John, William Roberts, Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Ivon Hitchens, David Bomberg, John Piper and John Nash, as well as a couple of small portraits by Mark Gertler and Mervyn Peake; there are also a couple of earlier works by George Morland and Richard Wilson and an Epstein bust. But the earliest and probably most valuable of their holdings is by Spinelo Aretino (painted in 1380-90); they also have a Susannah and the Elders attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, a Madonna and Child by a follower of Joos van Cleve, a Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, and other paintings by David Teniers the Younger, Delacroix and Boudin.

There’s also a small gallery on the history of the Mercian Regiment, featuring its most famous member, Private Derby, actually a ram (the first was acquired in India in 1858 but they now come from Chatsworth – they’re currently on Private Derby XXXI). Founded in 1741, the 56th Regiment of Foot later became the Sherwood Foresters and then in 2007 a battalion of the Mercian Regiment; a lot of VCs have been won by its members, notably Captain Albert Ball, who became a fighter pilot and crashed in 1917 chasing von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

Just east of the castle is the Broadmarsh shopping centre, on the site of one of Britain’s foulest slums, which developed when Nottingham’s population increased fivefold in the nineteenth century; just north is the Market Square, the UK’s second largest public square, created in 1928 and nicely remodelled in 2006. The area just to the east is known as the Lace Market, with narrow alleys and striking Victorian warehouses, and lively nightlife; at the southern end of Stoney St you’ll find the fifteenth-century St Mary’s church and the new National Justice Museum (also known as the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law), in the Victorian former courthouse; it has excellent child-friendly displays and is also, for some reason, the base for cave tours beneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre. It’s next to Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery that is highly thought of but was just a bit too, well, contemporary for me.

Immediately east of the Lace Market is the National Ice Centre – it’s worth mentioning Nottingham’s importance in English sporting history, especially as Notts County, founded in 1862, is the world’s oldest professional soccer club. Alas, the johnny-come-latelies of Nottingham Forest, founded in 1865, have been more successful, particularly under the management of the legendary Brian Clough, whose statue stands on the Market Square. There’s also the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont, home to Nottingham Rowing Club (founded in 1869) and the British rowing team, and Trent Bridge, one of the country’s loveliest test cricket grounds.

For a city strategically placed between the different beer cultures of northern and southern England, I didn’t at first find Nottingham’s choice of pubs as good as I’d hoped. The famous Olde Trip to Jerusalem, in caves beneath the castle, is a rather touristy Greene King outlet now, and was a bit too busy midweek when other seemingly attractive places were dead – I wanted to support the Olde Salutation (founded in 1240, so not as old as the Olde Trip, which may have been a meeting point for crusaders in 1189), but the choice of beers was poor. There are a couple of barn-like Wetherspoons pubs, and other new pubs, such as the Roundhouse and Fothergills, which were aimed too much at aspirational diners rather than simple drinkers. However I did eventually find the VAT & Fiddle (named in honour of the nearby headquarters of the Inland Revenue), which was exactly what I was looking for – the brewery tap of the fine Castle Rock brewery, it has a good range of affordable beers, basic pub food (jacket potatoes and pies) and noisy boardgames (or noisy people playing boardgames).

Castle Rock has a couple more pubs in the city, including the Kean’s Head (opposite St Mary’s church), the Barley Twist (near the station) and the Lincolnshire Poacher (half a mile north of the centre on the Mansfield Road); and the bar at the excellent Broadway Cinema is a pleasant refuge when it’s all kicking off outside (as is the similar CAST at the Playhouse). Other local breweries are available, such as Navigation and Totally Brewed. All in all, Nottingham is better served than I initially thought.

[PS It’s been pointed out to me that Luddism, the smashing of modern machinery that was destroying jobs, began in Arnold, just outside Nottingham, in 1811 – I didn’t see any mention of this in the Castle museum, but I hope it’ll be included in the rebellion theme after the revamp.]