Dundee, Perth and around

 

Although there’s plenty of culture and so on in Dundee (but see below for an update), we were actually there to cycle. First stop was Perth, which might have made a better base if only it had a backpacker’s hostel (there’s a hostel at Perth College which is only open from mid-June until the end of August). It seems a sort of Scottish Truro, with an old-money feel to it and a high-brow cultural profile – in particular at the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre. I was especially struck by the line-up of performers in the Perth Piano Sundays series – the likes of Peter Donohoe, Jeremy Denk, Viktoria Postnikova – nae bad! Just a few days after getting home, a Radio 3 announcer praised the wood-panelled Perth Concert Hall as one of the great spaces for chamber music in the UK. Neither Perth nor Truro is forced by the presence of a university to be cool and relevant. You could argue that Dundee is to Perth as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – a brasher younger sibling that’s trying to cast off an industrial past and become a cultural hub, largely through riverside regeneration – and it’s doing fine, of course, but with a more street/youth profile.

The Perth Museum is fairly small but well presented, covering geology, natural history, prehistory and actual history. Perthshire has a rich store of prehistoric remains, with about 70 stone circles and later henges and hillforts. There’s also the Carpow longboat, about 3000 years old, so not as ancient as the Ferriby Boats. I had no idea that the Romans had made it up here and even started building Rome’s earliest frontier system (before the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls further south in Scotland, and also the Limes Danubianus past Bratislava) along the Gask Ridge southwest from Perth – I must try to retrace it some time.

Nor did I know that William the Conqueror (Billy the Conk, as he’s known on The History of England podcast) came to Forteviot, near Perth, in 1072, when King Malcolm accepted him as his overlord – but he must have had his fingers crossed, because within a decade he was raiding England again. Perth became known as ‘a capital’ of Scotland, due to the royal court frequently staying here and the presence of Scone Abbey, where the King of Scots was crowned, just across the river; like Dundee, it became a Royal Burgh in the early 12th century. After this local history went a bit quiet until the nineteenth century, when the railway arrived and hotels started serving local drinks – Arthur Bell, John Dewar, and Matthew Gloag became known for their whiskies, and Sandemans imported port. In 1819 there were 44 distilleries here, the last closing in 2016. General Accident was founded here in 1885 and had its headquarters here for 113 years – it evolved into Aviva, which is based, inevitably, in London, but reintroduced the General Accident brand in 2013.

There’s also a bit of art here, notably two sculpture rotundas and two big Lawrence portraits and a Raeburn of the fiddler Niel Gow. There was also a temporary show about Margaret Morris (1891-1980), who created modern dance (a la Isadora Duncan) in Britain – she married the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, whose parents were from Perthshire and who regarded the Perthshire Highlands as his spiritual home – many of his works and also her archive are held at the Fergusson Gallery, a former watertower nearby at the corner of Tay St and Marshall Place – this apparently sees few visitors, so there’s talk of relocating the collection.

Incidentally, we did have a scone in Scone, and a cuppa in Cupar.

Saint Andrews

I’ve been to St Andrews a couple of times before and didn’t linger this time – but I couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of ruined churches, that the golf obsession is under control and largely confined to the west side of town near the Royal & Ancient, and that even though there are plenty of visitors there are quite a lot of cafés (and all the bike shops) which don’t open on a Sunday. It has more museums than I remembered, but the nicely named MUSA (Museum of the University of St Andrews) is closed for a refurb. There also seemed to be rather a lot of visible lesbians around this time, which was definitely not the case in Dundee or Perth (and was news to my friends who studied there a couple of decades ago).

Broughty Ferry

There’s a pleasant cycle route up the coast northeast from Dundee (now that they’ve sorted out the section past the docks) to Broughty Ferry and on (between railway and golf links) to Carnoustie, where I stayed on my last visit. Broughty Ferry is a more salubrious suburb of Dundee, with decent pubs (see below) and cafés, including (since 1897) the excellent Goodfellow & Steven bakery and tea rooms. Broughty Ferry castle was closed for toilet refurbishment when we passed through, but houses a free museum; guarding the mouth of the Tay since 1496, it sticks out like a rotten tooth from far away.

Problematic pubs

A really good pub takes a bit of finding in Dundee, I’m sorry to say. The Dundonians do like a drink, and there are plenty of pubs in the centre that are always full and noisy, but the main problem is that they’re not interested in live (real) ale – there are rows of gas-pressure dispensers promising IPAs and so on, as well as regular lagers, and frankly they taste much the same – pretty flat. The range of malt whiskies was fairly generic, too. Early in 2018 a real ale pub, the Copper Still, opened in the centre, but by the end of the year it had closed. As you’d expect, the university area, just west of the centre, has some more interesting options, notably the Speedwell, known mainly for its fabulous 1903 interior (there’s an interesting partition with a swinging door between two bar areas) – it has just three well-hidden real ales among a forest of gas dispensers, but the Deuchars was fine and the company was cheery.

Tickety Boo’s, at 51 Commercial St, has a fine interior too, with original stained glass, and is one of the nicest options in the centre, although it’s a bit small and short of seating. Even more than elsewhere, many of the pubs in the centre of Dundee are former banks – there’s the Bank Bar, a former TSB branch at 7 Union St (which usually has four real ales on tap as well as gins and food), not to be confused with the Old Bank Bar at 34 Reform St, The Trades House at 40 Nethergate (with wonderful stained glass and an engraved mirror) or The Counting House at 67 Reform St (once a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, opened in 1856). The last is a Wetherspoons, run by a Europhobic nutter, but it’s attractively restored and has decent enough (and cheap) beers, notably from Stewart’s in Edinburgh. Wetherspoons also run Jolly’s Hotel in Broughty Ferry and the Capital Asset in Perth (neither of which we sampled).

The best option in Broughty Ferry is the Fisherman’s Tavern, which has been in the Good Beer Guide since 1975 (except for 2013, whoops) – like The Trades House, it’s owned by Belhaven, which generally means a better than average pub.

In Perth, the Green Room (good for live music too), the Greyfriars Bar and the Kirkside Bar are the best real ale pubs, but actually the ideal would be to go a little way north to Moulin, a suburb of Pitlochry, where the Moulin Brewery has been building a great reputation since 1995 (Inveralmond isn’t bad either, but they’ve only been going since 1997, so what would they know?). The multinational craft beer monster that is Brewdog (founded in Aberdeen) also has pubs (or ‘bars’) in Dundee and Perth, if that’s your thing. I just noticed yesterday that Brewdog will be opening a pub here in Cambridge soon – good news, if you take the view that any new pub expands the market for real ale and good beer.

Update

As promised at the start – an update on Dundee’s cultural offering – the West Ward Works on Guthrie Street, where the Beano and Dandy annuals were printed, is to be redeveloped into a hub for designers, artists and other creative workers and companies, and will house a comic museum and spaces for live performances and exhibitions.
And it seems that an e-bike sharing scheme will open in July (2019) – presumably using charging stations rather than the dockless model that has become so popular recently for non-electric bike-sharing schemes.

Dundee – a tale of two V&As

A few years ago I stayed in Carnoustie and went across the Tay Bridge to St Andrews a few times – all I really noticed of Dundee then was the huge oil rigs immediately east of the city centre awaiting repair or decommissioning, and how the city’s waterfront was blighted by dual carriageways and lots of traffic queueing to get onto the bridge. Those remain true, although I also now know just how hard it is for pedestrians and cyclists to get across those roads, despite the efforts to open up the waterfront. I also know that they’re on reclaimed land, and the historic city centre (basically nineteenth- and twentieth-century) is largely intact just inland.

As with so many cities, the docks and railway sidings along the waterfront are being regenerated, which in the case of Dundee means (from west to east) a huge Tesco, some new loft-style apartment blocks, a Premier Inn, Captain Scott’s ship the RRS Discovery in a dry dock, and, best of all, just before the road bridge, the new outpost of London’s V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – see below). This opened in September 2018 and I like many others noticed the publicity and wanted to take a look, but I was also here to cycle with Rob (qv) for a few days, to Perth, St Andrews, Carnoustie and elsewhere. To deal with the V&A first, it’s stunning externally, with a prow jutting out over the Firth of Tay, but also echoing the cliffs of Scotland’s east coast (with a ‘cave’ that you can walk or cycle through) and very striking but functional internally. The permanent display, on the history of Scottish design, is a bit smaller than one might expect but does give a great overview of one of the many things that makes Scotland special. For many people the highlight will be the Oak Room from Miss Cranston’s Tearooms in Glasgow, designed in 1907-8 by the great Charles Rennie Macintosh – I found it surprisingly low and dark, but definitely part of a continuum from Odön Lechner’s delightful Blue Church and other Secession buildings in Bratislava.

There’s a lot more to see, but my eye was caught by the theatrical posters (by John Byrne) and designs (by Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, who produced a stunning (and award-winning) set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I saw just a month or two ago). It’s also interesting that the UK’s video games industry was largely created in Dundee (essentially because Clive Sinclair’s Spectrum ZX was manufactured in the Timex factory from 1982) – Lemmings was released in 1991, and Grand Theft Auto in 1997. In 1997 Abertay University (formerly Dundee Institute of Technology) launched the world’s first degree in computer games design, and there’s been no looking back since. Dundee is also a biotech hub, arising out of the design of ingenious surgical instruments – so I should feel at home, as Cambridge is of course also a silicon and biotech hub. Silicon Fen and Silicon Forth, perhaps.

By sheer coincidence, a day after I got home to Cambridge, I read that a prototype ZX Spectrum (no case or anything fancy like that) has been donated to the city’s Centre for Computing History by John Grant who used it to create the machine’s BASIC code.

The permanent display at the V&A is free, and so is the city’s main museum, the McManus Museum and Art Gallery – this was founded in 1869 as the Albert Institute for Literature, Science and Art, allowing me to refer you both to the V&A in London (see below) but also to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which I wrote about just a week or two back. Actually a lot of places remember Prince Albert, so it’s not the total coincidence it might seem. Anyway, it was closed for a refurb from 2006 to 2009 and is now in fine fettle, with good history displays leading up to the Dundee and the World room, showing off items from around the world collected by missionaries and merchants, and also by two redoubtable lady journalists sent off on a round-the-world trip in 1894 by DC Thomson (yes, the Dundee newspaper company that would later be famous for publishing the Beano and the Dandy), which turned out to be quite a coup for the company. Incidentally, the University of Dundee, not wanting to be outshone by Abertay, launched Masters courses in Comics and Graphic Novels in 2016, despite DC Thomson’s famous refusal to allow access to its archives.

There’s plenty more here, including ‘the best collection of late Victorian Scottish painting’ (displayed in a gallery built in 1889 with cunningly curved walls) – yes, there are various paintings by Rossetti, Millais, Landseer and Sargent, but I was as usual more interested in the slightly earlier portraitists Nasmyth, Raeburn and Ramsay. There are also quite a few paintings by William McTaggart (1835-1910, the so-called ‘Scottish Impressionist’), and a couple by John Maclauchlan Milne (1885-1957) the so-called ‘Dundee Colourist’ – he was a friend of Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell, but there aren’t any works by the Scottish Colourists themselves (bright vibrant painters, somewhere between the Post-Impressionists and Canada’s Group of Seven). Finally, and perhaps not always on show, there’s Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) who was born in St Andrews and kept studios there and in St Ives, giving another link to my recent travels.

Until the V&A docked here, Dundee’s best-known sight was the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, famed for taking Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic, although she was also used for the Australian/New Zealand expedition of 1929-31, led by Douglas Mawson, and spent time in the Canadian Arctic too. I remember her being moored off the Embankment in London in the 1970s when she was flagship of the Royal Naval Reserve – I think I may even have been aboard, as my father was in the navy and also the Deep Sea Scouts (she was used by the Sea Scouts until 1954, definitely before my time). Anyway, we didn’t have time to visit, although a joint ticket with the Verdant Works (a former jute factory) is reasonable value. I did see HMS Unicorn, another wooden ship built in 1824 and at once converted to a floating depot ship – masts were never fitted, and the main deck was roofed over. She was towed from Chatham to Dundee and hasn’t moved since, so she’s in very good condition – but the first impression was so ludicrous that I couldn’t face visiting, even if I’d had time.

I did stick my nose into Dundee Contemporary Arts, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary – it was between exhibitions, but there was a very energetic children’s art day going on and the bar is lively too – definitely recommended. After all this history and culture, and cycling, we needed a drink, of course – but I think I’ll leave that for another post.

In order to contrast and compare properly I popped into the V&A in London a month or two back – the decorative arts are not my thing, so I don’t often go there, but it is a pretty impressive place and has seen a lot of new development recently, such as the Sackler Courtyard (a new entrance from Exhibition Road) and the Photography Centre, displaying some of the vast archives of the V&A and the Royal Photographic Society, as well as some of the earliest cameras. In addition to recent blockbuster shows on David Bowie, Pink Floyd and various fashion icons, the V&A has just staged the major Videogames exhibition, which not exemplifies their urge to be relevant, nay trendy, but is also perfect for transfer to Dundee. The historic collections are in great nick too, in particular the Cast Courts, reopened in November 2018, housing full-size replicas of Michelangelo’s David, Trajan’s Column (important to Romanians and those of us who have written about Romania) and much more. The V&S was notorious for its Saatchi & Saatchi advertising campaign in the 1980s which described it as ‘An ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached’, but the Refreshment Rooms (the first in any museum, opened in 1856) really are amazing, with extravagant tiling and stained glass. The third room was one of William Morris’s first commissions, and one day I may write about visiting the Morris Museum in Walthamstow relatively recently – but probably only if somebody nags me.

Exeter – so much excitement

I’ve passed through Exeter many times, often changing trains there when I was at school in Dorset (yes, half a century ago), and it’s always been a pleasant cathedral city that’s less obviously industrial and military than Devon’s other city, Plymouth. I stopped off recently, mainly to visit the city’s museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (known as RAMM), which was founded in 1865 to commemorate Prince Albert, who died in 1861 – it was closed from 2007 to 2011 for a major refurb and extension, and was rewarded by winning the Museum of the Year title in 2012. I can’t believe it was that long ago, but finally I’ve gone to take a look. It’s still busy and obviously very popular. There are good history displays covering the Roman settlement of Isca at a ford across the Exe, where a bridge was built from 1190 (the medieval bridge survives, although oddly now on dry land). The Romans also built a port, but rival merchants in Topsham built weirs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to cut Exeter off from the sea; in 1564-66 the first part of the Exeter Canal was built to restore that access, and the city became prosperous, finally expanding beyond the Roman walls. Its peak was in the mid-eighteenth century, when the cloth industry funded the construction of fine Georgian buildings on newly widened streets.

There’s also a Natural History section, with the requisite stuffed elephant and giraffe, a whale skeleton, and much more, partly in the historic display cases, and a large World Cultures section (covering traditional communities everywhere except Europe) where I of course particularly appreciated the items from British Columbia and Alaska, as well as Oceania (including items from Captain Cook’s voyages), Asia, Japan and elsewhere. There’s no permanent art display but they put on temporary shows from the collection (including some excellent Hepworth drawings at the moment).

The area behind the museum has been branded The Museum QuarterExeter Phoenix is a pretty substantial and go-ahead arts centre, but behind that there are just some gardens and the remains of the city walls and the castle, founded by William the Conqueror after 1068 but now pretty ruinous.

The city centre reminded me a little of Norwich and York simply because there are so many small churches there, now mostly redundant and in search of new uses, although I think with less success. Dominating them is the cathedral, founded by King Edward the Confessor in 1050; the oldest surviving structures are the two massive Norman towers that now form the transepts, followed by the thirteenth-century Lady Chapel and Chapter House. From around 1360 the rest of the cathedral was rebuilt, and now boasts a fabulous expanse of Gothic vaulting above the nave and choir, and a western front bearing a stunning display of Gothic sculptures. And there’s more – an astronomical clock, the carved minstrels’ gallery, the bishop’s throne.

The west front of the cathedral, with the Royal Clarence Hotel in the distance
The excitement of Exeter

The most exciting thing to happen in Exeter in recent years (after the Exeter Blitz of May 1942, when the Luftwaffe pounded the city for an hour and twenty minutes, killing 156 people) was in October 2016 when the Royal Clarence Hotel, facing the cathedral on Cathedral Green, burnt down. Opened in 1769, this was supposedly the first establishment in Britain to use the French word ‘hotel’. There was some controversy about the firefighters’ risk-averse tactics, and then at the end of 2018 rebuilding work stopped due to sticky negotiations between owners and builders, so it seems unlikely to reopen in 2019 as planned.

The Royal Clarence Hotel (in March 2019)

There’s also been the considerable excitement of Exeter Rugby Club’s rapid rise from obscurity (National League 1, until 1997) to winning the English premiership in 2017 and competing in Europe, with five of its players regularly appearing in the England team (OK – Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Harry Williams, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie). Its Sandy Park stadium, opened in 2006, hosted three games in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will see more internationals, notably England vs Italy this very weekend, which attracted a crowd of 10,000, a record for an England Womens’ game.

And then there’s the slowburning drama of FlyBe, based at Exeter airport, which evolved fairly accidentally (it was known as Jersey European from 1979 to 2000) to fly relatively small planes on regional and crosscountry routes where it’s very hard to make any money. After coming perilously close to bankruptcy, it was bought in February 2019 by a consortium of Virgin Atlantic and Stobart Aviation. Ryanair recently announced that from the summer of 2019 they will fly from Exeter to Malaga, Malta and Naples – this shouldn’t  undermine FlyBe, I hope.

 Less exciting transport stuff

The railway through Exeter is unlikely to be electrified in the next couple of decades, but there are now overhead wires from London Paddington as far as Newbury, and also most of the way to Bristol, and trains from London to Devon and Cornwall are now mostly the new electric-diesel hybrids of Class 802. Back in 1986 the fastest train from London (the Cornish Riviera Limited, of course) was accelerated to reach Exeter in a flat two hours – this was a bit optimistic and it was soon eased off (it currently takes 2hr 7 min). From May 2019 the fastest service will again take a flat two hours, but what’s more important is that from the December 2019 timetable re-cast there will also be regular semi-fast trains from Paddington to Exeter, giving a better service to places such as Pewsey and Castle Cary, and meaning that the fast trains continuing to Plymouth and Penzance won’t have to make these secondary stops. The real improvements, however, are coming between Exeter and Penzance, where the new trains’ power doors are knocking a minute or so off every stop and they also accelerate rather faster between stations.

New electric trains in the London area have allowed older suburban trains to move to Bristol, and even older trains are moving from there to Exeter, allowing the gradual development of a Devon Metro – from December 2019 the local services from Exmouth and Exeter to Paignton will run every half hour, and trains will run regularly every hour from Exeter to Barnstaple.

And I‘ll be pilloried if I don’t mention that Exeter has another London service, to Waterloo, which takes at least an hour longer (stopping at places like Feniton, Axminster, Crewkerne…) but has two plus-points – it calls at Exeter Central, which is actually quite close to the museum, and my Network Card is valid by this route all the way from Waterloo to Exeter, giving a third off regular fares.

Come on, Exeter! – it’s 2019 and the museum reopened in 2011…

Sark – the simple life

It’s no surprise that, as a long-time cycling campaigner, my favourite of the Channel islands is Sark, where the only motor vehicles are a few tractors, but there’s more to it than that. People who choose to live on Sark (and almost everyone does make a positive choice, given the multitude of opportunities to leave the island, from school onwards) are all committed to its relaxed lifestyle where everyone has time to talk (often in the middle of the road) and to pursue slightly offbeat interests – I came across enthusiasts for astronomy (the island became Europe’s first Dark Sky Community, in 2011), sustainable agriculture, and sloe vodka and gin. Happily, someone has also set up a microbrewery.

Archeology is another local enthusiasm – it’s often said that Sark was uninhabited until Helier de Carteret arrived from Jersey to settle here in 1565, but it’s now clear, thanks to the work of Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe (the great expert on the prehistoric Atlantic world and the Celts) and fellow Oxford archeologists who have been working here for 15 years, that Neolithic farmers were here by 5,000 BC. The first settlers would have been hunter-gatherers but farming would have been introduced by about 4000BC, and sheep were raised from around 1500BC. The finds remain on the island and can be seen in the Heritage Room (open on weekdays from 11.00 to 13.00), next to the Sark Visitor Centre.

La Coupée, Sark

The painter and writer Mervyn Peake lived here for a couple of years from 1933 and likewise from 1946, pretty much exemplifying the island lifestyle. As a young artist in the 1930s he was known for painting naked (or wearing just a sombrero) on the cliffs; when he returned after the war he had a young family and rented the house previously occupied by the commanding officer of the German occupation force. The broadcaster Kate Humble is someone else who was partly formed by childhood summers on Sark.

It seems to work, as the island’s permanent population is a self-sustaining 500 to 600, with just enough incomers to replace those leaving for study and work elsewhere. It’s the world’s newest democracy (subject to correction), with the seigneur’s feudal powers replaced in 2008 by a semi-democratic system. The seigneur still owns the island (holding it as a fief from the Crown), but Christopher Beaumont, who inherited the job from his father in 2016, is a modern-minded chap (previously an officer in the Royal Engineers) who is restoring his house, the Seigneurie, and backing other projects for sustainable development of the island. However this was apparently not democratic enough for the twin Barclay brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph and various lucrative property interests in London, who own the island of Brecqhou, just off Sark, and built themselves a château where I picture them stroking white cats while chuckling at their dastardly plans for world domination. They tried growing grapes for wine, which failed as the soil is too acidic, and proposed a funicular from the harbour and other ‘improvements’ which weren’t really wanted; then when their candidates were not elected in the new democratic elections they closed both their hotels on Sark in pique, instantly reducing visitor numbers by about 40%. However, the two other hotels on Sark, Stocks and La Sablonnerie, are both superb, and there are some B&Bs and self-catering options too. The French ferry company Manche-Îles, which links Sark with Jersey and the French mainland, also had engine trouble on one of its boats for much of 2018, providing a further hit to the economy.

Sark

Of the other islands, Herm is a little like Sark, with an even smaller population (just 60-65) and no cars, but it’s really just a hotel business with a small island attached, more like Tresco in the Scillies. Like the Île de Bréhat in Brittany and Padstow in Cornwall, both of which I visit most years with hiking groups, the ferries have different landing spots depending on the state of the tide. It was settled in Neolithic times, by Saints Tugual and Magloire in the 560s, and again by Norman monks in the tenth century. Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney all have their own charms but they’re much bigger and more populous, and maybe I’ll write about them separately some time.

Herm

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

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.