Cambridge, my cultural centre

I love living in Cambridge (the one in England), certainly not for the scenery but for its good transport links and for its cultural life. I would always choose to live in a university town, but it has to be said that for quality theatre or opera an evening out in London is usually required. Nevertheless there’s plenty of good music to be heard, with half a dozen amateur orchestras appearing at the university’s West Road concert hall (which has lovely warm acoustics) and lots of lunchtime concerts in chapels across the town.

Cambridge’s art scene is even better, with a world-class collection of old and modern masters at the Fitzwilliam Museum (also owned by the university) and the quite wonderful Kettle’s Yard, now closed for refurbishment before its 50th anniversary in 2017. Once home to Jim Ede, a very influential curator at the Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 1930s who was friendly with all the most important British artists of the time, the house itself became his (and his wife Helen’s) artwork with his remarkable collection of works by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Joan Miro, Constantin Brâncuşi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth displayed alongside perfectly chosen furniture, wall-hangings, plants and even arrangements of pebbles. Upstairs in an attic room there’s a superb collection of drawings and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a wonderful French artist who moved to London in 1910 and died in the trenches in 1915 aged just 23. Integrated into the house is a gallery (built in 1970) that hosts touring shows of contemporary art (usually too avant-garde for me, but I go anyway).

Just inside the entry to Downing College (on Regent Street), Edwardian stable buildings have been converted into the Heong Gallery, opened earlier in 2016. Small but perfectly connected (we’ve already had shows by Ai Weiwei and Richard Long), it’s open on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday only (free).

The Heong Gallery

It’s also worth heading out to Huntingdon Road to track down the New Hall Art Collection, housed in Murray Edwards College (which was in fact known as New Hall until some wealthy donors acquired the naming rights in 2008). As a women’s college, they set out to build a collection of art by contemporary female artists. Most of it is hung in the public areas of the college and can be seen from 10am to 6pm daily. A Self-Guided Tour booklet is available from the Porter’s Lodge, and free tours take place on the first Tuesday of the month at 6pm, and the last Wednesday of the month at 1pm, lasting 45 minutes. I particularly like paintings by Maggi Hambling, Fiona Banner and Charlotte Hodes and ceramics by Claudia Clare; there’s a statue by Barbara Hepworth outside, and there are also paintings by other significant artists such as Ana Maria Pacheco, Gillian Ayres, Miriam Schapiro, Sonia Lawson and Eileen Cooper.

The New Hall Art Collection

 

Constellations by Charlotte Hodes (1992)

The Cambridge University Library is also (until March 2017) celebrating its 600th anniversary – it’s usually worth the short walk out west to see what’s on in its exhibition room, and while Kettle’s Yard is closed the library’s entrance hall is also one of the places where pieces from its collection are on display.

The Open Studios scheme offers a great opportunity over three weekends in July to visit artists in their studios, dotted around the city in ordinary houses that you would not otherwise know housed such creativity. Many are members of the Cambridge Drawing Society, which puts on shows twice a year (currently at the Leys School on Fen Causeway) – these show off the frankly amazing technical skills of Cambridge’s artists.

On a bit of a tangent, I should mention that the Old Divinity School (actually opened in 1879 – see below) has been lovingly restored by St John’s College; it’s across St John’s St from the college, and is used for concerts and other events. And for a dose of true Cambridge culture you could of course visit the three pubs that I own a share of – more on that in a future post!

The Old Divinity School

Hull – City of Culture 2017, its moment in the spotlight

I went to Hull in the spring of 2016 for no particular reason other than that it was the end-point of a two-day bike ride up from King’s Lynn, but I found it a very genuine and straightforward place with a strong sense of its own identity. It’s still a city where ’everyone knows everyone’, as relatively few people move in or out, and it hasn’t attracted many immigrants (unlike say Boston, which I passed through on my way to Hull). Having said that, while the city centre shops have some individuality, the new shopping centres by the station are as generic as those anywhere else in Britain.

The city was in the throes of preparations for its rôle as Britain’s City of Culture 2017 (hull2017.co.uk), and in places it was virtually impossible to move in the centre, there were so many roadworks (see below). Alas, better cycling facilities seem to have been largely ignored in the pedestrianisation project. The focus seemed to be largely on infrastructure, but the projects are behind schedule. The expansion and refurbishment of the Hull New Theatre (new as in 1939, not 1379 as in my Oxford college) is running a year late, though it should still open at some point in 2017. Likewise, the Ferens Art Gallery closed in mid-2015 for refurbishment – re-opening has slipped from to early January 2017 to simply ‘early 2017’. Pietro Lorenzetti’s Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter (a masterpiece of the Sienese Renaissance, painted c1320 and acquired in 2013) will return to the Ferens after four years of conservation at the National Gallery, and the gallery will also host the 2017 Turner Prize exhibition and ceremony. Luckily, the excellent Hull Truck theatre company will be busy, with a programme including plays by Richard Bean and about the boxer ‘Battling’ Barbara Buttrick, both from Hull. Local musicians to be celebrated include Woody Woodmansey (drummer with Ziggy Stardust’s Spiders From Mars) and ambient music pioneer Basil Kirchin, and of course there’ll be an exhibition on poet Philip Larkin at the University of Hull’s library where he worked for 30 years (the library’s been refurbished, and houses the university’s fine collection of 20th-century British art). No doubt poet Andrew Marvell (born near Hull in 1621) will be remembered. There also be a tribute to film director Anthony Minghella, who studied at the university. No mention of Hull-born Maureen Lipman, alas (she talks the good talk about her love of her native Hull, but may possibly prefer life in North London). Hmmm – maybe they’re best off concentrating on infrastructure improvements.

In the meantime

In the meantime, the large Maritime Museum is strongly recommended – it’s in the city’s former Dock Offices, a triangular landmark built in 1871 and currently an island in a sea of roadworks; to its south is Prince’s Dock and to its north Queen’s Dock, created in 1778, is now Queen’s Gardens. Seafaring and overseas voyaging remain of course an enduring source of fascination to the British – the Ferriby Boats, dating from the Bronze Age (c1800BC) and found in a mudbank a short distance west of present-day Hull, are perhaps Britain’s oldest sea-going vessels. Hull (properly Kingston-upon-Hull) was founded in 1293 by Edward I as a port to supply his army in Scotland; from 1598 to 1869 it was a major whaling port, with ships sailing north towards Spitzbergen and then later to the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay; they hoped to be home each year for Hull Fair in October but risked being caught in ice – in all 66 of 186 ships were lost. The Wilson Line, founded in Hull in 1831, became the world’s largest private shipping line, and the arrival of the railway in 1840 allowed the city to become a major fishing port. In World War II only London suffered more bombing damage than Hull, and although the city was rebuilt in lovely grey concrete it entered a period of steady decline. It does still have scraps of its old town, with evocative street names such as Land of Green Ginger, and Holy Trinity church (mainly 14th-century), and some excellent old-style pubs.  The Humber is notoriously hard to navigate and is still surveyed every two weeks above Hull as five-knot tides cause the sandbanks to shift constantly. Pilots have been employed since 1512, and were made compulsory in 1541; the Spurn Point lighthouse, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, was in use by 1427, with a 90-foot tower built by John Smeaton in 1776 and the present 120-foot tower raised in 1895. There are still three lightships upstream from the Humber Bridge (opened in 1981 and unlikely to ever pay off its construction costs).

Holy Trinity church

Hull is largely bypassed by guidebooks, so I’ll just mention that Hull has more excellent museums, all free, with several in the newly dubbed Museums Quarter, just east by the River Hull, including Wilberforce House, with hard-hitting displays on slavery and its (partial) abolition. The Hull and East Riding Museum and the Streetlife Museum (covering history and transport, respectively) are also well worth a look; The Deep, at the mouth of the Hull, is a huge and family-friendly aquarium. The former Fruit Market by the river is seeing regeneration, with the new Humber Street Gallery, aiming to be a major centre for contemporary art, and the Yorkshire Brewing Company (actually a new microbrewery, but you can’t fault their ambition).

Wilberforce House