Bremen and Hamburg

I thought Bremen was a bit dull at first (and coming from the Netherlands, very car-dominated, with two road overpasses in front of the railway station), but I changed my mind when I found the pretty small historic area near the cathedral. I thought Hamburg was unpleasant at first and I didn’t really change my mind, although I did find quite a few positive features, notably the excellent art collection in the Kunsthalle. They’re Germany’s two main ports, both with estuary access to the North Sea, and have been since the time of the Hanseatic League, but I’ll say more about the Hanse when I get to Lübeck. 

 The historic centre of Bremen is Marktplatz, where the Old Town Hall (1405-10) looks out over the statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s heroic paladins, which was raised in 1404 as a symbol of the city’s status as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire (I saw another one in Brandenburg a few weeks later). Immediately adjacent are two fine Gothic churches, the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin) and the Petri Dom (St Peter’s cathedral) – the bishopric was established by Charlemagne in 789, and the present building was built after a fire in 1041. 

 It’s hard to see that this small area really justifies its World Heritage listing, especially as it’s partly fake, with façades brought from elsewhere in the city when the square was rebuilt after Word War II – but an alley immediately to the southwest is the real surprise. The medieval Böttcherstrasse (Coopers’ Street) was rebuilt in 1922-31 by Ludwig Roselius, coffee merchant and inventor of HAG decaff, with a heavy dose of expressionist features and unusual external decorative features, notably a golden relief of the Archangel Michael, and a carillon of 30 Meissen porcelain bells. Roselius was a Nazi sympathiser but his applications to join the party were rejected and Hitler tried to have the street demolished. The Roselius Museum houses his art collection, from medieval Madonnas to Picassos via Cranach, and he also built the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum here to show her works (see below).

 

 

 

 

 

The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the smallest of Germany’s federal states, consists of Bremen itself and the exclave of Bremerhaven (a new port founded in 1827 at the mouth of the Weser). I’d not actually heard of the Grimm Brothers’ story The Musicians of Bremen, but it’s commemorated by a sculpture at the western end of the Town Hall – it’s about four animals who set out for the city that they saw as standing for real freedom (sorry, spoiler alert – they never actually reached Bremen).

 Just south of the cathedral the Schnoorviertel consists of a few moderately quaint streets with cute cafés, restaurants and boutiques; just to the east, on the site of the old city walls, the Kunsthalle is not as big as Hamburg’s but still has a pretty decent art collection.

In the nineteenth century the burghers of Bremen mainly collected Dutch art, donating works by Pieter Claesz, Jan van Goyen, van der Velde the younger, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jacob Jordaens, Rubens, van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the younger, Isenbrandt, Lievens, Aert van der Neer, van Ostade, Dou, Jacob de Wet (yet another Haarlem painter I didn’t know about) and Rachel Ruysch (qv). The museum also acquired a few old German Masters (by Altdorfer, a couple of Dürers and some Cranachs) and some minor (but superb) Italian Gothic paintings – they’re in Room 1 which is appropriate but not an easy place to start your circuit.

 The museum’s first director Gustav Paoli then started buying French art, which was controversial but has proved a smart move – the collection ranges from Vigée-Lebrun, Corot, Delacroix, Horace Vernet (see my post on Avignon) and Géricault to Pascin, Gris, Léger, Metzinger and Picasso, by way of Boudin, Courbet, Manet, Monet, five Renoirs, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Vallotton, Bonnard, Maurice Dennis, Bernard, Serusier and a whole room of Derain, not to mention sculptures by Gauguin, Rodin and Maillol. He also bought German art, of course, with quite a few paintings by the Nazarenes (who had similar ideas to the Pre-Raphaelites) and the Impressionists Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, and Lovis Corinth. There’s Expressionism too, with plenty by Kirchner and Beckmann, as well as Schmift-Rotluff, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Campendonck, Marc, Nolde and Heckel, as well as sculptures by Ernst Barlach.

 But what you won’t see much of elsewhere is work from the artists’ colony of Werpswede, just north of Bremen, established in the 1890s by Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn, Heinrich Vogeler and Carl Vinner. Mackensen’s pupil Paula Becker married Modersohn, and – in addition to the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum mentioned above – there’s a whole room of her paintings here, showing how she increasingly went her own way independently of the Werpswede group, eventually being hailed as ‘Germany’s Picasso’- a bit overcooked, but she was good. Incidentally, her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff married Rainer Maria Rilke, a sort of German T S Eliot who I mentioned in my post on Trieste. Finally, contemporary artists include Olafur Eliasson and Kehinde Wiley, as well as a room of works by Nam June Paik, who was big in Amsterdam too, although he spent a lot of time in Germany from 1956 on.

Hamburg
An art centre in Schanze. Obviously.

I arrived in Hamburg mid-afternoon on a Friday (during the Covid-19 pandemic, but that didn’t seem to matter) and the roads and the Hauptbahnhof had seized up due to the number of people trying to get in and out of the city. Outside the station there was a stink of stale tobacco and a wail of sirens, people were raiding the rubbish bins for who knows what, and the taxi-drivers were all convinced that red lights, speed limits and basic good manners didn’t apply to them. The supposedly hippest areas of the city are plastered with graffiti (some of which might qualify as street art), which I usually see as a bad sign. Schanze is a bit like London’s Camden with more graffiti and lots of cafés, none special; the Karoviertel (Karolinenviertel in full) is marginally classier – it’s been well traffic-calmed, but is surrounded by the Messe trade fair complex and former abattoirs, and yes, there’s graffiti everywhere. So I have my doubts about Hamburg, but it’s one of Germany’s half-dozen main cities and there’s lots to see and do.

 Anyway, that’s the old Hamburg, which has the same problems as big cities across the world – there’s also a new Hamburg, which may show ways to make these cities more liveable. In particular I was interested to revisit the Victorian warehouses of the Speicherstadt or ‘warehouse city’ (like Shad Thames, if we’re going to keep up the comparisons with London, but with wider streets), and see the HafenCity, currently the largest urban development project in Europe, where 157 hectares of former docks will become housing (one third social housing), shops and cultural venues, expanding the downtown area by 40%. Sustainability and energy-efficiency are key, and fully 25% of the area is to be open space.

 

I was particularly keen to see the Elbphilharmonie, the prestigious concert hall by Herzog & de Meuron which finally opened in 2017, seven years late (and costing €870 million instead of €200 million). It’s a glass box with a wave-like top set on a 1960s warehouse, but although I’m sure it would be fantastic to go to a concert there, I found the exterior underwhelming. The rest of HafenCity seemed to me to be mostly generic modern architecture (although the earlier phase is less corporate and more interesting). As usual, I find modern European architecture rather too constrained compared to what I see in the Americas, particularly (you may be surprised to know) in Uruguay. Plans are being developed for an extension to the southeast in the Grasbrook and Veddel areas, including a 245m-high tower designed by David Chipperfield, so maybe this will look more distinctive.

 

 

 

 

 

In any case, the Speicherstadt is still very impressive and worthy of its World Heritage status;  there must be some fabulous loft apartments up there, and the Wasserschloss café’s terrace has a wonderful location. The HafenCity’s information centre is actually in the Speicherstadt (in an 1887 boiler house) and is worth a visit – they have an English-language booklet on the buildings and a café and free toilets.

 Following the waterfront a little way west, you’ll come to the main ferry docks and the Sankt Pauli-Elbtunnel, opened in 1911 (after three construction workers died from the bends); it seems similar to the foot tunnels in London, Newcastle, Antwerp and elsewhere, but this one also takes cars (which come down by lift), although not at the moment thanks to refurbishment work. So it’s a great ride by bike, and you can continue south into Wilhelmsburg, which was a poor immigrant neighbourhood that was hit by a serious flood in 1962; more recently it has been transformed into a model of sustainable living. The centrepiece is the Energy Bunker, a World War II anti-aircraft gun tower converted into a solar power plant, alongside a biogas combined heat and power station.

 Not far northwest of the tunnel is the notorious Reeperbahn (see below) and beyond it the middle-class Altona district, with a station where many intercity trains terminate, mainly so that they don’t occupy platforms at the Hauptbahnhof for too long – but now DB (German Rail) has sold the station site and will build a smaller terminus just to the north. After 2024 the present station site will become another green development, with housing (half subsidised or co-operative), shops, a school and for some reason four day-care centres, as well as a park. Also in Altona, the A7 motorway (heading north to Denmark) will be covered for about two kilometres, creating a new linear park leading down to the Elbe.

 A couple of kilometres further west, the waterfront cycle route ends at a pontoon and ferry dock (a great ride, especially if getting close to container ships is your thing) also known as the Övelgönne Hafenmuseum, where roughly twenty historic vessels are moored – the pontoon is open 24/7 but the boats can be visited less predictably. In 2008 the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg opened in a Speicherstadt warehouse (though it too claims to be in HafenCity), and there are some full-size ships moored nearby that can also be visited – at least a couple offer Escape Room experiences.

 There’s plenty of art here too, and the Kunsthalle is a major collection by any standards. As with the one in Bremen, it’s hard to find the chronological starting-point – go upstairs and to the left, through a small room of Klee and Ernst to start the Rundgang with a few Italian Old Masters (notably Pietro de Rimini) and altarpieces by the fifteenth-century Hamburg artists Bertram von Minden and Meister Francke. It’s more natural to start with the central room, currently dominated by the immense Entry of Charles V into Antwerp by Hans Makart (1878), which was very controversial because of the naked women rather improbably taking part in a welcome pageant. As in Bremen, there’s plenty of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including Jan Gossaert, Jan Massys, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem, Willem van der Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael, Joos de Momper, Jan van Goyen, Aert van der Neer, David Teniers the Younger, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Gerard van Honthorst, and still lives by Rachel Ruysch and Willem Claesz Heda (both of whom I mentioned here), Rubens and van Dyck. There’s Rembrandt, of course, in the form of Simeon and Hannah in the Temple (1627), which is the story of the Nunc Dimittis.

 But maybe you’re here for the German art, which continues with a small room of Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder (a big but not particularly good Presentation in the Temple), eighteenth-century portraits by the Tischbeins (uncle and nephew) and Graff, Romantic paintings by Philipp Otto Runge, Carl Gustav Carus, Ludwig Richter, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and Caspar David Friedrich (notably THE famous one of The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog), more by the Nazarenes (see above), Realists such as Adolf Menzel, Wilhelm Leibl, Hans Thoma, and Anselm Feuerbach, then Max Liebermann, who began as a Barbizon-style realist, then became an impressionist and leader of the Berlin Secession. 

 Incidentally, the Hamburg School seems to refer both to artists such as Georg Haeselich (1806-94), Jacob Gensler (1808-45), Adolph Friedrich Vollmer (1806-75) and Valentin Ruths (1825-1905), and then to the more interesting group led by Arthur Siebelist, Arthur Illies, Ernst Eitner and Thomas Herbst who formed the Hamburgische Künstlerclub (Hamburg Artists Club) in 1897. Paula Modersohn-Becker (see above) and Max Beckmann are here too. It’s also worth mentioning the Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl (a close friend of Friedrich) and Edvard Munch who tend to get lost among the Germans. 

 There’s plenty of French art, from Lorrain, Delacroix, Courbet, Daubigny, Corot, Diaz de la Peña and Millet, via Manet, Monet, Renoir (including an instantly recognisable sculpture), Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Boudin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Gauguin and Jongkind to Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Picasso, Feininger, Vlaminck, Derain, Gris, Vallotton and Léger (although the only Matisse is a bronze sculpture).

 Modern German art begins with a room of Corinth paintings, two by Hodler and one by Ensor (I don’t see enough of Hodler outside Switzerland, but I see too much of Ensor), a Brâncuși sculpture and then the Expressionists – Macke, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein, Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Heckel, von Jawlensky, Marc, Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky and Nolde, as well as Dorothea Maetzel-Johannsen (a local artist who was new to me) and sculptures by Ernst Barlach. From the 1920s come hyperrealistic paintings by Franz Radziwill then Anita Rée (another interesting local artist), Grosz, Dix, the Constructivists, De Stijl and the Bauhaus (including Willi Baumeister, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Hans Arp, Klee and Ernst). Then you should go down to the basement level and across to a modern extension for the contemporary art collection, which includes German names such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hamburg-born Gustav Kluge and a room of Baselitz; plus  David Hockney, Mona Hatoum, Dan Flavin, Jeff Wall, Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Giacometti, Bacon, Serra, Nauman, Fontana, Twombly and much more.

 There are a few more bits and pieces hidden away – from the café you can get to The Transparent Museum, offering behind-the-scenes insights into identifying forgeries, framing, and restitution of art stolen from Jewish families, as well as another gallery dedicated to the Hamburg Artists Club, and the Sculpture Agora.

And finally

I was happy to see that the cut-out silhouettes at Beatles Plaza on the Reeperbahn (at Grosse-Freiheit) show five figures (although the Rough Guide refers to the Fab Four) – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Best and Sutcliffe, of course, and not Ringo. It’s well documented that they were tough rock’n’rollers living in sordid conditions (washing in water taken from the club’s urinals) in the most sordid part of town, playing in clubs crowded with hookers, pimps and drunken sailors – but this was where Stu Sutcliffe met the photographer Astrid Kirchherr (who died a few months ago, in May 2020) and and was soon living with her. As well as taking iconic photos of the band, she persuaded them to copy her Juliette Gréco-style bob and to swap their leather jackets for black polo-necks, a less macho look that showed the way ahead for pop culture. When the Beatles returned to Liverpool, Sutcliffe stayed here to study art (one of his tutors was Eduardo Paolozzi, who later said he was one of his best students) – but he died in April 1962 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly caused by a fight outside a club in Liverpool.

The Chilehaus – mentioned in my Amsterdam post.

West Cambridge – Villenviertel or Bicycle Suburb?

I haven’t been able to travel far, of course, during the Covid-19 lockdown, but I have been able to get out on my bike every day, and I’m very aware that I live in a very attractive area. We have the Paradise Nature Reserve and Grantchester Meadows (too crowded at the moment, alas), but we also have lots of beautiful buildings on what are currently very quiet streets. Obviously Cambridge University and the colleges are architectural patrons of distinction and over the centuries have built many fine edifices – but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I was looking at my Pevsner (The Buildings of England – Cambridgeshire, the 1970 second edition), which caught my attention with its reference (on p.255) to ‘The Villenviertel of Cambridge’. It’s a distinctly Germanic concept; I can’t really think of any other English city with a ‘Villa Quarter’, but the western Berlin suburbs of Wannsee, Grunewald and Dahlem are defined by their lakeside villas (it’s a little-known fact that there are lakes in West Cambridge, but they are totally surrounded by houses and visible only from the air for most of us). Vienna and other cities also have their villa quarters, but in Britain by and large we had Metroland.

 Thinking about this, I came across this paper: ‘West Cambridge 1870–1914: building the bicycle suburb’ by Philomena Guillebaud (Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society XCVI), about the transformation of this same area from farmland to a ‘gentry housing’ area. ‘Bicycle suburb’ is an equally odd concept, given that the whole of Cambridge is a bicycle city now, and that this area is easily close enough to the city centre to walk. But it did mean that pretty grand houses could be built without stables (which would later have become garages) and that domestic staff did not have to live in if they could easily cycle to work – a hint at a social revolution there, perhaps.

 Effectively, the history of West Cambridge begins only in the 1870s when fields were enclosed and largely ended up in the hands of St John’s and a couple of other colleges; plots were then allocated for the construction of Newnham and Selwyn Colleges and Ridley Hall (from 1875, 1879 and 1877 respectively), and then for housing development. It’s widely believed that this was driven by the end of the requirement for college fellows to be bachelors, in 1877, but this was really just one factor. From the start of the twentieth century colleges were themselves building grand buildings on Grange Road to house students and staff, eventually followed by the university library and further colleges.

 Most of the houses were designed by London architects such as MH Baillie Scott, ES Prior, and then slightly later Edmund Kett, AW Rose and AL Champneys, who are still remembered as among the best architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The dominant style is probably Arts and Crafts, although there are plenty of Jacobean, Baroque and Georgian features too.

 Pevsner describes his Villenviertal as lying around Grange Road and Madingley Road, but, looking at the detail (pp. 241 and 255-6) the area described stretches from Millington Road in the south to Storey’s Way in the north. Since Pevsner’s time, Madingley Road has become a busy main road into the city and most remaining houses now have dense high hedges to cut themselves off; but over the years I’ve delivered leaflets along Grange Road and I’ve always been aware of some very fine buildings there. My favourite is no.11, known as Upton House, which was built in 1912 to designs by Algernon Winter Rose; it’s one of a quite a few Grade II-listed houses in the area, and I found that English Heritage’s web pages not only give useful information about individual listed buildings, but also cite others which give ‘group value’ – in this case nos. 4 (1898, by Baillie Scott), 5 & 7 (c.1893, by Edmund Kett). It’s also hard to miss nos. 60 and 62, both built by Champneys in 1906 as student accommodation for Trinity College, and no. 71 (1911, by AB Mitchell), with a plaque marking it as the home of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947), awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929.

60 Grange Road
62 Grange Road

 

 

71 Grange Road

 

31 Grange Road

Personally I quite like 31 Grange Rd, described in passing as Victorian, but to me it seems a throwback to the Georgian style, with its bowed frontage.

 On the north side of Madingley Road, Storey’s Way is named after Storey’s Charity (now the Edward Storey Foundation), named after a Cambridge bookseller who died in 1692 or 1693 and left money to buy land in order to fund almshouses for the poor (it’s still active). It runs between Churchill, Trinity Hall and Fitzwilliam Colleges, splendid ensembles of twentieth-century architecture but beyond my remit here; more to the point are the lovely Arts and Crafts houses and gardens, several by Baillie Scott, that were built in the golden age before the First World War (the Rupert Brooke years). The first to catch my eye was no. 76 (1913, by Arthur Hamilton Moberly), which has a blue plaque in honour of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died there in 1951 – a month or two back, on an earlier lockdown cycle ride, I found his grave not far away in the Ascension Burial Ground. Just north is Atholl Lodge, built in 1931, and now the Fitzwilliam College’s Masters Lodge; it’s not particularly highly rated but makes a nice statement with its distinctive corner turret on a bend in the road. It’s followed by several Baillie Scott houses, of which no.48, just before the next bend in the road, seems almost perfect to me. I have a newspaper article from 2016, when it was for sale – internally it’s apparently open-plan like a medieval hall, with the latches and window fittings etc all designed by Baillie Scott to fit his concept of the ’ideal home’ (similar to the ideas of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland).

 At the other end of Grange Road, Millington Road is a private road, with anachronistic gas lights, that was developed slightly later – there are seven fine houses by HC Hughes, notably no.11 (1922), as well as a classic example (no.26 – designed by Marshall Sisson in 1931) of the kind of flat-roofed Modernism that Pevsner had grown up with in Germany. While I was cycling around thinking about this piece, I came across a similar (but more Corbusieresque) example which I thought he’d missed – but of course he hadn’t (9 Wilberforce Road), although he doesn’t give a date or any other details. According to other sources, it was designed by Dora Cosens in 1937 – she was a student of Checkley at the university’s School of Architecture, then married (Thomas Hardy was at her wedding – he began as an architect, after all) and gave up architecture.

 Pevsner then mentions Barton Court ‘on the other side of Barton Road’, terrace houses (we’d probably call them maisonettes now) by Dry Halasz Dixon Partnership (1966-9) – as far as I can tell, this is now called Archway Court, and is on the same side of Barton Road as Millington Road.

 Just west is Grantchester Road  in the second edition, Pevsner added Nos. 2 & 2A and described them as ‘among the best recent houses in Cambridge’. They were designed in 1963-4 by Colin St John Wilson, who taught architecture at Cambridge and went on to design the British Library. Pevsner described its ‘cast-stone blocks of a pure white’ which unfortunately now look like grubby breeze-blocks – it may be wonderful in its use of internal space, but externally it really hasn’t dated well. Enough said.

What we’re building these days, alas… what the Americans would call a McMansion at 95 Barton Road
There’s good stuff on the other side of Cambridge too – 23 Queen Edith’s Way
25 Millington Road
23 Storeys Way

 

Return to Oxford

I’m in lock-down in Cambridge at the moment, but a few months ago I did make a flying visit to the other place, Oxford, where I studied many years ago.

 From the cultural tourism point of view, the most notable developments in Oxford recently have been the reopening of the Ashmolean Museum (in 2009) and of the Weston Library (in 2015). The Ashmolean, of course, is Britain’s oldest museum, founded in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford in 1677 by Elias Ashmole, treasures acquired by him from the gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger. It’s housed in the Cockerell Building (opened in 1845), one wing of which is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the university’s modern languages faculty, where I spent a certain amount of time as a student (as an undergraduate and in my glorious two-term research career). The £61 million revamp by Rick Mather dropped a huge concrete-and-glass box into the courtyard behind the original museum, creating a spectacular lightwell/staircase that provides easy connections to every floor and gallery, plus of course a new rooftop restaurant. The display space has also been doubled in size, allowing bigger and better temporary exhibitions – I’m very keen to see the current Young Rembrandt show, but of course it’s closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  I didn’t spend much time in the New Bodleian Library as a student, and just saw it as a drab pile that I had to pass frequently – built in 1937-40 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Wikipedia sniffily notes that it’s ‘not generally considered his finest work’, although it is listed as a Grade II historic building. It too has been hollowed out behind the original façade in an £80 million pound project to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material and better facilities for readers, including a digital media centre and 2.5km of open-access bookshelves. It also welcomes outside visitors for the first time; a new entrance from Broad St leads to a shop and café and spaces for free temporary exhibitions, which I strongly recommend. Journalists crowed that ‘the dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod’, but it is in fact now called the Weston Library.

 I’ve just seen that the University Museum of Natural History is next in line for a major revamp; in 2014-6 it was closed to fix its leaking roof (comprising over 2,500 Victorian glass tiles), and in 2020 the displays in the main court are being moved out in shifts (allowing the museum to stay open throughout) and reinstalled in new high-tech conservation cabinets. The new displays will, they say, ’address the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment’.

 Not all of Oxford’s museums are doing so well – just last month three paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa were stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Christ Church itself had recently been in the news because cases of fine Burgundy and Pouilly Fumé had been disappearing from the cellar. Hmmmm, I wonder if there could be a connection.

 Architecture old and new

In fact though, every time one returns to Oxford after a few years away, there are plenty of new and converted buildings to catch the attention. At my alma mater, New College, the stylish new Clore Music Studios were completed in January 2019 and the Kimbel Wing (fantastic accommodation for the disabled in the original Morris Garage, where the first Bullnose Morris cars were assembled in 1912) was opened in March 2019 (I’d love to see my nephew living there one day, but that’s another story). More recently, the plans for the new Gradel Quadrangles, which received planning permission in June 2018, were greeted with general approval and even excitement – crammed in behind Savile House, where I lived in my final year, they’ll allow New College to provide rooms for all its students.

 In the future I’d like to wander north of the centre, where there’s all sorts of interesting new architecture, starting with the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, in and around the old Radcliffe Infirmary between the Woodstock Road and Walton Street. The Observatory itself is now the focal point of Green Templeton College, a new graduate college founded in 2008. The former St Luke’s Chapel (built in 1865) is a venue for events, and not to be confused with the Freud café in the former St Paul’s Church on Walton St, built in 1836. There’s new accommodation for Somerville College here, and the Jericho Health Centre and the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the Mathematical Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government (by Herzog & de Meuron) have also opened; the new Humanities Building was granted planning permission in 2010 but has been delayed by funding issues, with construction now expected to begin in 2021 (leaving aside any Covid-19-related complications). I love good modern architecture (and thankfully Oxford and Cambridge can both afford to pay for it), and I especially enjoy projects that fit in new buildings among historic sites like this. A little further north, colleges such as St Anne’s also have similarly striking new buildings to be examined.

 Other small projects caught my eye too, for instance the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre (part of Wadham College), opened in 2012 in the former Blackwell’s Music Shop at the rear of the King’s Arms (I’ll get to pubs later, don’t worry, but the KA is also owned by Wadham). I have no idea what the Oxford Ice Factory building was when I was a student (1978-82) but it now houses the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre opened in 2017 by the Saïd Business School, aiming to build a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs to leave society and the planet in a better state. It too has a nice café, naturally. And just a couple of blocks west, at the corner of Hollybush Row and the new Frideswide Square, the Jam Factory, opened in 2006, is a restaurant-bar-arts centre in the building where the famous ‘Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade was produced from 1903 to 1958. Immediately to the east. ie slightly nearer the city centre, I wandered around what used to be an area of breweries and other industries straddling various side-channels of the Isis (Thames) – not an area I’d ever known before, but there are still traces of the former Lion (Morrell’s) and Eagle Steam Breweries, now incorporated in fairly pricey residential developments. Immediately to the east again, Oxford Castle and the old prison are well known as a fairly upmarket regeneration area, with posh hotels and restaurants.

 Just a few pubs

And so to the pubs – I headed first to the Turf Tavern, which was my local for some years. It’s expanded, now stretching almost all the way back to New College tower, and has got more touristy, with more emphasis on food. It’s still hard to find and still has skull-bashingly low beams though. They claim that both Bob Hawke’s Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds and Bill Clinton’s ‘not inhaling’ marijuana both took place here in the 1960s; they may be right about Bob Hawke (he was later Australia’s most charismatic prime minister ever), but I’ve met people who knew Clinton at Oxford and the ‘not inhaling’ seemed to take place at private parties. They also make much of the fact that the Harry Potter crew hung out here after filming, which is probably true – some scenes were shot in New College and, for what it’s worth, Emma Watson’s father was a student there with me.

New College cloister – as in some Harry Potter film or other

 

 

 

 

New College Great Quad – as in some Harry Potter film or other

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The KA (see above) is largely unchanged except for the addition of an attractive room with leather sofas next to the back bar (which lost its male-only status just five years before I came up); I found that it’s been a Youngs pub since 1991 – I have no idea what it was in my student days but would be happy to hear any ideas. The White Horse was closed for a mini-refurb over New Year but is probably not greatly changed (there’s not room to do anything much with it); and the Welsh Pony (famously basic when I was there, with amazingly cheap fry-ups) closed as a pub about twenty years ago and is now a generic seedy bar. The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child) and Flamb and Lag (Lamb and Flag) are still there but both indelibly linked to Tolkien and CS Lewis and thus of no interest to me.

 I was intrigued to see that the local Wetherspoons (I wouldn’t drink there either, due to the founder Tim Martin being a berserk Brexiteer who made himself even more unpopular by his reaction to the new coronavirus) is called  The Four Candles – I wasn’t sure why, until someone told me that Ronnie Barker was a pupil at the Oxford High School for Boys, and the pub is now in that building (which was the History Faculty in my day). Or is it the Fork Handles…? If you don’t know the sketch you should look it up at once.

 I didn’t get there, but I was delighted to learn that the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road, which was my own secret pub in my final year, is now fully vegetarian – no idea what the beer is like, but I look forward to visiting as soon as possible. And we used to love going out to rural pubs such as the Plough in Noke (now closed, I believe), the Boat by the canal in Thrupp (great for bar billiards) and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, which a friend visited fairly recently – it’s now community-owned, with good local beers, good-value meals, and a plaque stating that Evelyn Waugh ‘wrote, drank and loved here’  – which I hadn’t known. Apparently Waugh stayed here regularly with a male lover, and then honeymooned there with his first wife (who was also called Evelyn, confusingly; she left him for another man, and I can’t blame her), before spending time here to write books including Vile Bodies.

 From Oxford to Adlestrop

And finally – I’ve just read Oxford by Edward Thomas (of Adlestrop fame), which I can’t particularly recommend, it’s stuffed full of quotations and allusions to show how well educated he was (Hertford College, don’t you know) and the footnotes (in the 2005 Signal edition) don’t explain them all. The introduction stresses his Welshness, even though he’s known as a writer specifically about English countryside and nature, which is of some interest as I’m updating the Rough Guide to Wales at the moment. In fact he writes about a visit by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, now remembered mainly as a train), who ‘for three days read aloud his glorious book to large audiences’. My last blog post was largely about Jan Morris, whose Oxford is a definitive account and a  wonderful read. Thomas does mention pubs and taverns quite a lot, and cycling, and also bonfires, which were very common in the college quads in his day but must have been extinguished quite soon after. In his opinion, the major change in his day from historic times was the advent of organised sport (especially rowing) – fives was the exception, which had been popular but had died out by his time – but it has now been revived, of course. Long country walks, not necessarily to pubs in Noke and Beckley, were also popular.

 Adlestrop, incidentally, where his train stopped unexpectedly on an Edwardian summer’s day, is north of Oxford near Stow-on-the-Wold (which I visit from time to time), in a location now best known for the Daylesford Organic Farm. But my next objective is to finally read Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (published in 1911), another classic Oxford tale which I think will be more fun than Edward Thomas.

Skopje – beyond surreal

Rebecca West would be appalled. I spent the first three months of the year reading her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – well, I did do quite a bit of work too, but it really is a monster of a book, over 1,100 pages (originally in two volumes), and one of the great travel books. Actually a large part of it is taken up with musings on the roots of fascism (it was published in 1941), the history of ideas and human nature, but it’s also a detailed account of three journeys through Yugoslavia (except for Slovenia, which she may have seen as too civilised for her tastes). In any case, she makes it clear that Macedonia was her favourite part of Yugoslavia, because of the beautiful souls of the people, largely a side-effect of centuries of mis-government by the Ottoman Turks and brutalisation by anyone else who got a chance, notably the Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians.

It’s a serious book, but there are some very funny bits, notably this description of what she calls ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe’, right in the centre of Skopje – ‘of turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod’. This was the Officers’ Club, embodying the domination of the mainly Serb army, and particularly offensive to the Muslim population as they’d torn down the beautiful fifteenth-century Karlizade or Burmali mosque in 1925 to make room for it. It was badly damaged in the massive earthquake of 1963 and left unrepaired, although after the break-up of

Yugoslavia the city’s Muslims campaigned for the mosque to be rebuilt. In 2013 a Greek company was given permission to rebuild it as a hotel, also providing a new office for the mayor and a wedding hall. As of April 2019 there’s not much sign of progress.

In fact West would be spinning in her grave if she had any idea of the further architectural desecration wrought upon the long-suffering city of Skopje in the last few years – the notorious Skopje 2014 project has seen some of the world’s ugliest and most grandiose buildings constructed along the city centre’s riverfront. Beyond kitsch, beyond surreal, beyond Ceaușescu’s most fevered dreams, they’re simply appalling – I’ll just let my photos below do the talking. One might think they were trying to create a European Las Vegas if there were any casinos, and if Batumi hadn’t got there first. The city was largely flattened in a massive earthquake in 1963 and rebuilt in communist concrete – one can understand a reaction against that, but this was not the way to go.

What’s more they are decorated with and surrounded by an incredible array of statues – they’re not all awful, but their sheer number is exhausting. I thought Bratislava’s riverfront exemplified the Central European love of public statuary, but this is on another level. I hate to think how many hospitals all this could have paid for. Not only that, but the city also has a fleet of red double-decker buses that look like the illicit lovechild of a London Routemaster and a Tonka Truck. And not one but two ‘galleons’ set on concrete blocks in the river. On the other hand, there’s a large traffic-free area and plenty of cycling, so they must be fundamentally good people.

The Museum of Macedonia

The bazaar area has kept its dignity and its authenticity, and is what most visitors most enjoy here; just above, the Mustapha Pasha mosque (built in 1492) is the most interesting of the city’s mosques. Large chunks of the city’s museums are currently closed awaiting restoration, with just a few rooms displaying a fraction of their collections. It has to be said that the modernist communist architecture of the Museum of Macedonia and the Museum of Contemporary Art actually looks pretty good compared to the monstrosities down by the river, while others are beautifully housed in former baths and markets. The M of M has a propagandist display on how the Macedonians of northern Greece were driven out in the 1940s, and a good ethnology display with a huge array of traditional costumes as well as pots, pans and farming implements, which show that Macedonia is part of the cultural continuum of central Europe that I’m familiar with from working for so many years in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and elsewhere (see my recent post on Bratislava). I also went to the City Museum (with some good Roman relics and a room on the 1963 earthquake), the National Gallery (in fifteenth-century baths that make a great space for temporary shows), the Museum of Contemporary Art (also largely empty – part of the impressive worldwide response to the earthquake was to create this museum and donate a Picasso, a Calder and other art works, but these are not currently on display), and I also popped swiftly into the Mother Teresa Centre (she was born here) – the M of M costs about £1.30, the rest are free. I’m informed that the Archeology Museum has lots of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics and a particularly good collections of ancient coins, all well displayed – but the building is a nightmare.

It’s said that Pristina is Europe’s ugliest capital – it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to Skopje.

Time for a beer

One plus is that you can find a decent pint in a couple of places, courtesy of Pivnica Temov aka Old Town Brewery, founded in 2009, who now have a couple of outlets, the original slightly ramshackle place at the top of the old town,and a lively bar right on the main Macedonia Square. They do IPA and a double IPA, stout (I think they spell it staut), porter and weissbier, all unfiltered and unpasteurised and using only the four basic ingredients of barley, hops, yeast and water. My limited sampling indicated it was just fine, and the food was good too.

Then I want home by a different way and found a load more laughable statuary jumbled together – it’s too much for anyone to take in.

What’s in a name?

The long-running fight with Greece over the country’s name has finally been resolved, and it is now officially North Macedonia – an admission that South Macedonia exists and is part of Greece (and a small East Macedonia also exists and is part of Bulgaria). Perhaps Upper Macedonia would have been better, along the lines of Upper Hungary, which is now Slovakia. It’s annoyed some nationalists, but really the country couldn’t go on for ever as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The particularly huge statue of Alexander the Great (the second most famous Macedonian after Mother Teresa, and she was ethnically Albanian) is still officially called Warrior on Horseback to avoid ruffling Greek sensibilities (and the national flag was also changed to placate the Greeks).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Archeological Museum
The Public Prosecutor and Financial Police
Statues on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Let’s squeeze in some more statues
Statues on the National Theatre
A ‘galleon’ and another view of the Officers’ Club
The ‘Warrior on Horseback’