I don’t want to say much about Namur, but as capital of Wallonia (the French-speaking half of Belgium) since 1986 it might one day be capital of an independent state! It’s still a fairly small town and not that attractive, but it’s dominated by the citadel that’s set high on the hill between the Meuse and Sambre rivers, which is an unmissable detour (as the Michelin guide might say). It has been under refurbishment since 2012, but the museum at the Visitor Centre in the Terra Nova barracks block gives an excellent overview of the linked history of the town and citadel ever since they were a mangrove swamp more or less on the equator 340 million years ago. A small Roman settlement developed into a trading settlement which was increasingly prosperous from the tenth century until the local count was forced to sell it to Burgundy in 1421. The town, ruled by Spain then Austria, lost much of its importance, even while its citadel became a major strategic point – its fortifications were built up in the 15th and 16th centuries, then the Terra Nova sector was added in 1631-75, followed by the Fort d’Orange in 1690-1, trying to secure the citadel’s one weak point, along the ridge between the rivers. Even so, the citadel was captured by the French in 1692, and Louis XIV’s great military engineer Vauban improved its defences, adding lots of tunnels which are a major tourist attraction today. It reminded me of Luxembourg, where there are 23km of casemates to be visited.
In 1696 it was recaptured by the forces of the Grand Alliance; until 1792 the town was Austrian but a treaty gave the Netherlands the right to hold various fortifications towards the French border. After the French Revolution Namur became part of Napoleon’s empire, then part of the Netherlands and then, after its secession in 1830, Belgium. Incidentally, Marshal Blucher came through with his Prussian army on the way to Waterloo (which is just south of Brussels, of course) and a few days later Marshal de Grouchy came through in the opposite direction, trying to reach safety after the French defeat. The citadel was gradually demilitarised (but a ring of nine concrete forts was built around the city in 1888) and a road known as the Route Merveilleuse was built up to the citadel in 1904 – trams made it all the way up, now replaced by buses, and from 1957 to 1997 there was a small cable car too. There’s an open-air theatre, various restaurants and an amusement park, but the main attraction is the view.
The other thing to catch my attention was the Musée Félicien Rops, dedicated to the Namur-born decadent artist who was a great friend of Baudelaire and produced illustrations for books by him and the symbolist poets who came later, such as Mallarmé, Verlaine and Barbey d’Aurevilly. He struck me as similar to Toulouse-Lautrec, in that he didn’t leave a great legacy of traditional paintings but just by producing posters and engravings established a reputation that survives (to a lesser extent) to this day. He was particularly good at caricatures and at depicting women (not only naked ones, although many of them were). He had a suitably decadent life himself, loving two Parisian sisters and having a child by each. The museum has well-presented displays that make a good case for him without overstating his importance.
You’re also likely to hear of the Treasure of Oignies, wonderful thirteenth-century goldsmithery (with particularly good filigree work that reminds me of Georgia) from the priory of Oignies near Charleroi, now the pride of Namur’s Museum of Ancient Arts (known as TreM.a), housed in an attractive eighteenth-century townhouse. Other exhibits include fine Mosan enamels (as mentioned in my first post on Liège) and an unusual but attractive panel of Christ Awaiting Death, painted in the sixteenth century.
On the beer front, Namur is known for Blanche de Namur, from the Brasserie du Bocq, a wheat beer that is good but somehow failed to thrill me, and La Houppe, from the Brasserie de l’Echasse, a coppery-blond beer that I found lovely, with citrus notes and a fine balance of three different hops – it’s dry-hopped, with the third set of hops added during secondary fermentation, and given a long period to mature, allowing it to be unfiltered.
I didn’t plan to write about Tournai but it’s definitely worth a few paragraphs, especially as it’s so easy to get to – it’s in Belgium, of course, but under half an hour from Lille, which is just an hour and a half from London by Eurostar (and can also be reached by TGV and Thalys trains from all over western Europe). The small Roman town of Tornacum later became the capital of Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty and thus of what is now France – and so Tournai claims to be the oldest city in Belgium. Ruled by its bishops, it became very prosperous in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but was then fought over by many countries, being ruled by the English, Spanish and Austrians at various times. It suffered terribly in the world wars but is now part of a prosperous cross-border metropolis centred on Lille.
Its main landmark is the cathedral of Notre-Dame, which is a very odd-looking building, with a central tower above the crossing and four taller towers clustered around it in the four angles of the transepts – they’re all different, clearly showing the transition from the Romanesque style to Gothic. If the nave and chancel didn’t exist the transepts, 67 metres in length, would still form a large church (though 90 degrees out of line, of course). The current building was begun around 1140, but work began in the next century to make it bigger and full of light, along the lines of the new Gothic cathedrals in the Île de France, requiring huge flying buttresses. Interestingly, it was also the model for the church of Our Lady in Brugge (Bruges), where I was the next day.
The cathedral was badly damaged by a tornado, of all things, in 1999 and is now undergoing major refurbishment; scaffolding was erected in the transept in 2013, supposedly for a period of five years, but it looks as if it’ll be there for a bit longer, with plenty more outside. There are other churches that are worth visiting, such as St-Quentin and St-Jacques.
Just north of the cathedral is a very solid belfry, one of 55 across northern France and Belgium that are inscribed as a group on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (as – separately – is the Notre-Dame cathedral) – built between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, they’re important as symbols of civic power, a third pole between the church and the lord’s castle. This one, built in 1188 and raised and strengthened in 1294, is the oldest in Belgium. I’d seen the one in Amiens, with a twelfth century base and an eighteenth-century top, the previous day (as well as the modernist Tour Perret by the railway station), and in the next couple of days I was to see the Belforts in Brugge and Gent (both high, and reminiscent of the campaniles in Florence and Siena), as well as in Namur, Mons (the only Baroque belfry in Belgium), and the Deco one in Charleroi (1936; also on the World Heritage List). And a week later in Dinan, I saw their fifteenth-century horloge, which played a similar rôle as the town’s third pole of power (there are just three left in Brittany, in Dinan, Fougeres and Concarneau). I’m really not sure that the group of 55 belfries hang together as a group, but it makes more sense in conjunction with UNESCO’s listing of Belgium’s carillon culture on its register of intangible cultural heritage in 2014 – time and again, in Belgium and in to a certain extent in the Netherlands, one hears bells playing a pretty simple tune that people seem to think is a significant expression of their culture. Personally, I was more impressed by the number of people playing pianos in stations and elsewhere – yes, public pianos are quite common elsewhere, but they seem particularly well used here, and the standard is pretty high too. In 2016 UNESCO added Belgium’s beer culture to the register of intangible cultural heritage, which seems far more worthwhile to me.
The medieval walls included the Pont des Trous, built across the Scheldt in about 1329 – the central arch was destroyed in 1940 and rebuilt after the war with a wider span to allow the many big barges to pass more easily. Not far north is a circular tower built for Henry VIII (yes, Tournai was held by the English from 1513 to 1519), which is currently covered in scaffolding but did remind me of his castles at Pendennis and St Mawes. I was also struck by the grim three- and four-storey Romanesque houses, built at the end of the twelfth century, in the St Brice quarter.
On the art front, Tournai was the birthplace, in 1399 or 1400, of one of my favourite artists, Rogier van der Weyden – there’s a lovely Virgin and Child by him (well, the child is less lovely) in the Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as a Holy Family by one of his followers or students. The display standards are not great, but the museum does also have works by Pieter Brueghel father and son, Jordaens, van Goyen and Mabuse, and from the nineteenth century Courbet, Manet, Monet, Alfred Stevens (Belgian, by the way) and a poor Seurat; there’s also an ink drawing by van Gogh and a couple of Toulouse-Lautrec sketches. Speaking of Belgians, there are also some nice pieces by Guillaume van Strydonck (1861-1937) and Félicien Rops (1833-98) and a dozen by James Ensor (1860-1949) – not especially weird by his standards, and so not actually that interesting. He’s really not one of my favourite artists, but I do quite enjoy Rops, especially after visiting the Musée Rops in Namur a week or two later.
I stayed in the excellent HI hostel, right next to the art museum; and I greatly enjoyed the first of quite a few Belgian beers that I was to sample over the next week – see my previous post. This was an amber beer from the St Martin abbey brewery, now known as Brunehaut, and as the first it lingered in my mind as a special experience. Other great beers are available locally, such as Cazeau, Dubuisson and Dupont, and to show that I’m not obsessive I also very much enjoyed the Eva Cosy tearooms and Un Thé Sous Le Figuier, an unpretentious little restaurant. I’d like to linger a little longer next time!
(but that’s a good start, say Rob and Nigel). We were an odd trio of cyclists, me on a fairly heavy town bike rented in Bruges, Rob (who’s previously featured in accounts of cycling in Taiwan and Yorkshire) on his folder and Nigel on a carbon-fibre Audax bike that he’d have liked to sleep with at night, but it worked very well – partly because the infrastructure is so good and there’s a positive Dutch-style cycling culture. This meant that even where the cycle tracks weren’t perfect we could still feel safe and keep rolling along because we were confident that drivers would give way, in a way that they certainly wouldn’t in the UK. The infrastructure felt like a slightly cheaper version of the Dutch gold standard, ie even the best segregated tracks were only three metres wide, not enough for cyclists to overtake in each direction simultaneously. Watch out for the Omleiding signs – if they say that a cycle route is closed for construction and you should follow a diversion, just do it – there really won’t be a way for cyclists to sneak past.
Renting a bike worked fine for a trip involving 50-60km a day at most, and that largely along wide canal towpaths and the like. It was a sit-up-and-beg (or sit-up-and-look-around) bike with seven gears that I called my momentum machine – pretty good in a straight line but not particularly manoeuvrable (similar to the Vélib bikes I rode in Paris a few days later); it was better on the all-too-common cobbles than the folder, but still not comfortable. Apparently (according to an article Rob once wrote), Dutch-style sit-up-and-beg bikes are great for women for certain anatomical reasons, but I don’t know why men would bother with them. There’s no denying the women look great, though, as they sail past with legs fully extended. My bike didn’t feel as if it had a long-distance saddle (or maybe I just don’t have a long-distance bottom), but I’d be happy to rent one for a week again – you should bring your own panniers, as in Taiwan (probably a good rule anywhere), and a U-lock.
We went from Brugge (the local name for Bruges…) to Gent (the local name for Ghent or Gand), Antwerp, Mechelen and Leuven, over three easy days of cycling, and it was delightful, following canals and railway lines, with windmills, grebes and storks, lots of grannies on e-bikes whizzing past us and other elderly couples pottering along slowly on their elderly bikes. The excellent new routes alongside the railways to the southwest and south of Antwerp are branded Fietsostrada, as in autostrada (F4 and F1 respectively) – in Britain we might call it a Bikebahn. There wasn’t much time for museums and art, so I filled in a few gaps when I returned my bike (by train – €5 for a bike ticket) to Brugge.
Luckily there was plenty of time for beer, with the odd lunchtime/afternoon refresher, and more detailed research in the evenings. Everything you’ve heard about Belgian beer is (probably) true – there’s an amazing variety, and it’s all stronger than we’re used to in Britain. You’ll be given a beer menu organised by type and/or region, but the first page will probably list a few draught options (van’t vat), which will be the local mainstays. If you want a refreshing pils after a warm days cycling (and yes, we did drink Stella Artois, though only within a kilometre or so of its brewery in Leuven) it will be cheap, but the more interesting beers cost a bit more, at about €4 for a 33cl bottle. Interestingly, there seems to be no link between alcoholic strength and price.
The easiest option tended to be a blond, ie a pale ale but with more strength and character than in Britain (ie they don’t just throw in lots of hops); other choices are amber, red, brown, wheat beers and the famous Belgian fruit beers. Some are abbey or Trappist beers, which should be fuller and smoother, but there’s no guarantee of that. Then there are the real local specialities, lambic and gueuze – lambic is made using only natural windborne yeasts just southwest of Brussels, and it’s remarkably sour, so it may have fruit added, be matured in the barrel for up to three years, or be blended to produce a gueuze.
Every beer is served in its own specific marked glass – although the system fell apart on our very last drink together, when Rob’s exotic peach beer came with a bog-standard Chimay glass.
Likewise, everything you’ve heard about Brugge being full of tourists and Gent being the undiscovered but more authentic and exciting alternative is true – we were all blown away by the canals and towers of Gent, and by the feeling that it was a real working city rather than just a tourist honey-pot.
In the cathedral of St Bavo in Gent the wonderful and very important (in terms of the development of northern European art) altarpiece of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is being restored panel by panel, but the missing ones have been replaced by photographs that are so good you really wouldn’t know (and the bottom left-hand panel, the Just Judges, is in any case a reproduction, the original having been stolen in 1934). At the Fine Arts Museum you can watch the restoration work through a glass screen – it’s just been announced, having removed layers of paint added in earlier ‘restorations’, that the lamb has a much sterner expression than was thought (in addition a 1951 restoration effort had left it looking as if it had four ears). In June 2020 a new visitor centre will open to show it off properly.
Various big museum projects will be coming to fruition in 2019, it seems. In Brugge the Gruuthusemuseum is closed for renovation until May 2019 and in Antwerp the Fine Arts Museum is closed while they build new galleries in the central courtyard – it looks as if it’ll reopen in 2019, but until then many of their treasures are visible in other venues across the city. In Leuven the Treasury in the chancel of St Peter’s church, famous for its two paintings by Dietric Bouts and a copy of Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, is closed until September 2019 – but the treasures are on view in the chapels off the nave. In addition, the Caermersklooster or former Carmelite monastery in Gent will open in January 2019 as the Kunsthal Gent, run by local art groups.
On the other hand, a new city museum opened in 2018 in Mechelen, in the Hof van Busleyden, once home of Hiëronymus van Busleyden, a friend of Erasmus. It tells the town’s history from the Burgundian period, when it was pretty much the capital of northern Europe, to the present day, and also displays art and shows how the law was applied to art between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
On the cycling front, the Wielermuseum or Cycling Museum in Roeselar has just reopened, after a three-year closure, as Koers, which means Race – not really what we do, but still it might be interesting.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
I’ve always been interested by pairs of ‘rival’ cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne… Usually one has more economic clout while the other has the cultural kudos, but – sorry, Derby – when it comes to the pair in the East Midlands, Nottingham is well ahead on both counts (and it has a whizzy new tram system too, and two good universities). And my friend from Derby even admits that if he had a job there, he’d live in Nottingham! I’m not going to say that it’s anywhere amazing, but still, it’s a decent place to visit or to live in.
The main news from my recent visit is that the Castle and museum are about to close for a huge £30m project to transform them by 2020. At the moment you can’t get beyond the gatehouse without paying, which is a huge waste of a lovely park that gives good views over the city, but a modern visitor centre will be built here and there’ll be free access to some of the park. There’ll also be a new entrance from Brewhouse Yard (seventeenth-century cottages that currently house the Museum of Nottingham Life) at the bottom of the hill – a lift will be built in a cave to reach the castle (these are already the only wheelchair-accessible caves in Britain). Of course there’ll be new galleries too, notably a double-height space in the service yard.
With a great big block of what is now known as Nottingham Sandstone overlooking the River Trent, this was the perfect site for one of the most important castles erected by William the Conqueror to control the Midlands and northern England; it’s also riddled with caves (reminiscent of Saumur, where I was a couple of months before). The wooden motte and bailey castle, begun in 1067, was rebuilt in stone from 1170 by Henry II, and improved from 1220 by Henry III (including building the present gatehouse). Sir Roger de Mortimer (the Earl of March), who may have killed Edward II and then effectively ruled England for three years, was arrested here (in bed with Edward’s widow, Isabella of France) by the young Edward III, who entered the castle by a secret tunnel now known as Mortimer’s Hole. In 1485 Richard III raised his standard here before riding out to defeat at the battle of Bosworth, and likewise in 1642 Charles I raised his standard here (in several places, now marked with plaques, as he was attracting very few volunteers), triggering the civil war which led to his execution.
The victorious parliamentary forces demolished the castle in 1651, but after the Restoration the site was bought by the new Duke of Newcastle, who built a modern Palladian palace in 1672-9. In 1831 this was attacked and burnt down by a mob angered by the fourth Duke’s blocking of the Reform Bill. The Duke took the compensation he was offered but left the palace in ruins, probably as a rebuke to the people of Nottingham; it was eventually converted to a museum, opening in 1878. The city’s history of rebellion, starting with the twelfth-century tales of Robin Hood, is a key theme that will be emphasised in the remodelled museum, as will the city’s proud history of crafts production. This started with Nottingham alabaster (actually mined in Derbyshire and Staffordshire), which was well known across Europe from the late 14th century until the Reformation, and was followed by salt-glazed stoneware in the 17th and 18th centuries and lace-making in the 19th century (later came Raleigh cycles, Players cigarettes and Boots pharmaceuticals). The museum has a good Decorative Arts gallery, with family-friendly educational displays, and also houses the nationally important Ballantyne Collection, with 370 pots by 60 post-war British potters, including all the big names such as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Michael Cardew, Richard Batterham, David Ballantyne and at least four members of the Leach family.
The museum’s sculptures are poorly presented (with one by Lynn Chadwick wasted on the stairs), but it has an excellent art collection, featuring local artists Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) and Laura and Harold Knight, who I’m familiar with because of their Cornish connections. Otherwise they have a lot of twentieth-century English art, by William Nicholson, his son Ben and Ben’s first wife Winifred Nicholson, George Clausen, Carel Weight, LS Lowry, Lawrence Gowing, Augustus John, William Roberts, Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Ivon Hitchens, David Bomberg, John Piper and John Nash, as well as a couple of small portraits by Mark Gertler and Mervyn Peake; there are also a couple of earlier works by George Morland and Richard Wilson and an Epstein bust. But the earliest and probably most valuable of their holdings is by Spinelo Aretino (painted in 1380-90); they also have a Susannah and the Elders attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, a Madonna and Child by a follower of Joos van Cleve, a Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, and other paintings by David Teniers the Younger, Delacroix and Boudin.
There’s also a small gallery on the history of the Mercian Regiment, featuring its most famous member, Private Derby, actually a ram (the first was acquired in India in 1858 but they now come from Chatsworth – they’re currently on Private Derby XXXI). Founded in 1741, the 56th Regiment of Foot later became the Sherwood Foresters and then in 2007 a battalion of the Mercian Regiment; a lot of VCs have been won by its members, notably Captain Albert Ball, who became a fighter pilot and crashed in 1917 chasing von Richthofen, the Red Baron.
Just east of the castle is the Broadmarsh shopping centre, on the site of one of Britain’s foulest slums, which developed when Nottingham’s population increased fivefold in the nineteenth century; just north is the Market Square, the UK’s second largest public square, created in 1928 and nicely remodelled in 2006. The area just to the east is known as the Lace Market, with narrow alleys and striking Victorian warehouses, and lively nightlife; at the southern end of Stoney St you’ll find the fifteenth-century St Mary’s church and the new National Justice Museum (also known as the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law), in the Victorian former courthouse; it has excellent child-friendly displays and is also, for some reason, the base for cave tours beneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre. It’s next to Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery that is highly thought of but was just a bit too, well, contemporary for me.
Immediately east of the Lace Market is the National Ice Centre – it’s worth mentioning Nottingham’s importance in English sporting history, especially as Notts County, founded in 1862, is the world’s oldest professional soccer club. Alas, the johnny-come-latelies of Nottingham Forest, founded in 1865, have been more successful, particularly under the management of the legendary Brian Clough, whose statue stands on the Market Square. There’s also the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont, home to Nottingham Rowing Club (founded in 1869) and the British rowing team, and Trent Bridge, one of the country’s loveliest test cricket grounds.
For a city strategically placed between the different beer cultures of northern and southern England, I didn’t at first find Nottingham’s choice of pubs as good as I’d hoped. The famous Olde Trip to Jerusalem, in caves beneath the castle, is a rather touristy Greene King outlet now, and was a bit too busy midweek when other seemingly attractive places were dead – I wanted to support the Olde Salutation (founded in 1240, so not as old as the Olde Trip, which may have been a meeting point for crusaders in 1189), but the choice of beers was poor. There are a couple of barn-like Wetherspoons pubs, and other new pubs, such as the Roundhouse and Fothergills, which were aimed too much at aspirational diners rather than simple drinkers. However I did eventually find the VAT & Fiddle (named in honour of the nearby headquarters of the Inland Revenue), which was exactly what I was looking for – the brewery tap of the fine Castle Rock brewery, it has a good range of affordable beers, basic pub food (jacket potatoes and pies) and noisy boardgames (or noisy people playing boardgames).
Castle Rock has a couple more pubs in the city, including the Kean’s Head (opposite St Mary’s church), the Barley Twist (near the station) and the Lincolnshire Poacher (half a mile north of the centre on the Mansfield Road); and the bar at the excellent Broadway Cinema is a pleasant refuge when it’s all kicking off outside (as is the similar CAST at the Playhouse). Other local breweries are available, such as Navigation and Totally Brewed. All in all, Nottingham is better served than I initially thought.
[PS It’s been pointed out to me that Luddism, the smashing of modern machinery that was destroying jobs, began in Arnold, just outside Nottingham, in 1811 – I didn’t see any mention of this in the Castle museum, but I hope it’ll be included in the rebellion theme after the revamp.]
I’ve been to Seattle and the major Californian cities a few times over the last couple of decades, but I hadn’t been to Portland since 1984. Then I spent my university vacation hitchhiking around North America and didn’t pay for a single night’s accommodation. This time I travelled by train and the odd plane and stayed in HI hostels, and I have to say, I’ve changed far less than Portland has. I recall that my main reason for visiting the city was a few showpieces of postmodern architecture, notably Michael Graves’ Portland Building (1982) and the KOIN Centre (1984), which failed to thrill me. I assume I did visit the Portland Art Museum because I remember being impressed by the wealth of Asian art in the museums up the West Coast from San Francisco to Vancouver – but now I can state that it must be one of the dozen or so best art collections in the USA (see below). It has expanded since my first visit, having marked its centennial in 1992 by expanding into a former Masonic temple next door – the two buildings are currently separated by a walkway, with a tunnel linking them, but the plan is to build a new pavilion to fill the gap.
Across the Park Blocks from the Art Museum is the Oregon Historical Society, with an excellent modern museum on the history of the state and the city which totally (alas) dominates it. As a fine port where the Willamette river (Goddammit Janet, it’s Willamette, if you’re having trouble remembering how to pronounce it – the original Clackamas name is Wal-lamt) meets the mighty Columbia, Portland developed as an industrial city but was then overtaken by Seattle and Tacoma; after a flurry of World War II ship-building it declined (apart from Nike being established here in 1964) and by the 1970s was marked by post-industrial decline, especially along the waterfront. However the city planners began a process of restoring historic buildings and converting rail yards into parks and museums, while also encouraging modern (and postmodern) developments, and creating a pedestrian-, cyclist- and public transport-focussed city centre. The Old Town/Chinatown area, largely warehouses and commercial buildings on reclaimed land along the Willamette, has been gentrified, and in the area just inland (south of Union Station), former railway sidings were developed into a residential zone known as the Pearl District from the mid-1990s; at the district’s north end are some modern parks such as the slightly Zen Tanner Springs Park (2005), and at the south end are the Brewery Blocks, now housing hip loft-style apartments as well as boutiques, bars and restaurants. On the less attractive east bank of the river, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center are also on former industrial land.
So Portland had a reputation for being fairly green, liberal and arty long before hipsterdom was invented. Then came a TV series called Portlandia in 2011, which the locals, looking back, say is when the city was ruined for them; the series is coming to an end in 2018. Its satirical sketches, mocking a fantasyland of nerdy liberal narcissists, perversely led to everyone wanting to move to Portland, or at least to Portlandia, forcing rents up and driving the boho artists out. Bars were replaced by artisanal candle-makers, and something of what made Portland one of America’s most liveable cities has been lost. I saw hardly any lumberjack shirts or fixed-gear bicycles, but the city still seems a good place to be. That, plus the rising property prices, may partly explain the high numbers of homeless people on the streets – disproportionately African-American as one might expect.
In fact I was staggered to find that the original constitution of Oregon decreed that the state was to be a whites-only paradise (although, to be fair, slavery was banned too), and it was known as a racist city until at least the 1970s, with regular police shootings that of course couldn’t happen nowadays – could they? Minorities have grown from 3.6% of Oregon’s population in 1960 to 16.4% in 2010, and as the state grows from 4 million now to perhaps 6 million by 2050 the number of Latinos in particular is expected to increase disproportionately.
Food and drink
There’s been craft brewing here since the 1980s, and Portland now boasts both the highest number of breweries per capita in the US and the highest expenditure per capita on beer. There are now at least 70 craft breweries (plus 16 urban wineries!) – the oldest is the Bridgeport Brewery, founded in 1984 and now a pretty huge concern. I’ve visited the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, which has a pub in Portland, and that’s also a pretty big operation now. They’re fine, of course, but I’d like to try something slightly more adventurous – one contender is Zoiglhaus (quite a way east of the centre, unfortunately), adapting German brewing techniques to hops-forward American tastes (they’ve even created a ‘German IPA’). You can take a pub tour with Brewvana Portland Brewery Tours. But don’t bother looking for downtown Portland’s oldest microbrewery, Tug Boat Brewing Company (founded in 1989), which closed in mid-2017, due to a never-ending saga of damage caused by businesses upstairs, apparently.
By the way, what is with the American puritan idea of having to be over 21 to even look at a brewery (or winery) website?? They’re legalising cannabis all over the place and the web is awash with pornography, but you might have to lie about your age to see a picture of a beer? Wineries in Georgia (the country) are adopting the same ridiculous idea, alas.
Food is a big deal here too – since 2012 Feast Portland has put on not only a huge annual food festival but also meals, classes and talks, and raises money to tackle child hunger. While there are lots of cafés, I spotted surprisingly few grocery stores downtown; but the Pine Street Market, opened in 2016, is a food hall in a historic (1886) building near the river – it has stalls with communal tables and more formal restaurants. I was also taken with the food stalls between Southwest Alder and Washington at 9th & 10th, including Ethiopian, Lebanese, Chinese and even a Russian-Vietnamese fusion offering, which I wouldn’t begin to know how to tackle. I also noticed quite a few Andean and Peruvian restaurants. I don’t like coffee, but that’s huge here too – the heart of Portland’s third-wave coffee culture is Stumptown, with various branches in town; its founder also owns the Woodsman Tavern, a log-cabin-style pub serving locally sourced food. Kingsland Kitchen, a British-owned brunch and sandwich place, opened in 2015 and is horribly meat-focussed but otherwise enjoyable enough, with fried eggs and toast from just $4 and a full English breakfast for $16.
Art, indoors and out
There’s a lot of public art in Portland, thanks to a tax on new developments – usually this is a recipe for bad art, but most of what’s been produced here is not too cheesey. A lot of it is along the Transit Mall (Southwest 5th and 6th Avenues). For me, the most interesting public art is the stumps of two pillars that supported the Lovejoy Ramp, a road bridge across the rail yards, which have been preserved because of the murals painted on them by railway worker Tom Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952 – they’re definitely worth tracking down on Northwest 10th Avenue between Everett and Flanders. There’s also The People’s Bike Library of Portland, at Southwest 13th and Burnside, which looks more like the city’s abandoned bikes piled up randomly. There’s quite a bit of real (really good) sculpture outside the Portland Art Museum, notably Roy Liechtenstein’s giant Brushstrokes (three swooshes, in a way) and some rough steel by Anthony Caro (there’s more by him inside).
Inside PAM (this is the dull bit), the collection starts with Greek bowls and kraters, funerary heads from Palmyra (c150-200 BCE) and Etruscan ceramics; then there’s a Nativity (1335) by Taddeo Gatto (Giotto’s closest disciple), a cut-out Christ on the cross by Botticelli (from his weaker late Savonarola-esque period), a few more from the Italian Renaissance, a Brueghel and a Cranach, then a graphic circumcision (prefiguring the Passion) by Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen, the first notable painter in Amsterdam, who was new to me. I guessed that van Dyck’s calculating Cardinal Domenico Rivarola (c1624) was from Genoa (see my post from there), and I was right. There’s a representative range of mainly French 18th- and 19h-century art, by Fragonard, Greuze, Boucher, de Largilliere, Bougereau, Monticelli, Ziem, Diaz de la Peña, Corot, Daubigny, Millet, Courbet (a mirror image of himself as a cellist), and Alexandre Calame (1810-64), who lost an eye at 10 but became the leading Swiss landscape painter of the 19th century. Upstairs, there’s a striking modern portrait by Kehinde Willey on the landing, then American art, starting with Gilbert Stuart (a pupil of Benjamin West, the American-born co-founder of the Royal Academy), Thomas Sulley, Rembrandt Peale, Daniel Huntington, George Inness, Sargent, Albert Bierstadt (a rather exaggerated version of Mount Hood, which Portlanders can see in the distance), Childe Hassam (who visited Portland in 1904 and 1908) and then more radical art in the 20th century, by Julian Alden Weir, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Milton Avery and Moses Soyer, as well as Diego Rivera.
There’s a great blend of traditional and contemporary Native American art and a good little room on Mesoamerica and Peru, Chinese funerary goods from the Warring States period, and Japanese prints. Through the tunnel in the Mark Building there are Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, van Gogh, van Rysselberghe, Cézanne, Utrillo, Vlaminck, Rouault, Derain and van Doesberg. There are also photos by Eugène Atget and Julia Margaret Cameron and sculptures by Rodin and Brâncuși, and then slightly later works by Kokoschka, Kirchner, Beckmann, Léger, Lipschitz, Gabriele Münter, Naum Gabo, Philip Guston, Osip Zadkine and Josef Albers. In the ground-floor lobby are sculptures by Hepworth, Moore, Archipenko, Hans Arp, Calder and Isamu Noguchi, and a polyurethane car by Claes Oldenburg. The more contemporary work on display includes Warhol, Stella, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Chicago, Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Basquiat and Kiefer; there’s glassware by Lalique, Tiffany and William Morris, and ceramics by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. All in all, there’s a hint of collecting by numbers (we need one by him, one by her…) but the end result is certainly an impressively broad collection.
Under an hour southwest of Seattle, Tacoma is a relatively drab place, dominated by its huge container port, by the I-5 freeway and by heavy military jets taking off and landing, but it does have its attractions and a proud, if short, history. The Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma, not Seattle, as the western terminal of its transcontinental line, which opened in 1883 (the first transcontinental line had reached Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1869, and the Canadian Pacific route to Vancouver opened in 1886), even though it’s further from the open sea. In fact, if Seattle continues to develop as it is doing, the two cities will join up within a few decades, enveloping Sea-Tac Airport.
Tacoma’s main current claim to fame is the excellent Museum of Glass, created by celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly (born in Tacoma in 1941) and designed by the splendid Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson – you can see some of Chihuly’s perhaps overblown, but very imaginative and colourful, works on the Bridge of Glass, leading across the railway to the museum. In fact Washington state, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest, have been very important in the development of modern glass art, and there are lots of galleries in Seattle too, including Chihuly Garden & Glass and Pilchuck Seattle, a gallery linked to the Pilchuck Glass School, 50 miles north of Seattle – both were co-founded by Chihuly.
On the town side of the Bridge of Glass are the former Union Station (1911, now a courthouse), which has some of his larger works on display, and the Washington State History Museum, designed to match the former station. This gives an impressive overview of the state’s history in a suitably non-Seattlecentric way, from the first native cultures to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post at Fort Nisqually (yes, this could have been part of Canada), the arrival of the railways and modern industrial development. On the other (north) side of the former station is the Tacoma Art Museum, which of course has more glass by Chihuly plus European and (western) American paintings and a striking collection of Japanese woodblock prints.
Buses from Seattle and further afield, and Sounder and Amtrak trains, halt near the Tacoma Dome, a largely wooden concert/sports arena on the southern edge of the city, from where the Tacoma Link streetcar runs into downtown – this is currently free, with fares paid by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (an industry grouping). However an extension is under construction, which will loop around to the left past the main hospital, and when this opens in 2022 fares will be charged. Currently Amtrak uses a station a couple of hundred yards away from the Dome, but a second platform at the Freighthouse Square station (used by Sounder commuter services to Seattle) should have been ready by the end of 2017, allowing Amtrak to move here. However it’s running late so in January 2018 I caught my train at the old station to take the slow coastal route past Point Defiance Park (the second largest urban park in the US, containing a replica of Fort Nisqually, not on its original site) and the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (rebuilt after it famously twisted itself apart in 1940); the freight line from the Sounder station has been fettled for 80mph running and Amtrak trains will go this way as soon as the new station opens. However the new route was launched in December 2017 with a publicity run that went horribly wrong, via the new station – the driver (engineer, as they say in the US) seems to have forgotten about the 30mph curves where the new line swerves across the I-5 freeway and the train left the tracks, killing three passengers. Amtrak is having a bad run of accidents at the moment, even as train travel is becoming ever safer elsewhere in the world; at the end of January 2018 a truck driver was killed by a train which, bizarrely, was carrying most of the Republican members of Congress (not known for their generosity to Amtrak) to a retreat, and four days later two Amtrak crewmen died when their train took the wrong track and hit a freight train. And then a few days later the entire Baltimore metro was closed to allow emergency repairs. Maintenance and lack of infrastructure are crucial, of course, but because Amtrak’s lines, outside the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, are owned by freight companies there’s been a huge reluctance to install the PTC (Positive Train Control) system which would prevent most of these accidents. It’s hardly new technology, and it definitely works.
It’s always a bit of a shock travelling from Vancouver BC to Seattle – the American accent (after the nice soft Canadian ‘oos’ and ‘ehs’), the repeated border checks, and when you get there, the ridiculous number of homeless people. Luckily I was only in safely blue Democrat-voting cities, the shock of meeting someone who actually voted for Trump might have been too much for me. In fact the cities I did visit were all fretting about the threat of a federal crackdown on their clearly lucrative cannabis industries – Seattle is in some ways the Amsterdam of the United States, and its free newspaper The Stranger is rather childishly obsessed with getting high and should, I think, just be called The Stoner.
The First Nations or Native Americans are not as visible as they are just to the north in British Columbia, and their culture is not treated with the same respect; there are totem poles in Seattle, but they’re typically made in Alaska or just appropriated. On the other hand, African-Americans are more visible, notably among the homeless community. The last overnight count found 11,643 homeless people in the Metro Seattle area, 5,485 of them without any shelter. In 2017 144 homeless people died here – 144!! It’s often been said that there is no safety net in the USA, and you really see what that means here. And it gets worse – in January 2018, days after I left, a homeless camp (in Belltown) was cleared and the city then put in cycle stands in a location where there was absolutely no need for them, to prevent anyone making camp there again; likewise public benches have arm rests to stop anyone from lying down.
Originally a pretty wild logging town, Seattle’s development was kick-started by (paradoxically) the Great Fire of 1889 and then the Klondike gold rush of 1897, when up to 30,000 obsessives mined the gold, and Seattle mined the miners, providing supplies, bars and gambling. Soon after this, a couple of hills were regraded (creating space for Chinatown to establish itself in what is now known as the International District) and the spoil was used to create the present waterfront, burying the original Skid Road – not Skid Row – which you can now see on underground tours. However it’s still a city of villages with names such as Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.
Seattle’s twentieth-century history of attracting the new high-tech industries began as early as 1910 with the establishment of the Boeing Airplane Company (their first plane flew in 1916, so 2016 was marked as the centenary). The First and Second World Wars led to ship- and plane-building booms, continued by Boeing’s becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of jet planes. However modern Seattle was really born in 1979 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved the nascent Microsoft (founded in New Mexico in 1975) to their hometown of Seattle, which was soon home to lots of start-ups, many founded by the 12,000-odd millionaires created when Microsoft became a public company in 1986. In 1971 Starbucks was founded here, riding a coffee craze that shows no sign of abating, followed in 1994 by Amazon (which eventually made a profit in 2001, and now produces more, and hotter, start-ups than Microsoft). Nowadays Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud computing platforms are the market-leaders, and the Seattle area is likely to be the centre for developments in this area as well as in AI and biotech. Between 1990 and 2007 the population of Greater Seattle grew from 2.4 million to 3.3 million (it’s now 3.7 million, the 15th-largest conurbation in the US).
In November 2017 Microsoft announced plans to redevelop its Redmond campus over the next seven years, with pitches for soccer and cricket (for its many South Asian employees) at its heart; it’ll be designed around pedestrian and bike movements and will have its own light rail station. Likewise Amazon, the city’s largest private employer with 40,000 staff, is developing a sustainable Urban Campus close to downtown in the South Lake Union district (where the main property developer is Paul Allen’s Vulcan), although it would have been cheaper and easier to build out in the suburbs; Amazon is also subsidising light rail. Currently 20% of its staff walk to work, and ‘only’ 45% drive. Despite the lamentable weather on the ‘Wet Coast’, Seattle does share the trend for inhabitants of tech-savvy cities to favour cycling and public transport (as well as craft beer and third-wave coffee).
However the highest-profile infrastructure under way at the moment is the replacement of the Alaska Way freeway (State Highway 99), along the waterfront, by a two-mile tunnel – the existing viaduct not only cuts the city off from Puget Sound but is at risk of collapsing in an earthquake (and that’s a question of when, not if). There have been delays and cost over-runs, reminiscent of Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ but not nearly as bad, and it should open in 2019, allowing the city to build a linear park and, I would hope, a high-quality (and level) north-south cycleway. Because the tunnel won’t have the downtown exits that the present viaduct has there’s a parallel project, known as the Center City Connector, to join the city’s two existing streetcar lines, creating a new north-south link through downtown; this should open in 2020. This is not to be confused with the Link light rail service which already runs north-south through downtown, using what used to be called the Bus Tunnel (opened in 1990). Even worse than the Alaska Way viaduct was the decision to drive I-5 (the interstate highway that runs the length of the West Coast from Canada to Mexico) right through the east side of downtown; it now carries far more traffic than was ever envisaged and produces insane levels of noise and pollution. One effort at remediation was the Freeway Park, opened in 1976 and hailed as a masterpiece of Brutalism, all concrete blocks and rather sterile plantings above the freeway – the constant traffic noise now makes it less than restful. It’s next to the Convention Center, which is well worth walking through for its excellent displays of contemporary art (on several floors) and a café selling all kinds of weird and wonderful wraps, rice bowls, juices and smoothies.
As for more conventional tourist sights, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and the Museum of Flight are all well known, but there are many more: I enjoyed the Wing Luke Museum (of the Asian Pacific American Experience), with excellent exhibits (including on local boy Bruce Lee) and tours of the historic Freeman Hotel (1910), first home to many Asian immigrants to the US. There’s also the vaguely similar Northwest African American Museum , which opened in 2008. The main history museum (given that the state history museum is in Tacoma – see my forthcoming post) is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), which moved in 2012 to the former Naval Reserve Armoury in Lake Union Park; its main permanent exhibit, True Northwest: The Seattle Journey, includes the first Boeing plane. I’m also intrigued by the Center for Wooden Boats, also in Lake Union Park, which has exhibits on the area’s boat-building history but is also recommended by locals as a great place to rent rowing and sailing boats. History buffs should also not miss the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, a brilliant little free museum in the former Cadillac Hotel (1889), downtown near Pioneer Square, which stresses Seattle’s rôle as jumping-off point for the gold rush and has information on visiting the Alaskan parts of the park (which I visited when writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, of course).
Of books and beer
It’s hard to believe now that until 1976 Seattle bars were not allowed to have windows, lest the sinners inside be visible to passers-by. Virtually all of America’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s little surprise that nowadays there are craft breweries all over. This is also a great area for wine (Merlot being the big thing in Washington, and Pinot Noir in Oregon), and there are also new distilleries producing gin, vodka and even absinthe. Anyway, there are fourteen breweries in South Seattle (an area with an industrial brewing heritage), including half a dozen in the up-and-coming Georgetown area, on and near Airport Way South. They all have tasting rooms, in other words bars, but you should also make a point of stopping in at the Jules Maes Saloon – its website is still listing the gigs for April 2008, so better see their Facebook page. Lowercase Brewing is an excellent new place that has a growler-sealing machine for take-outs, while the Machine House Brewery makes the closest equivalent to English real ales, served from hand pumps in full-size imperial pint glasses. And then grab some tasty tacos at tiny Tu Cantinas at 6031 Airport Way South.
It’s a bit more of a surprise to learn that Seattle was designated a City of Literature by UNESCO in 2017. Of course there are good writers here (although it’s arguable that the best is actually the British Jonathan Raban) and the central library by Rem Koolhaas (opened in 2004) is great (go to the top and work your way down), but there are also lots of good bookshops and the Hugo House literary centre. This will move to a new permanent home on Capitol Hill in mid-2018, where they’ll be able to hold even more of their mostly free readings, launches and classes. There are also lots of readings and other events at the Elliott Bay Book Company and the Ballast Bar at Capitol Cider, and even a monthly Silent Reading Party at the Hotel Sorrento. Open Books is devoted purely to poetry, Kinokuniya to Japanese books and comics, and there are great second-hand bookshops on the lower level of Pike Place Market that the tourists never see. And being Seattle, many bookshops contain a congenial coffeeshop – Little Oddfellows at the Elliott Bay, Raconteur at Third Place Books, El Diablo at Queen Anne Books, and the Bookstore Bar & Café (more of a gimmick than a bookshop) at the Alexis Hotel on Pioneer Square.
Also in January 2018, a few days after I left, the first Amazon Go automated supermarket opened at 2131 7th Ave (near Blanchard, just north of downtown) – this has no checkouts, but customers tap in with a smartphone app and are then tracked by cameras and shelf sensors and billed automatically. The technology seems to be working fairly well, despite journalistic attempts to beat it, offering another alternative to queuing and dealing with human beings in shops. In 2017 Amazon bought the Whole Foods chain, beloved of the organic middle classes, and was soon generating bad publicity for introducing new stock-control technology which led to empty shelves and rotting food. Most amazing of all is that Amazon opened a genuine physical bookshop in Seattle (at the University Village shopping center) in 2015 – talk about reinventing the wheel.
I flew quite a few times with Alaska Airlines when I was writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, and they’ve always been one of the better US airlines – but they’re now very much a Pacific Northwest airline rather than an Alaskan one, firmly based in Seattle. So it’s a little surprising to see that they’re opening a new base in the area, at Everett – they’ll fly to eight cities from there, none in Alaska.