Lancaster and Carlisle

 

Lancaster Castle
Rather Scottish? – the Judges’ Lodgings

Between the two parts of my cycling trip in Yorkshire I spent time in Lancaster and Cumbria, though not exactly the Lake District. Lancaster is a city I’ve always liked, though it’s a shame the university is out of the centre and so self-contained, though it does give the place a bit of a cultural lift. It’s pretty lively on a Saturday night but not as bad as Carlisle. There’s something about the colour of the stone that reminds me of Edinburgh – I always wonder if people live in tenements here. I was struck by the Baronial architecture of what is now the White Cross Business Park, opposite the Royal Lancaster Infirmary – it turns out to have been Storey’s Mill, built as a cotton mill in 1854-80 and restored in 1987, rather than a misplaced Highland chieftain’s castle. Clearly it shares some history with The Storey, built in 1887-91 as the Storey Institute and now a centre for the creative industries, with office space, a performing arts venue, ‘contemporary eatery’ the Printroom Cafe & Bar, and a tourist information centre. It was all closed when I was there but has since re-opened.

 In the absence of the Printroom, I ate at Aquila, where a wood-fired oven pumps out authentically Neapolitan pizza, mostly vegetarian and using carefully sourced ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes, n’duja, walnut and gorgonzola. It’s a real barebones place, essentially a takeaway with a few stools. I also liked the look (in very different ways) of The Borough, a bar and restaurant with rooms on Dalton Square, and Single Step, a wholefoods co-op. For breakfast, Filbert’s Bakery is on King Street, next to the attractive Holm Coffee, with scandi-style open sandwiches and pastries.

Lancaster is lucky to have both an attractive canalside area and a riverfront with a lot of potential – the Maritime Museum is down there in the former Custom House (1764) on St George’s Quay, flanked by largely disused warehouses that are ideal for conversion to loft apartments or indeed a hostel. All the city’s museums are currently closed due to Covid-19, which is a bit of a double whammy as the county of Lancashire was so badly hit by austerity cuts in 2016 that it had to mothball five museums including the Museum of Lancashire in Preston and the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster.

 From Lancaster it’s a very easy cycle ride north along the Lancaster Canal towpath (dead level, with no locks) to Carnforth, once a major railway junction that no longer has platforms on the West Coast Main Line to Glasgow, so that it is served only by regional trains from Manchester and Lancaster to Barrow-in-Furness and from Leeds to Morecambe. But of course it’s really famous as the location of the greatest railway film, David Lean’s Brief Encounter – this was based on a short play by Noël Coward, Still Life, and I was the production manager of the play on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the early 1980s, with Hugh Grant and Imogen Stubbs. The excellent Heritage Centre on the southbound platform has the film showing on a continuous loop, a David Lean exhibition, lots of railway material including a 1940s ticket office, and above all the Refreshment Room where Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson had their desperately repressed cups of tea – the Heritage Centre is now partly open, but the Refreshment Room remains closed. But despair not, the northwest’s first micropub, The Snug is in the main station building (built by Sir William Tite in 1846).

 From Carnforth I continued north on quiet lanes to Kendal – the Lancaster Canal used to continue all the way to Kendal but has been severed by road-building in various places; nevertheless parts of it remain as a footpath, with the original bridges in place, and the final couple of miles into Kendal are now a useful cycleway. I spent a couple of nights in Kendal (which I’ve written about separately), and then took a train up to Carlisle, which strikes me as a blunt northern city, with a strong military tradition and not many students to dilute the bluntness. My previous visit was on a Saturday night, which was lively… and this time my hotel was on the same street as not one but two Wetherspoons pubs, a Brewdog and a Walkabout (as well as Timmy’s Always Vegan!). They like to go out for a drink – and there are also lots of Italian restaurants, which were heaving on a Tuesday night thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out post-lockdown promotion. And there are lots of barbers too, presumably a preliminary to going out drinking.

 But this was also the only place on my recent trip where the museum was open as usual (without pre-booking, although with limited hours), and I was also happy to visit the castle even if I did have to book online. The Tullie House Museum covers local history from 450 million years ago (when Cumbria was part of the continent of Avalonia and the neighbouring bit of Scotland was in Laurentia) but really goes to town on the Romans, who arrived in AD 72. Hadrian came here in 122 and built his wall by 128; at the time 10% of the Roman army was stationed in Britain (just 4% of the empire’s area). In 208 Septimius Severus also came here and repaired the wall, and made Carlisle a civitas (as opposed to a military base) before dying in York in 211. As author of various guides to Romania, I’ve long been aware that it was Dacian (ie Romanian) auxiliaries who garrisoned forts such as Birdoswald – one always wonders how they coped with the weather.

 Later history was largely concerned with the border with Scotland, agreed in 1222 and formally fixed by the Treaty of York in 1237; however there were plenty of battles between England and Scotland, including Robert the Bruce being driven back from Carlisle in 1315. However I hadn’t realised that the Reivers, who rampaged around the lawless border area from the late thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, mainly stealing cattle, were totally indiscriminate in terms of national allegiances – anyone was fair game. Still, it was the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603 that finally led to the imposition of law and order in the borderlands.

 Industrial history focusses mainly on the railways, with no fewer than seven independent routes meeting here (surprisingly six are still open, with only the Waverley line to Edinburgh having closed); from 1876 they all used Citadel station, designed by Sir William Tite, who claimed this was the first Gothic Revival station, being designed to sit alongside the Citadel, built by Henry VIII in 1541 and modified in 1810 to house law courts. The citadel, at the south end of the old city centre, is not to be confused with the castle, at the north end (in between there’s the cathedral and just a few attractive old buildings on the north side of the main square or, strictly speaking, triangle). Night Mail (the documentary film of an Auden poem, with music by Britten) plays on a loop at Tullie House – however, it starts when the train is already north of Carlisle (This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order), and they miss a trick by not mentioning TS Eliot’s Skimbleshanks (from Practical Cats), who was also on the Night Mail (You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle). Living in Cambridge, I was interested to learn (from Wikipedia, not Tullie House) that Night Mail was premiered at the opening of the Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1936.

 Carlisle Castle, founded by William Rufus in 1092, claims to be the most besieged place in the British Isles, notably enduring a nine-month siege in 1644-5, when it was more or less the only Royalist stronghold in northern England after the battle of Marston Moor. It was the base of the Border Regiment, formed in 1881 by the merger of the 34th Cumberland and 55th Westmoreland Regiments (dating from 1702 and 1755 respectively); in 1959 they merged with the King’s Own Royal Regiment and became the King’s Own Border Regiment, and the army finally vacated the castle. It’s open to visitors, but there’s not a lot to see at the moment apart from Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, ie the Border Regiment museum, which does a good job of condensing a lot of history into a manageable form. My grandmother’s brother, killed at Ypres in October 1914, was in the Border Regiment for some reason – the other branches of my family have gravitated to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy.

I found the cathedral relatively plain, but with some very attractive features, notably the East Window, completed by 1350 in the Flowing Decorated Gothic style –  it’s the largest and most complex example in England. There are also fine misericords and wooden screens, and four sets of unusual painted panels on the rear of the choir stalls, dating from 1485–90.

For those interested in beer and the history of the English pub, Carlisle is of interest because its pubs and brewery were nationalised in 1916, to prevent workers in the huge ammunition factories just north at Gretna from going to work drunk or hungover, by banning ‘treating’ or buying rounds of drinks (until 1919) and by paying managers a set wage to remove the incentive to sell more drinks. Astonishingly, they were not returned to the private sector until 1973!

More thoughts on travel and Covid-19

Across the world countries are moving towards ending their lockdowns and returning to something closer to normal life – even the UK, which is in no fit state, is inching in that direction. Although international travel remains virtually impossible for at least another month, the ways in which countries are beginning to open up for their citizens and residents do give some clues to what the new normal will look like.

 Museums and art galleries are reopening in cities like Berlin, Zurich and Antwerp, but it’s clear that the experience will be very constrained and lacking the freedom that we have taken for granted. After booking online (or possibly making a contactless payment, which is of course key to the new normal), you’ll have a timed entry slot before using hand sanitiser and donning a face mask, then following a one-way system, with the doors jammed open so no-one has to touch them, and you won’t be allowed to linger in front of works that especially speak to you. All at a distance of at least 1.5m metres from other people – in Britain we seem to be specifying two metres, which is probably wiser but may be even less practicable than the rest of the farrago. There’ll be no maps or leaflets, no audio guides, and no groups of school kids or tourists (at last, a positive!).

 China is leading the way in developing more sophisticated new systems, but only for those already resident in the country – you apparently now walk through temperature scanners all the time, to enter the metro or shopping centres, and barely notice them, much like metal detectors. People also have a ‘health pass’ on their mobile phones with a QR code that links to their name and ID number and gives a red or green reading depending on whether they’ve been in proximity with an infected person; if it’s red, they can’t go into shops and restaurants for 14 days. If you do get into a restaurant, there’s mass sanitising, and widely spaced tables, of course, with no more than three people (oddly) at each. So some kind of going out is possible – but as you may know, I have an interest (both emotional and financial) in British pubs, and their future looks far more complicated, until we have effective widespread vaccination. With restricted numbers and table service only, it’s hard to see how they can either be much fun or indeed survive financially.

 The most difficult aspect of travel, and the last to resume, will be long-haul intercontinental flying – quite apart from needing to allow four hours to check in and get through the airport, what with all the social distancing, facial recognition and contactless temperature checking and sanitation (of passengers and luggage) that will be required (and probably no lounges, no carry-on luggage, no inflight mags and no in-flight catering either) there will also need to be a system of immunity passports, perhaps requiring blood tests at the airport itself. Even then if you arrive with a raised temperature you risk being sent back, or at best quarantined for two weeks – just in time for your flight home. And the air fares will have to be higher, to cope with extra sanitation requirements (and the increased time needed to clean planes between flights) and the lower seating densities. But airlines have billions of [insert unit of currency] worth of planes doing nothing, so are desperate to start flying one way or another.

 Travel within a continent or region should be a bit less complicated, probably with less onerous health requirements – free travel zones are planned between Australia and New Zealand; Vietnam and Thailand; and between the three Baltic states, and new quarantine laws won’t apply to travel between Britain and France, or Britain and Ireland. One might expect the same to apply eventually between the United States and Canada (but not Mexico, I fear).

 However the easiest option for most of us and for quite a while will be domestic travel – even without the hassle of airports, visas and test certificates, I won’t want to be getting on a plane any time soon, as someone who picks up a bug whenever he flies anyway. Trains are also confined spaces with dry air which helps the transmission of viruses, but you’re less likely to find them fully occupied, apart from peak-hour commuter services into major cities. Really, the most stress-free option will be cycling and camping, but by and large that will require a train journey to get to the starting point.

 Cities across Europe (which currently doesn’t include British cities, apart from one seafront road in Brighton) are creating ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes with cones and paint – Paris, Berlin and Milan are leading the way, with hundreds of kilometres of safe new routes. This is to deal with two issues – first, that people don’t want to be on buses and trains at the moment and so are likely to use cars when they go back to work, unless they can be persuaded to cycle, and secondly that people are trying to walk but there just isn’t space to keep a safe distance from other people on the pavements (what with the queues outside shops as well) so there needs to be space to step into the carriageway. Shared-use paths, where cyclists are encouraged to use the footways too, make things far worse, so the more that cyclists can be persuaded to use the carriageway the better. Here in Cambridge cyclists are tending to use the carriageway and leave the off-road cycleways and shared-use paths for pedestrians, but that may change as cars return. E-bikes are going to be part of the solution, although the supply chain may dry up for a while – get your orders in now. Electric skateboards and similar monstrosities are also bound to grow in number and will have to be catered for.

Georgia leads the way

Georgia, which has done a great job so far in keeping Covid-19 to a minimum, is now racing to be the first country to open up to international tourism again. I have an interest in Georgia, of course, and my colleague Claire is planning to be there this summer to research a new edition. That will be an interesting experience, to say the least!

 Domestic tourism is to be permitted again from 15 June and international tourism from 1 July, dependent on creating ‘safe corridors’ at the borders and presumably on specific air links, though I don’t know what that will involve. In addition to the mere 10 deaths thus far from Covid-19, the government is also touting its ‘enormous experience’ in quarantining over 19,000 people (in 83 hotels).

 In fact Greece also hopes to open up for tourism on 1 July, although  it’s not at all sure that bars and restaurants will be open – so inclusive resorts, yachts and agrotourism will be fine, but other holidays may be frustrating. Other countries are also beginning to open up, one way or another – mostly for internal travel, with quarantine (14 days, not the full 40 as in Venice when the term was first coined) as a rule for international arrivals. But Austria, for instance, offers two alternatives, allowing visitors to either show a certificate of a negative coronavirus test within the last four days, or pay €190 for an on-the-spot test. Hong Kong Airport has introduced full-body disinfectation booths (nasty chemicals in a confined space? I’m not keen). London’s Heathrow Airport is talking of contactless procedures such as ultraviolet sanitation and thermal screening, which is fact fits perfectly with the British government’s hands-off approach thus far – they are now talking of quarantining arriving passengers, roughly three months too late, while about 18 million people have apparently entered the UK without any form of check. Just one of the reasons why Covid-19 is cutting such a swathe through the British population.

We need to talk about testing

The only solution to this crisis, the only way to get back to anything like a normal life, is the development of a vaccine and its global deployment. It’s not 100% certain that will happen as all, and until it does there will be new outbreaks and new lockdowns, and happy relaxed travel is going to be difficult to achieve. We also need much better antiviral treatments for those infected with the new coronavirus, but that alone won’t solve the problem.

 In the meantime, we have two types of tests. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test looks for genetic traces of the virus and is fairly reliable but only detects a current infection; it’s a robotic process which is already carried out on a huge scale by drug discovery companies, so it’s been easy to ramp up for the new coronavirus. On the other hand, antibody or serological tests pick up evidence of someone having been previously exposed to the virus as well, but produce a lot of both false negatives and false positives (due to similarities to other coronaviruses such as the common cold). There’s a huge number of new testing kits being produced for this new virus, and testing the test kits is in itself a huge challenge. The British government went ahead and bought four million fingerprick testing kits from China, at a cost of £16 million, before finding they weren’t good enough. The best options at the moment will require a blood sample and lab analysis, which will be much slower and more expensive. One great unknown is whether having been infected gives some kind of immunity, and for how long, which might allow governments to issue, and accept, ‘immunity passports’. It’s possible that you need to be seriously affected to achieve any kind of immunity while those who’ve been slightly unwell or indeed asymptomatic will not ‘benefit’ at all. In any case, don’t expect immunity passports any time soon, so quarantine is going to be required for travel to many countries.

 Just to be clear, this is not a disease that you want to risk catching. It’s becoming clear that the virus can affect not only the lungs but pretty much any of our organs, including the nervous system; many people who survive it will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems and never return to normal lives. It’s possible to die from a cytokine storm, when the immune system doesn’t recognise what it’s fighting and goes into overdrive. What’s more, the virus can disappear while the system goes on struggling for a month or more, so that some people need hospitalisation even though they test negative for the virus. Stay home, stay safe remains the best advice.

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.

Updating Wales, especially Anglesey

I managed to get in two trips to Wales (north and south) just before the coronavirus pandemic really struck – but the new edition of the Rough Guide to Wales has now been put off anyway, so at last I have time to write the odd blog post.

 I do love Wales, but I admit I began with some rather dull towns – Newport, Wrexham and Mold. Newport (Pembrokeshire) is in my half of the book (and is lovely), but Newport (Monmouthshire) is not – I spent a few hours there between trains because I’d been given a first-class ticket on what people still call The Gerald (Y Gerallt), but is now officially the Premier Service. It’s a train that runs from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning and returns in the evening, without too many stops, and provides complementary meals for first-class passengers. It’s subsidised by the Welsh government to persuade business travellers not to drive (or fly from RAF Valley), and to bind the rather separate north and south halves of Wales together. In fact it’s the only train run by Transport for Wales that has first class at all. It also offers perhaps the best on-train dining experience left on Britain’s railways. 

 The train is named for Geraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a medieval churchman who travelled around Wales and wrote the first descriptions of the country. Anyway, there was a lot of flooding at the time, including at Shrewsbury, and when I left home in the morning it looked as the train would get to Hereford and we’d be put on a bus to Shrewsbury – but in fact the level of the River Severn dropped sufficiently for the train to run as normal. The two stewards only joined the train at Hereford, and started taking orders before we had left the station, so I was able to have a full three-course meal, finishing just five minutes before I got off at Wrexham. It was a great experience.

 In Newport, I enjoyed the museum and art gallery (with single works by Ceri Richards, Stanley Spencer, LS Lowry, Stanhope Forbes, Julian Trevelyan, Michael Rothenstein, Alfred Munnings, Laura Knight, Kyffin Williams, August John, Frank Brangwyn, William Scott, Peter Blake, and an 18th-century piece attributed to Loutherbourg). The cathedral is an overgrown parish church, as one would expect, but attractive enough with its Norman arch and font.

 I don’t think I discovered anything new in Wrexham or Mold. Well, yes and no – positive efforts are under way to revive Wrexham’s markets, and I did discover some good beers from Wrexham, although not when I was actually there – Border and Big Hand both produce some very pleasant ales, and Wrexham Lager is an interesting oddity. The Wrexham Lager Beer Company Limited was Britain’s first lager brewery, founded in 1881 by two German immigrants, but after World War II it was taken over by Ind Coope, then Allied Breweries, then Carlsberg-Tetley, who closed it down in 2002; the rights to the name were bought by local businessmen, and the company was revived in 2011. I haven’t tasted the beer myself but I wouldn’t altogether object in the right setting – I usually run a mile from tasteless British lager, but on a hot summer’s day after cycling in Germany or indeed the Czech Republic the real stuff can be very refreshing.

 The rest of Northeastern Wales (from Wrexham to Bala and Denbigh) was familiar enough, but then I moved on to a chapter of the Rough Guide that I haven’t tackled before, covering the north coast and Anglesey. I’ve cycled along the north coast, but I was surprised by a few new things, for instance the outburst of gentrification in Colwyn Bay, which comprises precisely one street, Penrhyn Road – here you’ll find Haus (a hipster café and brunch spot), the Flat White café, The Bay Hop (a shopfront-style alehouse that’s the local CAMRA branch’s perpetual Pub of the Year) and Virgilio’s Portuguese grill all in a row. Across the road are Sheldon’s Bar & Bistro and Briggs & Co, purveyors of fine wines & coffee (and of craft beer, though without a proper hand pump to be seen).

 In Llandudno I was keen to visit Mostyn (formerly Oriel Mostyn Gallery, in an awkward bilingual version), which used to be run by a friend of mine – there wasn’t much on, but I was very impressed by the internal remodelling and extension that he orchestrated.

 In Anglesey I’d only taken the train direct to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Dublin, so I was very much looking forward to my two days there, and it did not disappoint. The northwestern coast, in particular, is very scenic, and there’s a great variety of Neolithic tombs and Iron Age hut circles reminiscent of Chysauster, one field away from my sister’s in Cornwall. Having said that, I expected more of Beaumaris Castle – it was never completed and is not in fact as impressive as Caernarfon or Conwy, both of which I’ve visited in the last couple of years. However I did enjoy Beaumaris Gaol, which has been taken over (along with the Courthouse) by the town council and seems to be enjoying an infusion of fresh energy – I was given a whistlestop tour by a volunteer guide in Victorian costume and stick-on sideburns who was full of great stories. I’d heard that the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait (from Menai Bridge to Beaumaris) was a hotspot of fancy foodie spots aimed at the affluent folk of southern Manchester/northern Cheshire (and a hotspot of so-called adventure sports such as riding in very fast boats), but Menai Bridge itself turned out to be pretty drab, and you have to book a long time ahead to get into the best restaurants; Beaumaris is far more attractive and would make a nicer weekend destination; on the other hand it’s further from the lovely beaches at Newborough Warren, a key part of the package for many visitors.

 In the centre of the island is its other moderately attractive town, Llangefni (Holyhead is of no interest except as a place to leave by ferry) – on the edge of town is Oriel Ynys Môn, the island’s main museum and art gallery, which has a comprehensive overview of its history and excellent art exhibitions too. (I looked for the Oriel Tegfryn gallery in Menai Bridge too, but that has closed.)

 I also remember Llangefni as birthplace of Hugh Hughes, the ‘award-winning emerging Welsh artist’, actually the alter ego of Shôn Dale-Jones, artistic director of the touring theatre company Hoipolloi. It’s brilliantly deadpan comedy – see here for photos, videos and droll stories.

 My geologist brother-in-law had told me about Parys Mountain, which was memorable because in its forty-year boom period it wiped out our copper mining industry in Cornwall, but I wasn’t prepared for the scale of its multicoloured post-industrial moonscape, which is now traversed by a two-and-a-half mile trail. In fact the whole of Anglesey is now covered by the UNESCO-recognised GeoMon geopark, with information panels in many places of geological interest, mainly on the coast.

 At Plas Newydd (the one on the Menai Strait, not the one in Llangollen), the National Trust is undertaking a two-year (at least) project to replace the 1930s wiring and plumbing (with attached asbestos), following a potentially disastrous flood in 2011. They’re keeping the house open as much as possible, and are going to great lengths to explain what’s going on and incorporate it in the visit – the Behind the Stage displays are well done, but it’s a shame that a lot of interesting paintings are hidden in the dark. So I’ll have to rewrite this section of the Rough Guide for this edition, and revert more or less to the original text for the next one. Oh well.

 There’s not a lot new to say about Southwest Wales, especially as I just did a quick sprint around before going home to hunker down for the duration of the pan[dem]ic, however long that turns out to be. Our long-term favourite restaurant in St David’s (Cwtch*) has closed, the Carmarthenshire Museum at Abergwili, just outside Carmarthen, has closed for a year to have its roof fixed and a general refurb, and the Shire Hall in Llandeilo is also being done up to be a community/heritage/visitor centre from the autumn of 2020 – I would anticipate some delay to that in present circumstances.

Corfu

Having followed the tracks of Rebecca West through Macedonia, Kosova and Montenegro, I was keen to follow Edward Lear through Albania and to Corfu, which was his winter base from 1860 to 1864 (in which year it ceased to be a British protectorate). He wrote that ‘no other spot on earth can be fuller of beauty and of variety of beauty’. I’ve always found Greece rather too arid for my tastes and the light too bright and harsh on the eyes – and I’ve found it remarkably cold in November too. But Corfu (in May) turned out to be very different – it was indeed beautiful, and the interior was remarkably wild and incredibly densely vegetated. It definitely rains a bit here. I was particularly impressed by the many aged and incredibly twisted olive trees, perhaps dating from the seventeenth century when the island’s Venetian rulers encouraged the inhabitants to cultivate them. We didn’t really frequent any beaches, but the coast seems to be developed only where it’s accessible, often with cliffs in between.

I arrived by hydrofoil from Sarandë in Albania (a very pleasant hour’s hop), but most people find themselves in Corfu airport’s tiny arrivals hall, where half the arrivals are directed to buses to the south of the island for the mass-market beer-and-chips resorts and half rent cars to go to villas in the north (including my family). There are also some backpackers who walk (or cycle, or take a bus) the 2km to Corfu Town; and rumour has it that some Greeks arrive by plane, but the domestic arrivals are off to one side. We also saw between one and four cruise ships in harbour every day.

It’s a great place for tourism, largely because the Corfiots are so nice, but also because of the variety of experiences on offer. In addition to lazing on the beach and in town, you can rent all kinds of boats and boards, or bikes, scooters and quad bikes to cruise around the island. In the interior you’ll glimpse a few sturdy British (and maybe German) hikers, some tackling the Ionian Trail, which runs for 200km the length of the island (and the other Ionian islands to the south), passing through all its ecosystems and traversing Mount Pantokrator (Ruler of All), the island’s highest peak at 911 metres. It’s best to walk from south to north, as the island gets steadily hillier and more beautiful, and you’ll have the sun at your back rather than in your eyes, as a rule.

In addition, because Corfu and the other Cycladic islands had such a different history to the rest of Greece – ruled by the Byzantines and Angevins, Venice, France, Britain, even briefly by Russia (1799-1807), but never by the Ottomans – there’s plenty of historic interest. The area of the Old Fortress, to the east of the present Corfu Town, was occupied from the mid-sixth century BC, but the Greek settlement of Chersoupolis grew up on the Kanoni peninsula, just south of town (and immediately east of the airport), and already in the fifth century BC Korkyra was one of the three great naval powers of Greece, along with Athens and Corinth. Various temples have been found in this area, now known as Kanoni, and more ancient remains are being discovered. Don’t miss the Archeological Museum, in a fine modern building just south of the centre, which has a good display of Greek remains (and relatively little from the Roman period); nor the Museum of Asian Art, in the grand Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George, built in 1819-24 to be the residence of the (British) Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. The museum is surprisingly serious and professional; but many people will miss the two staircases up to the Central Asian section (with good coverage of ikat from Uzbekistan and more on Japan). There’s a combined ticket to Corfu Town’s museums, which also include the Old Fortress with its mainly Venetian fortifications.

Corfu Town itself has a genuine old town between the port and the rear of the Liston, a neoclassical arcade of posh shops and pavement cafés that was designed in 1807 by Mathieu de Lesseps (father of Ferdinand, who built the Suez Canal) and supposedly modelled on the rue de Rivoli in Paris. In the heart of the old town, the Town Hall stands on Guilford Street, named after Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford (son of Lord North, the British prime minister who lost the American colonies), who was himself the first British Governor of Ceylon (1798-1805). He made his first trip to Greece in 1791 and lived there from 1810 to 1813 and in Corfu from 1824. He was an exaggerated philhellene, who wore classical costume and converted to the Greek Orthodox religion; in 1824 he established the Ionian Academy, the first university on Greek soil. I recently found myself on Guilford Street in London, which turns out to be named after Lord North.

Outside the one and only real town, it’s worth visiting Mon Repos, birthplace of Phil the Greek aka the Duke of Edinburgh, with the remains of a couple of Greek temples nearby on the Kanoni peninsula, and the Achelleion, further south, a triumph of bad taste (mainly Kaiser Wilhelm II’s). It was actually built in 1890 for the Habsburg Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sisi, to escape memories of the suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, at Mayerling; after her own murder it was bought by Kaiser Bill (whose sister Sophia was Queen of Greece) and filled with kitschy art which is worth wondering over, while the gardens offer views over half the island. There aren’t many other sights outside Corfu Town – the Shell Museum at Benitses has closed.

Never mind Lear, you say, what about the Durrells? I did skim through Gerald’s Corfu books and learnt a lot about the wildlife that could be seen then (there won’t be so much of it now), but the actual settings are a bit confused – they were based in the northeastern corner of the island, where the posh people (Rothschilds and the like) have their villas now, and lived in a succession of rented houses. Various holiday villas claim to be ‘the Durrells’ home’, but they were indeed a shiftless bohemian lot who didn’t stay anywhere for all that long.

As for Larry, it turns out he was already married and living elsewhere, although Gerry writes as if he was still in the bosom of the family (and totally excludes the wife, with whom he did not get on).

And although Rebecca West didn’t include Corfu in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, it plays a part as the place where the Serbian army, driven out of their homeland by the invading Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian armies, found refuge in November 2015 after a desperate retreat through Albania – at least 200,000 men died in the snowy mountains, and perhaps 30,000 more died of flu during the cold wet winter that followed. A fascinating tale that is little known nowadays. Their headquarters were on the island of Vidos, a couple of kilometres north of the harbour of Corfu Town – there are persistent rumours of a tunnel linking them, but I don’t think there’s any factual base to them.

Practicalities

I’m not offering any recommendations for places to stay or eat (as we, like many others, rented a villa and self-catered to a certain extent), but I have a few general thoughts. I was surprised to see huge piles of rubbish that had apparently been there since the previous year; in addition there was plenty of grass growing between the paving stones – Sarandë in Albania was far more kempt than Corfu, surprising as that may seem.

The roads are also bad, and the driving a bit chaotic – the Corfiots really don’t like keeping to urban speed limits and double-parking is normal; and if you let someone pull out of a side road five cars will rush through, usually in parallel. I’m the last person to suggest building roads, as a rule, but some kind of bypass for Corfu Town is needed unless they can sort out its traffic problem – but in fact it’s due to the free unregulated provision of car parking, which could easily be sorted out.

We did enjoy Corfu Beer‘s products, in particular the Corfu Red (they also do an IPA, dark bitter, Weissbier and lager) – refreshing but a bit pricey, we thought.

Now that’s what I call a Greek salad

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’

Dundee – a tale of two V&As

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris (m’enfin)

It’s not easy to write about Paris, it’s just too big and too well known, but I think that – in the light of last year’s protests about overtourism in places such as Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice – it’s worth saying that tourism has improved Paris greatly. Some of us remember when Parisian waiters simply ignored tourists and anyone who didn’t speak French, and when most restaurants were in any case closed for the month of August while their owners relaxed on the beach. Nowadays Paris feels normally alive all through the summer, and its citizens have realised that tourism is their biggest industry and that they are perfectly capable of speaking a bit of English. It’s a huge improvement!

However the terrorist attacks of 2015, which killed over 200, did lead to a drop in tourist numbers – the Louvre saw a mere 5.3 million visitors in 2016 (down 20%) and the Musée d’Orsay saw 3 million visitors (down 13%). Hotel bookings overall were down 10% in 2016, but Paris remained the world’s third most visited city with just over 18 million arrivals (behind London with 19.8m and Bangkok with 21.5m). I assume the figures recovered a bit in 2017, but when one sees the serpentine hour-long queues to get into the Palace of Versailles or Notre-Dame cathedral it’s not hard to feel that Paris might benefit from less tourism. They could take the time to sort out their dreadful toilets, for one thing. And they could think how to make the odd sandwich (and quiche) without ham or chicken in it.

Anti-tourism protests may seem like a first-world problem (the third world being happy to take the money and the jobs) but it’s not really – Bali is now utterly unrecognisable from the island I saw in 1983, and the sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia is simply disgusting, just to pick a couple of random examples.

Anyway, I pass through Paris a lot but rarely stop overnight, and with baggage there’s a limit to what you can do. However I have managed a couple of stays recently and visited the Petit Palais for the first time – it’s a delightful space (built for the 1900 Paris Exhibition) with excellent mosaics in particular; the art exhibits seem very dull at first but then you come to the impressionists and post-impressionists and it’s suddenly worth the price of entry (which is in fact zero – it is a free gallery). Downstairs there are further galleries dedicated to Antiquity, the Eastern Christian World, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which I will have to come back to.

Rodin’s statue of Balzac – who was born in Tours, though I didn’t mention that in my earlier post.

I also went to the Musée Rodin, or at least its lovely gardens (which cost €4, not €2 as our guidebook thought, but are still worth it). As well as lots of biographic information panels there are, as you’d hope, plenty of sculptures, many of them working models for the Burghers of Calais and others of Rodin’s great monumental ensembles.

And I revisited the lovely Musée de Cluny, which I hadn’t been to since my school days – the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are still wonderful (six of them, made in about 1500 in Paris or the north of France, allegorising the five senses and the mysterious Mon Seul Désir, presumably referring to love (the unicorn is a symbol of chastity, but there’s also something undeniably phallic about it). The museum also houses stained glass from the Sainte-Chapelle, pieces of Nottingham alabaster, and sculpture fragments from Notre-Dame, lost when it was vandalised in 1793 and found in 1977 shoring up the foundations of a mansion); and it also incorporated the Bains de Lutèce, the remains of a huge third-century complex of Roman baths, notably the huge vaulted frigidarium, now used to house large chunks of medieval stonework.

The Cluny is quiet and feels like a bit of a backwater – it was the last Paris museum not to have been renovated since the 1950s, it seems, and the Cluny4 project will open it up a bit by 2020, with disabled access to a new welcome building; the museum is currently closed from March to mid-July 2018. With luck they’ll also provide a bit more information in foreign languages (there are a few English and Spanish information sheets, but otherwise it’s all in French.

New for 2018

More art galleries! Why does Paris need more art galleries, I hear you say – but there really are some quite exciting developments coming to fruition this year. It seems to be a rule now that French billionaires have to establish a foundation for contemporary art (the Fondation Cartier, the Fondation Ricard, the Fondation Louis Vuitton), incidentally giving starchitects like Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry the chance to further boost their profiles; now Rem Koolhas has remodelled a building in the über-cool Marais district to house Lafayette Anticipations, a performance/exhibition space and art incubator that’s a spin-off from the Galerie des Galeries, the exhibition space of the Galeries Lafayette department store. And early in 2019 the Fondation Pinault will be opening a gallery in the striking Bourse de Commerce (Commodities Exchange, near Les Halles).

Something slightly different is the Atelier des Lumières, a digital museum of fine art, opening in April 2018 – this will stage exhibitions on specific artists, the huge digital versions of their paintings supposedly bringing new insights.

And finally, talking of department stores, La Samaritaine reopens in 2018 after a 500 million Euro refurbishment – a harmonious blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, it was suddenly closed down in 2005 due to safety concerns, and it was assumed for a long time that this institution of bourgeois French life was gone for good. The glass ceiling and monumental staircase are as good as new, and there’ll also be a hotel, offices and some social housing.

Seattle – some history, tourist sights and building sites

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.

The Seattle Public Library
And finally

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.

Berlin – new museums for the cultural powerhouse of Europe

Berlin is positioning itself as the capital of post-Brexit Europe, in case you hadn’t noticed, the most culturally dynamic city at the heart of the continent’s most powerful economy. Huge amounts of money are being spent over long timescales to take the already wonderful cultural assets of two cities, East and West Berlin, and make them into a global powerhouse. The key to this is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island, just inside the former East Berlin), where a huge extension to the legendary Pergamon Gallery is being built in five phases between 2012 and 2025, including a fourth wing to the west as in Alfred Messel’s original plan. In 2017-9 visitor services are being transferred to the new James Simon Gallery, named after the Jewish businessman who gave huge and very important donations to the museum in 1904 and 1918. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, this will be a combined visitor centre for all the Museumsinsel museums. The new entrance will be on the south side, not far from the new U-Bahn station (on line U5, opening in mid-2019) at the west end of the Schlossbrücke (and next to the German History Museum). It will also give access to the Neues Museum, the second world-class archeology museum on the island – this was beautifully refurbished in 2003-9 by David Chipperfield, who has incorporated the damage caused in World War II rather than trying to remove or hide it.

 

There’s nowhere else like the Pergamon, with its full-size reconstructions of the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II and Processional Way of Babylon and the Market Gate of Miletus in the south wing, and the altar hall of Pergamon in the north wing, although this is closed for refurbishment from 2014 until 2019. It really will knock you sideways. Meanwhile the Neues Museum has beautifully presented displays of Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the site of Troy (which he secretly removed from Turkey, having to pay a fine afterwards – it doesn’t seem so unfair that much of the collection was then seized by the Soviet Union in 1945, although it is about time that it was returned), as well as the iconic long-necked bust of Nefertiti and the Golden Hat of a Bronze Age Celtic priest, with a 19-year sun/moon cycle encoded on it.

 

Also here are the Altes Museum, the first museum built on the island (by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1823-30), housing classical antiquities; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery, displaying a wonderful collection of 19th-century German and French art) and the Bode Museum, home to Byzantine art and sculpture, including what is in my opinion a wonderful collection of Italian Renaissance altars by virtually unknown artists. Anywhere else these museums would be huge cultural draws, but here they tend to be overshadowed.

All this money being poured into the former East Berlin has left the former cultural hotspots of West Berlin looking rather sorry for themselves – the Kulturforum, around the Philharmonie concert hall (and near the horribly over-rated Potsdamer Platz), seems very uncared for, with lots of long grass and no signage. The Neues Nationalgalerie, one of Mies van der Rohe’s finest buildings, is closed for refurbishment (by the ubiquitous David Chipperfield) and won’t re-open before 2019; by 2027 it will be linked by a tunnel to the Museum of the 20th Century, a new museum of 20th-century art by Herzog & de Meuron. Yet the Gemälde Galerie probably has the most complete and wide-ranging collection of all Berlin’s art galleries, covering all of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. All the Italian, Flemish and German masters of the Renaissance are here, followed by a superb group of 16 Rembrandts and a couple of Vermeers, as well as other 17th-century Dutch works; it’s pleasing to see a group of fine 18th-century British works, by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, Lawrence and Hoppner, too. Allow plenty of time – a full tour will cover 2km, taking in 72 main galleries and lots of side rooms, with around 1,000 works on display, as well as 400 more in the lower-level study gallery (open Friday to Sunday only). It’s definitely one of Europe’s great galleries.
While you’re at the Gemälde Galerie, see what’s on at the Kupferstichkabinett (the Cabinet of Engravings), in the same building – for conservation reasons they only put on temporary shows, but they have an excellent collection to draw on.
For 20th- and 21st-century art, the place to go is the Berlinische Galerie, which has interesting temporary exhibits downstairs and its permanent collection upstairs (running up to 1980, not 1989 as one might have expected) – it’s a good representative overview, with one painting by just about everyone who should be represented, but it doesn’t really get excited and go into depth about anything in particular, especially not Expressionism, Germany’s main contribution to modern art.
I didn’t go back to Dahlem, in the southwestern suburbs, site of West Berlin’s other main grouping of museums, but I assume it has a similar uncared-for feel, as it’s intended to move the Museum of European Culture to the Kulturforum, and the Museums of Ethnography and Asian art to the Berliner Schloss, now being built immediately south of the Museumsinsel. This is a very controversial project to recreate the largely 18th-century palace of the Electors of Prussia, which was heavily damaged in World War II and demolished in 1950 by communist East Germany. They created the huge Marx-Engels Platz and the Palace of the Republic (1976), which was itself demolished in 2008, supposedly due to the presence of asbestos. There’s a strong feeling that this historic building, where German reunification was agreed and where East Germany’s first free parliament met, should have been preserved rather than being demolished for petty political point-scoring. Certainly the plan to rebuild the Schloss is backwards-looking and reeks of imperial bombast; nevertheless the concrete shell has been completed and a new north-south pedestrian axis created, from the Lustgarten to Breite Strasse, and it only remains to deck it out with Baroque features and to move the museums in, by 2019. One good sign is that the project is led by Neil MacGregor, the very successful director of the British Museum until 2015. It’s run by the private Humboldt Forum, which commemorates Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the explorer and biologist, rather than his brother Wilhelm (1776-1835), politician, linguist and founder of the university now named after him, who is probably better known in Berlin; the temporary Humboldt Cube, on the north side, houses a general exhibition on the project and tasters of what’s to come (for instance ‘Frog Trading in Africa – the ecological effects’ – looking at the spread of malaria).
The historic centre of Berlin, from the 13th century, was the Nikolaiviertel, to the east of the Schloss near the Rathaus, and it was only after 1688 as the city expanded to the west that the area of the Schloss became central; in the 1730s Friedrichstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse were extended to Mehringplatz and Leipziger Platz, and in 1788 the Brandenburg Gate was erected. The Nikolaiviertel has been pedestrianised and prettified, with fairly generic new bars and terraces, as well as August Kiss’s statue of St George and the Dragon, and four museums, mostly remembering bourgeois life in the area.

Katy says the next bit is very boring (except the news of the new cycle scheme) unless you are a transport buff….so you have been warned!!

Berlin’s public transport system is of course also being unified and integrated – the huge Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), opened in 2006 where the city’s North-South and East-West lines cross, is just the latest stage in its evolution. The Lehrter Bahnhof, opened in 1871, was the terminus of the railway from Hannover, and from 1884 from Hamburg – this route was extended eastwards through the city and is now a four-track elevated line with one pair of tracks for long-distance trains and one pair for the Stadtbahn, carrying local S-Bahn services. The North-South line was created when various terminals north and south of the centre were closed (some architectural traces can still be identified) and mainly carries S-Bahn services. Meanwhile the city’s Ring line was completed by the DDR (to allow its trains to avoid West Berlin) and carries another useful range of S-Bahn services.

Construction of the U-Bahn (underground railway) began before World War I, but it took its present shape when the city was divided and West Berlin had to create new routes to avoid East Berlin; new routes into the East are now under construction (see above), but very slowly due to spending constraints.
   Trams, traditionally a feature of East Berlin, are slowly being extended into the West, with routes M5, M8 and M10 being extended to the Hauptbahnhof in 2014 and 2015. But cycling really is the best way to get around Berlin, with 620km of cycle tracks and 13% of journeys made by bike. In spring 2017 Germany’s largest bike-sharing scheme is due to go live here, with thousands of bikes at 700 rental stations, roughly 150m apart.

The ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, abandoned when the rail tracks were put underground to link the north and south of Berlin