Through Suffolk with WG Sebald

I recently re-read The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, partly because my housemate is from Suffolk and the book claims to be about walking through Suffolk. It isn’t really (it’s much more than that), and it starts and ends in Norwich, in the adjacent county of Norfolk, where Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia. I’ve previously written about Norwich, and also about Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham, which are in Suffolk but nowhere near Sebald’s route. And now I’ve just cycled down the Suffolk coast (loosely speaking), from Lowestoft to Woodbridge – because it’s marshy in places and eroding fast in others, there isn’t a road or cycle route along the coast, but there is often a path.

 Sebald begins by discussing 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 eccentric books. The most relevant is Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, supposedly an account of some Anglo-Saxon pots then recently excavated in Norfolk, which veers off, in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose, to discuss human burial customs and thus mortality itself. Sebald’s first chapter is written in similarly dense prose, and although he loosens up a bit in subsequent chapters, The Rings of Saturn is also largely about death and the futility of human life (Saturn was the god of melancholy, of course). Considering that it was actually written in German and translated into English,  the parody of Browne’s style is remarkably good, although there are a few clunky bits (the Shakespeare quotes were easier to put back into English, though). His trip through Suffolk was just a starting point for huge and eccentric digressions on all sorts of topics (often literary), which seem random and confusing but add up to present a coherently pessimistic worldview in which the Holocaust and other disasters are always waiting in the wings. Sebald was also notable for embedding pseudo-documentary photos in his books. The Rings of Saturn is hard work but darkly fascinating – it’s interesting just how many writers and artists revere Sebald and how much influence he’s had (see below).

 Sebald was a great believer in buried correspondences and random connections, and I often pick up on similar links in my own posts. In The Rings of Saturn there are lots of references to Rembrandt and the Netherlands, where I was in September, but also to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which played a rôle in the previous book I read, Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallet; he also mentions the 1987 ‘hurricane’ which also appears in Peculiar Ground, although moved to 1989; there’s mention of Borges’ connections with Uruguay, which I explore in my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay (which I’m updating at the moment); and I recently read Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, who is a professor in the same university department as Sebald, along with the poet George Szirtes, whose work has referred to Sebald.

 Anyway, I started by taking a rather more modern train to Lowestoft than the one Sebald took; the easternmost town in England, it’s a port that is run-down in parts but nowhere near as bad as Sebald makes out – I get that he was a professional miserabilist, but claiming that the economic collapse caused by Thatcherism was somehow making previously literate people illiterate, and that a third of the Dogger Bank’s fish are now born with deformities caused by heavy metal pollution, is a bit much. The slow-burn approach he took elsewhere works far better. Sebald (or his narrator, who is not quite the same person) stayed at the drab Albion Hotel, which is presumably the Victoria, now warmly recommended by a friend of mine, as it happens.

 After passing Benacre Broad, where the trees were all dying (it’s now Benacre Nature Reserve, and seems pretty healthy to me) and Covehithe (see below), he reached Southwold, a lovely town which I’ll say more about in my next post. For some reason this stretch of coast is known as Sole Bay, but Sebald (or his translator) also refers to the German Ocean. The battle of Sole Bay in 1672 is largely forgotten now because there was no clear winner, but it involved no less than 168 ships in the Dutch and Anglo-French fleets and between 35,000 and 50,000 men, of whom around 4,100 died. Another classic Sebald digression involves twenty pages on Joseph Conrad’s early years (interleaved with Roger Casement, the Belgian Congo and the Battle of Waterloo) – it turns out that Conrad’s first English landfall was in Lowestoft, where he began learning English by studying newspapers in pubs – and the pub opposite Lowestoft station is today called the Joseph Conrad. It’s a Wetherspoon pub and I didn’t stop (well, it was barely lunchtime).

 Like Sebald, I crossed the Bailey Bridge from Southwold to Walberswick – this is not the original bridge (Sebald got this wrong), but is on the route of the narrow-gauge railway that linked Halesworth and Southwold from 1879 to 1929. One of his less plausible digressions concerns the railway’s carriages, allegedly built for the Emperor of China’s private railway; it seems that the six-wheeled carriages did have rather exotic balconies at either end (removed after the First World War), but that’s as far as it goes. But this leads him to the topic of silkworms, forced to become a metaphor for not just inevitable death but also the Holocaust and other genocides in general. He didn’t mention either Walberswick or Aldeburgh, clearly far too nice and genteel to fit his theme, but I will look at them too in my next post. Dunwich, on the other hand, famously a major port until the thirteenth century which was then abandoned and largely washed away, is perfect for his theme of decay and disaster. In Anglo-Saxon times it was capital of the East Angles and then rivalled London as England’s chief port on the North Sea (too early for it to have figured in the European Hanse Museum in Lübeck) – but storms in 1286 and 1287 wiped this out and its churches and other buildings disappeared as the cliffs eroded over the following centuries. Now there are a few houses, a tiny museum (next to The Ship, a fine pub known for its food) and the ruins of the Greyfriars priory, as well as a few bits of rescued masonry next to the Victorian church of St James.

 Incidentally, Dunwich is also known to some of my friends as the destination of the Dunwich Dynamo, an all-night cycle ride from London on the Saturday night closest to the July full moon. Once a loose post-pub tradition among London cycle couriers, it became semi-formalised from 1993, and in recent years over two thousand cyclists have tackled the 112-mile ride, with hot food and drink available at village halls, before collapsing on the beach at dawn.

 I also stopped in Clayhithe, a few miles north of Southwold, which Sebald only mentions in passing – this was also a port, though far smaller than Dunwich, and has also been lost to the sea. The coast here has retreated at least 500 metres in the last two centuries, a process which is clearly not going to stop. The wrecks of wooden ships are increasingly being discovered along this coast – in 2018 and again in February 2021 one dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century was revealed by the shifting sands here, and in March 2021 another appeared at Thorpeness, further south, which may possibly be a collier like Captain Cook’s Endeavour. The church of St Andrew is now a small thatched building (quite common for churches in this area) within the ruins of a much larger one – on top of which a pair of kestrels were nesting.

 Continuing south, I pushed my bike along a short stretch of shingle beach, from the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath property to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve – this is one of their flagship sites, known for its reed beds where large numbers of ducks and geese overwinter, and rarities such as avocets, marsh harriers and bitterns breed (I heard a bittern booming further down the coast, which was a first), but there’s also plenty of sandy heath where stone curlew, wood larks, Dartford warblers and nightjars can be found. I was also surprised to see three groups of red deer in this area, as well as lots of single muntjac deer, which are something of a plague across the region. As in many places along this coast, there are signs warning of adders, and there are various unusual butterflies here too.

 After Minsmere, I cycled through Leiston and Thorpeness (avoiding Sizewell, although you can’t avoid the sight of the nuclear power station) – Leiston Abbey is free and open daylight hours, and there’s rather more of it than at the ruined churches just north. A Premonstratensian monastery was founded in 1182 at Minsmere, and moved here in about 1363 when flooding made the original site untenable. After the Reformation it was used as a farm and a residential music school now occupies the main building. Thorpeness is an oddity, a holiday village created just before the First World War by the local landowners, the Ogilvies (who also owned Minsmere); it didn’t really take off but there are some very attractive Tudor Revival houses as well as a charming lake and golf course. As it turns out it’s ideal for the age of AirBnB, one of the most prized rentals being The House in the Clouds, converted from a water tower in 1923.

 Continuing south from Thorpeness you’ll soon pick up a decent cyclepath along the promenade that leads in to Aldeburgh, a delightful town that I look at in more detail here. Sebald actually skipped Aldeburgh in The Rings of Saturn (it’s far too nice to fit his theme); he got a lift from Southwold to Woodbridge and, after walking north to investigate the home of Edward Fitzgerald (eccentric translator of Omar Khayyam and starting-point for stories about the Anglo-Irish (my people) and their decaying country homes), walked to Orford. There’s a fine castle and church to be seen here, but the main attraction is Orford Ness, a rather ghostly shingle spit (only accessible by boat) which was closed off as a testing ground for weaponry for eighty years and is now preserved by the National Trust. I haven’t taken the boat to the ness yet, but Sebald found it ideal for musing on post-apocalyptic ruins.

 Sebald then returned north inland, with other weird encounters and digressions (such as a visit to his friend, the post and translator Michael Hamburger) – but I was slightly surprised that he didn’t mention Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s portrait of an English village was actually a compilation of several villages just north of Woodbridge in the 1960s (but still largely untouched by the huge changes in rural life and farming that were lurking just a few years into the future) – perhaps it was too bucolic for his purpose, but recent research by the University of East Anglia has looked at the utter transformation of the countryside since Blythe’s time, with results that might have given Sebald food for thought.

 As for me, I cycled to Orford via Butley and Iken (each with another attractive little church), and then along the south side of Rendlesham Forest (known for UFO sightings, supposedly) to Woodbridge, and caught a train home. This is an area known as the Sandlings, which I’d not heard of but which certainly lives up to its name, with sand blown across the back lanes and some bridleways that were so soft and loose that I had to push my bike. The light sandy soil was used only for grazing sheep until the Victorians fell in love with blasting birds out of the sky in the name of sport – it turned out that breeding pheasants was an ideal use of the land. Just before reaching Woodbridge I called in at Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon ship burial site currently enjoying a moment thanks to the film The Dig (with Suffolk-born Ralph Fiennes) – thanks to the lockdown the indoor exhibits and viewing tower were all closed, so all I could actually do is look at some mounds, but the café was open, which was what I needed.

 Woodbridge is a pleasant little town that’s known mainly for still having a high street lined with independent shops; there’s also a nice church further up the hill, and on the waterfront (still active so not over-prettified) a white weatherboarded tidal mill (usually open to visitors, but also closed due to Covid-19). The Whistlestop Café at the station is also a highlight for some.

 So, what to make of all this? Is there any good reason to follow Sebald through Suffolk? Well, no, it doesn’t really work, given all his digressions through time and space. Robert Macfarlane (who has also written beautifully about Orford Ness) said in 2012 that he was  planning to follow in Sebald’s footsteps to produce an ‘unconventional biography’ which will be fascinating, but as far as I can see this has not yet emerged. Film director Grant Gee (who has worked with Joy Division, Radiohead, Blur and Nick Cave) has produced a short film retracing Sebald’s journey which seems interesting, and writers and artists such as Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Tacita Dean have written about Sebald – these are all rather more worthwhile, I would expect, than just walking down the coast. There are also various blogs attempting to pay stylistic homage with varying degrees of success (but getting basic facts wrong, which offends me as a real working travel writer). In any case, and partly because hotels are still closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I chose to cycle, with one night camping in Dunwich Forest, rather than follow the actual walk.

 The artist Ali Pretty (who I knew at school) is leading the Beach of Dreams project, a 500-mile walk from Lowestoft along the coast to Tilbury this summer (starting on 27 June 2021 and finishing on 1 August) – it’s a community project asking the question “How can we creatively reimagine our future?”. Now that does sound worthwhile.

Southwold, Walberswick and Aldeburgh

It’s generally acknowledged that Southwold is the queen of the Suffolk coast, and it is lovely, but in some ways I prefer Aldeburgh, a cultured and more laidback place – not that Southwold is the least bit Kiss Me Quick, but it is busier and more commercial. Southwold does have a pier, but it’s not what you might think – built in 1900, it was destroyed by storms in 1934 and 1979 (and in the Second World War, to a certain extent), then rebuilt in 1999-2001, and is now a family business. There are the usual cafés and gift shops, but the unmissable attraction is the Under The Pier Show, a beyond quirky arcade of weird slot machines (now expanding into virtual reality).

 For some of us, the great attraction in Southwold is Adnam’s brewery, a local success story that stands as a telling contrast to Greene King in Bury St Edmunds, which has set out to become as big a second-tier brewery and pub company as it can, by buying up rivals and closing them down. Adnams, however, prides itself on good community relations and a sustainable approach to its business, exemplified by the beautiful grass-roofed distribution centre opened in 2006 three miles out of town. Unfortunately this brought to an end their tradition of delivering beer around Southwold with a horse-powered dray. The brewery is still in the town (tours are available), and has been totally rebuilt internally – they thought of moving to their Reydon site but in the end they decided to stick to their roots in town and built the distribution centre there instead. They can now produce lots of one-off craft beers and also lager, and have built a great reputation for their balancing act between classic cask standards and trendy innovations. They are keen to cooperate with other brewers, and in 2010 they also started a distillery to produce Suffolk gin, vodka and whisky. 

 And of course they have pubs – the Sole Bay Inn, the Lord Nelson and the Red Lion are all good, as well as the Swan and Crown hotels. There’s also the Adnams Store and Café just off the High St (they also have stores in Aldeburgh, Woodbridge, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Saffron Walden and elsewhere). Their key beers are Southwold Bitter, a 3.7% session beer, Ghost Ship, a 4.5% pale ale with Citra hops (and an alcohol-free version) and Broadside, a 4.7% premium bitter (bottled Broadside is 6.3%). The chestnut-brown Bitter is a fine example of the classic English style, along the lines of Harvey’s Sussex Best (and it’s interesting that Harvey’s is one of the few other breweries still to be brewing in a town centre, Lewes to be precise).

 It’s only in the last decade or so that the town has come to terms with the fact that George Orwell wrote his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, here, in his parents’ retirement home, Montague House, on the High Street. It’s now available as a holiday let, and an Orwell mural now faces people leaving the pier.

 

 Speaking of places to stay, the writer WG Sebald was apparently a fan of the Crown Hotel, but ‘the Sailors’ Reading Room is by far my favourite haunt’, as it is for many others – next to the Lord Nelson, it was built in 1864 as an alternative to the town’s pubs for its sailors and fishermen, and still serves that purpose, but has also developed into a sort of museum, with historic pictures of ships and sailors, model ships and glass cabinets of maritime bits and pieces. Another historic relic of sorts is the Electric Picture Palace, created only in 2002 in disused stables on Blackmill Road; as you go in, you’ll pass a uniformed commissionaire, a dinner-jacketed manager and an usherette. There’ll be an interval when a ‘Tiny Wurlitzer’ organ will appear, and at the end you will of course wait for the National Anthem before leaving. They show a lot of classic films as well.

 A couple of miles away on the far side of the Blyth river is Walberswick, reached by a foot ferry or the bailey bridge, built to replace the bridge of the narrow-gauge railway that I mentioned here (it’s going to be closed for repairs this summer, which is causing some debate – it’s exactly when most people will be affected, but apparently the tides dictate it). I asked my friends in Walberswick if this rather formless little village felt overwhelmed by lively prosperous Southwold, but they said ‘No! We feel superior’, and what’s more my friends felt superior (in a nice way, I

The Bridge at Walberswick, by Philip Wilson Steer

think) to other people in Walberswick because they’d been coming there since the 1950s, long before the various Freuds (and partners such as Richard Curtis) who have to a certain extent put it on the map. It was in fact known at the end of the nineteenth century, when artistic types such as Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald summered here.

 Incidentally, there may not be much in Walberswick, but there are two good pubs, the Bell and the Anchor, the second of which has been run since 2006 by Mark Dorber. For about twenty-five years he ran the White Horse on Parson’s Green in London, which had a moment in the mid-80s when it was known as the Sloaney Pony and was at the heart of the Sloane Ranger phenomenon – but he also played a huge rôle in bringing about the revival of the classic IPA style, and in pushing the idea of pairing food with specific beers. I only once went in to the White Horse, where the England Number 8, Dean Richards, was towering over the crowd – he was not in the least sloaney.

 The other thing Walberswick is known for is crabbing, indeed the British Championships were held there until they fell victim to their own success – and in an age of social distancing it’s not possible for kids to line up on the Kissing Bridge as they used to. The aim is to catch the largest crab possible (bacon is the bait of choice) and release it, so it’s utterly pointless and just another of the weird ways in which humans torment other animals.

 

 Both Southwold and Walberswick have fine churches – St Edmund in Southwold was built in the 1430s to 1490s, after an earlier church burnt down, and so has an unusually unified style, with a continuous roof over nave and chancel. It’s known for its very fine rood screen with painted figures of saints, and the carved angels looking down from the ceiling. The glass is plain, due to the combined efforts of the Puritans and the Luftwaffe, so it’s even more full of light than other churches built at this time from the profits of the wool trade, such as in Lavenham. 

 St. Andrew’s in Walberswick is striking because (as in Covehithe), it’s set in the ruins of the previous church. This was built in 1473-93, but just a few years later, after the Reformation, congregation numbers plummeted for some reason and most of the church fell into disuse. Finally, at the end of the seventeenth century, most of it was demolished and a smaller church fashioned out of the south aisle. The tower also had to remain, as an aid to navigation. The pulpit and altar screen also survive from the older church, and there’s an interesting mosaic made of stained glass from its windows.

 But the best church in the area (listed Grade I and all that) is at Blythburgh, a few miles inland and reached by a nice walk along the former railway. This also gives access to the reedbeds at the heart of the Suffolk Coast National Nature Reserve, which also includes a lot of sandy heathland – both habitats are very important for birdlife (around 300 species), butterflies and moths (500 species), as well as over 100 species of cranefly (who knew?), otters, natterjack toads and five species of deer.

 Aldeburgh

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cycled on to Aldeburgh, a charming little town that’s quieter and less commercial than Southwold (it has a stoney beach whereas Southwold’s is sandy) – it’s known above all as the home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who were rather forward-thinking when they founded a music festival in 1948, with performances in many local churches. It was even more forward-thinking to take over the industrial site of Snape Maltings, five miles inland, which now houses not only a beautiful concert hall and the Britten-Pears music school but also a gallery, café, pub, self-catering accommodation and posh shops – I mean, how did BB know that lifestyle shopping was going to be such a big thing? It’s a surprisingly large and attractive complex, with scope for further development.

 Aldeburgh itself has suffered from coastal erosion, although it’s less obvious than at Dunwich, Orford and other former ports along this coast; even so, few pre-nineteenth-century buildings remain and the historic Moot Hall (c1529, now housing the town museum) was in the town centre and is now on the promenade. In the nineteenth century Aldeburgh revived as a bathing resort (and the railway arrived in 1860); the delightful shopfronts on the present surprisingly wide High Street date from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and are key to its Conservation Area status with their fanlights, pilasters and decorative ironwork.

 Other architectural oddities on the seafront include the two look-out towers, built by two rival pilotage groups to spot ships heading south towards the Thames, the modernist lifeboat station (built in 1994), and a Martello tower (half a mile south), the northernmost of the chain built to defend against a Napoleonic invasion (now available as holiday accommodation). The South Lookout Tower is where Laurens van der Post wrote in his later years, and is now part of an artists’ residence.

 Aldeburgh church is a little north of the centre, and has a largely nineteenth-century interior, so it doesn’t get as many visitors as Southwold’s fabulous church; but there’s a fine stained-glass window by John Piper in memory of Britten, with scenes from his church parables, and a memorial to the 1899 lifeboat disaster. The large churchyard contains not only the graves of Britten and Pears, alongside each other, but also nearby those of Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav), Britten’s assistant and also a composer, musical educator and conductor in her own right, and the soprano Joan Cross, who created rôles such as Ellen Orford and Mrs Grose in Britten’s operas.

Maggi Hambling’s Scallop, on Aldeburgh beach, with a quotation from Peter Grimes

 Britten and Pears’ home, The Red House, is near the golf course on the way to Snape; I saw a flip remark that the historic Sailor’s Path to Snape (recently refurbished with solid wooden boardwalks) was ‘Britten’s walk to work’, but I don’t believe it for a moment – he always loved travelling by car and bought a Rolls-Royce as soon as he could. Anyway, the Red House is well worth a visit; in addition to the house and lovely gardens, the library and composition studio were built in former barns (where the Roller also lived) and there’s a modern gallery over Britten’s open-air swimming pool (which is still there beneath the floor).

 Among more modern musicians, Peter Sinfield (of King Crimson) and Isabella Summers (of Florence and the Machine) both live here – but I was more surprised to learn that Gerry Fiennes (1906–85), author of I Tried to Run a Railway, was mayor of Aldeburgh in 1976 – he has something of a cultish following, having introduced both the Deltic diesel locomotives (for sustained 100mph running on the London-Edinburgh route) and the merry-go-round trains (for moving coal in bulk); but publication of his wickedly humorous book in 1967 led to his being sacked by British Rail. In fact I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as I already knew that his cousin Ralph Fiennes was born in Suffolk, and puts on a very creditable local accent in The Dig (about Sutton Hoo). Another mayor of Aldeburgh (in 1908) was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose family owned the Snape maltings; she was not only Britain’s first female doctor, but also its first female mayor, and she also lies in the churchyard.

 Food-wise, the emphasis here is totally on fish, and smoking fish is big here and along the coast to Orford and into Essex. Aldeburgh Smokehouse (also known as Ash Smoked Fishes, though I think that should be ash-smoked fish) is a hut on the beach just north of the centre. Aldeburgh Fish & Chip Shop is the most famous chippie on the Suffolk coast, and The Lighthouse on the High Street is also a fine seafood restaurant. Aldeburgh was also famed for Lawson’s Deli (also on the High Street), which became Slate Cheese in 2017 and is still excellent (the best Suffolk cheese is Baron Bigod, the only British raw milk Brie-style cheese). Slate Cheese also has a branch in Southwold, and other trendy outlets such as Two Magpies Bakery, Quba and Joules (for clothing and furnishings) also have branches in each town. It’s also noticeable that there are good bookshops in both towns and in nearby villages too (though these are mostly internet/mail-order operations); the Southwold Bookshop is now owned by Waterstones but that’s not at all obvious.

K is for Kendal

Between Lancaster and Carlisle, and thus between my two latest cycle rides across Yorkshire, I stopped for a couple of nights in Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District. This is another place (see my posts on Wensleydale and Suffolk) that was made very wealthy by the wool trade (Kendal Green was almost as big a thing as Robin Hood’s Lincoln Green), and then in the nineteenth century the shoe industry took over. The Somervell brothers were leather dealers until in 1857 the first sewing machines were imported from the USA; in 1862 they produced their first complete shoes and in 1865 introduced the ‘K’ trademark. Howard Somervell went to Everest in K boots as a member of the 1922 and 1924 exhibitions. K Shoes and Clarks Shoes (in Street in Somerset – I remember a school trip to the factory many years ago) dominated the sensible/school shoes market for many years, and the two companies merged in 1981; but foreign imports and recessions shrank the industry until the last shoes were made in Kendal in 2003 (there is still a distribution centre on Natland Road). The factory outlet shops, opened in 1988, were rebranded as K Village but have finally closed and are now being rebuilt as a Travelodge. The kitchenware company Lakeland began in the 1950s selling chickens in Kendal market – in plastic bags, which proved far more interesting to the public. They’ve always been based in Windermere, but there is a distribution centre in Kendal.

 As elsewhere, wealth from wool translated into a church largely rebuilt in the fifteenth century to be much bigger, particularly in the window department. It’s the largest church in Cumbria, with a nave and two aisles on each side. It’s close to Abbot Hall, a Grade-1 listed mansion built in 1759 that houses a surprisingly decent art gallery, largely due to its collection of works by local boy George Romney (1734-1802, one of the many fine portrait painters of the period); it also has drawings and watercolours by Ruskin and a good collection of modern art by painters such as Bomberg, Lowry, Sutherland, Nicholson, Schwitters and Hockney, and sculptors such as Arp, Hepworth and Frink. Unfortunately it’s currently closed, not because of Storm Desmond in 2015 and now Covid-19 but to improve access, security and exhibition conditions; it should reopen in 2022. Alongside is the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, which covers the region’s social history with some excellent preserved shops and rooms, but it’s also closed for refurbishment.

 On the other side of the town centre (near the station), the Kendal Museum reopened fairly early after the lockdown and has a remarkable range of displays – on the history side it starts with pieces from Ancient Egypt, Mesolithic and Neolithic stone tools, a dugout Viking boat, and coverage of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s last wife and a London girl, although her family held Kendal Castle for centuries) and Adam Sedgwick, father of modern geology, who was born in Dent in 1785. There are also displays on local geology and natural history, including birds, beetles and butterflies, a moose head, and a stuffed lion, elephant and polar bear. And in an awkward bit of corridor there is of course a display on Alfred Wainwright, who was Kendal’s Borough Treasurer (1948-67) and Honorary Clerk to Kendal Museum (1942-85) – he also wrote the definitive illustrated guides to hiking in the Lakes and the Coast to Coast Walk. The Coast to Coast doesn’t pass through Kendal, but I still come to see friends every couple of years.

 Kendal has other mountaineering links – there’s the horribly sweet Kendal Mint Cake, which also went on expeditions to Everest (thankfully healthier sources of energy are now available) and the excellent Kendal Mountain Festival, founded in 1980, with lots of talks and films, the presentation of the highly prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and other events.

 Reopening in September, the Brewery Arts Centre opened in 1972 on the site of a brewery opened in 1853; in addition to live performances, there’s a good arty cinema, decent food and drink, and a youth hostel, opened by the YHA in 1971 and sold off in 2011 – it’s doing just fine as an independent (Covid-19 apart) so once again I’m left wondering about the YHA’s management. The Brewery garden is one of the last remnants of the burgage plots that sat behind the houses along the main north-south street, reached by about 150 yards (ie alleys), most of which survive. The town’s newest art gallery is at Cross Lane Projects, in a converted garage just south of the centre – I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had folded since I was last in Kendal, but they’ve come though the lockdown to reopen with interesting new sculpture exhibitions.

 Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t interested in the town-centre pubs, acceptable as they are, but had a couple of pleasant outdoor pints at Castle Mills, across the river (the Kent) from the town centre. The Factory Tap claims to stock ‘the most rewarding new hand-crafted beers around’, while the Barrel House is the brewery tap of Bowness Bay Brewing; also here is Joey’s Café, for excellent coffee, salads and pizza.

Around Kendal

 The first village north of Kendal (along National Cycle Route 6) is Staveley, home to the Hawkshead Brewery and its Beer Hall, opposite Wilf’s Café and Wheelbase, which claims to be the largest bike shop in the UK (the Eagle and Child has been recommended too, as a good place to stay and eat). And in the next village north, Ings, the Watermill Inn also has good food and beds and is home to the Windermere Brewery.

 Just south of town is Lower Sizergh Barn, a superb farm shop and café which also has windows over the milking parlour so you can watch the action daily (3.30pm) and also buy raw milk from a vending machine outside. It’s on the edge of the National Trust’s Sizergh estate – the tower house (c1350, transformed in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) has not yet reopened, but I have enjoyed its panelled rooms and paintings by Romney, Opie, and ‘after Kneller’. In any case the gardens are lovely. As a travel writer, I was interested to learn that Thomas West, a Jesuit priest and antiquarian, wrote A Guide to the Lakes (1778) here – the first guide to the Lake District.

 About a dozen miles further southwest from Sizergh is Cartmel, a small village known for its Priory, founded in 1189 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, which has a superb east window and a unique bell tower set at 45 degrees on top of the original tower, and more recently for Simon Rogan’s gastronomic ventures – having begun with L’Enclume in 2002, which now has two Michelin stars, he established his own farm in 2009, with a produce shop in the village, and in 2018 the more casual Rogan & Co neighbourhood restaurant, which has also acquired a Michelin star but remains relaxed and affordable. Also on the village square is Unsworth’s Yard, with brewery and bar, bakery, a wine shop and a wonderful cheese shop where you’ll find the products of Martin Gott and Nicola Robinson of nearby Holker Farm – their sheeps’ and goats’ cheeses are at the forefront of the revival of British raw cheese-making. The Cavendish Arms seems to be a pretty decent pub too.

 We also passed through Grange-over-Sands, just south on Morecambe Bay, where £2m has been found to stop the Lido (built in 1932) from collapsing – being familiar with the success of the spectacular Deco lido in Penzance, I hope they can manage something similar. I was also reminded of the salt marshes of the Baie de Mont-Saint-Michel, and the similar tradition of guided walks (at low tide) across the bay.

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’ve now discovered that his younger brother (who I met) was also in the Border Regiment, survived the Somme, and was in charge of training troops here at Carlisle Castle in World War II.]

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!

Cycling both ways across Yorkshire

So this is it, the Staycation Summer. The hordes that are usually drinking and vomiting by the Mediterranean are not risking quarantine and so are having their holidays in Cornwall and the Lake District instead (following their much publicised visits to Brighton and Bournemouth beaches, with associated anti-social behaviour and total absence of social distancing). I’m in Cornwall now and I was in Cumbria last week, and it is definitely not what local residents want or are used to.

 My first real trip after the Covid-19 lockdown was with my bike to Yorkshire and Cumbria – I’ve written about them before , and definitely plan to focus on York itself before too long. It was fun, but fundamentally I miss my old life. It’s all very well cycling from town to town, but I want to see something interesting when I get there. A few churches at least are now open around Cambridge, but not so many up here, and there are very few museums or stately homes open. How am I meant to gather information with which to confuse or amaze you? So when I do find something open, I don’t care how pricey it is, I’m in, even though in fact various parts are closed because they don’t fit in to a socially distanced one-way system or pandemic staffing levels. And I can’t breathe in my mask and my glasses are steamed up. And don’t get me started on pubs which insist on ordering via a QR reader rather than just saying ‘Two pints, please’ and waving a card at a contactless reader.

 One surprise was how few establishments are taking Track and Trace details – I know the whole system is discredited, but still, it’s hardly a big deal to give a name and phone number. Another oddity of the lockdown has been its environmental impact – it seemed great at first, as skies and rivers cleared and cars vanished from the roads to be replaced by hordes of cyclists, joggers and walkers (those poor dogs, dragged out three or four times a day). But then it became clear that throwaway culture was the big winner, with deliveries and takeaways leaving huge amounts of waste, not to mention the mind-boggling amounts of single-use plastic PPE being dumped by the NHS and care homes. But I hadn’t realised until I went on this trip how hard it has become to recycle waste when you’re out and about – home collections still work, but in many towns the street bins seem to have gone.

Doncaster to Tadcaster and Lancaster

Anyway, I took a train to Doncaster and then cycled a branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail (a typical Sustrans route – going great distances on poor surfaces (former railway lines, even a former airfield) to avoid traffic, although in this case without the unnecessary hills they sometimes give us as well) to Snaith, where there’s an attractive priory that I’d never heard of, and Selby, where I knew there was an attractive abbey, and then the Solar System Greenway. On the original Selby-York alignment of the London-Edinburgh railway (where Mallard and the Deltics may have got up to a dizzying 100mph), this is indeed a scale model of the solar system, starting with the Voyager probe and the outer planets, about 2.5km apart, and ending up with the inner planets, about 250m apart, and the sun by the York ring-road. I’ve seen a few of these in my time, including on an alp above St Luc in Switzerland, and in Barrow, Alaska, but they’re always good, illustrating how very lonely the outer reaches of the solar system are.

 From the edge of York  I turned west through quiet lanes to Tadcaster, a Roman town near the crossing of the Great North Road (Ermine Street, now the A1) and the Leeds to York road (the Roman road from Chester to Bridlington, now the A64), that is now known as home to the Sam Smith’s and John Smith’s breweries.

 Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery claims to be Yorkshire’s Oldest Brewery, Established 1758, but the truth is slightly more tangled – in 1847 John Smith bought an existing brewery, founded in 1758, but then moved to new premises next door and left the old brewery to his nephew Samuel, who founded Samuel Smith’s Brewery in 1886. Sam’s is still independent and is known in Britain for selling decent beers in its own pubs at a remarkably low price (about double what it used to be, but still good value) and in the USA as the inspiration for early craft brewers such as Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island. Unusually, they produce only one real or cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, as well as a range of keg and bottled beers, and all their beers are vegan except for OBB and Yorkshire Stingo, a rich treacly beer matured for at least a year in oak casks and then bottled. I was intrigued by the name because the Blue Anchor in my home town of Helston in Cornwall, a pub-brewery which has been active continuously since the fifteenth century, calls its beer Spingo. This is a traditionally sweet Cornish bitter, while it turns out that Yorkshire Stingo refers to a stronger ale.

 You can enjoy a good pint of OBB at the Angel and White Horse in the centre of Tadcaster, which is not only the brewery tap but also home to their fine grey shire horses, who deliver beer to local pubs five days a week – you can look in to the stables across the courtyard.

 On the western edge of town, the much larger John Smith’s Brewery (now owned by Heineken UK) mass-produces a gassy bitter, as well as Amstel and Kronenbourg lagers. Enough said.

 From Taddie I cycled on quiet lanes to the edge of Leeds (a great city which I’ve written about before) then followed their new Cycle Superhighway 2 to the city centre and switched to the Aire Valley Greenway, ie the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. In the western outskirts I stopped at Kirkstall Abbey – founded in 1152, this was one of the great Cistercian abbeys that became rich on the wool trade (see the Suffolk wool churches in my last post, and indeed Kendal in my next post), along with Jervaulx (which I visited a week later – see below), Rievaulx and Fountains. Kirkstall is now ruined and there’s not much to see, but it’s at the heart of a popular park. I’d have revisited the David Hockney Gallery in Salt’s Mill in Saltaire if it had been open, but alas no; so I cycled past Bingley’s Two-Rise and Five-Rise Locks to Keighley and then struggled (it was the UK’s hottest August day for 17 years) up the hill to Haworth.

 Usually Haworth is swamped by Brönte fans and purveyors of romantic Brönte souvenirs, but the Parsonage Museum is closed, so they’re all staying away. In their absence, I could see that it’s quite attractive and not really that different from Hebden Bridge, with its Haworth Wholefoods, its Haworth Steam Brewery, its book and vinyl shops – but because it’s not on a main-line railway it doesn’t have the same potential for commuting into Leeds and Manchester. It has some decent pubs too, and as I cycled on I saw some more that looked pretty decent on the wuthering heights to the west.

Wensleydale

I spent the next six nights in Lancaster and Cumbria – see my next post – and then returned to Yorkshire, taking the wonderfully scenic Settle and Carlisle railway line to Ribblehead. It’s known for the 24-arch viaduct, opened in 1874 as part of the last major railway to be built in Britain, but this wild and remote moorland was crossed long ago by Roman roads, some of which my friend Rob (with whom I cycled in Belgium, Taiwan and other places) is very keen on as cycle routes. His account of this Wensleydale ride is here. I was due to meet him in Hawes, down at the head of Wensleydale, which I thought would be a swift belt downhill but turned out to be quite a slog. I have visited the Wensleydale Creamery, famed for the eponymous cheese, but not this time. Eventually we got going, through Askrigg (where the pub apparently played a rôle in the James Herriott TV programmes) to Aysgarth, where Rob was amazed that as a proud Yorkshireman he’d had no idea the falls were so spectacular (we caught them after a reasonable amount of rain) – the River Ure drops over three separate sets of limestone slabs over almost a mile and the tea-coloured water puts on a pretty lively show.

Cycling journalist at work – Rob at Aysgarth Falls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Our next stop was Wensley, after which the dale of the Ure is named, although no-one really knows why – see below. It’s a tiny village, with an impressive little Grade-1 listed church that’s usually open – it’s not used for worship but is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Built circa 1240, it’s as notable for its furnishings as for its architecture, notably the Scrope family pew, a grand piece of seventeenth-century woodwork with at the back a sixteenth-century carved screen brought from Easby Abbey when it was dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1927 whitewash was removed from the walls, revealing fourteenth-century paintings of Jacob and Esau. Nice wildlife churchyard, too.

 I knew Middleham Castle as Richard III’s base, but I have no idea why the village would now be twinned with Agincourt. In fact Middleham was a bit of a surprise – not only is it ‘the Newmarket of the North’, with lots of racehorse trainers here, but it also seems to be evolving into a bit of a foodie/boutique hotel destination, with various pubs serving good food (including the Blue Lion in East Witton, the next village we passed), one of which, the White Swan, transformed itself into The Wensleydale Hotel in 2019. Just to the east we were able to divert onto the footpath through Jervaulx Abbey, the only one of Yorkshire’s great Cistercian abbeys that is privately owned, with an honesty box to pay for admission (Paypal also welcome). It seems like an attractive garden (and tearooms) with an ace abbey attached, as there are few of the detailed information panels you might be looking for.

 The next stop was Masham, which shares a similar brewing history to Tadcaster, with a well-known brewery, Theakston’s, founded in 1827, and the breakaway Black Sheep Brewery, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston, who left the family firm in 1988 after its takeover by Scottish & Newcastle. In fact the four other Theakston brothers bought back control of the business in 2004, and its website proudly proclaims it as an independent brewery, although in fact Heineken UK (successor to S&N) still owns 28% of the shares. Their Old Peculier is a really special beer, a strong old ale that’s dark, rich and smooth. Black Sheep Best Bitter, meanwhile, has been a huge success, spreading across Britain and indeed usually on tap in my local in Cambridge. I enjoyed visiting the Black Sheep Brewery over two decades ago and hoped to repeat the experience, but paying with a contactless card was far too simple for them – so we ended up getting our pints of Black Sheep at a pub-hotel on the town’s square, which rather bizarrely turned out to be owned by Greene King, the East Anglian regional brewers that I’ve moaned about before.

 Then we passed through West Tanfield, where the fifteenth-century Marmion Tower (Grade I-listed and managed by English Heritage) stands almost up against the thirteenth-century church (which houses some fine old tombs) – the tower is just a shell, but you can still go up to the first floor for views through the oriel window.

 

Virtually traffic-free lanes took us via Wath to Ripon for our overnight stop – it’s a small historic market town, whoops sorry, city, where the main sight is the cathedral. Built in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, it only became a cathedral in 1836 when the Diocese of Ripon was created, and Ripon therefore became a city – but in 2014 the diocese became part of the new Diocese of Leeds, with three co-cathedrals, here, in Wakefield and in Bradford (but not Leeds). The ways of the Church of England are indeed mysterious.  The Early English west front, raised in 1220, is a highlight, but overall I found the furnishings more interesting than the architecture, notably the misericords in the choir, carved between 1489 and 1494, and the wooden hand sticking out above them from the base of the organ, used to beat time for the choir. This summer there are also some 10,000 paper angels hanging in a net high in the nave, in the very striking A Wing and a Prayer installation.

 Ripon’s Market Square is spacious and attractive, with an eighteenth-century obelisk, perhaps by Nicholas Hawksmoor, in the centre, and some fine buildings such as the Town Hall, built in 1799 by James Wyatt, and the half-timbered Wakeman’s House, built by about 1600. The Wakeman was (until 1604) the predecessor of the mayor, and can be confused with the Hornblower, who traditionally blows a blast on a horn at 9pm every night at each corner of the obelisk. There are in fact currently three hornblowers (one female) with four historic horns to choose from, and during the pandemic the tradition has been maintained by one of them at home – there’s no public notification of who or where to avoid public gatherings, of course. Otherwise, Ripon has a three-fold museum complex that might be interesting, but as it was just an overnight stop we couldn’t visit; but we did enjoy good Italian food (and wine) at Prima as well as grabbing breakfast pastries at Thomas the Baker.

 From Ripon it’s not far to Boroughbridge, an historic coaching stop on the Great North Road, which shows signs of possibly rediscovering its foodie vocation with attractive shops and cafés. First we saw the Devil’s Arrows, three large standing stones that are part of a ritual landscape that stretches to the three Thornborough Henges, back near Masham, sometimes referred to as the Stonehenge of the North. In the almost conjoined village of Aldborough we visited the few paltry remains of a Romano-British township where a couple of mosaics are preserved in their original locations, but they are unimpressive compared to ones I’ve seen in the last few years in places like Trier, Istanbul, Plovdiv , Butrint and even St Albans.

 From here there was nothing much to detain us on our ride to York – we were still following the Ure, but it’s rich farming country rather than a dale. But Rob needed to show me the Ousegill Burn, a very minor stream about 2km long, and vent his disgust at the geographical quirk that means that the Ure (having absorbed the Swale, though both are in fact pretty equal-sized rivers) suddenly becomes known as the Ouse after the confluence with this little stream. Ouse was the Celtic word for ‘water’ (just as Avon was the Celtic word for ‘river’), so there are various rivers called Ouse (and Avon) across Britain – but it seems obvious to Rob, and I can’t disagree, that Jorvik, the Viking name for York, derives from the Ure (never mind the orthodoxy that it derives from the Saxon Eoforwic, thought to mean wild boar settlement, or Eofer’s trading place). And Jervaulx is an old French form of Ure Valley. So there are in fact two mysteries, why the dale is named after Wensley rather than the Ure, and why the river through York is called the Ouse rather the Ure. The Ure can definitely feel hard done by.

 After crossing the Aldwark toll bridge (free for bikes, and busy with cyclists on the coast-to-coast Way of the Roses) it was nice to pass through the grounds of the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall (still closed, though the gardens, café and restaurant are open) before the pleasant riverside ride into York, for a refreshing pint and a train home.

Rough coverage

As a Rough Guides author, I was of course carrying the Yorkshire guide – which turned out to have no coverage of Selby, Tadcaster or indeed Ilkley, but eight pages on Rotherham and seven on Doncaster – is this because the author perhaps lives between them on the southernmost edge of Yorkshire (ie almost in London), or is it a metropolitan obsession with post-industrial re-invention?

Bury Saint Edmunds and around

St Edmund by the locally born Dame Elisabeth Frink (with wolf added later)

For those of us living in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, 30 miles to the east, seems like an uninteresting market town that became an unattractive agroindustrial centre. The truth is, however, that (leaving aside its spell as Roman Durovigutum) Cambridge is not as ancient as Bury, which was a Saxon royal borough. An abbey was founded in about 633 and re-established in 945 to house the remains of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia who was killed by the Danes in 869 (or possibly 870). He either died in battle or was captured and then killed after refusing to renounce his Christian faith – legend has it that he was decapitated and that his followers were guided to his head by a wolf calling ‘Hic, hic, hic’ (Here, here, here, in Latin). It’s not clear to me (ie to Wikipedia) when he was actually canonised, but a cult soon developed over his remains, with pilgrims, including kings, coming from far and wide. King Cnut (Canute) built a stone church in 1020, and the abbey was rebuilt again after 1095, by which time it was the most famous and well-funded in England. Edmund was effectively the patron saint of England until he was replaced by Edward the Confessor (around 1200) and then St George in 1348 – it’s odd that he’s so generally forgotten now.

 In 1214 the abbey was the natural place for a group of barons to meet in the guise of pilgrims, to draw up a set of demands to put to King John; they swore at the altar to force him to sign what of course became known as the Magna Carta. However the abbey, like so many others, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, and has now almost totally vanished – a few eroded teeth of stonework stand in what are now the lovely Abbey Gardens, immediately east of the town centre, and part of the west front (aptly described as like petrified porridge) was converted in Georgian times into something like multi-storey hobbit houses. These are adjacent to the current cathedral, which was a parish church (founded in 1503) until a new diocese was created in 1914. It had already been expanded in the 1860s, and then in the 1960s and ‘70s a new choir and crossing were built, as well as the porch. In 1998 an appeal for £10 million was launched to complete the cathedral with cloisters and a lantern tower, and funding was obtained from the National Lottery – this was controversial, because many people thought the money could be better used for social projects, and because it’s all been built in a pretty unadventurous Gothic style which doesn’t really set the pulse racing. Slightly oddly, the diocese (and the local authority area) are called St Edmundsbury rather than Bury St Edmunds (Bury being a variant of Borough).

 When I last visited – my first post-lockdown excursion – the cathedral and the gardens were just about all that was open to visitors, other than shops and cafés, but usually you can visit the Moyse’s Hall Museum, in what is claimed to be one of Britain’s few remaining Norman houses, dating from around 1180 (in fact the Norman period ended in 1154 with the accession of the Plantagenet King Henry II). It’s a good museum of local history, and also houses the relatively famous clock collection that was housed first in the National Trust’s Angel Corner (built in 1702, at 8 Angel Hill and now housing council offices) and then in the Manor House on Honey Hill (built in 1738, and sold off in 2007 to be a private house). [It turns out that Moyse’s Hall re-opened the day after I was there – there was absolutely no information then.]

 The National Trust also owns the Theatre Royal (built in 1819), which is still a working theatre, and Ickworth (built in 1794-1830), a stately home 3 miles west of town that I haven’t visited for many years but certainly would have gone back to if it hadn’t been still in lockdown – it’s not too huge a bike ride from Cambridge, especially if you take the train home from Bury St Edmunds.

 The other thing that I would regard as worth visiting is the Greene King brewery, just south of the centre – although GK are not the most popular across the region, because of the way they swallow up small breweries, promising to preserve their local ales and then ruining them, and because of the way they treat their pub tenants. The Greene King Beer Café has reopened, but brewery tours have not yet restarted. Unfortunately, Britain’s smallest pub, the Nutshell, has not yet reopened either – precisely because it’s too small for safe social distancing, with space for about half a dozen customers, seating and standing, and drinking is not allowed outside.

However, I did quite the look of the Old Cannon Brewery (with restaurant and rooms), just north of the centre, although its post-Covid restrictions made it too much of a pain to check out at the time.

Nearby villages

 A couple of weeks after my last visit to BSE I was cycling in the countryside about 15 miles south of the town, from Long Melford to Hadleigh via Lavenham (which is lovely and very well known) and Kersey (which is also lovely, but I’d never heard of it before). This part of Suffolk was very wealthy in the later Middle Ages, thanks to the local wool industry which provided clothing to much of Europe at the time. This paid for many churches to be rebuilt with high roofs and huge windows, creating a specific local style of buildings flooded with light. There are lots of lovely half-timbered houses, and again the National Trust owns some key properties, notably Melford Hall and Lavenham Guildhall (both currently closed).

Lavenham
Kersey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are also some lovely places to stay and eat in Lavenham, such as The Great House, Number Ten, the Angel, and above all the Swan.

 Literary connections

Bury St Edmunds has the reputation of having lots of literary connections, but even the town’s tourism website doesn’t come up with many good examples, although Dickens and Shakespeare mention the place. I’m quietly pleased with my guess that King’s Crypt, in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, is actually Bury St Edmunds. On the other hand I was indignant to read a review of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, saying that it was set in the ‘fictional everytown of Edmundsbury’ – it’s not fictional, and it’s not an everytown.

The so-called Pillar of Salt

West Cambridge – Villenviertel or Bicycle Suburb?

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

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

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

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

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

60 Grange Road
62 Grange Road

 

 

71 Grange Road

 

31 Grange Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

[January 2021 – I wrote above that the history of West Cambridge effectively began in the 1870s, but this has just come up – a Romano-British cemetery has been discovered at 23-25 Barton Road.]

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.

Dundee, Perth and around

 

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Andrews

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

Broughty Ferry

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

Problematic pubs

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

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

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

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

Update

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