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A Wander round Wakefield.

23 Mar

Once it was a mere field owned by an Anglo-Saxon called Waca. Waca’s field has long since disappeared beneath concrete, stone and bricks. It is now the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield. Correction — Wakefield is officially a city and has a Cathedral to prove it. But it doesn’t feel like a city. It is only the size of a large town. My friend, Ian, and I like to wander round old towns.  It’s one of our post-retirement hobbies. Towns are more manageable than cities but usually have more to offer than a small village. They are the perfect size for a day trip.

Up to this week, Wakefield, was just a place I glanced at from a train window, as we briefly stopped at Westgate station. A cluster of towers, cupolas and spires caught the eye as the town spread up a low hill. But then, when the train moved away, they quickly slipped out of  sight and out of mind. I had actually been there a couple of times in the 1960’s. I had acquired my dad’s Lambretta ( I was desperately trying to be a mod) and the Leeds conurbation was a comfortable 50 mile run from my home town. With a friend on the pillion we went out searching for adventure, and somehow we ended up in Wakefield. ( I don’t know how.) In fact we had a puncture there and a kindly garage mechanic helped us mend it. It was in the new 60s market hall of Wakefield that we discovered our version of paradise. It was a stall selling old juke-box singles. Everything we had heard on Pick of the Pops was there at a very cheap price. We were like little kids let loose in a sweet shop!  We would then chug back down the A61 to Chesterfield with huge grins on our faces, happy to be laden down with hits by  The Beatles, Stones,  Kinks et al. After that though, Wakefield disappeared from my radar until my recent visit.

Ian and I travelled on the struggling train system from the north-east of England to West Yorkshire. In this way, we made the journey part of the “adventure.” This time Ian had a train cancellation at Chester-le- Street to delay him so by the time I met him at Leeds we had already missed our connection and only caught the next service by the skin of our teeth. I have lost count of how many times I have had to run for trains at Leeds, across the busy connecting bridge, fighting through the crowds and running down  seemingly endless sets of stairs, seeing my train waiting to depart. It happened on my way home as well. But thankfully we made it on to the LNER London train — first stop Wakefield Westgate, 9 miles to the south east of Leeds. It was time to relax and look forward to the day. Once again the familier towers and spires slid into view, but this time I was going to afford them more than a passing glance.

As I looked at the cluster of buildings spreading out from the station, I thought of all the people to whom this is home and all the full, eventful lives that have been lived there over the centuries. If a town (or city) could talk wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what it had to say? One of my favourite singers-songwriters, Mary Chapin Carpenter, had exactly that train of thought. One of her songs is titled: ” I am a Town.” An ordinary American town by the side of the highway, introduces itself. ” I’m a blur from the driver’s window”, “I am a church beside the highway, where the ditches never drain”, “I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl”. It’s such an evocative song.  A humble, ordinary town trying to catch the attention of the travellers passing through. This idea has caught my imagination and came back into my mind as we wondered up to Wakefield’s centre. What would the bricks and stones tell us if they could speak?

Yes, an ordinary town ( or city) it was. We wanted to catch a slice of everyday life rather than visit a list of starry “sights”. As we followed city centre signs we were struck at how quiet Wakefield was. It was almost eerie. Then we realised that it had 2 major malls — The Ridings and Trinity Walk — and so presumed that many of the shoppers were there. Such malls are very convenient and provide shelter in the winter, but, at the same time, they suck the life out of the surrounding streets. We didn’t go in as most shopping malls are roughly the same, irrespective of the place and we were seeking buildings that were more characteristic of the area. Thus we resisted the lure of central heating and canned music and pressed on towards the cathedral. Wakefield’s cathedral is right in the centre of the little city, unlike say Doncaster Minster which has been severed from the town by a busy dual-carraigeway. The Cathedral has the tallest spire in Yorkshire. It is a beautiful building in the Perpendicular style of the early 15th century. The original 11th century Norman church replaced an earlier Anglo-Saxon place of worship. In the 19th century it was re-designed by the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Extensions were then added in the 20th century to honour two of Wakefield’s most famous bishops — William Walshaw How and Eric Treacy. The cathedral is a very beautiful and impressive space. When we entered an organ was thundering out but when the music finished, a serene peace descended. We saw a lovely modern altar, pulpit and font but there were still medieval remnants such as the strange , carved mythical beasts in the choir stalls. There is an abundance of attractive stained glass windows from late Victorian times.

Attached to the cathedral are: a cafe, a shop and the tourist information centre. However, when we arrived asking for street maps, heritage trails and guidebooks, the 2 nice ladies we spoke to didn’t have much to offer and seemed genuinely bemused that tourists had actually decided to visit the tourist office. Obviously, Wakefield does not experience heavy tourist tread. We ended up with a blue-plaque guide-book which turned out to be out of date and which had a very confusing map. Ian and I specialise in going to places that few people want to go to. When I tried to prepare for this trip by consulting the latest Rough Guide to England, Wakefield wasn’t even mentioned! This is despite it having an impressive cathedral and the award winning Hepworth Gallery down by the river. Barbara Hepworth, the famous 20th century sculptress, came from Wakefield.

We left the information centre and retreated to a cafe to make our plans. We couldn’t resist going into “Marmalade on the Square”, such a wonderful name. It was a spotlessly clean cafe with very large, tall windows letting the light stream in. The coffee and cake were excellent too. This cafe and 2 others is in an early 20th century building (1907) formerly known as Central Chambers and before that the “Grand Clothing Hall”, the HQ of the outfitters, John Manners Ltd. It’s an elegant building in light stone with domes , gables and subtle ornementations. It also has smooth, curving corners rather than sharp right angles. It stands on a triangular site between two open spaces — the Bull Ring and Cross Square. It made a lovely photo with the spire of the cathedral in the background.

After our enjoyable repast, we decided to go down to the river area. Wakefield sits on the north bank of the River Wharfe, nestling to the south east of the Pennines. It was once a thriving inland cloth and grain port. As well as the river, various canals linked it up to Britain’s once busy inland waterways system. There were the Aire and Calder, and Calder and Hebble Navigations plus the Barnsley canal going to the south. This transport system was eventually replaced by Turnpike roads. The town stands at an important  junction where the main road from the midlands to the north meets a major road coming from the Pennine Hills to the west. Later, when the railway came in the 1840s, Wakesfield’s Kirkgate station was an important stop on the Leeds to Manchester line. Today, the city has 2 railway stations ( Westgate and Kirkgate) and is situated very close to the M1 motorway, but its river area is now very “quiet”, or rather it would be if it wasn’t adjacent to a bridge carrying a busy 4-lane highway across the Wharf. Down in this area are the well-preserved, 18th century offices of the Aire and Calder Navigation, like a small, classical Greek temple. Also here, south of the river, are the remains of 2 old mills and an 18th century warehouse. They are adjacent to the ultra modern Hepworth Gallery. Inside, it’s display rooms are spacious and flooded with light, but outside it looks like a jumble of sombre grey cubes. We thought it looked more like a prison than an art gallery. Wakefield of course does have a well-known prison but we didn’t include it on our itinerary.

When we got down there, the river was in full spate. After a recent period of stormy weather, the Wharfe had been turned into a raging torrent. A barge had been wrenched from its moorings and had become jammed between the fast flowing water and one of the arches of the road bridge. I hope nobody was on it at the time! Our destination was an ancient 14th century bridge which lay beyond the busy road bridge. At the end of it is a very rare 13th century Chantry Chapel.  The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, is one of only four surviving bridge chapels in the country. It sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, to tell you the truth it was a bit of an anti-climax. First of all we had great trouble getting across to it because of the incredibly busy 4 lane main road that lay inbetween. There didn’t seem to be much thought for pedestrians and the nearest lights appeared to be at least a quarter of a mile away. We eventually plucked up courage and dodged across when the main stream of vehicles was temporarily held back by lights. I imagined  them all impatiently revving up as if at the start of a Grand Prix. The medieval bridge beyond was deserted — no visitors except us, despite it being trumpeted as one of Wakefield’s most famous sights on its website. The medieval chapel at the far end of it looked sad and forlorn. It’s windows were screened by anti-vandal wire mesh and its roof was protected by lines of anti-pigeon spikes. To my disppointment, I found out that only its base was original 13th century. Much of the upper part had had to be rebuilt in 1847-48, and even some of the Victorian replacement was restored in 1939 because the architect had chosen a stone that quickly weathered and deteriorated. The chapel is still a grade 1 listed building however. It is occasionally used for special functions but mostly it is neglected and ignored. Chantry Chapels were paid for by wealthy people so that others could pray for their souls as they passed through Purgatory. I doubt that even if prayers were still being said at this one, they would be heard above the constant din of the traffic on the next door bridge. Ian and I thought it was very sad. We also abandoned a plan to stroll along a riverside path because it was muddy and strewn with litter. It was disappointing.

We returned to the city centre alongside the busy road. It wasn’t eerily quiet here! This area was scruffier and had down- at- heel little shops and businesses. We noticed a couple of East European food shops featuring Polish, Czech and Slovakian produce. We didn’t notice an Asian presence though, unlike in nearby Dewsbury which we visited last year. However, I am aware that an impressive mosque was constructed there in 1995, although we didn’t spot it because it is a bit outside the centre. Thankfully we soon regained the cathedral area and walked away from the torrent of traffic. Up one side of the cathedral is an attractive , pedestrianised area. It has avenues of trees, raised beds of plants, art deco globes acting as street lamps and attractively patterned block paving beneath our feet.  On our left was a line of 1930s large stores but only a rather diminished Marks and Spencers seemed to have survived the arrival of the malls and internet shopping. From old photos from the 60s it seems that this was one of the major shopping streets in Wakefield. I looked at scenes which showed it busy and bustling with shoppers and traffic. Earlier photos showed that trams used to trundle up and down the main streets of the city. Now this area, although pleasant, is fairly quiet. Much of the retail activity is now being done elsewhere. Wakefield is not alone in experiencing this fate of course. The centre is struggling to maintain its relevance.

Ian and I started our blue plaque exploration. It was quite interesting but a bit confusing as new plaques had been added since the guide was printed. Basically, we ignored the non-descript and badly deteriorated 60s and 70s buildings and sought the stone Victorian edifices of the city’s 19th century heyday. They are mostly clustered on Wood Street and Westgate. These were largely impressive and in good condition. A couple were hidden behind scaffolding  and sheets screening the restorers busy at work. There must still be a lot of work for stone masons in the town (city). On Wood Street we were impressed by The Mechanics Institute, the Town Hall and at the very top: County Hall. The Mechanics Institute, paid for by public subscription, included an assembly room, a library and a news-room. This reflected the rise in literacy levels once compulsary schooling was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. The Institute is  graced with Georgian style windows and a line of 6 classical- style Ionic capitals. It is still a venue for large functions. Next to it is the impressively large Town Hall with a striking clock tower ( no pun intended) which has become another major feature of the Wakefield skyline. Finally, at the top of the hill is County Hall, built in dramatic Gothic style in 1898. It has towers, pillars, gargoyles, stone reliefs , pediments and big windows on all sides. It is a very large, impressive structure. At the top is a graceful cupola which makes its own distinctive contribution to the skyline. OK, it’s not exactly Rome, but this ensemble of Victorian public buildings made for an attractive and impressive sight. In the middle of them was another building hidden away behind restorers screens. When that is finished, Wood Street will be a memorable sight for lovers of Victorian architecture.

Inside County Hall , which is the administrative HQ for West Yorkshire ( formerly the West Riding), it was even more impressive. One might call it Wakefield’s hidden gem. It looked more like a beautifully decorated Gothic church, with multiple Norman style arches, large windows, a grand sweeping, snaking staircase, lovely Delft- style tile-work, delicate wrought iron banisters, mosaics and very unusual, colourful murals. One depicted a Viking longboat for reasons I never found out. I would like to return and have a proper guided tour sometime, on an heritage open day. As it is, the kind lady on reception just let us have a quick peek at the vestibule and the staircase. We thanked her and remarked that it must be very nice to work in such a sumptuous environment. She agreed she was lucky, but then complained that it was too cold in winter and too hot in summer! Some people are never satisfied!

Westgate also has impressive Victorian buildings. Primarily there is the Theatre Royal and Opera House designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1894. It replaced an earlier theatre at that site. In the 20th century it served as a cinema and then a bingo hall but then returned to its original function as a theatre in the 1980s. It is a Grade 2 listed building. Opposite it is the equally impressive Unity Hall which was formerly the Victorian Co-operative building of Wakefield. It has now been restored and is used for events, weddings and conferences. It’s good that it has been given new life but sad to see that even the venerable Coop has become a victim of modern shopping habits. Unity Hall, like the theatre is made from red brick decorated with stone patterns and pictoral reliefs. It has large, curving, church like windows. Another striking street in Wakefield centre is Cheapside which features old, early 19th century wool-staplers homes and warehouses. Today they are mostly occupied by soliciters’ offices but the top floor hoists for the wool sacks can still be seen.

I’m sure that in just a few hours we didn’t see everything that Wakefield has to offer. We didn’t go into the museum for example and somehow missed the Gissing centre, the former home of the famous Victorian novelist George Gissing. We didn’t venture into the Hepworth Gallery either because of the usual time constraints. We had to make time for a late lunch at Cafe Lounge 46 back near the cathedral. It is a pleasant eating place with good food and friendly service. I don’t know where the idea that all Yorkshire people are dour and brusque came from. Everyone we met was perfectly charming. Ian marked the service in Cafe Lounge 46 as 12 out of 10. I think it was because the waitress kept calling him “my love.”

Finally it was back to the train station for another thrilling chain reaction of delays, missed connections and, surprise, surprise, sprinting across the bridge and down the stairs at Leeds station. It had been another fascinating town trail revealing the usual mix of delights and disappointments. We missed out the mind- numbing malls ( being men, we are not great shoppers) but acquired some sense of its Victorian hey-day. I imagine that many of its citizens commute into nearby Leeds, but Wakefield, as a small city , still retains its own identity. It seems mostly proud of its past and makes sure it takes good care of its important public buildings.  Wacu’s field may be long gone, but in another sense, it is still going strong.

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Andalucian Interlude.

20 Feb

I’ve just been on a city break.  I much prefer them to beach breaks or lying by a pool breaks, as readers of my earlier blogs may have gathered. This time I’ve enjoyed a few days in Seville, Spain. It’s the main city of Spain’s most southerly territory: Andalucia, and the fourth largest city in the country. As with most city breaks, Seville served up a rich diet of: culture, history, architecture, religion and art, not to mention food and drink. A city break is a brief change of scene, a stimulating contrast to the norm. Seville and its neighbour, Cordoba, did the trick. It was an enticing taster for  possible longer visits to this exciting part of Europe in the future.

What did I expect to see and experience?  First up is :oranges. The most common response I got when I mentioned Seville to people was “oranges.” Yes, I certainly expected to see orange trees, even in the middle of the city. I wasn’t disappointed. Numerous squares, courtyards and streets were lined with them. Apparently, they were planted by the Arabs when they ruled this part of Spain. Supposedly, local “Sevillanos” love to joke about watching tourists picking oranges from the trees, only to spit out their first mouthfuls in disgust. These oranges are very bitter to taste. A popular legend has it that the cheeky Sevillians sold a boatload of this unpalatable fruit to the British. The trusting British sailors tucked- in, thinking the oranges were sweet. They were disappointed of course, but one unexpectant consequence was that all the seamen suffering from the disease of scurvy were cured. Thus the idea of marmalade was born. For many years huge quantities of Seville’s street oranges were sold to British marmalade factories, although changing tastes  and the effects of traffic pollution on the fruit have led to a drop in demand in recent years.

Reading about all this reminded me of another city break I made to Dundee, in Scotland.  Dundee was for a long time, famous for its jam and marmalade. A local story from the 19th century tells of a Spanish ship with a cargo of Seville oranges that got trapped by storms in the harbour. The perishable cargo was in danger of going rotten, so an enterprising young lad, James Keiller, the son of a grocery store owner, bought the oranges at a bargain price. His mother, using a secret family recipe, then converted them into marmalade and started a profitable industry for the city. A friend of mine has told me another story about Mary Queen of Scots being cured of her “malady” by the orange conconction that now graces our breakfast tables. The true origin of marmalade may be a combination of all these tales. Who knows?

So I saw the orange trees that I had expected. What I didn’t expect however, was that many of them would be surrounded by pretty patterns of ornamental cabbages, cream, pink and purple. I also saw a monumental Gothic cathedral, numerous tapas bars, a large bull ring, buildings with graceful wrought iron balconies and window grilles, lovely little courtyards or patios decorated with attractive tiles, plants and little fountains and some very special Moorish-style buildings from medieval times. Seville has a rich selection of things to see and do.

One big reason why I was attracted to this part of Spain is its close proximity to Africa, and in particular: Morocco. The Moors (Arab muslims from North Africa and the Middle East) had conquered Spain in the middle ages and ruled it for several centuries. They were masters of the Iberian peninsula from the early 8th to the early 13th centuries.  They were relatively tolerant rulers allowing the Christians and the Jews to continue with their own religious practices if they wished to, although non- muslims had to pay higher taxes. Spain, which had previously experienced the sophisticated lifestyle of the Romans, now benefited from many aspects of Arab civilisation. Education, scholarship, philosophy, architecture and craftmanship all flourished under Moorish rule. Today, tourists flock to see the beautiful architecture and exquisite decorative art left behind by the Moors in Andalusian cities such as Granada, Malaga ( yes, it’s more than just an airport), Cordoba and Seville. The Alhambra palace in Granada, which I’ve visited in a previous trip, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. The Alcazar fortress-palaces of Seville and Malaga also contain striking moorish architecture, tilework, stucco and calligraphy as well as lovely gardens, and, last but not least, the stunning mosque-cathedral in Cordoba, known as the Mesquito, is one of the most extraordinary buildings you are likely to see. In this trip, my wife, Chris, and I visited the sensational Moorish monuments in both Seville and Cordoba which is about an hour up the train line. At times, we had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were still in Europe and not somewhere across the Straits of Gibralter.

It’s ironic that buildings, art and craftmanship left behind by their former conquerors, now make up some of Spain’s top tourist attractions. Even though the Moors were defeated and expelled from Spain over 800 years ago, their legacy lives on in a powerful way. We were really looking forward to visiting them. But it wasn’t that simple. One problem is that in this age of relatively cheap travel and mass tourism, such beautiful, historical buildings are now frequently overwhelmed by visitors. A friend of mine travelled to Granada from the Costa del Sol especially to visit the Alhambra but could not get in because entrance was by timed ticket only and all the slots had been taken for that day! It was totally booked out. When I went, I only got in because I had paid extra to go on a guided tour. Once a place gets famous, especially if designated as a World Heritage Site, it gets put on the “bucket lists” of tens of thousands of world tourists, from China to the United States and all places inbetween. Chris and I thought Seville might be fairly quiet in early February, so we were shocked to see that there were permanent, long queues for both the Cathedral and the Alcazar. The only way to by-pass the main, slowly shuffling queue was to book on a guided tour or to book ahead on the internet. This we had failed to do for the cathedral, our first port of call, so we queued.

Seville’s is a huge cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.  After the reconquest of Spain by the Christians ( the “Reconquista”), finally completed in 1492, the Christian monarchs wanted to make a big statement to show that they were now back in control. So sadly, many mosques were demolished and replaced by churches. Synagogues were also destroyed and the Jews were expelled from the peninsula as well as the Arabs. It was not a great example of Christian tolerance, as Jesus would have preached. It was just the opposite in fact. Intolerance was the order of the day, intolerance that led to the infamous tortures and cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition. This started in the 1480s and as well as being a gift for Monty Python, it brought misery and death to countless people in its mission to purify the Catholic faith by stamping out heresy. In 15th century Spain bigotry and religious intolerance were regarded as pretty “cool” by the Christian majority. As in most countries in most eras, fear , distrust and hatred of the foreigner or the outsider was never far from the surface. This was reflected in Seville by the destruction of the impressive mosque and the building of an enormous Gothic cathedral in its place. But even the triumphant Christians baulked at the idea of knocking down the mosque’s beautiful minaret La Giralda. It was adapted into the cathedral’s bell tower and is now regarded as one of the most important pieces of Islamic architecture on the planet. Built in the late 12th century, it was the prototype for similarly impressive minarets in the Imperial capitals of Rabat and Marrakesh. La Giralda is a top tourist attraction of Seville and dominates the centre of the city, especially at night when it is spectacularly floodlit. You can go up it to see stupendous views over the old city, but we didn’t go because, in our old age, we have become very nervous of heights!

Going back to the cathedral queue, we shuffled patiently forward for about 15 to 20 minutes, surrounded by Americans, French, Germans, fellow Brits and seemingly half of China. Most of them passed the time by playing with their smart-phones. It wasn’t too bad. The weather was about 18 to 20 degrees, cloudy with sunny periods. I shudder to think what the queue experience would be like in the torrid heat of mid summer. Seville is one of the hottest cities in Spain. Once in, we were easily swallowed up by the vast nave, with its enormous wood carved organ, spectacular vaulted ceilings, a string of finely decorated side chapels and several richly decorated altars, including one huge gilded one, carved by a Flemish master in the late 15th century. The building’s sheer size is somewhat overwhelming and we found it difficult to make sense of. I prefer the spiritual atmosphere of a small, simple church.  Commentators have noted, that Seville Cathedral’s sheer mass crudely expresses the Christian message of conquest and domination. As I noted in my facebook photo album , this seems a very far cry from Jesus Christ being born in a humble stable! The huge, magnificent main altar is protected by a fancy, wrought iron grille or latticed screen. It was in shadow and was only illuminated by subtle floodlights every now and then. Signs had warned “no photos” but the endless tide of tourists simply ignored this and the attendants didn’t even try to stop them. As soon as the altar was lit up there was a mini stampede up the steps to photograph it through the gaps in the grille. I’m ashamed to say that I too got momentarily caught up in this madness. I tried to get to the screen to take my photo but was blocked by other tourists who hogged the best spots. One young woman stayed at the top of the steps for an inordinately long time. When I looked over her shoulder to see what she was up to, I found she was scrolling and reading her emails and texts. She wasn’t even looking at the wondrous altar! I only managed to get my precious shot when the light went off!

There were many impressive and interesting things in the Cathedral, but to tell you the truth, it was a relief to get out into the orange- tree shaded exit courtyard. Time for a cup of coffee in a quiet cafe. I must go back to the cathedral however, because I almost forgot to mention the Mausoleum of Christopher Columbus which is situated to one side of the main nave. The famous explorer’s remains are supposed to be in a coffin carried aloft by 4  larger- than- life, symbolic knights, representing the 4 kingdoms of the united Spain — Leon, Castille, Aragon and Navarra. The mausoleum was sculpted in the late 19th century and was originally intended to be located in the Cuban capital of Havana, a Spanish colony ever since Columbus’s discovery of the New World.( although he always thought he had reached India.) However following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish- American War and the loss of Cuba in 1898, the remains ended up in Seville. This seems very strange to me as Columbus actually came from Genoa in Italy, but who am I to argue? The probable explanation is because Seville was the main recipient of the enormous treasures from the New World, later named America. These treasures financed many of Seville’s great buildings and monuments. There is some controversy about whether Columbus’s bones are actually in that Seville coffin. At one stage the bones of his son and also of his grandson were kept in other lead coffins  next to his. This was in Hispaniola, near the site of Columbus’s first landfall. However, during repairs to the cathedral there, the 3 coffins were opened, the bones mixed up and the labels lost! To complicate matters further, the Dominican Republic now claims that it still has the real remains of Columbus and has refused to let scientists do DNA testing. The tests on the bones in Spain proved inconclusive. Whatever the truth, tourists still flock around the Columbus mausoleum in Seville. It was another rugby scrum to get a picture. When the cathedral clock struck the quarter hour, a swarm of tourists would rush towards the coffin-monument. Apparently something special was to happen at that moment, but we never figured out what it was, so I cannot tell you. Life’s too short!

When we went to the Alcazar, we were on an interesting guided tour, so we jumped most of the queue. It is a fortress-palace built on the site of a Roman fort and founded in the 8th century. The various Moor rulers rebuilt or added to it over the centuries. When the Christians reconquered the area the palace was once again remodelled and extended. What can be seen today is a Christian reworking from the mid 14th century, under the orders of King Pedro the Cruel. Some of the architecture is “mudejar”, i.e. – created by Muslim architects working under Christian control.  Fragments of earlier Muslim buildings from Seville, Cordoba and Valencia were incorporated. Today , after passing through the gateway in the Arab-style fortified walls, you enter a big, open courtyard and are faced with 3 palaces. Straight in front is a wonderful muslim palace which is like a mini Alhambra, while to the left and right are more conventional, western style Royal palaces from the 15th and 16th centuries. The latter have royal portraits and renaissance furniture and decorations but it is the more exotic Islamic-style palace that takes up most people’s attention. Gracefully arched windows and doors, beautiful patterned tiles, stylised Arab calligraphy, pools and fountains in inner courtyards, and cool verandahs. Best of are the spectacularly stuccoed ceilings which have to be seen to be believed. It is very like the Alhambra and has the crowds to match.

However despite all these wonders, the most amazing building of our trip was in Cordoba, a fast, smooth train ride away to the north-east. The old town here is full of quiet narrow streets lined with white painted houses. Many have lovely patios with flowers, tiles and a fountain. In summer, some of these streets are festooned with colourful flowers. In the centre of old Cordoba, just north of the river with its old Roman bridge, stands the enormous Mosque-Cathedral known as the Mesquito. We took another guided tour to beat the crowds although it was quieter here than in Seville. The Mesquito consists of a beautiful mosque with multiple rows of double semi-circular arches made from alternating bands of creamy stone and red brick. These arches are mounted on classical pillars salvaged from Ancient Roman and Visigoth temples and churches. The effect is mesmerising. The mihrab, which is the focal point of the mosque is particularly beautiful with exquisite Arab decoration and topped by a lovely Byzantine- style ceiling made by builders imported from Constantinople. What is mind-boggling however is that right in the middle of this huge medieval mosque, the Christians built a large Gothic style Catholic cathedral. They didn’t have the heart to destroy the beautiful mosque but had to show which religion was now back in control. The experience is totally incongruous and disorientating. I think the guide deserves a medal for explaining it all especially as both the mosque and the cathedral were extended several times. In the large shady courtyard are pools, fountains, palm trees and another minaret transformed into a bell tower. It’s certainly one of the most memorable buildings I have visited .

The historical buildings of Seville and Cordoba took up a lot of our time but the highlight of our trip has to be the flamenco show we attended. Dramatic wailing singing, throbbing guitars and strutting, moody dancing punctuated by staccato bursts of blurred footwork like machine gun fire. Then there was the colourful gypsy costumes, the castanets, the rhythmic clapping and finger clicking. The dancers and singers somehow clicked 3 fingers in rapid succession. The dances were full on and uncompromising. At times it was almost like the movement of a matador but without the bull. ( thank goodness.) I know it was a show for tourists like ourselves, but it still made for a thrilling evening.

So we had our Andalucian city break, our short break from the norm. It was a packed few days of sights, sounds and experiences. Obviously it would be too boring to list them all. I haven’t even mentioned : Bizet’s Carmen , sherry or the large array of fans we saw on display. I hope this blog has given you at least a flavour of the trip. Seville and Cordoba — a lot more more than a load of oranges!

 

Trans-Pennine Stop Off.

19 Sep

The idea came to me while on a train ride from Middlesbrough to Manchester Airport. I have travelled this route many times, on the Trans-Pennine Express, over the hilly backbone of northern England. I love the section between the cities of Leeds and Manchester. I always make a point of stopping whatever I’m doing and looking out of the window. I see an evocative landscape of glowering hills and moors beneath frequently moody skies. The steep, dark hillsides are laced with dry stone walls and dotted with wandering sheep. Every now and then there is a canal with a tow path and locks, or the  glassy surface of a reservoir. Then we pass through a town, complete with the remains of textile mills, tall, brick chimneys and regimented rows of terraced houses marching up the hillside. It always makes me want to pull Priestly’s “Good Companions” off the book-shelf and start reading it all over again. It’s evocative opening chapter is set in the fictitious Yorkshire mill town of Bruddersfield. ( a thinly disguised cross between Bradford and Huddersfield.) Well, my idea was to visit the town that lies inbetween these two. Just a 10 minute train ride south-west of Leeds lies Dewsbury. The Middlesbrough Trans-Pennine Expresses have now started to stop there. So I decided to visit it — to allow it more than just a quick glance through the train window.

My travel buddy Ian and I , love to visit towns that tourists largely ignore. It is our own peverse form of “anti-tourism.” No matter where we decide to go however, something interesting or exciting usually turns up. It’s like digging for hidden gems. For instance, people told us there was nothing to see at Stockton, but we ended up visiting it twice! Would Dewsbury throw up any worthwhile surprises? It was to be another fascinating delve into the unknown.

Our train swept into Dewsbury station across an impressive, curving , many-arched viaduct. Not a bad start! Below us, tumbling down the hill, was a town studded with grand Victorian edifices. They were the hardy survivors of the world wars, the sweeping, post-war redevelopment schemes and the modern ring road, which cuts a destructive swathe around the borders of the town centre. The result is a mish- mash of architectural styles — the old and new, the good, the bad and the ugly.  The impressive Victorian stone churches, warehouses, offices, and civic buildings, share the centre with post war developments that are already  sadly showing their age, with their discoloured concrete, peeling panels and scrawls of graffiti. To summarise its recent history, Dewsbury prospered during the late 18th to the early 20th century because of its  successful woollen textile industry. The town was a hive of activity and its buildings reflected this wealth stream. Unfortunately, the latter half of the 20th century saw textile manufacturing go into near terminal decline. As this industry provided the heart-beat for the whole community, the town fell into a parallel reversal of fortunes.  Sadly, the steep decline has carried on into the present century. Mills, offices, shops and offices have closed and the once proud industrial town has suffered badly from deprivation and neglect.

Fortunately though, not all the town’s impressive historical buildings were lost to the cause of “progress” or swept away to  make room for the insatiable demands of the motor car. Some have been rescued and saved for posterity. In the 1970s and 80s the urge to sweep away the “old” to bring in the “new”, was challenged by a growing appreciation of the past. The Heritage movement, with its emphasis on preservation and restoration, was born and quickly gained in strength.  One result of this was that most of the historic core of Dewsbury was declared a Conservation Area in 1981. The town centre still contains 280 pre- Second World War buildings, 57 of which are listed. The bull-dozers were not stopped, but they were definitely slowed down.

Ian and I, stepping out of the rail station, first had to negotiate the busy ring road but then were able to stroll down relatively quiet streets into the semi-pedestrianised town centre. Today Dewsbury, like almost every other town, has its modern shopping malls and precincts, which we ignored except for just a passing glance. They are convenient, but largely soulless in our opinion. We wanted to seek out the buildings that represented Dewsbury’s golden era. We wanted to find the architectural highlights, not the mundane. Thus we ended up on the Blue Plaque Trail kindly devised by local historians. It certainly threw up some gems and surprises on the way.

At the bottom of the hill from the station we entered the market square, the centre of the town. It wasn’t market day ( that’s on Wednesdays and Saturdays), but it was still an attractive space, surrounded by shops, pubs and cafes.  It has benches, fancy wrought iron and glass shelters, colourful hanging baskets,and areas of shrubs and newly planted little trees. The market square is dominated at one end by the magnificent Town Hall built in the late 1880s. It looks a bit like a grandiose chateau topped by a domed clock tower.  It’s built in local stone in French Renaissance style and cost 40,000 pounds with an extra 1000 for the clock tower.( sorry — the pound sign on my keyboard has stopped working!) As well as municipal offices, it housed a courthouse, a police station and prison cells. The courthouse has featured in TV drama series and the “Yorkshire Ripper”, Peter Sutcliffe, was held in the cells after his arrest. Today, the Town Hall still houses Dewsbury’s main concert venue, the Victoria Hall, with space for an audience of 700 people. In front of the Town Hall stands an impressive modern statue of the Good Samaritan tending to the stricken traveller. It looks like it has been sculpted from a single large block of stone. A plaque states incongruously that it was commissioned to mark the opening of the pedestrianised Princess of Wales Shopping Precinct in the early years of the 21st century. I forget the exact date. I am still trying to figure out the connection between the biblical character and a modern shopping centre. Maybe because of her charitable work, Princess Diana was regarded as a modern good Samaritan?

This was not my first visit to Dewsbury. I had been there many decades before, as a teenager.The sculpture wasn’t there when I was last in that market place in 1967. I remember stalls and  maybe, a cobbled square  surrounded by busy roads and tall, dark buildings. A friend of mine had moved to the area and I had gone to visit him. I remember him taking me to the disco at the local Mecca ballroom and there I miraculously acquired an attractive Dewsbury girlfriend despite my clumsy dance moves and the ultra- violet lighting showing up the dandruff glistening on my collar! Later that year I bunked off school while my parents were away on holiday and sped 50 miles up the A61 from Chesterfield ( my home town) on my Lambretta J125 with a mate Michael, on the pillion, to see the same girl and her friend on a sort of double semi-blind date. After the disco, ( and hopefully the snogging), was over,  Michael and I planned to get a few hours kip on top of the empty market stalls before riding home. It was a crazy idea of course. Inevitably it all went pear shaped. We were delayed by a puncture in Wakefield, and then, during the disco my “girlfriend” switched her attentions to Michael ( who was better looking than me) and I was left making small chat with her friend whom I didn’t fancy and who obviously didn’t fancy me. Maybe she had spotted the dandruff. Sleeping on the market stalls proved to be very uncomfortable and increasingly cold, so we cut our losses and road home through the small hours. I arrived back to an empty house, cold and miserable and without the warm thought of a girlfriend in Dewsbury! However, one consolation — I have retained a life- long soft- spot for Tommy James and the Shondells.( “Mony Mony”)

So here I was , back at the scene of my triumph and my disaster, a mere 51 years later. Now, happily married and approaching my dotage, I was chasing historical buildings not girls. The next building on our list was the Longcauseway United Reform and Methodist Church. It doesn’t sound very promising does it? Opened in 1884, it has an impressive Gothic exterior but we  largely ignored this as a sharp shower had started and we were anxious to get in out of the rain. Having been brought up as a Methodist I was expecting the inside to be plain, or even austere, like the chapels of my childhood. However this interior is fairly eleborate and quietly beautiful. It is rectangular and the old wooden pews are split by 2 aisles. At the end of each pew was a neat little stack of hymn books. Above, curving round three sides is a lovely wooden gallery supported by graceful metal pillars. Light flooded in through large windows and an impressively large organ dominated one end above the altar and the pulpit. Apparently, a large organ was a sign of prestige although I thought that non-conformist churches weren’t supposed to be into showing off, oneupmanship or anything that would distract the worshippers from concentrating on God. It is still impressive though. The original name of the church had been “Ebenezer”, an old name referring to the goodness of God. In the 19th Century there were many Congregationalist , Methodist and Baptist churches in Dewsbury and its surrounding area. Most had thriving Sunday Schools. New churches had to be built to accomodate the constantly expending congregations. However, like the town, the successes and expansions of the 19th century were followed by a long decline in the 20th. Some Congregationalist chapels were forced to  close and amalgamate with their neighbours. The new merged places of worship were known as United Reform Churches. Ebenezer was one of these. Later the Dewsbury Methodists threw in their lot with it. In 1972 it changed its name to Longcauseway. In increasingly secular modern Britain, church congregations are dwindling and ageing. An old lady was busy tidying up the hymn books. She told me she had been attending this church every Sunday since she was 5  and she was now nearly 90. An enthusisatic older gentleman in his mid to later 70s ( I guessed) was thrilled that 2 people had travelled from north-east England to visit his church. He had volunteered to be a guide and was expecting yet another quiet, boring day. He pressed guide booklets on to us, told us his stories and insisted we sign the visiter’s book. Longcauseway is a Grade II listed building and is well worth a look in if you’re ever in Dewsbury. It’s a special place.

It was fine by the time we got out again. We strolled past the Edwardian market buildings, now in need of a bit of TLC but still interesting and attractive ( wrought iron and glass.) We passed two sadly neglected Victorian shopping arcades. They were scheduled for restoration but that was still to happen. Ian commented that if they had been in Leeds, they would have been done- up ages ago to become one of the highlights of the city centre. But this was poor, neglected Dewsbury, not rich, prospering Leeds. We came across more sad neglect in Northgate Street. A very impressive stretch of tall, ornate Victorian buildings was now empty and boarded up. A wooden barrier had been erected in front of the ground floor premises to try to stop the vandals getting in. This is the spectacular Dewsbury Pioneers Building, opened in 1880. It had originally been the Cooperative Society building from 1857.  It had once consisted of department shops on the ground floor, a library, conversation rooms ( can you imagine that in the age of the smart-phone?) and offices  on the first floor, and an Industrial Hall of 1500 seats on the second floor. Extensions were added in 1896 and 1914, the last section in a flamboyant Baroque style. The hall was converted into a cinema in 1922. All that has now gone! The rot set in during the 1950s.

Thankfully there are plans to renovate and refurbish Dewsbury town centre — to give it a much needed facelift. The plans for the Pioneers Building are backed up by Lottery Funding. Some work has been done and we saw people at the back of it. It looked like a lot of it had been demolished and was going to be rebuilt behind the grand Victorian facade. Apparently the first thing that had to be done was to remove 2 tons of pigeon droppings! The plans are for  dozens of boutique shops and luxury apartments, plus a cafe-bar and a gym. It sounds good until I read in the website blurb that they were hoping to finish the work by 2010!! Eight years later, the cash-starved regeneration crawls on. Also, what happened to the idea of affordable housing? How many ordinary citizens of Dewsbury could afford to live in these apartments if they ever get built?

Opposite the Pioneer Buildings we spotted a cafe/restaurant and it just happened to be lunchtime. Ian and I always like to find a cosy English tea shop to have a refreshment break. However, in Dewsbury centre  we couldn’t see one at all. Perhaps it was hiding somewhere in the Princess of Wales precinct. We had already had coffees in a Turkish bistro off the market place and now we found ourselves in the Cocoa Lounge which sounds more like a night club than an eating place. We guessed it is run by Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi people. It is in an area of Dewsbury know as “Little India” We normally look forward to a toastie or a panini but this time we were faced by an exotic looking menu of middle-eastern and Indian dishes.As soon as the waitress spotted us she offered us the “full all-day English.” But we were determined to take advantage of this opportunity and try something different. I had a mint tea and a Samosa Chaat. ( Samosas with sweet and spicy chickpeas, lentils, veg, sauces and yoghurt.) It was warm and tasty. Ian had something similar but was subjected to more chillies! ( He paid the price later.) It was quite a bizarre but very pleasant and interesting experience. Everyone else in the room was wearing traditional muslim dress. A group of  head-scarfed young mums with 2 young children were chatting and eating merrily away just next to us. When they left, one of them donned a full length, black niqab or burqa. Only her eyes were then visible although she had been completely at ease showing off her whole face in the restaurant. Memories of Boris Johnson’s insulting and insensitive remarks unfortunately slipped into my mind. Yet the whole episode seemed perfectly natural and friendly. There was nothing sinister about it at all. In the window two paunchy men in full length smocks and embroidered skull caps were munching through what we thought were sausages. However pork is obviously regarded as unclean by muslims so we later concluded that they were eating fried chicken or turkey strips. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial,even though it felt that we were in the middle of Lahore, Delhi or Dhaka instead of  West Yorkshire. We couldn’t help noticing that there was a prominant population from the Indian sub-continant in Dewsbury. I imagine it’s like a smaller version of Bradford. These had gravitated to the region to work in the mills, until most of them had to close down because of competition from, ironically, India! Halfway through the afternoon the Iman’s call to prayer rang out  across the town from the nearby mosque. Later, I was not surprised at all to find that the anti-immigrant and racist English Defence League was active in the town. One of their books bitterly refers to it as “The Islamic Republic of Dewsbury.” Every one to their own I say. ( so long as they don’t do or say anything that harms others.) One person’s multi-cultural enrichment is another person’s alien invasion. Another great irony — as Dewsbury’s Christian Churches have declined, it’s mosques have thrived.

Replete with multi-cultural food and slightly churning stomachs we left the friendly muslim cafe and plodded on. We saw an old Church of England primary school from 1843 now turned into a community centre. We saw the Georgian-style Methodist Church now taken over by the Evangelists. We passed by impressive Victorian warehouses and even spotted a still working textile mill. The Machell Brothers moved their business to its present premises in 1874. Outside the office are busts of the two brothers, Robert Fletcher and William, alongside images of Cobden and Disraeli. They weren’t modest, those Victorians. William went on to become mayor of Dewbury from 1880 to 82. He probably attended the Congregationalist Church just down the road. The business still proudly boasts of its manufacture of “Shoddy” and “Mungo” goods. These were very early examples of recycling which is now of course all the rage. They were textiles made from re-processed rags which were once collected from all over the British Empire. “Shoddy” was produced from soft rags and cast offs such as stockings, flannels, and carpets; while “Mungo” was produced from hard rags such as dress coats, tailors’ cuttings and disused fine table cloths. They were torn up and shredded by a fast revolving cylinder with sharp teeth locally referred to as “the Devil.” Later the shredded material was turned into a kind of wool or flock which was then mixed with sheep’s wool to make cheap items for the  growing working classes. Obviously this cheaper material is where we get the modern meaning of “shoddy” from.

Our last port of call was Dewsbury Minster, an attractive ancient church with modern additions. It’s a shame that it was cut off from the town centre by the busy 4 lane ring road. ( We found the same sad situation in Doncaster.)  Dewsbury’s historic Minster has Norman, Georgian and Victorian sections as well as traces of Anglo- Saxon. The modern part contains a reception area, a refectory, meeting rooms and an excellent little museum telling Dewsbury’s story. The old part, the Paulinus Chapel, has lovely Norman style arches and pillars, beautiful modern stained glass and an ancient, but beautifully preserved font. The font was originally made in the 13th century, was found mutilated in the grounds in 1767 and was subsequently restored and brought back inside. The original church had been established in Anglo Saxon times at the place where St Paulinus preached by the crossing of the River Calder in 627 AD. The church is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Our day was in Dewsbury was almost over. We tramped up the hill to the railway station to catch our Trans-Pennine express back up north. There was just time for a last coffee in the atmospheric pub and refreshment rooms just off the platform. Ian needed the milk to settle down his Indian style indigestion. We glanced down at the Victorian buildings  for one last time as our train glided away across the viaduct. It had been another interesting, surprising and stimulating visit to a seemingly unpromising destination. All those bucket-list tourists are missing out.

 

375 Years Too Late.

27 May

It was the weekend of the Royal Wedding and I was travelling down to London. No, I wasn’t planning to travel on to Windsor, drape the Union Jack around me and cheer on the happy couple. Far from it, in fact. I am an ardent Republican and would like nothing better than to see the end of the expensive and anachronistic institution of the monarchy. I was actually going to see my son and his family who live on the western edge of the capital. My train journey south did however have a Royal connection and one that I was quite excited about. I planned to break my journey at Peterborough and go to see Queen Catherine of Aragon’s tomb in the cathedral there. One would expect that all  Royal tombs in England would be found in Westminster Abbey, London. However, this particular queen was laid to rest 75 miles north in a small Cambridgeshire city on the edge of the Fens. I only found this out relatively recently while watching the TV dramatisation of Hilary Mantell’s excellent historical novel “Wolf Hall.” It follows the machiavellian role of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s difficult, drawn out divorce from his first wife, the aforesaid Catherine. When Catherine died in 1536 after 3 years of enforced, unhappy post-divorce isolation, Henry refused to grant her a place of honour at Westminster and said words to the effect of “stick her in Peterborough.”

Peterborough Cathedral is one of the most intact, large Norman buildings in England. Its official name is the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew. It stands on the site of a monastery, Medehamstede, founded in Anglo-Saxon times in AD 655 and was largely rebuilt between 1118 and 1238. Today its imposing West Front is an outstanding example of  the Early English Gothic style. Following his Dissolution of the Monasteries King Henry VIII kept Peterborough Abbey intact as one of a small group of more secular Cathedrals. This was in 1541. The reason for this was probably that the Abbey/cathedral was very prosperous and would bring in good amounts of money for the Crown. Some romantics have suggested that Peterborough Abbey was made a cathedral as a memorial to Catherine. Who knows what might have been going through the mind of that unpredictable Tudor monarch?

I have travelled through Peterborough many times on my way to and from London on the east coast main line. I always remember to glance out of the window to spot the towers of the medieval cathedral peeping out from behind a modern shopping mall. I have been to the city for 2 unsuccessful job interviews and a couple of exam markers’ conferences. In the 1960s it was designated as Britain’ latest New Town which prompted a big expansion of its population up to about 180,000.  I remember it for its anonymous housing estates, carefully demarcated industrial estates, retail parks and dozens and dozens of identical roundabouts. I got lost there quite a few times as this was before the age of the sat-nav. I used to live just a little to the south in Stevenage New Town, Hertfordshire. Yet in all that time I never visited the cathedral and wasn’t even aware of the Royal tomb’s existance. I had seen grand, ornamental Tudor tombs before, in Westminster Abbey and other ancient churches up and down the land. Now I knew it was there, I was really looking forward to seeing the tomb of this famous Tudor Queen.

Although a republican today, I have always retained a soft spot for Catherine of Aragon. It’s the history teacher part of me that is to blame. Queen Catherine is one of the 2 reasons why my second daughter shares her name. The other reason is my favourite Hollywood actress: Katherine Hepburn. I always thought that Catherine of Aragon got a very raw deal at the hands of her chauvenistic, cruel husband, but conducted herself with grace and dignity at all times.

The daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, she was brought up to be a queen. In her late teens, in 1501, she was married off to Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII and heir to the throne of England. Her title at that point was the Princess of Wales, but she was destined to become the next Queen. Sadly though, just a year later, Arthur died before gaining the throne. Catherine, just a pawn in the power politics of England and Spain, had to quickly shelve her grieving and get married to her deceased husband’s younger brother Henry. She was 19 and he was 17 at the time. Henry and Catherine became King and Queen upon the death of Henry VII in June 1509 and a long, seemingly successful marriage ensued. They had a daughter, Mary, and then they had a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall. Tragically, baby Henry died after living less than 2 months. Catherine was distraught and worried her family and courtiers by spending many hours kneeling on cold stone floors, praying. She was a very devout Catholic christian. In subsequent years she never gave birth to another son so Mary remained her only child. From Henry’s point of view, this was a disastrous situation. He was convinced that if a daughter succeeded him there would be a civil war, as many powerful people in those sexist times, considered that a woman would be too weak to rule. Perhaps Henry was thinking of what happened when King Henry I was succeeded by his daughter Mathilda. She was challenged by her cousin Stephen and the result was a nasty civil war which led to Mathilda losing her crown. (although she got the last laugh when her son Henry II succeeded the usurper, Stephen.) Therefore, Henry now planned to divorce Catherine and marry a younger, more fertile wife.

As you probably know, Henry VIII was refused permission to divorce Catherine, by the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope. Henry’s eventual solution, helped by Thomas Cromwell, was to take England out of the Roman Catholic Church and make himself the head of a newly created Church of England. Thus he was, in effect, able to grant himself a divorce and go on to marry the new “love” of his life Ann Boleyn. Poor Catherine never agreed to the divorce and always considered herself the rightful Queen. She was stripped of her Royal titles and was now referred to as the Dowager Duchess of Wales. She was given a house and servants but was regarded as an embarrasment as she refused to accept the divorce and continued to regard herself as the Queen. She regarded the new queen, Ann Boleyn, as an imposter. In 1535 she was moved to Kimbolton Castle where she virtually lived in one room. She only left it to go to Mass. She dressed herself in a hair-shirt of the Order of St Francis. On January 7th, 1536, Catherine of Aragon died. As we now know, she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Henry spitefully refused to go to the funeral and forbade their daughter, Mary, to attend. However, the funeral was a lavish affair, attended by 4 bishops and 6 abbots as well as large crowds. Ironically, on the very day of Catherine’s funeral, Ann Boleyn sadly miscarried.

Catherine’s tomb was one befitting a Queen. I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. I walked from the railway station through a largely nondescript modern town centre. The best bit was the cathedral square which had an attractive old parish church and a mid 17th century Guildhall or Butter Cross. This is where the market is held. Next I passed through an old stone archway into the Cathedral close. I expected it to be a peaceful, spiritual oasis, a world away from the noisy, bustling town next door. However I was greeted with loud pop music and the sight of yellow helmeted people abseiling down the left hand tower of the cathedral’s magnificent west front. The only valid excuse I could think of was that they were probably doing it for charity. I tried to block this raucous intrusion out of my mind and concentrate on the west front itself. As stated before it’s a rare example of Early English Gothic architecture. Three enormous archways are surmounted by statues of Saints Paul, Peter and Andrew.( looking from left to right). Peter crowns the middle and highest archway. At his feet is a fishing net reminding us of his previous occupation before he was called to be one of Jesus’s chief disciples. He and his fellow followers were now to become “fishers of men.” ( All those Methodist Sunday School lessons have stood me in good stead!) In fact the nickname for the cathedral’s west front is Galilee, after the sea where Peter fished. The city takes its name from Saint Peter.

Blocking out the pop music and the shouting abseilers, I entered what I expected to be the hush of the Cathedral’s interior. Unfortunately it was full of chattering school children. The interior is impressive however with tall stone archways and lovely stained glass windows. At the far end, an impressive “new” bit, built in 1500, has sensational fan vaulting. I stared at it for ages and gave myself neck ache! There is a very old font and interesting information boards giving a history of the Anglo-Saxon abbey that became a  Norman cathedral. However, it was the Tudor Queen’s tomb that I was most interested in. The helpful steward told me it was at the far end , on the left hand side. I approached the area with mounting excitement. Soon I spotted information boards about Catherine of Aragon. This was it, after all these years!

Then came the anti-climax — the tomb which my mind had imagined would be so magnificent, simply wasn’t there! All I saw was an engraved marble slab lying flat on the ground . Alongside it was a fancy wrought iron screen decorated with the inscription: “Catherine Queen of England, 1485-1536.” That was it! I desperately searched for something more ornate and substantial. In my haste and excitement, had I missed it? It was then I spotted another information  board. Catherine of Aragon’s tomb had been destroyed by Cromwellian troops in 1643! After they captured the town from The Royalists in the early struggles of the English Civil War, the Parliamentary soldiers went on the rampage and sacked the cathedral. They destroyed the Lady Chapel, the Chapter House, the cloisters, the High altar and the choir stalls. They wanted to wipe out any signs of Catholicism. Medieval records were ransacked and lost to history. Family tombs were attacked and desecrated. It seems strange and hypocritical that so called christian ( Puritan) soldiers wanted to do this. Of course, catholic Catherine’s tomb was a prime target. It was demolished and the gilt lettering stolen. The only blessing was that her body was left to lie undisturbed. So, if I wanted to see Catherine of Aragon’s tomb, I was 375 years too late!

I consoled myself by staring at the New Chapel’s wonderful fan-vaulting again, and swallowing my disappointment I walked on to the other side of the cathedral. To my amazement I now came across a shrine to Mary, Queen of Scots. She had been buried here as well after her execution at the hands of Elizabeth I. Was I going to see my Royal Tudor tomb afterall? Once again a frisson of excitement surge up inside me. But where was the tomb? Then I read that King James I had had his mother’s body removed from Peterborough and reburied in Westminster Abbey when he ascended the throne in 1603. Foiled again! I was 415 years late for that one! Two Tudor queens had been buried there but neither of their Peterborough tombs had survived.

The last resting place of Catherine of Aragon may not be an ornamental Tudor edifice today but it is still very smart, well kept and dignified. In the late 19th century, the wife of one of the cathedral’s canons, Katherine Clayton, started a public appeal, asking all the Katherines ( Catherines) of England to donate towards a replacement black marble slab that can be seen today. Apparently, after the Roundhead soldiers had smashed up the tomb and stolen the gilt lettering, a dean of the cathedral used the marble for the floor of his summerhouse sometime in the early 1700’s. The appeal was successful and the replacement slab was inscribed with gilt lettering and installed. On her new tomb, Catherine is now referred to as Queen of England. A wooden plaque remembers her as “A Queen cherished by the English people, for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion.” Her notorious second husband may be more famous but I would argue that Catherine of Aragon deserves much more of our admiration and respect.

Every year, in the weekend closest to 29th January ( the date of Catherine’s passing) a special, Catherine of Aragon festival is held at Peterborough Cathedral. A civic service is held on the Friday, attended by a representative of the Spanish Embassy. Then on the Saturday, a rare Catholic mass is held in this Anglican Cathedral. Hundreds of school children attend in mock Tudor costumes. Flowers and Catherine’s heraldic symbol, the pomegranite, are laid upon the tomb. Ironically, considering her subsequent childbirth travails, the pomegranite is regarded as a symbol of fertility.

Although I was 375 years too late it was still a fascinating visit to Queen Catherine’s last resting place at Peterborough. In my opinion this historical experience was eminantly more interesting than the orgy of swooning, genuflecting and sycophancy that ensued in Windsor the next day. Surely attitudes towards a privileged, immensely wealthy and unelected monarchy should have changed in the 500 years since Tudor times?

Out Of The Ashes.

6 May

Dresden, a city I’ve just visited, is famous for two main things. The first is that it was widely regarded as one of the most exquisite Baroque cities in Europe. It was dubbed “The Florence of the North”, because of its captivating array of delicate spires, soaring towers and magnificent domes. The huge stone dome of its premier church, the Frauenkirche, inspired by the domes of Italian churches, made it into the most significant Protestant place of worship, north of the Alps. The Bruhlsche Terrasse, an impressive riverside promenade along one bank of the Elbe, was known as the “Balcony of Europe.” It would be great if this Saxon city was famous just for being beautiful. Unfortunately, its other claim to fame is that in February, 1945, its historic centre was completely destroyed by three, devastating Allied bombing raids, towards the end of the Second World War. Its heart was ripped out by the British and American bombs, reducing it to a smouldering heap of rubble. Say “Dresden” to a random collection of people in a word- association exercise, and nine out of ten would  respond with “bombs” not ” Baroque” or “buildings.” As in many cases in life, it’s the negative association that usually wins out. This city now unfortunately stands along Hiroshima as the scene of one of the most infamous atrocities of the entire war.

The greatest catastrophe in the history of Dresden occured on the night of February 13th, 1945. Up to that point it looked as if one of Germany’s most picturesque and culturally important cities would survive the conflict largely unscathed. However, that devastating night changed everything. The sirens began to wail at 9-39pm and the first bombs rained down at 10-13pm. More than 750 British Lancaster bombers dropped their deadly cargo in 2 waves of attack, 3 hours apart. The next day, American bombers came in at midday to finish the job. It was grimly appropriate that the raids came between Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, because at the end of it all, Dresden’s historic Alstadt ( old town) was literally reduced to ashes. Incendiary bombs had caused a massive firestorm. The ashes fell on surrounding villages up to 35 kms away. Over 35,000 people perished. Many of them were refugees who had fled the advancing Red Army and were taking shelter in the city. The Soviets who later entered the city, claimed that 50,000 people had died. The RAF and USAF double attack on Dresden was the climax of a deliberately destructive bombing policy in which civilian populations and historic buildings were regarded as fair game. It was total war. The sheer extent of the devastation and the fact that thousands of innocent victims of Nazism were slaughtered, put this raid in a different class to all previous attacks. An area 20 kilometres square was virtually obliterated.

Many regard the bombing of Dresden as a war crime. Dresden had no great military or industrial importance. Others point out that the German bombing raids on British cities such as London, Bristol and Coventry were similarly shocking. The Luftwaffe also attacked equally beautiful British cities such as Canterbury and Norwich, in the so called Beiderbecke raids, although even the Nazis agreed to leave Oxford and Cambridge alone. If Dresden, along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki were  war crimes , no one was subsequently put on trial. This is because these particular deadly and devastating attacks were carried out by the eventual winners of the war. Only the losers are ever tried, as at the Nuremberg war crime trials. So “Bomber” Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command, never got to stand in the dock alongside Hermet Goering, leader of the Luftwaffe, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, even though both of them pursued similar policies and both were responsible for mass destruction and tens of thousands of  deaths. The idea behind both side’s bombing campaigns was to break the morale and fighting spirit of the enemy’s civilian population . According to a recent BBC ducumentary, the British did psychological studies of victims of bombing raids in Kingston upon Hull. The findings were that the bombing raids had actually strengthened not weakened  civilian resolve. However, these unwelcome results were kept secret because they would have taken away the main justification for Churchill and Harris’s bombing campaign against German cities and their non-military populations. Some argue that the bombing raids on German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden were justified as acts of retaliation and revenge following the  Blitz on London and other British cities. However, as my grandmother used to argue: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” All we can say in the end, is that the net result was that both populations suffered massively. A minute ago, I was talking about “winners” and “losers”. But, in a war there are no real winners. Everyone suffers.

My friend, Ian, and I visited Dresden as part of our Germany project. We have agreed to visit different parts of Germany, every year, for the forseeable future. I suppose you could call it our personal reconciliation mission. We are doing our small part to bring the 2 countries a little closer together. Two years ago we visited Lubeck, a beautiful Hanseatic city in the north, near Hamburg. It too suffered a terrible bombing raid in 1942. Apparently this was a practice run to see how effective such an attack on a mostly civilian population could be. Ian and I have noticed that many British holiday-makers seem to ignore Germany when it comes to choosing their destinations. Spain is easily the British tourist’s favourite overseas destination, followed, in no particular order by France, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Italy and the United States. Although Germany is a big, important country containing many interesting and attractive places of interest and it is one of our closest neighbours, it does not figure in these top destinations. Many are seduced by the combination of : sand, sea and sun offered by the Meditarranean countries. Germany has excellent beaches but they are all in the cooler north alongside the Baltic and North Seas. It gets plenty of sun, but its warmest climate is in the south, far away from the coast. So it cannot offer that magical combination all in one place.

I wonder too, if there is still a strong residue of anti-German prejudice left over from the World Wars of last century? The last one finished over 60 years ago and 3 new generations have been born since. However, a lot of national events and commemorations to do with the World Wars are still held in the United Kingdom. Someone commented that these days, the only time that the British are truly united is when they are reliving their victories in the two World Wars. It is important to remember those who sacrificed their lives for their country, but is it healthy to constantly stir up bad memories and ill feeling towards one of closest allies and nearest neighbours? When one of the home nations plays Germany at football, the tabloid press often refer to the German players in derogatory terms, such as the “krauts” or the “huns.” A constant stream of 2nd World War films and TV programmes similarly revive old animosities. Just last year, “Dunkirk” and “Churchill. Darkest Hour” were two of Britain’s biggest box office successes. The so-called History Channel is dominated by documentaries about the war, Hitler and the Nazis. A friend of mine was recently persuaded to go on a city break to Berlin. Afterwards he expressed surprise that the people he met were so friendly and helpful. I asked him why wouldn’t they be and he answered “Well, they’re Germans aren’t they?” Did he really expect to see goose-stepping Nazis on the streets of the German capital? I have always found the German people to be friendly and obliging and  many of them speak perfect English. It’s a mystery to me why more British tourists don’t visit.

It’s a great pity if Dresden and Germany are still being defined by the war. Both have rich and rewarding histories before that tragic conflict and both have undergone remarkable transformations since it finished. Dresden’s old centre is no longer a heap of rubble. It’s major baroque buildings have all been meticilously reconstructed such that, once again, one could be walking around in the 18th century. Out of the ashes, the spectacular palaces, churches and civic buildings of Augustus the Strong and his son have been miraculously reserrected. The “before and after” photos have to be seen to be believed. Today, the Alstadt looks much as it was in the days when Canaletto was painting it. At first the East German Communist regime deliberately left the most important buildings such as the Frauenkirche, in ruins to serve as war memorials. For many years the Frauenkirche was the focus of an annual pilgrimage on February 13th. The ruins also acted as a powerful propaganda tool against the western powers. However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of the two Germanys in the early 1990s, reconstruction has gone on at a pace.  Much work is still going on as we saw on our visit. It took great “skill” to take a selection of photos that all omitted the cranes, the dumper trucks and the scores of hard-hatted workmen. A large section of picturesque Theaterplatz for instance is still cordoned off as the reconstruction crews do their stuff, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists circling all around them.

The Frauenkirche, a “Baroque gem”, has now reappeared in the cityscape after an absence of half a century.  The original dome initially survived the raid, but then collapsed 2 days later. The reborn church was consecrated in the autumn of 2015 and represents the crowning achievement of the reconstruction efforts. People from all over the world, including the UK and the USA, made donations towards its rebuilding. These included contributions from Coventry, Dresden’s partner city. Alan Smith, the son of one of the bomber pilots, created the tower cross that sits on top of the dome. His work was funded by the British Dresden Trust. 80% of the new altar consists of 2000 original pieces rescued from the rubble. On the altar table stands a cross of nails which is a symbol of reconciliation. The church is beautiful and flooded with light. A central nave is surrounded by 5 symmetrical galleries. The magnificent dome and galleries are decorated with murals in light, pastel colours. The only problem today seems to be too many tourists, ruining any hope of a spiritual atmosphere.

Peace and reconciliation are prominant themes in Dresden. We saw another cross of nails donated by the churches of Coventry, in the impressive Hofkirche, Dresden’s Catholic Cathedral. The mistakes and tragedies of the past are properly recalled in memorials but the emphasis seems to be to move forward into a more peaceful and harmonious future. I saw very little stress on the terrible bombing raid, although this could well have been covered in the city museum which I didn’t have time to see. I felt no animosity when people found out I was British. To me, it all seemed very positive. Germany of course is a leading light in the European Union which it created with France after the war by enmeshing their two economies. The idea was to make large scale European war impossible in the future because the 2 countries and their neighbours would become inter-dependent. So far the plan has succeeded.

So, like a phoenix, Dresden had risen again out of the ashes. It stands alongside the similarly restored Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk, as one of the miracles of the post-1945 age. It is really 3 cities in one — there is the modern city, the Communist era GDR city and the 18th century baroque city of its golden age. Dresden began as an Slav fishing village in the shadow of its near neighbour, Meissen. Then, in 1485, the Saxon Royal family, the House of Wettin, turned it into its capital. Its glory period was in the early 18th century under Elector Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Although not a very astute political leader, Augustus loved art and culture. He encouraged top artists, architects, craftsmen, writers and musicians to make Dresden their base. The result was a flourishing cultural scene and the creation of some magnificent buildings such as Residenzschloss ( Royal Palace), several outstanding churches and the Zwinger, a Royal pleasure palace. The Zwinger is one of the most ravishing baroque buildings in the whole of Germany. We were god-smacked when we walked into it through one of its elaborate gateways. Luckily it was a lovely sunny day, so we saw it at its best. A huge, fountain studded courtyard is framed by fancy buildings and walkways festooned with baroque scultures. On the ground, well-manicured lawns are cut into symmetrical patterns, mirroring each other. Two ornate, exhuberant pavilions face each other at opposite ends of the courtyard . One, the Glockenspiel Pavilion, has a carillon of 40 bells, crafted out of Meissen porcelain. Along one upper gallery there is a giant carving of the Crown of Poland, supported by Polish eagles. The whole complex is stupendous. One of its palaces is used to house a rich, art gallery full of old masters, one of the dozen best in the world. The Opera House opposite ( the Semperor) is equally stunning. We attended an orchestral concert there given by the Saxon Staatskapelle, one of the world’s oldest and most famous orchestras established in 1548.

This is the Dresden that most people come to see. It’s the beautiful baroque city that has miraculously risen from the ashes of its wartime destruction. For a time it was a World Heritage Site but UNESCO have now had to take that coveted title away because of the construction of an unattractive road bridge across the Elbe which is completely out of keeping with its architectural surroundings. Ian and I enjoyed our time there and need to go back to visit the galleries and museums we didn’t have time to explore. It’s always good to end a visit wanting to return. Thankfully, we found out that Dresden is much, much more than the site of a war atrocity. It has risen from the ashes.

 

A Visit to Slovenia( or was it Slovakia?)

21 Oct

CONFUSION.

I think it was President George W Bush on a state visit to Slovenia, who famously said something like: “It’s great to be here in Slovakia.” I have witnessed the same confusion when I’ve told people about my holiday this year in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. Almost inevitably, the response has been: “Do you mean Slovenia or Slovakia? I’ve always got the two mixed up!” I suppose they do sound very similar.

HISTORY.

They are both small countries in central Europe that generally don’t feature in the international news. Both are populated by Slavs. Both used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire.  After the fall of that Empire in 1918, both Slovenes and Slovaks were pushed into uneasy partnerships with other national groups. The Slovaks were merged with the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia, while the Slovenes were combined with other south Slav peoples to create the new state of Yugoslavia. It seems that the international community at Versailles didn’t think these two small races were a viable proposition on their own. Both Slovenes and Slovaks fell under the sway of one-party Communist regimes at the end of the Second World War.

It was only in the early 1990’s, following the fall of the “Iron Curtain” and the collapse of communism in Europe that the Slovaks and the Slovenes at last tasted true independence. In Slovenia’s case, 1991 was the year when it finally controlled its own destiny.

As I was visiting it I have tried to make sense of Slovenia’s complex history by reading and by visiting the city museum of Ljubljana, its attractive capital. I have settled for just getting a rough outline. After the usual Neolithic stuff, the Romans arrived. Slovenia today is very proud of its Roman heritage. Next came the Magyars but they were pushed back by the German Emperor who had designs on the area himself. The Turks too were defeated so Slovenia never became part of the mighty Ottoman Empire like some of its neighbours. Thus today, Slovenia is a devoutly Christian country and it was on the Catholic side of the Orthodox/ Catholic schism. From the late 13th century, it became part of the Austrian Empire and therefore developed on largely Germanic lines. In the First World War the Slovenes fought fiercely on the Austrian-German side, especially when, in 1915, Italy was bribed to side with Britain, France and Russia after being promised Slovenian territory, including the important port of Trieste. It’s ironic that Britain, which joined the war to protect little Belgium, was now happy to cynically give away chunks of another small country in the interests of military expediency. Sadly many thousands of Slovenes and other Austro-Hungarian troops died fighting the Italians. The place where we stayed on Lake Bohinj was an important staging post for that campaign. The Italians also suffered heavy casualties in the mountain battles that ensued. One of the more sobering moments of our holiday was a visit to an Austro-Hungarian war cemetery containing over 300 graves from 1915 to 1917.

I now know enough to appreciate how proud the Slovenes must be to have gained their independence. It must be strange but exciting to be a citizen of a country that has existed for less than 3 decades.The guide who led our walking tour of Ljubljana said that everyone was pleased when the population hit 2 million. Out impression was that it is a very clean and environmentally-aware nation. We didn’t see a scrap of litter on the streets. I expected to see a poorer, still- developing Balkan -style country, maybe like Bosnia or Albania. However it is so sophisticated that at times it felt as if we were in Scandinavia. There were stylish designer goods, well maintained buildings and efficient transport systems. The buses ran on time, and in the city, people paid with an electronic card which they pressed on to a sensor.( like London’s Oyster card.) Only when we got out into the rural areas did we see cash being used. While in Slovenia, we had Euros in our wallet and purse. Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, three years after it was admitted to the European Union. It had been the most liberal and progressive of the former Yugoslav republics and had largely escaped the horrors of the Civil War after a brief, 10 day skirmish. The transition to a democracy and to capitalism was achieved fairly smoothly. In 2008 it became the first of the former communist countries to assume the presidency of the EU. Coming from 2017 United Kingdom it seemed strange to us that here was a country that was embracing Europe rather than turning its back on its  neighbours.

THE CAPITAL.

Ljubljana is a lovely city to visit. It is attractive, relaxed and cosmopolitan. It’s small enough to explore on foot. There is a variety of interesting architecture, pleasant riverside walks, a variety of cafes and restaurants to suit most tastes and just about everyone speaks excellent English. We asked an older lady for help at the bus stop. She not only told us which bus to catch and when it would come, but also explained how we should pay ( with the smart-card) and where to get off. All this was in decent English. Apparently, Slovenian is a very difficult language to learn. Ljubljana has a picturesque old town full of renaissance and baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are : statues, squares, fountains, interesting little alleyways, pavement cafes and stylish shops. Up above, on a steep hill, is a castle, accessed by a funicular. A river flows through the centre crossed by a series of interesting bridges. The most famous are the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge. The former is 3 pedestrianised bridges in one, furnished with Venetian style balustrades built in the 1830’s. The latter, built in 1901, is a flamboyant, Secessionist structure with 4 dramatic green dragons and ornamental lamps guarded by tiny griffins.

The main square, Preservov trg is flanked by the Triple Bridge, a huge, pink Baroque church, a Parisian Art- Nouveau department stall with a fancy, wrought iron and glass entrance, and a 4-storey Viennese-style Secessionist building. The square is a gathering place for tourists, locals and street entertainers. We were “treated” to a loud display of break-dancing which rather drowned out the poor man in traditional costume trying to sing his folk songs. We settled for a routine of strolling around, popping in and out of little shops and the occasional church, watching the river flow below the avenues of trees, and visiting pavement cafes. At the last mentioned we drank tea or coffee and ate strudel ( me) and chocolate cake (Chris.) For me, it’s compulsory to eat apple strudel if I’m anywhere in the former Hapsburg Empire. Ljubljana has shades of Vienna, Prague and Paris, but on a more intimate scale.

METELKOVA .

One day we strolled out of the main tourist haunts, into an area east of Presernov Square, which had a completely different feel to it. It was more informal and featured more quirky, alternative sights. We saw old music shops, zany art galleries, junk shops and whole walls of colourful graffiti. Virtually the first thing we spotted was a display of old shoes, boots and trainers hanging from a telephone wire slung across the narrow street. There were vegetarian cafes and erotica shops, though I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a connection between the two. We were on our way to visit St Peter’s Church, another extravagant baroque concoction. We virtually had it to ourselves as it was off the beaten track. We lit candles for our loved ones, sat in silence for a while and then wandered on.

In fact we ended up wandering into one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen — the Metelkova autonomous artist’s colony. ( That’s my version of its Slovenian name.) It’s a former Yugoslav army base that later became a squat. Today it’s like an alternative city within a city. In the words of one guidebook, it’s “the subversive heart of the city.”  It’s a rambling complex of bars, clubs, galleries, NGOs and a hostel. What is incredible is that the whole site is festooned with bizarre, vibrant graffiti, weird sculptures and strange installations. It is all anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, counter-culture stuff. As we walked in, our jaws dropping, the sounds of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” drifted towards us and the smell of weed pervaded the air. It was like going back to 1967/68. The vivid graffiti was the stuff of dreams ( and nightmares.) The whole scene was surreal. Metelkova has to be seen to be believed.

We enjoyed our week in Ljubljana very much. We made easy day trips to: a castle in a cave, halfway up a cliff ( Predjama), a huge, amazing complex of limestone caves, tunnels and caverns complete with a weird but wonderful array of stalactites and stalagmites (Postojna), and an attractive, medieval town surrounded by wooded hills ( Skofja Loka.) We enjoyed the trips but mostly just wandered the city, trying to scratch a little beneath its surface. We met a Chinese tourist later in the holiday and he couldn’t believe that we had spent a whole week in one place! In the same time-span he had visited 3 countries. He was only going to spend one quick day in Ljubljana seeing the “essential” sights. But, I have turned against this tick-list, rushing around sort of itinerary. I think our more relaxed schedule paid off, at least for us. If we’d visited for just a day, we would never have discovered the art market on the riverbank, the flea market with its Tito- era memorabilia or the wonderful Plecnik’s House. The latter was the home of Slovenia’s most eminent architect, Joze Plecnik. The guided tour was fascinating, revealing the great contrast between his grandiose projects and his modest life-style.

THE MOUNTAINS AND LAKES.

Our second week in Slovenia was a complete contrast. We travelled by public bus up into the north-west, an area of mountains and alpine lakes. It was very like Austria, the country just to the north. We stayed just 50 meters from the shore of Lake Bohinj, the country’s largest lake. It was created by glacial action. Mention “lake” and “Slovenia” to most travellers, and they’ll usually come up with the name “Bled.” Lake Bled is certainly the most famous of Slovenia’s lakes. ( some would say “iconic.”) But Bohinj is more beautiful, in my opinion. It’s an atmospheric, completely still stretch of water. Sensibly, no big buildings have been allowed on the lakeside, so the peace of Bohinj is maintained and its beauty unsullied. The peaceful lake is surrounded by wooded hills and massive, steep-faced mountains. It is a magical and magisterial sight. In winter it is so still that it freezes over. Last year people were able to skate on it for 2 to 3 weeks. That must have been quite a sight!

So we had a week of peace and tranquility. We walked the lake’s shores, sailed on a very quiet tourist boat, explored a dramatic limestone gorge and trecked for one and a half hours up through lovely autumn woods to the spectacular Savica Waterfall. This plunges from a cleft in the towering rock face, 78 metres down into a striking turquoise/green pool. The villages around were Alpine in character with little wooden houses and geranium decorated balconies. They were surrounded by bright green meadows and all had neat wood stores and old hay-drying racks. We half expected to see Heidi and Peter running down the slopes with their goat-herd or hear Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family bursting into exultant song.

This used to be a big, alpine dairy- farming and cheese making area but this has almost died out as the younger generation has drifted off to the towns and cities. Local cheeses can still be bought however. We saw old, black and white photographs of villages communities in the past wearing their traditional costumes. Each village had its elegant church with a tall bell-tower or slender spire piercing the air. We also came across wayside shrines with little statues of Jesus or Mary and strings of rosary beads.

Bohinj is an area rich in nature. Every spring it has a wild-flower festival. We came across: heron, dippers, wagtails, nuthatches and robins. We also heard a couple of red squirrels squeaking excitedly as they scurried up and down a tree, and saw speckled trout lazily swimming in the river that fed the lake. On our last full day we got the most sensational views of all, when we ascended on a cable car to the Vogel ski centre. We were treated to panoramic views of the massed peaks of the Julian Alps. Bohinj is part of the Triglav National Park, the only one of such parks in Slovenia. It’s a place to preserve and treasure. We really enjoyed our week there. Yes we stayed for a relaxing 7 days. The Chinese tourist would have been shocked all over again!

BLED.

We met the nice guy from Beijing on a side trip to Bled, a 40 minutes, cheap bus ride away from our base. Bled is beautiful too, but sadly it has been partly ruined. The culprit is mass-tourism and the commercialization that follows in its wake. Lake Bled is world famous. I’d heard of it long before I knew anything else about Slovenia.The usual image shown is of a graceful, old church on an enchanting island in a lake, with a backcloth of hills and mountains. Also impressive, is an old, red-roofed castle on a cliff soaring above the water. That’s all true. But the chocolate boxes, jig-saws and calanders don’t show the built-up mess on the other end of the lake. There’s the huge, ugly Hotel Park, which advertises lakeside views but ruins everyone else’s view. There’s the large, modern casino, plus the usual motley assortment of bars, souvenir shops, hotels and cafes, not to mention a busy road, constantly choked with traffic. The place is heaving with tourists from all over the world. When our bus from Ljubljana to Bohinj arrived at Bled, just about everyone got off. Bled, from certain angles, is very picturesque but with its swarms of visitors, it is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

We walked along the lake’s quieter, wooded shore and it was very pleasant. However, when we decided to sail across to the island and the church, it wasn’t as idyllic as I’d imagined. It’s good that there are no noisy launches ploughing up and down. One can hire a rowing boat, get a quiet but expensive electric boat or go on a pletna. This is a traditional, wooden stretched gondola propelled by a gondolier standing at the back. ( No, he doesn’t wear a stripy shirt or sing just one cornetto!) We chose the latter. 20 adults and 2 children all piled on, at the steep price of 14 Euros each. We had to squash tightly together on either side of the boat. What I thought would be a peaceful, serene experience, gliding across the water, never materialised because of my fellow tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of positions to take the best photos and then posing for numerous selfies with their friends and family. We had 40 minutes on the island which was crowded. Even though it was only a small island, containing a church and bell-tower, they have still found space to squash in a cafe, an ice-cream stall and a shop. We decided to visit the church which has lovely 18th century frescoes and other baroque adornments. However, we were shocked to find that we were expected to pay 6 Euros each to go in. This included the bell tower but we didn’t want to go up that as we are both nervous of heights. I cannot recall ever having to pay to go into a church before. The exquisitely frescoed medieval church of St John the Baptist near our hotel in Bohinj, is free. But we swallowed our indignation and “coffed up.” It was rather small but quite beautiful. Unfortunately, any hopes of enjoying a spiritual atmosphere were ruined by a constant procession of camera-wielding fellow tourists. They queued up to pull the bell-rope and make a wish. It has been dubbed the “wishing bell!” They posed in mid-pull for photos, with inane grins on their faces. Isn’t it funny how so many fall for such gimmicks? The bell-tower was entered through a modern turn-style activated by a bar-code on one’s ticket. The 18th century interior has been hollowed out and replaced with a modern zig-zag staircase. We didn’t bother going up. Any shred of historical authenticity had been sacrificed in the interests of making money( it seems.)

Our visit to Bled was rescued by a totally unexpected but brilliant Salvador Dali exhibition in the base of the casino. ( a private French collection.) We also enjoyed a small craft market and a display of vintage cars, incongruously parked along the lake-shore.

RADOVLJICA.

Our other trip from Bohinj was to Radovljica, a pretty, old town set in lovely countryside. It featured an exquisite old church, a beautiful, historic square and a grand, old mansion containing the delightful “Beekeeping Museum.” Keeping bees is a Slovenian tradition. The highlight was a wonderful collection of bee-hive panels from the 19th century. These were religious and satirical paintings to decorate the hives. They were another Slovenian speciality.

It was a great holiday — an interesting, attractive city followed by a week among the glorious mountains and lakes. Apart from the obvious tourist traps the costs ranged from cheap to reasonable. We found it to be a civilized and progressive country. Yes, it was an excellent visit to Slovenia ( or was it Slovakia?)

 

Durham Coast Walk, Day 2 — Seaburn to Seaham. ( July, 2017.)

21 Aug

The second day of our long-distance walk announced itself with a cacophony of shrieking gulls rather than the usual melodious chorus of songbirds. It was a reminder that we were on the coast. After our 9 mile tramp from South Shields to Seaburn we were now ready to press on south to Seaham. The only problem was that a massive obstacle now stood in our way — the River Wear and the City of Sunderland! It wasn’t all going to be quiet bays and empty beaches. We were going to be sucked into an urban jungle and hopefully spat out the other side.

We ate a hearty breakfast at the excellent Mayfield Guest House with the proprietor, Vincent, quizzing us about our walking plans. Then we dragged on our boots and heaved on our rucksacks and set off. We were heading due south but first had to head the wrong way in order to visit Seaburn Morrisons for our lunchtime provisions. Not for the first time, we found that our large rucksacks proved to be conversation catalysts. They caught the eye of the lady on the till who also quizzed us about our venture. We evidently were not her average customers. Turning south out of the supermarket we headed up Seaburn promenade towards a gleaming white lighthouse standing on a promontory at the end  of the beach. This was built in 1856 and used to guard the end of the old South Pier at the nearby mouth of the Wear. The lighthouse now overlooked Parson’s Rocks and at low tide we could have scrambled over them round to the next beach. Unfortunately the tide was high so we had to climb up to the road and take the more conventional route. We were compensated for this disappointment by reading an information board about the geology of the area and spotting some small, wading birds scurrying about over the wet rocks. I guessed Dunlins but Catherine and her smartphone over-ruled me in favour of Turnstones. I must admit I had never heard of them.

We now arrived at Roker beach, complete with amusements, cafes, bargain shops and attractive, raised-bed gardens. Slightly faded information boards showed us how  popular and crowded with holiday-makers it had been in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. Roker was also the beginning of the Sunderland Sculpture trail. This had been created between 1991 and 2001 by a sculptor Colin Wilbourne and a writer, Chaz Brenchley, in consultation with local people. It had several interesting and/or attractive sculptures to distract and entertain us. The most memorable for me were “Taking Flight”, 5 steel representations of a cormorant taking off — a common sight on that stretch of water, and a large, twisting steel tree, apparently bending in the wind. On the concrete base of the latter were pictures of a lighthouse, a sailing ship and a local monster called the “Lampton Worm.” We were also intrigued by a series of 3 stone doors flanked by colourful stained glass panels. These represented the past, the present and the future. The footpath only passed through the door of the present.

By now, the trail had reached the river mouth and continued inland along the north bank of the Wear. Across the water we viewed cranes and industrial buildings. It’s not the most picturesque of river mouths because Sunderland was built on the backs of its industries. We walked round a marina, listening to the clanking of the yachts in the breeze. Schoolchildren in orange life jackets were being given a canoeing lesson, watched with interest by 2 old nuns, leaning on a fence. The weather was fine and sunny but dark clouds were approaching as we walked alongside the river. We passed the National Glass Centre which we didn’t have time to visit except to cheekily use their toilets! Then we passed Sunderland University campus which Catherine was interested in as she works at its Leeds equivalent. It had a symbolic, sculptured pile of  huge, stone books in front of it. As the river curved round to the right, our immediate goal came into view — Wearmouth Bridge, the last bridging point of the river before it reached the North Sea. Behind its graceful single arch was the city’s rail bridge.

A sudden, sharp shower interrupted us as we approached the bridge. I’m sure it contained sleet even though it was still July. We scrambled into our waterproofs but as soon as we had got them on, the rain stopped. We found this was a good trick to stop the rain. On several occasions, showers ceased the moment we had donned our rainproof togs. It’s called sod’s law. We passed below the ancient St Peter’s Church and climbed up a steep road to the bridge. Wearmouth bridge is a graceful, single- arched, steel structure built in 1929. Two earlier bridges had spanned the river at this site. Before that a ferry service had been in operation. The bridge helped Sunderland to grow as it united the north and south banks of the Wear. It looks like a smaller version of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne bridge, which in turn is a smaller version of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Walking across it, I was impressed by its spectacular array of criss-crossing girders. We were now assailed by the full-on noise of the city — cars, buses, lorries, trains and people. It wasn’t a peaceful river crossing. Down below we saw a shrine decorated with flowers, photos, hand-written messages and a red and white striped Sunderland football shirt. Suddenly we realized that this high, precipitous bridge was an ideal suicide spot. A notice from the Samaritans confirmed this suspicion.

We descended down a steep, slippery slope and  the brown ECP ( English Coastal Path)signs led us on a meander through the run- down city streets south of the Wear. We passed Sunderland’s oldest pub, the Butcher’s Arms, standing in a short terrace of  crumbling buildings that had somehow escaped demolition, through areas of post-war high rise flats, and round the grassy space of the Town Moor. Finally we were compelled to tramp along a noisy, busy road full of  heavy-duty traffic travelling to and from the docks. These docks were what was preventing us from heading straight back to the coast. As we trudged along the relentlessly noisy road, with no end in sight, we got very dispirited. It was one of the lowest points of the entire walk. At long last we turned left off the main road and headed down a quieter street that skirted the southern edge of the docks. Then finally we reached the sea again. We had made it to Hendon beach. We walked down a slope to a small promenade and settled on a low wall to have our sandwiches.

Hendon beach is not very pretty. At its northern end it is adorned with a collection of oil storage tanks and other port buildings. It is bordered by low grassy cliffs. The beach itself is a mixture of scruffy sand and stones. However it does have a series of well-weathered groynes which I always think add character to a coastline. They are low timber walls built to stop the sand drifting to one end of the beach as the tide invariably comes in at an angle. As we munched our little lunch I noticed something bobbing up and down in the nearby sea. It was a seal — our most exciting wildlife encounter of the day. It kept diving down for fish and then bobbing up again. We were so close that we could see its whiskers. It obviously wasn’t a common sight at Hendon as all the dog walkers commented on it to us. One chap took 10 minutes trying to get a photo. The other thing we discovered at Hendon beach was a new way to walk one’s dog. A man drove down to the prom, which was just wide enough to take a car. He then decanted 2 Dobermans who proceeded to chase after the car as their master drove it at speed to the far end of the prom and back. Then he let them back into the car again and drove off. Job done!

From Hendon we could see a pier and lighthouse way off to the south. This was Seaham, our destination. Saying good bye to the seal, we walked up on to the grassy clifftops and headed south. It was easy walking and such a relief to be appreciating coastal scenery again, now that the city was at our backs. We once again enjoyed views of deserted beaches, cliffs and pointy stacks. A couple of times we headed slightly inland to negotiate a dene, a wooded valley formed by glaciation at the end of the last ice age. Ryhope Dene was the prettiest. We waded through bracken and undergrowth and skirted woods before we were delivered back to the sea-coast again. The cliff tops were adorned with lovely meadows of wild flowers and tall grasses. One stretch of flowering thistles, rose-bay willow herb and vivid red poppies was particularly pretty. It was like a Monet painting. It was around this point that a mountain-bike rider caught up with us and stopped to talk. It was Vincent, the Guest House owner from Seaburn. We had inspired him to get on his bike and follow  our route. It was a now a lovely day for cycling and walking, with frequent sunny periods and that nasty shower just a distant memory.

Finally, after a walk of around 11 miles, we reached Seaham, announced by a car park, a busy beach and an ice cream parlour. ( Tony Minchellas delicious ice cream is the most popular in the Sunderland area.)  Now, at last, we officially left greater Sunderland and entered County Durham proper — “Land of the Prince Bishops.” Catherine took a picture of me by the road sign, instructing me to look like a Prince Bishop. I don’t think they carried heavy ruck-sacks in those days though. Soon, to our right, we could see an old church and the historic Seaham Hall. I’ve not checked but I guess it was built around the early 19th century. Apparently Lord Byron got married there to the daughter of a local landowner. The marriage didn’t last long but Seaham still exploits the connection by naming its shopping mall, Byron Place.

Seaham is an old coal town now trying to reinvent itself as a resort. It recognises its history through information boards and sculpture. We learnt about the coal trucks thundering down the hill to the docks. At the waiting staithes ( coal-loading piers), they would open-up at the bottom and decant their loads on to chutes that led to the holds of  waiting ships. A striking metal sculpture showed 3 miners ready to descend into the pit. It was titled: “The Brothers — Waitin’ t’ gan down.” The grandest building in the town is the former Londonderry Offices. From here,  the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry’s estates and coal mines were run. It’s a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bloomsbury or on the Liverpool riverside next to the Liver Building. The Marquess himself lived in the aforementioned Seaham Hall, which is now a spa and a luxury hotel.

However, the most striking sight in Seaham was a giant, steel statue of a British soldier at the end of the ordeal of the First World War. It’s called “Tommy” and was created by Ray Lonsdale. It stands 9 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 1.2 tonnes. The soldier is slumped in a seat, looking exhausted and traumatised, reflecting on the horrors he has witnessed and endured. He’s propped-up by his rifle and still wears his tin helmet. The soldier stares out at the viewer with blank eyes and a glazed expression. Originally “Tommy” was only going to be in Seaham for 3 months, as part of the town’s commemoration of the Great War a century ago. However, the towns- people, helped by donations from an increased number of visitors , have purchased it, so that it can act as a permanent memorial. ( and visitor attraction!)

The town is a hotch- potch of old and new. Near the ancient church of St Mary’s ( one of the 10 oldest in the country) is a new health centre. Near the modern mall is the original main shopping drag, Church Street, which is pedestrianised but quiet. At night all the shops are hidden behind metal shutters which hint that there has been a vandalism problem. We found our guest house with the help of some ladies in a hairdressing salon. One custoner, her hair glistening with red dye, phoned her husband up on her mobile and he put us in the right direction. The Adolphus Guest House, although in an obscure place ( Adolphus Street West) was comfortable and fine. It was run by a couple with 6 dogs but they kept them very quiet. Most of the eating places in Seaham are daytime cafes, ice-cream parlours or fast food take-aways. We ate at the only restaurant we could find — an Italian based in a converted pub just off the main square — Marinos. The food was delicious and the service very good. Finally we walked back to our guest house past the floodlit church and hit the sack. The second day of our trek was over.