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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?

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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.

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

No Peace at the Piece Hall!

2 Aug

1. HOPES IN PIECES.

Halifax was going to be the highlight of our summer 2016 bus pass tour of West Yorkshire.  We descended into it on the 503 double-decker from Huddersfield, talking to an old lady about her little dog, Doris. When I saw the town’s sign, the excitement started to mount inside me. Yes, I know you must think I’m daft as Halifax is not noted as a hot tourist destination, but I was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of ticking off a long-time resident of my British “bucket list”: the Grade 1 listed Piece Hall, built in 1779. It’s not everyday that one gets to see a major 18th century building. When the hall was built, the French Revolution was still ten years in the future.

The Piece Hall has been described as magnificent and unique, a huge building where thousands of pieces of woollen cloth were bought and sold over many years. It consists of 4 colonnaded sides, 2 stories high at one end and 3 stories high at the other.( it is built on a hillside, as most buildings are in Halifax.) The columns enclose a very large central space where the wool markets were regularly held. It’s like a Greek or Roman temple except it was devoted to industry rather than to ancient gods. Here, in 315 rooms, hand-loom weavers from the surrounding towns and villages would display and sell their pieces of worsted cloth. The Piece Hall transformed Halifax into the commercial capital of the whole region. It’s a miracle that such a historically and architecturally important building has survived the ravages of time for nearly two and a half centuries. And now, I was going to see it! I had given it the big build up to Chris and now it was only minutes away.

However, as we approached, there was obviously something wrong! The entrance was covered in scaffolding and was blocked by barriers. Inside, we glimpsed piles of rubble and dumper trucks were moving around in clouds of dust. A workman in a yellow hard-hat was turning some other disappointed visitors away.  Yes — the Piece Hall was closed. A major 2 year refurbishment which should have finished in the spring of 2016, was still very much ongoing. Our hopes were in pieces. There was no peace at the Piece Hall!

So what were we to do? We were tourists in a non-tourist town and the main place we had come to see was a no-go area. The man in the hard-hat explained that he wasn’t allowed to give us even a brief, sly peek, because of the dreaded “health and safety” rules. He had let some other visitors have a quick look but had been “bollocked” by his boss. Apparently, in the previous week, he had had to turn away a whole coachload of German tourists who had travelled to Halifax specifically to see the historical Hall. The work was running seriously behind schedule because of financial cut-backs of the Tory government’s “Austerity Britain.” Now, the “Leave” vote in the recent European Union referendum was going to pose another serious threat, because much of the money for this prestigious project comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund.

Back at the Premier Inn, the chirpy young lad at reception told us another big reason for the Piece Hall delay. While restoring the main courtyard, the workers had unearthed around 200 medieval bodies. So work had to stop while the archaeologists carried out their excavation. They found that the Hall had been partly built on top of an ancient churchyard!

The closed Piece Hall doubly snookered our plans as the Tourist Information Office was supposed to be in there, according to our Rough Guide of Yorkshire. We found out it was temporarily located in the central library, except that when we got there, we found out that Halifax library closes on Wednesdays. Guess which day we arrived on? Our hopes for Halifax were fading fast.

2. HANDSOME VICTORIANA.

But all was not lost. First of all, Halifax is, in my opinion, quite a handsome stone-built Victorian town. It has some fine public buildings. It is surrounded by a dramatic girdle of hills and moors.( the south Pennines.) We admired the stately, twin-turreted Victoria Theatre, named after a Queen who never visited it as it opened a month after she sadly died.( the opening was in February, 1901.)  The town has a spectacular Lloyds Bank HQ, yet another neo-Classical temple. Then we discovered the wonderfully atmospheric Borough Market ( 1896), a great place for people- spotting and sampling everyday Halifax life. Chris was very confused by the warren-like, old fashioned Ladies toilets. She entered through one door but somehow re-emerged through another. She still doesn’t know how she did it! The market has a decorative cast iron and glass roof, culminating in an eye-catching central dome.  Beneath this is an elaborate old clock guarded by 4 blue dragons. Around its base was a colourful, circular fruit and veg stall.

Halifax is not a tourist town. We didn’t see any postcards to send home to our mums. We struggled to find a decent café although I’m sure it has some secreted away. It is a busy, everyday town, which for me is part of the attraction. All the honey-coloured stone buildings contrasted with the sharp, shiny angles of the modern Halifax Building Society headquarters. ( now part of HBOS). It was once the country’s largest supplier of mortgages. Both Chris and I got our first home loans there. It is still one of the biggest employers in Halifax. In its large tinted windows I saw the reflections of its grand Victorian cousins.

3. SURVIVOR OF PURITANS AND VANDALS.

Leaving out the Piece Hall, the undoubted stars of Halifax town centre are the Minster and the Town Hall. We enjoyed visiting both. The Minster, first established 900 years ago, has many 16th and 17th century features. Outside it is smoke blackened, a legacy of its proximity to all those smoking mill chimneys of the recent industrial past. Being made of relatively soft sandstone, it has not been possible to clean it without causing irreparable damage. The Church of St John the Baptist, as it’s officially called, has a fine tower and dramatic, dark gargoyles sticking out from just below the roof line. A church member pointed out a deep dint in the wall near the entrance, caused by a parliamentary cannon-ball in the English Civil War of the 1640’s. Inside is a fancy Tudor font cover and delicately carved 17th-century boxed pews, a fairly rare occurrence. There were some Victorian and modern stained glass, but the most memorable windows were the plain ones. Puritan church rules in Cromwell’s time ( 1650’s) meant that the colourful glass had to be taken out. Nothing was supposed to distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. However, this planned back-fired somewhat in Halifax because the delicate  lead-tracery that holds the glass in place was(is) exquisitely beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Unfortunately, these lovely old windows have been damaged by vandals and would-be burglars 3 times in the past month, at great expense to the poor congregation. It seems that the iconoclasts did not exclusively live in the mid 17th century!

As we looked round the Minster, we were entertained by a musician practising for a recital on the very old organ later that morning. It had an impressive array of shining pipes. The music added to the spiritual atmosphere. We had trouble making our donations because the 2 volunteers were furiously making teas and buttering scones for the expected influx of visitors.

4. STAR TOWN HALL AND CELEBRITY ARCHITECT.

The other star of Halifax town centre is the Town Hall. built in 1863. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the famous architect of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was actually completed by his son, Edward Middleton Barry, following his father’s death in 1860. In 2008, it was voted as one of the top 10 Town halls in Britain by “Architect Today” magazine. It certainly is impressive. It is a masterpiece of the “high Victorian style” and was opened by the Prince of Wales( the future King Edward VII). No less than 85,000 people turned up for the Royal occasion. It must  have been one of the busiest days in the town’s entire history.

So why had a celebrity architect and the heir to the throne both been attracted to a small Yorkshire town which even today is not a tourist attraction? The answer is carpets! John Crossley, who commissioned the Town Hall, owned the biggest carpet mill in the world. It was in Dean Clough, a deep ravine just outside the town centre. His massive mill complex  ( in the end around 13 mills in all), is still there, in its restored form. They’ve done a great job, as it’s a spectacular sight, looking at it from the old iron bridge that still crosses the ravine.( along with modern concrete flyovers.) The mills are now used by modern businesses, shops, restaurants and galleries. We visited it during our stay. Crossley became very wealthy and influential through his development of steam-powered looms, clever use of patents and political activities. At its peak, in 1900, the business he created employed around 5000 workers. Crossley used his wealth and status to win a contest to build the town’s new Town Hall. He was able to attract a famous London architect to design Halifax’s most imposing public building. The road it is on is, not surprisingly, called Crossley Street. Crossley had managed to put his little home town on the map and secure his own lasting legacy.

The Town Hall has an impressive steeple with a clock and a carved figure on each of its 4 sides. The stone carvings represent :Europe, Africa, Asia and America, reminding everyone that at the time, Britain ruled the greatest Empire the World had ever seen. Inside is a grand staircase, a lovely blue and gold glass dome and ornamental plaster work with a repeated “H” motif. After we got past the rather gruff male receptionist at the top of the stairs, we stepped into the magnificent Victoria Hall. It has a stained glass ceiling featuring 12 little domes, marble columns and arch ways and a tiled floor featuring the town’s coat of arms in the centre. Here we met John the Baptist again.( remember him from the Minster?) He is the patron saint of wool weavers, a reminder of where all this wealth and splendour came from. On the fancy, wrought iron balcony of the upper floor, John’s severed head is frequently repeated. Beneath it are 3 vivid red drops of blood, a grisly reference to the saint’s fate at the hands of the spurned Salome.

Even the Gents’ toilets were magnificent. They had decorative tiles, marble sinks and urinals and shiny brass taps and pipes. I thought about taking a photo but didn’t want to get arrested! At opposite ends of Victoria Hall are large busts of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, looking over to their son Albert Edward and his wife, Princess Alexandria. Crossley was obviously very keen to ingratiated himself with his Royal patrons.

5. CELEBRITY FACE-OFF.

However, John Crossley wasn’t the only wealthy industrialist keen to make his mark and put Halifax on the map. In the mid-19th century, the textile town experienced a bit of a celebrity face-off! From our 5th floor hotel window, as I looked out on to the nearby hillside, I couldn’t help noticing a Victorian church with a very tall, soaring spire.  It’s the biggest church spire in Halifax. This is All Souls Church, designed by another celebrity architect from London: Sir George Gilbert Scott and paid for by another fabulously wealthy mill owner: Edward Ackroyd. Gilbert Scott had also designed the famous and still very impressive St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel in London. He always claimed that All Souls’ was his finest church. Like Charles Barry, he had been lured to this Yorkshire Pennine town by the money of a rich industrialist, desperate to make a name for himself and secure his legacy. Ego-tripping and celebrity culture are not confined just to the 21st century. The only difference is that in the 19th century, the “celebs” didn’t take to Twitter or pose in gossip magazines; instead they built town halls and churches and put up statues of themselves.

Edward Ackroyd owned textile mills in Halifax and nearby Copley. His mills produced worsted cloth, commonly known as “stuff.” The Ackroyds were the largest worsted manufacturers in the country. Worsted woollen cloth has parallel fibres which don’t trap air so it has a smoother, harder surface and was ( is) cooler to wear than other types of cloth. It’s surprising what you can learn when visiting museums! We visited the charming and quirky Bankfield Museum which used to be Edward Ackroyd’s Italianate -style mansion, built from the profits of his lucrative business. It’s grounds and gardens are now a pleasant and peaceful public park. Ackroyd’s statue stands in front of the church he commissioned in the High-Gothic style. Sadly, the church seems to be closed, a relic of a bygone era, when everyone wanted to ( or were expected to) attend Christian worship. Despite its magnificence, All Souls today looks slightly forlorn.

6. BENEVOLENT PATERNALISM.

On the slopes below the museum and church are the neat houses, shops and squares of Ackroydon, the model village that the mill owner had built for his workers. It’s like a smaller version of Saltaire which fellow industrialist Titus Salt had built in nearby Shipley. Akroyd wanted to look after his employees by giving them decent houses and facilities. However, this no doubt came at the price of individual freedom, as they would have had to follow all their employer’s rules and regulations. It’s another example of Victorian benevolent paternalism that can be found at Saltaire, at the Cadbury family’s Bournville, Robert Owen’s New Lanark near Glasgow , the Fry family in York and various others. It was another era. Sadly the man at the tourist office warned us not to visit Ackroydon after dark as it can be a distinctly dodgy area nowadays. Ackroyd’s vision has faded, his statue is largely ignored and his church lies empty. Still, Ackroyd, like Crossley, had his day and both helped to put Halifax into the national spotlight, at least for a while.

7. A REAL TOWN.

So Halifax has lots of interesting stories to tell and I haven’t even mentioned the infamous guillotine-style gibbet that stands on the edge of the town centre.( its a modern replica of the gruesome original which efficiently despatched many a thief and highwayman.) In spite of its lack of postcards and touristy tea-shops, it is a fascinating place to visit. It’s not on the regular coach tour itinerary or regularly featured in glossy  brochures, but that worked in our favour. We didn’t have to queue to get into places or run the gauntlet of souvenir shops. Halifax is still a real place, not an artificial tourist creation — and all the better for it. And, when the Piece Hall finally reopens, we shall visit it again.

 

 

 

 

Pennine Bus-Hopping — Huddersfield.

24 Jul

It all began when I read the unforgettable opening pages of J B Priestley’s great novel: “The Good Companions.” The reader hovers dizzyingly above the Pennine hills, which form the dark, “knobbly backbone” of northern England. Slowly, as if on some aerial computer image, we zoom in to focus on the central area of uplands, “where the high moorland thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” We hear the lonely cry of the curlew, sweep over brooding, dark peat-bogs and catch glittering glimpses of the moorland tarns. Finally, we home in on a town, a large mill town, with its “host of tall chimneys” and “rows and rows of little houses “climbing up the steep valley-side. This we find is “Bruddersfield”, a thinly disguised amalgam of real-life Huddersfield and nearby Bradford. Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Chris and I decided to visit Huddersfield to discover the modern reality behind Priestley’s classic creation, since he wrote those evocative lines back in 1929.

It was the second of our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass trips, pottering around the old textile towns of the south Pennines, using our free travel-passes.( one of the few perks of being over 60!) In our first odyssey, in 2012, we had explored the hills, moors and mill towns of east Lancashire. This time we were to visit their West Yorkshire cousins. I rather like the idea of holidaying in places that are not recognised resorts. They are not full of people taking selfies in front of famous landmarks but just consist of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I sneakily enjoy the look of incredulity on some peoples’ faces when we tell then where we’re going. I think it’s good to do something unpredictable and to test out my theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it. So Huddersfield it was, followed by Halifax, Hebden bridge and Heptonstall ( all the H’s!)

Thus, on a fine Monday morning in July, 2016 we found ourselves standing at the bus stop at the end of our street waiting for the service 5A to Middlesbrough ( we live in Cleveland on the north-east coast.) Inevitably it was a tense 9 minutes late. We worried about making our first connection. A friend in her car stopped to offer us a lift ( We daren’t tell her we were going to Huddersfield!) We declined her kind offer as we were determined that this was going to be a proper, eco-friendly public transport trip with no cheating. We would see local life, perhaps have impromptu conversations with complete strangers and feel part of a place instead of isolating ourselves in our private metal box. Luckily the 5A appeared at that very moment and we were off. At Middlesbrough we swapped our bus passes for our senior rail cards to take the Trans-Pennine train to Huddersfield via York and Leeds. True to form, it was a half hour late.( signalling problems in the York area.)

Nearly 2 hours later we arrived at a rather grand Huddersfield station and, after grabbing a street map from the info centre, stepped out into a spacious square, surrounded by large, stately Victorian buildings, including the Grade I listed station itself, built in 1846-50. John Betjeman described it as “the most splendid station façade on England.” To picture it, think– classical, Greek temple. At the top of St George’s Square are fountains and a statue of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 70’s, striding purposely forward ( but without his pipe!) He was one of Huddersfield’s most famous sons. To the left is the impressive George Hotel where Rugby League was born in 1895. The northern Rugby Union clubs decided to leave the Union because the largely more prosperous, public-school educated players, mainly from the south, had refused to allow payment of compensation for lost wages when playing. The split was acrimonious — an early example of the North-South divide.

On our first evening, we ate at one of the other grand buildings on the square: a former bank  which has now been converted into a very popular Kashmiri restaurant. it served one of the biggest nan breads I have seen!  So our first impressions were favourable. Maybe we had stumbled across a West Yorkshire version of Bath or Oxford full of historical, harmonious architecture? Second impressions quickly dispelled this however. We discovered the unattractive post-war buildings that took up whole swathes of the town centre. We saw, heard and smelt the road-works as a resurfacing operation was taking place. We experienced the heavy traffic grinding through parts of the centre near the bus station, and found the busy, noisy ring-road which encircled the centre like a tight, tarmac collar. We plunged down into a long, graffitied, concrete underpass! OK — I think you’ll have got the picture by now. The highlights of Huddersfield would have to be sought out — the “gems” amongst the “dross.” It was going to be fun! But first came the short trek to our guest house up the Halifax Road.

We couldn’t help noticing that most of the buildings on our road were substantial, fairly grand, stone mansions, sitting in their own grounds. Many had been converted to offices or hotels. One large, castle-like building was now a college, another a dancing school. Our guest house was in one of them, sharing it with a dental practice. Sadly, some of these mansions or villas are empty and in a state of neglect. It transpired that this area was once the comfortable, middle class district of Edgerton. It was a leafy suburb about a mile from the town centre on the Huddersfield-Halifax turnpike. The mill owners, merchants and other prosperous professionals would commute into town in their horses and carriages, before the age of the motor car. Sometimes there was a jarring clash of taste and style. One writer to the editor of the Huddersfield Courier in 1858 described Halifax Road as “too bewildering an affair to cope with; for you have Grecian temples, Swiss cottages, Gothic castles and Italian villas, all jumbled so closely together as scarcely to allow elbow room.” Many of these Georgian and Victorian residences were demolished to make way for a modern housing estate. ( I suppose they could squash a lot more people into the same area of land.) The survivors though, many in the neo-Classical style, are still impressive, bravely defying the relentless march of time, even though this once exclusive suburb has now been swallowed up by the town where all their owners made their money.

The wealthiest and most famous Huddersfield family was the Ramsdens.( nothing to do with the fish and chip shop chain, I don’t think.) They developed their huge estates agriculturally and then industrially, throwing up the textile mills that created so much of their wealth. They were responsible for many of the impressive civic buildings and also for the linking of Huddersfield to the burgeoning rail system as early as 1850. Later, in 1920, the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Cooperation for £1.3million, earning Huddersfield its nickname: “the town that bought itself.” Despite its large 160,00 to 170,00 population, Huddersfield is still only a town. It has never bothered to apply for city status, although it could easily do so. I read somewhere that it claims to be the largest “town” in Europe.

We started our heritage trail at the impressive, Art Deco, 1930’s Library and Art gallery. The art collection there is very good, including pieces by: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and L S Lowry. ( Huddersfield matchstick people scurrying around in the shadows of the giant mills instead of Salford/Manchester ones.) Outside, by the steps are two  symbolic statues of a boy and a girl, representing the spirits of literature and art.(“Youth Awaiting Inspiration by James Woodford, 1939.) Near the Library is the richly decorated stone Town hall (1881) which doubles up as a concert venue. However, just opposite the lovely library is the controversial, modern Queensgate Market ( 1968-70) which is pretty ugly. Local people either love it or hate it. Surprisingly it is a listed building . Inside are 21 unique, concrete roof-umbrellas, looking like giant curving shells. I was all ready to be impressed and entered the market with camera poised. Unfortunately the concrete shells were mostly obscured by the mundane market stalls, crowded around them. So it was an anti-climax. I’m sure most of the people buying cauliflowers, potatoes or second-hand jewellery don’t even notice them anymore. On the outside of the Queensgate Market however is another surprise. Who would have thought we would come across the world’s largest ceramic sculpture? It consists of 9, brown-toned, large panels, covered in abstract swirls, entitled:” Articulation in Motion”, whatever that means. ( Fitz Steller, 1969.) Once again, these were largely ignored by the locals as far as I could see, especially as they face on to the southern section of the busy ring road.

I think it was brave of Huddersfield to try to embrace the “shock of the new”, instead of just falling back on to its Victorian heritage. The roof-shells and ceramic panels are not really my cup of tea but are certainly more stimulating than the bland diet of uniform shopping malls and chain stores that many town centres, including parts of Huddersfield itself, offer up. Huddersfield, in my opinion is a mish-mash of the old and new, the original and the mundane. It’s just like most towns really. Maybe one has to have the one, in order to appreciate the other.

We explored a couple of old arcades with interesting, independent shops and had a quick look at the Parish Church, even though its pretty gardens were frequented by quite a few unfortunate down and outs. This is a side of a town not highlighted in the tourist brochures. We enjoyed visiting the late Victorian Wholesale Market, like a vast car boot sale under a splendid wrought iron and glass, curving roof. The actual open -air market- place was interesting too, with its market cross featuring the Ramsden Coat of Arms. It’s surrounded by fancy, old Victorian and Edwardian banks. Their ornate stonework and statues contrast with the flickering screens of their modern cash points.

Another gem we found nestling amongst the everyday, was the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Queen Street, built in 1819. One side of Queen Street is stately Victorian buildings, whilst the other is unbelievable taken up by a multi-storey car-park! Going back to the theatre, it had originally been constructed as one of the biggest Wesleyan Chapels in the country, following a visit from John Wesley himself. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Wesley seems to have passed through almost every town in England, judging from the number of plaques I have read over the years. Lawrence Batley was a local businessman who helped pay for the theatre conversion and thus immortalised himself, at least in Huddersfield. Our jaws dropped as we entered the foyer because we were met by a wonderful display of colourful fantasy costumes created  by the graduates of the adjoining University for their Leavers’ show.

Contrary to the traditional image of the gruff, brusque Yorkshireman ( and woman), we found Huddersfield to be an open and very friendly place. In fact at times it was a bit too friendly, as when we had to make an excuse and flee from the Oxfam book shop because a man was regaling us with all the gory details of an argument he had had with his wife because he had spent £250 of the housekeeping money on 3 military medals in a display box! We also found Huddersfield to be quite multi-cultural. We found Persian and Lebanese restaurants as well as the usual array of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian outfits. In the art gallery we saw an exhibition of photographs of refugees from all over the world being welcomed to Huddersfield, something that was very heartening in post-“Brexit” Britain, with its sharp increase in racial and anti-immigrant incidents.

Priestley’s dark mill town, with its cloth-capped working men trudging en masse to the football ground, has now changed beyond all recognition. For a start the football matches now take place in a modern, all- seater, out- of- town stadium, constructed for the convenience of the car. The woollen mills have closed, their chimneys demolished. The trams have bitten the dust and many of the hill-side terraces have gone. The motor car has taken over. For many travellers, Huddersfield is now merely a convenient short stop-over, just south of the M62. Most of the hotels and guest houses are situated near to the motorway. I imagine the town is less self-contained than in Priestley’s day, with many residents  commuting to Manchester or Leeds for their work and their bigger items of shopping. However, the town’s glorious past as a wealthy centre of the woollen textile industry has not been totally extinguished. All those fine Victorian civic buildings remain, as do the mansions and villas on the Halifax Road. Then there are the atmospheric, early 19th century alleys and courtyards off King Street, restored during the construction of a modern shopping mall on the opposite side of the road. This juxtaposition of old and new, existing cheek by jowl, perhaps best sums up the contradictions of the place.

One thing that will never change is the town’s setting, nestling between the brooding Pennine hills and moors. As we walked back to our guest house on our final evening, I looked beyond the rooves of the immediate town, to two, prominent wooded hills beyond. On one hill was a dark church tower, probably blackened by the belching mill chimneys of the past. On the higher hill we saw the stone Victoria (lookout) Tower, built in 1899 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s a landmark for miles around. Back in 2012, we had trecked up to a similar tower in the Lancashire mill town of Darwin. However, the Huddersfield tower is much further away and we are 4 years older, so we just admired it from afar. All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit and it whetted our appetites for Halifax, the next “H” on our bus- pass trip. Moreover, as soon as I got home, I searched the book shelves for my copy of “The Good Companions”, to re-read  that wonderfully evocative introduction to Priestley’s beloved “Bruddersfield.”