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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.”

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.

Mad Kings and Mass Tourism.

2 Nov

Being a History buff, I’m a sucker for castles. Living in the north east of England I am spoilt for choice as there are numerous fine examples within an easy day trip. The Normans built them to consolidate their hold over the country they conquered in 1066AD and, in my neck of the woods, to guard against marauding Scots.  They are some of my favourite places, providing enduring fascination. Some are now museums, some are stately homes and others just picturesque ruins. Most of my castle visits have been shared with just a sprinkling of other people, the only exceptions in Britain being The Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle, which are both on the international tourist trail, and Warwick Castle, which has been transformed into a major entertainment venue by the Tussauds organisation. It seems to me that usually, castles are a bit of an acquired taste.

So it came as a massive surprise to find that when I decided to visit a German castle in the Alps of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world. At first I couldn’t understand why. It is situated in a fairly remote, rural area. It is a 3 hour journey by train and bus  from the nearest city (Munich). Even when  one gets to the village below the castle ( Hohenschwangau), there is a stiff 30 to 40 minutes walk up a hill, or one faces a very long queue to board a crowded bus or  horse- drawn wagon. The crowds are so vast that one can only visit Neuschwanstein on a guided tour and these have to depart every 5 minutes throughout a 9 hour day to accommodate everyone in the high tourist season. Even then, many people are turned away as they have arrived too late. One reviewer on Trip Adviser gave up his plans to visit the castle after learning that the queue for a ticket was 2 hours long and then there would be a further 5 hour wait before finally getting in. I had seen photos of the castle perched on a precarious rock , surrounded by mountains and had imagined a quiet, rather lonely place, cut off from the world in splendid isolation. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The place was heaving, and this was in September, outside the main tourist season. So I didn’t get much peace and there was little opportunity for quiet reflection. Maybe I should have done more research before going to Neuschwanstein. Even a cursory glance at Trip Adviser reveals mass adulation for the place. The last time I checked, it had attracted no less than 858 reviews!

So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this particular castle, tucked away in an obscure corner of Germany, attracted such a massive following? Every year it is visited by 1.4 million people. In summer, 6000 visitors a day stream through rooms only intended for one inhabitant. Neuschwanstein is one of the most popular castles or palaces in the whole of Europe. Why? What is even more astonishing is that it is not even a real, authentic castle. It’s a 19th century fake. In Britain, we would call it a “folly”, not the genuine article. It is actually the realisation of a King’s fantasy. Although loosely based on a medieval model it was largely conceived inside the King’s head, a product of his vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. That King was Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, and it is his colourful back-story that partly explains the castle’s immense popularity.

Many people these days don’t seem to mind if something is a fake or not. From imitation “Rolex” watches to false eye-lashes; from spray tans to tribute groups — people don’t seem to care so much whether something is real or counterfeit. So why worry if a so-called “medieval” castle was not actually built in the Middle Ages or that it has never been involved in a battle and was never intended to? This castle was an eccentric monarch’s fantasy home. Ludwig had a megalomaniacal passion for creating fantastic architectural projects. Neuschwanstein was never meant to be an instrument of war. It is a fantastical confection of towers and spires, spectacularly situated on a high rocky ledge above a river gorge.  It has the elements of a castle but is merely an extravagant invention. Since the arrival of gunpowder into Europe at the end of the 15th century, the original fortified castle had been largely made redundant anyway. I believe it is the fantasy element that has fascinated so many people and goes a long way to explain the great popularity of this place. People don’t just come to see the building, they come to hear about the “Mad King”.

Ludwig II was really a king without a kingdom as in 1871, Bavaria had been incorporated into the newly unified Germany led by Prussia. It was the King of Prussia who became German Emperor, not Ludwig. He was reduced to the role of vassal. Although Ludwig was convinced that he had been chosen by God to rule, he never had any real powers.  Disappointed with the real world, he began to have Neuschwanstein built in 1868. It was here where he hoped to escape into a dream world based on the myths and legends of the Middle Ages which he was so enraptured by. These were the themes of the powerful operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired. Wagner would give private recitals to the King in his other pseudo-medieval castle at Hohenswangau down in the valley. The new mock castle was dedicated to Wagner and decorated with large picture cycles based on the stories told in his operas. The interiors are thus adorned with medieval Kings and knights, poets and lovers. They also prominently feature the swan, the heraldic creature of the royal courts of Swangau and also the Christian symbol for purity. Ludwig saw himself as a pure, ethereal messenger of God, sent to earth on a divine mission.

Yet the Middle Ages appearance of  Neuschwanstein is just an illusion. Behind the medieval façade lies a very modern building for its time. It has hot- air central heating, running water on every floor, hot and cold water in the kitchens, flushing toilets, electric bells to summon the servants and a lift to carry the King’s meals up to his chambers. Beneath limestone cladding, the building is really made of brick, not stone like the original castles. The spectacular Throne Room which also doubles up as a chapel, incorporates a steel frame. I think this intoxicating mix of the new and the old is another reason why so many people are drawn to visit it. The Throne Room was inspired by Byzantine churches. It features an enormous chandelier, a cupola decorated with stars and a beautiful mosaic floor featuring plants and animals. It’s all a bit “over the top” and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there myself, but it makes for a fascinating visit.

Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a retreat. He allowed virtually no-one to visit him there. It is therefore richly ironic that vast numbers of people now come to visit what was supposed to be a private refuge. Here he lived out his fantasy life. From 1875, Ludwig lived mainly at night and slept during the day. He spent less time in his capital, Munich, and more and more time up in the mountains. He travelled around on elaborate coaches and sleighs. Sometimes he wore historical costume. Ludwig identified himself with Parsival, a legendary medieval figure who was famed for his purity. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s castle- building turned into an expensive obsession. He had several other castles built as well as Neuschwanstein. He got into great debt, and the foreign banks he had borrowed heavily from began to close in. The king’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre and erratic. Finally the Bavarian Government, supported by his family, declared him insane and deposed him in 1886. His brother has previously been certified as well. Ludwig was interned at Berg Castle. The very next day he drowned in mysterious circumstances in Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had declared him insane. They were found in only a few feet of water.  These mysterious deaths have never been properly explained. Did Ludwig take his own life because he couldn’t live with the humiliation and disgrace? Did he and his psychiatrist make a suicide pact? We will never know. It is this mystery that has added spice to the tale of “Mad King Ludwig”. I believe that it is this strange story with a mystery at its heart that helps to draw thousands of tourists to this remote place. It has certainly been hyped by the modern tourist authorities. You can now buy: Ludwig tea-towels, Ludwig chocolates, Ludwig mugs, Ludwig calenders, etc etc. This rather sad, deluded man has become a tourist cash-cow. People love a mystery, and to misquote Churchill, Ludwig is “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”

So, we’re beginning to get to the bottom of why this fake castle in Bavaria is such a massive tourist draw. It is in a spectacular mountain location. It was built for an intriguing, mysterious character( though never finished in his lifetime). It is an eccentric mix of the ancient and modern. On top of all this, it is a perfect fantasy version of a castle rather than being hampered with the imperfections of the real thing. But the biggest reason behind Neuschwanstein’s phenomenal popularity, I believe, is it’s connection with the Disney Organisation, which has made “fantasy” its stock in trade. Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the cartoon film of the same name. It was also the template for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks.  It’s image is replicated in the Disney Tourist Parks in the States, Hong Kong and Paris. The shape of Neuschwanstein also features on the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, Disney TV, Disney Music Group and Walt Disney Studios. In other words, it has been placed at the very centre of 20th and 21st Century popular culture.  I think this is the real reason why it is so overwhelmingly popular. People see it as the archetypal “fairy-tale” or “story-book” castle. Instead of a real castle, it is Disney’s imitation of an imitation that has come to represent a castle in the modern, global public’s consciousness.

I doubt  whether many of those tourists are serious students of history or architecture. Neither do I believe that many of those who flock to see Neuschwanstein have read the biography of so-called “Mad King Ludwig” and are desperateto to see where he lived. The mountain location is stunning but this is still not the main reason for the tourist stampede. I believe it is the power of  the Disney cultural empire that brings so many to this corner of Germany. I hate using the word, but this castle has become “iconic”. The hype of the Disney organisation has sold this imaginary image of a romantic, medieval castle to the world. It is an idea of a castle rather than the real thing. This is why when I went there, even though it was slightly out of season, I had to fight for space with fellow tourists from all over the world. I met Europeans, Americans, Australians, Kiwis and especially Asian people. That is why I counted 30 large coaches parked up by 11 am and noted that the small village of Hohenschwangau has 5 enormous car parks ( all full). This is why this tiny rural settlement has: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guesthouses, and all the other trappings of a mass-tourist hot-spot. It’s certainly not your average peaceful Alpine village. The bells of the cows in the meadows are drowned out by the drone of the traffic and the clicking of a thousand cameras. This is why I had to duck and dive amongst the selfie-sticks and queue for everything. The trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” The density of the crowds means that it  can be more like a rugby scrum than an historical or educational visit. Any vestige of a medieval atmosphere ( fake though it is), is extinguished by the pressure of the constant crowds.

Despite all this it was still worth the visit. The wonderful location, the fantasy nature of the castle, the mysterious back story, all make for a memorable occasion. Even the tourist hordes are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. I can also add that one can fairly easily escape the crowds by walking along the lovely shoreline of the nearby Alpsee lake. From here you can view both the upper and lower castles ( Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau), in their proper Alpine setting.

My wife, Chris, and I stayed in the nearby town of Fussen. It’s a picturesque, historical place, with attractive old buildings festooned with illusionist paintings, a monastery and its own castle. It had a sprinkling of tourists but when we visited the beautiful baroque monastery and the interesting schloss up on the hill, we virtually had them to ourselves. We met less than a dozen other  tourists in the whole of our 2 hour visit. Only 3 miles away the mass tourist hordes were pouring in to Neuschanstein. It’s the power of hype and the power of popular culture. That is why it has ended up on so many people’s “bucket lists” — a must-see sight that has to be ticked off. We met an American on the train down from Munich, who had come all that way just to see that one castle. He wasn’t interested in anything else and was returning to the city as soon as he had made his brief visit. Everyone to their own I know, but I find it difficult to understand this approach to travel. I like to stay in an area for several days at least and soak in the atmosphere. But many don’t stay. They flock to see this “fairy tale” caricature of a castle before rushing on to the next thing on their tick list.

It was a memorable experience for me but I cannot wait to get back to the genuine castles in my home region, where I will have space to breathe and where visitors are generally there for the history rather than the fantasy. It’s so strange that an out and out replica can become so much more popular than the genuine article. Still “that’s life”, as they say, or in this case “that’s Mass Tourism.” One can only imagine what “Mad King Ludwig”, so jealous of his privacy, would think if he returned to his former retreat today. At least all those tourists have paid off  his debts and have given his estate such a handsome profit which accumulates every year!

LEAVING THE BEATEN TRACK. ( In North Notts.)

25 Jul

Every journey can end up as a mystery tour. This can easily happen even if the destination and route have been meticulously planned in advance. This explains the excitement of travel. When I set off I always get that feeling of nervous expectation in the pit of my stomach. What am I going to see? Whom am I going to meet? What am I going to learn?

Recently, my wife, Chris, and I drove from the North East to the South coast of England for a family visit. It’s a long trail so we decided to break the journey in Nottinghamshire. It’s one of those midlands counties that many merely pass straight through on their way to more obvious destinations. Nottinghamshire has few famous attractions that demand a visit. Nottingham itself is a large city but I have only ever visited it to watch Notts Forest football matches in the Brian Clough era. ( They won the European Cup twice in the late 70’s and early 80’s.) Other than that, I have largely associated the county with vast Sherwood Forest and the legends of Robin Hood. The tales of Robin, his girlfriend Maid Marion, and his Merry Men, robbing the rich to help the poor in the reign of “bad” King John, are emblazoned in my memory because they featured in the first television programme I ever saw. It starred Richard Greene. It always started with a fanfare of trumpets, then an arrow whizzed through the air and  thudded dramatically into an oak tree. The stories have since been given Hollywood glitz by Kevin Costner and co, but I’ll always remember those early, flickering black and white TV pictures from the late 1950s.

Nottinghamshire also makes me think of the novelist D H Lawrence, who hailed from the small west Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood. Since college days he has been one of my favourite authors. I remember finding novels such as “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” so vivid and intense that  reading them made me feel dizzy. I suppose they sent me into a sort of swoon. It’s not often that that happens. Lawrence’s books featured smouldering heroes and heroines struggling to cling on to their individuality, freedom and spontaneity amidst the crushing pressures of industrialisation and urbanisation. Eastwood, when Lawrence was young in the latter years of the 19th century, was dominated by ten coalmines. The overwhelming majority of young men in the town were destined to become black-faced colliers. I can just imagine the young Lawrence vowing to himself that he’d never end up going down the “pit”. I can empathise with his predicament as I grew up just across the county border in north-east Derbyshire, another area dominated by winding wheels and slag heaps. I too was determined not to disappear down a deep hole and  chose the chalk face (of teaching) over the coal face.

However, I digress. I suppose my excuse is that like journeys, writing does not always arrive at interesting places by travelling only in straight lines. This road journey to the south , included north Nottinghamshire but only as a stopover. I’ve always believed in treating the journey as part of the holiday experience. We stopped in Newark, an historical river port and market town. I’d already visited a couple of times in recent years, exploring its atmospheric ruined castle by the river and its narrow streets and lanes leading to an impressive, spacious market square. But the biggest thing about Newark for many travellers is that it is on the busy A1 and the busy East Coast mainline between Newcastle upon Tyne and London Kings Cross. Until recently, I’d merely glanced at its lofty church spire as I sped north or south. Now it was to be a place to rest our weary heads before driving on the next morning. Our hotel, just off the motorway, was full of people with similar notions. Lorry drivers and travelling business people dominated the breakfast room along with a couple of families journeying to holidays or special events further north or south. One group at an adjoining table had come up from the south and were travelling on to Carlisle for a wedding.

As we consumed our breakfast, it felt as if we were in a large transit camp with everyone eager to hit the road and return to the frenetic “madness” of Britain’s motorways. We were soon to join them en-route to Hampshire, but our memories and camera cards had already been filled with images of an unexpected gem we had discovered just down the road the previous day — Southwell.

It’s a genteel, handsome little town, hidden in the green, rolling folds of the countryside. It had an attractive collection of  Georgian mansions, Britain’s only fully preserved example of a Victorian Workhouse, and a magnificent  Minster which was officially re-designated as a Cathedral in the 1880s. Southwell also threw up several interesting mysteries and questions. Why did a tiny, obscure town of less than 7000 people have such a large and impressive place of worship? Why did it have a large wicker-work representation of an apple in its Bishop’s Palace gardens? Why did Southwell’s most historical public house change its name following a fateful King’s visit. What on earth were the mysterious “Prebends”? Finally — how had such a lovely town escaped the devastation of the industrial revolution which had scarred much of the area surrounding it?

I have to come clean and admit that we didn’t visit Southwell purely by chance. My sister and brother in law had already tipped me off. However, it still threw up lots of interesting and unexpected stuff. It’s the Minster that dominates the scene. It is still mostly referred to as a Minster despite its cathedral status. Its twin pepper-pot towers can be seen for miles around. It’s a Norman church built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon predecessor. Underneath it there are also the remains of a sumptuous Roman villa. So it seems that the area has been settled for a very long time. Just near the town runs the route of the Roman Fosse Way which has now been turned into a very fast and very straight A46. In Saxon times, Southwell was a place of pilgrimage as its church contained the bones of Saint Eadburgh, the Abbess of Repton. Whenever I visit a place I try to work out why it grew up in that particular location. Is it on a major river, perhaps at a bridging or fording point? Is it on an important crossroads, servicing the needs of travellers coming from four different directions? Is it a port or the centre of an important industry? Is it the main market centre for its region? In the case of Southwell, the answer to all these questions is “no”. This puzzled me for a while. Where had it sprung from? Then I figured it out. It grew up here because of the church. It was an important religious centre. Thus it is most fitting that the town is still dominated by its Minster (Cathedral). It still attracts pilgrims but today these are mostly of the non-religious, tourist variety. It’s status as a religious centre attracted the wealthy to live there and this in turn protected it from the ravages of the industrial revolution.

It seems strange today, living in a predominantly secular society, that the Church could have the power to create and control a whole community. Yet that is precisely what happened in Southwell and many other places in the past. It must have been so simple in medieval England. Most people, in normal times, travelled no further than a day’s walk from their village in their entire lifetime. One had to obey without question the commands of the Norman Lord of the Manor, even to the extent of fighting and dying for him on some far off battlefield. Finally, one omnipotent church, headed by the Pope, controlled everyone’s spiritual beliefs and practices. There was no alternative to Roman Catholicism. This was before the Reformation which gave people a choice of churches and before the “Age of Reason” which gave us alternative philosophies and theories about life and death. Back in the Middle Ages, if anyone rebelled against the Catholic Church, he or she would be branded as a heretic and ran the risk of being burnt at the stake. It was a spiritual dictatorship. Everyone believed in Heaven and Hell, and in the struggle between God and the Devil. Intimidating priests threatened people with eternal damnation if they didn’t follow the church’s rigid rules. The Catholic Church’s dictatorship extended to levying taxes on the ordinary people. These were seen as down-payments on that place in heaven that was reserved for you if you were good and conformed to the rules.

It was during these times that Southwell was created. Up to the 12th century, Nottinghamshire parishioners paid their church dues to the Archbishop of York. However in 1108AD, these payments were diverted into the building of the Church of St Mary in Southwell. It was constructed on a magnificent scale, much bigger and grander than a run-of-the-mill Parish church. The Notts parishioners were then released from their obligation to visit York Minster annually. Instead they were able to visit Southwell Minster on a more local pilgrimage, in exchange for remission of their sins. Their subsequent church tithes and other taxes went to Southwell instead of York. Similar arrangements were made in Ripon ( North Yorkshire) and Beverley ( in East Yorkshire or Humberside.) Thus, all three places, Southwell, Ripon and Beverley, now have very impressive Minsters/Cathedrals even though they are only small towns. When the Archbishop of York went on a tour of his huge church estates, he needed places to stay, so Bishop’s Palaces were built next to his major churches. Southwell has one of these too except the palace has been partly in ruins since its brutal occupation by Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War, back in the 1640’s. They actually stabled their horses there!

Southwell Cathedral is still very impressive. It has a large central tower and two taller towers at its west front. The large wooden Norman doors are surrounded by fancy dogtooth decoration. Inside, the nave is flanked by massive stone towers linked by rounded archways. This heavy Norman-style architecture gives way to more delicate pointed arches in the choir. These were added in the 13th century in the Early English Gothic style. There is also a spectacular, octagonal Chapter House decorated with stone carvings representing naturalistic foliage. This is one of the earliest examples of this type of carving in England. Our eyes were also drawn to the large stained glass windows. Many of these used to have plain glass to let maximuim light in, until the Victorians added their contributions. Ironically, the window that impressed us most was the most modern. The huge 15th century west window had had its plain glass replaced, in 1996, with a spectacular collection of angels in light-coloured stained and painted glass. It was created by Patrick Reyntiens of York — very apt as Southwell Minster was originally formed as an annexe of York.

We left the Minster as it was being taken over by a large group of motor-bikers, gathering for the funeral of one of their own. Many had “Mansfield Rockers” inscribed on the back of their leather jackets. It showed that the church still has the power to pull the unlikeliest people in if the occasion merits in. We visited the remains of the Bishop’s Palace and found out that it been visited by several medieval kings and also served as one of the last refuges of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He had fallen out of favour with King Henry VIII after failing to arrange his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey had left London and gone into exile further north to escape the wrath of the sovereign. It made us think of our recent viewing of the wonderful Hilary Mantel drama “Wolf Hall.” It was strange to imagine Wolsey spending some of his last days in this tiny town  before being summoned back to the capital and dying in the Tower.

The Bishop’s Palace has lovely peaceful gardens with a colourful, Gertrude Jeckll style flower- border. It also has a wild meadow, a labyrinth and a giant wicker- work apple. The latter was because the Bramley cooking apple was discovered in 1809 by Mary Ann Brailsford of Southwell and the  original tree is still in a private garden there. I remember my grandma peeling and slicing bramleys when making an apple pie or crumble. They are popular for their tart, acidic taste and for the fact that they cook up into a smooth puree. The local football team is nicknamed “The Bramleys”, as is the local community newspaper.

The town itself is an attractive collection of mostly Georgian buildings with a lovely tree- shaded green at one end of it. The oldest building however is late medieval — The Saracen’s Head — built in 1463. This later became a coaching inn as Southwell, as we have seen, is just off the Great North Road ( now called the A1.) Its biggest claim to fame however was that King Charles 1 spent his last night as a free man there at the end of The English Civil War in May, 1646.  At the time the inn was called The King’s Head. The next day he surrendered to the Scottish army stationed in Newark. They subsequently sold him to Parliament whose leader, Oliver Cromwell, put him on trial for treason and had him beheaded in January, 1649. I think this is possibly why the King’s Head was renamed. Once poor Charles had been separated from his head, it would have been a sick joke to continue with the old name. To double the irony, Cromwell later stayed in the very same rooms as King Charles Stuart, because his parliamentary troops had smashed up the Bishop’s Palace, where he had planned to lodge.

Near the Saracen’s Head and opposite the entrance to the Minster we came across the mysterious “prebends.” They were big, grand houses set in their own grounds. Apparently, all the surrounding villages had to pay prebends, which were church taxes to pay for the housing of canons and other church officials. The churchmen also claimed a portion of this tax for their stipend, or income. Each house is named after the village that paid for it. It is just another example of the immense power and wealth that the church used to wield. Today most of the houses are in private hands except I noticed that one was still used as a religious retreat.

Southwell’s final claim to fame, apart from the fact that it used to be a temporary home of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, is it’s huge, forbidding Victorian workhouse. Today it’s run by the National Trust which unfortunately closes many of its properties on Mondays. Guess which day we were there? However we did catch a glimpse of the building on the edge of town as we drove back to Newark. The long drive up to it is known as the “Pauper’s Path.” One can only imagine the feeling of deep foreboding the Victorian poor must have felt as they walked up the drive to take refuge there. For most, it was a desperate refuge of last resort. The building, put up in 1824 is very austere. It looks like a prison, which in many ways it was. The workhouse established a harsh regime which was meant to deter all but the absolutely destitute. It was the blueprint for many other workhouses around the country. As one churchman noted : “An empty workhouse is a successful one.” In  some ways the attitude of the Victorian authorities to the poor was similar to that of our present Conservative Government to people on benefits. Both wanted to force unemployed people into low paid work by making the alternative of living off the state, even worse . At Southwell, 160 inmates lived and worked in a strictly segregated environment, separating the old and infirm, the able bodied men and the woman and children. As I said, we didn’t get to see the workhouse, but we will return sometime when we are passing by on the A1. Apparently it’s a really miserable experience!

So I’m pleased we left the motorway and explored just a bit of the countryside that we normally flash by without a thought. A teashop in a little Georgian town is far preferable to the anonymity of a motorway service station. Maybe, we would get more out of modern life if we were  more like the tortoise and less like the hare.

Stockton on Tees – “There’s Nothing There.”

9 Feb

When my friend, Ian, and I told people that we were planning to have a day out in Stockton on Tees in late January, I think we were thought of as slightly mad. After-all, we were authoritatively informed: “there’s nothing there.” However, it all depends on what one is looking for. What may appear to be “nothing” at first glance, may soon be revealed to be something interesting if one has only a cursory dig beneath the surface.
So why go to Stockton? At first there seem more reasons NOT to visit it. It’s a declining industrial town with its fair share of unemployment and poverty. The manufacturing industries that created its wealth — shipbuilding and engineering– have closed down. It’s once busy river port is no more. Many buildings are in a state of decay, or have been boarded up. Stockton sits in a largely forgotten corner of North-East England. It has even found a place in the top 100 of Britain’s infamous “crap towns” listed in the book: ” Crap Towns Returns: Back by Unpopular Demand.” So, plenty of reasons to avoid it then, but we still went and enjoyed it. Why? Is it that we are just plain perverse? No — our answer would be the same as that of a climber asked why he/she wanted to ascend a mountain. The answer is ” because it’s there!” I have a theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.
Places represent people and their everyday lives. Other people’s existances are always interesting. Add-in all the lives of past generations and past centuries, then you’ve let yourself in for a fascinating journey, linking the present with the past. Walking round a town equipped with : eyes, imagination, and a bit of research, can be really stimulating. And so it proved to be with Stockton. We armed ourselves with a town trail obtained from the local Tourist Information Centre and set off on our day of discovery.
Ask most general knowledge buffs about Stockton and they’ll probably come up with one famous fact: the World’s first public railway in 1825 ran from Darlington to Stockton. The line was built by the railway pioneer, George Stephenson. Its purpose was to carry coal from the Durham coalfields around Darlington to the important river port of Stockton in Tees, from where it could be shipped to all corners of the country and beyond. The line actually ran from Shildon to Stockton via Darlington. Initially, the trucks were to be hauled at walking pace by horses. However, Stephenson persuaded the Directors to experiment with the new invention, the steam locomotive. Stephenson himself drove his Locomotion No 1 on that first record breaking journey. The train consisted of a mixture of trucks of coal and flour and passenger coaches. Altogether about 600 to 700 people travelled on that very first steam train journey, clinging on in all sorts of precarious positions. The train featured the world’s first purpose built railway passenger coach “The Experiment”. Stephenson was ably assisted by his friend, fellow engineer and railway pioneer, Timothy Hackworth, who acted as the guard. At the head of the train for much of the 12 mile journey, walked a man with a red flag, an early example of health and safety getting in the way of adventure. Eventually the man with the flag was persuaded to step aside and the train picked up speed a little. However it still averaged less than 10 mph for the entire journey. It was hardly earth shattering stuff but was a dramatic “first”, and Stockton, that “crap” town, was at the centre of this world famous event.
Stockton is now surrounded by busy roads. The major trunk routes of the A19 and the A66 pass to the east and south of it respectively. Crowded 2 or 3 lane roads and busy roundabouts encircle the old town centre. In fact, a noisy dual-carriageway cuts off the centre from the River Tees, which used to be its life-blood. We had to climb up on to a pedestrian bridge to access the waterside. The once bustling port that used to feature 48 working vessels, is no more. All that is left is a pleasure cruiser used in summer and a replica of Captain James Cook’s “Endeavour”, used for entertainment and educational purposes.
Thus there are few hints that Stockton was once a thriving river port, and even fewer clues that it helped to give birth to the railways. A modern metal sculpture, on a grassy bank just outside the centre, depicts that famous first train, complete with the top-hatted flag-waver at its head. However, it significant that this is sited by a road not a railway. Stockton does still have a train station but it is a bit out of the town centre and sits on a branch line off a branch line. The full original line ceases to exist. It used to run along the quayside by the Tees to 4 sets of staithes ( jetties) where the coal was loaded on to ships. Today’s station is on the quiet Durham coast line which meanders its way between Thornaby ( near Middlesbrough) and Newcastle via Hartlepool and Sunderland. There is just one train an hour each way. The current building dates from 1893. It has two quite long platforms linked by a bridge, but it has no staff and no roof. The latter was removed in 1979 because it was in such a bad state of repair. The waiting rooms, booking hall and toilets have gone, to be replaced by a couple of plastic shelters with little perching seats.
Ian and I travelled to this slightly forlorn station from opposite directions. We were the only people to alight from our respective trains. The station was deserted apart from one confused foreign visitor, trying to get to Manchester. It was difficult to imagine that this was a world famous place in railway history. To be fair, the current Stockton station is not in the same location as the former terminus of the 1825 Stockton to Darlington railway. Was it completely devoid of its illustrious history? Well, not quite. As we left the station, we noticed that the old station buildings had been refurbished, added to and turned into apartments named after the railway pioneer Hackworth. It would have been nice if the approach road had been christened George Stephenson Way, but it wasn’t. Just before we headed off for the town, the London to Sunderland Grand Central express, passed through Stockton. It slowed down but didn’t stop. Stockton is now largely divorced from its railway heritage and has been shunted into an obscure siding.
Stockton today is an intriguing mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Although it is surrounded by some fairly depressing, run-down streets, the old medieval core is pretty impressive. (at least, we thought so.) We entered a wide spacious High Street which twice a week hosts North-East England’s largest open air market. The street is flanked by a selection of 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings now put to a variety of commercial uses. Some are neglected and run-down, but we could easily imagine how grand it must have been in its Georgian hey-day. In the centre sits a square, red-brick early 18th century Town Hall. It has 3 stories, an ornate clock tower, a red pan-tiled roof and four, large chimney stacks. Once it had a meeting room for the Mayor and the Aldermen with shops underneath. Nearby is a lovely, little market hall and sitting in-between is a tall, stone column crowned by a plinth and a mysterious monument that looks a bit like an urn. We never found an explanation for it. Maybe next time we should ask one of the locals. This area used to be the site of the medieval tollbooth and a communal smithy. Alongside was the “Shambles” where butchers slaughtered and sold their animals.
Today this big, wide area is being gentrified into a pedestrian plaza which eventually will have: seats, foliage, fancy street lamps and views through to the river. When we were there this January, it was a noisy work in progress with a workman employing a teeth-grinding, stone-cutting machine. Once finished, it will be a far cry from the days of blood and guts in the gutter and the dying moans of doomed livestock.
Stockton existed as an Anglo Saxon settlement but really got going in early Norman times when the town and the borough was founded by the Bishop of Durham in the late 12th century. Initially, it consisted of 12 farms and a Manor House. The latter eventually developed into Stockton Castle, which stood until 1652 when it was demolished on the order of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament. It had been a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil war and had later been occupied by the Scots. Today the site is occupied by the rather ugly Swallow Hotel and Castlegate shopping centre with its indoor market and multi-storey car-park.
When Stockton was declared a Borough, it meant that traders, craftsmen and other business people could move in and develop the land. It was no longer a purely agricultural area. It’s site was the reason for this significant development. It was on a major river and on main road routes heading north and south. In fact Stockton stands at an important crossing point of the River Tees. For many years it was the lowest bridging point of this major waterway. That honour was eventually stolen in the later 19th century by Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, 6 miles further downstream. Stockton also marked the southern border of the Bishop of Durham’s considerable lands and the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.
Despite all of this, the town only developed very slowly in the Middle Ages. It was regularly ravaged by marauding Scots and was also badly affected by the Plague. By the early 17th century it was almost derelict. Then came damaging occupations by Royalist and Scottish troops during the course of the English Civil Wars. Real prosperity only came when a Charter in 1666 granted the town a weekly market and an annual fair. This attracted trade and more prosperous times ensued. By the 18th century the town was doing really well. This is reflected by the considerable number of once fashionable Georgian town houses that are still dotted about the centre today. In the 1700’s, Stockton became a successful ship-building centre, having four shipyards by the end of the century. Sail and rope making were lucrative spin-offs. Stockton by now was a busy river port, exporting lead and agricultural produce and importing wine, raisons, glass, coal and household goods. The coming of the railway in the early 19th century enabled Stockton to expand further. Its population increased from 3700 in 1801 to 13,000 in 1861.
However, this was not as big an increase as might be expected, considering Stockton’s prime location and its connections to important events in the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. Some nearby towns underwent massive population explosions in the same period. Perhaps a big reason for this relative lack of growth was that there was already an enormous cuckoo growing up very quickly in the Tees-side nest. That was Middlesbrough just down the river. It usurped Stockton and other Teesside towns in industrial development especially in the areas of iron and steel, chemicals and shipbuilding. Middlesbrough’s nickname: “Ironopolis” sums up its industrial importance. Hartlepool also eclipsed Stockton in the rapidity and size of its industrial development, including ship-building and engineering. Thus Stockton on Tees was left somewhat in the shade. Maybe however, this wasn’t such a bad thing and was a blessing in disguise from the modern Stockton’s perspective. Some of its grand 18th century buildings have survived instead of being swept away in an headlong rush for development. Thus, these can still be appreciated today. In that earlier prosperous period ( 18th century) the town acquired pavements so its citizens didn’t have to plough through the mud. A stone 5-arched bridge was also constructed to replace the river ferry in 1771. So the place wasn’t exactly an obscure backwater. The 18th century has still clung on in 21st century Stockton and is now once again being appreciated as a glorious chapter in the town’s history.
Two rows of mostly narrow-fronted properties line the wide market place and off it run historical side streets with interesting names :- Ramsgate, Finkle Street, Silver Street, Dovecot Street and West Row. The street names often reveal their original features. For instance, an open air sheep market was once held on Ramsgate. West Row included large warehouses, some of which have been restored. We found that one had been turned into a small shopping mall. ( Regency West Mall sadly was mostly empty.) Finkle, a common street name in the north-east, means a narrow, winding road with a corner or a bend in it. It’s an old Norse name. On Stockton’s Finkle Street we admired 16th to 18th century town houses, some with pilastered doorways. Halfway up the street is a narrow opening leading into the hidden gem of Green Dragon Yard. Stockton’s centre has a number of these old, hidden away 17th and 18th century courtyards accessed by narrow alleyways. Green Dragon Yard has a restored warehouse, a pub, a building converted into a recording studio and England’s oldest surviving Georgian Theatre. The theatre was built in 1766 on to the side of a medieval Tithe barn. It’s been lovingly restored and is an intimate venue for small-scale productions. It was fascinating to spot where the stone of the old barn merged into the small 18th century bricks of the theatre. We walked through more lanes and yards into Silver Street, complete with its row of tiny 18th century cottages. From there it was a short step down to the river.
We stopped for refreshments in a little, late-medieval tea-shop. It was friendly, warm and welcoming. We had been warned that there would be mostly greasy spoon cafes in Stockton, but in fact there was a whole string of tempting teashops. Our café was called “Quaint and Quirky” which is was. I had to carefully mind my head to avoid the low beams. The view from the window partly summed up our Stockton experience. We looked out beyond the ancient timber ceiling beams through the tiny, “Tudory” windows incongruously on to the concrete, circular exit ramp of a multi-storey car park. A constant stream of quietly growling cars descended it. It would have been much more satisfying to have heard the clip-clop of horses as would have been the case when the café building was first constructed. But that sound has now mostly faded into the past. Modern Town trails are full of these strange juxtapositions. At the top of Dovecot Street is a striking, modern arts centre, The Arc. Its all gleaming glass and bright, orange paintwork. Adjacent to it stands a lovely Georgian Friend’s Meeting House now converted into office space. Across the road, in place of a recently demolished 19th century building is a pop-up car park. It’s a confusing mixture that stretches the imagination but constantly stimulates the mind.
The most abiding memory of Stockton’s centre is of the wide variety of once grand Georgian town houses. Some are beautifully restored, whilst others are sadly neglected. Ian and I studied: classical doorways with columns and pediments, fancy fanlights over entrances, decorative motifs, attractive wrought iron balconies, ornate stone cornices and symmetrical sets of sash windows. Some had 2 stories and some had 3. We learnt that the first floor public reception rooms were the grandest ( so the people could impress their visitors) and thus had the largest, most impressive windows. Quite a few of these splendid buildings were on Church Road, formerly know as “Paradise Row.” This is where the rich and successful lived, showing off their status and wealth through their grandiose homes.
Nearby the Stockton mish-mash continued with a fine 18th century Church and ancient church yard facing an undistinguished jumble 1960’s/70’s municipal offices. On the other side of the beautiful old churchyard stood a derelict, abandoned pub.
The Stockton on Tees Trail gave us glimpses of a glorious past, much evidence of a long, sad decline and a few signs of hope and regeneration. It’s a slightly down- at- heel town which is starting to appreciate its heritage and move forward towards a positive future. The Arts Theatre with its cinema, concert space, workshop areas, bars and cafes, is thriving. The Georgian Theatre is up and running again. The Globe Theatre, once the popular venue for 1960’s/70’s pop acts such as the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Cilla Black and Roy Orbison, is now being restored and is soon to reopen. It famously hosted The Beatles in November, 1963 on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Today, an attractive, eye-catching pavement display reminds us of its glorious recent past.
In Stockton’s centre there’s plenty to admire and hidden corners to discover. As we walked back to the train station, we felt that we had only just begun to scratch the surface. It was not a bad day out considering we were visiting one of Britain’s “crap” towns. Maybe we should revisit in the summer when the Stockton Riverside Festival is in full flow. Then we could discover yet more delights of the town where there’s “nothing to see.”