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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.”

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NICE, FRANCE — Following the Rich and Famous.

3 Jul

For much of my life I would never have dreamt of visiting the French Riviera, also known as the Cote D’Azur. It had an air of exclusivity about it, a place reserved as a playground for the world’s rich and famous — the so called “jet-set.”  English aristocratics were the first to discover the attractions of its mild climate and scenic beauty, and started over-wintering there from the late 18th century onwards. They were followed by the Russian nobility, many of them drawn by the health benefits of the area’s warm, dry weather. They even built an ornate Russian Orthodox Cathedral opened by the Czar himself in 1911. It’s still the largest outside the borders of Russia.

  Previously, the south of France had just been a place that wealthy travellers passed through en route from northern Europe to Italy. Now, some of them decided to stay, to escape the harsh winters of the north. The aristocrats were followed by writers such as Andre Gide and D H Lawrence ( Lawrence actually died in Nice.) Also, famous artists such as Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Chagall were attracted by the soft light and vibrant colours of Provence such that they too lived and worked in this area. Later still, in the 1950’s, came the jet set, with French celebrities such as Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday, mixing with international film stars attracted by the red carpets of the Cannes Film Festival. These in turn were followed by rock royalty in the 1970’s when the Rolling Stones and their entourage, trying to escape punitively high taxes in Britain, decamped to a rambling mansion on the French Riviera and recorded the equally rambling album:” Exile on Main Street.”

  All these “illustrious” comings and goings made the Cote D’Azur synonymous with great expense and luxury in my mind, and a far cry from any place I could ever go on holiday to. Then came the advent of budget airlines which opened a variety of destinations to a whole new range of travellers. This has been very controversial of course and many have criticised the environmental impact of such a significant increase in air-travel. However, just being selfish for a while, I think it’s a good thing that foreign travel has at last been democratised. For too long it has been seen as the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous. Why should they have all the fun? I have now been to Nice on the French Riviera twice, courtesy of Easyjet flights from Newcastle, my local airport in the UK.  Easyjet, Ryanair, Jet2 and their like are often maligned but they have created a wealth of travel opportunities and experiences for the likes of “ordinary” folk like me. OK., cheap flights, along with budget hotal chains, open places up to the dangers of mass tourism, overcrowding and over-development. However, if managed sensibly, controls can be put into place and the new situation can be a boon for just about everyone. For instance, St Tropez, has introduced a ban on high rise development to try to preserve the beauty that originally attracted Bardot to its beach.

  Nice is an exciting place to visit. It is not only an elegant seaside resort in a beautiful location, but is also a big, bustling city. It’s the 5th largest city in France and is second only to Paris as a French tourist destination. The busy airport is situated on a low-lying peninsula at the end of the beach, so if you’re both a keen sunbather and a keen planespotter, you will be in paradise.

  At the other end of the  beautiful sweep of the Bay of Angels is an attractively wooded hill ( the Colline du Chateau) from which one can get wonderful views of the bay and the city, sandwiched between the azure sea and the Provencal mountains. The hill used to have a castle on it but is now just a lovely park. On the other side of it is the old port, where one can catch ferries to Corsica or Sardinia or go cruise-ship spotting.

  One reason that Nice is so exciting is that it is almost like visiting France and Italy at the same time. The city and its surrounding area: the Comte de Nice was actually part of Italy up to as recently as 1860. In that year it was ceded to France as a thank-you to Emperor Napoleon III who had helped free the northern parts of Italy from Austrian rule in the Second War of Italian Independence. Nice had been linked with Italian Savoy (Savoie) since the 14th century, but now both of them were suddenly transferred to France. The Nice change of nationality was approved by a large majority in a subsequent referendum. However, the Italian influence is still strong. Pizzas, pasta and other Italian dishes are prominant in the restaurants and the evocative old town, Vieux Nice, is an attractive jumble of colourful Italianate houses, Baroque churches and campaniles. The street signs are written both in French and in Nissart, an amalgam of French and Italian which has hung on as the local lingo and is now being officially encouraged. It’s a clear example of a political line on a map not being able to separate 2 closely related cultures on the ground. In reality, the cultures intermingle in many border areas, such that locals and visitors can enjoy the best of both worlds.

  In fact, if you’re turned on by visiting as many different countries as possible, then you’ll love the eastern end of the Cote D’Azur. The real Italy is only a short journey away by road or rail, and on the way you could pop into Monaco, which is still technically a separate state ruled by a medieval- style Prince in a fairytale castle. Monte Carlo, Monaco’s capital, is worth a look, as we did on our previous visit, with its skyscrapers, flamboyant casino/opera house, exotic gardens, expensive marina and Royal palace. It exists mainly as a tax haven for the super rich ( them again!) So while we were there, I was tensed up with excitement at the prospect of us bumping into: Bjorn Borg, Roger Moore or Lewis Hamilton popping out for a pint of milk. We never did!

  Getting back to Nice, the old town is a fascinating rabbit warren of a place. It’s perfect for pottering  around. Nearby is the Cours Saleya fruit, veg and flower market. Why is it that tomatoes, peaches, garlic and everything else are so much bigger and juicier than their equivalents back in England? Even though Nice has a reputation for being expensive, the local produce is cheap and the fruit tastes like pure nectar.

  The modern city is built on a grid pattern and looks very smart. Long boulevards lead into squares, some grand, some intimate. Pavement cafes show fascinating human life on the streets instead of behind closed doors. The boulevards are lined by impressive 19th century apartments blocks, all with intricate wrought iron balconies and pastel coloured shutters. It reminds me of Paris, except it’s underneath a blue sky and a blazing sun. The sea-front area has been planted out with palms, pine trees and exotic plants such as cacti. Along the actual bay is a wide pavement called The Promenade des Anglais — The Walkway of the English. It was originally financed by English nobility, partly as a work creation scheme in the mid 19th century for the city’s poorer citizens. It has now become the model for beach boulevards around the world.

  Walking the prom is an invigorating and uplifting experience. Not only do you get the ravishing view of the azure sea ( yes, it really is azure blue) twinkling and shimmering in the sunlight, but you also experience a whole wealth of human activities. There is a constant procession of:  walkers, joggers, sunbathers, swimmers, exercisers, cyclists, strollers and roller skaters. There are also dog walkers, but these miniature canines don’t do much walking, as they are usually carried under the arms of their owners or in special little baskets. On one side is the lapping of the waves on to the pebbly shore, while on the other, is the roar of the traffic on a 4 or 6 lane highway.

  Lining the promenade is a parade of grand, opulant buildings. These include the Art Deco: Palais De La Mediterranee, built for an American millionairre in 1929, presumably just before the Wall Street Crash. It symbolised 1930’s glamour with a hotel, casino, theatre, restaurant and cocktail bar included in its many upmarket rooms. Then there is the pink-stuccoed, graceful Hotel Westminster with its extravagent reception rooms. However the metaphorical biscuit is taken by the genuinely iconic Hotel Negresco, opened in 1913. Its pink-green cupola, uniformed doormen and art-nouveau glazed entrance-way by Gustave Eiffel make it THE landmark building of Nice. It was built to attract filthy rich guests by an extremely wealthy Romanian emigre: Henri Negresco, who made his fortune by managing the casino. In 1913 it was one of the most modern hotels on the planet featuring luxurious bathrooms and telephones in every room. The badly timed First World War changed its fortunes though and it was forced into service as a hospital. Negresco was ruined. However, the hotel was later re-opened and expensively refurbished several times. In the 1950’s for instance, it featured an outstanding art collection, staff in 18th century uniforms and mink bedspreads!

  Today the Negresco is still one of the world’s finest and most expensive hotels. It has become a magnet for top politicians and film stars and is charmingly idiosyncratic, with antique furniture, carousel horses and a kitsch souvenir shop. It also has a spectacular 16,309 crystal chandelier, meant for Czar Nicholas II, but never collected because of the 1917 Revolution. Outside is a colourful statue of a black American jazz trumpeter. We should have ventured in for a coffee but were too nervous about the consequences for our bank balances!

  Nice is in a lovely location. It has the beauty of the sea and the hills, which are enhanced by its own elegant buildings. All this, as mentioned earlier, attracted writers and artists to visit, or even base themselves there. The area is littered with first class galleries, museums and works of art. This was an extra incentive for us to visit again. On our previous trip we had visited the Matisse Museum, up a hill in an attractive area ( Cimiez) full of Belle Epoque villas, tree- lined avenues and lush gardens. The museum itself is in a mansion where Matisse actually lived. We had also enjoyed the rich collection of Raoul Dufy’s and other Masters at the Musee des Beaux-Arts. This time we ventured west by train to the Picasso Museum in Antibes. It’s a smart chateau on the seafront containing: paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics produced by Picasso when he lived there in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. We also saw a starkly beautiful chapel just outside Vence designed and decorated by Matisse in 1949. It was a labour of love and he regarded it as his masterpiece. The building is called the Chapelle du Rosaire and still holds a religious service at least once a week. Vence, by the way, has a lovely old town inside medieval ramparts and has glorious views of the Provencal mountains. It’s an easy trip by bus from Nice. St Paul de Vence just down the hill, is another picturesque and historical hill town but has been over-run by swarms of tourists, so I wouldn’t recommend that as it’s no longer an authentic French experience.

  The outstanding art gallery for me though, was Nice’s Musee National Message Biblique Marc Chagall. Set in a pretty garden, the gallery was purpose- built and the hangings were supervised by Chagall himself. He lived in Nice for the last part of his life. He also contributed a mosaic and 2 stunning stained glass windows. This is the largest collection of Chagall’s under one roof in the world. The centre-piece is a set of 15 large biblical paintings depicting stories from Genesis, Exodus and the Song of Songs. These are mixed in with scenes from Chagall’s Russian homeland and the saga of the Jewish people and their sufferings through the centuries. You have to like Chagall’s unique style, but in my opinion, the colours and compositions are simply breathtaking. If you ever go, don’t forget to take your passport in order to gain the use of the excellent audio commentary, available in numerous languages. In my view, the Chagall museum is a fantastic experience.

  So, thank-you Easyjet for bringing all this within my financial reach. The beauty of the city, the coast and the mountains, the elegance of the buildings, the affable French/Italian life-style, and the outstanding art. Why should the rich and the famous have  this “paradise” all to themselves?