Thursday, October 30, 2014
Around the end of October, many of Britain's outdoor tourist attractions grind to a halt. Half term week allows one last hurrah, but then dark afternoons and worsening weather make staying open increasingly pointless and it's time to shut up shop until Easter. Today I'm going to tell you about one such attraction, the Chiltern Open Air Museum, almost entirely pointlessly because it closes for the season tomorrow. But a walk in the Buckinghamshire countryside is always to be recommended at this time of year, the beech leaves scrunching underfoot, even if the museum stop-off is imminently out of bounds until spring.
Chiltern Open Air Museum
Newland Park, Chalfont St Giles
Buckinghamshire, HP8 4AB
Open 10.00am – 5.00pm (Easter-October)
Admission: £9.50 [website]
An open air museum, it turns out, is mostly a museum of buildings. In this case that's rural buildings threatened with demolition, from anywhere across the Chilterns, carefully dismantled in their place of origin and rebuilt here. The Chiltern Open Air Museum opened in 1976 thanks to a small but dedicated group of volunteers, and has been growing in size and stature ever since. Currently there are more than 30 historic buildings on site, if we're allowed to call barns, cottages and granaries historic, which by the very philosophy of the museum we are. Please remember to wash your hands after touching the fences.
The museum's set in 45 acres of forested farmland on the Bucks/Herts border, tucked in around the perimeter of Newland Park, a university campus. "It'll take you two hours to go round," said the lady on the front desk, and if I'd stopped off in the tea room like she wanted then she'd have been about right. I got the idea of what was on offer almost immediately from the Caversham Public Conveniences outside, a splendid and symmetrical Edwardian structure, inside which are (functioning) gents urinals and a supply of carbolic soap. Please remember to wash your hands before proceeding around the site.
Every building on site is named after the place from which it was rescued. Hence first up is the Northolt Barn, and later the High Wycombe Tollhouse, the Preston Bisset Privy and the Leavesden Apple Store. I was particularly taken by the Amersham Prefab, probably the museum's most modern building, decked out in Fifties style and with mood music playing from the wireless. Enthralled also by the Garston Forge, in which some actual blacksmithery was being demonstrated, and by the Leagrave Cottages, condemned as unfit for human habitation in the 1980s. Please remember to wash your hands before using the picnic benches.
The collection is concentrated in three distinct clusters - a village, a farm and a sort of almost urban bit. The farm's a traditional one, with muddy yard and wooden buildings arranged higgledy piggledy all around. I was particularly taken by the 60 foot cherry ladder suspended across the barn roof, just like they used to use in the village where I grew up. The museum also boasts fields of cows and horses and sheep, which is a winning extra if you've brought children along. Where else can the younger generation experience how agriculture used to be except by wandering around places like this? Please remember to wash your hands after touching the animals.
Leafy trails lead off into the surrounding woodland, one of which leads to an Iron Age House. This flint-floored, thatch-roofed structure isn't a Chiltern original, it was built in the 1990s, and would look wonderfully authentic were it not for the electricity pylon rising immediately behind. Meanwhile down the far end of the site is a former furniture factory, now half Chesham Woodware exhibition (where I was) and half tearoom (where all the other visitors were). It'll all look lovely at Easter. And there are notices everywhere, so you won't forget to wash your hands before leaving.
How to get there: This being the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside, the museum's website strongly suggests you drive. The nearest bus, they say, stops half an hour's walk away, which you suspect they've mentioned to ensure you don't risk it. And should you arrive at one of the two closest stations, that's Chalfont and Latimer or Chorleywood, they then recommend hailing a taxi. Well that was all like bait to me, so I took the train and walked.
From Chorleywood, just under an hour. You leave the station and head up the hill, up Shire Lane, and simply keep going. On the way you pass The Orchard, the Voysey house that John Betjeman so enthuses over in Metroland, although I've twice failed to spot it, I can't have been looking carefully enough. As the ultimate uber-commuter homes fade out, the road slims to a narrow muddy track edging relentlessly downhill. As the streetname suggests Shire Lane marks the precise border between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, with a large tract of ancient woodland all down the latter, should you be tempted to branch off. Annoyingly onward passage is then blocked by the museum's backside, and a big fence, requiring a 1km diversion to reach the main entrance where they'll finally let you in.
Or from Chalfont and Latimer, nearer two hours. I followed a private road past where pharmaceutical company Amersham International's HQ used to be, then a splendid mile of beechy woodland-edge round the top of the local golf course. From here I followed the River Misbourne down to Chalfont St Giles, a delightful (and highly aspirational) village, most famous for Milton's Cottage. Here the famous author John Milton came to escape the plague and to complete Paradise Lost, and his Tudor home is now a museum (but only open on Tuesdays, and only until the end of October, so that's just shut for the winter too). A final climb out of the village follows the Chiltern Way, and fields through which an HS2 tunnel shaft will eventually emerge, with the high speed line buried below safely out of sight of potentially angry constituents. I'm glad I walked.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, October 29, 2014It's been a while, so shall we enjoy some of the emails the PR and marketing crowd have been sending me recently?
Let's start with a fairly standard request from Sam. As usual I've bleeped out the key information to prevent inadvertent publicity.
Alright Geezer,How boring does a Thursday evening have to be before you'd go and look at <takeaway packaging> in return for free beer?
I'm Sam from <takeaway website>, and I'm just getting in touch to invite you to the launch of our <takeaway packaging> exhibition on the 6th November, run in conjunction with New York <takeaway food> expert and collector <name of collector>. It'll be a night of free beer, <takeaway food> and great <takeaway packaging> designs. I've included your invite and a press release in case you want some more information - hope you can make it!
Then there was this email, with a rookie error after the first word.
Dear ,I reviewed my back catalogue of jewellery and fashion posts, and then told <Two People> where to go.
We are <Two People> from a new online publication called <guide named after the Two People> and we have a growing onsite content programme which we are trying to feed with different writers and commissioned projects. Whether you blog about lifestyle, jewellery, fashion, relationships, food or anything else, if you are looking for more writing opportunities, we would be very interested in talking to you.
Here's a novel spin on blog marketing which involves a request to change something I wrote six years ago.
HiSomewhat unexpectedly, Sharon's "resource" is a link to a website that sells fish oil. At the top of the page is a toll-free number to dial for supplies, and then underneath is a long list of data about 10 years of large global earthquakes. It's not a bad list either, but if Sharon thinks I'm going to fall for the old fish-oil-sales-link trick, she is very much mistaken.
My name is Sharon and I am a research coordinator with The International Union of <something scientific>. I am in the process of gathering research on the long term effects earthquakes have on local economies, sociological costs and analysis of government action / programs organized as a response to earthquakes. As a part of my search I came across a resource that no longer works on your website. If you open this page and try this reference it doesn't go anywhere. If you decide to update your site, I was wondering if you would be open to including a resource that I helped create covering the 2008 Lincolnshire Earthquake. You can find the resource here.
Meanwhile David suddenly has a problem with something I wrote in 2006.
Hi there,You'd think a sex shop would be glad of deep linkage, but in this case it seems they're not happy to be tied down. Sorry David, I know it's hard, but I'm not tweaking my old post for anyone.
At <Well Known High Street Sex Shop> we have recently been reviewing the links coming into our domain. As a precaution, to make sure we stay within Googles guidelines, we have taken it upon ourselves to remove any we are unsure about. This isn’t a reflection of your site, simply a safeguard we are taking. The link in question lives here and points to our site. It would be greatly appreciated if we could remove the hyperlink in exchange for our eternal gratitude.
This email arrived yesterday morning from someone who hasn't noticed I never promote things.
Dear Diamond Geezer,I'm sure you would, Rhiannon, but I suspect they're already tired of reading about you in <London-based website>, <London-based newspaper> and <London-based magazine>.
My name is Rhiannon and I work for a company called <finance company>. I have followed your blog posts for a while now since I moved to London and love your writing style. I noticed that you do a lot on subjects like transport and because <finance company> are looking to work with the top voices who are talking to Londoners I think that your blog posts would be the perfect platform for spreading some awareness of Londoners can get the best deal on their commute! We already work with a number of affiliates such as <London-based website>, <London-based newspaper> and <London-based magazine>, and would like to be reaching out to your type of readership.
And this one arrived yesterday afternoon.
Dear <dg>Ah, sorry, that's not marketing related, that's some other issue I'm currently dealing with. But whatever the financial incentive, let me reassure you that there will be no marketing material on this blog, and that emails suggesting a mutually beneficial promotional relationship will be turned away.
We have held a conversation with your landlord who is now keen to secure a revised rent. The market price for this apartment is now in excess of <£200 a month more than you're currently paying>, but he would happily accept <£160 a month more> per month from you. Please email me back your confirmation on this and we can arrange the necessary paperwork.
I get fewer PR approaches than I used to, but each is one too many, so if you wouldn't mind holding back, your silence would be appreciated.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, October 28, 2014I'm in the midst of circumnavigating the capital via a potential future orbital rail route - the R25 (caveat: this is a Mayoral/TfL pipedream, lightly pencilled in for the 2040s, and may never happen). I started two hours ago in Abbey Wood, following the central section via Lewisham and Wimbledon. I've just crossed the Thames at Kingston, a couple of stations before Hounslow, and am about to change trains in Twickenham to start the journey back east. [here's a map to follow]
ROUND LONDON BY TRAIN
6) Twickenham → Kew Bridge (2:09 → 2:33)
[timetabled 24 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]
Twickenham station is very obviously not Abbey Wood, as the class of passengers makes clear. A group of rugger chaps waits stereotypically by the footbridge, while a faux-shabby bohemian couple in felt hat and cloth cap are busy checking their iPhones nearby. The approaching service is another train from Waterloo to Waterloo, this time via the Hounslow loop, again running at frequencies that would make an Underground user wince. We set off back the way I came, then stick to the river along the line to Staines, then veer off again to Hounslow. And then we stop, which the driver explains is for a timetabled five minute pause, and time slowly passes. An American woman boards and asks "Is this train for Mortlake?", which we eventually deduce requires the loop going the other way, and she nips off just before the doors close. If the London infrastructure plan 2050 gets its way, this quiet pair of platforms will be one terminus of a new NW orbital route. You'll find it listed on the last page of Appendix 2, namely "Hounslow - Brentford - Old Oak - Neasden - Brent Cross @4tph", and this must be the intended route on the map at the top of the page. Hounslow to Brentford is easy enough, but the next curve is only used by freight trains at present, hence I can't ride it in 2014. Off at Kew Bridge it is, and then a walk.
It's a non-trivial walk too, because I have to get to the Overground. I could have done this by staying on train 5 until Richmond, but then I wouldn't have been through Hounslow, and the map is very definite about Hounslow. The walking route is intermittently signed, and requires a crossing of the Chiswick Roundabout, which is rarely a treat on foot. I'm heading for Gunnersbury, which may hold the title of the Underground's ugliest station, and is so well disguised as an office block that you might never notice it from outside. My fast walk takes 14 minutes, which is longer than two of the train journeys I've taken thus far, but I then get to wait for 7 minutes so I could have dawdled.
ROUND LONDON BY TRAIN
7) Gunnersbury → Gospel Oak (2:54 → 3:33)
[timetabled 26 minutes, frequency every 10/20 minutes]
You might think the rest of my journey round to Barking is going to be pretty dull, because it's basically one existing Overground train followed by another. And you'd be right. But there is an intriguing catch, which is that the 2050 Overground isn't go to go this way. I'm riding from Acton to West Hampstead the only way I can, but City Hall's crayonistas have a different route in mind to open up a couple of the Mayor's favourite development areas - Old Oak Common and Brent Cross. Old Oak is currently a vast area of railway sidings and industrial estate, but would be worth a lot more as flats, so flats it is. A key driver of potential redevelopment is HS2 which'll probably stop here before zooming off to Birmingham, and maybe interchange with Crossrail, except there's no money for that yet. More to the point Utopian planners see Old Oak as the centre of a spiders web of Overground routes, some old, some new, which pretty much makes all the flats unaffordable before anyone moves in. Precisely where an Old Oak Common Overground station might go is currently open to consultation. Options including the dramatic relocation of one or other of the lines adding minutes onto existing journeys, or leaving things where they are and expecting passengers to use a lengthy travelator to change trains. Whatever's decided will probably be the option that leaves the most room for extra flats, but that's how these projects get funded these days, so best grin and bear it.
7a) Hounslow → Brent Cross (due mid-2040s?)8) Gospel Oak → Barking (3:37 → 4:01)
Imagine a railway line running roughly parallel to the North Circular from Acton to Cricklewood, how useful would that be? Well imagine no more, because it already exists and is currently used by freight. It's the Dudding Hill line, a Victorian leftover from 1868 and which last saw passenger traffic in 1902. For two years it was even part of the Circle line, or more correctly a 'Super Outer Circle' from Earl's Court round to St Pancras. The Midland Railway couldn't make money out of the route, but things might be very different two centuries later. An Overground takeover would probably include a station at Harlesden (for the Bakerloo) and another at Neasden (for the Jubilee), then a run through the foot of Gladstone Park to the Thameslink line. The Brent Cross Cricklewood redevelopment at the end of the line could be worth billions, should it ever happen, but Barnet council's been saying that for years and as yet there's no sign. And as yet no Overground train.
7b) Brent Cross → Barking (due mid-2040s?)
And then another far-fetched rail idea takes over. What if, it goes, what if someone finally gets around to electrifying the Overground line from Gospel Oak to Barking? And then what if Brent Cross turns out to be a really important redevelopment area and needs more trains? TfL could extend the GOBlin line at its western end via the existing Carlton Road Junction and run trains all the way through to Brent Cross. Trains would no longer stop at Gospel Oak, they'd be diverted just before that, but interchange with the existing Overground would still be perfectly possible at West Hampstead. You may never live to see it happen, but some rail planners are looking at the bigger picture, and things may finally link up one day.
[timetabled 26 minutes, frequency every 15 minutes]
Meanwhile, back in reality, I'm changing orange trains at Gospel Oak. It's a very simple change, in a clockwise direction at least, and the grand switcheroo takes no more than four minutes. Indeed this arc round the north of inner London is by far the fastest section of my orbital journey, thanks to TfL investment, infrastructure upgrades and a mayoral franchise grab in 2006. Hence I rattle through northeast London with a minimum of fuss, and a seat, which turns out to be very useful when the train gets packed out round Walthamstow. And when Barking comes around I've been on the go for one minute over four hours, my almost-circumnavigation complete.
So yes, essentially the R25 already mostly exists, it's just slow and inconvenient with a lot of waiting around. Completing the circle with a tunnel at Thamesmead would be hugely expensive, and there are of course dozens of other potential transport projects competing for austerity-limited funding. But just ten years ago the entire Overground concept was merely blink in a planner's eye, and now look at it. Imagine the transformation some joined-up thinking, and another thirty years, could create.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, October 27, 2014Amongst the bluer sky projects in the Mayor's London infrastructure plan 2050, published earlier the summer, this map appears.
It's a schematic for an outer orbital railway, nicknamed the R25 by those in the know, and might be created over the next three decades by joining up existing lines and building new. Before you get too excited, the map is accompanied by some of the most non-committal text ever published in a mayoral document, namely this...
"There may be a case for providing some new orbital rail based capacity for key links in Outer London. An option for doing this could involve an extension of Overground services in stages, creating some new links initially where most feasible and joining up existing routes over time. An indicative network is illustrated."The southern curve on the map (via Bexleyheath and Norwood Junction) would require at least five new stretches of track to be built, some brief curves, others great long things carving across built-up areas, and is lightyears from reality. But not all of the route is pie in the sky, indeed the central link is already 100% possible by train, just rather a lot of trains at present. So I thought I'd attempt an orbit of the R25 via the central and northern arcs, in order to check how feasible the journey was already. The one obvious impossibility is the Overground extension from Barking under the Thames to Abbey Wood, the first part of which is currently under consultation and the second part as yet unspoken. So I chose to make my journey clockwise from Abbey Wood to Barking, that's nearly orbital, using only ordinary scheduled services. I travelled off-peak on a weekday, because that's proper normal. And I didn't plan ahead, I simply turned up and waited for the next train, walking between stations only where absolutely necessary. Here's a map to help you follow my route.
ROUND LONDON BY TRAIN
1) Abbey Wood → Lewisham (0:00 → 0:18)
[timetabled 18 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]
It's all change at Abbey Wood at the moment. Crossrail is on its way, eventually, so the place is a flurry with workmen doing preparatory work. The new footbridge is up, though not yet connected, with a few conspicuous bigwigs in suits standing around watching progress. It's hard to imagine many of the existing Abbey Wood populace needing a fast train to Canary Wharf, but the regular trains to Cannon Street are packed, once Ellie's stopped holding the door open and Karol has nipped on with his dog. I'm waiting for the less frequent Charing Cross train, which skips a few stations before diverting off via the two-minute tunnel down to Blackheath. Progress is slow, but eventually we roll into Lewisham. A down-and-under change of platforms is then required, although there are existing points which would allow a train to cross over onto the next line. And when the train arrives it's much shorter than the very long platform, not that Southeastern thought to announce this in advance, nor to warn anyone not to stand down the far end.
I wait 12 minutes. That's half an hour gone already.
2) Lewisham → Peckham Rye (0:30 → 0:40)
[timetabled 7 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]
Our train to London Victoria veers off at Lewisham Vale Junction and crawls slowly through residential streets. Those who live in south London are well used to such snail-like progress, but it'd be nice if a new orbital railway fixed the speed issue once and for all. We don't stop at Brockley station for the simple reason that it's beneath us. Trains stopped up here until 1917, but there are no plans to create an Overground connection because that would cost money, and only so many pipedreams can be funded. Instead it's first stop Nunhead, second stop Peckham Rye, and all change again. This is a no-fun interchange because Peckham Rye is essentially two stations on parallel viaducts, hence very much not ideal for stepping across. It's also no-go for trains, there being no existing alignment from one side to the other, so creating a new orbital railway would cost aerial millions. And sheesh, the Next Train Indicators here are poor - one at one end tiny, the other at the other only announcing what's on the other pair of platforms.
I wait nine minutes. It should have been five.
3) Peckham Rye → Tulse Hill (0:49 → 0:54)
[timetabled 9 minutes, frequency every 15 minutes]
I'm now on Southern, on the West Croydon train, pootling through Dulwiches East and North but not West. For those reared on the tube map, South London's mesh of railway services is uncharacteristically involved and complex. Hence I'm not going far before I have to get off and change again. I plump for Tulse Hill over Streatham because I can see my train on the adjacent platform, indeed it should already have left because we're running late, but thankfully it is too. A subway dash is called for, nothing especially enjoyable, whereas it turns out I could have gone one more stop for a same-platform change.
I wait only three minutes. It could have been thirty.
4) Tulse Hill → Wimbledon (0:57 → 1:12)
[timetabled 16 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]
I'm now an hour into my inner orbit, on the northern rim of the Sutton Loop. This is the Cinderella service of the Thameslink railway, touring the suburbs via a sequence of stations with relatively few passengers... so yes, there are plenty of spare seats. It's crucial to get on the right train to Sutton going the right way round else it's even longer to your destination, and the trains only run every half an hour anyway. We pass through unloved Tooting station and unknown Haydons Road on the way to key hub Wimbledon, where almost everyone gets off. Loop trains use only one platform, as do the trams nextdoor, so I'm not convinced it would be easy to squeeze in a boosted two-way service. And when's the next train to Richmond? It's not on the board, it's not on the timetable, neither are there any relevant electronic displays up on the walkway. Only once down on the right platform is the truth revealed... drat, a near half hour wait. The current disjoint R25 orbital is alas rubbish.
Scheduled wait 26 minutes. But we arrived late, so 'only' 23.
5) Wimbledon → Twickenham (1:35 → 2:04)
[timetabled 29 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]
There are no railways across Richmond Park, which is of course good, but it does make this next rail journey a bit of a long one. I've switched from one loop train to another, this the Strawberry Hill circuit from Waterloo to Waterloo via almost Surrey. Wimbledon's only in zone 3, but four stations later we're in zone 6, making this an expensive ticket for a supposedly orbital railway. Arriving at Kingston means a scheduled two minute pause, then the ceremonial crossing of the Thames at London's most upstream railway bridge. If you look at City Hall's simplistic 2050 map it looks like trains will run direct from New Malden to Hounslow. Not in any real world they won't. There's no curve at Twickenham Junction to join Strawberry Hill to Whitton, neither any obvious way to add one. The tracks in run higher than the tracks out, and even if the height differential could be sorted there are dozens of houses in Marsh Farm Road that'd have to be knocked down. Instead the only realistic possibility is to continue into Twickenham, then reverse back up the other line to Hounslow. In my case, that means yet another change of trains.
I wait five minutes. And I'll tell you about the two hours back to east London tomorrow.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, October 26, 2014I like Hull. There, I said it.
Hull's a very different kind of city, very much out on a limb, the kind of place that's only ever a destination, never passed through. The former royal port sits on the northern bank of the Humber, a whoppingly wide river spanned by what was once the longest suspension bridge in the world, ideal if you ever want to go to Cleethorpes. It's very compact and very flat, and very white, which is kind of ironic for the city whose MP ended the slave trade. It's going to be UK's City of Culture in 2017, which is excellent news and well deserved. And its architecture is rather splendid in places, as this excellent long read from Jones the Planner makes clear. Honestly I need hardly write a post at all given the existence of that, but I'll have a go anyway, particularly if you should ever consider a visit. [16 photos]
Five free museums
i) Hull Maritime Museum: "Have you been befurr?" asked the lady on the front desk. "Not since 1987," I replied. "Oh well it won't have changed much," she said, and she was right. Odd-shaped rooms with glass cases tell the story of the city's fishing fleet, with the skeleton of a whale as the centrepiece downstairs. The building's impressive too, formerly Hull's Dock Offices, the curved upstairs Court Room especially so. (Midweek inhabitants: retired couples, art students sketching bones)
ii) Ferens Art Gallery: A mix of old masters and modern canvases, the building more like a civic conservatory, and surviving midweek on the back of the nice ladies wandering through to use its cafe.
iii) Hull and East Riding Museum: I was expecting the history of East Yorkshire, but got the pre-history instead. The trail through the building features an extensive Iron Age village and a Roman villa with mosaics, plus a giant oak boat hollowed out of a single log 2300 years ago and preserved inside a special tank. But once William the Conqueror's invaded the timeline leaps forward briefly to the Civil War, then splutters out round the back of a mammoth.
iv) Streetlife Museum: If you read this blog you'll like this one, a collection of transport memorabilia from the last 200 years. As well as the old cars, bus, train and tram that you'd expect, there's also a considerable display of bikes and horse-drawn carriages. The attendant invited me to climb inside one of the latter, which then promptly juddered and shook for two minutes, I know not how because the blinds were down. A big tick too for the shopping displays in the windows of the 1940s high street, although I think the school party found them somewhat less evocative.
v) Wilberforce House Museum: William Wilberforce, the great reformer, was born in a Georgian house on the narrow cobbled high street that runs parallel to the river. Downstairs you can learn his story, including how he introduced his slave trade bill in Parliament every year for almost two decades before they finally voted it through. Upstairs is an in-depth look at slavery and its abolition, including the uncomfortable truth that Britain owes its place in the world to flogging Africans to cut sugar, and it took the MP for Hull to stop them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu approves.
If it's not winter or a weekday you might also be able to visit:
i) Arctic Corsair: A Cod War Trawler is moored on the river Hull round the back of the Streetlife Museum. They do tours.
ii) Spurn Lightship: For fifty years this was the flashing warning sign at the mouth of the Humber, because you can't build a lighthouse on the shifting sands of a sperm-shaped spit. One day I'll make it out to the tip of Spurn Point, hopefully before the sea washes it away for good.
Five Old Town peculiarities
i) The Land of Green Ginger: As peculiar street names go, this one takes the biscuit. You'll find this short street off Whitefriargate, by the closed down shop and the hotel with the record-breakingly tiny window. Nobody's quite sure how the name arose, but I shall forever associate it with Kenneth Williams reading a story of the same name on Jackanory.
ii) Hepworth Arcade: This late Victorian shopping arcade is gorgeous, a proper throwback, and was home to one of Marks and Spencer's first penny bazaars. I caught it late in the day with just two other shoppers, which was nice for me, if not the independent retailers.
iii) Holy Trinity Church: Hull's a city without a cathedral, but it does instead have England's largest parish church, the whopping Holy Trinity. Visitors are welcomed by a volunteer at the door, a committee's-worth bustling around around inside, and Christian muzak over the loudspeakers. Someone's also stuck up the most pointless health and safety message I've ever seen, namely that "Some Medieval Buildings Have Uneven Floors And Steps".
iv) The <vitamin tablets> Fish Trail: 41 species of fish, from A to Z and then some, are depicted in this series of plaques that runs round the Old Town. There's a certificate for you at the Tourist Information Centre if you can tick off the lot, but I doubt they dish out many.
v) Victoria Pier: Down on the waterfront, in the dead-on-a-weekday Marina district, an extensive wooden pier juts out into the Humber. A ferry service used to cross the river from here to New Holland on the Lincolnshire side, but the arrival of the Humber Bridge in 1981 put paid to that. I'd have gone and walked the bridge if I'd had time, or better weather, but alas had neither.
i) Victoria Square: Civic heart of the town, its centrepiece is a raised platform supporting a statue of the Queen, underneath which are two majestic public conveniences. I can vouch for the gents, anyway.
ii) The Co-Op Mural: Huge glass mosaic above what's now BHS, depicting the town's fishing fleet, and whose masts cunningly spell out a four letter word.
iii) Paragon station: A right proper end-of-the-line terminus, with far too many platforms for modern services, and a fine statue of Philip Larkin heading for his Whitsun train.
iv) White telephone boxes: Only BT-independent Hull has white telephone boxes.
v) Scale Lane Pedestrian Bridge: Barely a year old, this chunky black swingbridge links the Old Town to the eastern bank of the River Hull, or more precisely to the empty car park of an ugly Premier Inn.
Hull's big millennial project was a mega-aquarium called The Deep, a four storey spike of aluminium pointing out across the Humber estuary. The building looks amazing from the riverside, though rather less so from the car park, which is where you'll find the main entrance. Having coughed up ten pounds plus you rise up in the lift to a lookout across the river and the utterly flat terrain beyond, then dive into the attraction itself via an evolutionary time tunnel. It's properly interactive along the way, but not crassly so, you'll be pleased to know. The first big fishtank mimics a tropical lagoon, but that's peanuts compared to the half-million gallon tank at the heart of the building around which swish sharks, rays and other giant fish. You view this several times on the way round, including from a tunnel nine metres down and, at the very end, on an elevator ride bursting up to the surface. The newest residents of the building are a group of Gentoo penguins, very cute, but they weren't particularly performing as I walked by. There are also several tanks of jellyfish, cold water fish, sea shrimp, whatever, and various environmental themed displays to help you get your money's worth on the way round. I had the dubious honour of being the last visitor of the day, so all the special activities and feeding opportunities had finished, and I was pursued round the passageways and galleries by a small team of cleaners and keen-to-go-home staff. I kept them waiting, enjoying the opportunity to have the sharks and other creatures entirely to myself - you probably won't be so lucky.
posted 01:30 :
Saturday, October 25, 2014Three addresses in North Hull
32 Pearson Park, HU5 2TD [Philip Larkin, 1956 to 1974]
Born Coventry, died Hull, is not the trajectory of most famous English poets. But Philip Larkin's poetry wasn't your normal florid prose, more often a glum reflection of the ordinary, and all the better for it. Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 to take up the post of librarian at the university, a post he kept for the next 30 years. Had he lived one more year I might even have met him, stamping my set text at the counter or, more likely, looking down across the tables in the Brynmor Jones Library at those pesky postgrads chattering between the shelves. After a year in bedsits, Larkin moved to a university house about a mile from the main campus. He took an attic flat overlooking Pearson Park, the first public park in Hull, initially as a temporary residential stopgap. The park had been donated to the town by its mayor, a Mr Zachariah Pearson, whose kind gift masked the fact that he'd retained the land around the edge for the building of 100 or so grand villas. And it was in one of these that Philip Larkin spent the majority of his time in Hull, before the university sold the place off and forced him to relocate elsewhere.
Pearson Park remains a peaceful hideaway to this day. You access it off the Beverley Road, through an elaborate cast-iron gateway, now gate-free and oddly out of place. A looping avenue runs around the tooth-shaped expanse of grass, with a bowling green laid out close by and an unexpected police station through the trees. Larkin's flat was up the far end, by the wooded corner, on the top floor at number 32. But there's no plaque on the gabled frontage, perhaps because the current residents would rather not make the link to the building's heritage, or more likely because they don't want too many literary pilgrims staring gormlessly at their windows. Instead the poet is remembered by the Larkin Trail, a recent commemorative tribute scattered across Hull and the East Riding, plaque number 14 of which is affixed to the back of a nearby building in the park. I'd downloaded the whole thing before I came and meant to walk more, but I was late getting away.
Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,
Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses -
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me...
A couple of the adjacent villas are now care homes with gravelled approach, but number 32 is very much a private house with iron railings out front and a heavy hedge. Only Larkin's high windows have a clear view across the park, or would have done before the tree in the front garden grew its higher branches, providing inspiration for some of the poet's better known works. He'd have looked down towards the ornamental lake and the Victorian Conservatory. The latter looks like it might be just another cafe, indeed there's no sign to the contrary, but turns out to be a sub-tropical hothouse containing finches, cockatiels and lizards. As for the lakeside benches, here on a weekday afternoon sit the retired, the deliberately unoccupied and the partially inebriated. Three decades after Larkin's passing, the people of north Hull are still dodging the toad work.
70 Grafton Street, HU5 2NP [Paul Heaton, 1983-1987]
The fourth best band in Hull - the Housemartins - were born in a dead ordinary terraced house in a bog standard street a short walk from Pearson Park. Again there's no plaque, but the two up two down at 70 Grafton Street was Paul Heaton's rented home during the band's formative mid-Eighties years. A small ad reading "Trombonist Seeks Street Musicians" brought university student Stan Cullimore to Paul's notice, followed later by guitarist Ted and drummer Hugh. Norman Cook only joined after Ted quit the band on the brink of success - he'd been a college friend of Paul's down in Redhill, Surrey, and a co-member of the considerably less successful Stomping Pondfrogs. Three of their singles were written in the upstairs bedroom over one particularly productive couple of days in January 1986 - that's Happy Hour, Me and the Farmer and Build. The first of these broke the band big time, with the catchy melody and plasticine video delivering a Top Three hit. And it was still in the charts when I rented a room in a very similar house less than half a mile away.
Housemartin fever peaked during the year I spent in Hull, which was cool, and I remember once trying to work out precisely where the famous quartet were based. This proved damned tricky in pre-internet times, restricted to gleaning titbits from radio interviews and the music press, but I think I managed to walk down Grafton Street at least once wondering which of the many houses it might be. Only on this week's visit did I finally pinpoint my goal, about halfway along on the sunny side of the street. Disappointingly the front of the house was covered in scaffolding, and had been painted a bland cream colour that disguised the original Victorian brickwork. Much more excitingly a horse-drawn cart drew up outside (honest!) while one of the rag and bone men (no, really!) nipped through the narrow alley up the side of the house to collect some unwanted treasure. I would have taken a proper photo but they were staring at me quite intently so I decided to wait until they'd clopped away. I also resisted a swift pint in the Grafton pub a dozen or so houses up the road, even though this too was one of the band's key haunts, as I fear I'd have stood out rather amongst the group of smoking swillers propped up outside. London 0, Hull 4.
6 Heathcote Street, HU6 7LP [DG, 1986-1987]
Along with four other students assembled seemingly at random, I spent a year living in this Victorian terrace half a mile east of the university. I got the medium-sized room beside the toilet, decked out with leftover furniture, and heated by an electric fire that proved woefully ineffective during one of the coldest winters known to Hull. Using the greasy cooker downstairs was a liability, so I stuck as far as possible to meals in the Student Union and the cheapest fish and chips I have ever enjoyed from the shop round the corner. The back yard was basic rather than a useful outdoor resource, and the telephone was a party line shared with nextdoor, such were the inadequacies of the town's municipal phone company. There again the rent was only £25 a month, and the council also paid me housing benefit in case even that financial burden was too great.
Heading back after all these years I wondered how much or how little would have changed. The area was still Student Central, I deduced from the bearded hoodied teenagers trotting back en masse from lectures, but this secluded enclave of terraced backstreets had also evolved to become home to some of Hull's slightly better off families. The chippie on the Beverley Road had long gone, replaced by a much wider choice of tandoori, fried chicken, Chinese and something Middle Eastern, plus there was now an independent coffee shop and even (gasp) a cocktail bar, two things the class of 86 couldn't possibly have entertained. But all this sat uneasily with the huge Lidl now plonked across the street and the string of Eastern European shops down the main road into Hull, suggesting it's the incoming students rather than the resident population with the most cash to spend.
As for the house at number six, that looked much as it did in 1987, apart from the blades of an urban wind turbine whirling unnervingly close over the rooftop. I walked close enough to confirm that the front door was new, when it unexpectedly opened and one of today's students poked his head out for a trackie-bottomed smoke. A glance down the hallway brought everything briefly back, but there was to be no nostalgic linger before I was forced to retreat, just a jolting reminder that a generation has passed, and almost certainly for the better.
posted 01:00 :
Friday, October 24, 2014I was going to write today's post on the train home. A two and a half hour journey should have been enough time to cobble some words together, at least to give a flavour of my day out. But disaster intruded, the power sockets in my return carriage weren't working, so my phone would never have survived the trip. The poor gent opposite me wailed "But now I won't be able to read my book!", which must have been quite traumatic... 21st century problems. One day I'm sure we'll look back on this brief era, as we do now with dial-up internet, and wonder how society ever coped before smartphone batteries were capable of lasting 24 hours. Anyway, I spent a most interesting day in this particular northern town, walking over ten miles in the process, and I shall be telling you all about it shortly. In the meantime I only have the energy to bring you these three photos, which should make it damned obvious where I was, before retiring for a well-earned sleep.
Pedants' Corner: But Hull is a city, not a town!
If this interests you, I've filtered off all the comments here
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, October 23, 2014Earlier this summer the Imperial War Museum (London) reopened after a major revamp. The heart of the museum was ripped out, rejigged and overtly tweaked, while the galleries up the far end remained pretty much intact. I've been meaning to investigate the upgrade for a while, but had been reticent of visiting at the weekend when the place is packed, so I waited for an October pre-half term weekday and snuck in down Lambeth way. Still busy, but with more space than ever before to disperse the crowds.
If you remember the IWM of yore, the biggest change is the disappearance of the ground floor. Previously you walked straight into a display of weaponry and dangly things, but that level's now been removed to increase the depth of the atrium. Instead a new set of steps lead down to what was floor minus one, now zero, where nine iconic artefacts dramatically fill the space. Top tip: don't pause at the top of the stairs to take a photo, there are much less congested lookouts beyond. Top tip two: if you don't fancy the stairs there are entrances to the first floor hidden at each end of the gift shop. But best go downstairs anyway.
That's not an interactive display area on the left, that's more of the gift shop. Meanwhile on the right, no, that's the cafe. Don't worry, there is plenty of war hidden away beyond, including a major new World War One exhibition across most of the ground floor. It's very good, but also very popular, indeed on the day of my visit a man was positioned outside to say "It's Quite Busy In There" to anyone who approached. The exhibition is set out chronologically, and in considerable detail, which works rather well if you have the time to linger. Artefacts appear in clusters, sometimes sparingly, but always well described and in proper context. As you'd expect they're augmented by powerful audio-visual interventions, and all this on a subject that packs quite a punch in its intensity. Meanwhile appropriate emphasis is given to the ordinary soldier and to the role of women back at home, and even what the German people were enduring at the same time.
The IWM's previous WW1 exhibition was all medals and glass cases, whereas this is considerably more narrative-based and emotionally affecting. The one duff note is the recreated trench, a dull straight featureless canyon, whereas the fibreglass maze in the museum's former incarnation was somehow far more memorable. Nevertheless I learnt a huge amount about all the key battles and the tactics behind them, indeed about the shape of the entire conflict, which isn't bad given the volley of media attention the Great War's had this centenary year. In common with most visitors I spent at least an hour wandering through this atmospheric display, although it has to be said those unwilling to pause and read dashed through considerably quicker.
And what of World War Two? Two existing projects have that covered, the most significant of which is 'The Holocaust', spread over the fourth and third floors. I'm never anything other than humbled by walking through, indeed I make it a rule to return every few years to be reminded of the horrors inflicted on so many. Much closer to home, and rather newer, is 'A Family in Wartime'. This tells the story of the Home Front via the Allpress family from Lambeth, again extremely done, but the exhibition's now a year or two old. What you won't have seen before is the Turning Points series scattered around the balconies on the first floor. This is anything but chronological, more a series of bundled artefacts on diverse topics, and I found it unexpectedly unengaging.
The postwar years are covered by a very similar clustered exhibition one floor up. This works better, there being no consistent narrative to deliver, and dips into the Cold War, the Falklands, even the founding of the NHS. A small cinema shows propaganda films of the time - pray that your screening is not invaded by a school party relishing the opportunity to misbehave out of their teachers' sight. Equally I enjoyed the reaction of one primary class to Margaret Thatcher's Spitting Image puppet - "Oh that's freaky! - and why would they know any different?
Returning to World War One, two temporary galleries of paintings shed a different light on the conflict by hanging the works of some of the official war artists of the day. In only a handful of cases do we see traditional portraits of officers in uniform, instead a more sombre note is struck with very ordinary scenes of soldiers on the battlefield. And don't forget the Heroes gallery at the very top of the building (or as we're repeatedly reminded the Heroes gallery sponsored by Lord Ashcroft) where the world's largest collection of Victoria Crosses is brought to life by the stories of those who earned them.
All in all there's much to see at the Imperial War Museum, even if you thought you'd seen everything before, and it would be easy to spend the best part of a day exploring the lot. Just try to avoid coming at the weekend if you can, else you may spent more time in conflict with the crowds than learning about conflicts past.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, October 22, 2014The Year of the Bus isn't over yet, oh no. From this week until December, three bus sculpture walking trails have been laid out across central London. That's a peculiar statement, so let me clarify. Someone's made 60 identical blank bus shapes, 2½m long and 1m high, out of plastic or fibreglass or something. The bus in question is the New Bus For London, or whatever TfL are calling it this year. An equivalent number of artists have designed something bus- or London-related to paint or otherwise cover the surface of each sculpture. At the end of the process they'll all be auctioned for charity, one of which is Camila Batmanghelidjh's Kids Company, and another of which is TfL's very own London Transport Museum. A fourth walking trail is lined up for central Croydon in the run-up to Christmas. And the other three are up and running now should you wish to traipse around the capital and take a look.
Here's one, called Moquette.
I found it on Monday morning outside Stratford International station, glinting in the sunlight and being generally inspected by passers-by. I rather liked it, and its playful reference to the seat covers of the Routemasters of old, plus it looked like artist Beth Quinton had painted it herself so there was a proper realness to it. I found another bus sculpture outside Mothercare at Westfield, but that was rubbish, as if the designers knocked off an idea without considering the visual impact it wouldn't have.
Anyway, I thought I'd traipse around the capital and take a look at some more of the buses. I plumped for the River trail, rather than the Westminster or QEOP trails, for no especially good reason, and printed out the official YOTB Sculpture Trail map off the TfL website. I completely failed to notice that there was an app I could have downloaded with background and a location for each bus, plus the chance to tick them all off as I visited. There again, given that the app thinks one of the trails is in "Westiminster" and the Christmas trail is in "Crydon", perhaps I didn't miss out too badly.
I missed out quite badly at the first stop on the River trail, which was London Bridge City Pier. Bus number 1 was missing, definitely absent, no matter whether I checked on the riverbank or down on the pier itself. Again the app would have told me that "Dazzle Bus hasn't arrived on location yet", but I wasn't aware and so kicked off my walk unnecessarily. Thankfully none of the other dozen buses on my particular trail were missing. I eventually found brightly-coloured bus 2 almost under London Bridge, having walked round the wrong way because the line on the official map is a little over-simplified. Thankfully buses 3 and 4 were more obvious, these just past Borough Market, then bus 5 some way further on at one end of the Millennium Bridge.
I was surprised how little interest some of the sculptures were getting, despite their location on the busy South Bank tourist trail. Everyone has a camera in their pocket these days, but few stopped to share despite the undoubted novelty value and artistic merit of a painted bus. One family paused by bus 4 so that daughter could pose for a snap, but Mum seemed unimpressed. "It's not something you'd expect them to waste money on," she said, unaware that each of the buses has an official sponsor and so cost the travelling public nothing. Had she bothered to read the plaque on the plinth underneath, all this was spelt out, but in this case the good news about the charity auction went entirely unnoticed.
Buses 6 and 7 aren't on the official trail because they're too far away. If you're feeling completist you'll need to follow the orange lampposts from Tate Modern to Southwark station, which is also where TfL has its main London offices. The two outlier buses are located just outside the main entrance, in the immediate zone where employees come outside for a smoke. One has a Legible London design and is quite frankly a bit dull, while the other is pretty much a faithful copy of what a real New Bus For London looks like, so hardly an original work of art at all.
The official trail continues across the Millennium Bridge on the north bank of the Thames. The City of London Visitor Centre has a punk-themed bus parked outside, painted safety pins and all, while bus 9 (in another office doorway) has a children's storytime vibe. But rather more appealing was number 10 on Cheapside, adorned very simply with the original Routemaster red button - Push Once - repeated across both sides. A good idea followed through with panache is what the best of these buses boasts - either high concept or painted with highly skilled technique, preferably both.
If you've brought a small child with you, I doubt you'll have got this far. The second half of the River trail is quite contorted, and from this point on offers little excitement in return for number of additional steps walked. Having said that, bus 11 on Threadneedle Street hit all the right buttons for me. It's entitled 'All Aboard the Number 8' and depicts numerous street signs to be found along a number 8 bus journey. Maybe it's because one of the artists lives in E3 but most of these are from the Bow end of the route and, even better, are properly accurate representations of the actual signs. Anna and Jennifer, respect.
If you can be bothered, buses 12 and 13 are some walk away back down by the Thames. Bus 12 offers the opportunity to photograph a bus with Tower Bridge on it with the real Tower Bridge in the background, which one family were actually doing, which was nice. Bus 13 is quartered into night and day, which works, but includes some route diversions and changes of vehicle that proper bus geeks may be slightly peeved by. And the trail ends with a line on a map drawn to Tower Hill station, which is interesting because they might have assumed you'd catch the bus home instead, but seemingly not. [4 photos]
So anyway, I'd not recommend you spend an hour or two tracking down the Bus Sculptures on the River trail, it's too long for not enough payback. The Westminster trail looks more time-efficient, and is almost linear, so long as you ignore the hyperleap to an office block on the Edgware Road at the very end. Or if you have a small child in tow, do the Olympic Park trail instead because it's more compact, plus the autumn leaves will be more impressive. Or wait for Crydon.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, October 21, 2014Seaside postcard: Folkestone Triennial
While other south coast towns have resorted to building art galleries to bring the punters in, in Folkestone the town itself is the art. Every three years they throw a Triennial, commissioning a couple of dozen artists to showcase some fresh creation somewhere unexpected. Six years ago Tracey Emin cast a baby's bootees in bronze, and three years back Martin Creed composed a soundscape for the cliff lift. 2014's Triennial kicked off at the end of August and has only a fortnight left to run, so I thought I'd better get down sharpish before the season ends. Mondays aren't especially busy days, but the Hosts were out in force at each of the exhibits (daily, 10am-5pm), so I got plenty of them almost to myself. Grab a free map from the station and you should be able to track down the whole lot by following a long and sinuous walk around town. It's always a grand day out.
» Official website/Twitter
» 40 of my photos to flick through
The Wind Lift: Now here's an idea. Stake out some space in a residential car park at the foot of a railway viaduct. Rig a vertical track 25 metres up the side of the brickwork, and dangle an oversized windchime in the centre of the adjacent arch. And then, using wind power alone, raise a rickety platform high above the rooftops with up to six guinea-pigs aboard. The queues might be longer at the weekend, but I got straight aboard, and only slightly tentatively. The hoist paused halfway up to check that nobody had unexpected vertigo, then rose to the full height and shuddered slightly. It shuddered more when my fellow passengers decided they'd walk around a bit, but that was thankfully only brief. Conditions up top were excellent, with the coast of France clearly visible beyond the rooftops across the centre of town. The button-pressing volunteer told that us the hoist isn't quite so appealing in pouring rain, as you can imagine, so was pleased that October's been on the mild side. A most unusual experience. [photos]
Pent Houses: And why is there a viaduct across the centre of Folkestone? It's because a river once flowed through the town, the Pent River, now culverted beneath the ground... and temporarily marked by five Manhattan style water towers. [photo]
Green/Light: On some wasteground opposite a Tesco Express, Jyll Bradley has erected a forest of aluminium poles and some strips of yellow perspex. There's method to her madness, she's recreating the gasholder that used to stand here until the year she was born, and doubling this up with an allusion to Kent's hop fields, or something. Whatever, when the sun glints across the threaded circle, it's most attractive. [photos]
Amusefood: In further enticing weirdness, a unique fish and chip shop has been set up on a rooftop in the centre of town. The front looks real enough, but enter and you'll find yourself in a polytunnel growing hydroponic vegetables. Up front are two dark tubs containing hard-to-see carp, and behind that some thriving potatoes, mint and less-successful peas. That's fish, chips and mushy peas, Triennial style. Across the street is Folkestone's theatre, in whose bar Yoko Ono has written some typically Ono-esque instructions on a mirror. There's quite a lot of Yoko dotted around the town, in a dashed-off fairly effortlessly kind of way. Meanwhile just outside is a brand new greenspace, Payers Park, a sliver of steeply sloping land made permanently recreational as part of this year's festival. It's an impressive use of space, and Banksy must like it too because he's sprayed a special Triennial artwork - a woman looking at an empty plinth - on a big blank wall up top. [photos]
The Electrified Line: Folkestone Harbour station used to be the gateway to the continent, accessed via a steeply descending branch line to a viaduct across the harbour. Here Gabriel Lester has created a cube of bamboo scaffolding, a chance to step up over the tracks and look out over the harbour beneath a canopy of threaded poles. The Outer Harbour is the site of the Triennal's most expensive work, thirty gold bars buried in the sand, and accessible to potential treasure hunters only at low tide. Its not known how many have been found or how many are left, but the initial rush of golddiggers has certainly died down - there were none out yesterday. [photos]
Is Why The Place: Folkestone Harbour station saw its last scheduled train in 2001, its last train in 2009, and was officially closed for good in May this year. That makes it an excellent place for an artwork, in this case two, one the leftover Rug People from three years ago. 2014's piece is a pair of neon sculptures, one on the up platform and one on the down, spelling out COMING AND GOING IS WHY THE PLACE IS THERE AT ALL. It's apposite, but it's also marvellous to get the chance to walk along the slowly decaying platforms, once thronging with luggage, now the seagulls' haunt. And walk right up to the end and you can climb the stairs to the harbour arm, where Folkestone's anglers dangle their rods, and with another artwork painted on the lighthouse at the end. [photos]
Vigil: If you've ever visited Folkestone you'll know The Grand Burstin, the pig-ugly hotel on the harbourfront that 'resembles' an ocean liner. For the duration of the Triennial a series of volunteers are living on a portaledge hanging from the very top of the funnel - it looked like Monday was washing day. [photos]
Beach Hut in the Style of Nicholas Hawksmoor: The first 18 artworks on the Triennial train are relatively evenly spaced, but then there's an almighty gap along the seafront to number 19. I thought Pablo Bronstein's Baroque beach hut was worth the mile-long trek, but you might want to bow out earlier. If you do you'll miss the maze hidden in the grotto on the Zig Zag Path, although it's not so impressive now the volunteers don't hang the doors on every morning because it's too much hard work. [photos]
Whithervanes: By the time you've walked the entire dotted line on the triennial map, and if you've been paying attention at rooftop level, you should have seen five headless chickens. These are the whithervanes, five fear-tracking sculptures which monitor internet newsfeeds for alarmist keywords and then react appropriately. They're supposed to spin away from the source of the bad news, and also to light up in a particular colour relevant to the level of threat. They're endearing but I saw none spin, nor any light up, so I can only assume Monday was a good news day... or more likely that they're not working properly. [photos]
And that's only about half of the works. There's a cracked clay window in a High Street shop, there's a bomb site broadcasting bread recipes, there's a choral work composed from the answers to questionnaires, and there's a pentagonal sculpture inside which I sat and gobbled down a tray of fish and chips. The other trailgoers yesterday were mostly locals and groups of grey haired ladies from London, but I'm told the weekend's a lot busier. I didn't get the hang of the official smartphone app, which is a shame because it should have provided me with a lot more background information on the way round, but didn't. And you only have until Sunday November 2nd to come down and visit, else you'll have to wait until 2017 for the next burst of coastal creativity.
My Folkestone Triennial gallery
There are 40 photos altogether [slideshow]
posted 03:00 :
Monday, October 20, 2014Scotch whisky is clearly a thing, English whisky less so. Indeed for almost all of the 20th century there was no such thing as English whisky at all, not since the Lea Valley Distillery Company closed down in 1901. Stratford's whisky factory was located on Warton Road, inbetween Palmer & Co Ltd (oil & candle manufacturers) and A Boake Roberts & Co (manufacturing chemists), backing onto the river Lea. All the old buildings along this stretch were cleared a few years ago, and for a very good reason, which is because the site's now in a prominent position in the Olympic Park. The Lea Valley Distillery Company stood almost precisely where the Aquatic Centre is today, in fact on top of the car park slightly to the south. No plaque marks the site, indeed the Park's industrial legacy is mostly overlooked. But English whisky's last hurrah was here, at least until Norfolk took over.
St George's Distillery was opened in 2006. It lies in the southern part of Norfolk, the bit most tourists drive straight through, just off the A11 past Thetford. There is a station very close by, that's Harling Road, but this is one of the least used stations in the UK and has a pathetically infrequent service. So you'll probably have to go by car, ideally someone else's car, because the whole point of going on a tour here is the taster samples afterwards, and you don't want to be the designated driver.
The distillery's the big barnlike building by the tropical fish centre with a couple of red and white flags flapping outside. The St George's branding is a little blatant, perhaps, but still the right side of patriotic rather than über-UKIP. Two different tours are offered, one for £10, the other identical but £20 more and with five drams of "world whisky" tacked on at the end. Both are supposed to start off with a video, but we got a bloke talking instead which was probably more interesting if a little harder to hear. Delivery as dry as a fine malt, I thought, without the burning aftertaste.
This isn't the biggest distillery you'll ever see, more an oversized chemistry set in one large room, but at least this means you get right up close to the action. We were led round from each large copper still to the next, the various stages of the process duly explained, of which there are several. Each still has its own specific temperature and duration, precisely controlled by digital instrumentation, and most were warm to the please-don't touch. In a couple we saw the pre-whisky bubbling its way through, here resembling an aerated gloop, whereas what emerged at the end of the process was condensed reflux that was almost clear.
Out the back, in a large dark shed named Bond 1, we saw the stacked up barrels inside which the distillery's cargo matures. This takes several years of 'breathing in and out' through the wood, but fewer years than in Scotland because temperatures in Norfolk are generally higher. Then it was back in to see the bottling plant, a surprisingly minor feature, where half-dozens of Marks and Spencer's English Whisky were being boxed up. And then to the taster sampling finale, both peated and unpeated, cunningly located in the shop so that if you enjoy your swig you might walk off with more. Personally I'm not a fan, the single malts either too bitter or too smoky, hence most of the contents of the well-stocked gift shop left me cold. But almost everyone else off the tour wandered out with a bag dangling, indeed a bit of a hit all round.
You no longer have to go as far as Norfolk to see English whisky being made - a small number of English micro-distilleries have set up since. One of these is the London Distillery Company, opened last year in Battersea, but whisky officially takes at least three years to mature so they'll not be selling anything local until 2016. Instead Norfolk's your nearest supplier, should you be a connoisseur in search of an unusual day out, by George.
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