A Day Out With Elspeth on a Bus Named Gideon

or Steyning and Rottingdean – Sussex’s Lavenham?


I am pleased to be able to have another Named Bus piece. It’s not just Norfolk’s Coasthoppers (pronounced Cust’opper) that gives its fleet the monikers of locally significant people. And I am delighted that the No 2 of Brighton and Hove buses includes the Gideon Mantell, who inspired me as a child with his fossil finding. Is there also a Mary Mantell – wasn’t it she who picked up the Iguanodon thumb?


You may have realised that I like comparisons and in finding regional equivalents. Perhaps I seek out by criteria.


You’ll know that I’m fond of Lavenham. I’m still stating that this Suffolk Wool Town is the prettiest village in East Anglia, and I’ve not found anywhere anywhere which beats it.


I was happy to discover that Sussex has charming old villages too, and one seemed to be the south coast answer to Suffolk’s best – they even have almost the same county name.


Like Lavenham, Steyning – pronounced Stenning – was a town. Its market ceased in my lifetime, and it’s got that small town/big village border feel.


It wasn’t my only stop; I saw much else in Sussex. And I do mean, much. I can see why pensioners ride about on buses all day – if you’ve the stomach for it. But there was a rather unfavourable bus to village walking ratio. And the journey in between was somewhat…!! (I’ll find words for that in a minute).


It started well. From outside Brighton’s Victorian Sealife centre and its pier, another bus takes you along the coastal road in an easterly direction. The sea sparkled, so did the white houses of the famous crescents bookended by Eaton Place, with glimpses of the shop and cafe life of Kemp Town. Then you get to the marina, at which you try not to look. It is the worst place I’ve ever been and I shan’t again, but above it, on the cliffs, are the Downs.


In case you don’t know – these are undulating green things, which are protected natural spaces. Bear that in mind for what you’re about to read.


I finally saw a building which Anthony Seldon is rude about in his book, Brave New City, about what’s good and what isn’t in Brighton. It’s a home for blind airmen, formally known as St Dustan’s. I wondered why this 1930s block was on his offensive list – but I see his point. It’s the setting, not the buffy coloured biplane look alike building, that’s the issue. It rises out of the pastoral surroundings quite shockingly. He prefers nearby Roedean school – but I’m not sure that its greyness hasn’t got the sinisterness of another institution about it.

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Not long after, you’re at Rottingdean. Not an appealing name, is it – it sounds rather grotty. But it’s a pretty village with city transport, including Night Buses. My city doesn’t know what a night bus is. Or even an evening bus. So I’m impressed that such a rural, real village gets so many buses (no trains) and it’s nice to cycle to on the flat, along the coast.


Rottingdean in leaflets looks like Finchingfield in Essex: a central pond and green and mill, nice little houses, and rural community life. And a bit posh, if I’m honest, even exclusive – if the writers’ group’s anything to go by, in honour of those well known creatives from the past. I thought that Sir William Nicholson referred to the contemporary screenwriter whose work is quoted at the start of my novel. Well, why shouldn’t he get knighted and choose a nice village for his home? Well, wrong century – and this William’s a painter. He’s joined by Rudyard Kipling, who I’ve gone off since re-reading his Rikki-Tikki-Tavi which appears to be imperialist anti Indian propaganda, and Edward Burne-Jones, who made some of his famous windows for the local church.


But the first thing I saw on arriving in Rottingdean was a Tesco! And then, a Costa. Surely such a village is no place for these chains? There was also a feeling, which I have in Brighton: a sort of presentation for London visitors which I deplore, and which was not apparent in the leaflet.


I realised that Rottingdean gave up its secrets easily. It’s mostly one street, ever rising. The pond is less focal than at Finchingfield. There’s a museum in the library, but no cafe today. The mill – up a hill – is open when certain planets converge. So I decided, after peeking at the beach, to hop back on the bus, and ride with Gideon, back through Brighton and to another village on the other side.


I had no idea how long Gideon and I would be together. The timetable says “these mins past the hour” so I didn’t see how many different hours that the journey cut through. For a non bus rider, the thought of the length of a epic movie riding on a double decker was not pleasing. But I’m glad I did.


The way back into Brighton was far longer, and there seemed to be endless ascent and turning around boring houses, with only glimpses of the famous Downs. We came into Brighton via one of the worst roads possible – another which Anthony Seldon rightly criticises in that book. But as we passed the college he was headmaster of, I noted the prohibitive signs about entering the grounds, even to staff and pupils – and then right over them, one about an open day!


But there were more flashes of the sea – thanks to North Street being dug up, so we had to divert from the most obvious bus-catching street – and along my favourite part of Hove, with smart buildings and shops. I was still quite happy in Portland road, which is parallel, and two parallel from the sea, still with some shops and a big Italianate church near Aldrington station.


Then we diverged into soul crushing areas, including streets that I wondered how residents coped having to return home to them. There was an out of town shopping centre, a hospital, and the worst tour of Shoreham.


I’m familiar with Shoreham on Sea, or New Shoreham, already – good job, as I wouldn’t have liked it from the bus route. There’s not much to Shoreham – really it’s 1930s housing and an airport, with a tiny clutch of shops around a large transitional Norman church, and a wide bridge to Yarmouth-esque housing by the beach and a ruined fort. I wondered if the bus had been rerouted as I didn’t see Old Shoreham, which I knew had another Norman church. It was only on the return that I noted the old pub and the church by it, among all the modern housing, and thought – is that all!?


The highlights of my journey were in the stretch that followed: Gothic Lancing college chapel framed by a spaghetti junction, and then, out into the greenery of the Downs National Park, a huge dead concrete plant – which was even a registered bus stop!


But then we started on the nice villages with the letter B – Bramber and Beeding – and I thought: this is more like the Sussex I’ve come for.


It was hard to tell where they finished, and Steyning began. Happily, I recognised the clock tower – which recalls Coggleshall (also Essex) – will these places be alike? I was more than glad to disembark. When I struggled into a couple of shops and finally to a cafe, staff were sympathetic. They knew about the Bus Ordeal.

I heard someone else saying “it’s like Lavenham here”. Along Church Street, there was a stronger kindredness, with its several timbered buildings. But the high street of Steyning is more Georgian; and despite both being in kingdoms of flint, there’s little of it in houses in Lavenham, but it’s often used here. Lavenham too has an undulating main street through it, but there’s a herringbone network beyond. But old Steyning seems to be two streets. The small museum in a modern building was closed that day, and other than the church, I couldn’t find anything to particularly visit.


The church doesn’t look like it’s in the Suffolk Wool Town league, and it’s not on a hill like at Lavenham, or a green as at Long Melford. It has one of those Sussex diddy towers, like a shy tortoise. But the height of the clerestory gives a clue that this is – or was – a church to compare with East Anglia’s – but it’s just not all there. Like Shoreham’s St Mary de Hausa [of the harbour] it’s been shorn of much of its length, and here, it lost the original tower too.

But inside is some great Norman work, although I felt a little strange in the church – not the easiest to linger in. Not even to read about St Cuthman wheeling his mum in a barrow.

I found that like my Essex Wool Town tour, I soon was ready to move on. Was is because of the infrequent and slow buses, when I had a deadline to return to Brighton? I left suddenly, realising one was now due, but I don’t feel I’ve missed much about Steyning – save that little museum. The TIC is a few leaflets near the post office counter (mostly on Brighton), so there’s not much to learn there.


Savvy pensioners told me that I could bus back quicker – but then realised that as an under 60, I was confined to using one bus company, which meant I had to stick with Gideon for the duration. But I slept through the ugly bits, and awoke just as the nice bit of Hove started, with sea glimpses down elegant avenues.


So, Lavenham, you still win the pretty village award – or is just because I’ve explored you at greater length and with less restriction? If I’ve missed anything about these villages, or there is more like them, do let me know.


A Day Out With Elspeth in Derry



I’ve never had to make a statement or risk offence in what I called a place before. Some of you may want to boo me already. Please don’t.

Having spent a couple of days in Belfast, I was ready for more provincial provinces and also for some scenery.

I got both. Yes I went to the ruddy Giant’s Causeway, which is not mystical and remote, as pictures show. It s stuffed with people like gulls at feeding time, one per hexagonal block, and then a steady stream walking from the PAID carpark, with National Trust staff directing your paths, and trying to get you to pay £10 to Enter The Building – their visitor centre. Yes, to even look at the shop or use the cafe. And they’ve commandeered the nearby inn, too. Military overtones deliberate. I’m not sure what I feel about the Trust having places of nature and mystery.

But there wasn’t much here – not during daylight hours. I had a colleague whom I imagine strutting across from Ire to Scotland, casually creating the rock formation as she strode.

So onto Derry and some great scenery on the train, as you’re right by the coast and there’s hills in the background.

So I arrived in the said city in a good mood, which is by a wide river, the same name as a bookshop I like. This all put me I further good spirits.

Another big Tourist Information Centre – Northern Ireland knows how to do these properly (England, take note!). And then, the city walls – which I’m shocked to learn are not only shut at that vague hour of “dusk”, but have metal spikes atop. Not very in the spirit of peace and unity!

City Walls and Tower House, Derry

My plan was to do a neutral/both sides museum – the Tower House. I have never spent a couple of pounds so well. Then to the Catholic/Republican museum in Bogside – yes, the Free Derry area, about Bloody Sunday – which is unlike any museum I’ve ever visited. Then I’d do the Protestant/Unionist museum, called Siege Heroes, tellingly, with their own castellated hall inside the walls, much about marching and 1689. And then I would lunch with the Dove, local monastery builder Colmcille, AKA Columba. But although there was a great visitor centre (hear Nessie rebuked in Gaelic!), the Dove wasn’t cooking and seemingly neither was the other heritage centre in the gasworks.

In fact, finding food and drink, and activity generally – especially after about 4pm – was tough here. During the day, you’ve several museums and tours to see. You can also visit the Bluecoat school at the grand First Presbyterian chapel, see three lots of murals (the tour bus may help as they’re spread out). There’s three theatres, but all were dark when I was there, and only mainstream cinema. Sulk. Pubs looked a little… “local for local people”. And it was very very wet.

There’s only a few streets to central Derry, sadly dominated by a shopping centre. It reminds me of Great Yarmouth: a small walled town which was once an island at the mouth of a river, and something about the atmosphere – many museums, lots of history, but…

This is the place to come if you like history and want to understand…now again I have to make a political choice about what to call it…Northern Ireland, Ulster, Six Counties… I’ll settle for The Region. There’s also the grand Guildhall to visit which has a free exhibition room about the city’s history. I felt overwhelmed with reading panels and watching videos, but there is much to learn about how Derry got its controversial longer name. And much about managing conflict, violence, different opinions (and how not to), and also questioning what you’re told about events. It’s often a lesson to learn from rather than to emulate, but in its heritage centres at least, there seems to be harmony and a balance, and a working together.

As I left, I faced a final Northern Ireland conundrum: I was told that I may not sit on the platform (where I could at last enjoy some sunshine and a nice final view of the city) – for health and safety. And yet the same man had at commuter time, scrubbed the station floor with smelly chemicals, left it soaking wet, and then left a wet patch right by the doors…






A Day Out With Elspeth in Belfast

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Grey dawn. Cranes against hills. Wind whipping in unseasonably cold aggressive drizzle.

That’s my first view of Northern Ireland and it sums up most of the trip.

The attraction was mostly to see the birthplace of something – although you call it a she – but the rest of the city was little known to me. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like it.

Belfast appears quite a young city. I understand that it is – and that one perhaps ought to be gentle, considering that it has suffered so many Troubles. I think that it’s more like Cardiff: a smallish Victorian industrial boom town who has been a city barely 100 years and a capital for less. It’s finding its place. But unlike Cardiff, there’s no castle and no medieval parish church. I only came across one building that’s pre Victorian. It reminded me much of Glasgow, with the red sandstone tall edifices – often banks or warehouses – although Belfast’s much less populous than its cousin across the sea. But the accent often sounded alike, with little shared dialect quirks, and I often thought of Glasgow as I visited. But again, Glasgow has evidence of being pre-existent to Workshop of the Empire; Belfast does not.

I’ve not many mental images of Belfast although I travelled through much of the city. I note that even guidebooks don’t have many pictures, and they focus on the city hall and the red brick Queen’s university quarter, which is as contrasting to the centre as Glasgow’s West End is. Perhaps the Cathedral quarter of Belfast is kind of a Merchant city – linen not tobacco – and is where the smaller streets are. But even its cathedral was finished in 1980.

The bit that stuck, other than where I’m about to take you for the main course of this piece, is the suburbs with their murals. I found it interesting and poignant to see history that I can recall and that the guides lived through personally. I saw many parallels with other events and that heavy army and police presence didn’t improve the daily bombings and snipers.

Two other things stuck: the no posters posters from the council, replete with threats of fines, which felt controlling of both revenue and freedom of speech. Along with seeing an aggressive police vehicle of the type described during the Troubles, it didn’t make me think well of those supposed to be looking after the city.


I wished the tour bus companies didn’t aggressively vie. The first circuit by Gavin was excellent, aside from the tactless strip search comment at Stormont, where security staff board the bus. But then the commentaries felt contrived public information. One guide cockily dismissed something I know alot about and was the reason I came. I’m going to now take you there, to another disparate area, also developing and turning itself into a tourist zone, although initially it would also seem quite an odd place to take a tour to…

A shipyard. You knew it, didn’t you. I came for her. All 882¾ feet of her. Except she’s not there any more. But she feels tangible. Not in the £70m museum – I wonder how much ship you could build for that? But in the undeveloped bits, the bits of raw scraped concrete that were really part of Harland and Wolff’s yard where she was born.

The Titanic Experience is intense and overpriced. As you enter, you are photographed against a green screen. I’ll show you what you get for £10, presented in a flimsy cardboard mount. Note that the ship isn’t fully in frame and that we’re hovering in the harbour (at Southampton!) yet we’ve got suitcases around us. The capstans (nubbins for rope winding) look like crude CGI mushrooms. As much of the photo and its mount has rosettes boasting about the attraction’s success, and for £18 a visitor, you think you’d deserve better.

titanic and me 001

The only reason I paid for mine – and I did ponder on it – was that this was a double special occasion. One is that for 21 years, I’ve had a special interest in Titanic and I’ve written a book on it. It’ll be out next after the sequel to Parallel Spirals, so I’m hoping to publish The Jury in My Mind by 2020: a personal claim, a microcosmic view, a double loss. It’s also a play. This really is something you’ve not read before about this ship.

The inside of the experience was loud and very busy. The virtual tour of the interiors was as fast as an elevator and you didn’t get to stand in any rooms. Nothing was full size. I did like the cable car ride and seeing a real lifeboat, but not the sweeping dismissal of the ‘myths’ including conspiracies or some other more controversial and complex facts. They showed a low quality CGI animation of the sinking, but with the ship in one piece. They didn’t really have an answer for why they’d chosen to show that instead of Cameron’s surface level break up.

The Titanic Quarter ought to think more about the buildings it’s making as a whole. The studios and exhibition centre – and all the hotels and entertainment here – are pretty drab and spread out.

The Wee Tram ride was brilliant – friendly and fun and good value. When they opened the gates to the big yellow cranes, I nearly weed myself. They’re the only tour allowed inside so you can get right up to the 300ft H&W gantries – born around my time, not old enough for the Olympic class ships, but still. Genuine shipping history!

The dry dock was also exciting. There’s a cafe in half of the pump house, and the other half is a nude room telling you about what it would’ve done for Titanic. Then you view the basin and think – she sat here! You can descend into it. It’s quite simple and gizmo free, but I liked that.

Then, I suggest you go to the Nomadic which is part of your £18 but I would say it’s worth doing this alone. The Nomadic is a wee Titanic sibling and the last White Star line ship. Her job was a shuttle, or tender ship. Molly Brown walked here. And so did stewardess Violet Jessop, who’ve I’ve a special interest in. That was really quite an emotional thought. You can actually promenade on deck. You see bits of 1st and 2nd class decoration which were on the Big Sister. Unlike her, the Nomadic had a long life and was a Parisian dance hall. Staff were very lovely and knowledgeable – I met some really nice people in the Titanic Experience too.

Lastly, you can now have a coffee or stay in the newly developed former drawing offices. The handsome sandstone building has two cavernous light white rooms which were just sitting there, until the day before I visited, when the hotel opened. Staff in the bar were unsociable and I got bored of waiting for their attention, but I did get to stand in the grand room where those plans were drawn.

So yes it was a pilgrimage worth doing, but I struggled to find eating and entertainment options. Belfast felt quite a scruffy piecemeal city, but I met lots of kind chatty people; and as well as my overpriced and quite naff souvenir, I take that with me.

I’ll be back soon to tell you about my other adventures in Northern Ireland.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Lavenham

I’m reposting this with an update:

The car parking in Lavenham has balanced my other disappointments. They refused to let the council make it enforced paid parking, and instead invite you to pay a suggested modest fee towards helping the village. They say “No clamps, no fines”. Did we pay – of course! And lingered a while, and the village benefitted from our timed and tariff free parking. Such as my buying the Tony Hepworth book I’ve long wanted from the tourist information centre. Lavenham feels magical, and having visited some more East Anglian villages, is still the best in my view. Just take cash before you go.

A Day Out With Elspeth in the Suffolk Wool Towns

I also updated Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

I hope to do a day in Essex wool towns when I’ve seen a few more.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Durham

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Welcome to Durham – World Heritage city!

I’ve already given this city a long Naughty Guide entry, but on revisiting, I would like to revise some of my comments.

Despite the coolness that some visitors have felt, a child’s response to Durham cathedral is that they wanted to hug it; even that they felt it was hugging them. That’s my maternal pillars at work.

I said that despite being a Friend of the cathedral they were not a friend to me – but I just had a vastly improved experience, not only of staff and volunteers, but the whole city.

My only two gripes are the £10 card minimum spend in the shop – not elsewhere in the cathedral – and that staff didn’t see that had I not had change they would have lost their precious sale.

The other was not unique to Durham and that’s that stewards were talking throughout services.

They still used that black line – to hold non worshippers back on Sunday mornings.

But I like that commerce comes after worship and you have to wait till 12.30 on Sundays for non religious activities. It would be useful for that to be clearer to visitors.

I didn’t mind paying to go round the exhibition, though it was a bit steep in price – £7.50 – as it was a voluntary way of giving the cathedral income without having to pay to enter the church. The cafe is simple but atmospheric and the shop opposite is large and I was happy to give both my support.

The Open Treasure exhibition involves two fantastic rooms – the huge monk’s dormitory and the octagonal kitchen. Volunteers were very friendly and there was no snobbery at all.

They even have an alternative youth service – Pulse – but alas I was unable to sample that.

Silver Street and the old Elvet Bridge

The castle tour was by a warm and knowledgeable young man (though one correction: St Andrews university is way older than Durham’s – it’s 15th C!) who cut all the stupid in college jokes that annoyed me before.

I had time to potter further in Durham. Often it’s been a day sandwich from Newcastle but this time I reversed that and spent the majority of my trip in the land of former prince bishops. Doing it that way round gave me a different perspective. I was again enchanted by the peace of the riverside walks which extend beyond the peninsula.

However, I was not enchanted by the greeting site of the huge holes to make retail centres and accommodation. The signs say they’re giving Durham its river back – but lumpy bog standard and too high developments is hardly doing so! It made me realise that the Gates shopping centre was actually quite thoughtful in scale and detailing. Durham size cities are charming because they don’t have malls and multiplexes. Not what a World Heritage Site needs.

I walked beyond the little peninsula this time more than before. It’s true that Saddler St is the star olde street in the island, leading into the bailey. Silver St has only one obvious ancient building. And there aren’t many others to mention – inside the river loop is hogged by those Norman institutions.

But over either of the ancient bridges, and interesting buildings continue. The Elvets don’t have many pubs or shops but they are pleasing architecturally. There is also Hallgarth street and Church St on this side – the one with the old country hall and St Oswald’s.

South St now has a little art gallery, but nothing else to see, but the peace and the view are worth the walk alone. Beyond and up more characteristic steep streets is Crossgate with a few pubs and Dark Matter comics cafe, which helped change my view of Durham. The streets are very colourful up here and are emulated close to where you descend from the station.

Claypath also has some older buildings and several places to eat and drink. It too is blighted by a large hole at present. It felt a little more North Easterly by night – ie boisterous.

My comments about limited nightlife remain, although these hulking developments are bringing in an overkill of these. Millennium Place now is surrounded by chain bars, making a theatrical visit potentially noisy. I share my thoughts on Durham cinema here:

Like many places, Durham no longer has a visitable tourist information centre, but you can obtain leaflets from the Gala theatre, the Town Hall (not weekends), the Indoor Market, World Heritage Site visitor centre (which is small) and Palace Green Library which incorporates some of the now closed Durham Light Infantry museum as well as archaeology. The latter two are happy to give general information.

So Durham, I have forgiven you and I am glad that I had time to linger this time. I came home with warm thoughts, and even felt some of the Celtic magic.


A Day Out With Elspeth in Newcastle

Perhaps I was not alone in expecting long outskirts of industry and terraced houses, a towering football stadium, and boisterous hard drinkers frequenting the above.

Yes – these are all there, but I was surprised to see that there really is a castle, town walls and a large medieval parish church – one of 4. I could have also viewed the timbered buildings on the quay and the classical golden sweep of the city’s most famous street.

Not only is the city more ancient than I expected, but I discovered its wide arts – from stuccoed balconies to reclaimed biscuit factories to the triple cupped silver bra of the Sage music centre, to even poetry recitals in a bastion. (Cinemas are reviewed here).

And so I became intrigued – and then fell in love.

After living there, I reiterate that my first paragraph is not a misconception. Drinking’s well underway by the time the shops close, meaning that its rowdiness is several hours ahead of other cities. Newcastle divides between day cafes and rammed drinking venues, particularly so when black and white shirts descend on the city. I thought their roar was the Roman army come back to defend Hadrian’s Wall again – but no, just a home match.

But here, I’m going to reimagine Newcastle and suggest that its most famous aspects – the bridges and the classical town planning – are at the expense of others and are in some ways detrimental.

Newcastle is unlike the other industrial cities, in that it was big and busy long before cranes and mills. It’s more akin to Bristol – although with a different atmosphere.

Old pictures show how bumpy Newcastle is. Planners from the 19th C tried to flatten those bumps and to make straight and flat roads for cars and rail. That has been done with the loss of many of the timbered buildings, allowing transport to dominate the hills.

Newcastle’s 7 bridges are interesting because they come in a clump. But they are not all interesting individually. I like the two which are at river level.

But commerce requires that bridges are high to allow not only ships in but to carry mechanised transport. Even though the two bridges with moving parts are the best.

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The Tyne Bridge is distinctive and shapely, but when you walk under it or even over it, you’re overwhelmed by the size of the supports and the roar of vehicles. Great warehouses in its legs rise up, eerie and unused, whilst High Level Bridge (above) has huge struts like warring Transformers that cut through Newcastle’s oldest buildings. The tails of these bridges end at the brow of a gradual hill, meaning that their span is much wider than the 500 feet of river, and that each bank has a looming overhead metal monster with twisting complicated roads.

Especially in Gateshead, these spoil the town and so there’s little there other than the Sage and Baltic, and then hotchpotch hotels and slip roads. St Mary’s church yard – Gateshead’s only old building – is clipped by the Tyne Bridge.

And Newcastle castle garth is hewn in two by the railway, one of two buildings I would have avoided running the tracks The Victorians instead managed to sever the Keep from its gatehouse, and the peg timbered tenement communities of Dog Leap Stairs.

The more recent motorways mean that you can’t go north or west of the centre without encountering a large fast concrete snake.


My other issue is the planning of the 1830s. Grainger is so celebrated that a whole section of the centre is named after him. He has his own street and market.

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But I’m not sure that this man is as worthy as Newcastle makes him. It’s unusual that a builder is famous, rather than who designed what he made. Apart from Dobson, we might not know the names of Grainger’s architects – the Green brothers, Walker, Wardle, and Oliver. We do know Grainger’s chum Clayton, town clerk and advisor, who also gets his own street, and is probably the reason that Grainger was able to do what he did to Newcastle and have his plan chosen, even over the architect he worked with.

Even the English Heritage book about his titular town concedes that Grainger was ruthless and not philanthropic; he courted the rich and those who became so; he was also reckless, in his speculative and radical scheme which threatened his financial stability.

I squirmed that a builder’s death meant tolling bells and shut shops, but it is incongruous that such a local hero should have his debts carried posthumously for 40 years. His wholesale buying and destroying – he knocked down the first theatre royal in 3 hours of acquiring it and the mansion Anderson Place – would not be possible under current new ownerships which made restoration of the area so difficult.

Let me be clear that I am glad of the 1990s restoration of the Granger Town project. Let me also say that despite not being bothered by repetitive and rule based classical architecture – I prefer Edinburgh’s Old Town to new and York to Bath – that I do really like Grainger’s streets. One especially which I’m going to suggest is in the wrong place. But the warm stone and the scale is irresistible. Especially the curve of the best street whose breadth anticipates the motor car that Grainger cannot have foreseen.

But he could have foreseen the railway. Central Station, also with great pleasing curvature, was built by one of his colleagues. By the time Grey Street was being planned, the railway era was dawning.

The Lort Burn had been in the way for some time, but that no-one had filled it in yet was fortuitous. Grainger, coming into the age of rail, could have used that ravine as an open train tunnel, naturally cutting through into the city, as at Brighton. If he had money and inclination to fill and flatten the Lort, could he not have widened and used what was there instead?

My way would mean that the railway cuts the city longitudinally rather than vertically. Although it’s nice for rail passengers to see Newcastle from the train up high, it’s not nice for people in Newcastle to have to look at all those viaducts which carve up both sides of the river like Scalextric loops and continue into Ouseburn and Byker.

It would mean that you cross the river at a lower level than the King Edward and High Level bridges. Although less dramatic, it is more aesthetic for the banks.

The bridges which work are those which aren’t that much higher than the water – eg Corbridge; Durham – or they spring from a sheer gorge, such as Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. These also don’t have houses underneath and don’t require an elevated lead up road on the land.

I wonder why no real road was made – and hasn’t been yet – down to the place that the Tyne has been forded since Roman times. Why didn’t Grainger – who cast off so much of his predecessor Stephenson’s work, who might have been just as famous – widen Dean St and the Side?

It took another century for a real river crossing from a road which also didn’t terminate properly. How did the pilgrims get up Pilgrim Street til the 1920s? The Great North Road (today’s A1) is ancient and so it’s all the more surprising that this had not been done earlier.

Why not a wider dual use bridge, such as at Sunderland, or a double decker but with more space (more like Tower Bridge) – rather than the crammed together decks of the High Level which make the bottom bunk cramped and something you’re only too glad to get over.

When I see older pictures of Newcastle – such as a c1600 vista – I sigh. I also wonder how Grainger’s town looked before it was sliced by trains, and if Grainger had lived a little later, if he could have protected his work from ravages as great as those a century later under T Dan Smith.

Note that both these men had equally radical visions for the city.

Newcastle wasn’t bombed, and yet it’s suffered at the hands of its own developers.

I’d keep Grey Street of course – I’d have made that where Pilgrim Street is, leading to the Tyne Bridge, but the road needs lowering to make the arch aesthetic and to match the sloping roads through it.

Tall ships didn’t need to come through for long – no bridge was enough for the Mauretania!

Most cargo stopped at Newcastle, not passed though, and then building moved towards the sea where there are no bridges – I wish the cantilever at Shields had been built.

So the higher level is unnecessary.

The Gateshead side needs to looks as good – for it’s one thing to view from it (such as inside the Sage) but another to be on the Newcastle side and see scruffy disjointedness. What Grainger did right was to make the centre of Newcastle joined up. I like that he made his plan a triangle – like Bristol’s Park St – but not at the expense of the interesting topography that had been preserved for so long.

I’d have less but better bridges and less rail track so that useless brownfield sites are not created, and the slicing of the city is minimised, and I’d have kept more timbered buildings and Anderson Place and its gardens.

Elspeth Town – the other Newcastle! If only I’d been born a century or two earlier…

A Day Out With Elspeth in Indestructible International Saffron Walden

Has anyone else realised that Saffron Walden fits the Captain Scarlet theme tune?

Those timbered plaster houses managed to survive all those centuries and the official website says that visitors come from Harwich on the ferry. I especially sought the latter, wondering if this town really is such a draw to the Dutch for a day trip.

I can see why people flying into nearby Stansted might call in to have a glimpse of real England – the East Anglian version of the quintessential olde market town.

I spent the first half of my day comparing it to another East of England town beginning with S – Stamford. Stamford is Saffron in stone: both around 15,000 people but large medieval towns which haven’t grown much; hence a wide spread of lovely old buildings.

This idea was born because I began my day in the part of Saffron Walden which is most photographed – walking from High street into Bridge street, and then turning off into Castle street. It’s the equivalent of Lavenham’s Water street – the coloured timbered houses which have become the pubic image of the town. But I decided that this wasn’t quite Lavenham’s big sister.

Yes it is the equivalent of Stamford – the big house in walking distance of the town, a stone near palace built by a family of courtiers 30 years apart; both have nothing particular to visit in the town itself, save its atmosphere and shops. At least Saffron Walden has retained its museum, but neither have much of their castles left. Both have old almshouses, and both coaching inn towns missed out on mainline railways.

Stamford is a town of churches; Saffron Walden has just one. Each town has prominent spires, but Saffron’s is grander than all Stamford’s six inside. I’d said Saffron Walden’s was a favourite of the region and of national importance if you like the big and late gothic style. But its spire is not as powerful as it might be, it’s the arcades (inner walls of pillars) which are the impressive part. I note it is built by the man behind Lavenham’s, as well as Cambridge’s best known churches; interestingly, that is all Walden has in common with its nearest city, except willing travellers between the two.

It may have no equivalent to Lavenham or Coggleshall’s National Trust properties in the centre, but Saffron has mazes – I only saw the turf ancient one. I hoped as a labyrinth that it would be a spiritual experience but I felt only nausea at its tight coils and wondered at the mud and nearby football game as being conducive to contemplation.

Perhaps Saffron is a town of the garden; Bridge End’s is the home to the other maze, and its name and its wealth come from flowers. But it’s mostly a town to browse and eat in; and even wandering is more restricted than I first thought.

The town is a darling of the glossy magazines, and that put me off. ‘Walden’s lovely’ squealed a posh shop owner in another town who indicated her desire to have a branch there, as well as her insider’s intimacy with it. I’ve not know what to call the town. I’m not surprised at its being abbreviated. King’s Lynn becoming Lynn seems OK but Walden felt an in crowd name. Why not use the first part – although like Lynn it had a different first name, the west country sounding Chipping, before the crocus industry set in.

I didn’t find Saffron (we’ll settle for Ab Fab character’s name) that posh. I thought it would be the sort of place that her mother would go for a day trip. I’d judged by the regional chains of boutiques which chose Saffron alongside Burnham Market and Bury St Edmunds. But I heard a variety of voices (no Dutch ones) including cockney market cries, and met several friendly people, including a very loquacious Irish lady in one of the ‘lovely’ shops.

Outstanding among these were at the tourist information centre. Suffolk – take note – these work! Bring them back! They were helpful in replying to a pre visit email query, and chatty in person. A regular came in to book tickets and volunteered how helpful they are and that they give newcomers a stash of leaflets to learn what there is to do here. TIC staff not only displayed a poster about my locally based novel and an event I’m doing, but offered to take some for Saffron Screen, the community cinema at the high school.

I was chuffed by that.

The said Screen (see it’s not Walden Widescreen) had already sold out for that night, so I was unable to try that independent cinema. I’m not sure what I feel about both Saffron’s cultural offering being in the grounds of a school. There appears to be no theatre.

Worse is if you don’t drive and want to go somewhere which does. Buses like in Lavenham, stop about 7pm, and thus you can neither escape or come home after that time. And not at all on Sundays. I wonder if the churches, including that of the prominent Quakers, are well attended, and if the not being able to leave town has anything to do with that.

Saffron Walden, as rail ticket staff sarcastically reminded me, now has no station of its own. The station you want is Audley End. And it’s not a badly served station, being the only part of Essex to have trains leaving the region (Birmingham to Stansted Airport) and also having trains from Cambridge to London. It’s not dead and lonely as I feared – it’s a baby grand station, and has a shop. But it’s two miles away by a country road in a hamlet called Wendens Ambo, off most town maps. And hence it’s not easy to work out how to walk into town. The way the bus went, there is a path along the road, but it’s not lit. The buses go a longer lorry friendly way round – the most direct road is more rural, and I wasn’t recommended to walk it. Buses are infrequent and the two companies don’t accept the tickets of the other. They are about £3 return each, but there’s a 15% difference in singles. Hence taxis must have a field day.

Digital Camera

Church St and the famous old Sun Inn


Saffron has a tighter shopping centre than I’d expected: its ‘rows’ are not like Chester’s and perhaps only King’s Street – home of traceried Cross Keys inn and Hart’s Books – is the olde thoroughfare which I had expected. Unlike Lavenham, its timbered buildings don’t continue much off the over-chosen photographic scenes. Towards the market – another iconic image – are Victorian taller buildings, and much of the town is brick. It began to feel more like Sudbury around Hill Street with the toilets by Waitrose which count down the seconds until the door opens – unisex cubicles right opposite the entrance. For all its salubrious reputation, it seems that the council don’t trust the people of Walden (said it now) with sinks and mirrors.

I’d gladly spend another day there – and go to the other maze and evening culture, and to see more of the villages of this under celebrated county.