A Day Out With Elspeth in Wells

It was natural to do Wells on the way to Glastonbury. After all, I had to change buses there.

After suffering the high hills – the Mendips really do DIP, ear poppingly – I was relieved to see that familiar Somerset tower. Its straight golden lines, a quintessentially English sight, said: disembarkation is nigh. How good Wells looked! And smarter than when I was last here. I was sorry that I wouldn’t have long to explore this time.

I got off at the best bit – the market square, outside the cathedral gates – having just seen round the back of the cathedral area, and thought: there is more to this tiny city than I recall.

Is Wells really the smallest city in England? (St David’s in Wales is more diminutive). I went to Southwell a few months before, and that definitely is littler – or is it only a town? And is Wells smaller than Ely, which feels pretty similar sized, or has the Fenland Isle got fatter due to its good rail links and proximity to Cambridge?

Wells has proximity to nothing. It’s 25 miles from a large city, and far from its county town. And no railway. I’m sure I’d have made this journey more often if it did.

The market was in swing but I didn’t really notice: I was looking at medieval gatehouses – pick your status, penniless or primate – and the three towers craning over the top. There’s a feeling like at Peterborough here – although my last Peterborough brush was not a pleasant one. I’ll tell you about it sometime. But the magic of entering a gatehouse out of the market square and emerging to see, across a lawn, one of the great Gothic facades of Christendom – they are contemporary – is a wonderful moment in both cities. Except that at Wells, you don’t go into the cathedral by the west front any more. You’re sidelined through a pointless new entrance which means you may miss this famous view.

Before I came to the West Country, I was always annoyed by Wells in my cathedral books, which was forever telling me that Wells is in England’s top 6. I’d decided my favourites and this wasn’t among them. No Norman – black mark –  although I learned it was started in Norman times and is perhaps the earliest Gothic building in this land. Not much Perpendicular, save its towers – also mark losing. And not all that big, although it’s one of the West’s longest cathedrals – curious that they’re shorter on this side of Britain, save that ruined abbey in the next town.

But I have a mission to see all Britain’s major greater churches. By that I mean the original proper cathedrals (and any good abbeys, minsters and priories too). I have nearly done. So whilst in the area, I felt I ought to go to this blessed Wells that even my Bristol and Bath books bothered to mention.

I am so pleased that I did.

When I took my parents here, they declined to visit the greater churches of Bristol, but gave in at Wells, saying it was among the finest cathedrals they’d seen.

It is. I couldn’t help but love it. It really is an especially wonderful church. It’s better than it looks in photos – and bigger. Or it did at other times.

Today, it shrunk a bit. It that because I’m so used to cathedrals now? Or just in a rush with an empty stomach?

The well worn famous chapter house steps (where Abbie Cornish pulled Clive Owen aside to say she’s pregnant in The Golden Age) felt worn in another way. Through films and guidebooks, they are too familiar.

Outside the cathedral is the oft photographed Chain Gate, the Vicars’ Close – the homes of those whom senior clergy paid to do their work for them – and now I note, obscenely large prebendary houses to rival Southwell’s. Prebends are the clergy who were meant to be singing those services. The precinct at Wells now didn’t seem so pretty.

There was another offputting factor, and connected to lunch. Wells cathedral happily is free to visit – it used to pretend otherwise. Now it bothers to print leaflets telling you why it needs more from you. Their average visitor donation is £1.80. They wanted £6. So I think – work with what you’re likely to get, not press the public for more.

Don’t forget too that many of us are living in straightened circumstances – and therefore £6 each is quite alot – and that we may not support the faith or denomination that the cathedral represents. And if we do, we’re paying towards the onerous parish share at home already.

And how much of that desired £6 goes on paying for the huge amount of work they’d done since my last visit – the new entrance, shop, cafe, Friends’ building and undercrofty thing. The Friends’ building seems a pointless cruck frame replica which is basically a corridor. The undercrofty place – below the lovely polyagonal chapter house – has something, but I wonder if that something might have accommodated what the new bits do.

I was planning to have lunch at the cathedral to support them. I knew the cafe was nice and best of all, in the lovely glazed vaulted cloisters, airy and bright, and so’s the shop. No hardship to give custom here.

But the shop’s not only moved into this narthex, but shrunk, so much that it has no space for postcards – something I wanted to buy. Instead, it has many scarves and trinkety things that I don’t. I actually want books – architecture, local, Christian, oddly enough for a cathedral.

The cafe is also now in a new modern something with a quite a boring menu – bearing in mind that Wells has quite a choice of food places. Thus I chose not to eat here.

I’d have left off the new builds and made use of the £1.80 per visitor, kept the old cafe and focussed your shop on what I actually would like to buy, such as book on the brilliant churches of Somerset. Then you’d get more from many of us, without the guilt trip.

As it was, the cathedral didn’t get my desired or planned support at all.

Is there more to Wells? Well, you can spend £7 visiting the Bishop and his bellringing swans…. You can see the museum in the pink house, which includes the stuffed first of those swans.

But outside the close, precinct, whatever it’s called here… has Wells much if you took the cathedral away? At the market end, Wells seems classy, with small, nicer retail chains and independents, including a bookshop. But the high street got less posh and aesthetically interesting the further from the cathedral and the large Georgian town hall I got, and there didn’t seem to be much on offer in the side streets, to look at or to do. I started to feel I was OK with my visit being only a short one and that I’d quickly see all I needed.

The parish church is splendid – outside particularly – but is it really Somerset’s largest? I know of two at least churches with higher towers. And do people really get pointy pinnacled St Cuthbert’s muddled with the cathedral?! I know I said that Wells cathedral isn’t that big, but this parochial building, as special as it is, is clearly not to be confused with a 415ft long triple towered edifice with its own considerable gated grounds. (It might be fair to admit that those gates and grounds, lying in a dip, make it harder to see around town). Like its mother church, St Cuthbert’s is another airy golden space, with one of those distinct local wooden ceilings, with carved tie beams and sections like quilts, but this one is coloured in. Worth just sitting and being and admiring for at least a few minutes. 

And then you’re kind of done. I found Wells Film Centre which I’d been trying to do for some time. I saw the old Regal cinema and was puzzled, for it was definitely a night club now. But the Film Centre’s next door in a former scout hut, opposite the bus stations’ toilets. How nanny state bus stations are, with gates that only open for you to access the bus when they’re ready for you. I do hope to give custom to the film centre for my other blog and also to spend longer in this area.

The contrast with where I went next – despite proximity, both having a large senior church, tall parish church, and ancient wells, was marked. For whilst this was quiet and posh, the other place was… Glastonbury.

Note that the prices cited were from a previous year’s visit

A Day Out With Elspeth in Hastings and St Leonard’s

Why The Jerwood Gallery is wrong

I was enjoying the old fishing town atmosphere when I came across a shiny black clump or two on the seafront. It looked like polished Duplo – the young kiddie Lego building blocks. Ah yes, I’d vaguely heard of this gallery. I poked my head in – £9 entry, and very little to tell me what I’d see. I was reluctant to eat in the similar Lego lump next door but I was starving. At least I could see the sea and the Old Town – but sadly they both could see this.

The fishing huts at Hastings are black, skinny and weatherboarded, so there was sort of a nod towards that in the design. But the Jerwood and its neighbours seemed the slick, money spinning, name making sort of gesture that did little for me. I wasn’t here for the Jerwood. I didn’t even care – and I’m an artist. It didn’t seem to be about local people’s work but showcasing those whose continued exposure had made them famous.

I later did some research  – the Jerwood’s not popular. That strand of fishing huts is called the Stade. I was already annoyed by the much taller block of flats with blue glass balconies, which I assumed was about luring a new kind of visitor and resident to Hastings.

I am firmly on the side against the gallery. It was put there against the wishes of many locals – there was a bonfire of its effigy and graffiti on the walls. There were many signs of protest on the fishing huts.

The chair of the Jerwood foundation was arrogant enough to say that Hastings was lucky to have his gallery and that other towns would “as they say in the pubs, bite my hand off”. It showed how separate he is from how people talk and what they want. No it isn’t showcasing the work of the many local artists, it’s Stanley Christ in the Jar of Piss Spencer and friends. Who’s dead and doesn’t need to show his work for living now.

The Guardian’s article angered me by saying that this gallery is just what London daytrippers would come down for. Like all we provinces exist for is a visit from our cousins in the metropolis, or better still – they can buy holiday homes here and put up the prices so the people can’t afford their own town.

Londocentricity is as ire-making as councils and developers who prioritise profit and kudos (people who use that word are good examples of who I’m talking about).

But the Guardian article did go on to see that the Stade has its own atmosphere, and the coach park that the gallery replaced brought visitors of another kind straight to the heart of what makes Hastings worth seeing. The writer saw, as I think many do, that the Jerwood is fine in its own right, but not where they insisted on putting it, and that other areas would have benefitted more.

I’m wondering about the claim that Hastings and St Leonard’s need rejuvenation. I saw several streets of Brighton-like shops and cafes – St George’s and the High Street in Hastings Old Town, Norman Rd in St Leonard’s. Galleries are appearing anyway – and of the sort that would interest me more, such as the Russian gallery next to the Kino in St Leonard’s. I love that both Hastings and St Leonard’s have an independent cinema/theatre.

There are several museums – shipwrecks, fishing, a mansion, smugglers, the castle and 1066 story. All of these seem worth visiting for. There’s the steep rock (funicular) railways, the rebuilt pier – not that I liked the bid for shareholders to own something that should be everyone’s. There’s distinct buildings from Pulpitt Gate, the timbered bits and bobs house on the corner of All Saints Street (the quaintest in the town), to the 1930s leviathan Marine Court, pretending to be an ocean liner. It has cafes at its foot too.

But there are also new things being built. Hastings has a new shopping centre – Priory Meadow – which spoils the town, and it has new college buildings around the station. Which came first – the Jerwood or these eggs?

What’s wrong with a bit of seaside tat? Brighton has room for bohemia and tat, so why not here?

I was told that these towns were cheaper than the pair at the other end of the county. But I’ve been watching rents and I don’t see a marked difference – has the Jerwood been part of that? It isn’t cheap compared to elsewhere in the country.

So I fear for the differences that the Jerwood brings, forcing itself on a community, marring the sea view, and I don’t think it is necessary to revitalise the towns: the Brighton&Hove dispossessed are bringing new life anyway. If several other seasides have new modern seafront galleries – why be like everyone else? I’m not aware that Margate is famous for its other charms, but Hastings is one of Britain’s few old fishing towns and has a vital piece of history – we all know that date!

I’m a vegetarian and I’m still on the side of the responsible fishing community and all that Hastings already had. I’ll be boycotting the Duplo on Rock-a-Nore road (sounds like Rock-a-block from kid’s TV show Chock a Block) and focussing on all the other things that are offered here.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Liverpool

Here’s some imaginary/past travel, since most of us can’t at the moment.

It’s several experiences cobbled together, like liberal Christians claim that the Bible is.

It showed some great shifts in me.

I chose to write Liverpool because of some research on my other blog about policing; but already, I’d begun to see that Liverpool can’t be viewed just architecturally. It’s what those buildings mean; who built them and why, and what was happening in the city at the time…




When I first met the Merseyside Metropolis,  I was given an enthusiastic car tour by a local. (I am a sympathetic Wool). “If you like buildings, you’ll love Liverpool,” he told me. I said that I liked cities like York. Even a Scouse had to concede that Liverpool could not compare there.

The old northern capital of York dates from Roman times and is famous for its medieval atmostphere. And Liverpool, although established by royal charter in 1207, was a seven-street hamlet until the late 17th Century. The 24 streets which diarist Celia Fiennes admired were new then, but in typical Liverpool style, its structures and those of the next century, which included several churches and chapels, were torn down for the next set. And so Liverpool is a youthful city: not only did it not attain that status until the late Victorian era, but it wasn’t even a parish until 1699 and its church is a Victorian and postwar hybrid. Its oldest central building is from 1717 and its entire extent, even til the middle of the 19th century, corresponds with today’s visitor maps.

So I guess that I’d unwittingly found a sore point.

Liverpool likes to tell us that it can compare with anywhere. It’s the second most filmed city in Britain, it says. It’s been used for locations of the world, like Moscow. Like Glasgow, it asserts that this is not just a great British city, but a World City. Its predominant style of classical from the imperial age – including its docks – are those of the great urban centres of the globe.

But perhaps that boast can be reversed: the city with Everyman Theatre could be Everycity.

Unlike that other centre of Empire trade to the north, Liverpool has less of its own architectural style. Glasgow has many of the bog standard Greek and a couple of Gothics of the era too; but there is Glasgow Style, its own instantly recognisable Art Deco/Noveau. Liverpool has two architects who could have created this port into an English equivalent. You’ll probably know the work of Walter Aubrey Thomas, who made the most distinct of the Pierhead’s Three Graces, the double headed Liver Building. This early ferro concrete structure – the first if you’re a Scouse, not if you’re a Geordie – has a nod to the Atlantic it faces, and recalls for me the kids’ TV Noah and Nelly on the Skylark, where all the creatures and the ark had matching heads, fore and aft.

[I typed Norah and Nellie – that’s the updated, Sapphic version 😉 ]

Digital Camera

Aubrey made another building behind it, on the site of the last of Liverpool’s older merchant houses, called Tower House; his couple of other essays are different and less remarkable.

My favourite Liverpool architect, and one of my favourite anywhere, is less well known. Peter Ellis‘ work was so radical in its day, and still surprising to us now, that he was ridiculed from making further contributions. This is gutting! Happily, we appreciate him now.

And note the scale… I’ve started to agree with my Mum’s assessment of our big cities: that it’s all too big and showy. She preferred York-sized, and on the whole, I do too.

I did however become fond of Liverpool, and it was in discovering that it does York-sized (or Bath-sized) that I began to love Liverpool.

Let me tell you of the day that my view turned.

And then, the day that it turned again…



I used to say that Liverpool’s proud, but Manchester’s arrogant. I think that stands; or at least that Liverpool is more of a warm (you’ll let it pass) arrogance than its inland rival.

Liverpool’s actually a smaller city by population than I had assumed. I’ve read that the city itself – not its metropolitan county – is about half a million. That makes it less than Amsterdam, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield and Birmingham, and less than a 10th of London’s size. It makes Liverpool comparable to Bristol, whom it overtook as a port in the 1800s, and Edinburgh.

You may have assumed that Liverpool has far more in common with the former cities than the latter, but all three of the latter have several classical terraces.

Liverpool has something else in common with Edinburgh and York, and it’s a boast I can verify – the most museums in British cities after London. It means that even the pro-York-sized visitor is less intimidated and has reasons to come. It is also a place of music pilgrimage. Thinking about how this has been created is probably another post, but it’s notable, if not a little jarring. Manchester may point out its contribution to the 90s scene of Brit Pop, but Liverpool, with mostly one group, asserts that it is the home of The Pop Band. Bristol too – still a rival in many ways – has a rich recent musical heritage, but it seems it takes a bit of knowledge and discernment to know about its various music makers.

I’ve become very aware of the image and history that Liverpool has crafted of itself. Some other of its boasts backfire. I’ll come to those…you may already guess what it concerns…


I first arrived in Liverpool in a worm hole. This deeply disappointed – I expected the view that I expect you all know, across the Mersey, with those famous buildings all tiered like wares on a stall or people on a group photo, rising from the wide water with those cathedrals on the brow of a hill. I hoped to glimpse Birkenhead’s Hamilton Square on the bank opposite, since I’d be passing a stop of that name. Nope. More worm hole. Wormy wormly under the half mile of river, to then have to climb lots of steps to even see the grand main railway station – Lime Street.

And then, I’d have told you I stepped outside and saw what makes Liverpoo special. Now I want to say the sight encapulates what Liverpool wants to tell you about itself and what it was built on: vast iron train shed, Gothic station hotel; huge Greco-Roman wannabe megalith on a plinth, designed by someone obscenely young (yes I’m jealous) – for culture, and also law. So the music hall above (patriotically and diplomatically called St George) could reverberate over the cells below and the other kind of halls that cast you in them. Over a cobbled square is a tall column (to be like London and also other rival, Newcastle) and another classical group – museum, gallery, and library.

There’s Empire theatre, an Edwardian structure, behind you; and then, in the other direction, the first sight of the pierhead and those docks you probably feel obliged to look at.

There’s also some scruffy bits. When I first came to Liverpool there was a very big bit of scruffy, taking away its only central park to become the unimaginatively named Liverpool One shopping centre. It involved demolishing a much loved alternative shopping venue called Quiggins.


I think that Liverpool was busy looking awful so that it could look good in time for its 2008 European Capital of Culture year. (More money and status and hoop jumping – sigh!). It built new bland arenas on its docks and an awful Fourth (Dis)grace museum.

I  went to the waterside. Liverpool was made on the unbridled wealth of its docks, expanded in the mid 180os by Jesse RR Hartley Hare. I said that I’d discuss the building of the docks here and what I thought of what they were for on my Skewed World View blog. The banner photo (by me) of that other blog is of Liverpool.

I’m going to agree with contemporary Picton’s view of the Albert Docks. He thought they were dull looking. (I prefer the Waterloo Grainstore). Without the clocktower, they are too uniform. The inner view resembles a prison. I don’t understand why this set, and not the two identical ones by the same man, were chosen and turned into a visitor feature by a big money spinning quango last century.

I also want to say – some Bristol karma coming up – is that oh so vaunted Hartley’s plans were actually quite short sighted. He rebuilt or altered much of the existing docks which had allowed Liverpool to surpass Britain’s many other ports. When you visit the SS Great Britain in Bristol (its major attraction) they don’t really say that this much-praised new kind of ship ran aground on its maiden voyage because it was too big for the Avon; and although Bristol built, the Great Britain spent most of its career working from the city which overtook it. Liverpool eagerly fills you in on this in its Maritime Museum, housed guess where?

But when Hartley was busy acquiring land and picking over the quality of bricks for his fireproof palaces of dubious commerce, these new huge iron steam and screw propelled ships were being created. Could he not foresee that the wooden sailing boats his docks was made for would be eclipsed in a lifetime? It seems that Albert et al were struggling by the turn of the 20th century, and the expensive cuts and graving docks were now too shallow. They were bombed in the war. So by the time of the 1980s rescue opration, Albert had struggled and limped and sat derelict for decades.

I have to say again that when half a million came to greet Prince Albert to open those docks, that many didn’t have shoes – although of course they weren’t visible, for the Respectable and Rich lined the front of the crowds. The contemporary special magazine (Pictorial Times) reproduced in Ron Jones’ book was a very cloying read – lavish dinner for 1000, whilst many couldn’t eat. Paid for with public money.

I also reiterate that a city today known for its culture was very slow to set up a theatre. Norwich had one in the 1750s, Bristol the 1760s, Newcastle the 1780s. But Liverpool didn’t yet have one in the 1840s. It had docks instead, docks instead of parks, palatial commerical buildings and the palaces of those who traded from them. Other people – like the Irish immigrants and the working classes – were squeezed into tight courtyards and controlled by special constables and patronising dangerous doctors.



I’m forgetting to take you on my day. We’ll call it a weekend…

So you get to docks and you see the Tate gallery, the overpriced and slightly tacky Beatles story, the tiny tourist information centre; the maritime gift shops; and you go to a chain cafe or style bar. You might stay here – there’s two chain hotels in Albert Dock’s pavilions. You see the models (this is a good bit) in the Martime Museum and learn about the famous liners – Lusitania, Mauritania, Titanic – connected with Liverpool. Then you notice that many units in Albert Dock are empty.

You take a Wacker Quacker ride in a Duck – an amphibious war vehicle which slips backward into the water. You do the Ferry ‘cross the Mersey. (My Big Ferry experience from Birkenhead was not good – why did they move the passenger building away from the safe and accessible Liverpool pierhead?) You do the rubbish Beatles extension where you’re squirted and air is puffed up your skirt. And then to the British Music experience in the passenger lounge of the Cunard building – this is a good bit. Electric guitar trying with earphones! Joy.

And you’ve still more galleries and museums… You’ve probably heard of the Walker and the World/City museums. And you probably know about the Slavery Museum – it’s how ports do penance for their involvement in this deplorable trade. Liverpool’s should take up half the city, since it directly and indirectly was built on it and also modern slavery equivalents. The more I understood about where cotton bales came from and that Albert docks was the storehouse of the cruel spoils of Africa (people and elephants), the less I wanted to look at Jesse Hartley’s so-called masterpieces.

So I’m going to take you somewhere else… past the vast Imperial Palaces of the wealthy (old and new) which frankly do not interest me; we’ll skip the skinny streets of the Cavern Quarter since you’ll probably know about those anyway; and I’ll take you to another set of warehouses and skinny streets which I think are less known…

The Rope Walks Area. This is where private merchants warehouses were – those not in the official dock company, who could just ro-ro their wares into Jesse Hartley’s kingdom; these others had to cart their spoils further. It’s potentially atmostpheric, but the warehouses are home to cheesy style bars. Only two things stick out: FACT and Open Eye. Open Eye has taken its photographic joys to a fourth home on the water, in a building which I declare to be as ducky as the Yellow marine vehicle. But I met it here, and it enhanced the artsy area. FACT  – foundation for art and creative techology – was another modern media centre, snagged by the Picturehouse cinema chain. It’s not modern enough to interest, and there were several worthy warehouses to have made the home of supposed arthouse film for Merseyside.

The only arts centre housed in a warehouse is a big further south – the CUC. This is how it looked when I first found it: now the Contemporary Urban Centre’s space has been turned into schools, since it was hit by funding cuts. (You can see in on the scruffy picture above).


I had decided on my recce mission that although I was having a nice day out, that Liverpool wasn’t going to be home to me. And then I reached the Hope Quarter.

I’d really experienced 4 seasons in one day – wind, rain, heat… as if Liverpool wanted to showcase itself on that August afternoon, and say: here’s all of me. It had also showed me grand edifices, famous museums, scruffy not yet chic, and waterside.

Then I got to those Georgian terraces, the streets of sett, the two cathedrals. And I looked back down to the river, with the silhouettes of strange shafts on both sides, and I thought, like Hong Kong Fuey: Could be [home].

I found artier cafes at last up here – like the Everyman theatre’s, one of several good interesting arts centres; like Quarter on Faulkner street; like the Pen Factory.

The Anglican cathedral which I’d thought of as Babel Tower huge felt awe inspiring that day. Liverpool is the only English 19th C new city which built cathedrals to go with that status – everyone else just upgraded their parish church. I was impressed that it had – another youngster wenchhman at the helm. Now I’m less sure about show off seats of bishops, and am definitely off the chain that built it. After a bad experience here, I’m put off going in again.

I laughed when I first saw the Catholic cathedral, and likened it to 80s kids’ game, Simon. Did pressing the roof make electronic sounds too? But I’ve come to be fond if it and think it’s one of the best buildings of the era, far more accessible and practical than its neighbour. I enjoyed the unity which replaced their rivalry and the street – aptly called Hope – that joined them.

Digital Camera


I’ve also perused beyond the centre – I had a memorable meal with a pro/con chef who (rightly) prounounced Nietzsche ‘a balloon’; I’ve visited a park, some rather over-photographed gates on a certain bus, and driven past the extent of the vast docks. And I’ve been on the Cheshire side.


But I’m not doing a Magical Mystery tour today. I’d leave Beatle adoration or another post, save to say: how can you create the myth of the world’s greatest pop band in the first real decade of that genre?


There’s something about Liverpool which makes me warm to it; I picture it in daylight and sunshine. Perhaps it’s the great expanse of water which gives it a lung lacking in its rivals. The thought of visiting Liverpool puts a smile on my face. I was interested to know about its strong nonconformist history and that it had two octagonal Presbyterian chapels as well as two other dissenters in Gateacre and Toxteth – all claimed by the Unitarians. So as Liverpool got fat on its Empire driven, injustice ridden wealth, was there social conscience, even in the upper classes?

It says something about Liverpool that I’ve this much to say about the centre.

But I am now very aware of the values behind its grandeur and its boasts, and that there are still many faces of Liverpool – some that the tourist board don’t encourage you to see.



Town Walls – something to be proud of?  

For over 20 years, I’ve researched these as part of my history and architecture interests. I even have a folder on all the walled towns of Britain, whose contents I will shortly share.

awAncient walls are a vital feature of my ideal city. I’ve found examples across the ancient city building world – from China to Ethiopia, Turkey to Spain. I was pleased to note gatehouses in Amsterdam (left) and to receive a postcard from fortified Boulogne. Well preserved walls are impressive – aren’t they?

I’ve lived in 3 walled cities and know others well. There’s a comfort in living within old walls, like being encircled by everlasting arms. In my first novel, I wrote of a gatehouse as a burly but friendly doorkeeper, formally accepting me as a resident of the city as I passed through it.

I felt the gates nod each time I re-entered, like familiar porters. I’ve been sorry to live in places which don’t have walls. I found a few old towns of Britain – such as Lancaster and Salisbury – which seemed not to have ever had them. I felt that these places missed out, lacked a vital component. And what a shame that during 17th C civil wars and 18th C health campaigns that many town walls and gates were lost in Britain.

Better to be like Dubrovnik, Avila or Constantinople than Bristol, Durham and Northampton.

Wall finding has been a pastime that I’ve been mocked for – I saw it as a discovery mission – but  walking on them has been an easier activity to share. I’m sad as I realise that like cathedrals and cinemas, that town walls have been a part of my story – and not just Parallel Spirals. Walls conveyed me after I was collected off a train at the beginning of a trip with an uncertain outcome; I’ve cried and pondered round walls; observed lightning as my own inner lightning struck. I have amused myself alone and been aware of the absence of particular people as I’ve climbed twisting steps and looked across rooftops and into gardens. Inside a gatehouse, I’ve been disturbed by heads on spikes and a king kicking his legs whilst playing an electrified lute; I’ve tried a king and a hot chocolate; I’ve seen random artwork and the workings of a portcullis. I’ve walked alone, a deux, and as a guided group round city walls. It’s been a meander of itself and a quick way round the circumference. I’ve encountered runners daring difficult steps and disturbed the shelter of homeless people, and was tempted to forewarn scare seekers of a Ghost Tour surprise which I could see but they couldn’t.

But it was only recently that I started to think about walls and gates’ original use and how they might have felt to those that lived within, or were outside when they were closed and guarded. During the virus lockdown, I came to see how those gates might be used and why the Georgians would have got rid of them. I was less sorry that they’ve often not survived.

To these thoughts I will return, but I wanted to first give a whizz tour of Britain’s walls.

I’ll not comment on the odd fragment, bastion or arch, but those with substantial remains.

There are also walls in Ireland, the most complete being the unique 17th C set at Derry (below) with wide paths and arches for gates. The older tower behind is a museum. There’s more fortified remains at Wexford, Waterford, Drogheda, and Youghal.

City Walls and Tower House, Derry

Scotland is not overblessed by walls (if indeed they are a blessing). The best are at Stirling, which is just a small angled section without towers; there’s a little of the 16th C Flodden Wall  in Edinburgh – a later second set. Small gatehouses are found at Dundee and St Andrew’s.

You don’t need to go far south of the border for much better examples. Berwick Upon Tweed has some of the country’s most complete walls and includes rare 16th C fortifications, with the turfed angular star point technology of that time, as well as 19th C small gates/arches and medieval wall (Elizabethans reduced the size of the town). They look best from the sky, as do many especially smaller towns which still nestle within these stone boundaries.

There’s a little at Carlisle, including a hefty brick tower and the Citadel, dating from Tudor times.

It may surprise that Newcastle was a walled town. About quarter of the 2½ mile circuit – one of the larger ones for Britain – survives, and to its full height. The Morden Tower is used for poetry readings whilst two others were also later adapted as a meeting place for guilds.

There’s a sturdy gatehouse at Alnwick in Northumbria and the only surviving brick bar at Beverley, East Riding. Despite both being 15th C, the latter is a far more ornate structure.

ywbYork is famous for its near complete over 2 mile stretch and is the only larger UK city with gates, called bars, including a rare barbican. You can walk on most of the wall here and three of the four bars are visitable, but there’s few real towers. Sadly, the walls are now shut at night.

York’s Walmgate bar has an inner Elizabethan extension and a cafe

The other northern city which vies with York for England’s finest is Chester. It’s about the same size, also with all its walls, but these are reddish stone, not off white. It too has few towers and its gatehouses are replaced by Georgian bridges. Almost half of this wall is Roman.

Some of Britain’s best are in Wales – not in size, but in completeness. Caernarvon and Conwy in the north have full sets, including towers and gates. Conwy’s lethal to walk on: once on it, you can’t get off easily. There are no steps – you have to actually walk on the wall at that angle! Worse in wet weather. Further walls are at Denbigh, Tenby and Pembroke.

Exeter’s best for the southwest, but it’s lost all its gates and I don’t know of any towers. Dorset only has the walkable Saxon turf banks at Wareham.

Bristol lost both sets of walls but has a gate under a parish church tower.

There’s a little crennellated stretch at Oxford; the vast red Broadgate at Ludlow, Shropshire, and two small gates each in Coventry and Warwick – the latter’s have chapels, one belonging to Lord Leycester’s Hospital.

Winchester has 2 gates; the main Westgate is a museum whilst Northgate holds up a chapel. Southampton’s ¾ mile circuit may be among the smaller ones – the same size as Conwy – but what’s left makes for some of the most impressive English walls. It has two gates and several towers. Bargate is one of Britain and Ireland’s largest gates, with arches on the inner side.

Another of Britain’s best examples is at Chichester, Sussex – it has nearly all of its 1½ miles, often walkable on, dating from Roman times, but with few bastions and no gates. At Rye in the east of the same county, is the Landgate, Ypres tower, and sections of wall on the north side of town.

London has a rebuilt classical 17th C gate – Temple Bar – removed to Herts and returned, now close to St Paul’s, and several towers, often hiding in other buildings, such as a parish church and trade hall.

There are two gates at Sandwich but Kent’s best is at Canterbury. Only half of the 1½ m circuit survives today, but like Chichester, this shape – set out by the Romans – is the ring road and so still feels the city’s heart. The flint walls retain 16 of 21 towers and one of the country’s largest gatehouses, 80ft high, can be visited. There’s a Strict and Particular Bapstist chapel on a bastion.

In the East, Lincoln has the Stonebow – a guildhall stretching over the gate arch – and some of its Roman wall. King’s Lynn has a big gatehouse. Gt Yarmouth has some of the country’s best walls. You can’t walk on these, but they’re purer medieval as they weren’t made into later promenades. About 2/3 survives – like Hull, London, Lynn, and Norwich, the river alone protected that side – but none of the 10 gates. The South East tower is the most impressive, perhaps in Britain.

The cone capped SW tower was also once a museum about wherries (local flatbottomed boats).

There’s small gate at Castle Rising, near Swaffham, also in Norfolk. Norwich has about half its wall. It claims to be Britain’s largest walled city by area, of just over a square mile although it’s the shape of a Superman badge. There are three good stretches, but none of the 12 gates.

 Two of Great Yarmouth’s chequered flint and brick towers

Cambridge, like Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, had gates but apparently not walls; Ipswich had earthworks called ramparts which gave the nearby shopping centre its name.

So that leaves another of the country’s most complete circuits – at Colchester, and they are all definitely Roman, with a couple of medieval towers added. It has the only double Roman arch left. Some of the 2½ miles of wall is hidden behind houses, in other places it’s clearly exposed.

Colchester 4

Colchester, near the Priory


But what do these walls mean? I was sorry that the 18th and even 20th C spoiled them by flattening them and taking some of the towers, thus de-medievalising them into promenades for posh people – even though I am grateful to prom myself.

Now I think: good. That’s what they should be for and why do I want to look at bastions, pleasing as a row of curving drum towers might be? What do they mean and do?

Apart from Chichester where a gazebo was added, Ludlow and Canterbury, these aren’t homes. You can’t even go in most towers, even when they’re empty – they’re even shut off to homeless people. The few museums mostly focus on horror and strength – how people were punished and kept out with violence and fear.

Colchester’s were built after it got burned by Boudicca. Suddenly, walls felt necessary. Note that this was a reaction against an indigenous person’s revolt – rather too late against the Romans. Walls didn’t stop the Danes, or Normans. Most town walls are 13-14th C – when we had no foreign intruders. During that time, Edward I was busy intruding, into Wales and Scotland; note that along with Wales’ large spread of castles, that walls were built in his reign – a reign over the Welsh, a word meaning foreigner, punctuated by castles – just as Normans had done two centuries earlier, and the Romans built forts to subjugate us.

It wasn’t just attackers – raiding warlords like in Xena Warrior Princess, or the other side in civil war – that were kept out by walls.

Ordinary people were kept out – those that the officials didn’t want in. I believe that in Canterbury, a curfew bell still sounds and although no gates are shut, it reminds of the panic that medieval pilgrims would have felt – get in or find an extramural bed for the night. Hence Canterbury’s extramural suburbs on all sides, filled with ancient inns to accommodate them.

Walls were about control of citizens, visitors, but also trade and gaining revenue.

It hadn’t occurred to me that it was a customs excise – not just at the dreaded ferry and airport but every time you left that square mile or less.

And now, when we’re harsher at the borders, and with the disease…

I discovered that the requirement of passports is only 100 years old. Today, we enter and leave cities freely – imagine having to justify yourself at the gate every time. Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going? What are you carrying (and do we need to charge you/bar you/take something off you)? I read that in some countries during Covid, you have to do this!

I noted how we talk about gates and walls: mighty, impressive – not really values that impress me now. They are often austere, about conveying power and instilling fear. They are foreboding and forebidding – less like my friendly door keepers than bouncers. Often they are scruffy bits of wall – I understand my mockers – and wonder how important they are to keep?

The decorations are holes to shoot people through and pour things down. The badges are about corporate power and wealth. There would have been other adornments I’d rather not think about. The wide paths aren’t to be disability friendly or so you can amble arm in arm –  they’re for cannons.

Note that the Georgians thought that squashed up living enclosed in walls and with shut gates aided air pollution and illness, so they took them down and made them features for the enjoyment of all.

So, like many of the history buildings I’ve hitherto sought out, I’m feeling uncomfortable about the values and uses – and worried about how walls might be mis-used in the future.

I think that having walls makes you as liable to siege, control and delay as much as protection.

Were sieges like lockdowns and were they times of awakening and personal work too?

Walking, mingling, taking a tour… good. But I don’t like the otherness that walls make – whether around a city, a palace or an abbey – and I don’t think we should build more. I even wonder to what extent they should be repaired and protected now.

It’s not the kind of protection I’m seeking or wishing on anyone.

I wonder if our ring roads are the new walls – a possible check point and means of boundary, an expensive public money waste which tells you where you can enter and leave.

The gates stay open, portcullis permanently up; there are holes and gaps, and the only guards are costumed guides. Today, flowers grow in the ditches under the walls, and benches stand where cannons were once did, and it’s a place not for guards to patrol, but for visitors and residences to stroll, and see the world from a different perspective. Let’s keep it that way.

Count(r)y Town/City Wall, Length # Gates towers/turrets
Cornwall No Known Walls
Devon Exeter walls 0 gates 0 towers?
Totnes gate
Plymouth? barbican/17C? 0? 0?
Somerset&Avon Bath fragment bit of East Gate 0 towers
Bristol 2 sets of walls 0 1 under St John’s 1 hidden tower
Gloucestershire Gloucester walls 0 East Gate excav 0?
Worcestershire Worcester 0? 0 0?
Herefordshire Hereford fragment 0? 0?
Shropshire Shrewsbury fragment 0 0
Ludlow 0? 1/7 Broadgate 0?
Staffordshire No Known Walls
Oxfordshire Oxford crennellated frag 0 0?
Wiltshire No Known Walls
Dorset Wareham walk turf banks 0 NA
Warwickshire Coventry frags 2/12 gates ?
Warwick 0? 2 gates, chapels 0?
Cheshire Chester most 2½ m walls 0/5 gate=bridges 4 towers 1 turret
Lancashire No Known Walls (not Lancaster)
Cumbria Carlisle some 16th C citadel sq brick tower
Northumbria BerwickU-Tweed full med+16th C 4 wee archgates some and 16C
Alnwick 1 gate Bond 18C Pottergate T
Newcastle U-Tyn ¼ of 2m circuit 0 gates; Sally Por 4 towers 2 turret
Durham 0 0 1 tower
Yorkshire York most 2½ m walls 4/4 bars 4 towers 1 turret
Kingston U-Hull 0 excav  1/5 up to 4 posterns?
Beverley 1/3 Northgate
Lincolnshire Lincoln Roman fragment 2 Stonebow 0?
Stamford 0 0 1 bastion
Leicestershire/R ? Leicester? 0
Derbyshire? ?
Nottinghamshire Nottingham 0 0 0
Northants Northampton 0 of 3rd largest 0 0
Hunts&Cambs Cambridge 0 walls? 0 of at least 2 0
Beds&Bucks None known
Herts None known
Norfolk Norwich frags of 2+m 1m3 0 of 12 2; 3 ruined+cow
Great Yarmouth much of circuit 0 of 10 several
Kings Lynn none? 1/3 Southgate 0?
Castle Rising ? 1 0
Suffolk Ipswich ramparts 0/3 0
Bury St Edmunds walls? 0/5 0
Dunwich 0 0 0 – under sea
Essex Colchester almost all 2m Rn 1 frag/5 Balkern 1?
Gr London/Msx City of London frags, Roman 1 17C Templebar 1?
Kent Sandwich 2 Barbican Fisher
Canterbury ½ of 1 ½ m 1/8 Westgate 16/21
Sussex Rye 1 Landgate Ypres Tower
Chichester most of 1½ m R 0 2? 1=gazebo
Hants+IOW Portsmouth 16/17 C defences 0? some
Winchester ? 2 West, Kings ?
Southampton  of ¾m 2 Bargate, West some
Surrey No Known Walls
Wales Conwy All ¾m/1400yd 3/3 all 21
Caernarvon All of 800 yds 2/2 all 8
Denbigh yes
Tenby yes yes
Chepstow 1200 yds 130 ac 1/1 Town Gate ?/10 D shaped
Cardiff not sure 0 0?
Pembroke yes
Scotland Edinburgh 0 med some 16C 0/3 0
Stirling some 0 ?
Dundee 1 small
St Andrews 1 small

A Day Out With Elspeth in Exeter

How you first see Exeter depends on how you arrive. If you come in by Central Station and encounter the considerable postwar rebuilding of that side of the city, or alight at the bus station and the hole next to it, or try negotiating the muddle of traffic and subways at the Exe bridges, you may, like my friend, not have a good impression. Despite wandering to better parts, her negative view endured and she warned me against the city.

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But if you come down the hill from St David’s along a more genteel, older leafier road, greeted by the Norman towers of the cathedral, and observe that they still stick out because Exeter has remained low rise; if you note the warm red stone walls and several diminutive churches, the showy facades of Tudor and Stuart buildings further down the high street, the Regency of Bedford Square, the artier older bits like Gandy and Fore Streets, or sit in the Close at magic hour and see the city chilling and delighting in itself…then your Exeter will be of England’s lovely old cathedral county towns.

Having said this mostly covers Exeter. There are not manifold things to visit in the city itself – the Victorian generic museum called RAMM where a harpsichord plays next to dinosaur skeletons; you could peek in the generally open Guildhall, rarely open St Nicholas Priory with an amazing restored Tudor parlour, and the lesser seen medieval Tucker Hall… even at Heritage Open days, the options of this richly historic city are not wide: from out of town Bowshill House (another medieval mansion), to water works and 1950s St Sidwell’s which looks akin to its neighbour the Odeon, but is of Saxon origin.

I’ve seen several arterial roads but only one has interested me. Beyond South Gate is Magdalen Street, notable only for its mediaeval almshouses and a Victorian building that’s now Hotel Du Vin; but cross the roundabout by the recycling and there’s a half street of interesting neighbourhood shops called Magdalen Road. There’s even a cafe of that name who are gluten free friendly and just…friendly. They have no wifi – we’re have each other and that’s enough, they say. Amen.

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I enjoyed trying to access the 7 little parish churches. Exeter had at least twice – perhaps four times – as many. Several were lost just before and after the war. Four work together as the city parish; one other is in the care of CCT. Five are regularly open to enjoy as a quiet space. St Petrock is a funny shape and is mostly used as a homeless charity. St Olave’s was so small I could hardly photograph it, but it’s not as tiny as simple, towerless St Pancras, one of only two to have any ground round it. The others are surrounded like townhouses, right onto the street. St Stephen’s has cleared out its furnishings and feels more spacious and modern, and to have vision. It has a bow or arch at the back to pass under, where you’ll find St Catherine’s almshouses – or what’s left. St Martin in the Close might be best known, for its proximity to the cathedral and famous coffee house. St Mary at Arches looks most recent, for it’s been refaced, but it has Norman arches inside. It’s used as a youth centre, so is strewn with sofas and billiard table, but I visited when the Quakers were meeting; their Word from Spirit was a political joke. St Mary Steps seems to stand alone as a high church, next to the House that Moved and near the ruin of the old Exe Bridge and the tower of one of the churches either side of it. I know of one interesting nonconformist chapel – once Unitarian, now utilitarian as it’s used by the dreadful Wetherspoon’s who I won’t eat in due to first hand stories of how they treat their staff. The chapel is a stunning 1700s building. Next door on one side was St George’s – another ancient parish church – and by the site of the South Gate is a 19th C answer to Holy Trinity.

Artswise, Exeter has four cinemas – a dull modern Vue of 13 years, the aforementioned Odeon nearby, the 2 screen Picturehouse on Bartholomew Street which does pizzas, and a regular more arty film strand in the Phoenix, which might be Exeter’s most interesting live venue. There’s also a Corn Exchange in an uninspiring building, the Cygnet training theatre, the amateur Barn and Little Theatres, and the Northcott at the university, where there’s also a cinema museum. I’m not aware of more in the immediate surrounds.

I’ll briefly describe those since I had more bus adventures. Topsham is only 4 miles although the bus took ages to get there. It’s a pretty almost village by the estuary with a museum by the much photographed Dutch gabled houses on the strand. There are a few shops and cafes, but I felt piqued quite quickly – and I did have that bus again, which are very frequent (I crossed out ‘regular’ as that would be untrue of all Stagecoach buses).

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Dawlish impressed me on the train travelling to Plymouth and Cornwall, although what makes a wonderful view from the train means that the track goes right by the beach and spoils the town. I loved the red cliffs but not the palm trees of a quite manufactured resort, and didn’t feel compelled to stay. There are more red cliffs elsewhere, and I’m likely to see those another time.

I also got to see Devon’s best parish church – and one of the country’s finest – all for the same Exeter plus ticket, whose boundaries have to be divined, or you can look on the bus station walls and see if you can work it out. I paid £6.20 to do all these in a day and most were half hourly services. Ottery St Mary is to otters what eels are to Ely. It’s a tiny town with a small and enthusiastically staffed museum, and a street called Yonder, with an early nonconformist chapel. The main thing to see was this church like a mini but more colourful Exeter cathedral, which has ceiling vaults! Shame the quiet was shattered by the volunteers. Don’t get stuck in Cranbrook, where all buses go but few leave. It’s a shit version of Poundbury, a Legobuild of a housing estate calling itself a new town.

There’s much more to explore in Devon – wildernesses, interesting towns (Totnes is definitely on my list, sounds like Devon’s Glastonbury) and more churches. Exeter managed to have more of a definite something than Taunton, and avoid the busy urbaness of Bristol, or the concrete of Plymouth. But my enduring image is of the Close, whose cafes face inwards. Other places – Norwich, Canterbury – have restaurants flanking the Close who might have back windows facing onto it, but only here (I’ve seen all English closes bar 2) are there eateries on the inside, including a pub. Rather than feeling sacrilege, it made a respectful chilled atmosphere, and along with the surprisingly warehouse lined river area, gave quite a bit of character to this city.

It’s a long way to come from many other parts of the county, but is only an hour from Bristol and potentially only 21/2 hours from London, which is only a little longer than Bristol, with cross country connections from Somerset and Dorset, and seatbelt trains from the other ends of the country. Would I have made a special trip from far away without other reasons? Not sure, although glad I did – but it also made me appreciate my home.

A Day Out with Elspeth in Holland

Well, a bit more than a day…

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The four cities I saw had many similarities, so it makes sense to talk about them as one.

I also didn’t spend enough time there to feel I could do an individual entry on each.

The order I visited in was significant to how I perceived the cities. After motorways flanked by drive-ins and factories, Leiden was my first real stop and where Holland looked like Holland.

Yes this really is about Holland, as I was in that province of the Netherlands.

I have not seen an old town like these, even though I am very familiar with the most mediaeval cities of Britain. In Leiden and Haarlem, and in much of Amsterdam, street upon street retain their 17th C appearance. Not just an enclave, soon ending in concrete horror. I found no shopping mall in these old towns, nor tawdry high street; just more warm brown stone dressed brick, intimate streets, quiet courts, large towerless churches, and stunning renaissance town halls, way bigger than anything of the period at home. This country knows how to build a stadhuis!

Each city had a flavour. Haarlem felt smart and grown up. My first thought about Amsterdam was that it is seedy – and not because I had encountered its two types of infamous seed yet. I felt it as I arrived. The buildings are bigger – this is a Big City, they told me, not like those moderate sized historical stadts you’ve been in. Strangely, I relished the scruffy and the different. I already felt canalled and gabled out – and there is plenty more of those in Amsterdam. I quite like the Beurs, the modernist stock exchange. Later, I found the contemporary city archives, the old shipping offices – Scheepvaarthuis, now the Amrath Grand Hotel – and among the taller buildings of entertainment spot Leidseplein, the America(i)n Hotel stood out. I would like to learn more about the Amsterdam School of architecture – an early 20th C style which famously includes Het Schip, a former post office turned housing museum.

I was glad to leave the centre of Amsterdam and find an ordinary area, including many shops, cafes and de Hallen, a converted tram shed with a rescued old cinema inside. It felt real here in Oud West, around Kinkerstraat.

I didn’t like my map, which hasn’t space for the long street names whose abbreviations are most confusing. I took a while to realise that the canals not the streets are named, and so either side of the water bears the same moniker – eg Prinsengracht, home of the Westerkerk and the Frank family.

Why don’t we call the Franks by their real name – which is said more like ‘Fronk’? And why is their famous diary writing daughter known as Anne, when her name is pronounced Anna?

I was aware of the laziness of English speakers and the quirks and failings of home when I returned.

The border staff in Holland asked if I had enjoyed my trip. To re-enter my country, I was quizzed about my length of stay and I heard someone just entering it being asked even more questions.

Why so much aggression and suspicion? Why not ‘welcome’?

I noted that it’s rules that make travel stressful. Do I have the right train ticket? Am I carrying or wearing anything which will set off security alarms (as as buckled shoes or an underwired bra)? Are there laws about crossing the road, or drinking on the street, or something I can’t even imagine which will get me into trouble?

I resent Holland’s city tax on visitors, after all we pay them anyway! I believe it comes from the current mayor of Amsterdam who who feels it of concern that many visitors are in budget hotels – ie those of Є180 per night or less! That’s expensive!! And as many of us realise our money goes further if we stay outside Amsterdam, the city tax gets levied there too. It is just greed, and I didn’t like that the mayor seems to forget that what he called the world’s most beautiful city is attractive to the bohemian and therefore lower earning visitor or inhabitant. And it’s a tax we don’t benefit from, unlike potentially paying into our government. I understand that tax is more than half your salary in in the Netherlands, and you are fined if you don’t have medical insurance.

It’s a country we may look to which knows how to do things better, but I found out more rules and practices which are as bad or worse than at home – such as fines around road crossing and being expected to carry ID. I am also aware that some of the defining laissez faire of Amsterdam is being eroded, such as tightening rules about Amsterdam’s unhidden and lucrative industries. (Have you ever seen the City Bus Tour company offer you to visit erotic attractions anywhere else?).

Understanding more of the history which led me to make this trip, I see a picture emerging which is at odds with the funky, alternative, accepting view that we’d like to have of Holland. The Calvinist Church here seems to have been different from the more radical arm, whose concern was being saved, saving others, and living a holy life in readiness for Christ’s imminent re-entry. The Dutch version is the entrepreneurial branch which gave rise to sociological theories which hitherto baffled me regarding capitalist work ethics. More like Quakers in one sense, the dominant postreformation Church here was very business focussed. Unlike its persecuted cousins across the water – such as those who came FROM ENGLAND (don’t forget the origins of the Pilgrim fathers) – the Dutch Reformed Church did the rule making: it was the one doing the controlling, and outlawed Catholics. The architecture of churches here demonstrate that the Church was different, because British and Irish dissenters didn’t build edifices which resembled the denomination which booted them out. The high ceilings and pillars and great organs would seem puffed up to them, even sans idols, glass, and a proper tower.

I am not siding with Calvinism nor stating it as my own beliefs, but I am saying from inside and contemporary knowledge that the Dutch equivalent of the magisterial reformation, whose Alteration was made for political reasons, is not purely what is thought of as Reformed. As with my own city, who both sent and welcomed refugees to and from Holland, the welcome to the oppressed seems in part about the business opportunities these newcomers can give. We wanted to continue to be a leading weaving city. Where in the world are there many weavers, whose wealth made a golden age? Let them come here and show us their techniques, and we will grant them a home…even though shortly before, people of similar beliefs of our own city needed to leave us because we were persecuting them.

I sense that Dutch city fathers have always been pragmatic, and that the motto of Amsterdam which accompanies its three X coat of arms is telling: heroism, determination, and mercy.

Not what I expected; not what it would have said if the hippies wrote it.

Finally to my fourth city, where I was again annoyed to see that the pilgrim father plaque was all American and didn’t even mention my city and the pastors we sent. So I really just passed through Rotterdam to Delfshaven, but quickly saw that it’s not all super modern, and that even turning from the central station, hundred year old buildings appear. When you get to Delfshaven, they are 17th C and include my last sight of a windmill, or molen. (We have these at home too). There was a different feel to Delfshaven, which is an area with shops etc which reminded me of a London neighbourhood, and is easily reached by public transport – both tram and metro stops are round the corner from the riverside Pilgrim Kerk (mind the rising bridge, though, it can cause delay). But I didn’t mind the clean modernism of Rotterdam, as I felt like a change; the Golden Age of Holland felt too rich, like chain eating intense chocolate or reading mellifluous prose. Central Rotterdam’s glass high rises made me like Delfshaven all the better.

My closing thoughts?

Trams and cycles are a pain and a danger – it’s hard to get lost in thought and relax here

Dutch sirens are better – they’ve got nee-nah, not that wail

They don’t make tea properly – you’re given hot water, a tea bag and optional milk, all seperately

There is much beauty here, but too it’s intense and uniform

and the uniformed people need to match the perceived liberality – not undermining the UDHR by shooting suspects without even a trial (this happened a few months ago to a stabber at Amsterdam station), and getting heavy over an arbritray created offence – such as stepping out into an empty road, even at a crossing before the green man appears.

I wish guide books warn of this! And that they’d reprint the 20 year old badly proofed and designed and overpriced most prominent one.

I also feel that the Netherlands is too much of a nanny state – a Duckula’s carer sized nanny, which controls all; even the famous tolerances are about regulation and state benefit.

I met some very lovely people, and the kindest were staff in:

the cafe at Amsterdam’s civic theatre (Stadsshouwburg/ITA)

Italian Maria’s on Haarlemmerstraat, Amsterdam

Leiden’s Cafe Abel by the Volkenkind museum, who ‘filter coffee, not people’.

Those are the volkenkind – ‘kind’ in both senses – that I will close on and think on.

A short time on, though, and I find myself again drawn to the land, having been able to look up new things and reflect more. Amsterdam has a different kind of richness – as I’ll put in my arts cinema blog, it is very well represented for arts venues, and here its alternative nature best shines.

If you’re interested in discussion and critique of society and church, then read my sister blog at https://elspethr.wordpress.com

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 with a wet patch right by the doors…

A Day Out With Elspeth in Belfast

Digital Camera

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 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.