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.

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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.



A Day Out With Elspeth in Lowestoft

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It strikes me how Lowestoft, long familiar and accessible to me, has never been anywhere I’ve gone on my own accord – until yesterday. I knew of course of the sandy safe beach, the nearby town facilities which manage to avoid raucous excess of Great Yarmouth, and that it sort of has two piers – and lots of concentre to fight off the sea. I might add the Neptune statues, the loos that forbade changing in them (what is the issue with that!), the moving bridge.

There is little of Lowestoft which is instantly recognisable as such; no iconic buildings – the nearest to that is its most recent, the East Point Pavilion.

Perhaps lacking the tacky excess of Yarmouth has not benefitted Lowestoft, for the rambunctiousness of its neighbour is a draw. They have many points in common, but yet Yarmouth’s attributes seem better known – to me at least – and that is because of finding a leaflet. Suffolk’s tourist information reduction does nothing to assist visitors or locals finding the best of their towns. Lowestoft feels inbetween Yarmouth and Southwold in more than geography – having neither the outrageousness of one, nor the genteelness of the other.

It took until my last visit to discover that the Historic High street was not a farce but Georgian, flint and timbered houses with little alleys called scores between them; that it has an Edwardian theatre which also does films, and that there are 2 museums, both in parks, but neither right in the centre, and a lighthouse over sharply descending gardens (but no longer the Sparrow’s Nest theatre within them).

It took me some years after acquiring that knowledge to return to Lowestoft, and to make further discoveries: Lowestoft has a large parish church, but I’d not know that as it is nowhere near the old or new town; it is open only on Friday lunchtimes. Lowestoft’s 19th century architecture was planned by a very rich Christian to rival Brighton, they say, but that little of that ambition is evident today. It is that modern pavilion which has any hint to Brighton – and on a far smaller scale. In spirit, there is almost nothing akin between Sussex and its similar sounding easterly counterpart.

Lowestoft High Street

Yet the old High Street isn’t all it could be – it’s like Norwich, but St Augustine’s St, not Elm Hill. The town hall is boarded up, and there’s only a few shops or restaurants here. The one I recalled most is the long standing Sgt. Peppers 60s themed diner with Lucy in the Sky with Bacon and Octopus’ Garden dishes. There are a few international ones here and along the seafront in smart pavilions, but the middle of Lowestoft is quite drab and although compact it is focusless and not postcard worthy.

I wonder if Britten would be glad that the shopping arcade which leads to the wonderful bus station and library, now closing early due to anti social behaviour, is named for him?

I walked a lot – my back bears testament to that – and found Kirkley, with a different set of shops, near to Claremont Pier (ie the only proper pleasure pier, which you can’t even promenade on) and had a cheap meal in the gallery and former baths at The Coconut Lounge. I carried to Pakefield, a village about 2 miles south of the station, with a twin barrelled church on the beach, a rarely open arts centre, and the volunteer run Seagull Theatre – with some quite diverse, challenging programming.

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Here the gently shelving beach becomes all duney, but the promenade (or lack of) and the iron fences spoiled the view.

Mariner's ScoreLowestoft has several views spoiled – such as down all those Scores. They look romantic in the now defunct hand drawn leaflet. I show a picture of the supposedly most picturesque, Mariner’s Score, to show the reality of them. The steep slopes and stairs give way to spectacular views… of the Bird’s Eye factory and the railings around the large harbour and the big Telly Tubby turbine, Gulliver.

The concrete is also pretty harsh here – South Pier being an example. It is a pier in that it is an arm round the harbour, like someone covering their work on their desk; there is a viewing point, but you wonder if you’ll be told off for being there (you shouldn’t be) and that you’ve intruded into the fishing quarter. The newer blocks of rock are more aesthetic sea defences.

But as I stood on that concrete in almost magical light, with the quiet of waves and seagulls, I felt a real sense of pleasure and peace.

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A Day Out With Elspeth in Leicester

I realised that this is one of the few counties of England that I’ve never been to – not counting the day the train died here and I had a quick wander.


I was in a Midlands mood – as you’ll see from other recent posts – and this was a destination that was accessible on a bank holiday, with places open.

My first impression was – scruffy. It stayed all day and was often reinforced. The grand terracotta station has no facilities and boring platforms. Not like York. I’ll be comparing to York often, and for an obvious reason.

No leaflets at the station to assist my path into town, but undeterred, I went to the tourist information centre, who weren’t really interested in greeting me, or even serving me when I decided to buy something. They only had last year’s city guide, which was mostly about rugby.

Quickly, I realised that Richard III was trying to be part of the fabric of the city. There is literally fabric – banners with his name on – over much of the city centre – the bit that might be called ‘historic’ anyway. Lest it be busy, I went to the new Richard III visitor centre first. I was still reaching in my bag whilst deciding if I wanted to pay £8 before gift aid “donation” when I was pounced on by officious staff who held out terms and conditions (have you ever had that before, in a museum?!) which stated that my year long pass would require security and identity ID checks on my return, and that transferring it to someone else would be deemed as fraud. Then, they conspicuously scanned my ticket.

So that already put me in a mood.

I asked where the loos were – for surely it was better to make oneself comfy after a long journey before going round? And surely a new museum would have planned for this? Nope. The toilets are as far as possible from the entrance, next to the empty cafe, and meant viewing the whole museum to get there. I sat on the loo growling as I read the terms and conditions card – too late for a refund?

The Richard III Visitor Centre is housed in a Victorian building next to where he lain buried until a couple of years ago. Can you sense my sarcasm brewing? “The King in a Car Park” story had bypassed me until I visited the Richard museum in York last year, housed in a medieval city gate. You can read about that on this site, and how I was sorry that the old style “put him on trial” exhibition had been changed – but both versions were a superior and cheaper experience than this.

I’m going to have to say it. When learning the colours of the rainbow, the mnemonic is not Richard Of Leicester Gave Battle In Vain – the third colour is not lemon, it’s yellow. Where was Richard of? How much time (not counting being dead) did he spend in the midlands town that was part of his enemy’s territory? Ooh, a night, and at an old inn that they didn’t even bother to preserve. (A dull Travelodge sits on its site, part of the foul High Cross shopping centre). Where did Richard ask to be buried? Somewhere that makes red cheese, or that has a Rowntrees chocolate factory?

I think that Leicester thought: we’ve not got an obvious tourist draw here. We need some more prestige. We particularly covet that arrow pinger from the county next door. Who can be our legend, our hero? What would put us on the map, give our university some kudos, and get some money in our coffers? Let’s dig up the social services car park, see if we can find any bodies, ah here’s one, male – crick spine – we don’t know the name of the condition that he had, quips the special skeleton in schoolroom display (twistonitus touristmagnus isn’t an official affliction), get good old medical science to verify him via DNA (if I was a relly, I’d have refused what I suspect was an intrusive test) – and let the new look Leicester era begin!

Most of the museum is too noisy – with one virtual model talking over the next – to take anything in. I’d have liked to have known more about the Shakespeare spin, but all the thespians were too busy jabbering over each other to understand why that play has so influenced us and why it would have been commissioned to be so negative about Richard.

The high point is right by the shop and entrance, so a great ‘still reflective space’ for the powerful moment of viewing the hole that they dug the skeleton out of. As I moved towards it, staff hovered over the grave, as if programmed like a spider in a computer game.

I asked why Richard was buried here at Greyfriars, rather than the larger and more prestigious Abbey. She didn’t seem to know that there was an abbey at Leicester, that a friary and an abbey are not the same, and said “He probably asked to be buried here”. Rubbish – his will said another city, rhyming with pork-ie pie.

The truth I think is that a king killed in battle had to be honoured, but not too much. So Greyfriars Leicester was convenient to the place of death, holy ground of some distinction, but not too regal.

And once they’d found him, Leicester were keeping him. No translation to that seat of the northern archbishopric. Nope. Failing having that Abbey – just its outline in a park – they were going to reinter him across the road, in a cathedral who has only been so since 1927.

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St Martin’s is suffice for a town’s mother church but not a cathedral of estimation. It’s heavily Emu-bitten and enlarged, and has a nod to nearby Rutland take on broach spires. Its tower is central, so it’s quite a long church, and has been there in various forms since early times. But visiting it today is like going to a medieval shrine. Nothing about the building or its purpose. Every leaflet, every sign was Richard, Richard, like one obsessed with an ex lover. The slab under which he lies isn’t worthy of him or the fuss made.

The cathedral had no facilities open that day, but it has a ‘wedding chic’ centre for hire.

Next door is something more interesting, something which did impress me – the Guildhall.

Here is where Leicester establishes itself with the great medieval cities – not that it became one of those till less than 100 years ago. This is a timbered guildhall with no parallel. There are many rooms to see, though ping pong playing staff were startled I’d gone round so quickly. I had a lot to fit in. A whole new city to see in a day, and one that I already was thinking I may not return to.

The Guildhall’s free to visit, but donations were heavily implied. I stood outside it at 1055, noting the 11am opening time. The door imperiously opened and staff asked what I wanted. To look round, I said. Wait 5 minutes, they said. Why bother coming out to tell me that?!

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Outside the Guildhall, there is a flash of what Leicester was and could have been. A narrow lane, the quite tall squire of St Martin’s, and almost opposite, Wygston House, another timbered building with a distinguished Georgian front. It’s not open at the moment.

Leicester has lots of free museums but it seems its way of handling them in these straightened times is to close some, rather than charge at all, and still be able to say “all our museums are free”. Along with Wygston’s House, Belgrave Hall and Newarke’s Gate or The Magazine are all shut except if the lunar calendar dictates. The next one I went in I would have rather paid for than Richard’s.



Across the flattened new squares, the hard to cross roundabout, I found my first Leicestershire civility at The Jewry Wall and Roman museum. St Nicholas church – one of a few medieval ones in the city – has lots of Norman work including the tower. It’s by a big lump of 1st century masonry and ruins of the old baths. The 1960s building which tells their story recalls a smaller Museum of London – concrete edifice next to concrete road system, with models but far less sound than modern museums. There’s more detail of information, less to patronise kids and adults, and a much quieter atmosphere. And staff who were friendly and enthusiastic.

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From there I found the castle, whose riverside gardens I particularly liked. Does anyone else have trouble knowing the name of the Soar? The Normanness of the castle hall is disguised externally and there’s not much public access (or to Leicester’s other churches, such as Mary de Castro opposite), but the feel of round this part of the city was one of my favourite.

The Newarke Houses museum was noisy and kiddie friendly. The mock up old cinema with its little film was just a boasting box about the city, but it did explain a little about the many diverse cultures and how they came to be here in Leicester.

I wanted to find Belgrave, which I refuse to call the Golden Mile – wasn’t it the curry mile? I didn’t know if it was really a mile or how far out and exciting it was, but I did sense that this was a part of Leicester that is truly different. I also wanted to see the BAP Mandir (temple).

I didn’t find out this visit, as I was too tired exploring within the ring road, and unsure if my travails would be rewarded. Trying took me to more scruffiness, and factories that might have been interesting. Why do so many burn down? When I looked up Leicester factories online, all I could see was pictures of them ablaze – different ones, recently.

The cultural quarter was a fairly ducky name for a fairly ducky place. The old 1930s Odeon is for occasional hire and redubbed Athena, but the arts cinema is in an awful new building. Not awful in the way that you might consider the Curve, the theatre space. At least that is trying to be modern and landmark, although I found it quite bland and too much like many other buildings with its transverse ribs of steel over glass. The Phoenix began life in a 1960s temporary theatre on Newarke St, which is in use by the college and named after a former writer in residence, Sue “Adrian Mole” Townsend. When the producing theatre moved out to the dreadful brick pile that is Haymarket – with a shopping centre underneath – Phoenix arts cinema moved in. But it left for unclear reasons to this scruffy segment the other side of the centre, which is so boring to look at, I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture. It shares its three screens with various creative businesses, but it looks like a dumpy office block rather than a cultural centre. I hovered in it, wanting to at least use the cafe – you’ll know my other blog is all about visiting interesting cinemas. Arts this may be, be not interesting. I decided the menu was bland and were this not in an arts cinema I wouldn’t consider it as a stop, even for a cuppa. I’d have preferred them to use the old Odeon.

It wouldn’t feel nice to access at night.

Also in this area is a creative something in a former bus depot – also blocky and a more hopeful thin exchange building with cafes in it, I suspect dating from c1900.

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New Walk was somewhere I nearly didn’t walk, being so tired at this point in the day, but as I thought I may not come again and had a few hours to go, I took myself to Leicester’s principal general museum via an odd dotted line on my map. This dotted line is a Georgian pedestrian promenade which has been preserved has such – no bikes even – and although several newer buildings have snuck in, it still has the feel of the era. It was one of the places I most enjoyed and would most recommend. Perhaps seeing that new Austen adaptation in Leicester wouldn’t have felt so incongruent after all.

The museum itself was another noisy one – art upstairs, dinosaurs downstairs, and a grand portico. The dinosaur skeleton was clearly not all genuine – it looked like it was made of charcoal – but they did have a chart owning to the fact that many bones weren’t found, and some that were are too fragile to get out of storage.

High Cross is most upsetting. It used to be called the Shires, but now it has grown to gargantuan proportions. Its old sounding name is the antithesis of what it is a modern indoor shopping centre of the worst kind. Many of the city centre eateries are also here, and so is the centre’s only other cinema – the Showcase Du Luxe, mind. So it conforms to the new standard – horrid monster mall carved out between medieval streets, food chains and multiplex, and then a large department store in an offensively modern building.

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There were two points of note and welcome exception here – the 16th C old Grammar School, which is a restaurant named after its year of foundation, and one of Leicester’s many textiles factories is a well advertised bar called Cosy Club. Despite claiming that its only sister is in Stamford, the menu (including the design of the cards) and the decor was suspiciously like the 70+ chain from Bristol. When I encountered them in 2007, there were 5. Instead of being a local quirk in neighbourhoods, the Lounge Family has propagated and spread over all western and southern England (and Wales) and have just planted two seeds in the East. I liked the idea of eating in a stocking factory more than actually doing so.

Lastly before I round up – this has been a long one, but there’s much to say – Foxes and Walkers. Those, after the cheeses, are Leicester’s edible gifts to the world. I saw the travelling advertorial bear of the former in New Walk museum (wrong animal for those sweets?) and Walkers are of course the crisps.

There was one sight that I found at the end of my day which made me rethink Leicester – and that was a series of photographs on board, near the start of New Walk. It does have buildings from almost every era. Some of it industrial ones are rather grand. It also has some of Britain’s best Indian style buildings. I also commend the Civic Society’s information boards, which tell the city’s story in buildings from Thomas Cook the travel man to you know who d 1485. But it’s the gap between those boards which rather hampers the city.

A Day Out with Elspeth In Southwell (and Newark again)

I’m doing the cathedrals of England, and I’m nearly done. The big ones, that is. I’m less bothered by parish church cathedrals, and even less so by most of the catholic ones. It’s not the title, it’s the church itself; so I’m more keen to see Beverley Minster and Sherborne Abbey as I am those churches with a place for a bishop’s bum who are upgrades of quite ordinary ecclesiastical edifices.

The ones left now are mostly in places that I’ve not been able to get to yet, but I made a special effort to go to Nottinghamshire, rising at dawn and being in transit for 5 hours to get there, and quite a complicated journey.

Southwell had seemed a little bottom of the pack. My first cathedral book, which I was given on my 21st birthday, doesn’t even have a picture of it. Other books put it in the minor, back of the book category, with small pictures which mostly focus on those leaves.

That seems to be Southwell’s main glory – freestanding foliage made of thin stone. It’s almost as if the rest of the minster isn’t needed – just that little polygonal chapter house. And even then, only the bit round the door and the seat decorations.

Well, the leaves weren’t the bit that I went for, nor what I took away.

I’ve decided that I rather like Nottinghamshire. I don’t think I’ve seen its countryside before. There’s a swathe of midlands-ish particular shade of red brick that goes right across England; and against the verdant green that’s close to the shade of a certain legend’s clothing, it was a pleasing experience to view.

I got back to Newark too – I’ll tell you about that later – but both towns enhanced my view of the county, and both had similar qualities.

I arrived in Southwell, which can pronounced both ways, locals tell me, via a bus which can arrive anytime in 15 minutes of the advertised time. So beware Stagecoach’s 28s and 29s from Newark to Mansfield.

I first saw Easthorpe — a kind of village tacked on to Southwell, where the Bramley apple comes from. It melds into one of the few main streets of Southwell, and the minster popped out as a kind of surprise. I like to savour that first moment of a first meeting, but here it was, unprepared.

This is a seriously good church. It’s quite big too, and not at all minor.

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My first view of Southwell Minster

The friendliness I experienced at the minster desk (though one guide couldn’t see the rudeness of asking her colleague for a permit in the midst of her talking to me), and at the Tourist Information Centre was excellent. The TIC had been so helpful prior to my visit. It’s little but well stuffed with all about Nottinghamshire, and is far better than the new one at Newark which tries to look flash and feels clinically white and trying too hard. It didn’t even have the excellent town trails about itself that its sister at Southwell did.

There was one thing that spoiled the day, and I know I can’t write more without telling you what it was. The minster was having a concert that night. It was strewn with mounted lights, wires, and the loud mouths of those setting up who had no respect for the building that they were in or that visitors might want a different atmosphere. No it’s not just another concert hall, another job – it’s a sanctuary and I mean in the sense of being peaceful and set apart, whether or not yours is the Christian God or particularly the church of England. I bet other faiths don’t let this go on, I thought. I thought it even more later, but I will save expanding on that for a post on the city concerned.

Suffice to say that my journey that day included 3 towns but I am only doing the two in Notts here.

Southwell Minster is free to enter – hurrah – but its photo permits are quite a lot at £5 and I’m not sure what I feel about charging for the right to take pictures. There’s a berth between the 300 photo snapper and those who take “just one of the nave”. I’d have resented paying for a pass that day when the minster was not looking its best inside.

Oh, but what a church! If you like Norman architecture, GET HERE! I recently did a ‘facetious, wicked and opinionated’ talk on the best place in England to see the Normans, and I didn’t get time to come here. I should have – for there are several things which make Southwell stand out. It’s the only church left to have a pair of complete Norman western towers. This once common arrangement is well exemplified here, and helps us imagine the many lost or altered abbeys with such a frontage. It also has a third Norman tower at the crossing. And it has lead clad pyramid spires, the sort that we think the Normans actually built. This is at least the 3rd lot, and annoyingly, the grain goes in the wrong direction – it should be herringbone, pointing like the spire, not straight down, Mr Gilbert Scott!

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Sorry, I no longer have a wide angled camera

It has Norman detail everywhere, looking mostly recently restored, but without the heavy hand of the emu (my name for Victorian restorers, because they peck at things and spoil them). Its favourite motif is the cable mould, so there are rope patterns round arches, along sides of walls (‘string courses’), and at least 3 good Norman doorways and an interesting porch.

Southwell may be smaller than the other great Eastern Cathedrals, but it’s no less lovely or impressive.

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Southwell Minster’s crossing

It’s a bit dark inside though – this is one of the few churches with still Norman shaped windows, and it has only 2 rows of them instead of the usual 3, so that the galleries (‘triforium’) are unlit. I’m not sure what I think of the roof: being round like the general spirit and rhythm is right – but it both feels a further darkener and isn’t quite right. The aisles are satisfyingly and contemporarily vaulted.

And what of the non Norman bit? I’m usually not bothered by early English and feel annoyed when it has taken over from the Romanesque I so enjoy. But I like the choir here. It is lighter, and a place to linger.

Digital CameraAnd as for the leaves? I had to look hard to imagine why these were singled out as the great medieval carvings. I recall the Saxon tympanum stone more, and the cables that I’ve already mentioned. The chapter house is as usual a pleasing and quieter space, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others.

Southwell’s got a ruined medieval palace which you can visit a small but grand roofed part of for free, with an overdone soundscape and video. There are gardens but much is roped off and marked, incendiarily, as private. I was more cross when I worked out that the Bishop probably lives here.

I didn’t got to the out of town workhouse, which makes me so angry. “Imagine the Victorian Poor” says the National Trust leaflet. I think many of us fear for the late Elizabethan poor, which we might be ourselves, and how the founder’s ethos of “an empty workhouse is a successful one” might reflect welfare policy today. I’d rather put my efforts into changing that ethos. I don’t think a visitor attraction with an entry fee is what Oxfam means by “Make Poverty History”.

The town is little, and doesn’t take long to walk round, but there are many shops and cafes and it’s upmarket. There are country-feeling walks in easy reach, but I ended up getting cross with all those big prebend’s houses.

I found three hours here was suffice, and also I didn’t trust that bus.

So I’ve given myself little time and space again for Newark, but I liked the York-like feel of it, and I did three things which I couldn’t last time.

I got in the church – not as special quite as I’d hoped, again, quite dark, with the organ console positioned for maximum attention. Who are we worshipping, I wondered?

St Mary M’s is huge and I liked the coloured ceiling.

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I also entered the hard to find little local museum and gallery, which involves a lift, inside the town hall and buttermarket – the beige stone building in the large market place. One member of staff was sensitive to my interest and schedule – unlike a colleague – but I was able to view a very splendid Georgian ball room.

The TIC — which was small but well formed, by Castle Station – has moved, next to the Palace theatre on Appleton Gate, and in with the new Civil War museum.

I sensed the Richard III experience at Leicester in all ways of this £8 new attraction, and left well alone. (You’ll see what I mean in my next post).

The stations are apparently not as far apart as I estimated – but I think that the online distances are wrong. At full speed, which is quite rapid, it took 20 mins to walk from Newark Northgate to the bus station. I meandered (and got stuck in a housing and industrial development) between the Castle and Northgate stations, but I made a discovery – there’s a river path, much nicer than either Appleton or Northgate streets, which passes barges and warehouses as well as greenery. It’s unlit and it’s quite weird in one place, being forced off the river path, then invited back on it by ALDI supermarket, down a rough path, where a new bridge reassuringly appears. On the Castle station side, the walk becomes pastures, but you need to be on the bank with Zizzi and Pizza Express to access Northgate station as there’s not a bridge again till beyond the point you need to cross. They could make that a proper, nice walk, and I do wish that NNG station (that’s it’s code name) had something round it to do or eat/shop – not just a tiny cafe within the gated station.

I am mentally spending more time in the Midlands and may soon return with further adventures – cinematic, literary, mental and actual.




A Day Out With Elspeth in the Suffolk Wool Towns

Part 1 – Lavenham

Note the updated comments in A Day Out With Elspeth in Lavenham

You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? If you’ve read my Coasthopper Bus or Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village pieces, you’ll know that I like Lavenham. I said it is my favourite village/small town in Suffolk, and perhaps wider. In my forthcoming Suffolk Churches piece, I reluctantly agree it is justly considered among the best churches of the county, though I do criticise it a bit.

In that latter piece, I show you my cunning angle to make that church look its best. Here’s a great picture courtesy of my Dad (as are all in this piece), which shows the mixed quality of Lavenham’s interior:

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It’s too wide and the chancel’s wrong, don’t you agree? It’s too dark and the window’s poky. But the light on the tracery is glorious!

I learned that the tower’s designer is John Wastell of Bury St Edmunds, whose portfolio includes Canterbury Cathedral and King College Chapel.

I was cross to learn that Cambridge colleges pick the vicars round here. And that once again, certain families dominate – like the one who built the house which was chosen for Harry Potter’s birthplace in the film – the De Veres. Anyone else think of To The Manor Born? For any youths reading this (ie, under 35s), this was a 1980s sitcom about Penelope Keith trying to get her shiny shoes under the table of the local gentry, who lived in the house that she thought she deserved. De Vere, the name of her love/hate neighbour, is also that of the Earls of Oxford, whose red and gold shield you no double have seen if you like nearby castles, alternative Shakespeare theories, or are interested in old and prestigious families. We met another of those later in the day, but I’m not saying which – it would tell you what the R stood for!

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I have sort of started this on the hoof, and I meant to more use the best of my word power to describe this village that was called “Suffolk’s Man-Made Wonder” in the subtitle of a 2008 book. But I’ve changed my view a bit since my last visit. Would I call it a wonder now? I remember one thing especially this visit:

Lavenham has a very practical problem. It’s not near anything much – even the next small town is about 8 miles away. And you can’t get out of it after 7pm without a car, or the help of the Lavenham Lambs prebook taxi service. So you’d hope that a village of nearly 2000, with many visitors, would have a cash point, yes? No – you can only get cash back when you have a minimum spend at Co-op. They must do well out of that arrangement! And do the shops and cafes take cards? Not the one we went to.

So that has coloured my view of Lavenham more than the varying interpretations of Suffolk pink.

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Reading guidebooks, I find some of my high opinion fading as I learn, once again, who has steered the town. My sister asked, astutely, why was Lavenham so rich in the cloth trade? I couldn’t think what in terms of natural position had made it so. I hate that often a town’s site is chosen for its defence or trading possibilities. But Lavenham’s not got much of a river; it’s hilly, but has never had a castle to my knowledge; and it’s miles from the sea. So why out of all the towns trying to be wealthy due to wool did this one do so well?

It seems that Lavenham’s wealth was due to the business attitudes of the local gentry, and that people came where work and money were, but that Lavenham fell as quickly as it rose. And that people abandoned it when its fortunes were not so good.

I am not going to repeat the claim of the guidebooks; I’ve not got England’s tax records to hand, and even if it were among the richest towns of medieval England, is that particularly impressive? It is odd that a place without a castle or cathedral or town walls, never in the running for county town, was supposedly richer than the capital of several shires.

We may be tempted to think of Lavenham as a wealthy place today – though I don’t have the income of its inhabitants to hand either, so I can only go by perception, as most of us can. But Lavenham has been poor as long as it has been rich. Those stripy buildings of the 15-16th centuries are only there because it was too poor to rebuild, I’m told; if it were fashionable in the 18th century, they’d have been pulled down and replaced. But Lavenham does have two prominent classical houses, so someone was wealthy or contemporary then.

I’m also told that Lavenham lived in squalor. Today, we might consider this the place that the wealthy live and shop. But it was the reverse in under a century. The “Man-made Wonder in the 21st Century” book proves the opposite of what some believe – that most people in Lavenham are tourists and holiday home owners, because many locals have a feature about them and my own perceptions were gladly confounded. The one I recall was a Canadian magician.

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Many of us would be grateful that the decline of the wool trade meant the preservation of Lavenham and other such towns today, but I was struck by the swift abandonment of the town and how it used to look quite different. When did it start to change and why?

I found one of those before and after books of old pictures, and I struggled to recognise Lavenham in some. It didn’t help that they’ve got the captions and photographs of Prentice and Shilling street confused. But it was clear that plaster covered the famous timber frames in living memory and that many of the seemingly authentic fittings are more recent replacements.

As I paste these photos – and I’ve not shown you every street or timbered building yet – I feel my draw to Lavenham return. I love the colours and the surprising mix of building materials. It also has examples of pargetting – ie plaster decoration. Do I care if the buildings’ appearance is due to renewal? Am I upset that the shop selling the £3000 Holly Hobby theatre up your skirt is gone? Am I glad that Elizabeth Gash has a branch here? Do I hanker after a meal at the Swan? And will I return to Sweetmeats cafe again after the tiny cake slices?

What’s coming back is why I twice cycled 40 miles to be here – ten times what I’d ever done to date; how the sight of those herringbone shaped streets of timber and plaster renewed my energy, how a smile of pleasure played on my hot cheeks. And how much I want that Portrait of Lavenham book – a slice of local history and the only existing in depth guide to the buildings. Can someone please reprint the late Tony Hepworth’s book! And why hasn’t his village got a bookshop any more? Or even a post office?

Manmade as much by near generations as medieval forebears, Lavenham is a wonder – but with too much making names and money. And what’s the story behind the De Vere star?

Mysteries to follow up. Meanwhile, go to the excellent Little Hall which is my favourite place in Lavenham and find out about locals who again will confound your idea of what Lavenhamites are – soldiers, artists and Egyptologists. See, you can’t judge a former town by its mullion and transomed lattice windows (circa 1930)!

There’ll be more Wool Towns anon.