Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

A library for the twenty-first century

Library of Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library (2011)

My first memory of Birmingham, at the start of the 1960s, was of bulldozers battering buildings.

This activity was the life’s work of the City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), who insistently proclaimed the need to get rid of the detritus of the past in favour of a brave new twentieth-century future.

I have a memory of spending an afternoon, sometime in 1971-2, in the clerestoried reading room of J H Chamberlain’s magnificent Central Library of 1882, manhandling bound volumes of The Times in search of a Victorian scandal.

The building was already doomed, being in the way of Manzoni’s Inner Ring Road, and the books were soon to be transferred from their galleried shelving, accessed by spiral staircases [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Central_Library#/media/File:BCL_restored_after_the_fire_of_1879.jpg], into the replacement building, the Birmingham Central Library (1974) designed by the Birmingham architect John Madin (1924-2012).

John Madin was responsible for many of the significant buildings in Birmingham in the 1970s, and many of these unlovely structures have already disappeared.  I used the Central Library occasionally and loathed it.

It consisted of an unobjectionable three-storey lending library and an eight-storey reference library in the form of an upturned ziggurat.  Prince Charles dismissed it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

The design was repeatedly compromised by the City Council’s refusal to accept Madin’s specification of Portland stone or marble cladding and the glazing in of the central open atrium.  The bare concrete became grubby and the surrounding land was sold off and haphazardly developed.

There were some who valued John Madin’s claustrophobic library as a “… grand romantic gesture of the Brutalist period with subtle use of internal space, and remarkable tact in relating to [its] nineteenth-century neighbours” but the building gradually became too cramped for its purpose, as library users demanded monitors and keyboards as well as books.

Birmingham City Council was lucky to put its plans for a replacement in place in the nick of time before the economic downturn choked local-authority expenditure.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben (b 1955) of the Mecanoo practice, occupies the site of a former car park on Centenary Square between the Birmingham Rep Theatre and the pre-war Baskerville House.  The project was launched in April 2009;  construction began at the beginning of 2010 and the Library was opened on September 3rd 2013 by Malala Yousafzai (b 1997), the world-famous activist who is a Birmingham resident.

It’s a fascinating combination of shapes and levels, rising from below ground to the rooftop, the main bulk of the building clad in gold, silver and glass behind a filigree of metal rings that commemorate the city’s Jewellery Quarter.  Its purpose, in the words of the director, Brian Gambles, is to be “no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people”:  https://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/29/library-of-birmingham-by-mecanoo.

At the top of the building, on Level 9, is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which houses the Shakespeare Library and was transplanted first from J H Chamberlain’s 1882 library, and latterly from John Madin’s Brutalist ziggurat – a symbol of continuity, and of cultural value, linking the city’s nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century centres of learning.

John Madin’s library was demolished – to howls of protest from fans of Brutalist architecture – in 2016.

Happy resort

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Over years of driving into East Anglia I have only associated Felixstowe with processions of container trucks hammering down the A14.

When I stayed at the Woodbridge Station Guest House I took the train to Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe to a happy surprise.  “Felix” is, after all, Latin for “happy”.

The mouth of the River Orwell has been strategically important, both for trade and defence, since Roman times at least, and grew markedly after the arrival of the railway in 1877 and the opening of the port in 1886.

The passenger train-service now terminates at the latest of the town’s three stations, Felixstowe Town (1898), which was built in response to an upturn in tourism after the 1891 visit of Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), Queen Victoria’s great-niece and the wife of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The walk down Hamilton Road, now partly pedestrianised, leads to a clifftop view of the Pier (1905;  rebuilt 2017) [http://www.felixstowe-pier.co.uk], with the cranes of the distant docks to the right, and the promenade to the left.

On the way, you pass the former Ritz Cinema (1937;  still operating as the Palace) [http://www.palacecinemafelixstowe.com].

The seafront is dotted with opulent former hotels, of which the Felix Hotel (1903) is the most prominent.  This is where Princess Victoria and her family stayed in 1901 and, coincidentally, where Wallis Simpson took rooms while her divorce took place in nearby Ipswich in 1936.  (This was the occasion of the legendary American newspaper headline “KING’S MOLL RENO’D IN WOLSEY’S HOME TOWN.”)  The Felix closed in 1952 and became the headquarters of the fertiliser company Fisons Ltd for thirty years.  It is now, predictably, converted to apartments.

Landguard Fort [http://www.landguard.com] introduces visitors to the long history of Felixstowe’s defences.  This was the location of the last opposed invasion of England in 1677, and four of the original seven Martello towers in the town survive.

I had a typical seaside lunch, fish and chips at Fish Dish [http://www.myfishdish.co.uk].  When I told the guy behind the till that the place reminded me of Whitby he smiled and said he’d trained and worked at Whitby for thirteen years before setting up in Essex.

The pleasures of Felixstowe are simple.  On a sunny day you can sit on a promenade bench and watch vast container ships, loaded to capacity, making their way out of the port at surprising speed.

And, because Ipswich is a significant rail hub, you can visit Felixstowe from far afield without using a car.

Woodbridge Station Guest House

Woodbridge Station, Suffolk

The Station Guest House at Woodbridge – https://woodbridgestationguesthouse.co.uk – is an excellent example of practical reuse of a potentially redundant station building.  The station itself continues to operate as the first stop out of Ipswich on the line to Lowestoft and the building houses a high-quality café, the three-bedroom guest house, a florist’s shop and a taxi office. 

The station was built for the former East Suffolk Railway and opened in 1859.  A footbridge provides access both to the Ipswich-bound platform and also to the banks of the nearby River Deben.

I had a comfortable family room with a double bed and a single bed, with an en-suite which allowed me to watch people walking over the footbridge without them seeing me at my ablutions.  It’s a corner room, so from one window I could watch the trains arrive and depart over the level crossings and from the other I could watch the boats riding the tide on the river.

Breakfast is served promptly at 9.00am at a reserved table in the café and the service is admirable.  The only minor downside is that car-parking is £3.00 a day maximum and you have to feed the meter before the guy with the hi-vis jacket books you.  The notice by the machine warns that photographs may be taken, which I read as a threat.

There’s really no reason to bring a car to stay at the Station Guest House.  There’s a perfectly good train service that links with London and East Coast services via Ipswich.

Carla, the delightful lady who welcomed me to the Station Guest House , reeled off a list of places to have dinner as the café closes at 3.00pm.  For most of my stay, however, I happily picnicked each night with more than enough tea and coffee and the sound of the trains through the open window. 

Woodbridge itself is an attractive town.  Beside the river is the Woodbridge Tide Mill, one of two remaining tidal watermills that are restored to working order and producing wholemeal flour for sale [https://woodbridgetidemill.org.uk] and on the opposite bank is the National Trust Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo], marking the site of the enormously significant Anglo-Saxon ship burial, excavated in 1939. 

Miyajima

Miyajima, Japan: Itsukushima Shrine

On my second day in Hiroshima I bought a slightly more expensive streetcar-and-ferry pass, and in the morning travelled down tram route 2 all the way to the terminus, Miyajima-guchi.  This was another transport surprise, because after a dozen stops in street-tramway mode, à la Leeds or Sheffield circa 1950, the streetcar turns a corner into a complicated little station and then becomes a fully-fledged railway, like the Fleetwood tramroad but far longer, with houses backing on to the track, stations at regular intervals and endless automatic full-barrier crossings.  A road-sign outside Miyajima-guchi station shows the distance back to Hiroshima as 23km, but the rail line is actually 16.1km.

The ferry takes about fifteen minutes to cross a stretch of water to a wonderfully picturesque island, Miyajima, with the steep, deeply forested mountains that you see in Japanese prints, and on the foreshore the Itsukushima Shrine, ostensibly dating back to the twelfth century but apparently last replaced in 1875.  Tourists flock to photograph themselves with their backs to this monument;  schoolchildren are brought in droves to line up for class photographs.  There are sacred deer, in Shinto belief the messengers of the gods, which are regularly fed by the tourists, despite notices forbidding it.

The Hiroden public-transport operator, through its subsidiary Hiroshima Tourism Promoting [Hiroshima Kankō Kaihatsu] runs a ropeway up the sacred Mount Misen.  The upper terminus is a thirty-minute hike to the actual summit at 1,755 feet but you can’t have everything:  the ropeway takes out 945 feet of that climb and every little helps.

The island has much else to offer, several temples and a pagoda, and spectacular displays of blossom in spring and maple leaves in autumn.  I could cheerfully return for a Japanese holiday on Miyajima, knowing that a day-visit to Hiroshima city is easily practical.

Ferry up the Mersey

Manchester Ship Canal

The best birthday presents are inspired, and when my friend John and his family gave me a voucher for a Mersey Ferry cruise up the Manchester Ship Canal for my seventieth birthday they made possible a long-held ambition that I’d never got round to fulfilling:  https://www.merseyferries.co.uk/cruises/Manchester-Ship-Canal-Cruises/Pages/default.aspx.

The gift was enhanced by the fact that John agreed to join me.  No-one knows better how to compile a Marks & Spencer picnic.

Booking a Ferry Cruise takes persistence:  I lost count of how many times I was told, in an inimitable Scouse accent, that “it’s not on the system yet”.

Persistence pays.  I booked us on a cruise up the canal to Manchester.

I was tipped off that the smart advice was to sail from Seacombe and arrive at the terminal good and early to bag a decent seat.

John was told the exact opposite, that the boat started from Pier Head.

My source was correct, and we took a taxi to Seacombe so far ahead of time that we were treated to complimentary coffee left over from the commuters’ sailings, so that we were in position to march down the gangway, like Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go, and park ourselves on the upper deck, facing forward, with seat, a table and a window ahead.

We were advised to take a picnic because of the queues for food at the café-bars on each deck.  In fact, we took it in turns to fetch hot drinks whenever the queue was manageable.

It’s a fascinating experience to sail up the trench that was dug thirty-six miles up the Mersey valley from Eastham Locks to Salford in the early 1890s, and even more memorable to meet an ocean-going ship coming the other way.

Rising through huge locks in a sizeable boat that doesn’t touch the sides is disconcerting.  The Mersey ferries are around 150 feet long and have a beam forty feet or slightly more.  The widest MSC locks are eighty feet wide.

One of the enjoyable features of the trip was the way in which, like other canals, the Ship Canal route stitches together places that aren’t directly connected by road and rail routes.

From the start of the canal at Eastham Locks, past Ellesmere Port, the refineries at Stanlow and the Runcorn Gap with its road and rail bridges, the Ship Canal clings to the river bank.

As it approaches Warrington it dives through the town in a dead straight line that continues under the M62 Thelwall Viaduct, then weaves it way towards Irlam and beneath the M60 at Barton.

Shortly after the M60 viaduct it passes the two 1894 swing-bridges at Barton, one for the road and the other the historic replacement  for the even more historic James Brindley aqueduct (1791) that was sacrificed to make the Ship Canal possible.

The world’s oldest railway

Tanfield Railway: Andrews House Station, Co Durham

By an accident of signposting, my visit to the Tanfield Railway [https://www.tanfield-railway.co.uk]  began at East Tanfield which is perhaps not the best place.

I later discovered that Andrews House station is where the party’s at, not least because it’s within walking distance of the Marley Hill engine shed, where there’s lots to see.

The station building at East Tanfield is the very welcoming Tommy Armstrong Tea Shop, its tables impressively laid out with fine-looking china.  Coffee and pastries are in abundance, and they’ll even sell you a train ticket, written by hand.

However, there’s a noticeable lack of what the heritage industry calls “interpretation”.

Even the timetable is occult, possessed by knowledgeable old geezers squinting at sheets of A4 paper which they fold and stuff surreptitiously in the pockets of their anoraks.

You can, of course, ask the station staff.  Like freemasonry, knowledge here is acquired by degrees.

Trains appear when they’re good and ready, and they’re worth waiting for.

This is a no-nonsense coal railway, partly dating back to around 1720, which allows it to claim to be “the world’s oldest railway”.

It operates sturdy little tank engines, such as would, in times gone by, heave long trains of coal wagons out of the local collieries.

The passenger carriages are mostly four-wheelers that don’t go “diddly-dee, diddly da” but rather “clunk, clunk” – Victorian equivalents of the notorious Pacers, but much more elegant.

It’s always heartening on a volunteer-run railway to see engine crew who look not a day over twenty.

The passengers are mostly older than twenty – serious enthusiasts who know what’s going on, and couples with glum-looking dogs which would rather be chasing sticks than catching trains.

There’s a trackside footpath, useful for photographers who wait, tripods set and cameras ready, to capture the seldom-spotted tank engine.

The place is a delight.  Everyone is friendly and unrushed.  And the roast pork breadcakes are superlative.

Castello con un teatro annesso

Castello di Meleto, Tuscany, Italy: theatre

One of the delights of my Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] was a life-enhancing visit to the Castello di Meleto [http://www.castellomeleto.it/eng/castle/castle.php].

This is an intriguing place, a medieval hill-top castle documented from 1256 and for centuries owned by the Ricasoli-Firidolfi family, who sold up only in 1968.  The interiors, on the ground floor at least, are entirely baroque, with an unrestored patina of faded splendour.

We were treated to a cookery demonstration by the chef, Elena, who spoke only Italian, translated (or perhaps explicated) by the hostess Geraldine, who extolled the quality of the Castle’s extra virgin olive oil, which we were invited to smell and taste.

We were shown how to make an Italian stew, which seemed to me exactly how I would make an English stew with Italian ingredients. 

The pasta-making demonstration was more entertaining, and a great deal of pasta was passed hand to hand around the group. 

We were invited out for antipasti on the terrace, where a classical wing of the house (with a medieval turret on the end) faces a flat lawn and a wall, from where expanses of hillside vineyards are visible. 

No sooner had we wandered outside than a misty rain began to fall, and within ten minutes the waitresses shifted the antipasti back into the castle and a loud clap of thunder heralded a downpour that lasted no more than half an hour.

We tucked into the antipasti indoors while Geraldine gave lectures first on the Castle’s white wine and then on the rosé, all the time pouring wine into everyone’s glasses and interrupting her flow with “I’ll fetch another bottle.”  There was no sniffing or spitting.  This was a straightforward invitation to get trollied.

We weren’t formally shown the downstairs rooms, but instead trotted off to the cellars which are tricked out with barrels and racks of bottles.

Geraldine took us from the cellars to a surprise – a tiny, intact private theatre, dated 1741, complete with perspective scenery and a balcony.  I can find nothing of any significance about it online, and I’ve never come across it in the theatre-history literature. 

Indeed, I wonder if its provenance and history have been seriously researched.  It is at any rate a great rarity. 

A three-course dinner followed, liberally lubricated with red chianti and a dessert wine.  I sat back from the conversation and watched the sunset through the trees outside the window. 

Then predictably, “pat,…like the catastrophe in the old comedy”, came the buying opportunity.  My fellow guests queued up to buy bottles of wine and olive oil, while I sat in an armchair and watched.

Eventually we began the journey back, of which the first seventy minutes were simply a succession of hairpin bends and a few small villages.  We joined the motorway south of Florence, and it took another three-quarters of an hour to reach our hotel in Montecatini Terme.

I reflected on the considerable appeal of the Castillo di Meleto.  It’s now owned by a joint-stock company and you can stay there, at rates which are high but not outrageous.  However, it’s so remote that it would be impractical to go anywhere:  it’s simply a place to enjoy, with extensive gardens, an infinity pool and a restaurant down the drive for lunch and dinner:   https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.castellomeleto.it/&prev=search.

Park Palace Ponies

Park Palace Ponies (the former Park Palace Cinema), Dingle, Liverpool

The Park Palace Theatre in Toxteth was built for James Kiernan, a Liverpool theatre proprietor and designed by J H Havelock-Sutton, a Liverpool architect.

The auditorium is a simple rectangle, with the balcony (now removed) around three sides.  There were two boxes (also now gone), decorated with tall oval bevelled mirrors and lit with brass gas brackets.  Corinthian pilasters with acanthus-leaf bases flank the proscenium and support a broken pediment.  The proscenium is thirty feet wide.  Backstage there were four dressing rooms but no fly-tower.

Some accounts mention a gallery, and the Royal Arms mounted above the proscenium following a visit by King Edward VII in 1903, but there is no present-day evidence of either.

The original audience capacity was 1,100 (600 in the pit and stalls, 500 in the balcony) and it opened on December 4th 1893 as a variety theatre.

Though it retained its music-hall licence, the building was used as a cinema from 1905.  For a time the Sheffield cinema impresario Jasper Redfern ran it, and the Weisker Brothers took it over and renamed it the Kinematodrome in 1910.  

In 1911, Peter Dunn acquired it and ran it as cine-variety for nearly twenty years.  During the 1920s there was a seven-piece orchestra.  The variety acts and the orchestra ceased abruptly with the introduction of sound movies on January 8th 1930.  By then the capacity had reduced to 961. 

After Peter Dunn’s death in 1934, the proprietor was Miss Sheila Dunn, presumably his daughter.

The final film show – Russ Tamblyn in The Young Guns and John Payne in Hold Back the Night – took place on March 11th 1959. 

After its demise as a cinema the Park Palace was successively used as a factory, a chemist’s shop and a store for motor-vehicle spares.  For a period from 1984 it became the Mill Street Chapel. 

Subsequently the building was largely left to deteriorate. 

It was briefly revived as a performance space in 2008, and was once used as a location for the Channel 4 soap-opera Hollyoaks, but from 2010 onwards it was advertised to let. 

It remained unused until 2017, when Keith Hackett and his daughter, Bridget Griffin, set up Park Palace Ponies, to provide a riding school aimed at local children under ten, bringing them the benefits of spending time with horses and the perception that horse-riding isn’t only for the affluent.  Hundreds of children from south-central Liverpool (defined as postcodes L8, L17 and L18) have since taken part in riding lessons at the Palace:  http://www.parkpalaceponies.com

The community benefits of this scheme are palpable, and not confined to the children and their families.  The horses graze at the local allotments, where their manure is much appreciated.

Park Palace Ponies is included in the itinerary of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) .  For further details of the tour, please click here.

English Institute of Sport Sheffield

English Institute of Sport Sheffield: A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe visit, April 7th 2019

On the popular Bus Ride Round Attercliffe trips that I run in conjunction with South Yorkshire Transport Museum, we regularly make a stop at the English Institute of Sport Sheffield, to show that the Lower Don Valley has begun an astonishing transformation since the demise of the heavy steel industry in the early 1980s.

Designed by FaulknerBrowns Architects, the Institute opened in December 2003, funded by Sport England and managed by SIV Ltd, a Health and Well Being Charity.  It’s newer than the Arena and the demolished Don Valley Stadium which were built for the 1991 World Student Games.  It’s even newer than the nearby IceSheffield, designed by the Building Design Partnership and opened in May 2003.

It has and continues to provide training facilities for an impressive array of champions, including Sheffield-born heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, boxers Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams and the Paralympian table-tennis player Will Bailey, as well as sixty local sports clubs and seventy thousand local school children a year.

The initial cost of the facility was £28 million, and the Institute aims to balance usage at 90% local community to 10% elite athletes.

Our guide, Ryan Ruddiforth, shows Bus Ride passengers, many of whom grew up in Attercliffe after the Second World War, the facilities for boxing, wheelchair basketball and – most impressive of all – the huge 200-metre indoor running track.

I’m looking forward to offering heritage bus-ride experiences to groups from outside Sheffield in 2020, and in the ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ tour I plan to take people first of all to Magna, to see the hot, dark, dangerous spaces where workers spent their days in the steel industry and then, for contrast, to EISS to experience the light, clean, air-conditioned spaces in which people exercise and perfect their sport skills in the twenty-first century.

The Valley has come a long way within a lifetime, and I want to present this in as dramatic a way as possible.

The ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ bus tours are arranged on an individual basis, and Magna and EISS may not always be available because of major events taking place.  On occasions the Bus Ride may visit other equivalent buildings in the city centre or the Lower Don Valley.  For further details please click here.

For details of the next public Bus Ride Round Attercliffe, please click here.

Exploring Sydney: Watson’s Bay

The Gap, Watson’s Bay, Sydney, Australia

Our Lady Star of the Sea RC Church, Watson’s Bay, Australia

On my previous visits to Sydney, in 2010 and 2011, I made no use whatever of its extensive ferry system, an omission as grievous as my failure, on my first visit to Rome, to visit the Vatican.

At leisure on my 2017 visit, I took the first opportunity to catch a bus to Circular Quay and hop on the first ferry out, which took me to Watson’s Bay, a headland with spectacular views and a long history of maritime and military significance.

There I had a cup of tea at Doyle’s on the Wharf [https://www.doyles.com.au], one half of a celebrated fish restaurant, along with Doyle’s on the Beach (established 1885).  It was too early for fish and chips, but I’d gladly return another time, especially if it was an appropriate occasion for the more formal Doyle’s on the Beach which has tablecloths.

My exploration led me along the cliff-top path known as The Gap.  The Gap was and still is a notorious suicide spot, though the cliff edge is strongly fenced.  There is a memorial to Don Ritchie OAM (1925-2012), a local resident who repeatedly took in and tried to help people in despair at The Gap.

He was a World War II navy veteran who after the war worked as an insurance salesman.  He was adept at spotting distressed individuals on the cliffs and by making a simple approach such as “Can I help you in some way?”, and inviting them home for a cup of tea, he saved the lives of 164 potential suicides.  As he put it, “You can’t just sit there and watch them.”

Another rescuer of more than thirty potential suicides was Rexie, a German Shepherd bitch owned by the proprietor of the Gap Tavern in the 1960s.  She had the ability to recognise potential suicides and would bark to attract assistance.

I tried to locate the former tram-track, where first-generation Sydney trams plunged down hairpin bends to reach their terminus, and though I think I found it in part, it was so overgrown as to be unrecognisable:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLjwCFtqKgc.

When I emerged on to Old South Head Road and headed back downhill towards the bus terminus I came upon St Peter’s Anglican Church, a tiny little cell designed by Edward Blacket in 1864 and the more remarkable Our Lady Star of the Sea RC Church, a 1910 exterior with a much later spire but no tower, and a beautiful 1966 interior, with a five-light east window in the form of the Southern Cross constellation.

Further along the cliffs stand two lighthouses, the Signal Station (1790) [http://www.watsonsbayassociation.org/cms_subpage/5/20]  and the Macquarie Lighthouse (1883) [http://www.watsonsbayassociation.org/cms_subpage/5/21].

The bus that I caught back into town took me a different way, so that I discovered the stunning views to be had of central Sydney, with the Harbour Bridge in the distance, from an area called Dover Heights, before the bus dropped down into Bondi Beach, the classic Australian version of seaside.