Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

Italian job

Lingotto Building, Turin, Italy: former test track

It’s not feasible to travel by train from Florence to London within a day.

When I took the Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ tour [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany]  our return journey was broken at Turin.

As we drove through the Turin suburbs our guide Caroline mentioned that our hotel, the Nh Lingotto Congress [https://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-torino-lingotto-congress], was a conversion of a former Fiat car factory.  I’d vaguely heard about an Italian car factory turned into a hotel but I was unprepared for the luxurious splendour to which we were treated.

The building is a lengthy concrete-framed oblong with an elegant façade, built 1916-23 to the designs of Giacomo Matté-Trucco (1869-1934), originally the Fiat company’s in-house architect and engineer, but in private practice by the time he conceived the Lingotto factory.

When car production ceased in 1982 its renovation was entrusted to the Genoese architect Renzo Piano (b 1937), already well-known for collaborating with Richard Rodgers on the Centre Georges Pompidou (1971-77) in Paris and latterly famous for the Shard (2000-2012) at London Bridge.

Piano’s scheme embraces an exhibition centre (1992), an auditorium (1994), two hotels (1995) and a shopping centre.  The site includes a helipad and an art gallery stocked with pieces from the collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli:  Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) was customarily known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather and namesake (1866-1945), the founder of the Fiat company.

The hotel lobby is cool and modern, and the space within the outer wings of the factory buildings is filled with a dense jungle visible through glazed walls.  The bedrooms are beautifully finished, reflecting the calibre of the designer, using the high ceilings of the original factory design, spacious and comfortable.

Although I felt hot and exhausted I couldn’t resist exploring, and by the time I’d showered and had some lunch other tour-guests were insisting I should go to the roof to see the “race-track”. 

The key to the complex is the shopping mall, 8 (Italian number ‘otto’, echoing ‘Lingotto’).  Among the shop units is the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, where a haughty young lady behind a desk pointed towards a lift which took me up four storeys to another even more haughty female who pointed me towards a further lift which carried me to the fifth-floor art gallery and the roof.

The bijou art-gallery is a delight, containing a couple of Canova sculptures and a series of paintings by Canaletto, Bellotto, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.  No British shopping centre can boast such a life-enhancing experience above the shops.

Only when I walked on to the sunlit roof did I realise that the so-called race-track was not visible from the roof, it was the roof – an intact and well-preserved test-track, designed to run cars at 90kph at a time when the normal top speed was 70kph, with alarmingly banked curves at each end.  It features in The Italian Job (1969).

Back at shop level I got lost, which was a benefit because I came upon the helical ramp which runs through the building to give cars access to the roof. 

When I read it all up in Wikipedia Italian (in English translation, naturally,) I discovered that the raw materials were brought in at ground level, presumably from the nearby rail line, and cars were assembled as they moved upwards through the building until they emerged complete and road-ready on the roof – the exact opposite of the process in the Studebaker Building in midtown Chicago.

There’s an excellent video-essay on the Lingotto factory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciscQuVD5vo.

Elegant and commodious sports bar

Former Carver Street Methodist Chapel, Sheffield – now Walkabout sports bar

Sheffield’s Carver Street Methodist Chapel, built on what was the edge of town in 1800, is now a buzzing Australian sports bar in the centre of Sheffield’s entertainment quarter.

Its founders and the successive generations of teetotal worshippers would be appalled, but Grade II listing protects the historic fabric, and the income from customers has guaranteed that the building is well maintained.

There were Methodists in Sheffield almost from the very start of John Wesley’s great crusade, and they built a succession of modest chapels from 1741 until the Carver Street building was opened in 1805 at a cost of about £4,720 to seat 1,500 people to the designs of the architect-minister Rev William Jenkin (1788-1844).

The plain but imposing building was described by the Sheffield poet and hymn-writer James Montgomery (1771-1854) as “one of the best planned, most elegant and commodious places of worship in the country”.

Services were often packed to capacity, and the congregation spilled over into the yard outside. 

Sheffield was a predominantly nonconformist town:  in 1841, when the population was 112,492, the nonconformists had 25,000 sittings, a third of them free, in comparison with the Anglicans’ 1,500.

The Methodists were strict and ascetic in their private lives and public worship.  The first Methodist Conference at Carver Street in 1805 passed a resolution prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship “except a bass viol, which was permitted when the principal singer required it”.

The Carver Street congregation was strict but not rigid.  When the chapel was refurbished in 1839, with new pews and double-glazed windows, an organ was inaugurated by the organist of Doncaster Parish Church, Jeremiah Rogers, “who on that occasion performed some of Bach’s organ music for the first time in Sheffield”. 

The congregation flourished for 150 years.  Its prestigious members included the ironfounder Henry Longden (1754-1812), who is buried in a vault at Carver Street, the steelmaker Alderman George Senior (1838-1915) of Pond’s Forge, Lord Mayor in 1901, and Sir Samuel Osborn (1864-1952), Lord Mayor in 1912.

The premises were repeatedly extended, by a schoolroom in the yard (1834), vestries at the rear of the building (1883) and a new block of schools and classrooms, at a cost of £5,000 in 1897.

The church was reseated in 1902 and a new organ by the Hull manufacturers Forster & Andrews was installed.  It cost £1,200, the gift of Samuel Meggitt Johnson (1836-1925) of Endcliffe Court, sole proprietor of the George Bassett confectionery company. 

The congregation continued to thrive between the wars:  in 1934 the adult membership was 550 and the Sunday Schools had 900 on roll.

The Institute was wrecked in the December 1940 Blitz, and the church itself suffered damage, yet the community played a significant part in the war effort, and was still flourishing at the time of its sesquicentenary in 1955.

By the 1970s, however, there was a decline in numbers, and in 1990 the congregation combined with that of the demolished Wesley Methodist Church in Broomhill and occupied a new building on that site in 1998.

The Carver Street building was sold and converted into a pub, in which the paraphernalia of a modern bar sits incongruously in the intact surroundings of the Grade II-listed galleried chapel, with the pulpit occupied by the DJ’s desk, and the organ intact but mothballed behind.  The graves outside are protected by timber cladding.  The entire pub-conversion is reversible, so that in future the space can be restored to its original elegance and the building put to another use: https://www.walkaboutbars.co.uk/sheffield.

Volunteer effort

Rawtenstall Station, East Lancashire Railway: British Railways locomotive 33109

This article describes that East Lancashire Railway in the days before Covid 19. The railway is determinedly operating, whenever possible, in line with current coronavirus restrictions: http://www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk/events-activities.aspx.

Volunteers are the life-blood of heritage organisations, nowhere more so than on the labour-intensive steam railways.

I visited the East Lancashire Railway [http://www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk]on a freezing January day, an unforgiving time of year when tourists stay at home.

Nevertheless, the ELR was running their Blue Timetable, a full service using two trains, one hauled by steam, the other by diesel.  The ticket-office, shop, stations, cafés and the trains themselves were fully staffed and operational.

As we travelled above the snow-line to Rawtenstall, we passed a tracklaying crew, clad in hi-vis jackets, sorting out a siding in billowing snow.

The twelve-mile ELR route actually encompasses two former rail routes out of Bury – north via Ramsbottom to Rawtenstall, and east to Heywood where a link is planned to Castleton to join the Network Rail route from Manchester to Rochdale and beyond.

The railway also runs the over-stuffed Bury Transport Museum in the goods shed behind Bury Bolton Street station and offers a wide-ranging events programme from on-board dining to train-driving experiences, from days out with Thomas the Tank Engine to guided rail ale trails.

All this is made possible by a small army of volunteers – there must have been nearer a hundred than fifty on a quiet day – giving the most valuable thing they have, their time.  The satisfaction they gain from working a traditional railway and serving the public must be considerable:  they could just as easily stay at home and watch television.

Those of us who simply pay our fare, buy refreshments and maybe take home a souvenir are in a small way supporting their venture, and we shouldn’t take for granted the hidden value of the volunteers that turn out regardless to make the railway function.

Exploring Sydney: Newtown and the inner-city suburbs

Camperdown Cemetery, Sydney, Australia

A highlight of my week in Sydney in 2017 was an exercise in the Heineken effect – reaching the parts other tours can’t reach.  Patrick O’Neill, who I had met while working for Sydney ADFAS in 2011, offered to take me to places in Sydney I had not myself discovered.

He picked me up at 10.00am and drove me around central Sydney pointing out landmarks and drawing my particular attention to the Sydney Observatory [https://maas.museum/sydney-observatory] which, like the old observatory at Greenwich, was built for navigational purposes as much as astronomical exploration.  It was designed by Alexander Dawson and completed in 1858.  Its primary function was to operate a time-ball precisely at 1pm so that ships in line of sight could synchronise the chronometers they needed to navigate accurately.  A cannon fired simultaneously from Fort Denison, an island in mid-harbour, provided a time-signal to ships in coves further away.

Paddington, once rough and deprived and threatened with post-war clearance, is now gentrified.  On the way, along Oxford Street, Patrick pointed out that I should seek an opportunity to visit Victoria Barrackshttp://www.armymuseumnsw.com.au.

Part way along Oxford Street, next to the impressive Paddington Town Hall (1890-91) lies the remains of Paddington Reservoir (1866), one of Sydney’s numerous underground water-supply storage reservoirs:  https://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/explore/facilities/parks/major-parks/paddington-reservoir-gardens.   It ceased to function in 1899, and was adapted as a garage until part of the roof gave way in 1990.  It was then adapted as an intriguing public garden which opened in 2008.

Patrick drove down street after street of small terraced houses, with balconies and ironwork, once the homes of artisans, and later post-war immigrants, and now changing hands for remarkable amounts of money.  The area is awash with hotels, art galleries and high-end retail outlets.  The pavements of some streets are lined with fig trees, which look both attractive and curious, and must be a problem to high-sided vehicles because their branches spread diagonally from the trunk.

We cut through a sequence of inner-city suburbs – Surry Hills and Redfern, where the New South Wales Government Railways workshops were sited – to Newtown where Patrick and his artist wife Stella live, to drink very fine coffee in very fine cups under the veranda at the back of the house.  Over the garden wall is St Michael and all the Angels Cathedral, the seat of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Saint Michael Archangel in Sydney, essentially an orthodox group in communion with Rome. 

Then we explored Newtown – Hollis Park, a sequence of residential streets with a synagogue, which Patrick thinks indicates the religion of the original developer, and the main shopping street and former tram-route, King Street, picking off the Trocadero Ballroom (1889) [http://sydneyarchitecture.com/INW/INW22.htm], a fine post office, a town hall and St Stephen’s Church (Edmund Blacket, 1874), which is surrounded by Camperdown Cemetery [https://www.neac.com.au/grounds-and-facilities/cemetery]. 

Much of the cemetery has been cleared, but I observed two curious nautical monuments which I later identified online – the anchor from Morts Dock commemorating the SS Collaroy which ran aground in 1881 and the detached pediment with a carved ship ploughing through the waves placed as a memorial to seamen, which came from either the old Maritime Services Building (c1850) or the former Harbour Trust Building, Circular Quay (c1902), depending which source you believe.

In the evening Patrick picked me up again and took me to dinner at home with Stella.  As we drove down a main street he pointed out fruit bats in the sky, like a horror movie, and later we heard their cries as we were having dinner.

Nothing makes visiting a place more memorable than knowing hospitable locals.

Start of the Pennine Way

Edale, Derbyshire

Even though it’s popular with visitors, the Derbyshire village of Edale, tucked high in the valley of the River Noe, feels a long way out of the way.

It is referred to as “Aidale” in Domesday Book and under the Norman kings it became part of the Royal Forest of the Peak.  From the reign of King John the Noe Valley comprised five Royal Farms, or “booths”, based on settlements at Upper Booth, Barber Booth, Ollerbrook Booth, Nether Booth and Grindsbrook Booth.

After royal control gave place in Tudor times to individual tenements, Grindsbrook Booth became the location of an inn dating back to the seventeenth century and the site of the parish church of Holy Trinity. 

The first parish church here dated from 1633, but the present, third building was built in 1885-6, with a spire added four years later. 

Cattle farming gave place to sheep, and in the late eighteenth century the valley was enclosed with the gritstone dry stone walls that are characteristic of the Dark Peak.

The village itself is 820 feet above sea level, and the hills round about rise to over 2,000 feet.

Nevertheless, though transport in any direction was arduous, a cotton mill was built on the site of a corn mill and tannery half a mile from the village in 1795. 

Workers lived in a dormitory, on a site still known as Skinners Hall [https://www.cottageguide.co.uk/taylorscroft], and women workers came from Castleton, commuting on foot along the old coffin-trail over Hollins Cross. 

The mill operated until 1934, and the Landmark Trust restored and converted it to apartments in the 1970s.

The railway eventually made the place accessible in 1894, and houses for prosperous Victorian incomers stand among older vernacular cottages.

The Nag’s Head pub, a former barn, is the formal southern beginning of the Pennine Way.

There was a possibility, shortly after the Second World War, that all this would be swept away, when in 1949 the Derwent Valley Water Board proposed to flood the Noe Valley to make a reservoir the same size of Ladybower (completed in 1945) with a dam 127 feet high and 1,750 feet long.  The scheme would have involved burying the Dore-Chinley railway in a lengthy tunnel.

As an alternative suggestion, in the early 1950s the Board considered building a dam west of Castleton flooding the valley of the Odin Sitch below Mam Tor.

They then considered a series of schemes to raise the waters of the Upper Derwent Valley by a great dam which would submerge the existing dam at Derwent and leave only the towers of Howden Dam visible above the waters.

These schemes are described and illustrated in Brian Robertson’s book, Walls Across the Valley:  the building of Howden and Derwent Dams (Scarthin Books 1993), pp 194-205.

Instead, in the 1980s, the Board’s successor, Severn-Trent, began Carsington Reservoir, which after some tribulations opened in 1992.

The Derwent High Dam proposal remains on the table.  No-one nowadays seriously suggests flooding Edale.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Trains to Edale

View from Edale Station towards Cowburn Tunnel, Derbyshire

Edale is the last station for stopping westbound trains from Sheffield to Stockport and Manchester before the line plunges into Cowburn Tunnel (3,702 yards).

It serves the village of Edale (population 353) and is handy for walkers setting off on the Pennine Way.

The Hope Valley Line is notable, and rare among intercity railways in the North, because all its original stations remain open to passengers, and an hourly stopping service runs in between non-stop trains serving Norwich, Nottingham and Liverpool via Sheffield.

Edale station itself offers only basic facilities.  British Rail replaced the original timber buildings with bus shelters, and eventually provided automatic ticket machines and digital information displays.

The Dore & Chinley Railway was opened in 1894 by the Midland Railway, providing a cross-country link between Sheffield and Manchester.  It gained additional traffic when G & T Earle opened their cement works, served by a private branch railway, at Hope in 1929.

The cement works is an ambivalent factor in the economy of the Peak District National Park:  it’s ugly and dirty, yet it provides jobs for the local community, and its rail connection helped to save the line in the 1960s.

Though the Woodhead route between Sheffield and Manchester via Penistone had been modernised and electrified after the Second World War, it had less social value as a passenger route, and after its coal traffic declined it closed in 1981.

The Hope Valley route offers an attractive ride through some of Derbyshire’s finest scenery, even though a quarter of the mileage is in tunnel.

Each of its stations provides access to interesting tourist sites and attractive walking country.

Hope station is isolated, but has bus services to Bradwell and CastletonBamford is within walking distance of Ladybower Reservoir and the Upper Derwent dams;  Hathersage has an open-air swimming pool and the David Mellor Factory, and Grindleford boasts the best fry-up for miles around – as long as you don’t ask for mushrooms.

In the days of steam traction and non-corridor slam-door carriages, the last train back to Sheffield was nicknamed the “Passion Special”, apparently because the length of Totley Tunnel (6,230 yards) provided opportunities not commonly found in the decades before the Swinging Sixties.

In contrast, latter-day Sprinter units are passion killers.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Home of Blue John

Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire

The bleak, remote north-west of Derbyshire was in medieval times the Forest of High Peak, a royal preserve for deer, not much blessed with trees, but valuable for its minerals, particularly lead.

It was guarded by Peveril Castle, established by William the Conqueror’s favourite, William Peveril (c1040-c1115), though the earliest surviving structure is the keep erected in 1176, which dominates the town of Castleton that grew up outside its precinct.

Castleton is a tourist honeypot, rich in opportunities to eat, drink and buy souvenirs.

Apart from the Castle, the most significant historic buildings are the Church of St Edmund, with its box pews and six-hundred-volume library “to be lent out to the parishioners at the discretion of the minister”, the bequest of the bachelor vicar, Rev Frederick Farran (d 1817), and the seventeenth-century Castleton Hall, which Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described as “comically ignorant”.

Castleton is world-famous as the only home of the unique form of fluorspar, Blue John, known for its coloration (bleu-jaune), and now in short supply.  Two of the largest artefacts of Blue John remain in the county at Chatsworth House and Renishaw Hall.  Mrs Malaprop, in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), refers to it as “Derbyshire putrefactions”.

There are four show caves, the result of mining activity going back to prehistoric times.

Peak Cavern, known in impolite times as the Devil’s Arse, is a natural opening fifty feet high and 114 feet wide, with enough space to contain a pub and several cottages (Celia Fiennes’ “poor little houses…thatch’d like little styes”) and, until well into the twentieth century, a ropewalk.  Lord Byron visited it with his cousin, Mary Ann Chaworth, for whom he had feelings:  lying in a boat with her to reach the innermost part of the cave, he wrote “I recollect my sensations but cannot describe them.”  Princess Victoria visited the cave in 1834, and again, as Queen, in 1841.

Blue John Mine, now celebrated for its displays of stalagmites and stalactites, seems to have been mined since at least Roman times:  two vases excavated at Pompeii appear to be made of Blue John. 

Speedwell Mine is a mining tunnel begun in 1774 to transport lead and never profitable as such.  In 1778, half a mile from the entrance, the miners broke into a natural cavern they named the Bottomless Pit, because all the waste thrown into it, estimated at 40,000 tons, simply disappeared.  The ultimate length of the adit was 2,650ft, built at a cost of around £14,000.  Only £3,000-worth of undressed ore was removed, and mining ceased around 1790, after which the Mine’s interest to tourists ensured its continuing maintenance to the present day.

Visitors reach the Bottomless Pit by boat, until recent years legged by the guide in narrow-boat fashion, the most exciting of the Castleton cave-experiences:  the adit is 840 feet below the surface at the point where it crosses the Bottomless Pit;  the water seventy-feet below the adit is up to thirty feet deep.  The furthest point of exploration in the system, the Cliff Cavern, is over a mile from the entrance and six hundred feet below ground.

The Treak Cliff Cavern, which consists of old mine-workings leading to a series of caves newly-discovered in 1926, was opened to the public in 1935.  It contains the only known workable vein of Blue John, and its stalagmite and stalactite displays are as spectacular as any others in the district.

The Pumping Station

Former Cropston Pumping Station, Leicestershire

For most of the nineteenth century, demand for water supply in the borough of Leicester and its surrounding area left the waterworks company – and its successor Leicester Corporation – constantly chasing demand by increasing capacity.

The Leicester Waterworks Company was founded in 1846 and the following year secured an Act of Parliament to build a reservoir and treatment works at Thornton, to the west of the town.

The company struggled to attract capital until the Corporation promised to invest £17,000 of the required £80,000 in return for guarantees of a dividend of 4% per annum until 1883 and all the company’s net profits over 4½% for ever.

Thornton Reservoir began supplying up to 1.6 million gallons in 1853, but within ten years Leicester suffered two serious water shortages, in 1863 and 1864, and Leicester Corporation took shares in the company to finance the reservoir and pumping station at Cropston which opened in 1871.

When the Waterworks Company proposed to increase its capital further in 1874, the Corporation decided to purchase the company outright by means of an enabling Act in 1877.

The water level of Cropston Reservoir was raised to increase capacity in 1887, and in 1890 parliamentary powers were sought to establish another reservoir at Swithland. 

A further severe water shortage in 1893 was relieved only by taking an emergency supply from Ellistown Colliery which customarily supplied Coalville, and construction of the new dam began the following year.

Swithland Reservoir was built at almost the same time as the Great Central Railway line to London, which crosses it on two viaducts.  This stretch of railway now forms part of the Great Central Railway (Loughborough) heritage line.

In preparation for the opening of Swithland Reservoir in 1896, the Cropston pumping station was extended to pump water between the three reservoirs.

No sooner was this system in place than Leicester Corporation went to Parliament for powers to extract water from the Derbyshire River Derwent.  Other authorities had similar ideas and were obliged to collaborate by forming the Derwent Valley Water Board and building the reservoirs at Howden (1912), Derwent (1916) and Ladybower (1945).

The Leicester legacy of this race to build reservoirs includes three reservoirs and two former pumping stations.

Cropston Pumping Station, built for the Leicester Waterworks Company in 1870 and extended by Leicester Corporation Waterworks in 1894, was stripped of its engines and boilers in the 1950s and has been sensitively converted, retaining what was left of the internal installation, to a restaurant, wedding and conference venue by the current owners, Simon and Liz Thompson in 2015: https://www.thepumpingstation.co.uk.

The bar and restaurant space is in the former boiler house and the adjacent 1894 engine house retains the overhead winch which serviced the machinery below.  The 1870 engine house is now a private residence which includes the spiral staircase up the truncated chimney to an observation deck.

Visitors park their cars among the ornamental filter beds, below which is an underground brick reservoir which, in time to come, could become an exciting visitor attraction.

Water supply engineering has the happy advantage of enhancing local amenities.  People are resistant to having their land flooded, but the end-result is attractive, from Derbyshire’s spectacular lakeland to the quieter landscape of the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire.

The Pumping Station, Cropston is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

Swithland Pumping Station is not accessible to the public.

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.