Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Real landscapes, real townscapes

Two interesting themes this week.

One of them  got a lot of press coverage. The Work Foundation published a paper looking at 'clonetown England' and local distinctiveness, arguing that cities which have established distinctive patterns of living and trading (Silicon Fen in Cambridge, gay-friendly Canal Street in Manchester) have benefited economically from doing so.

The Breckland Society didn't  get nearly as much attention. But it has published an interesting survey of the vernacular architecture of Breckland - a strong component of the region's distinctivness.

Knapped flintwork, 'galleting' (inserting little chips of flint  into the mortar joints between courses), the use of brick and clunch in combination, are all strong elements of local architecture. They're every bit as much as part of the Breckland 'feel' as the Scots pines and open heathland that characterise the landscape - but have had, if anything, even less protection.

What's particularly good to see is that the Breckland Society hasn't just surveyed  traditional architecture as a part of the past. By running workshops on relevant skills such as flint knapping and flint walling, they are helping to ensure that local building firms have the expertise needed to restore old houses, and build new works in keeping with the tradition.

Local distinctiveness is worth fighting for. And  it needs to be real local distinctiveness - not pastiche, not stereotypes and 'heritage' in the country house tradition, not tourist traps and the 'this is Scotland so let's have some tartan and a haggis' attitude. What's good is that more and more people are beginning to appreciate the small things that make up that local appeal - and seeing ways to bring it into the twenty first century.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The Leith police dismisseth us

With a morning to kill in Edinburgh, and a clear sky, I decided to do something a bit different and take the Water of Leith walkway from the heart of the New Town towards the old port.

It's a lovely hike - about two miles there and two miles back. The path runs beside the Water of Leith,  at first a rushing stream, later a much broader river; sometimes beside you, sometimes far below. There are parks, woods, cuttings dug into the rich moist earth, and there's one little wiggle through an industrial estate. You're never far from industry, yet the natural attractions of the path allow you to forget it for most of the route.

As I walked beside a brick warehouse, a heron regarded me seriously from a rock in the middle of the river, then took off and flapped heavily towards the trees on the other bank. A squirrel spiralled a tree, each revolution stopping to poke his head round and see if I'd moved. As I grew closer to Leith I began to hear seagulls.

Leith itself is intriguing with a mix of seventeenth century houses (and the tower of a windmill), Victorian and modern docks, and twenty-first century  regeneration.  A fine swing bridge offers interesting photographic opportunities; and at the end of the road, you'll see a wall of containers as a ship comes in. No way to the edge of the Firth of Forth, though, which disappointed me.

Edinburgh's other longer walk is a completely different experience - through Holyrood Part and up Salisbury Crags ('Arthur's Seat').  No doubt it's grander - but I enjoyed the intimacy of the Water of Leith walkway, and the homely welcome from people exercising their dogs, watching the squirrels, and jogging.

Let there be lights

York is being illuminated, along the lines of the fine light shows at Chartres and Amiens. Artist Usman Haque is lighting York Minster from 26 October to 3 November 2007,with an installation that will let visitors activate the lights with their own voices. There'll also be a trail of light-based art works in the city, as well as 'Weather Patterns' in light on the York Art Gallery facade.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Another good bike scheme

The Velib seems to have taken off in Paris, and bike schemes are now proliferating.

Most of them are targeted at pedestrians or commuters (with bikes at railway stations, for instance). But the Belgian city of Mechelen has taken green street cred to drivers, siting a bike park at the main underground car park of the city. Bike hire is included in the price of the parking ticket.

I love Mechelen - it's a huge, sprawling medieval city, with narrow, twisting streets. Ideal for biking - and a pain in the backside if you have a car. So I hope this initiative takes off.

Late night opening - more

News that from now till 20 December 2007, Brussels will be opening all its museums late on Thursday nights. ('Late' means 10 pm, by the way.)

And even better, the Nocturnes plan offers reduced entry fees too - together with extras such as curators offering guided tours, story-tellers offering a different view of some exhibits, and behind-the-scenes tours at some museums.

My particular interest would be the very fine musical instrument museum. But the comic strip museum and the museum of gueuze (lovely tart Belgian beer, fermented spontaneously with wild yeasts) would also be high on my list. 50 different museums are in the scheme so there should be something for everyone.

And for transport fans, the Brussels Tram Museum is running several of its old buses between the  different museums.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Kilometre zero and the lapis niger

I've visited two 'kilometre zero' sites this year, in Paris and in Madrid. The one in Paris is just in front of Notre Dame cathedral; the one in Madrid is in the Puerta del Sol.

They're not impressive sites; in Paris there's just a little circular motif in the pavement. If you didn't know what it is, you'd think it's a small manhole cover.

But there's something immensely poetic in the idea of a kilometre zero - the point from which all road distances are measured. It's like the omphalos, or navel of the world, at Delphi, or the medieval Christian idea of Jerusalem as the centre of the world. It seems, in a way, to focus the entire energies of a country in a single point.

And then, in a rather post-modern way, there's the irony that with all this going on, the kilometre zero itself is such a banal object.

The 'kilometre zero' that really brings together the mapping and administration  dimension with that sacred, shamanic dimension, though, is one I haven't visited; Delhi. Here, India's kilometre zero is built on the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi - the father of the nation. It's as sacred in its way as the Lapis Niger in Rome, the original sacred centre of the city in the Forum (the 'new' kilometre zero is on top of the Capitoline Hill).