Thursday, 27 December 2007

Distinctive locality

I've written before about local distinctiveness - what makes a region or a city special, what gives it that certain almost indefinable flavour that distinguishes it from anywhere else.

Such distinctiveness is of course under threat. Chain stores, the spread of 'one size fits all' architecture, a certain feeling that local traditions are uncool or plebeian, all tend to impose homogeneity on our townscapes and landscapes. Agricultural colleges teach a single 'best practice' for all countryside - no respect for the distinctive feel of terroir there.

So it's nice to celebrate a couple of organisations which are fighting to preserve this specialness.

First, Maisons Paysannes de France, an organisation which promotes authenticity in the way older French houses are restored. It's a truism in the UK property press that 'only Brits buy old French houses, the French like them new'; but fortunately there are many French owners of old houses who do care about their local vernacular building traditions.

Maisons Paysannes offers links to conservation orientated building professionals, as well as publicising good restorations of period houses. In France, where you'll often see a period house that would be grade II* listed in the UK with modern double glazing and a PVC conservatory stuck on the end, they're fighting a tough fight.   Good luck to them.

Common Ground is a UK based charity that focuses on the ways people can celebrate their local distinctiveness.

One of the threats they identify is abstraction. In a recent Guardian interview Common Ground founder Sue Clifford picked out some particularly nasty ones; 'sites' for streets or fields, 'the public' for people, 'natural resources' for woods and streams. Even the word 'environment' makes her suspicious. Abstract words blind us to real distinctiveness.

(What she didn't go on to elaborate is that local words are another component of 'real place'. What would Norfolk be without bishybarnabees - ladybirds - or dodmen - snails? And we have lokes, where northerners have ginnels and York has snickelways - though the latter is a fairly recent coinage.)

Common Ground's web site suggests ways that people can celebrate the distinctiveness of their own place - ABCs of differences, photographs, parish maps. These maps are not 'objective' (regular readers know I have difficulty with the idea of any map being really objective; the very assertion of 'objectivity' displays a biased idea of what mapping is about). Instead, wilful subjectivity rules - the maps are written, painted, knitted, embroidered; they include dialect words, pictures of wildlife, old stories and legends.

It's back to the 1960s in a way for Common Ground. 'Think globally, act locally' has been replaced by 'think locally! act locally! buy locally!'

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Great Christmas walks

I'm not much of a Christmas person. Christmas trees and tinsel don't do it for me.

But what I do like to  do, weather permitting, is get out on Christmas Day or Boxing Day (or indeed both) for a good long walk.

You can see things differently. There's no one about, usually. Everyone's headed into town for the sales, or sitting round the telly at home.

It's a good time to revisit your summer walks and see them stripped down for winter. The fields no longer green and yellow with corn (or rape) but brown and bare, furrowed perhaps, an occasional flash of light catching the corner of a flint in the soil. Trees bare.

Here in East Anglia our trees grow not straight and elegant, but full of character; twigs like arthritic fingers, stout trunks creviced with age, sagging and writhing boughs. Every so often you see one that's been lightning struck, bleached where the bark's been stripped; sometimes, half the tree survives, Siamese twinned dead-and-alive.

Or go for somewhere lonely and precarious. For me, that means the coast. Studland, Dorset, where the sea seems to swell higher than the land, and towards dusk you can look out from the beach and see the lights of ships at sea. Or Spurn Point, where an exiguous finger of shifting sand and shingle extends three and a half miles into the North Sea, and you feel you could be washed away at any moment.

I shan't be far from home this year, but if the weather's good tomorrow - it's horrible today - I shall motor up to Holkham, and take a walk along the beach and through the sand dunes, through marram grass and pinewoods, and along the coast to Wells.

There's something about the cleanliness of sea air that's an antidote to all the pudding and stuffing and  overindulgence of Christmas. Time to get my boots on.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Run away!

I knew someone whose great dream was to visit Macchu Picchu. I don't know if he ever made it - but I think he would have been disappointed.

Too many great sites are now laid out for us in a way that prioritises crowd control and profit per head, rather than real experience. The tourist experience is nothing new of course - hawkers would have laid in wait for medieval pilgrims in Rome, Jerusalem or Mecca - but it's becoming difficult to avoid, at least if you want to see the 'top ten' sites.

Of course you can choose to seek out smaller and less well known sites. For instance, I'd definitely choose the Ridgeway at Uffington Castle and Wayland's Smithy, rather than the better known Avebury and Stonehenge. (Avebury should be a charming place but I have only ever met aggression and surliness in the village. Something seems really wrong there; when I heard that Silbury Hill was sinking in the middle it seemed to me that the whole heart of England was rotting away.)

On the Ridgeway a few years back I'd just paid my respects to Wayland Smith - as a silverworker and wordcrafter I regard him as a sort of patron saint - when I bumped into a woman treading the ancient path with her infant child.

"I thought I'd bring her  up here to introduce her to the grandmothers," she said. And the baby looked out with serious eyes that reflected the sky, tiny microcosms. I've never had a meeting like that at Avebury.

Stanton Drew is another fine site, just south of Bristol.  Quite by chance I was there at midsummer, on my way down to a folk festival. There were people playing guitar and flute and picnicking quietly in the  stone circles. And it wasn't till someone handed me a glass of wine and said 'Blessed be' that I realised it was Beltane.

Finding your own sites is one option. The other response to over-managed or overcrowded sites is  to take the advice of brave Sir Robin and 'run away!'

Not literally, of course. But suppose you turn your back on Stonehenge... you can then make your way from the great henge along pathways to Woodhenge or Normanton Down, or along the great Cursus, or out to the barrows of Winterbourne Stoke. And from almost everywhere, you can still see the stones of the great circle, focusing the sacred landscape.

Walking the chalkland,  you'll find relatively few other walkers. But you share the land with flowers and butterflies in summer, and with the elusive stone curlew, and with the ghosts of the ancestors, if your imagination is alive. Compared to the stage-managed experience of the imprisoned stones, I find the walks that lead away from Stonehenge far more evocative and enjoyable.

And of course you have that feeling of having earned your experience - having truly travelled, not just consumed a product.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Urban adventures

Running along the Wensum this morning, I was suddenly aware of how busy the place is.

Squirrels running along the ground with that strange half-leap, half-ooze movement, like slinkies. Swans looking unconcerned, bright bills tucked under their wings, one black eye malicious and alert.

A rabbit hiding by the brick wall of the Great Hospital. Blackbirds chasing each other, dark torpedoes over the top of a hedge. A robin perching on a twig, head on one side as he assesses me.

This let's remember is the centre of Norwich. yet there is wilderness everywhere. I came out of the King's Head late one evening - well, the early hours of the next day - and there in the passage outside, among the fag ends, was a fox, staring at me as if I had no right to be there. It was his time. And then he trotted off down Magdalen Road.

I'm not much of a twitcher. I don't have the Observer Book of Birds. I can tell a hawk from a harnser (that's the Norfolk original of the hawk and handsaw joke in Hamlet, which Will Kemp understood but Brummy Will Shakespeare completely failed to get) whichever direction the wind's in, but that's about it. And even so, I'm rather enjoying the avian accompaniment to my daily run.

Mind you, although the anglers on the Wensum tell me that they've taken some good big pike this year, I have to say I've never yet seen one...

Monday, 17 December 2007


Another lovely post fromGawain on Heaven Tree, with two identical jade cups. It's an interesting play between uniqueness and duplication - while the two cups replicate each other, the laborious technique by which they were made surely makes them unique in their way, a sort of specialness like that possessed by identical twins.

I got round to thinking how much of our travel is looking for the unique. Sometimes, we're looking for copies. Travel to Vegas, and are you looking for a copy of Venice? or are you actually aware, in a rather ironic way, of the specialness of the Italian city 'recreated' in the heart of American kitsch and glitz?

In the same way, if you visit a 'typical' Tuscan hill town, are you looking for it as a copy of that ideal you carry in your head (or guidebook) of the archetypal Tuscan hill town? or as a uniquely perfect townscape?

When we spend too long looking for the typical, we actually neglect the unique. And perhaps also we make ourselves immune to surprise. Immune to the shock of seeing a clash of the old and the new, experiencing a back street epiphany as we stumble upon that hidden antique store or sudden view out to the country.

Can we look for the unique? Possibly not. But we ought to hold ourselves open to experiencing it.

Ten unique places:

  1. The silversmiths' supplies shops in Muttrah souk, Oman. I bought two dies for stamping out little ornaments in silver; weighty brass octagons carved with symbols - hearts, half-spheres, stars.

  2. The 'Cosa nostra' Italian importers in Novgorod (this was years ago, so I can't guarantee it's still there).

  3. The archangel's cave basilica on Monte Gargano, reached by steps carved in solid rock, with its Byzantine bronze doors, and old women burning braziers in the wintry streets outside.

  4. Reculver, on the Kent coast, where the ruined towers of a great Minster brood over a caravan park and solitary, desultorily used amusement arcade.

  5. The via cava that leads from Pitigliano to Sovana - an ancient Etruscan road where you can still see the ruts made by ancient carts, and walk on last year's leaves slowly rotting in the covered lane.

  6. The great abbey church on Mont Saint Michel on a January evening, when the floodlights shine from outside through the windows, bleaching the inside into a ghostly shimmer.

  7. Fish Hill, where the road from the Cotswolds drops down a series of sweeping curves to the Severn flood plain.Or Bredon Hill, seen from the Malverns above a sea of  roiling mist, or (once) isolated amidst the silver of flooded fields.

  8. Nine Standards Rigg, on the coast-to-coast path above Kirkby Stephen, where huge tall cairns guard the way down from the Pennine watershed, and the road seems to drop forever away from the peaty tops.

  9. Okocim Brewery, Poland - a cathedral of beer where the huge cellar is cut into the side of a mountain, and the only sound is the slow dripping of condensation from the overhead pipes.

  10. The éoliennes (wind turbines) on the cliffs at Wimereux, just south of Boulogne. I stopped once in the car park on the side of the motorway, and their thrilling hum drowned out the noise of the cars.

Nerd's delight

A wonderful new book offers transport nerds a rover ticket for all urban railway systems.

Masrk Ovenden's Transit maps of the world has maps of just about every rapid transit system in the world. There are old maps, new maps, a history of urban rail networks - this isn't just a book of maps, it's much more.

And as always, we see how maps fulfil different purposes in different ways. Harry Beck's fine map of the London tube, which reduces the geographical meanderings of the system to a neat diagram, is a case in point - personally I love to try to trace exactly where the underground underlays the London street system, but that's not the point of his map; it's getting passengers from A to B, and they really don't need to know what they're underneath at any particular point.

New York didn't have Harry Beck on board. They got a visually lovely  map in 1979 - but they've replaced it; it just didn't do the biz for passengers. So there is a tradeoff between visual quality and functionality - as so often in architecture and design - and following the tradeoffs is interesting, whether you're a graphic artist or simply someone who enjoys investigating the multiple ways we can represent reality in visual (and other) media.

You can see how much transport nerds love this book from the reviews on Amazon - it gets five stars from just about everyone, together with nerdy complaints like 'the map on p 86 is too small' or 'it would be more interesting to have the 1956 map'.

And here, I'm going to come out of the closet. Deep breath... I'm a transport nerd too.

I've really been repressing it for years. But when I look at the things I do when I'm using the Paris metro, I know ... I am what I am.

I derive great enjoyment from perusing the metro map and trying to find a station I don't know about. I've memorised the stops from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse (which is the quicket route from my home in Norwich to my home in Les Basses Lisieres). I even enjoy reading the history of the Paris metro that decorates the wall high above the conveyors at Montparnasse (including the story of the crickets who live on three of the Metro lines).

So please, would some kind person get this book for me as a Christmas present? Failing which, I may have to buy the book myself.

I did say this book has nearly every rapid transit system in the world. It misses one - the Ipswich Underground Railway.

We in Norwich like to think we are superior to Ipswich. But we haven't got a metro. Mind you, Ipswich hasn't got an underground any more either - it closed down years ago. But Simon Knott has done an excellent job of investigating the remains of this intriguing transit system.  His photographs are clear, his research detailed, and he has done architectural historians a huge service in discovering the contribution of Soviet architect Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky to the Ipswich Underground.

Surfers should however note the dateline on many of the photographs - April 1, 2007.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Strange buildings

Dubai has become a mad wonderland of architectural dreams and nightmares. An unprecedented (and unecological, for what it's worth) building boom has spurred architects on to come up with ever more stunning, ever more ambitious buildings.

The Pearl for instance is now touted as "a city in a building".  It's in a way a take on the Grand'Arche de la Defense, but has two openings instead of one - a cheap shot or vaulting ambition? I'm not sure which.

Dubai already has buildings in progress shaped like chess pieces; the Red Queen would have loved this Wonderland...  there's a wave, a sail, ridiculous references in some cases. There's a megalomaniac attraction to sheer size - the tallest, widest, biggest, most of everything.

What I find worrying about the subtext though is that Dubai is creating architecture that turns it back on reality. Microcosms. Malls where you go to experience the inside. Places where you never need to emerge into the 'real' world at all, where you can go from air conditioned car park to air conditioned shops to air conditioned restaurant to air conditioned flat. The 'wild wadi water park' isn't a real wild wadi, like the lovely Wadi Shab in Oman - it's a fake jungle in a mall.

And getting back to La Defense; the great thing about the Grand'Arche is that it belongs there; on that huge axis that runs through Paris, reflecting and subverting the Arc de Triomphe. It's not a 'historically sensitive' building in many ways, but it is rooted in a historic landscape and takes its theme and meaning from that history.

Dubai's buildings, on the other hand, break with any Arab past; which is an interesting architectural tradition, and ecologically interesting too with its wind towers, natural cooling systems. The new buildings are revolutionary, not necessarily in a good way.  And they have no reference to anything that came before.

Dubai could become a stunning metropolis. But equally, in twenty years' time it could look as dated - and as kitsch - as the end of the pier show in Great Yarmouth.