Friday, 25 January 2008

Where Alph the sacred river ran...

An intriguing video takes the path of the now culverted Fleet River, from King's Cross to the Thames.

What particularly caught my attention was the way the walker so often catches sight of a slim church spire, or a dome, down a narrow street. London is like a pincushion stuck through with church spires - like a collection of ley lines between the heads of the pins.

On one level it's a boring film. Lots of nondescript city streets. And then again, when you look at the details - like the griffins on Holborn Viaduct - there's something worth taking away. The little things that make the city special.

And of course on another level, it's tracing the course of something that is there and that you can't see. I find that idea quite thrilling. It appeals to that 'da Vinci Code' button in all of us. There's a whole history to be written about our covered rivers, - the Great Cockey in Norwich (I believe the Royal Arcade follows its path) , for instance. And there must be others.

I do like the sense of humour too. (Psychogeography is all about making connections, but here we have some connections that are, quite deliberately, way out and humorous.)

Enjoy the video.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Damson gin

Regular readers know I have a sideline in home made liqueurs.

We just opened the 2007 damson gin. Like sloe gin, only made with damsons. Three ingredients; damsons, sugar, gin. Leave to macerate for six months. Stir the sugar every day till it's dissolved and then just leave it.

We poured it through a funnel into a bottle. We got half a litre, and then two glasses for drinking now. And lots of really tasty, gin-pickled damsons for eating. (I'm going to stone a few of them and make chocolate tiffin cake with them. Should be fun).

Rich red, sweet, plummy liqueur. The big surprise: it doesn't taste of gin at all. And it's very aromatic. Highly recommended. Give it a try!

Next year, we're making five litres.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Space and light

I've just been researching as I write up the Podtour for Salzburg, Austria.

The bonus track (ie, I will be putting it up free on the podtours site)  is an introduction to James Turrell's 'Sky space' on the Moenchsberg, near the modern art museum. It's a powerful piece, which has to be experienced, not just looked at. An apparently simple - though actually quite subtly created - circular space with an opening in the roof, it attracts your attention to the sky seen through that opening. White walls, blue sky; after a while you've entered a meditative state. For me, it's Mozart's 'Temple of the Wise' from the Magic Flute - the real Mozart, not the eine-Kleine-not-that-again-Musik-marzipan-Mozart every shop in town is trying to sell.

So I was glad to find an interview with the artist available on the web.  His Quaker spirituality, but also an interest in astronomy and powered flight, infuses a lot of his art. It's an interesting interview but I particularly like his assertion: "There is a truth in light."

What I particularly love about his work is that he tries to get us to approach and experience light directly - for itself. None of the cleverness of Bernini, who wants to make light play tricks for him. Just pure, undiluted light. A real joy.

And something I wish, on this very grey December day, I had got here...

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Engineering marvel - video

I'm a sucker for the fascinating borderland where engineering meets architecture and design. Here's a great video of the Falkirk Wheel - a unique way of linking two canals at different levels. Instead of using locks or elevators, the wheel balances two huge troughs full of water. (Since a boat displaces its own weight in water, the tanks always balance whatever the size of boat using the wheel.) Since the wheel is in balance, it takes very little energy to tip the wheel over, rotating the top tank downwards and the bottom tank upwards.

The graceful swan-neck  design of the wheel's 'arms', the curves of the supports,  the way in which every element of excess mass has been cut away, remind me of the elegance and transparency of Gothic architecture. The need for functionality hasn't been allowed to get in the way of aesthetics - both work together to create a lovely structure. Even better, one in which the movement of the components when it is at work creates even more aesthetic interest; it's like a Calder mobile, meant to be seen when working. Which is why I've given you a link to the video.

Friday, 4 January 2008

An opportunity missed

Oh dear. After the rapturous reception given to the new St Pancras development in the press, I thought it would be a great experience using it.  I was very disappointed.

First of all, it still isn't finished. To get to the terminal from King's Cross involved crossing a wide area of rough concrete, divided only by temporary barriers and traffic cones. The front entrance isn't open (at the moment) so you have to go all the way down to the modern part of the station, then walk all the way BACK to the front of the station to get to Eurostar.

And the 'downstairs' part of the station is crammed with retail. A triumph of consumerism. Plywood fascias where shops haven't been finished.

The e-ticket machines don't work. Having come with my booking reference and bank card, I then have to queue for fifteen minutes  in the Eurostar ticket office because the machine refuses to print the ticket. The ticket office of course is nowhere near the machines, and the signage is inadequate, so I waste about ten minutes looking for it.

The ticket office doesn't even have a queuing system installed. It's chaos; no one knows which ticket desks are free and the clerks have to shout to see if anyone is waiting.

I can't see the interior facade of the hotel block, a fine piece of Victorian Gothic, because a crappy 1960s purple and yellow banner covers practically the whole facade, slathered with the names of retailers. This is a shopping centre that also has some trains; a bit like the much derided V&A advert - "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached".

The  modern extension on the back is typical modernist brutalism. Its girdered roof, rectilinear and low, runs with the beams at right angles to the Victorian train shed almost as if it's saying "Sod off, you arty-farty aesthetic crap". The outside looks interesting, but inside, it's typically mean and without aspiration - the low roof is depressing, there's none of the airy, ambitious feel of Barlow's great train shed.

I know Eurostar requires a certain amount of security but the way it has been done means it's difficult to get a feeling for the wonderful space of the train shed; it's divided up by high glass walls.  Light wells through to the shopping mall below further subdivide the area, so you feel as if you're on a narrow ledge around the train shed - the expansiveness of the original idea has gone.

It's this expansiveness that I think  was the defining characteristic of so much good Victorian architecture.  Ordinary people deserve light, space, ambition. Railways were about ambition, too - about the ambition to travel, to find new places, new experiences, new employment. That's why these stations are such exciting places.

By comparison, the new blockish shed makes travel a functional and unpleasant experience. We are only common people. We don't deserve light, space, or consideration; we're just cattle, human cargo to be efficiently processed.

I'm glad St Pancras has been preserved. But how much better it would have been if only the modern architects had been able to share Barlow's great railway dream.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Where to go in 2008

The newspapers are full of articles telling us "where to go in 2008".

This is not another one.

Let's realise those articles are really a grab bag of several things. First of all, they're about which PR professionals got their press releases in front of the journalists  in time for that article to be produced. Secondly, they're about where the travel industry has added capacity - new routes, new hotels, new tour operations.  Thirdly, they're about trends - where the WTO forecasts people will go, where was becoming popular last year.

So the big question for me is: do I want to go to a destination which has been well promoted, which has seen recent investment in hotels and facilities, which is becoming everybody's favourite destination? Does that matter to me?

It does matter to some people. If you have a family to take somewhere you really do need to know the facilities for the kids are available. (Though some people just book the kids out of school for a year and take them hiking through South America...) If you care about fashion or food, then an assault on the Hindu Kush is unlikely to be your bag.

But serious travellers should follow their hearts. Fascinated by modern cities and the way they recreate or coexist with the old? Head for Bangalore or Shanghai! (Ignore the Red Fort, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, Shaolin monks. Experience the shock of the new.)

Want to see desert? Find it. Winterton Dunes or Holkham Beach. Washiba sands or the Sahara. Never mind if it's not popular. John Masefield never asked whether 'the lonely sea and the sky' was 'in'.

Or as always, explore your own back yard. Walk the perimeter of your own city.  Find two points and link them up - try cutting a line across London or Paris, from Montparnasse to Gare du Nord above ground, or from the Stock Exchange to Buckingham Palace. Stick as close to a straight line as possible and see what you find.

And travel how you want to. Take a motorbike trip or use a mountain bike to get off-road. Take a train or a coach, or set out and see what turns up (this approach is also known as 'using public transport' in the UK). Or walk it, rollerblade it, travel with a donkey.

And now, you can throw away all the Xmas and New Year travel supplements. Stop being a consumer, and start to dream.