September 15, 2008


Filed under: England, travel — podtourz @ 9:25 am

I was in London at the weekend, and decided instead of doing anything purposeful on Saturday, just to walk out along the Thames and see how far we could get. (Canada Water was the answer to that; we did about seven miles, I think.)

And for a bit of it, in Rotherhithe, we went down the steps to the mud and shingle of the foreshore. The air was still, and thick with sandflies.  The sun  baking hot, that English summer we’ve been waiting for since April…

It’s a mucky place. But it’s a place for finding unexpected things. No Roman brooches or Anglo-Saxon swords, though the hope is always there (just as you always feel that only a transparent wrinkle in the timelines separates you from actually winning the lottery rather than getting two numbers nearly right…)  So here are our ‘finds’ – a rich gathering of detritus from centuries of London.

  • Several pieces of ‘churchwarden’s pipes’, mainly from the stem. Bleached white clay.
  • Two supermarket trollies, each one different; one square and spindly, the other rounded and fat.
  • Several pieces of blue and white china, perhaps from willow pattern plates. The glazes differ. Under some, the blue pattern has spread and blurred ; on others the design is still sharp.
  • Too many wheel rims to count.
  • A rib bone.
  • Some kind of animal tooth, turned black and fossil-like by time.
  • A white ceramic stopper from an old style ginger beer bottle, the steel wires that held it rusted fast into the sides.
  • Oyster shells.  More oyster shells. Still more oyster shells.  And a single mussel shell, both halves still held together by the mussel’s membraneous hinge.
  • Broken glass – some ancient (the top of an old perfume bottle) and some, from its sharp edges, probably last night’s trash.
  • The stem of a dark blue wineglass.
  • The stem of a glass,  in greenish glass, etched and rounded by the water till it looked like something by Henry Moore, and you could only dimly realise its ancient function.
  • Heaps of bricks and other building materials.
  • Old chains.  No boat has anchored here for years and yet the chains still strew the foreshore.

It was an intriguing walk. And I’m glad we took the south bank. Looking across to the Isle of Dogs, we saw capitalism gone mad  – huge glassy blocks, armoured against the outside world. But on the south side of the river, more of the old warehouses and pumphouses have survived; there’s a feeling of low-rise friendliness, a feeling that if you go down one of those side streets, you’ll find yourself in a perfect Victorian dock.

On our way, we visited the Market Porter, a very fine pub in Southwark. Excellent ales, and friendly service, and FULL PINTS topped up for us without us having to ask.   So here is a blatant plug for this engaging little hostelry.


June 1, 2008

Pilgrimage books now available

Filed under: England, hiking, Spain, travel — Tags: — podtourz @ 8:23 pm

Regular readers of this blog might like to know I have two books available on Lulu.com.

The first covers my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Unlike many pilgrims, who walk only the Spanish section, I walked from Le Puy in the centre of France, crossing the Pyrenees in midwinter. Ultreia! The pilgrimage to Santiago is available as a download or printed book.

The second book is a novel, Walsingham Way, loosely based on the history of the Reformation in England and the great medieval pilgrimage to the Holy House at Walsingham, in Norfolk. I did actually walk from Norwich to Walsingham as part of a historical reenactment a while back, sleeping in barns and churches on a straw stuffed mattress, so I feel I have some inside knowledge here. But the novel tells a rather different story, about a loner on the loose in a country subject to violent change, and the way that travel broadens experience, sometimes in ways the traveller would rather not have it broadened…

February 3, 2008

Things seen from trains

Filed under: canals, England, railways, travel — podtourz @ 1:36 pm

Because Liverpool Street Station appears to have taken an extended Christmas and New Year break, not reopening on January 2nd like everyone else, I ended up coming home to Norwich via Cambridge instead of on the regular line through Colchester and Ipswich.

Around Waterbeach, I was gazing out of the window when I saw the most amazing derelict farm buildings. At least I think they were derelict, though in East Anglia you never can tell. I thought to myself; those are just the kind of buildings I love photographing. And there and then I promised myself that when the weather gets a little better, I’ll go out on the motorbike and try to find that farm…

Later on that same train trip I gazed out at the wilderness of Lakenheath Fen. Lines of trees, punctuated every hundred yards or so by a tree that’s fallen, tearing its roots out of the soft peat, lying aslant the rows. The humpy mounds of the dykes that portion off the fen. Reeds swaying in the wind. Two deer in a field, perfectly still when all around them reeds and branches were swaying in the wind.

There’s something special about things seen from a train. They come, you perceive them, they are gone. And as soon as they are gone, you want to find them again.

And then there’s that little matter of the railway being a world of its own. How can you find these things again? They’re not on a road, or if they are, you will have to twist and turn, over and under the railway, across level crossings, finding byways and back roads. Hardly anywhere does the road parallel the railway, so finding these places on a map is difficult; you need to triangulate, to somehow bring the road and footpath and railway worlds into a momentary planetary conjunction. It’s a kind of alchemy. The view from a railway window transmutes the base metal of everyday experience into gold.

Once in Austria I saw a roe deer standing on the slope of a steep hill, just at the height of the train window and about five yards from me. It was a moment of strange intimacy; for two seconds I looked straight into its eyes. Then it was gone.

Sometimes, towards Shenfield on the Norwich-London line, I see a train heading along a  lower track  not quite parallel to our own. Sometimes, a train goes underneath our track, or starts to climb up a gradient beside the train I’m on, and then over our heads. Sometimes two trains vie with each other for speed on two parallel tracks, and the race can go on for five or ten minutes, the two trains changing position, one slipping back, the other gaining, then slipping back in its turn, till the tracks diverge and the other train is gone. Once I saw the driver take his cap off, reach across and put it down in the cab.

And most mysterious of all, trains that pass in the night. You see the people inside their little capsule. Brightly lit faces. One man in his City pinstripe suit, asleep. A woman reading a newspaper spread out across the table.

I have never seen another face looking out towards my train.

January 25, 2008

Where Alph the sacred river ran…

Filed under: England, london, psychogeography — podtourz @ 1:03 pm

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.

December 27, 2007

Distinctive locality

Filed under: architecture, England, food, france, slow travel, travel — podtourz @ 10:17 am

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!’

December 25, 2007

Great Christmas walks

Filed under: England, hiking, travel — podtourz @ 10:58 am

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.

November 30, 2007

Filed under: England, london, maps — podtourz @ 6:40 pm

Another wonderful piece by Simon Jenkins in the Observer, on London’s maps.  Unfortunately the web version doesn’t come with the fine pictures.

One of the most striking pictures for me was the Rhinebeck panorama – a view of the City in about 1810. What’s lovely is the way the view is dominated by the spires of the City churches, soaring above the grid like streets of plain houses; now, with the gherkin, the Shard, and other skyscrapers being built, that view has gone for ever. (In fact, though, it’s not really the new generation of high buildings which are destroying the City’s skyline – it had already been done by an increase in the overall height of buildings over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a way, the Gherkin and its peers are reviving the idea of a view dominated by towers – they are the new spires.)

The geological map of the Thames basin gives you a completely different feeling for place. It’s like seeing a dissected body – what lies beneath the skin – and it gives the same sense of shock. The loops of the meandering Thames are instantly recognisable, but the greens and pinks and blues of the geological strata are strange, unknown.

Of course we make maps not only  to represent reality, but to organise it in our minds. So I was interested to see the 1908 tube map – one which shows the underground railway lines as they really lie, not in a tidied up, regularised way like the current map. The District Line wiggles between Earls Court and West Brompton (and Fulham Broadway is shown as ‘Walham Green’); the eastern end of the railway system is all squished up, coming to a point at Aldgate, with Moorgate and Liverpool Street all crushed up together; and the colours are wrong – the Central Line (now red) is purply blue, the Metropolitan is red instead.

We hit the twenty-first century with a house price heat map from myhouseprice.com – hot red areas of privilege in the west of London and in the suburbs,  and dark cold blue in the eastern corridor where prices are low.  Mind you, since the prices only appear to run up to one and a half million, this map has to be several years old….

November 19, 2007


Filed under: England, london, psychogeography, travel — podtourz @ 9:33 pm

I’m sorry if this blog has started to look like London Buses – no posts for a month and then three come along at once…

I’ve just spent some time with Peter Ackroyd and London. First, his immense and strange book: ‘London – the biography’ – and then a videotape of the first programme of his BBC series on London, which a friend made ages ago and I’ve only just had time to look at.

Ackroyd is less weird than Sinclair but he’s definitely on the occult end of the spectrum as far as London historians go. He sees London as a living creature – a threatening organism that can kill, ravage, burn; a creature that is regenerated through fire. He actually begins the programme by mentioning his heart attack – the day after he delivered his book on London to the publisher – a testimony to the city’s maleficent powers (though also to its healing ones).

What I particularly like about Ackroyd is his ability to shift from extreme detail to extreme distance – from close up to panorama. His immense depth of research enables him to spin perspectives, to separate or to merge the layers of history. And there’s always a feeling of the paradoxical closeness and distance of the past – epitomised in the Saxon brooch that was dropped so long ago, in a bath house where he now stands.

Ackroyd refers to the concept of ‘psychogeography‘ – but unlike Guy Debord who originated the concept of geography’s impact on individuals, instead Ackroyd sees the city itself as a living thing, modelled by multiple human experiences.  It’s an approach that frees him from purely formal scholarship and sets the mind travelling along the ley lines of history; and that’s why the book is a biography, not a history, of the city. Marvellous stuff. I’d love to do the same for Norwich.

I’m not sure about the series.  Quite a lot of it is fine, but the re-enactments of figures such as Tacitus, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Christopher Wren seem rather prosaic and mockumentary besides Ackroyd’s own magisterial yet self-deprecating presence. The one thing that is absolutely true in the series, though, is the wonderful precision and zest of his language. And that is something you can experience in the book.

I so wish Ackroyd would now go to live in Rome for a few years. True, he wouldn’t have the lifelong experience that makes his work on London so deeply felt; but he is one of few writers these days who I think could bring alive those multiple layers and alarming continuities that make Rome such a bewildering and satisfying city.

October 10, 2007

Real landscapes, real townscapes

Filed under: architecture, England — podtourz @ 3:15 pm

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.

October 9, 2007

Let there be lights

Filed under: architecture, art, England, travel — podtourz @ 7:22 pm

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.

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