Thursday, 3 September 2009

Ye Olde York

Driving up the A1 motorway yesterday, my friend and I had our eyes glued to the horizon, each of us hoping to be the first one to see the giant steel angel come soaring into the sky from beyond the hill. Considering my friend was driving, we realized this gazing perhaps wasn’t the smartest strategy as he had to slam on the brakes to avoid a rapid traffic slowdown ahead of us. Searching for angels in the sky can be dangerous!

Eventually the massive Angel of the North, which has come to be a symbol of Northern England since it was erected outside Newcastle in 1998, did at last emerge. If I’m honest, I was a bit underwhelmed. Having been told that with its wingspan it’s as wide as the Statue of Liberty is tall, I was expecting something much bigger. I suppose it was big, sure, but not BIG! Perhaps that’s just my American expectations creeping in.

We were approaching Newcastle, the last stop on an eight-city tour of the Northern England, usually referred to in the UK both affectionately and derisively as just “the North.” It’s a strange land of rolling green meadows, windy moors and bulging dunes – a place where the local accent changes every 10 miles and people cling to their locality and roots with a fierce pride rarely seen in the South. It’s also a land of striking contrasts. This was the industrial heart of Victorian England, a place whose abundance of raw materials gave rise to a rapid overdevelopment, turning small villages like Manchester, Liverpool and Middlesbrough into bulging metropolises virtually overnight. That flurry of industrial activity has long since faded away, leaving the relics of a poverty-stricken rust belt concentrated around the Mersey river on the Irish Sea coast and the Tees river on the North Sea coast.

At the same time the North, particularly Yorkshire, played a hugely important part in British history before industrialisation, and in between the urban conurbations lies some of the most beautiful, history-filled countryside in Britain. It was that contrast that I wanted to discover on this road trip.

Proud Manchester

I made the journey with two American friends who I know from New York but who are now fellow ex-pats in London with me. We first took a train up to Manchester, exploring the city Saturday morning before being entertained by the festivities of the annual Manchester Gay Pride in the afternoon. It’s universally acknowledged as Britain’s biggest and best pride celebration, and I have to say that description bore true. The dinky little London pride paled in comparison to this, and the city’s relatively small size meant that the pride celebration almost seemed to take it over. It was also clearly an activity for the whole city, with lots of straight families turning out for the parade and plenty of straight people at the pride celebration on Canal Street. Actually the whole area around Canal Street ws closed off and you had to pay 20 quid to get in! I had never heard of having to pay to get into Pride festivities, but my friend Lori says that's the way it's done in DC.

There were those in the parade who weren’t so happy with the increasingly celebratory/commercialised nature of gay pride, coming as it does now with corporate sponsorships and such. But when you take a step back, tt is pretty amazing how different a gay pride parade is in the UK than in Eastern Europe, for example, where the parades are still largely an expression of protest and are often met with violence (as happened last year in Budapest). I can sympathise with these marchers’ (pictured left) frustrations about the increasing commercialisation of the gay community and the phenomenon of the ‘pink pound’, but perhaps if they considered the alternative it wouldn’t seem so bad.

Beyond the Pride festivities, which were great, I was very impressed with Manchester as a city. Once a rotting industrial corpse just 15 years ago, today the city’s undergone a complete renovation that has made it England’s unrivalled second city. We went down to the old canals, which in the 19th century would have been heaving with ships bringing coals in to the factories, to find them completely fixed up into a beautiful business and entertainment district. The massive intersection of train tracks, roads and canals at Castlefields is actually quite beautiful, a truly stunning site hovering over the ruins of an ancient Roman fort. And though parts of the interior of the city have been turned into massive indoor shopping complexes, they were architecturally interesting and forgivable. The conversion of city centre spaces into massive indoor shopping malls was to be a theme for the rest of the trip.

On the Road

On Sunday we rented a car to begin our slow journey northeast, diverting first over to Liverpool. Although some redevelopment has been undertaken, notably along the waterfront in preparation for the city’s year as a “European Capital of Culture” in 2008, the city is still a marked contrast to Manchester because it has retained much of its post-industrial squalor. Albert Dock has been the main focus of regeneration, and the area is now rife with Beatles kitsch. In addition to seeing a performance by the ‘Cheatles” right on the dock (pictured) you can also take a Beatles tour of the city to see the houses in which the Liverpool lads grew up (we declined, though we did go to the Beatles experience museum). We also visited the Tate Liverpool, which was otherwise unremarkable save for an AWESOME floor where you listened to disco music in headphones while looking at sexually suggestive sculptures, surrounded by countless disco balls, flashing lights, and even a light-up disco floor in the centre. I kind of wanted it to be my apartment.

Aside from the dock, the other main thing to see in the city is the two cathedrals, one Anglican and one Catholic, facing each other on opposite ends of Hope Street. They were both built at a feverish pace during a time of increasing conflict between Anglican Protestants of Liverpool, native English, and the Roman Catholics, descendants of the Irish immigrants who had flooded into the city during the industrial revolution (cousins of the Irish who left at the same time for America during the potato famine). Both the cathedrals are massive, with the two sides desperate to outdo each other. But looking at the two today, it’s clear who won. Though it is the fifth largest cathedral in the world, the Anglican Liverpool Cathedral is pretty bland and uninteresting, clearly trying to mimic older architectural styles even though it was just completed in the 1950’s. The Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, on the other hand, is a stunning modernist achievement. The outside is rather strange-looking, with locals often deriding it as the “Liverpool funnel”, but I thought the inside was beautiful. It has a theatre-in-the-round style, with stunning lighting leading up the interior of the cone to the roof. I was very impressed. I have to say, the most interesting modernist cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe have all been Roman Catholic – defying that denomination’s reputation for a staid rigidity in embracing new ideas.

We then checked out the inevitable massive indoor shopping centre complex next to the water, completed just a year ago. My friend Josh, who is an architect, was eager to see it. However it was pretty uninspiring, and in some parts heinously ugly.

However if we thought that was bad, we hadn’t seen anything yet. Our next stop was Leeds, which I can report has to be one of the most characterless cities I’ve ever seen in Europe. Like some of its Northern neighbours, Leeds has also undertaken a redevelopment project. However theirs has involved turning the city centre into a giant shopping mall. Almost the whole place has been turned into the massive indoor complexes. We arrived at night around six when the indoor centres were all closed. We found to our frustration that all of the restaurants were actually located inside the malls, so we had a hell of a time finding anywhere to eat. All we could find was street after street of bland high street chain stores, all closed. I suppose if you needed to do a whole lot of shopping in one day, Leeds would be a good place to go. Otherwise, the city seemed like a total waste of time to me. But then again, I don’t like shopping.

I enquired of my friend Josh if any rust belt cities in the US were considering turning their empty city centres into indoor shopping malls. “What city centres?” he responded. It’s true, Americans don’t want to go into a city centre even if it’s to buy things, they prefer their shopping malls to be out in the suburbs where they live. And judging by the results of such a redevelopment in Leeds, I’m not sure I would endorse such a plan for cities in the US. Josh says the problem is that all these redevelopment plans are centred around shopping, and when something like the recession hits it puts the breaks on the whole project. It’s not that the developers can’t get financing any more. Since the only thing they’ve planned for development are shops, the plan is going to hit a hurdle when people stop shopping. From what we saw of Leeds, it appears the recession is having a pretty bad effect on the city. The place was deserted.

Winding, Windy Moors

Nearby the city of York, our next stop, couldn’t have been more of a contrast. A hugely important city from the 11th to the 18th century, it was almost entirely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution and remains remarkably preserved. Even the city walls (pictured) remain standing, as do an original Norman castle and a stunning, massive cathedral. It’s all a bit Disney, but it is truly beautiful.

The Romans founded York about 2,000 years ago, and since then it’s had a sucession of rulers – first the Anglo-Saxons, then the Vikings, then the Normans. Each of the four rulers left their mark on the city (and progressively changed its name along the way – from Eboracum to Eoforwic to Jorvik to York. It was without a doubt the highlight of the trip, and a particular delight for us New Yorkers – an interesting view of the former glory of our city’s namesake.

We also stopped off at Harrogate, a town that was the first thing out of everyone’s mouths when I asked them what they recommended to do in Yorkshire. I have to say I don’t get why everyone was recommending it. It’s cute I guess, but there’s nothing to do there. We stopped and had the requisite tea and scones at Betty’s, and then headed over to the Royal Baths only to find the building had been taken over by a Chinese restaurant! So we headed out. Harrogate- am I missing something?

From York we drove up to Castle Howard, the sprawling estate of one of Yorkshire’s most famous aristocratic families. The grounds are massive – I particularly enjoyed frolicking with the cows next to the ‘Temple of the Four Winds’. The Howard family still lives in the castle, though most of it has now been opened to visitors. As we entered the main staircase we learned about the current owner of the house, the Baron Howard who lives there with his wife and two daughters (he’s in the portrait on the left in the photo below in a rather funny aristocratic outfit). Later on the tour the guide remarked casually as he looked out the window, “ah there he is now.” Sure enough, there was the guy from the portrait out in front of the house playing with his dog. Weird!

Like many aristocratic families, the current owner’s father Baron George Howard opened up the house to the public in the 1960’s, knowing it was the only way to be able to maintain ownership of it. For the most part, those aristocratic families who didn’t open up their massive estates for public viewing back in the 50’s and 60’s later found that it was too late to do so and had to sell them to the state. Interesting foresight on George Howard’s part. He came back from fighting in WW2 to find his estate burned down and his two surviving brothers dead. He decided to open up the house to the public and to this day the family still lives there. I guess the lack of privacy for the Howard family is a small price to pay to live in such an amazing home.

Next we drove through the North York moors, which were stunningly beautiful. I still don’t quite understand what a moor is, I just know that the Kate Bush song ‘Wuthering Heights’ refers to them as being wild and windy. I’ve never read the book but I’m thinking maybe I should. At least now I can picture the landscape in which it takes place. Or maybe I’ll rent the movie. The film Brideshead Revisted was shot at Castle Howard, so many I can watch the two of them some time as some kind of Yorkshire double bill.

We got the full moors experience at a little village called Hutton-le-Hole, where we stopped and had yet more tea and scones. The place was literally crawling with sheep, not fenced in or anything. One came up behind me while we were taking our tea and let out a deafening “BAAAAA!” right in my ear. It nearly scared the guts out of me.

We also stopped at Rievaulx Abbey in the moors as well, which was pretty amazing. It was established in the 12th century by a group of Cistercian monks from France, shortly after the Norman conquest. The ruins are in surprisingly good shape, and you’re really able to get a feel for the layout of the monastery as you walk around. The abbey was destroyed during the reformation by Henry VIII after he split from the Roman Catholic church and confiscated the property from most of the monasteries. This seemed to have a traumatic effect on the North akin to the “harrying of the North” by the Normans judging by the way it is described by the guides at the churches and monasteries up there. They all seemed ready to spit at the ground every time they mentioned Henry VIII’s name.

Northumbrian by Nature

As we headed further North, the local accents became more and more difficult to understand. We had already been struggling to understand Manc, Scouse, and Tyke accents, and we were hardly prepared for the Teesside, Pitmatic and Geordie accents waiting for us in the Northeast. Luckily I recently discovered this handy guide to the 37 different English accents in the UK) The Teesside accent we encountered in Darlington was particularly difficult to understand. The whole Tees Valley was kind of a nasty place, a blighted post-Industrial conurbation.

We spent the next night in Durham, another old city first set up by the Normans, with a remarkable Norman Castle and Cathedral. The Castle is in surprisingly good shape, but it is completely owned by the university at Durham and options to see it are fairly limited. As a town Durham was kind of underwhelming, it’s a university town and the fall term hasn’t yet started. Durham is considered the third best British university with a collegiate system (after Oxford and Cambridge), often derided as a fallback choice for people who didn’t get in to the first two (what we call “safety schools” in the US). I have to say if you were planning to go to Oxford or Cambridge and ended up at Durham instead, it would probably be a bit of a disappointment. The town is alright, but it just doesn’t compare to Oxford or Cambridge (and is obviously a lot further to London!).

We spent the first half of our last day looking at the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, the defensive ramparts that marked the Northern boundary of the Roman Empire. The wall basically runs straight west from Newcastle to Carlisle, in the neck section of Great Britain that gets quite narrow before it becomes Scotland. We explored the ruins of a Roman Fort at Chesters, one of the border crossing points on the wall that would have served as a sort of immigration check and customs house of Celtic travellers wishing to enter and leave the Empire. Looking at the wall I thought a bit of the US-Mexico border, trying to imagine this line as the dividing point between wilderness and the greatest empire the world had ever seen to that point. The comparison probably isn’t too apt though because Mexico isn’t exactly barbarian wilderness, and even the areas to the South of the wall were still dangerous, wild places during Roman times. In fact the better comparison looking at the fort would probably have been to a small US base in Afghanistan, an outpost in the middle of a dangerous wilderness where the empire tried to recreate the comforts of home for the Roman troops. The bathhouse of the fort, located just to the side and by the river, is remarkably well-preserved. One can only imagine what the native Celtic population thought of these strange Romans and their bathing rituals. Perhaps it’s the same as what Afghanis think of the supermarkets and movie theatres set up on American bases. From my brother’s description of his time at Bagram Air Force Base, this is what it sounds like anyway.

The last stop was Newcastle, where we encountered the slightly underwhelming Angel offering us a greeting. Newcastle was pretty grimey, but they have made clear efforts to fix up the riverfront section along the Tyne. They’ve built this massive concert hall on the Gateshead side of the river that looks like some kind of giant glass worm. Neither me my architect friend cared for it.

The thing in Newcastle that will stick in my head the most though is the bizarre situation of the Norman Castle, which gave the town its name when it was built as a “new castle” by William the Conquerer’s son shortly after the Norman conquest (an event featured in the Bayeux Tapestry). However all that is left of the castle today is the central keep, and it is now surrounded by a dizzying intersection of Victorian-era railway bridges, under which it is almost lost (pictured below). It would be a bit as if the only thing left of the Tower of London complex was the central keep (the tower itself), and the City of London completely surrounded it with motorways and rail tracks. Not exactly picturesque! Still, it was interesting to go inside, and to learn about all of the various strange uses the Geordies have put it to through the centuries (it at various points held a barber shop, brothel, mansion home, cess pit and trash heap).

We then took the three-hour train ride back, which I mostly spent grumbling about the lack of high-speed railways in Britain. People often fly from Newcastle to London actually, as absurd as that may seem.

All in all it was a great trip, and I was able to experience a part of the UK I had very little knowledge of before. Living in London it often feels like you’re not really in England, and you can often feel like you’re in a little bubble separated from the rest of the country. So it’s good to get out into real Britain every once in awhile and see the sights.

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1 comment:

Sushil said...

Sounds like an amazing trip, I'm jealous! These are beautiful photos