Keswick All Saints

IMG_5265A little way south of Norwich, standing atop what counts for a hill in these parts, is a tiny roundtower church nestled amidst trees. All Saints Church stands above the small village of Keswick  in a crumpled corduroy landscape of wintry ploughed fields. Like most of the territory of this urban fringe, the church lies within the acoustic shadow of the city’s southern bypass and the dull thrum of traffic melds with the chatter of birds in the trees and hedgerows – mostly finches, tits and blackbirds at this time of year. Across the valley, a thread of pylons leads inexorably north towards Norwich where they will deliver electricity to power the city’s PlayStations, fridge-freezers and TiVo boxes. IMG_5289A narrow track leads from the main road up to the church but this is impassable in a car as a collapsable central barrier has been installed. With nowhere to park, we sneak into a bus lay-by on the main road in the knowledge that, this being Sunday, there won’t be one along for at least an hour or so. Arriving on foot at the gate, the church noticeboard informs us that services are held once a month on the last Sunday of the month, an impressive boast for such a small church in this day and age. In fact, a quick look at Simon Knott’s highly commendable Norfolk Churches website tells us that this is probably the smallest working church in all the county. And, as Norfolk has the lion’s share of Europe’s roundtower churches (124 of 185 in the whole of the UK), Keswick All Saints is probably the smallest functional roundtower church in Britain, if not in Europe. Not today, though – today, the church door remains firmly locked.

IMG_5277  IMG_5320  IMG_5282Keswick Hall just across the valley was once the home of the Gurney family, a local dynasty with farming and banking interests. The mossy tombs of several family members look down from the vantage point of the graveyard towards the hall that was once their earthly domain. The original church fell into disuse in the 16th century and was later partly demolished to repare the church at nearby Intwood (also All Saints) when the two parishes were united. Nearly four hundred years later in 1893, it was the Gurney family who came to the rescue, restoring the ruin and adding a short nave to create a mortuary chapel, which eventually became a church once more when services were authorised in 1934. IMG_5311If the earlier church was small, the Gurney restoration is tiny, just half the size of the original. But we could not get inside this ecclesiastic doll’s house to see the stained glass window or roof angels. No matter – on a sunny and unseasonably mild February day that already bore the promise of spring it was enough to enjoy the snowdrops in the copse and watch a pair of buzzards circle overhead on the thermals that rose from the sun-warmed fields.IMG_5322

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Pleasure of Ruins

IMG_9714Abandoned Soviet-era hotel, Kazbegi, Georgia

“You don’t know why ruins give so much pleasure. I will tell you. . . Everything dissolves, everything perishes, everything passes, only time goes on. . . How old the world is. I walk between two eternities. . . What is my existence in comparison with this crumbling stone?”   Denis Diderot

IMG_9700Mount Kazbek and valley seen from abandoned hotel, Kazbegi

Entropy has its own beauty: the serendipitous artfulness of decay – the romantic ruin aesthetic. The crumbling stone mentioned above, quoted in Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins, refers to the classical world but the principal is the same. Like the effect of medieval cathedrals on awestruck, little-travelled peasants, ruins put the viewer in direct contact with the inevitability of time, with their own mortality and decay. Like mould growing in the Petri dish of mankind’s hubris, they illustrate the way in which the delicate interface of man and nature can perceptibly change in a relatively short period.

IMG_4567Abandoned Soviet-era restaurant, near Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia

Sometimes, there are darker violent forces at play, the guilty, flinching schadenfreude of gazing at post-conflict landscapes. More usually though, architectural ruins simply result from financial or political bankruptcy, of a national or regional ideological refit. Abandoned to nature, they stand quietly rotting before consignment to the architectural skip of failed (or rejected) narratives.

IMG_4560IMG_4561Abandoned restaurant near Mestia, Georgia

These days such sights tend to be more common in the countries of the post-Soviet world than they are in Western Europe. Nevertheless, even these are vanishing fast and I have no idea whether the Georgian buildings shown in these images from 2010 are still nobly rotting away or have been bulldozed to make way for new development. Georgia is, after all, a country that in recent years has distanced itself as much as possible from its neighbours across the Caucasus and, in defiance of its recent history, done its utmost to buddy-up with the neoliberal West. I like to imagine how these places might have looked 30 years ago: the Kazbegi hotel filled with holidaying Soviet workers; the Mestia restaurant, with Moscow apparatchiks slurping borscht and slugging vodka. Surely they must have enjoyed the view?

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The Turning of the Year

IMG_4891(This winter’s berries)

The turning of the year. These past few days mark the interregnum that sits uncomfortably between Christmas and New Year – a week of virtual Sundays and a period when some of us – those who are self-employed at least – do not know whether they should be at work or not, whether they should carry on regardless or surrender to the seasonal zeitgeist of calorific leftovers, television repeats and relentless retail opportunity. This is a living limbo marked by the dull ache of too much alcohol and rich food, and too little sunlight: rural Scandinavia in a parallel universe on a bad day, where Disneyesque fibre-optic conifers and tattered tinsel replaces the glittering white rime of pines, chain store neon glare subs for the aurora borealis and the petrochemical chug of cars queuing for city centre parking space drowns the imagined crooning of fur-clad carollers, the glassy tinkle of falling icicles and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath sensible Nordic footwear. We are now so far removed from the traditional Christmas tropes that any sense of irony has long been lost, and the multiple identities – spiritual and otherwise – of the winter soltice are now commonly, if erroneously, perceived as having been replaced by Winterval, a quasi-mythical simulacrum close to the hearts of apoplectic ‘PC-gone-mad’ bashers.

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(Last winter’s icicles)

The weather doesn’t help, of course – too mild, too wet, too windy this year. At least some sort of status quo continues in the back yard where non-denominational  (or possibly JW) goldfinches arrive in pairs to feast on niger seeds as they do every day, a suitably attired mirror-image illusion of avian dandies on opposite sides of the bird feeder. Meanwhile, out in the dun damp arable fields that surround the city beyond the new-build green belt, fieldfares flock – newly arrived winter visitors from Scandinavia, the real place that is, not the parallel universe version. Elsewhere, the TV flickers like a well-behaved heart monitor as a nation prepares for the ritual liver damage and rictus-grinned high spirits that signify New Year’s Eve. Or, rather, the younger ones do: most older folk ensure they are safely tucked up in bed by the witching hour when a nation stumbles forward, arse over tip, across the calendar date line. The circle is, as they say, unbroken. Happy New Year.

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Into the Sunset

IMG_0645Today heralds the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The last couple of weeks leading up to this seasonal turning point have been characterised, in eastern England at least, by unseasonally sunny skies and sunsets so magnificent they seem to be defying the script that dictates that late December should be grim, grey and gloomy. These are short days, certainly, but days that have been beautifully illuminated by a cool, low-slung orange sun. Oddly enough, this has put me in mind of another orange sun in an altogether more exotic place.

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U Bein’s Bridge at Amarapura near Mandalay in Myanmar/Burma is a well-known tourist hotspot in that country. The 1300m-long footbridge is thought to be the longest teak bridge in the world but that is not really the reason why visitors flock here. The truth is: this particular bridge is so photogenic that if you have ever perused the glossy travel literature offered by tour operators that deal with Myanmar the chances are you will have already seen it. Tour companies tend to know what tourists want and U Bein’s Bridge is a prime example of how the iconic and visually appealing has been successfully commodified. If aesthethic capital were on par with economic capital then Myanmar would be a wealthy country.

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Tour leaders tend to make sure that their foreign clients arrive here just before sunset – just enough time for a short boat excursion on Lake Taungthaman to get the best shots. While the sight of the bridge silhouetted by the setting sun is undeniably lovely, the experience can seem somewhat surreal as hordes of freshly arrived westerners eagerly snap the scene from gently bobbing boats rowed by local fishermen. The  impoverished fishermen, who have never owned even the most rudimentary camera in their lives, are sufficiently familiar with the ritual to know exactly what to do and where to go. Meanwhile, the monks and villagers who obligingly cross the bridge and unwittingly silhouette themselves for the benefit of the foreign photographers seem oblivious of their walk-on role in this unfolding daily drama.

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Yugostalgic Belgrade

IMG_1948Although Tito was half Croat and half Slovene he spent most of his time as Yugoslav helmsman in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. It is here, in the leafy Topčider suburb that lies south of the city centre, where you can find the former leader’s memorial complex – an art gallery, museum and mausoleum scattered among birches, landscaped lawns and whimsical statuary. When I first visited back in 2005 this was a fairly neglected place. I don’t remember there being any other visitors and once the guards had let me through I had the place to myself. What I remember as being poignant were the one-way arrows on the walkway that led up to the mausoleum – indicators of once-necessary pedestrian traffic control that had long become meaningless.

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Fast-forward seven years to a return visit. This time it is certainly busier and now there are English-language signs and even a gift shop at the gatehouse. Although the House of Flowers does not see the crowds that would have assembled here in the 1980s there appears to be a slow renaissance and I am informed that even a group of Slovene Hells Angels now make an annual pilgrimage here on 25 May, Tito’s birthday.

Ever the unrepentant tourist, I purchase a Tito mug and mouse-mat but pass on buying a T-shirt. At the mausoleum itself – the poetically named ‘House of Flowers’ – I swap cameras with a Romanian visitor as we take turns to pose by the marble slab that bear the simple inscription: Josip Broz Tito 1992 –1980. The ‘Old Museum’ next door bears a collection of the gifts presented to Tito during his long presidency. The gifts – no doubt just small sample – range from homemade socks and hand-stitched blouses to weaponry and musical instruments. Tito apparently loved dressing up and, correspondingly, there are plenty of costumes on display too, the most remarkable of which is a Bolivian witchdoctor’s outfit. Tito always was something of a shaman.

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There are still those that miss him. Tito ruled for 35 years until his death in 1980 but his memory has been laced with ambiguity since the traumatic breakup of the Yugoslav federation. In recent years, though, there has been a considerable amount of revisionism taking place in the Balkan region. So-called ‘Yugostalgia’ is one reflection of this. Playful and ironic, as well as sentimental and nostalgic, the commonest expression of this phenomenon seems to be the Yugostalgia theme-café. There’s an excellent one in Sarajevo right next to the war museum but others can be found throughout the former Yugoslavia(although probably not in Kosovo where Bill Clinton is still undisputed king).

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On my last trip to Serbia, the Republika café in Belgrade’s Skadarlija quarter, a former bastion of Yugostalgia, seemed to have closed for business but I was more than compensated in discovering a new kafana (traditional café-restaurant) behind the Vuk Theatre in the city centre. Like all the best places in Belgrade, Kafana Pavle is a little hard to find. Tucked away down a graffiti-scrawled alleyway that seems to go nowhere, its presence is given away by a menu card in a steamed-up window that proudly displays the red star and hammer and sickle. Inside, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of Yugostalgic bric-a-brac – framed photos of Tito, Lenin and even Stalin (if Stalin on display then you can be sure the intention is tongue-in-cheek). Shelves are piled with dog-eared photo books of old Yugoslavia and stacks of 1970s Yugo-rock LPs that have hairy young men sporting flared trousers and mullets on the cover. On the wall hangs a map of the former Yugoslavia in the shape of a red star.

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Of course, all this serves as homage to a country that no longer exists but at least you can get a taste of what it might have once been at rare enclaves such as this. Just be sure to bring along a sense of irony and check in your cynicism at the door.

Posted in Balkans, Eastern Europe, History, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Walking in Norfolk

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My new Cicerone walking guide, Walking in Norfolk is going to be published in a week or two’s time and so here is a small taster of what to expect. The book contains 40 circular walks in all, and covers all parts of the county from northeast Norfolk to the Waveney Valley to the Fens.

Here’s a bit from the Introduction:

‘Very flat, Norfolk’, asserts Amanda in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, reflecting pretty much the commonly held view of the county: a place, with attitude perhaps (think of its heroes – Horatio Nelson, Thomas Paine, Delia Smith, Stephen Fry…Alan Partridge), but certainly not with altitude. The stereotyped view, although misleading, is understandable enough, as most people have some sort of image of Norfolk even if they have never visited the county. Many will have seen the vast sandy expanse of North Norfolk’s Holkham Beach in films like Shakespeare in Love or TV programmes like Stephen Fry’s Kingdom. Many more will think of boating holidays on the Norfolk Broads, or make associations with the low-lying Fenland region of the far west of the county: aspects of Norfolk, certainly, but not the full picture by any means.

…and here’s a snippet from Walk 10: Burgh St Peter and ‘The Triangle’:

039‘The Triangle’ is a local name that was sometimes used to refer to the parishes of Aldeby, Wheatacre and Burgh St Peter in southeast Norfolk. Bound on two sides by a bend of the River Waveney and on the other by the now-dismantled Beccles to Great Yarmouth railway, the triangle of land so defined has something of the feel of an island to it. There is no through road here, just a quiet single-track lane that links the farmsteads on the marshland edge. To the north, east and south a large flat area of marshes lies between the relatively high land of ‘The Triangle’ and the river itself.

041Burgh St Peter’s Church of St Mary the Virgin is one of Norfolk’s oddest churches as its tower is in the form of a five-section ziggurat (or, as some have fancied, a collapsible square telescope). The body of the church dates from the 13th century but the tower is an 18th-century addition, supposedly inspired by the Italian travels of William Boycott, the rector’s son. A dynasty of Boycotts served the church for a continuous period of 135 years and Charles Cunningham Boycott, the son of the second Boycott rector, gave the term ‘boycott’ to the English language when he behaved badly over absentee rents in Ireland and was socially ostracised as a result.

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Mappa Mundi – but whither Norwich?

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This summer I visited Hereford for the first time in decades. I have long wanted to see the famous Mappa Mundi at the Cathedral there and so this was an opportunity. The ancient map, along with the almost as well-known chained library, is on display in a special exhibition area beside the cloisters. With an entrance fee to pay, the map is clearly a nice little earner for the Cathedral, as is the gift shop where visitors can purchase souvenir posters, books, and fridge magnets – ‘mappa money’, perhaps? It is all the more surprising then to learn that not so very long ago Hereford Cathedral was considering selling its precious artefact to raise cash and the map was saved at the eleventh hour by generous donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and long-time Anglophile John Paul Getty Jr.

The Mappa Mundi was made by a man called Richard de Haldingham e de Lafford from Lincolnshire, whose real name was Richard de Bello, a prebendery (senior member of clergy) of Lafford (Sleaford) in the diocese of Lincoln Cathedral. Richard was promoted to a stall in Hereford Cathedral around the end of the 13th century. The map is thought to have been drawn sometime between 1276 and 1290.

The map is certainly a wondrous thing – a single piece of vellum measuring 1.58 x 1.33 metres and tapering towards the top like an upside down shield. It depicts the world that was known in the late 13th century, a world of fact and fiction, of the familiar and fantastical, of uncanny accuracy and cartographic howlers. More than anything it is a map that superimposes the oceans and landmasses of the known world with the fantasmagorical topography of the dark medieval psyche. At the centre, of course, is Jerusalem surrounded by the continents of the Old World. Asia, the orient, lies at the top, Europe at bottom left hand corner and Africa to the right of this. Superimposed on this are drawings of famous cities and towns, Biblical events and personalities like Noah and his family at sea in the Ark, and figures from mythology like the Golden Fleece and the Cretan labyrinth. There are images of peoples of the world as well as plants, animals and disturbing weird creatures that belong to ‘Here be Dragons’ territory like Gangines, Grifones and the Sciapod, who shelters himself from the sun by the shade of a single enormous fooot

The British Isles lie at the extreme lower left hand edge of the map. England and Scotland are pinched at their join to be depicted almost as separate islands. Some of the rivers – Severn, Thames, Humber – have taken on an Amazon-like width. London and Oxford are pretty well where they should be, although Durham is clearly in the wrong place, located here south of Carlisle and west of York. There’s clearly a degree of local bias at play in the drawing of the map. Lincoln, thought to be the home town of the map’s creator, is depicted as an elaborate castle that nearly equals the Tower of London in status, while the representations of Winchester and Oxford are both rather puny in terms of their relative importance at the time. Hereford is shown as you might expect, and even nearby Clee Hill (Môr Clee) looking something like a cartoon jelly, a humble bit of topography but perhaps included as a local detail in a nod to the map’s Hereford home.

Studying the map (there’s a much clearer English equivalent on the wall opposite to facilitate this), we did what I am sure most visitors do, we looked for our own city of residence, in our case Norwich. There is no sign of it. Indeed, even the bulge of East Anglia is unrepresented as if cartographically redacted like a revisionist face on a Stalin-era photograph. The map maker, a native of Lincolnshire, would surely have known of the existence of Norwich. The city was, after all, the second largest city in England at the time. With a magnificent cathedral, a Norman castle and a large city population, the city was then a far more significant urban centre than it is today. Far more important than Hereford, Gloucestershire or even York, all of which are represented on the map.

This deliberate omission seemed a mystery until I reflected on the date of the map and what was taking place around that time. In the late 13th century several violent confrontations took place between the aggrieved citizens of Norwich and the clergy incumbent at the city’s Cathedral. As a result, Norwich has the distinction of being the only English city ever to be excommunicated following a particularly bloody riot between citizens and monks in 1274. The Etheldreda Gate to the Cathedral, which still stands today, was constructed as penance by Norwich citizens. Was it this excommunication that led Richard de Bello to ignore the city and omit it from his map? After all, the map was drawn to show the creation of God not the world of Man. Norwich, excommunicated at the time, may simply have been considered insufficiently God-fearing to be included as part of His world.

This God-less tradition may have continued to some extent. The 2011 census revealed that Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents in England and Wales saying they were of ‘no religion’ — 42.5% of the population against an average of 25.1%. There again, the city, which historically is strongly non-conformist, claims to have an above average churchgoing rate, and of the 56,268 who proclaimed no religion in the census nearly 800 were Jedi Knights.

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Einstein on the Heath

It’s been a long time since my last post. The main reason for this is that I have been busy working on Slow Norfolk, a new guide for Bradt that is scheduled for publication early next year. Rather than a new edition of Slow Norfolk & Suffolk, that guide will become two separate books in the future: Slow Norfolk and Slow Suffolk. Naturally, there will be a degree of cut and paste involved but, as well as a fresh look and a new emphasis – less in the way of listings, more in the way of a personal take on the county — there will be lots of new material that celebrates that which is strange, quirky and particular about the county. For a taster of the sort of thing that Slow Norfolk will contain, here’s a snippet about a certain German physicist’s brief sojourn in north Norfolk.

Einstein on the Heath

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A couple of miles southeast of Felbrigg Hall is the village of Roughton on the Norwich to Cromer road. Although the village is unremarkable, Roughton Heath just to the north was the unlikely residence of Albert Einstein for a few weeks in 1933. The celebrated German physicist was brought here under tight security to live in a small hut on the heath after fleeing Nazi Germany. Whilst living in his modest hut Einstein continued with important work that would later be put to use developing the world’s first atomic bomb. The scientist also found time to pose for a sculpture by Jacob Epstein. It was this brief episode by the Norfolk coast that provided inspiration for Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. A blue plaque commemorating Einstein’s short-lived residence on the heath adorns the wall of the New Inn in Roughton village. The whereabouts of the hut itself is not known.

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Serbia 4

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The new edition of my Serbia guide is published today. It’s fully updated, of course, with revised text and lots of new listings, especially for Belgrade, a city that despite considerable setbacks seems to drive itself forever onwards and upwards. Here’s a snippet from the new edition that describes a possible future development for the Serbian capital. It looks quite remarkable (although probably hugely expensive too).

A ZAHA HADID DEVELOPMENT FOR KALEMEGDAN?

A large plot of land between Kalemegdan Fortress and the Dorćol riverfront is currently awaiting development. Originally owned by Beko, a company that went bankrupt, the land has been bought by Lamda development, a Greek company that is part of a holding company with EFG Bank and EKI Petrol. The Greek company approached the studio of Zaha Hadid to come up with a project for the land and the Iraqi-British architect has come up with a stunning plan for the development: a sweeping modernist design that connects with the surrounding landscape and incorporates essential public spaces and public transition between the fortress and the riverfront. At the time of writing, the proposed project was still awaiting public review (www.beobuild.rs). The design can be seen on line at: http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/beko-masterplan.

Belgrade’s not a stranger to developments that never quite get off the ground. Here’s another snippet from the Belgrade chapter of Serbia 4:

GOING UNDERGROUND – THE METRO THAT NEVER WAS

At the edge of Ćirila i Metodija Park in the city centre, under the whiskery gaze of Vuk Karadžić whose statue graces the western corner, are several entrances that lead down to what appears to be an underpass. But there is more to this than you might imagine: this is the location for the only station on Belgrade’s metro. The station, known simply as Vukov Spomenik (‘Vuk’s Statue’) was to be part of an underground system that never came to fruition, and which, as things turned out, ended up being one of the city’s biggest white elephants. It was built during the Milošević period in 1995 as the first component of what would be a comprehensive underground network but the turn of events in Serbia in the late 1990s resulted in the country having far more pressing needs than that of a highly expensive underground railway. The part that was completed is well worth seeing, even if it is a bit surreal. A number of entrances lead down to a stylish atrium in brushed steel from where escalators plummet down further to the platform. The station has since found use as a stop on the Beovoz line that plies between Zemun and Pančevo and a few shops have opened for business in the atrium.

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Of Saints and Shipwrecks

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Beneath the spectacular white and red chalk cliffs of Old Hunstanton in northwest Norfolk lie the sorry remains of what was once a working boat, the Steam Trawler Sheraton. Although she started life in 1907 as a Grimsby fishing trawer, and would later serve a a patrol boat and mine sweeper during World War II,  the Sheraton suffered the ignominy of serving as a target practice vessel for the RAF in 1946. In 1947, a gale caused the boat to break free of her mooring on the Lincolnshire side of the Wash and the Sheraton eventually washed up on Old Hunstanton beach.  Much of her bulk and fixtures were salvaged and now only the bottom of her hull remains, reduced to just a barnacle-covered skeleton of ribs and braces after more than half a century’s scourging by the tide.IMG_8366

The coast at this spot is known as St Edmund’s Point, a name that references the arrival of St Edmund who is said to have been shipwrecked here in AD855. The 14-year-old boy, who would be crowned King of East Anglia the following year, would go on to become a religious cult hero and England’s first patron saint after his matrydom at the hands of Danes in 870. Later, in the 13th century, the monks of Bury St Edmunds would build a chapel on the cliffs above the spot where Edmund was reputed to have landed in gratitude for his safe deliverence. The ruins of the chapel lie close to a white early 19th-century lighthouse, now a private residence, whose light was extinguished at the outbreak of World War I never to be rekindled.

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The beach at Hunstanton is one of the few places in Britain where the foreshore is privately owned. The Le Strange family, who have been lords of the manor here since shortly after the Norman Conquest, have in their possession a charter that states that as well as the beach itself they own ‘everything in the sea as far as a man riding a horse can throw a javelin from the low-tide mark’. The hereditary title of Lord High Admiral of the Wash is also retained by the family. So, the skeletal remains of the Sheraton wreck belong, technically at least, to the Le Strange estate, as do the picturesque seaweed-covered rocks that set off any decent photograph of the cliffs. If St Edmund had pitched up here a couple of centuries later than he did perhaps he would have become the property of the Le Strange estate too?

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