High Line

New York City isn’t the sort of place that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of walking but the city is a treasurehouse for urban exploration. Walking – with a little bit of assistance from the city’s comprehensive bus and subway system – is by far the best way to get under the skin of the ‘Big Apple’ and, to squeeze the life out of this hackneyed metaphor, who knows what you might find – pips, juicy flesh,  maybe even a worm or two?Unlike many American cities, where the assumption is that people prefer to move around in noisy mobile metal boxes, New York is a relatively pedestrian-friendly place. For a wholesome, petrochemical-free experience, there’s always Central Park, but for the past year or so there has been another traffic-free route through Manhattan’s West Side that has transformed a pre-exisiting industrial conduit to a green pedestrian byway.

New York’s High Line, a mile and a half of raised walkway above the working class neighbourhoods of the West Side, was once part of an elevated railway that was built in the 1930s to shift goods to and from the slaughterhouses and packing plants of the Meatpacking District around Gansevoort Street. Defunct by the mid 1980s, the rail line has since been lovingly transformed into a fine green artery that links that same meaty neighbourhood with West 34th Street in Hell’s Kitchen to the north. In place of sleepers and railtracks a landscaped walkway now threads along its length, which is lined on both sides by plentiful benches and seating areas, and long leafy borders filled with grasses, perennials and shrubs. To add a bit of glamour, the Empire State Building peeks above the surrounding city roofline at regular intervals as a reminder that Midtown’s architectural bling is really not so far away.

The real beauty of the High Line is that it does not really have any specific sight to see at either end – the Meatpacking District was never a big tourist draw, although the neighbourhood is currently on the up and being gentrified faster than you can say ‘sushi bar’. Sometime in the future there will be a new American art museum built at Gansevoort Street but, for the time being, rather than any particular goal, the attraction is the High Line itself – the walking of it. What better way to take in the city than to stroll above the streets and buildings where New Yorkers actually work and play out their lives?

Technically speaking, the High Line is an urban park rather than a mere thoroughfare. Its not just for tourists but a place filled with office workers eating sandwiches and  friends taking a stroll together – native New Yorkers looking down on the streets they have known all their lives and seeing them from a fresh perspective. It is also quite remarkably crime-free.

Halfway along, just south of Hell’s Kitchen, the route runs through the West Chelsea district and anyone wishing to pay homage to Sid Vicious or Dylan Thomas (who both died here), or Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell (who all embraced its muse), could do worse than make a short pilgrimage to visit the famous Chelsea Hotel at West 23rd Street. Sadly, the hotel has recently been bought up by a developer and is no longer open to ‘receive new guests’, so artists, writers and rock stars in search of a creative Bohemian atmosphere or a suitable venue for high-spirited shenannigans are now obliged to look elsewhere.


East of Everett – Riding the Empire Builder

Arriving in Seattle, having spent the last two weeks on a small boat, it was time to make use of other forms of transport to get home. Flying all the way Seattle-New York-London would have been straightforward enough but after a fortnight at sea where 8-10 knots was routine I was keen to not only feel the earth beneath my feet for awhile but also to continue at a relatively stately pace. So I opted for the train: first to Chicago, then to New York City from where I would, begrudgingly but inevitably, finally take to the air to cross the Atlantic. By way of a prelude to all this cross-continental railroading I made use of the few hours I had in the city by taking the Seattle Centre Monorail to visit the Space Needle – an all-too-short run across the city centre that actually passes through the multi-coloured sheet metal flanks of Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project Museum before arriving at its terminus.

Amtrak‘s Chicago-bound Empire Builder leaves every afternoon from Seattle, taking around 46 hours – the best part of two days and nights – to reach the windy city on Lake Michigan’s shore. A parallel service runs from Portland in Oregon and both trains join up in the middle of the night at Spokane, Washington. On my first evening on the train I decided to head for the dining car just after passing through Everett, Washington. Here, I met up with Anne (Amtrak waiters insist on grouping solo travellers together at tables – dining on a train in the US is a sociable event whether you like it or not), a grandmother from Seattle on her way to visit various offspring way out east. Travelling in the United States, instant life stories and the brandishing of family photographs to total strangers are pretty much the norm and a shared meal is viewed as a welcome opportunity to make new friends. Anne was no exception. We were all friends here on the train – relaxed friendliness being the default setting of any sort of public transport in the USA. As our conductor would announce later on that night, “Ladies and gentlemen please ensure that you have not put your belongings on the neighbouring seat. We are expecting quite a few travellers to get on at Leavenworth and so you will probably have a new friend joining you when we get there. Let’s make them feel welcome.”

No-one came to sit next to me at Leavenworth but at Wenatchee an hour or so later I was joined by an elderly man called Dale who had just come from a week-long Lutheran Church retreat in the wilds of Washington State. “I see we’ve got us a groaner here”, were his first words to me as he wearily slumped down alongside, throwing a casual nod at the source of the shrill metallic wail that was emanating from the carriage wheels beneath us and had been doing so intermittently since leaving Seattle several hours earlier. Lean and bearded with plaid shirt and baseball cap, Dale might have looked like a typical retired Mid West farmer but was, in fact, a lay preacher in the no-nonsense undemonstrative Lutheran tradition. Despite an outward appearance that might give the impression of being a little ‘ornery’ Dale was the gentlest of men, with a playful, twinkly charm and a thoughtful, considered take on the world. We got talking about Alaska. He had spent a year there as a preacher on an isolated island close to the Arctic Circle just 40 miles from Russia (“And I mean 40 miles, not like that fool idea that that Sarah Palin woman had that she could see Russia from her house in Wasilla”). Dale’s northern sojourn had given him the greatest respect for the native people that endured the difficult living conditions of Alaska’s far north although he acknowledged that there were serious problems of alcohol abuse. “It was supposed to be a dry island but people being people they snuck it in somehow.”

Catching a glimpse of western Montana’s Glacier National Park early the next morning – and adding on an hour as we reached the USA’s Mountain Time zone – the landscape soon settled down to the flat prarieland that we would be passing through for the rest of the day. This was cattle country but the grass looked thin and parched after a hot, dry summer. After Shelby, Montana, we entered cereal-growing territory, with newly harvested wheatfields rolling away to the horizon and tall grain silos by the roadside. Stopping at Havre, there was enough time to stretch our legs on the platform and examine the statue of James J. Hill, the founder of the Empire Builder route, in front of the station. A small group of Amish dressed in 19th-century added a touch of local colour. Amish generally spurn modern technology but are nothing if not pragmatic and for long distances it seems the train is an acceptable alternative to travel by horse and cart. Leaving Havre, we reached Glasgow (Montana, that is) two and a half hours later and passed into North Dakota and the Central Time zone in the early evening. North Dakota looked very much like eastern Montana had done and the view out of the window would not really change that much until we reached the industrial cities of the Great Lakes the following morning.

An entire day spent passing through relentless treeless praries has an unsettling effect. It instills a sense of melacholia. Perhaps it is not so much its appearance but its sheer scale that affects one so: the isolated farming settlements, the unknown family dramas lived out behind closed doors; small lives in a big landscape. It is humbling to think that the pioneer settlers who ventured this way in the 19th century had little idea of what lay beyond the next mile west other than almost inevitable danger of one sort or another.

As a reminder of the early days of this great western migration we stopped at Fargo, Minnesota in the early hours, although most of us were asleep at the time. The city, originally called ‘Centralia’, later became ‘Fargo’ in honor of Northern Pacific Railway director and Wells Fargo Express Company founder William Fargo. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad here bestowed the city with the reputation as ‘Gateway to the West’.

Early next afternoon we shuffled through the endless urban sprawl of Milwaukee. Famous for its brewing industry (inspiring the song, What’s Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me), the city’s huge car parks and warehouses put me in mind of a super-sized Swindon, although to my knowledge no tragic country anthems have ever been written about the Wiltshire town. Two hours later we pulled into Chicago, just twenty minutes behind schedule. Chicago’s Union Station lies in the heart of the city’s downtown district, towered over by some of some of the tallest buildings of the world. After southeast Alaska, where tall buildings and even tall people are scarce, this was the most urban environment imaginable. Quite a stark contrast from the tranquil waters of the Inside Passage I had been sailing through just a few days earlier. There again, so was Seattle.

Blowing bubbles in the Clarence Strait

After Petersburg, a squeeze through the self-explanatory Wrangell Narrows took us south into the Clarence Strait, prime hump-backed whale territory. A group of hump-backs were soon spotted off the stern and we took skiffs out for a closer inspection. We had seen a number of them a couple of days earlier in Glacier Bay, but not like this.  Here, a group of ten or more were ‘bubble-netting’ for herring. This rare co-operative feeding behaviour involves a group of whales diving deep and producing bubbles from their blow-holes to create an underwater curtain of bubbles that traps the small fish that the whales feed on. Herrings hate bubbles and will do all they can to avoid passing through them and so what the cunning whales do is  to create a net of them that traps the disoriented fish before they rise en masse to the surface with mouths agape to scoop them up. Gulls – Bonaparte’s Gulls mostly, I think – take advantage too, grabbing those fish that manage to escape the whales’ enormous gaping jaws. In fact, it is excited gulls that tend to give away the location of the any imminent bubble net. It is a magnificent spectacle: ten 50 foot whales all hitting the surface together is an unforgettable, quite humbling sight; a phenomenon that gives new meaning to the term awe-inspiring. In less than an hour, we saw it happen four or five times

Southeast Alaska’s Clarence Strait, west of Prince of Wales Island, is one of the best locations to see this behaviour. Nevertheless, it is still very rare. Karl, our guide, reckoned that of, say, 25,000 hump-backed whales in the North Pacific maybe just 100 practised bubble-netting in groups like this. It has only ever been observed in southeast Alaska. We had just seen 10% of the world’s cetacean elite doing this very thing – a rare privilege indeed.


Petersburg. No, not that one – this Petersburg is in the Alaska panhandle, south of Juneau, north of Ketchikan. This is the first time in a week there has been any phone signal or internet access; the first time since leaving Juneau almost a week ago that there has been any sort of town in fact. Petersburg is named after its Norwegian founder Peter Buschmann who settled here just over a century ago to found a fish canning business. The town still has a Scandinavian character, with Norwegian-style rose-mailing prettifying its streets.

The Alaska Inner Passage cruise began in Juneau last Friday. Getting to Juneau was fun – taking 34 hours of travel time between leaving my front door in Norwich and checking in seriously jet-lagged at the hotel in Juneau. Three flights, one overnight coach journey, a long layover in Anchorage and at least of couple of hours sitting on runways awaiting permission to take off. The biggest chunk of the travel was the flight between Frankfurt to Anchorage, which instead of flying west across the Atlantic as you might expect, headed almost due north into the Arctic Circle and arced west close to the pole. It is, after all, a three dimensional world and flight routes don’t necessarily follow Mercator’s projection. Flying non-stop Frankfurt to Anchorage takes 9½ hours and because of time zone changes you arrive in Alaska thirty minutes before you left. But, if this was the secret of eternal youth then it certainly did not feel like it.

We flew over Denmark, southern Norway and then the North Sea before curving west over the northern edge of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to hit the north Alaska coast and pass over the Denali National Park before our descent to Anchorage. Just north of Bergen, the cloud lifted to reveal the glimmering sea beneath us, with little flecks of white that I thought might be fishing boats…or whales. Is it possible to see fishing boats from 36,000 feet up? Like a living atlas unfolding, under the clear blue skies of northern Greenland it was easy to see where solid rock gave way to the pack ice of the North Pole – nothing but mountains, ridges, snow, ice and water beneath. Halfway across Alaska we flew right alongside the peak of Mount McKinley, which loomed proud above the clouds, the highest mountain in the USA, before descending over glorious golden lake country down into Anchorage. I like to think that I saw my first Alaskan bear on the final descent – it may well have just been a rock but it is perfectly feasible.

Once US immigration decided that I was respectable enough to enter their country there was a whole afternoon to kill in Anchorage. I took the local bus into town – a modest grid of low rises against an impressive mountain backdrop, with a handful of shops selling tacky souvenirs in the city centre that advertised their presence with stuffed grizzlies on the sidewalk. These were not the bears I fancied I had seen from the air. The city has something of a frontier feel about it, with small clutches of native Alaskan drunks and shifty-eyed men with baseball caps and ZZ Top beards. A surprising number of blacks and Hispanics too – but perhaps it was my use of public transport that skewed this impression. Public transport in the US tends to be mostly the preserve of the poor and disadvantaged.

Where Anchorage was fairly humdrum, Juneau was pretty and quaint, with wooden houses climbing up steep streets beneath tall bluffs. Anchorage may have been a place that shot and stuffed its bears but Juneau, with its liberal nurturing atmosphere, was a town that seemed more likely to cherish them. Juneau was wet too, pouring that first night with pounding rain that looked as if it would never stop. Thankfully, it did, and the rain was followed by four days of glorious Indian summer sunshine – ‘a bluebird summer’ as they say here.

Since embarking at Juneau last Friday I have experienced the whole gamut of classic southeast Alaska experience: walking in temperate rainforests thick with velvety moss; hikes alongside waterfalls and even on glaciers like that at Baird Glacier yesterday afternoon. There have been hot springs and bald eagles; sea lions, countless orcas and hump-backed whales – one even appeared blowing a steamy plume whilst we were out paddling kayaks. There have been bears too – some black but mostly brown – and a couple of close (but not too close) encounters at forest streams and on beaches where they greedily snatch up migrating salmon from the mouths as streams as easily and as casually as if they were picking flowers.

The Writing on the Wall

Just up the road from where I live there is a large black-painted gable wall that bears the legend ‘PINK FLOYD’ in large bold white letters. Clearly, it was a gesture made using good quality paint as it has been there as long as I remember. For all I know it may even date back to the time of the original Pink Floyd line-up with Syd Barrett, although somehow
I doubt it – I rather think it is the work of a fan from the Floyd’s high-profile years of Dark Side of the Moon and after. Since that original graffito was daubed another paintbrush-wielding wag has come along to add a couple more brushstrokes and change the ‘I’ in ‘PINK’ to a slender ‘U’ thus rendering it ‘PUNK’, but this anarchic amendment  is not wholly successful, the paint being of insufficient quality to resist natural weathering. One might assume that this addition was made sometime around 1977 but here in Norwich there were individuals sporting orange Mohicans and tartan bondage trouser outfits well into the 1990s. Either way, the gable text seems to be of sufficient permanency that you can almost imagine archaeologists of the future puzzling over the meaning of its ‘Pi(u)nk Floyd’ cipher. Being archaeologists, they will probably attribute it as being of ‘possible
ritualistic significance’.

A little further up the road is a T-junction where the back of a one-way sign has been neatly and inquisitively stencilled: ‘WHY DO YOU DO THIS EACH DAY?’ Years ago, I used to turn left here every morning on my daily drive to work in North Norfolk. The graffito wasn’t there in those days but, had it been, I don’t think I could really have ignored it. It did, after all, pose the very question that was perpetually at the back of my mind and now it seems so significantly placed that I could almost believe that somehow I unconsciously put it there myself – I didn’t.

Putting to one side the familiar and shoddy tagging that seems the imperative of young men wishing to mark their territory like cock-legged dogs, graffiti seems to be at its most potent when a degree of passion is involved. Often it is the unintended permanency of a fleeting emotional state that renders it so evocative. One local piece of graffiti that immediately springs to mind, although I have long forgotten exactly where I saw it, was the legend ‘S. HEWETT IS A HOUR’ (sic), probably the work of a jilted teenage boy
who needs to work on his spelling. Inadvertently, by means of dyslexic subtext, this wounded individual has stated that ‘S. Hewett’, whoever she is, represents a fragment of time – perhaps she really was a waste of time as far as he was concerned. Although this declaration is undoubtedly passionate it seems odd that its author addresses the target of his fury by what seems to be a school register name rather than something more familiar. Maybe he is unknown and unrequited, rather than jilted, and just trying to spread rumours? These days, of course, he would do this by TXT. In contrast to this angry but passionate exclamation, another lovers’ tiff-style message I once saw scrawled on a wall in a neat feminine hand simply stated, ‘CHARLES I DESPISE YOU’. Such withering dispassion would be hard for anyone called Charles to ignore.

There is a fine line between urban wall scrawling and what might be considered ‘art’ but if you make the text 40,000 words long and legitimise it with an Arts Council grant then it may well become officially sanctioned. This is what the artist Rory Macbeth did in 2006, inscribing the entire text of Sir Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia on the walls of a derelict building in central Norwich that was due for demolition. As Macbeth rightly states, ‘Most graffiti is utopian’. It should be remembered though that, in Greek, utopia actually means ‘no place’, and not ‘paradise’ as is often supposed.

Tomsk Waits

In contrast to the northwest Scotland of previous posts, the central Siberian city of Tomsk is indisputably East of Elveden – both figuratively and geographically. It is, after all, almost one quarter of the way around the world heading east from where I write. I spent a few grey rainy days here last autumn as a side trip to a long Trans-Siberian rail journey.

Tomsk lies just north of the main Trans-Siberian line, a sizeable city of about half a million sitting on the right bank of the Ob, a river that snakes its way north from here to the Gulf of Ob and the Arctic Ocean. Tomsk isn’t Arctic though – it lies at about the same latitude as Moscow and Glasgow, although it does drop to less than −20 °C in winter. Back in the 19th century, Tomsk was populated mostly by Cossacks, Tatars and political exiles but the city was side-stepped during the building of the Trans-Siberian railway line, when the new city of Novosibirsk (‘New Siberia’) was favoured as a stop instead.

These days Tomsk is a youthful, student-filled city; a relatively attractive place by Siberian standards, with a clutch of trendy brightly lit cafes around Ploschad Lenin, its central square. Trendy coffee bars are all the rage in the new Russia – even in backwoodsy Siberian cities like Tomsk. Here you’ll find ‘Travellers Coffee’, where you can get a pricey ‘bolshoi’ cappuccino, and another place called ‘Food Master’ – in a land where the Cyrillic alphabet reigns supreme, Latin script and English names are considered a guarantee of Western sophistication… or cheerless fast food. Food Master dishes up Mexican food with a pronounced Siberian accent – fajitas with beetroot, refried beans with dill and so on. There’s also an awkwardly translated English menu that temptingly offers ‘Languages with mushroom sauce’ and ‘Fat lard’ – fusion cuisine perhaps, but with a ‘con-’ prefix. Even here, in an establishment that is unapologetically ‘New Russia’, a Soviet-era fixation persists that has each component priced according to weight and itemised on the final bill – bread (the precise number of slices), sauce, garnish, meat (again precise, eg: ‘pig meat, 100g’) – as it would be the humblest factory workers’ stolovaya canteen. Actually, stolovayas are the places that I generally try and seek out – redolent of boiled cabbage, they promise cheap wholesome stodge served up by plump headscarfed women – just point and smile (or scowl if you want to blend in). It’s a genuine retro experience: school dinners, Soviet style. There is one of these tucked away in a basement a little further along Prospekt Lenin.

Stylish cafes are not the only concession to Western culture. Halfway along the high street a gable is covered with an enormous poster of gravel-voiced American troubadour Tom Waits standing astride a railway line and bellowing into a microphone windscreen mounted on a crooked stick – very much Tom the iconic hobo poet. The club in the basement beneath is called ‘Underground’ (a song from Swordfishtrombones) and, of course it is a lovely pun – Tom(sk) Waits – geddit. It seems unlikely that Tom Waits’ management is aware of this brazen Siberian deployment but equally doubtful that Californian copyright law stretches quite this far.  Waits is well known as an enthusiastic litigator of those who besmirch his image but this one seems to fit the brand perfectly.

Drop down a street or two to the west, away from the clubs and cafes of Prospekt Lenin, and you immediately find yourself in Old Siberia. A leafy street called Tatarskaya (this was once the city’s Tatar quarter) has old wooden houses with elaborately carved window surrounds and friezes. Poor, a little tumbledown but undeniably picturesque, this is the sort of thing that tourists  come to see, although most tend not to wander this far off the direct Trans-Siberian route between Yekaterinberg and Irkutsk.

Heading further north along Prospekt Lenin you soon reach a part of town that seems to have far more resonance with the old Soviet Union. Naturally enough, there is a Lenin statue here – this one in ‘hailing a taxi’ pose – as well as some brutalist Stalin-era civic buildings, Krushchevski apartment blocks and rusting boats at the river quay. This really could be a scene from almost anywhere in the former USSR pre-1991 but it is not – it is simply a matter of post-Soviet redevelopment not quite reaching this far uptown yet.

Tomsk may have once been lauded as the ‘Siberian Athens’ thanks to its univeristies and large number of students but Anton Chekhov did not like it one bit, although surely it must have been an improvement on the penal colony at Sakhalin Island that he had visited prior to passing through the town.

He wrote to his sister: ‘Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.’

Quite understandably, Tomsk citizens have never quite forgiven this scathing dismissal of their city and in response have erected a mocking statue of Chekhov close to the university. Perhaps wounded by the accusation of  dullness, the authorities seem keen these days to instil some European-style civic fun into the Tomsk city calendar. They have inaugurated a carnival, and the one I witnessed last year was the fifth according to the posters. Roads were closed and a stage set up in the main square where a variety of acts came on to dance and mime to Russian turbo-pop. There was even a group of African djembe drummers hired for the task who grinned amiably as they performed to a bemused crowd that did not really know quite what to do. Young families and groups of friends watched the action on the stage and took pictures of each other with their mobile phones before sloping off for an ice-cream. No doubt it will take a while for imported carnival culture to catch on here – just two decades ago, rather than drumming Africans or disco-dancing teenagers, the citizens of Tomsk were watching processions of tanks and soldiers with supersized hats march by.

While Tomsk may struggle with the concept of carnival it is doing well in the world of football. In recent years the city’s home side FC Tom Tomsk (their logo in Cyrillic spells TOMb) has risen like an eagle up the divisions to reach the dizzy heights of the Russian Premier League. It remains there, respectably mid-table, to this day. The Hotel Sputnik where I stayed is located right next door to the team’s stadium but sadly I had to move on to Irkutsk the day before their fixture with Lokomotiv Moscow.

For a look at another quirky Russian city, Kazan, take a look at my feature in the latest edition of hidden europe magazine here.

Homeward to Mingulay

Heel y’ho boys, let her go, boys

Bring her head round now all together

Heel y’ho boys, let her go boys

Sailing homeward to Mingulay!

What care we tho’ white the Minch is

 What care we for wind and weather?

Let her go boys, every inch is

Wearing homeward to Mingulay!

Wives are waiting on the bank, boys

Looking seaward from the heather

Pull her ’round boys, and we’ll anchor

‘Ere the sun sets at Mingulay!

Another day, another island. Mingulay lies in the Outer Hebrides, just north of Berneray at the very southern edge of the island chain. In many ways, the island is reminiscent of St Kilda – formerly populated, now deserted, it may not quite have had Hirta’s desolate edge-of-the-world isolation but it made up for this with living conditions that must have been equally harsh.

Although there are parallels with St Kilda, the people here were more involved with fishing than they were at Hirta  where seabirds were central to both diet and economy. With frequent violent Atlantic storms but plentiful fish and some decent grazing crofting life was tough but just about sustainable. Seabirds did have their part to play though: rent was paid to absentee landlords on Barra mostly with shearwater chicks collected from the island’s precarious cliffs.

Unlike Hirta, and perhaps to the good, there was no well-intentioned but misguided 19th century tourist industry here, and Mingulay continues to lack the celebrity status that has long been associated with St Kilda. Here there is no post office, gift shop or warden’s house; no quay – just a sheltered beach, some fine views, wild yellow irises and a plethora of kittiwakes and guillemots. By way of welcome, inquisitive grey seals loiter beneath the cliffs in the bay, their sleek heads bobbing on the waves like maritime Labradors.

Walk uphill from the beach at Mingulay Bay and you stumble upon the remnants of a few dwellings, the roofless shells of the turf-roofed black houses that Mingulay folk called home. The most complete building is the schoolhouse, built in the 1880s by the Free Church Ladies’ Association, while further uphill lie the remains of the chapel house, which had the Catholic priest’s living quarters downstairs and a chapel above. Now the chapel house is a picturesque ruin, with one gable still standing while the chimney pot from other stands centre-stage amidst the rubble like a post-Apocalyptic pulpit. Someone has gone to the trouble of sorting the reusable roof tiles into neat piles – even today, Hebridean island life does not encourage waste or the overlooking of free architectural salvage such as this.

The sea shanty quoted above could never have been sung by Mingulay-bound sailors as it was composed  by a Glaswegian in the 1930s – the island has been deserted of folk since 1912. Nevertheless, it evokes splendidly the atmosphere of the place, its sea-tossed shoreline, heather moorland and the ghost of a seafaring tradition.

If you would like to hear a contemporary version of the Mingulay Boat Song you can find Richard Thompson’s excellent rendition here.


St Kilda

The St Kilda archipelago lies a choppy 45 miles west across the Atlantic Ocean from the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Western Isles. Constantly settled from at least 5,000 years ago until 1930, when the inhabitants were finally evacuated, it is impossible to overestimate the brave determination of those early settlers who, seeing these rocky islands poke tantalisingly above the horizon in the far distance, pointed their flimsy boats in that direction and rowed through murderous seas to reach new land.

Rather than fish, the economy of the island – the main and only consistently settled one was also the largest, Hirta – was always linked to seabirds – gannets and fulmars in particular – and bare-footed St Kilda men used to gamble their lives dangling on horsehair ropes down treacherous cliffs faces in order to collect nesting birds and eggs.

Once upon a time there was a demand for fulmar oil as a fuel and St Kildans were able to barter this plentiful resource for the items they needed like grain and tobacco. But the coming of the modern age meant that the demand for this commodity waned dramatically and many of the island’s young people started to leave in order to seek their fortune on the Scottish mainland and even as far afield as Australia. Given this sudden decline in what had hitherto been a small but relatively stable population, it was perhaps inevitable that Hirta’s population would finally ask to be evacuated in 1930. For their own part, centuries of inbreeding and the islanders’ insistence on using fulmar oil to anoint the umbilical cord of newborn babies had already ensured a savagely high infant mortality rate. An evacuation was arranged but, despite having spent their entire lives on a windswept island entirely devoid of trees, the displaced islanders were offered jobs in forestry on the mainland. Such ironies did not ensure a happy outcome.

Hirta’s cottages, cleits and blackhouses may be empty and roofless now but the fulmars and gannets are still there in number, as are the high winds that characterise this archipelago, the most westerly situated group of islands in the entire United Kingdom. Visiting St Kilda is hardly straightforward even today – there is no regular transport and it’s a long rough sea trip west from the Western Isles. I am lucky to have arrived here yesterday morning on the MSS Clipper Odyssey on its Island Race expedition cruise around the British Isles. Today we visit Barra and Mingulay in the southern Outer Hebrides before heading south towards Donegal in Eire. By the miracle of a satellite-connected internet connection I am able to communicate this fact whilst on board (the connection was too slow to add images though – I added these later).

At over 8 degrees west, East of Elveden it certainly isn’t – West of Wester Ross might be a better description – but the St Kilda archipelago in the shape of Hirta, Soay, Berneray and other monumental stacks is still a place apart worthy of honour in any discussion of Britain’s special places. Not only does it stand at the very edge of the British Isles but it would seem to lie at the very edge of Europe and the entire Western world.

St Kilda already feels like a dream just one day after having left its shore. But St Kilda does not exist (the name is probably just a Norse corruption); you will find no saint of that name in the hagiographic annals.

Architecture without Architects

It all started more than 25 years ago when I bought a book called Architecture without Architects in a second-hand bookshop. The book, pithily subtitled A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, and authored by Bernard Rudolfsky, came as a revelation, presenting all manner of strange and wonderful vernacular buildings from all over the globe.

The book was actually a follow up to an earlier exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Within its pages were numerous black and white photographs of African mud huts, Galician stone granaries, Cappadocian cave dwellings and the tightly clustered dwellings of Italian hill towns. What struck me most though was
three grainy old photograph of titled: The fortified villages of Svaneti. Of all the fanciful structures depicted in the book, the buildings in these images looked the oddest, the most improbable of the lot – menacing stone skyscrapers set against a snow-covered mountainous backdrop. Accompanying the photos was a little text that explained that they
dated back to the 12th-century and were built and maintained by local families as defence against the ‘blood feuds and vendettas that raged unchecked’ in the region. It didn’t even say which country they were in, just ‘western Caucasus’. They were, I subsequently found out, in the Georgian SSSR of what was then still the Soviet Union.

Almost two decades later I get to visit Georgia – following the breakup of the USSR such things have become altogether easier – but it was not until my third visit to the country that I finally managed to travel to Svaneti and see the towers for myself. Svaneti happens to be home to some of Europe’s highest villages, with permanent settlements where snow lingers late into May, but the region is better known for its unique ancient culture and for its somewhat sinister reputation. Even within Georgia, the Svan inhabitants of the valley are treated with suspicion as Svaneti is usually thought of as a backward, lawless region with a reputation for brigandage. This certainly used to be the case, and until a decade ago Svaneti was a risky place to visit with robberies at gunpoint not uncommon. Thanks to a big clean-up operation a few years ago – the Georgian government is keen to develop tourism – it is now pretty safe.

Visiting Svaneti  for the first time I realise that the place I saw in Rudolfsky’s book all those years ago was a collection of villages  called Ushguli, nestled beneath high Caucasus peaks and stretching high up a valley. At 2,200 metres altitude, Ushguli is probably the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (although currently no-go Dagestan on the other side of the Caucasus range also has contenders to the title) but it is its magnificent medieval towers that make it truly extraordinary. Some have collapsed over the years but there still sufficient to present an imposing spectacle and render Ushguli’s towers a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There has never been a better time to visit Svaneti, although things are changing fast – too fast for comfort perhaps. Following centuries of isolation – both the wheel and the internal combustion engine arrived here at roughly the same time during the 1930s – Svan villagers are starting to leave their high valleys for an easier life in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The building of a new road will no doubt help accelerate this change and the days of unadulterated Svan culture may now be numbered. For the time being though, travelling there is still to take part in an adventure.

Bradt Travel Guides have a good guide to the country. Authored by Tim Burford and recently updated by yours truly for the 4th edition, it contains all that you need to know about Georgia – Svaneti and Ushguli included.

Dancing about Architecture

St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, May 19

Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme included a short feature on the 73 year-old American jazz bassist Charlie Haden. In the interview Haden discussed his musical history and how he had started out singing with his family in the Midwest but after contracting polio had taken up double bass and embraced the church of jazz. There was also talk of his political activities and his arrest by police in Portugal in 1971 just before the revolution there. The feature concluded by saying that Charlie would be performing in London this weekend. True enough, but it failed to mention that he would also be performing with his Quartet West at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival that same night.

St Peter Mancroft’s Church next to Norwich millennium-old Market Place is a wonderful place to hear music, even if its pews are unforgivingly Calvinist. Charlie Haden took the stage more or less on time and after introducing his fellow musicians announced that he hoped we would all be able to see them play in London too as there the band would be accompanied by a female singer or two and perhaps even a string section. He held his new Sophisticated Ladies CD aloft to indicate the 1940s and 50s material they would be performing with the fuller line-up – not here, though. Nothing against the Great American Songbook, female jazz singers or violins but I was quite pleased to hear him say, “Tonight, there’ll just be the four of us. We’ll be playing some beautiful music for you; some old and some new.”

The quartet set off on a series of four tunes, each one with plenty of space for solos. On the first composition Haden’s bass seemed a little lost and meandering, as if he could not quite find his way, but I sensed that it was a sort of practice lap for muscle memory as he tried out different progressions and constantly readjusted his tuning. By the fourth song of the sequence, the gorgeous First Song (For Ruth), he was really in his stride, playing a beautifully developed and poignant solo before handing over the creative reins to tenor man Ernie West. West, whom I have since learned was responsible for providing solo saxophone on many of Marvin Gaye’s 1970s recordings, has an impeccable technique, enviable musicality and what appears to be enormous stamina. A genial, gentle-looking man who seems able to breath through his ears, West moulded clusters of quicksilver notes into a procession of aural sculptures, each one rising like bubbles to float up to the hammerbeam roof and make the wooden angels on the mediaeval frieze smile. It was also around this time that the sun must have set outside, lighting up the sandstone pillars and high clerestory windows with a warm golden glow that seemed to give approval to the music rising from the nave. Fifteenth-century English Perpendicular architecture and 21st-century American music go surprisingly well together.

During a break to talk to the audience Haden announced that they would be playing something he had first recorded in 1957. “1957!”, he exclaimed, “Why, that’s way back in the 20th-century!” He was wrong in fact, by my reckoning Lonely Women was actually recorded with Ornette Coleman in 1959 and released on the iconoclastically modal (and prescient) The Shape of Jazz to Come, but why quibble? An angularly dark musical refrain led into more wonderful slow-cooked solos, from Haden, West and pianist Alan Broadbent, while new drummer Rodney Green kept time in the same sensitive and understated way he had been doing all evening.Ten, maybe fifteen, minutes elapsed before some sort of natural conclusion was arrived at. The audience, almost in shock, erupted into thunderous applause.

An encore was maybe too much to hope for but musicians that play in churches have nowhere to hide. “Thank you for listening so carefully. You’re good listeners; you’re an audience with good ears,” said Haden, genuinely moved. A lengthy, heart-aching Blue in Green ended the evening. More beatific tenor saxophone, more bass solos that sounded more like compositions in the making than mere exercises in dexterity, more lush piano that on occasions hinted at Bill Evans and at other times, Keith Jarrett without the self-importance. More rapturous applause. Haden was right: we did have good ears.