Archive for the ‘Walking’ Category

A short ramble round Leicester

March 30, 2017

Coming to a brief spell of teaching at De Montfort I thought it might be of use to the casual cultured  visitor to point out some of the less well-known elements of the town that are worthy of consideration.

I’ve largely eschewed chewing in Leicester (at least on a sit down and make yourself at home basis) and so there’s only one ‘restaurant’ review from my time there. This post will have a bit of food though, plus buildings, books, art, pubs and landscape since it’s those things that to my mind are the more obvious signs of an absence or presence of civilisation in a community.

Let’s start with …

Churches

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St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral)

Leicester is blessed with good church, although the Cathedral doesn’t really make it into the top three. Sadly most good churches are closed to casual visits so I’ve only seen the best ones from the outside. The Cathedral (which is generally open) I didn’t go into because an officious verger told me curtly that at the time I turned up there was a service on and ‘there’s no visiting.’ She didn’t seem to want to venture what time the service would end so I thought, well I can manage without it given that there’s gurt-stonking church to be had elsewhere. Such as …

St Nicholas

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No, it wasn’t misty. I’d dropped my phone in beer thus turning the camera into an analogue of my own ale-soaken mind if I happened to get into the right company after a day’s teaching.

Through the mists emerges St Nicholas, a real piece of Midlands bricolage being bits of Anglo-Saxon built on through the mediaeval period and topped off with a twentieth century tower. All juxtaposed with fragments of Roman Leicester. And on the ‘wrong side’ of the ring road. If it was in London it would be a major landmark. Here it languishes feeling rather unloved. As does …

All Saints, Highcross Street

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Get road-side if you want to see the Norman zig-zaggy door.

Also hard on the ring road but not if you approach it from the John Lewis end as shown in this photograph. The tower has elements of Anglo-Saxon and the rest to my untrained eye is a bizarre conglomeration of mediaeval and Victorian. It is crazy in its haphazardness but this somehow just lends it charm. It also has good tombstones.

As does …

St Mary-de-Castro

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Part of the castle complex and thus difficult to get a 360 degree look from close up, Pevsner goes nuts about the interior. Alas it’s shut quite a lot, or at least on Tuesdays when I’m in town. Below the castle hill there is a lovely garden with such a beautifully textured assemblage of hedgery with all kinds of bird life teeming in it. Shame they had to stick a crappy Holiday Inn above it. This is a good place to eat a sandwich. I know, I’ve been there.

Books

Like all good second hand bookshops Maynard & Bradley has an idiosyncratic style of service (read that how you will). It also has green Penguins by the yard and a good section on local history, which is what I was there for. I’ve been twice and both times bought more than necessary. A good thing.

Art

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New Walk Museum. Entrance is currently from the rear.

The New Walk museum has a tidy and eclectic collection of stuffed creatures. Sadly, my own taste being for the bizarreries to be found collections of this nature …

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A tragic visage from Güzelyürt Municipal Museum

… but of more interest is its tidy and eclectic collection of art. One room (while they’re renovating) is a broad survey of about 500 years of Western European art with the emphasis on the solid Victorian Frithish stuff. But there are a few gems of which the best is a de la Tour of a choirboy. De la Tour was not prolific (around 40 canvases apparently) so it was a very pleasant surprise to find his Choirboy hidden away in a corner of the stage area of the main gallery. Even poorly exhibited one can see that his handling of light is extraordinary. And the choirboy don’t look like no choirboy if you know what I mean. V sinister. Also there’s a good Orpen of an Old Bag on a Couch. Look at the Sisley too in that room and a good, solid 19thC depiction of the Thames.

Pass by Hogarth secure in the knowledge that he did far better things and go to the other room which houses twentieth century British stuff. Apparently this is just a small sample of their collection which means that it’s ideal. About twenty pieces, all high class. Some by artists you’ll know (eg Stanley Spencer) but also others who you won’t like Robert Beven (sp?) and his View of St John’s Wood. The gallery is worth a lunchtime of anyone’s time.

They also have occasional concerts – I was absolutely GUTTED to have missed Mahan Esfahani doing Goldberg.

Pubs

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The Globe. Zach pulls a mean pint.

As I pointed out in my review the Parcel Yard is better than your average station pub, on the ale side at least. But superior options are to be found (‘Don’t go to the Spoons!’ wailed my students when I asked for a recommendation). The Globe has a good range of booze and what’s more has a DMU graduate called Zach on the pumps. He’s a nice feller and so is his boozer if you’re looking for a pubby pub. Also a good find was the Brewdog pub – good music, excellent chips and tasty beer. They also do carry outs for when you’re the only person leaving Leicester when Seville are in town and you need to drown your sorrows at missing the match while you’re on your way back to London.

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Brewdog: Knowledgable bar staff, cracking ale and good, quick food.

Buildings

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De Montfort itself has a fine collection. Though the place seems to be in a permanent state of construction there’s peace to be found down by the river. Just by the university is Newarke House Museum. The museum is a typical local museum that tells the history of the city succinctly and very well with good bits of oral history about the industries that made the city what it is. They also had a good exhibition on the First World War when I was there and it seems that they turn round exhibitions quite frequently, which encourages repeat visits.

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Unmissable if you go to Leicester is the Guildhall. It’s one of a smattering of picturesque half-timbered survivals but the real glory lies within.

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That is a proper fireplace. The room it’s in ain’t bad either with 17th Century wall paintings, injunctions to clean living (the hall acted as a seat of justice back in the day) and a couple of yeomanly portraits of local dignitaries from the past.

Food

But what if you’re hungry? You could do any one of a number of chain sandwich places but I prefer to find somewhere a bit more independent.

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Samosa central

For food on the hoof Currant Affairs does the best samosas I’ve ever had outside of a restaurant. It’s all vegan/veggie friendly and their boast that’s it’s freshly made in the day is not an idle one. You can taste the freshness.

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For coffee and a sit down you can’t beat St. Martin’s coffee bar. They have excellent coffee and if you’re hungry you can get hot food made to order. A favourite of mine was an Indonesian pork stir fry with bacony slabs of pork on tangy spicy noodles and plenty of vegetables. And good value too.

Leicester is a good place and I’m looking forward to going back for a bit of cricket/football/rugby soonest.

On Masterpiece London

July 5, 2015

This week I was given a ticket, and a strong recommendation, to visit Masterpiece London, a fair of arts, antiquities and design that takes place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. I was vaguely aware of the event, it being mentioned in the FT but it had never occurred to me to go; Chelsea is not really on my usual beat. But I had an idle afternoon and the ticket was eighteen quid (student rate) so I thought I shouldn’t waste it.

Whiffs of the plutocracy (already pretty strong) became stronger as I strolled down Sloane Street and through the Square.* At the rear entrance of the Hospital there was a free golf buggy shuttle service to the entrance at the riverside (distance perhaps 500 metres); a service that the able-bodied as well as the infirm seemed curiously eager to use. Presumably these were the idle rich.

Getting in was a chore of security (forgivable given the value of what’s inside) and then into the show. Let’s say that the crowd here, apart from the odd smattering of schoolchildren or students, is notable for its ethnic rather than social diversity. Food outlets from brands that trade on exclusivity (Le Caprice, The Ivy), wall-faced security guards at every corner and pretty frosty dealers were further barriers to the averagely-waged punter. It was as if the contents of St. James’s had slid down the map of London and been trapped in a huge air-conditioned marquee by the Thames.

But there’s the thing – the contents make the Fair worth the trip, and even the money.** Sure, a lot of these things you could see for free in the dealers’ rooms, but then they’re spread all over town, Europe and beyond (well, no, that’s an exaggeration, such places are quite tightly packed in a few specific areas of London and in a handful of cities). Also, much of what you see or similar can be found for free in London’s museums. But then again you’d have to spend your time moving around town rather than seeing it under one roof.

That’s the attraction of Masterpiece – it actually keeps its promise and has a vast assortment of masterpieces all within strolling distance of one another. And such a jumble of stuff! From my notes I picked out …

  • a ‘primitive’ art depiction from the 19th Century of a gig race in front of the Ravenbury Arms, Croydon
  • a poster for ‘Cocaine’ by Rene Gaillard, a theatre production in 1920s Montmartre***
  • many, many Ugly Renaissance Babies****
  • Extraordinary Chinese paintings of European factories in 18th Century Canton
  • Giacomo Balla’s ‘Speed of Automobile’
  • A ceiling high Delaunay Eiffel Tower (amazing)

'Cocaine' by René Gaillard

‘Cocaine’ by René Gaillard

And on and on and on and on. And these were just the things in which I was interested … there were extraordinary things in which I wasn’t interested at all (jewellery, cars, speedboats, stamps, rugs) or didn’t have the energy to look at (Roman/Greek/Asian antiquities, books, furniture). The whole bunch of stuff a phantasmagoria of juxtaposed styles, types and periods like the most eclectic auction room you’ve ever seen, reminding me of Anthony Powell’s observation that ‘accumulations of unrelated objects brought together at auction acquire, in their haphazard manner, a certain dignity of their own.’*****

And in this the Fair operated as a microcosm of the artistic experience of London as a topographical space. A reason to love the city in that however much it changes there are still stubborn grits of haphazardness that refuse to go away. Everything jumbled up yet somehow cohering. Such is the Jeremy Bentham pub, which in the midst of the rebuilding of University College Hospital sticks up like one of Shane MacGowan’s blackened teeth in the maw of modernisation.

The Jeremy Bentham. A good pub.

The Jeremy Bentham. A good pub.

Walking back to civilisation past another defiant relic – Battersea Power Station – I stopped to have a rest in St. George’s Square.

It was a hot day, one of the first very hot days of the year. In the Fair the air-conditioning was turned down to -1 (having saved oneself the trouble of walking in the sun one wouldn’t want to perspire in one’s Savile Row suit I guess). So it was with great pleasure that I sat in the Square, listened to the fountain, rested my feet and did the crossword.

Fountain, St. George's Square

Fountain, St. George’s Square

The bench on which I rested is dedicated to my friend Alexandra, who lived around the corner for all of the years that I knew her. It was a good place to think of her because despite her love of the high life (and she lived life to the full) she was determined that the high life should be open to all. She was a broad-minded bulldozer of barriers to entry whose motto was ‘experiment’ and who inspired generations of schoolchildren to a love of art and history. Having walked from Knightsbridge to Chelsea past key gardens, security guarded boutiques and golf-buggy riding wealth I was glad to sit in a democracy of livid London flesh, dog-walking bachelors and elderly strolling couples and feel able to breathe again.

Golf buggies. Really.

* Sloane Square, from which I’ve led walking tours in the past, is surely one of the worst places for pedestrians in central London. For an area of London that is a hub of shopping, eating and theatre-,  church- and gallery-going crossing the Square in any direction is a dispiriting experience. And sitting in it is not much better.

** £25 for a full fee day ticket, £18 for students, free for the under-18s but no discounts for the unwaged.

*** This poster was my favourite thing in the whole show. A thing of weird beauty in its own right it’s also a complex document of life in 1920s Paris. I want it. Sinai and Sons have it.

**** If you haven’t seen the blog you MUST. But be prepared for swearing.

***** A. Powell, ‘A Buyer’s Market’ (London, 1952), p. 1


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