Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Real values

We've often remarked amongst ourselves how similar the rural architecture is between Ireland and France, and Wales has to come into it and Scotland too but I have not been there for a while.   We could probably include Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.  It's absolutely not the same as English rural architecture. The placement of buildings inside their plots, the shapes and exterior surfaces, the details of doors and windows - these have an insistent Celtic quality to them which is absolutely unfamiliar to a southern Englishwoman. But it never dawned on me till this Christmas weekend in Tipperary what this is about.
The significant thing is that none of these cultures are English. They have - for various reasons - eschewed some of the dominant stylistic choices of the English, and so what we see in the Celtic regions is what we ourselves might have had if it had not been for the successfully long reigns of some British Queens. In particular we can think of Elizabeth I, Victoria and (to some extent) Elizabeth II.
The English have been utterly mesmerised for centuries by a dream of greatness, reflected in architecture by a consistent return to the styles of Tudor domestic - black-and-white, gable-fronted, modest homes with leaded windows (very often with diamond panes), and with any luck, roses round the door.  We had a wonderful romance (wrong word!) with Georgian classicism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but couldn't help ourselves and rolled back to ornamental brickwork and then into Tudorbethan suburban expansion, millions of small homes built in long rows, some as solos and some semidetached or even terraced.
This was all coinciding with our nation's extraordinary (and in many ways repulsive) empire-building outreach and the industrial revolution which stole and created so much wealth, and has been almost universally regarded as brilliantly successful.
Even in the decades since WW2, when we have seen a further massive expansion of housing provision across England, we have favoured a particular kind of twiddle, the 'Englishman's home is his castle' kind of propriety, with front walls in particular being more often than not adorned with false fronts - white-painted wood, and latterly plastic planking, or vertical tiling being popular (and cheap).
However, our neighbours did not necessarily take the same view of all this activity or style.  They did not generate quite the same jingoistic view of the explosion of capitalist activity, although of course they provided huge amounts of the necessary labour and raw materials - the coal, iron, plate, chains, rails, engines etc.
And, because they did not produce such a massive number of new industrial cities with all the attendant social relocatoin, they had nothing like the same disruption to their peasant heritage... so the dreams from the ancient days remained more intact.  The idea would be that - one day, if all went well - you'd be able to afford a new house (no rats, no silverfish, no cockroaches, no mud, proper drains, separate bedrooms, etc etc) sitting plum in the middle of your own terrain, something to be proud of, a shining homestead for the family to call home. The whole slant was different.
They did not need the beguiling details of tiling or gables or black-and-white or leaded windows to demonstrate the success of the family's endeavours - the house itself is enough.
So when you stroll down a quiet lane, or drive around any of the Irish or French or Welsh towns, you will see proud newish houses, very clean, usually bang in the middle of the ground, with distinct boundary walls and gates, and a driveway, and sometimes it's a bit naff or blingy, but it's unmistakable - the shining demonstration of a family's achievement.
In England, by contrast, we have tightly-huddled clusters of new homes far too small, with a lot of attention paid to exterior styling and none at all to layout and purpose - the the needs of families - garden space, laundry space, shed space, privacy, community.  They are shockingly, achingly overpriced. We have by far the smallest square footage per new dwelling in the whole of Europe.
These minute new homes are also quite often built using timber-framing and infill - but priced as if they were made of brick and mortar. And they are not as fireproof as you'd like either - the fire which ripped through the top floors of the ludicrous new Lego-style apartments at the Tannery roundabout in Canterbury a couple of years ago showed that the industry has now adopted the American style of residential building. They may look safe and sound, but they are not.  Why do you think the firemen are regarded as such heroes in the USA? Because they are. They have to be. The number of fires and the speed at which they rip through buildings in the States is shocking to a European.  If you walk through any American city on any day, you will see the glorious fire-engines out at work - or patrolling and reminding people they're there: that just doesn't happen in Europe, not on any average day.
I have nothing against firemen, of course. But I think this is another example of how (in England) the standards have been allowed or encouraged to slip.... the residential property development industry could make more money with shoddy techniques during the last 50 years property-boom, and so they did.
So you get a very distinct cultural difference. And it's not them who are abnormal - it's us.
It's not all bad of course. Out of the weird mix of character which is called 'typically English' with its absurd class-structure and casual violence, we also shaped a whole new world during these centuries. And we did it with very small tools.....  First, our visionaries (monarchs, soldiers, capitalists) looked to the nearest sources of raw wealth - Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, etc.   And because in some ways not very much has happened to change things in those areas, it's easy to find and marvel at the railway engineering, the mines, mills, bridges, canals, wharves and warehouses which are still there. The extraordinary thing about the canals is how tiny they were and are.  Some are barely ten feet wide. Yet it was on these tiny threads of access that the whole international business was constructed. They are capillary-small. It's almost inconceivable to a modern eye.
Walking along the rural Irish lanes, you can see the modern revolutions happening in front of your eyes.   The proud new family homes are built along the lanes which have had almost nothing happening in them otherwise for 1000 years.  You must have a car to live there now, and you can be in the beautiful countryside with your land about you and feel satisfied. Down the road, are some tiny stone cottages falling into complete decay, and the occasional small family farm built of stone with mud and cows and gates held shut with string.
Occasionally, near the ports or or business parks, these old functional buildings are converted to huge brand new steel-and-concrete hotels and conference centres (we stayed last night at one near Rosslare, called The Farmers Kitchen, a massive depressing plastique place). But the name gives away the nostalgic and powerful marketing tool.... There was a woman once called Irene Scallan, whose kitchen was a bit of a bar, and then it all grew from there.  The receptionist said some of the old buildings are still there, out back.  You can visit once-thriving market-towns like Thurles or Bunclody which have wonderful family names (such as Stakelums) adorning the buildings once dedicated to pharmacy or butchery or alcohol or clothing, but the centres are now mostly used as carparks.  All through France this summer, we found the old family restaurants shut down, and new American-style diners operating in the new shopping parks in their place (food handed over on plastic or paper sheets or cups). We live in an age of transition. People gratefully walk away from the rotten old stuff, and have to choose what they like from the future.
In the Celtic lands, their choices look more sound, for the most part. In England, we're still transfixed by the facade, what things look like rather than what they do.  The great Abstract Expressionist artist Rothko called his paintings facades. It's a word with a double meaning. Is what you see the real thing, or is something being hidden?
However small the 18th century canals were, they weren't hiding anything. They didn't pretend. Our modern life is mostly about pretence. Going to an empty rural country like Ireland reminds you of real values.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Royal Disdain

Like all robust communities, Llanberis has several interesting historic occasions to refer to. For instance, twice in its history, despite an energetic entrepreneurial spirit shown by the community over centuries, introducing slate-mining, railways, new roads, mountain-climbing, tourism, etc etc etc, English Royals have snubbed it. Meanies.

The Royal Victoria Hotel at Llanberis has only a tenuous claim to the name because of an irritating no-show by HRH.  On a grand day in August 1832 when HRH Princess Victoria was due to visit, arriving with a huge entourage of courtiers and nobles, and with the whole town turned out to meet her, the Princess was indisposed and did not appear. Her huge party of celebrants and grandees came along, and it took the assembled townsfolk (and hoteliers) a while to realise that their patroness (and in the case of the hotel, their namesake) was not there. The party had to go on without her. She was too ill.  The hotel's written history says 'considerable disappointment was felt when it became known that the young princess, or as the quarry-men called her 'Frenhines fach' was not in the party.'

Her mother, the Duchess of Kent and the others all went on a day trip around about, on the lake and to the ruined castle of Dolbardarn, and the royal banner was displayed opposite the hill of the council where the barons of Snowdon encamped when they made a treaty with Edward which united Wales and England.  But, somehow, it doesn't quite work.  They called this huge hotel Royal Victoria, but she never turned up.

But this wasn't the first royal snub. The hotel is not far from the site of the town's ancient castle, a seat of resistance and national Welsh pride, built by Llywelyn Fawr who died in 1240. When the English King Edward took over, he decided that Dolpadarn was NBG for his purposes and Caernarfon would be a better place and he proceeded to partly dismantle Dolpadarn and use the timbers in his other pad.

Local bitterness was perhaps assuaged by Prime Minister William Gladstone who - in 1892 at the age of 84 - arrived in Llanberis and gave a truly stirring speech about (of all things!) the the freedom of small states, and he did this up on the slopes of Mount Snowdon, attended by a huge crowd. He was there to celebrate the opening of a footpath, because by that time, the wars of the past had faded away, the slate quarries were in fine fettle, a railway had connected the area to the outer world for tourism and freight, and a new road had been constructed down the terrifying Llanberis Pass, making access so much easier. Walking (or taking the train) up Snowdon became a national obsession. In fact, in the 1960s, I remember a weekend at my granny's house in Hampstead when some of the uncles arrived in jubilant mood having gone to climb Snowdon (there and back) between Friday and Sunday. They missed lunch when they got back, but were given sandwiches and cheers by the family. None of the uncles had anything special in the way of clothing or footwear... tweed jackets, twill trousers, brogue shoes.  They did it on a whim.

The hotel is rather grand where it can be. The breakfast buffet is offered at the entry of the large dining room (though your seating is quite a long way away in a glazed balcony). No trays are available so you have to go back and forth for each orange juice, cereal, toast, or whatever, wending your way between the tables in the main area... It dawned on us that one of their main preoccupations is petty larceny. Everything is arranged so you can't nick anything. It must be a big problem for them, with hordes arriving in summertime for walking and mountaineering. The books lining the wall are fake - a kind of wallpaper. On the buffet, the only fresh fruit is a slice of water melon (no apples to sneak into your lunch picnic). The yoghurt is served in a huge porringer. The butter comes in little open rolls all ready at your table (you have to take some with you back to the toaster if you want to put an egg on your DIY toast back at the far end of the dining room). Actually, once you get the hang of it, it's all fine - the choice is superb and everything is delicious.  But the night before, the head barman was really refusing to let me take a glass of wine to my room, although I was in my bedroom slippers, because I did not have the little slip of white paper which came with the room key.... And a whole picture had been stolen from the wall, leaving four patches of velcro where it had once been.  Stealing stuff from hotels is not a joke. And royal no-shows are not a joke either.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

We've just checked into the Royal Victoria Hotel in Llanberis, having driven all day across England to get here. Tomorrow we'll do the last 30 miles to Holyhead to catch the fast midday ferry to Dublin.

We don't do all that much driving on motorways in England. Things change, subtly all the time. There is a distinct hitch-up in the aggression rate. People drive fast all  the time, so as they leave a motorway and get to a roundabout they're still on high adrenalin and swerving round as if it's a racetrack. That makes anyone going at a more suburban rate, maybe unfamiliar with the route or struggling to see the signage, vulnerable. There's a lot of horn-work, aggression.  More than, say, five years ago. Perhaps we should impose lower speed limits on all roundabouts, so they just slow down before they join in with less speedy traffic.

It's also interesting to see how all the big heavy vehicles are evolving. Whereas HGVs used to be fairly standardised, they are now getting more specialised. There are so many different kinds of trailer, grab, tipper, crane, low-bed, car-carrier etc now.  They seem much heftier, chunky. Whoever makes and sells these things must have upped their game, designing and marketing very highly specialised vehicles in much greater numbers.  No idea if these are British or not, though.

We had an impressively unimpeded journey round the M25 (N), then up the M1 as far as about Daventry, and then hopping off onto the A5, thus avoiding some sort of vile hold-up on the M6. Hoorah.  It's such a relief getting off the motorways... the kind of concentration and manoeuvres you have to make on an A road are just more stimulating. I was wondering if there would be any special reason evident to a passer-by to explain why the A5 (Roman Watling Street) has a distinct change of direction at one point - now a six-wents, and it turns out that was where it crossed the Fosse Way. Wikipedia has a good page describing the A5, concentrating on the engineer Telford who did a lot of work on it.

We stopped for lunch at a random cafe which turned out to be the works canteen of the wonderful British haulage firm of Eddie Stobart. It is smallish but clean and gets good marks from reviewers on Trip Advisor (we only read those after we sat down).  It is deeply reminiscent of motorway service stations in the early 70s. The food is ok, hot, reasonable choice, brought to your table by willing waitresses...  but, I feel sorry for anyone eating in such places every day.  The French established les Routiers, which had culinary standards....  This stuff is done to a price and even the salad was tasteless.... though we were grateful for it.  The chips were ok, but cooked in the dullest oil. The peas were copious and bright green, but could have been made of soya.... no flavour, and I guess little nutritional benefit.

Once again we observe how the great choice of roadside pubs has diminished - many are now Chinese or Indian restaurants, or closed down altogether, or for sale.  England is changing.

Getting into Wales made a great difference - suddenly everything looked beautiful. Dusk was falling (a bit later than in Kent, of course), and the Dee valley was lovely.  By the time we got to the Llanberis Pass which I would have liked to see, everything was dark, and rain had started, so it was more an imagination-road than eyeball-socking Gothic.  But the hotel is brightly lit, over-heated, with cheerful reception staff, and a stormy wind blowing outside so we feel snug.

Ireland tomorrow.