Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Shelling out for the underground

Margate, on the northern coast of Kent, is an unusual place. On a sunny day, and they do occur, the beach around which it is set presents an appealing arc of sand, along which a glittering sea laps, attractively. To one side, the striking Turner Contemporary art gallery - a modern addition to the waterfront, and an attempt to trigger wider investment - draws the eye and a lot of visitors who, but for its existence, would probably have come nowhere near this otherwise somewhat dilapidated seaside town.

This is partly because, behind the gallery and seafront, lurks Old Margate. Bits of it, without question, are attractive and interesting, and blue plaques record the home of John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques (whose birthplace is also marked, here), and the building where Eric Morecambe and his wife held their wedding reception. Other parts of Old Margate are, regrettably, more problematic. Like many British seaside towns, with the rise in package flights to sunnier climes, Margate suffered from the decline in "traditional" seaside holidays, and its descent towards (if not downright into) borderline poverty is etched on its crumbling buildings and neglected spaces.

Walking away from the sea front, past buddleia-bedecked derelict sites awaiting money or inspiration, or both, the atmosphere, whilst not exactly threatening, is nevertheless somewhat less than welcoming. All towns and cities have their slightly unloved, but ultimately utilitarian, areas and Margate is hardly to be blamed for appearing to have more than its fair share of them. Nevertheless, the further from the sea we walked, the less sensible the plan that we had seemed to be.

Eventually, the road we were seeking came into view, and we turned left, climbing up a sloping and otherwise entirely residential-looking street. A little way up, on the right hand side, was the entrance to the building we were looking for, if "building" is quite the right word. We had arrived at the "Shell Grotto", an underground passageway, in essence, lined with shells; an exceedingly strange attraction, in an extremely unlikely location.

After paying our entrance fee, we wandered into a small back room, which contained background information on the grotto, such as it is possible to ascertain, which does not appear to be much. For example, one of the signs posed the questions, "Why was it built? When? Who by?" and answered them concisely with, "We don't know."

Descending a small stairway at the back of this room, we found ourselves in the grotto proper. A shell-lined circular underground corridor with an arched roof leads to a small atrium with a domed ceiling, through which daylight enters. Beyond this, a further passage gives access to rectangular room known somewhat sensationally as the "altar chamber", one end of which is blank cement, a testament to bomb damage from the Second World War.

As with a lot of the Grotto, definite information is sparse, so whether it was part of some religious temple, or just somebody's crazy whim is impossible to say; the grotto appears to have been discovered (or, at any rate, its existence made public) in 1835, but other than that, the rest is largely speculation, including just how old it actually is. Whatever the reason, date or individuals behind its creation, it remains an arrestingly odd place, and definitely worth a visit. Just don't go expecting to learn anything very definitive, other than perhaps what it is like to be in a shell-lined tunnel underground.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Wainwright away

Between 1955 and 1966, Alfred Wainwright published seven volumes of a pocket-sized walkers' guidebook called "A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells". In the course of doing so, he identified 214 hills and mountains (known as "fells") in the Lake District in Northern England which have come to be known, collectively, as "the Wainwrights". For those of us who are so inclined, myself included, it has become a common past time to walk or "bag" those fells and to "do the Wainwrights".

Not all of us, however, have ready access to the Lake District, and so the process of walking all 214 fells can take several years. Fitter and, for the slower among us, more annoying people have achieved the same thing in six or seven days, but I like to think that they could hardly have savoured the experience. Another advantage about the process being more drawn out is that each time I return to the Lakes, I experience anew the sensation of joy and happiness that comes from the effort of propelling myself over beautiful landscape, with often even more stunning views around me.

And so it was this weekend, when I returned to the hills, almost ten months after my last visit. Having started my car journey pleasingly early, I arrived in the North Lakes in good time to climb Binsey, a low Wainwright, somewhat detached from the main bulk of fells that he catalogued. As it can take me at least five hours' driving to get to the Lakes (sometimes as much as seven or eight, if the traffic is against me), I have occasionally considered some Wainwrights as "expensive", meaning that the effort required to get to and then walk them is relatively great.

If I were to have travelled here to climb Binsey on its own, and nothing more, it would have been an extremely "expensive" hill, being only 447 m (1,467 ft) high, and so removed from its neighbours that it would not have been particularly practical to combine it with any other hills. As it was, I had a longer walk planned for the next day, so this was a bonus. Being only a pleasing 50 minute climb there and back from the car, this gently walk was also exactly what I needed after my drive.

Looking back south over the Skiddaw massif and Bassenthwaite Lake (the only "lake" in the Lake District, trivia fans; the others have "mere" or "water" in their names) having reached the modest summit, I felt refreshed and renewed, almost instantly. The fresh air, the bright sunlight, the endorphins, all combined to blow away the cobwebs that can accumulate, living predominantly indoors over winter, and I found myself grinning broadly, despite myself.

The next day, I walked and walked and walked. I had been planning to climb two other Wainwrights, but as I wandered over the fells, and saw the proximity of several others, I ended up climbing five. I turned back from a possible sixth, as the wintery wind filled with razor-sharp droplets of freezing rain, which pinged harshly against my face, but I was still satisfied. Looking back, on my way off the hill, the wind and rain having abated and the sun breaking through the clouds again, I wished, for a moment, that I had pressed on, but you never know what the weather will do in the Lakes, and it could easily have got worse.

The hills will still be there another day, I considered, and it's always good to have something to come back to.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Hodge your bets

In Gough Square in the City of London stands the above statue to Hodge, Dr Johnson's cat (whose ears, I can't help but feel, are actually just a little too big). I first met this Hodge around Christmas time, one year, when he had a collar of tinsel, and a pleasingly festive air. He stands, on a plinth, outside Dr Johnson's house, on which is written "HODGE a very fine cat indeed belonging to SAMUEL JOHNSON", repeating a quotation attributed to him in in James Boswell's Life of Johnson. Dr Johnson is supposed to have said of his pet "He is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed."

There is something deeply humanising about hearing about how famous historical figures interacted with their animals, and indeed the names they gave to them. Hodge is a great name for a cat, but I think that I slightly prefer the name given by Edward Lear to his tubby tabby cat - Foss. I have also always liked the story about Hodge, again told by Boswell, that Dr Johnson would go out himself to buy oysters for his cat, rather then make is servants do it, so that they wouldn't dislike Hodge for having been put to extra work.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Jurassic Parklife

Sometime in 1852, sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to create 33 "life-size" models of extinct animals (including, most famously, dinosaurs) out of concrete, to be displayed to the public. The fact that the very idea of dinosaurs was relatively new (the name "Dinosauria was only given to these creatures by Sir Richard Owen in 1842) and not altogether well-understood (Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was not published until 1859) does not appear to have dissuaded Hawkins unduly. Over the following three years, accordingly, and in collaboration with Owen and other paleontologists, Hawkins set about creating the arrestingly odd collection of figures that are still on display in the grounds of Crystal Palace in South London today.

I had heard about these unlikely beasts years before, but only recently had determined to actually make the effort required to visit them and was still unsure what to expect. The Crystal Palace site is, itself, a remarkable remnant of times past. Although it was the second location of the enormous glass exhibition hall, first erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, just about all that remains of it is the footprint of the giant building. Below this are the surviving steps leading down to wide terraces, whose glory days of supreme manicuring are, presumably, long gone.

The building itself burned to the ground in 1936, having been moved from Hyde Park (and greatly expanded in the process) in 1854. Wandering about the ruins today, and seeing tantalising hints of what might have been, tucked away behind wire fences and beneath the undergrowth, here and there, it is hard to escape the feeling that the world that the Victorians experienced, for all that it had undoubted and extreme deprivations for many, was also almost unbelievably breathtaking; an age of supreme ambition. Even before its move and inflation, the original Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was 1,851 feet (564 m) long, 128 feet (39 m) tall and with 990,000 square feet (92,000 m2) of floor space, and in its new location its scale only increased.

Today, several levels below where the Crystal Palace once stood, despite years of ridicule for their appearance, once dinosaurs became better understood (and their 1850s appearance having been dismissed as inaccurate), having been ignored, overgrown, rediscovered and restored (more than once), the dinosaurs still reside beside their pools of water. They were most recently restored in 2002 and are now Grade I listed buildings (pleasingly, the same classification as Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster). They are, without question, an odd day out. In fact, and with all due respect to them, they probably do not merit a complete day in themselves (if you're interested, it's also worth checking out the Park Farm, nearby, as well as the ruins of Crystal Palace) but they are certainly worth a visit.

They are broadly laid out in different geological eras, and include figures of prehistoric mammals, but it is the dinosaurs, including the iguanodons, pictured above, that are the real draw. Don't go expecting a real life Jurassic Park experience; these beasts are static and don't really accord with our current understanding of what dinosaurs looked like. Thinking abut it, however, we really shouldn't be too smug about what we consider to be "knowledge"; in my lifetime alone, for example, dinosaurs have gone from being widely believed to be big green scaly monsters, to brightly coloured feathered creatures,. Any assumption that our current era really "knows" anything should, within certain parameters, be treated with great suspicion.

Friday, 8 January 2016

As I was going to St. Ives...

      As I was going to St. Ives,
      I met a man with seven wives,
      Each wife had seven sacks,
      Each sack had seven cats,
      Each cat had seven kits:
      Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
      How many were there going to St. Ives?

So runs the famous riddle. I suppose it still counts as a riddle even if there is no clear or widely accepted answer to it, but that doesn't make it any less irritating. It also quite neatly sums up some of my objections to mathematics, as as subject, an aversion which probably dates back to my school years. I can still vividly recall, as an eleven year old boy, being given an impromptu maths test that included the question, "If it takes four minutes to boil one egg, how long does it take to boil eight eggs?" Naively assuming that, in a maths lesson, it was a maths, rather than a cookery, question, I dutifully multiplied four by eight to answer "32 minutes". Of course, the answer was four minutes, because you can boil all the eggs at the same time, not that boiling even a single egg was something I think I had done at that age. Any possible interest I may have had in maths died that moment, and thereafter I considered the subject to be annoying, tricksy and deceitful.

All of which is a surprisingly negative way of introducing a post about St. Ives, the little seaside town on the north coast of Cornwall, England; a place that I visited for the first time in 2015, and almost immediately fell in love with. I had been to Cornwall several times before, and had even done some volunteer work near Penzance on the south coast, but this was the first occasion that I had been to this part of the county. St. Ives is unashamedly a tourist village, and every Friday and Saturday the roads are jammed as one group of holidaymakers swaps over with the next set. Despite this, the place managed to accommodate all of these tourists without feeling overly spoiled.

It has come a long way from its origins, as a sleepy fishing village, but there is nevertheless a clear sense of a real community remaining beneath the seasonal tide of emmets (the Cornish name for tourists, from an old English word for ants - the logic speaks for itself). For many, the draw of St. Ives is the bright blue sea, and its warm sandy beaches. St. Ives is surrounded by bays, each of which offers something different for different people. For families who wish to sunbathe and paddle, there is the broad expanse of Porthminster Beach, with its cafes and restaurant. To the north west, there is Porthmeor Beach, which draws surfers and bodyboarders. Around the natural promontory known as The Island, between the two, there are three or four other little sandy alcoves, which slowly fill up with holiday-makers.

The town itself is full of the usual shops and restaurants that one would expect of the seaside, but St. Ives also has an outpost of the Tate Gallery, as well as a museum dedicated to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who used to live there (some of whose works are also dotted around the town). Tucked away in the winding streets of the town itself are dozens of little art galleries and shops selling a wide variety of attractive oddments. It feels like a creative place, and one where people are encouraged to be themselves.

I had had a hectic and stressful time before I arrived, and so I was more than content to swim in the sea, and wander the streets, never once getting back into my car. Slowly, over the following week, I began to feel myself unwinding, and the taste of salt water on my lips brought back pleasant memories of childhood holidays by the sea. One day, splashing about in the water, I was startled to see the head of an equally curious harbour seal in close proximity, which soon disappeared beneath the waves, leaving me uncertain as to what I had seen. Later that evening, walking along Smeaton's Pier, I was reassured to see two of these lovely animals rolling languorously in the shallow waters beneath. St. Ives felt very much at ease, with itself and its temporary inhabitants, and that sense of relaxation was exactly what I needed. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Tales from the American Bar

The American Bar of the Savoy Hotel, London is an art deco masterpiece, and the origin of a number of world-famous cocktails. Dotted around its curving walls are pictures of stars of yesteryear who once frequented it - among them, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, and Marlene Dietrich - and with a live pianist cranking out and singing the classics, it's a place worth visiting for a drink or two.

Last year, I went on my birthday, partly in search of a cocktail to match one I had enjoyed in New York earlier in the year. On our last night in New York, we had gone to the bar at Perry St., where an amazing mixologist called Mac listened to our moods and preferences, and went away to do strange and unusual things with alcohol and mixers.

When he returned a little later, he watched as a waiter dished out our various drinks, and before we were allowed to taste them, he have us their history (some were pre-prohibition, he explained). My cocktail was to be an Aviation, but he told me to wait before sampling it, as he poured a violet-coloured liquid down a glass mixing stick. I gather that the Aviation is made with gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice, but this simple list is, I suspect, only the half of the mixer's skill.

It was, without question, the single best cocktail I had ever had, and on a few occasions since, I have tried, and failed, to get somebody to replicate it. My New York Aviation, pictured above, had a floating "cloud-base", and a flavour of a delicate complexity that I have not experienced before or since. All mightily impressed, we asked Mac where he had learned his almost alchemical craft. "I trained," he said, "under a full-blooded Cherokee named Ed," and we nodded sagely at this semi-mystical statement.

Back at the Savoy, more recently, I ordered another Aviation, expecting a two layered drink of wonder, but instead I received a disappointingly ordinary-looking glass containing a drink of one colour and a maraschino cherry. I have learned, subsequently, that some mixers omit the crème de violette, and it may be that this is the missing magic, or maybe there was something in the teachings of Ed, passed down to Mac, that are simply not replicable by ordinary mortals.