In Rouen for just one day on my mother’s first trip abroad, we get into conversation with a friendly man, and, for some unfathomable reason, despite her evident reluctance, I accept an invitation to lunch at his home. Not unpleasant but it made a large hole in our short stay.  My preparations for the visit hadn’t been great either and my memories of Rouen were until now vague and unsatisfactory.

This time was much better (apart from the train trip from St Lazare where I had a reserved first-class seat but couldn’t get to it because of the crush of homebound humanity and lack of coach numbering so that I spent the journey standing with my arms extended crucifixion style to enable my fingertips to touch the wall and keep my balance, while admiring the passing flood plain of the Seine).

All better on arrival. I found the city with all its old half-timbered buildings charming even though I realised after a while that there were patterns in the appearance of the old buildings, indicating that much was post-war reconstruction. It was none the less well done and pleasing, the environment around the old charnel house (one of the few left in such extensive condition) fascinating rather than charming.

I’ve wanted to know more about Normandy for some time, stimulated by Flaubert and a countryside and coast reminiscent of the West Country (so reminiscent that a number of Norman locations were used when filming the 1979 film on Tess of the D’Urbervilles, modern Dorset being considered not sufficiently Dorset-like).

Not only the landscape but also its variant of French with a multitude of disguised Scandinavian place names and its history where not more than two hundred years separate Rollo the Viking from the administrative sophistication of the Domesday book and an imprint of Norman French on the law in England of which remnants still exist (“La reine le veult” being a standard parliamentary phrase when the sovereign approves a law).

It would be highly satisfactory to know more about the process through which the Scandinavian blended to become Norman French, or at least to be familiar with the state of research in this field.

Not a bad rabbit to chase…


Bristol and Rammohun Roy

Leaving Dorchester by the Heart of Wessex railway, through central Dorset and into Somerset passing my old school at Bruton and then on to Bristol. It’s a fine route although less loved and romantic than the old Somerset and Dorset with its frontal assault on the Mendips. But unlike the Somerset and Dorset, it survived Dr Beeching’s over-vigorous network pruning and is still with us (perhaps the cutters didn’t notice it). For some years, it led a tenuous existence and when I used it just after rail privatisation, I travelled on a curious assembly of carriages, which felt more like a heritage railway than the real thing.

This time, however, all was different with table and power socket. Somewhat mixed feelings about this as I wouldn’t have minded lazily watching the familiar countryside glide by at an ancient pace but I was grateful for the work time.

I didn’t really visit Bristol but passed through the city three times, once to meet Gunilla arriving from Paris, once to see Gunilla off to Stockholm and see myself off to Paris and a final time returning from Paris to retrieve my coat, which I’d become separated from the second time.

On the first trip, I simply passed through the city and stayed the night at Nailsea close to the airport.

A comfortable room at a completely empty hotel, no other guests and no staff after I’d been welcomed. Learning a couple of hours later that the local hotelier was also the town’s undertaker and of the probable use of the little shed behind the hotel, I wondered whether I had blundered into a horror story…..

I survived the night, however (even without clutching a crucifix) and spent a very pleasant morning with an old schoolfriend from my early days in Sussex, whom I hadn’t seen for over 50 years if not 60.

The other trips to Bristol also brought back old memories – Temple Meads station where the exotic world outside Somerset began on my early teen trips to look at steam locomotives at places with strange-sounding Welsh names and late teen trips on my first solo trip to the north to see a friend in Southport and on my way to Durham and Newcastle for university interviews when I learnt that telling a 1960s University philosophy don that you were interested in Hegel wasn’t a great idea.

On my return to Sweden reading a book about the Brahmo Samaj and the shaping of the modern Indian mind, I find that Rammohun Roy, one of the key figures of the Bengali renaissance died in Bristol (of meningitis) in 1833 and is buried at Arnos Vale cemetery there. His grave has an imposing monument and it looks better tended than Prince Dwarakanath Tagore’s grave at Kensal Green in London, which while not overgrown looks forlorn.

There were many non-conformists (non-catholics outside the Anglican church) in the West Country and unitarianism was strong, believers in a single godhead who didn’t accept the somewhat convoluted mainstream trinitarianism. The contacts between the Bengali renaissance, wanting, among other things, to reform Hinduism and unitarians in England and the US (especially Massachusetts) interest me. In fact, the two groups were headed in different directions but for a while their trajectories seemed to run parallel. There were many unitarians with a social conscience who were appalled at the misery created by the industrial revolution and active in attempts at alleviation (at home and abroad). They perhaps seemed sympathetic to modernising Indian intellectuals, although the unitarians’ fundamental drive was more towards some kind of unitary religion rather than a free India. But the swirl of ideologies is fascinating and I want to learn more.

I’d like to return to Bristol to see Rammohun Roy’s grave. And, as I have a nephew and his wife just north of the city who have just had twins that demand to be inspected and approved and there is a fine Anglo-Saxon church at Bradford on Avon, which has been on my list for a very long time and Easyjet have now introduced a Stockholm-Bristol route, giving us much easier access to the West Country (assuming that I use Google Maps to guide us to the final destination), a trip to Bristol in the not too distant can hardly be avoided.


Dorchester, Dorset

Dorchester felt despondent. The High St, once an important road in the county town with better shops for country people is no longer a prime retail location. The hotel is bankrupt and shuttered and Judge Jeffrey’s kitchen with its leather chairs and fine atmosphere has closed to re-open later this year as a Turkish restaurant. There are a few quirky antique shops, including one with a Somerset signpost that I wanted although fortunately it was just too unwieldy. If I had brought it home, it would have looked sad and out of place. I would have attempted unsuccessfully to clean it or, in an overenthusiastic moment, even paint it. And it would then have looked awful but I would have been lumbered with it, unable to take pleasure in it and unable to throw it away. Memories of signposts are easier to deal with.

Even the Dorset County museum was shut, having packed up its wonderful evocative Victorian room (I hope just temporarily) to make space for Dippy the Dinosaur who is roaming around the country. I wish Dippy would make less fuss about being extinct – I prefer the Victorians.

But there were closed shops in Cornhill too, including Napper’s Mite, a favourite watering hole to look at and listen to shopping folk having coffee or lunch.

It felt as if there wasn’t much money around and I wondered why as the town, the administrative capital of the county, used to feel solid and prosperous.

Some of the smart money seems to wonder this too as the old brewery between the centre and the station has been not insensitively refurbished with restaurants and clothes shops and repackaged as the new Dorchester.

The explanation might partly be Prince Charles’ Poundbury a mile or so away with its mock traditional Dorset houses and shops. I’m not enthusiastic about the design and it feels cut off from the dreamily fine landscape west of Dorchester. Nor do I like the cloying association with the royal family with its Queen Mother Square and Duchess of Cornwall hotel. It has its fans, however, and is perhaps drawing many funded inhabitants away from the old centre. It might have amused Hardy in a sad, wry way if the attempt to preserve the traditional undermined the genuinely traditional.

But my own feelings are complex and mixed. The Dorchester of my imagination is not quite the same as real existing Dorchester. If I get too close, it would probably crumble into dust like an ancient Egyptian artefact exposed to the air. I don’t really want it to change but know that stagnation would also destroy much of what I love.

It was anyway a pleasure to stay for the third time in the Victorian terraced house on the road to Puddletown and Bere, surrounded by my host’s considerable collection of Dorset books and this time granted the privilege of being able to work in the living room while he was out at work.

And I managed one excursion to Christchurch the other side of Bournemouth, right at the edge of the county to see its huge Priory church and admire the waterfront where the Stour and the Avon join forces to pour into the sea.

But I think next time I must come in the summer and see whether it feels more cheerful.






Sheffield and Halifax

Walking with my son beside Porter Brook, we get to the Shepherd’s Wheel, an old water-powered grinding shop. The closeness to the Pennines and the rural surroundings on the western fringes of the city really give a feel for the early days of industry just as the rust belt along the Don towards Rotherham illustrates decline, the smart money having moved on.  With Kelham Island and Abbeydale industrial hamlet, industrial heritage is well catered for in Sheffield.

I found it more difficult to find accounts of the drastic decline of industry in the 1980s and what Sheffield must have gone through then, although my visit to the local history centre was perhaps too brief. The demographic changes alone must have been dramatic; whole areas such as Ecclesall are now inhabited largely by students. What happened to all the steelworkers?

Similar problems when searching for information about the massive housing development Park Hill, impossible to miss when arriving by train. Built from 1957 onwards to replace slums in what was still very much a traditional industrial city, the building seemed successful to start with and received much praise with its streets in the sky (wide decks to try to preserve the communal life of the slums) and careful contouring to fit the sloping landscape.

But then things went familiarly wrong, inadequate maintenance, crime, a bad reputation, presumably high tenant turnover. Finally, the whole huge building, all 1,000+ housing units was emptied and handed over to Urban Splash, a Manchester-based firm specialising in property regeneration. However, economic crisis halted further development and to date only one of the four buildings has been refurbished into attractive apartments for the better resourced, while three remain empty, derelict and desolate, with a sharp break where the well resourced stop (phase two is now hopefully beginning).

I would like to find out more. What happened to the old tenants – where did they go? Were they reluctant to leave or more or less compelled? Did any come back? This would seem important for the collective memory of the city and the future of housing.

I disliked the building when I first saw it but having looked at it closely from all sides, I’m not so sure. It would be interesting to read the details of how it failed.

Another building on my list for closer study is the Halifax Building Society’s former headquarters in Halifax.  I thought it was monstrous, completely out of scale with the rest of the town’s fine collection of Victorian buildings, a city crasher intruding on the urban landscape.

And then I read more about it on Historic England’s website, about its RIBA award, its iconic status, now a Grade II listed building “a highly efficient commercial building”, “a highly intelligent design” and I understood very little about how this could be until I got to the giveaway description “a visually striking building; its distinctiveness confidently reflecting the Society’s economic supremacy in the town”. In other words,its proponents didn’t care about the building’s “in your face” presence like Victorian Pentonville Prison or a Norman castle towering over the community – they wanted it that way and thought it was good.

The irony is that the Halifax was demutualised a few years later, eventually becoming a division of the Bank of Scotland (Lloyds) and it then no longer needed such a massive headquarters building with fine meeting rooms for the directors and all the rest of it.

But I should like to go back to try to see the building through the eyes of its advocates and understand it better.

But if you dodged the icon, the rest of Halifax was fine with its Victorian covered market, its eighteenth-century cloth market with its Italianate feel  and its free location envelopped by the Pennines.





St Albans

For the first four days of my recent trip to England, I went to St Albans, a cathedral city 19 miles north of London, where the air is better but with London in easy reach. I stayed in an Air bnb, a small house built in the garden of a larger house but with its own patio and street entrance.

The garden wasn’t much of an asset in the biting chill but there were consolations in the form of a shower that worked (without the usual UK trade-off between heat and water pressure or switches to be turned on fifteen minutes in advance of a lukewarm trickle). There was also a fine expanse of work space and the hosts were friendly but kept their distance, just popping in once a day to restock the biscuits and make the bed. I could live with that intrusion.

There’s much to see in St Albans but I only managed a fraction as I had friends to meet and other activities in London and an old flat mate to visit in a care home in nearly Elstree.

So this time I didn’t revisit the wonderful Roman mosaic floor – huge and strangely abstract, without the usual gods and goddesses and sprinkling of beasts, mythological and real.

There’s also the cathedral and a lot of other Roman remains as the city was on Watling St, an important Roman road from the Channel through London and up to the north west.

It was then called Verulamium, the name’s origin uncertain but perhaps related to the nearby River Ver, which babbles happily on with its brythonic name, while the town became first Verulamacæstir under the Anglo-Saxons and eventually St Albans in Christian times.

St Albans was martyred close to the current site of the cathedral perhaps under the reign of Emperor Diocletian but maybe earlier, having given sustenance to a fleeing Christian priest. According to the British sixth-century writer Gildas, the first executioner couldn’t bring himself to slay this holy man. The second was more successful although his eyes then dropped out. This was in early Christian times when God was rather more robust and hands on but even so I am inclined to doubt this story.

I copied the appropriate pages of the local Pevsner and walked around the mediaeval quarter with its ensemble of fine buildings. The earliest is supposed to be from the 13th century. One street called French Row fascinated me. Was it a place where French speakers congregated? French was still widely spoken in England in Chaucer’s time (1362) though declining and spoken with a strange accent. There was an old pub in French Row, the Fleur-de-Lys, under which name it existed from the Middle Ages until 2007 when some market barbarian decided that the Snug would be a better name…..

One of the things I love about densely packed England is that there is such a wealth of associations and things to know. We travel far in search of the exotic but if you train your mind and eye to look beyond false familiarity, strangeness and difference are all around us.