Architectural admiration (7)

Here is another selection in this series. It takes in a vast area, from London, to Beijing. I hope that you find something to interest you. Please let me know, in the comments.

Battersea Power Station, Battersea, London.

This Art Deco monolithic structure was built on the south bank of the river Thames, during the 1930s.
The signature chimneys have dominated the skyline in that area ever since. It is actually two power stations in one, and remains as the largest brick-built building in Europe. It has been a part of my life, and the London skyline, obviously for as long as I can remember, and its imposing presence in south-west London, has attracted film-makers and architectural admirers ever since it was opened. Although it has not been used as a power station since 1983, it has a listed exterior, and many developers have fought for the rights to make it into something. From a concert venue, to a luxury housing development, many planning applications have been submitted. The most recent to gain approval includes a hotel, luxury flats, and a shopping centre. Luckily, the facade will be retained, so Londoners will be able to continue to enjoy this marvellous structure in their city.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battersea_Power_Station

GUM, Moscow, Russian Federation.

I first encountered this amazing shopping complex during the late 1970s. This was a department store on the grand scale, built during the latter part of the 19th century. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it contained more than 1,000 individual shops, trading under one fabulous glass roof. The different levels were connected by walkways, and even after it was nationalised, it was still a wonder to behold. Since Russia became more commercialised, it has only 200 stores remaining; most being over-priced, and with goods out of the reach of ordinary people. Nonetheless, it remains an imposing edifice in Red Square, and a wonderful building in its own right.

http://www.gum.ru/en/history/

The Ascension Cathedral, Almaty, Kazakhstan.

When I visited Kazakhstan in the late 1980s, Alma-Ata, as it was then known, was the capital. It has since been replaced by Astana, after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. At the time of my trip, there wasn’t a great deal to be seen there, for a tourist. The Kazakh people were unusual, to be sure, as many were descendants of the Mongols. We were mainly there as a staging point on a trip around Central Asia. However, they were exceptionally proud of one particular building, and took us on an excursion to view it. In Panfilov Park, stood one of the largest all-wooden structures in the world, the Zenkov Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Of The Ascension. It was very impressive indeed. Built in 1903 as part of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is a majestic wooden structure, which even today, is the second tallest wooden structure still standing. We didn’t get to go inside, as at the time, it was not being used as a church. It remains in my memory as one of many outstanding buildings we saw during that trip.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_Cathedral,_Almaty

The Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic.

This iconic structure dates from 1357, and is a landmark of this famous Czech city. Dominated by large watch-towers, it is a pedestrian only bridge now, but once carried traffic. No trip to that city is complete without taking a stroll across this famous bridge, which spans the Viatva River. In the 18th Century, a series of thirty statues were erected, lining both sides of the bridge. Although now mostly replicas, they still give the bridge a unique style, which is not replicated anywhere else. It is rich in history, having endured wars and floods, and played a significant part in the Thirty Years War, when the Swedish army fought there, attempting to take the city. If you ever journey to Prague, it is unlikely that you will not go to see this magical bridge, and take your own walk across it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Bridge

Beehive Kiln, Walmer Road, London W.11, England.

The area known as Notting Hill in London, is now a very trendy place. Made popular by Hollywood films, and used as the location for many TV shows, it has become fashionable over the last few decades. At one time, it was a poverty-stricken district, just on the western fringes of an expanding London, during the 18th and 19th centuries. This was an area where the main industry was the firing of pottery, to make cheap kitchen items, and in particular, bricks. The soil contained thick deposits of London Clay, ideal for this purpose. The area was considered dangerous, due to the slum dwellings and rough inhabitants, and it even gets a mention from Dickens, writing about the place in 1850. Today, only one thing remains to give a clue to the area’s past. The Beehive Kiln, with a memorial plaque, stands as the last reminder of the industrial heritage of this part of London. I used to drive past it every day, and I never ceased to enjoy the quirky building, at the end of a residential street.

http://www.panoramio.com/photo/111144544

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China.

Situated in a lovely park in the south of Beijing, this is a complex of temples, dominated by the iconic pagoda-style circular hall. The whole area is incredibly impressive, and well-worth the effort to find it, if you are ever in that city. It was constructed in the early 14th century, around the same time that the famous Forbidden City was being built further north. It has understandably been adopted as a UN World Heritage Site, and is one of the foremost destinations for Chinese visitors to the city. For a small admission fee, you also get to wander around the vast peaceful park, and see locals enjoying the outdoors. It is a very different tourist experience, as well as being one of the best preserved examples of this style of architecture anywhere. I have added a Chinese link, with English text.

http://en.tiantanpark.com/default.aspx

Aigues-Mortes, Petite Camargue, France.

This is a fascinating walled town on the salt marshes of the Petite Camargue, completely enclosed by ancient fortifications. Believed to have been founded as a settlement in Roman times, it is in an area known for salt production. Once on the coast, it is now inland, though still surrounded by marshes, and susceptible to flooding. It was developed into its present form during the 13th and 14th centuries, when existing towers were joined by walls, making the whole town secure inside what was, in effect, a large castle. Wandering around there in the 1980s, it felt as if time had stood still. Only the souvenir shops and modern bars gave any idea of the passing of time. If you ever find yourself in this area, south-west of Arles, be sure to make time to visit this historical gem.

http://www.languedoc-france.info/030416_aiguesmortes.htm

Seven more memories of my travels, places I have visited and admired. I hope that you discover something new, click the links, and enjoy the photos and the additional information.

Architectural admiration (2)

As I received enough positive feedback for the first post in this series, I have decided to compile some more, starting now. They will still be, for the moment, things I have actually seen, and stood before. The selections will continue to be varied, both chronologically, and architecturally, so please bear with me.

Fort La latte, Brittany, France.
This Breton castle is an absolute delight. Built in the 13th Century to defend the coast of Brittany from attack by the English, it is remarkably well preserved. The coastal location also provides amazing views over the sea, and it is small enough to enable the visitor to get a real feel of life for the defenders. If anyone has ever seen the 1958 film ‘The Vikings’, with Kirk Douglas (and who hasn’t?) it will be immediately familiar, as the scene of the climactic battle. I first visited this castle in the early 1980s. when staying in a gite nearby. I was entranced by it then, and I still am today.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort-la-Latte

Frinton Park Estate, Essex.
Back in the 1930s, and Art Deco houses, with no apologies. The Frinton Park Estate contains some of the best remaining Art Deco housing in England. Built in 1934, in the sedate seaside town of Frinton, on the Essex coast, this development is just breathtaking. A series of Art Deco and Modernist housing, all still occupied, and as pristine today as when they were built. I made a special trip to this sleepy town, just to enjoy and photograph these houses. I could happily live there, and if I ever win the lottery, I just might.
http://www.art-deco-classics.co.uk/frinton_artdeco.php

City Hall, London.
This building was created for the new Greater London Authority, in 2002, on land adjacent to Tower Bridge, called Potters Fields. It was designed by Norman Foster, one of Britain’s most famous architects, and though it does not have any connection with the City of London at all, it serves as the meeting place for the Greater London Assembly, and houses the office of the Mayor of London. (Though not the Lord Mayor, who is Mayor of The City). It is confusing for non-Londoners, I appreciate that!
The building stands alone, and is easily viewed from outside, or from the nearby vantage point afforded by Tower Bridge. It seems to be collapsing, as the various layers appear to be incapable of supporting its weight. This is part of the architectural genius behind the design, and serves to make it all the more appealing. (At least to me.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Hall,_London

Thiepval Memorial, The Somme, France.
Another Art Deco structure, but with a solemn difference. Opened in 1932, and designed by the marvellous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, this is a memorial to over 72,000 British and Colonial troops killed during WW1 who have no known graves. I cannot describe the feeling of the first viewing of this memorial, one foggy day in November. It loomed from the mist, like a cathedral to the fallen, and made me stop and stare. There was a lump in my throat as I approached it, and I found it hard to speak, as I walked beneath the central arch. I cannot say a lot more, in all honesty. Few structures have ever moved me with their magnificence, and their palpable sense of importance. This is one to experience, and perhaps to feel it as I did that day.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiepval_Memorial

Trellick Tower, London.
Designed by the wonderfully named Erno Goldfinger, this 1960s ‘Brutalist’ tower block was finally opened for habitation in 1972. Dominating the surrounding area in the Ladbroke Grove district of west London, it remains as one of the largest and most iconic housing developments anywhere in Europe. Love it, or hate it, you cannot ignore it. Although nominally having 31 floors, the design of the flats, many having an upstairs section, makes it a lot higher. The lift tower is separated from the main block, meaning that access is provided by a walkway, affording amazing views over London. Originally designed as a community in the clouds, it once had laundry rooms, a community centre, and its own extensive car park. Though much of this is no longer used, the tower is still a very desirable place to live, and much sought after by local residents.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trellick_Tower

Hotel Ukraina, Moscow.
Since I first saw this imposing building in 1977, it has been much improved, and re-named. Now known as the Radisson Royal Hotel, it is a five-star luxury hotel, on a par with anything on offer in the West. On the banks of the River Moskva, this amazing Stalinist edifice, opened for business in 1957, after Stalin’s death, is enough to take your breath away, with its sheer size, and belated Art Deco architecture. Like many buildings in Russia, since the end of WW2, it is enormous in scale, and built with no expense spared. Until 1976, it was the tallest hotel in the world. I haven’t seen it inside, since the redevelopment, so I can only go by the pictures available, to admire its current opulence.
http://uk.hotels.com/ho133660/radisson-royal-hotel-moscow-moscow-russian-federation/

Tower Bridge, London.
I did say that there would not be any Victorian Gothic architecture included in these posts, but this is an exception. Often wrongly believed to be ‘London Bridge’ by outsiders, this iconic structure is immediately identifiable with London, and unique the world over. Not only does it span the Thames, it is the first bridge visible on arrival in the city, and it also opens in the centre, to allow tall ships to pass into the Pool of London. I was brought up a stone’s throw from the south side of this bridge, and it was a part of my life for sixty years, until I moved to Norfolk. I can honestly say that I love nothing more about London, than this wonderful bridge. It looms over the nearby Tower of London, and dominates the surrounding area, in an imposing fashion. For those interested in detail, it is a bascule suspension bridge, opened in 1894, near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Since 1977, parts of it have been painted in red white and blue, to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Elizabeth. It houses a museum, and is one of the premier tourist destinations in the capital.
But forget all that. It is simply wonderful.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_Bridge

There you have seven more to consider. there will be more to come, another time. Please enjoy these, and do explore the links.

Architectural admiration (1)

I freely admit that I know almost nothing about Architecture. I have never designed so much as an extension, let alone a massive building or structure. I just know the sort of thing I like, so have carried out a little research in those areas. As I have mentioned before, I have a great admiration for the styles of Art Deco and Modernism. I also cannot disguise a fondness for the 1960s buildings, often described as ‘Brutalist’, along with some housing developments derided as ‘concrete canyons’. Of course, I don’t have to live in them, just admire them from outside.

As a diversion from the usual subjects featured here, I thought that I would discuss some buildings and houses, and attempt to explain why I like them so much. There will not be much Victorian Gothic featured, and you may notice a distinct absence of Edwardian Villas too. I will give some examples though, and if it is well-received, I may well post a follow-up, another time. I will try to only comment on those that I have actually seen, though the Internet, and the availability of images, make it possible to feature almost anything anywhere, I feel that the experience of looking at them can add something to the telling of the tale. They will mostly be in England, with some exceptions that I have admired in other countries too. I will also not restrict myself by sticking to dates or periods, and I will not feature them in any chronological order. The list will appear as it did in my head.

In the tradition of this blog, no photographs will appear. (Except for the Oyster Bungalow, that just popped up!) This will require the small task by the interested reader, of clicking on a link that will appear at the end of each section.

Senate House. (University of London)
Long before I had any idea what this building was, I was taken by its sheer presence, and the way it dominated the surrounding area in Bloomsbury. Completed in 1937, the Art Deco structure was a true skyscraper at the time. It was the second tallest building in the whole of London, overlooked only by the uppermost level of St Paul’s Cathedral. It reminded me of a medieval castle, the symmetrical rows of windows reminiscent of loopholes in an ancient fortification. Even today, it is still visible from most high points around the city, and its imposing stance has made it popular for use in many television and film productions.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senate_House_%28University_of_London%29

Rowley Way, North London.
An experiment in communal living, The Alexandra Road Estate was opened by Camden Council, in 1978. Now commonly known as Rowley Way, this provided over 500 homes, a school, community centre, youth club, and even boasted its own heating system. Built in the style of a stepped pyramid (Ziggurat), the central area is pedestrianised for its entire length, as car parking is incorporated below the apartments. Despite backing on to a busy railway line, the main thoroughfare appears peaceful, and lots of planting gave it a garden feel. Opinion about the use of untreated concrete is still divided. This did not weather too well, and can make parts of the complex appear neglected. Social problems with some tenants also gave the estate a poor reputation, and many did not want to take up the offer of homes there. A stone’s throw from multi-million pound dwellings in St John’s Wood, one of the most desirable parts of London, the change in the law that allowed tenants to buy at a discount has changed the face of this development. To buy a three-bedroom apartment there today would cost a cool £500,000.
http://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/the-alexandra-road-estate-camden-a-magical-moment-for-english-housing/

Oyster Bungalows.
The quieter seaside towns in southern England were often developed and expanded during the years between the wars. Pevensey Bay is probably best known for being the site where William the Conqueror landed in this country, before the decisive battle near Hastings, in 1066. The area is overshadowed by its proximity to the larger and more popular town of Eastbourne, so it never really expanded as a resort; though Pevensey Castle still attracts visitors. Built in the 1930s, hoping to capitalise on the popularity of seaside holidays, the Beachlands Estate is home to a collection of Modernist and Art Deco homes, all on a small scale. Included in this development are the famous Oyster Bungalows. I have never seen their like anywhere else. Small two-bedroom bungalows on tiny plots, each built in the shape of an oyster. The living area bulges outward, narrowing towards the back. They might actually be better described as Scallop Bungalows, as their shape more obviously resembles the shell of this animal. However, whether by accident, or design, they were called Oyster Bungalows, and they are delightful.
An "oyster" bungalow, Beachlands

The Royal Crescent, Bath.
Just to show that I don’t only like 20th century architecture, feast your eyes on this 18th century marvel. Bath is a city that is so full of interesting buildings, it demands a visit. From the ancient Roman Baths, The Pump Room (made famous by Jane Austen), and the wonderful Pulteney bridge, with the shops built into it, the whole place is a touristic delight. The Royal Crescent, dating from 1775, is a sweeping terrace of houses in the Georgian style. These days, there is a museum at Number One, as well as a luxury hotel at Number 16. The whole row of houses is listed of course, and beautifully preserved. Essentially unchanged since the time it was built, this is a true look at architectural history that is still living and breathing today.
http://visitbath.co.uk/things-to-do/the-royal-crescent-p56191

Bodiam Castle, Sussex.
Back even further in time, to the 14th century, we find the exquisite moated castle of Bodiam. This is the embodiment of every castle I ever wanted to visit, or to live in. In a near-perfect setting, well-preserved in part, and also sympathetically restored, it is now owned and run by the National Trust. The imposing battlements have witnessed so many upheavals in our history, from the Wars of The Roses, to the English Civil War. On the losing side in that war, much of the castle was demolished, until later rebuilt to its original plan, in 1829. Despite its military appearance, the castle is not well-designed for war, and is more of a stylised ideal, than a practical fortress. Nonetheless, it is simply sublime.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodiam_Castle

St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow.
Many churches of the Orthodox religion feature the distinctive ‘Onion’ dome in their design. However, there are few churches, or any buildings for that matter, as unusual and as easily recognised as St Basil’s in Red Square. Built during the 16th century, to commemorate the victories of Ivan the Terrible, it has nine domes, and two spires. The domes are coloured and patterned, with the effect that the whole building appears to be about to float into the sky, attached to a series of balloons. Since 1928, it has been a museum, owned by the Russian state. Illuminated at night, this iconic building is simply breathtaking, and remains as the instant connection with the city of Moscow, known the world over. (Click small icon to see a photo)

The De La Warr Pavilion.
For the last entry in this first post about architecture, it is back to England, and the 1930s. If I could choose to live anywhere, it would certainly be to own and live in this marvellous Modernist building in Bexhill, on the south coast of England. Inside as well as out, it typifies everything I adore and admire about this style and design. I could write a post about the staircase alone. The interior light, the feel of space, the flat roof terrace and outside balcony, all are just divine. Unfortunately it is not a house, and it is not for sale. It was built in 1935, to serve as an entertainment centre for this sedate seaside town. It houses a theatre, a gallery, and a popular restaurant, as well as exhibition rooms, and a gift shop. Since 1986, it has been listed as a Grade 1 building, so can never be altered. It will remain as it is, for as long as it stands. It is one of my favourite places, anywhere in the world.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_La_Warr_Pavilion

So, there you have my first seven choices. I don’t for a moment expect everyone to agree with them. But please have a look at the links, if you don’t already know these places, and see what you think. Feel free to suggest your own preferences, and I will happily investigate them. I have plenty more for consideration, but seven is enough to be getting on with. If you like this idea for a series of posts, let me know. I will be happy to write more.

Holidays and Travel: Soviet Union 1977

As a young man, I had read all the classic books of Russian literature, as well as newer works, by Mikhail Sholokhov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I had watched the films of Eisenstein over and over, and seen countless war documentaries. Russia was a mythical place to me; enemy in the ‘Cold War’, ally when it mattered most. The Russian Revolution was fifty years old in 1967, and the western allies still regarded this country as the greatest threat to world peace. I had always considered myself politically on the Left, and I really wanted to visit The Soviet Union, and to see all the wonders for myself. I had to wait though, as it was not that easy to travel there in the 1960’s.

By the start of 1977, I had a fiancee willing to travel with me, and enough money to finance a short trip. More importantly, some minor tour companies were beginning to offer reasonably priced packages, all escorted, and excursions included. I could hardly contain my excitement, when we booked a holiday to include Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. We would fly direct to Leningrad, spend two more days there, on to Moscow for two more days, and then down to the Ukraine, before returning for another stay in Leningrad, then home. As it was going to be in late February, we had to prepare for weather we had never experienced. I borrowed an enormous sheepskin coat, and bought thermal underwear, and new ski mittens. We had been advised to take large amounts of chewing gum, women’s tights, and ballpoint pens. Apparently, they were hard to get there, and would be valued as tips, or gifts. We received visas in the post, and were informed that they would be stamped on arrival, and retained on departure, so we would never have the desired CCCP stamp on our passports. We would also have to exchange our money for Rubles over there, as it was not a traded currency.

We had to travel by the state airline, Aeroflot. This was not a prospect we relished, as their terrible safety record was well-known. It soon became apparent that customer service was also unknown, with the grumpiest flight attendants I have ever seen, as well as no announcements in English. The aircraft had basic seating, no-frills catering, and nothing by way of in-flight entertainment. We were later informed, that at this time, all the pilots doubled as military pilots, and the aircraft could be stripped out for use by the armed forces, at short notice. This went some way to explaining the unusual flying style, reminiscent of bombing raids, and totally disregarding passenger comfort (and panic). Despite feeling ill during the flight (and on all subsequent Aeroflot flights), it was all forgiven on arrival in Leningrad. Although the daytime temperature of -20 that greeted us almost froze my ears off, I could not have been more excited. We were ushered to one side in the airport terminal, and dealt with quickly, helped by our guide. It was obvious from the looks and stares, that they were not used to western tourists, and we stood out dramatically, in clothes that were totally different. I just wanted to get to see The Winter Palace, and to retrace the films of my youth, so gave this attention little regard.

Once in the coach on the way into the city, I was a little disappointed to see endless rows of large blocks of flats, flanking each side of the road, and stretching into the horizon. However, I soon recalled that the view from Heathrow Airport into Central London is not a great deal better. Many of the blocks also had huge painted symbols on the sides, my first ever view of the iconography of the Soviet Union; something that I was to get to know, and to admire greatly. Arriving at the hotel, on the banks of the River Neva, looking across to the Gulf of Finland, I was amazed at how luxurious it was. Our room overlooked the water, and we had an oblique view of the famous Cruiser Aurora, the museum ship that fired the signal shot to begin the October Revolution (as legend has it). I was keen to get out and about, but it was already beginning to get dark, and the biting cold made it impossible to be out for much more than thirty minutes at a time; even the river was frozen.

Since its early construction as a Russian city in the 18th Century, the architecture and open planning of the old city has rightly been regarded as an example of some of the best ever seen in Europe. The grand squares, and the canal system, even gave rise to its common description as ‘The Venice of The North’. With the coastal location, and marvellous buildings such as The Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Kazan Cathedral, it really is a touristic gem. We walked along the wide avenue called Nevsky Prospekt, home to the elegant shops, restaurants, and nightlife. This thoroughfare has been mentioned in the works of Dostoevsky, and Gogol, and here I was, strolling along it. We went to look at the famous gates of The Winter Palace, seemingly unchanged since they were stormed by the Bolsheviks, in 1917. Inside The Hermitage, too large to ever see in one lifetime, we managed to marvel at Faberge Eggs, lavish costumes worn by Catherine The Great, and rows of magnificent coaches, once used by the Tzars. There was so much to see, and so little time to see it. In bitter cold, yet bright sunny weather the next day, we went to The Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally built to defend against Swedish attacks, this large area has served as a garrison and prison, as well as being home to a Cathedral, with its distinctive bell tower and gilded cupola. It is also the burial place of all Russian royalty, and even houses the remains of Nicholas II and his family, killed by revolutionaries, in 1918. I was enamoured with this city, and even now, would urge anyone to visit it.

The next day, we flew to Moscow; capital and largest city of the USSR, and famous for so many reasons. Who has not seen Red Square on the news, with its Mayday parades, the multi-coloured onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at one corner? The Kremlin, The famous Metro system, the monolithic Art Deco constructions of the University, and some grand hotels. I wanted to take it all in. I did my best. Despite continuing cold (but not as as cold as Leningrad) we toured as much as possible, in the short time we were there. The Sparrow Hills, giving a wonderful view of the city, full of newlyweds, traditionally having their photos taken. The huge stadium, later home to the 1980 Olympics, and the breathtaking sight of the banks of the Moskva River, illuminated at night. We went to the incredible galleried department store, GUM, and experienced the strange style of shopping there. You chose an item, went to another desk to pay for it, then took the receipt back to the original counter to collect it. It was time-consuming, yet fascinating, in its own way, and seemed to apply in every shop, whatever you bought. Once burned by Napoleon, and later bombed and shelled by the Germans, the city has endured through history, and is a great place to visit. We enjoyed a trip to see The Bolshoi Ballet, at that time housed in the enormous Palace of Congresses, inside the Kremlin. I am no huge fan of Ballet, but really enjoyed it. We also went to see the famous Moscow State Circus, a dazzling display, inside a purpose built arena. The Metro stations are worth the trip alone; with their amazing architecture and chandeliers, statues in alcoves, and tiled graphic images, they really are a wonder. We watched the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb, queuing for an eternity to file past the embalmed body later. Despite the sights of Moscow, I was harbouring a soft spot for Leningrad, and looking forward to returning there.

The next stage of the trip took us west to the Ukraine, and the city of Kiev, on the River Dnieper. This is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and was once part of the Khazar Empire. It was traditionally independent, and despite incorporation in the Soviet Union, retained its own Ukrainian language, and a degree of self-government. We were taken on a tour of the sights, including the St Sophia Cathedral, the Golden Gate, and the Monastery of The Caves. This was a somewhat hurried part of the trip, and after just two days, we were soon on our way again, back to the airport, to return to Leningrad. We had just one more day there, before returning to the UK, and I pledged to return another time. And I did just that.

So, what of the real Russia, the people, everyday life, and the experience of the tourist? There was little time for this, to be truthful, but we did what we could. The first thing we noticed, after changing our money into Rubles, was that it didn’t buy much. This was due to the entirely artificial exchange rate of one Ruble to one Pound. In the ‘real world’ it would have been more like twenty rubles, but we had no alternatives, and could not shop around for better rates. As a result, we were ‘ruble-poor’ and everything seemed ridiculously expensive. We knew that this could not be the case, as ordinary Russians only got around £25 a month salary, so they would never afford to live. No, it was simply the exchange rate. We were approached in the streets, mostly by youngsters, who wanted chewing gum, coca-cola, and any western logo items. Denim jeans were very popular, and they would happily wait while you took them off in a secluded spot, (presuming you had brought something to change into) offering high-value items in return. Cameras and watches were offered, and for the smaller items, we were given badges, belt-buckles, and small Russian souvenirs, like Matryoshka dolls, or carved boxes. Almost nobody spoke English, or at least not to us directly, and this bartering was all done using sign language. Normal shops seemed to sell only one thing. Some shops would be completely full of milk, others of bread, yet another sold only cakes. Supermarkets were not apparent, and the larger stores were like department stores, with different goods on each level of the shop.

We did see some people queuing, a very long queue indeed, all around a city block. We later saw what it was they were waiting for, when a truck loaded with oranges arrived, and they all went in to buy them. Getting around was not that easy, mainly due to language difficulties. I only knew the Russian for ‘Please’, ‘Thanks’ and ‘Comrade’, so not much use. There is also the fact that they use the Cyrillic alphabet, which makes looking at signs and directions almost impossible. I did manage to buy a fur hat, in a department store in Kiev.  This was the three-stage process, all done with sign language, and pointing. They seemed to be implying that the hat I had chosen was too expensive, and were amazed when I casually handed over the equivalent of £17 for it, which would have been a bargain in London. There were lots of people in uniform everywhere. There were City police, State police, Militia police, KGB, (in uniform) as well as the numerous soldiers and sailors, on and off duty. Young people were sometimes dressed in uniform too, as members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. They often acted as honour guards, around famous monuments and buildings. They were approachable, and one gave me his belt, with brass Hammer and Sickle buckle, for six packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum. I still have it, to this day.

For tourists who wanted to buy things, we were directed to the Beryozka shops. These shops contained most Russian consumer goods that were not widely available outside. Large items, like cameras and lenses, telescopes, and binoculars, as well as general souvenirs, and the exotic lacquered boxes famously made in Russia. In these shops, only foreign currency was permitted, and no Rubles could be spent. Outside one of them, we were approached by a well-dressed man, who explained, in good English, that he would like us to buy an umbrella for him, as he couldn’t get one anywhere else. In a country with so much snow, it seemed crazy, but he offered us fifty Rubles, for a £10 umbrella. I felt sorry for him, but had to decline, as exchanging money unofficially, in any form, was strictly forbidden, and we didn’t want to fall foul of the authorities. So, our interaction with ordinary people was limited, but you have to recall the mood of the time. I did make up for this, later, getting to see something of real life. But that is for another post.

My first visit to the Soviet Union was all that I had expected, and more, and whetted my appetite for a longer trip, which I will describe another time.