Architectural admiration (8)

There hasn’t been a post in this series since February. I made a lot of notes for some more, but decided that they were all too familiar. Yes I had seen and admired them, but so have so many others. I needed to find some of the more unusual ones again, and that was proving to be more challenging. These posts are very time-consuming, involving lots of research, to ensure accuracy. This one alone has taken most of a day. On this occasion, I have included three mammoth architectural icons that I have never seen. This diversion from my usual discipline is inspired by the thought that I almost certainly never will see them, but some of you may well get the chance. I have separated them at the end of the post, for clarity.

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Morocco.

Very rarely, you visit a place where you would actually like to live. Perhaps not always in the country where you find it, but certainly in the actual place itself. Being able to own it, then move it to the perfect location, is a rewarding fantasy. French artist Jaques Majorelle created just such a place, in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the years between the two world wars. The modernist house and buildings are surrounded by acres of lush gardens, courtyards and fountains, and fine examples of cactus, and other exotic plants. His paintings are displayed inside, and much of the area is painted with the most vibrant shade of cobalt blue, of his own concoction. So distinctive, it has become known as ‘Majorelle Blue.’ Tiles and mosaics are used extensively, and the design is cleverly intended to make the best use of angles of sight, and to allow light to fall just where it is needed.

The house was bought by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1980, and when he died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the gardens. I can understand why he would have wanted that. There is also a museum of Berber art and textiles founded by Saint Laurent, and like the gardens, open to the public. If you ever visit that city, be sure not to miss this treat for the senses.

Eltham Palace, South London, UK.

Eltham is a sprawling suburb of south-east London, on the border with the county of Kent. Driving along its High Street, with the usual mix of estate agents, ‘phone shops, and chain stores, you would hardly be aware of the treasure that lies just behind it. This is definitely a house that I would love to live in, for so many reasons. Built as a moated manor house in 1296 for the Bishop of Durham, it was given over to the crown as a gift to Edward II, in 1305.

This house has such a connection with the history of the British Royal Family, and that of our country too, I am at a loss to understand why it is almost unknown to so many of us. It was one of the primary Royal residences for over two hundred years, and is the place where Henry VIII grew into manhood. However, life in Tudor England was all about being close to the River Thames, the main artery of travel, and because of this, Eltham fell out of use, with the palace at Greenwich coming into favour, due to its riverside location. After the English Civil War, and the restoration of Charles II, it was little more than a ruin, and was bequeathed by the King to John Shaw. All that remained was the Great Hall, and some of the original walls, and Shaw’s family held on to the property in this condition, until the end of the 19th Century.

In 1933, Stephen Courtauld bought the house. He was part of the rich industrial family that were famous art collectors, and founders of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He built the current house, incorporating the restored Great Hall. The interior is an Art Deco wonderland, of untouched stylistic features and furniture from the mid-1930s, with a circular entrance hall/reception room that has an amazing ceiling, and beautiful wood-panelled walls. The gardens are delightful too, and since the building was taken over by English Heritage in 1992, it has been open to the public. This is a real gem, tucked away just a short train ride from Central London to Eltham Station, or easily accessible by car, using the main A2 or A20 roads from London to the coast. I urge you to make the effort.

The Gherkin, St Mary Axe, London, UK.

During the IRA bombing campaign against London, a huge bomb devastated the area in the City around the Baltic Exchange building, in 1992. Despite demands to retain the facade of the damaged building, it was declared unsafe, and soon demolished. There were many ideas put forward to replace it, with Sir Norman Foster, the distinguished British architect, gaining acceptance for his design, which was built from 2001, and officially opened in 2004.

The end result divided opinion, and it was soon nicknamed The Gherkin, relating to the shape of the small pickled cucumber. I always thought that it looked more like a bullet, and the retro-futuristic style appealed to me a great deal, like a rocket from the 1960s. Despite the circular appearance, all the glass is flat, and designed to create a pattern on the building. It is home to the Swiss Re insurance company, and a dozen or more other international companies. It also has restaurants, and a very impressive entrance lobby. On the top floor, which is the fortieth, there is a private dining room and bar for tenant’s use only, with impressive views. This building manages to appear smaller than it actually is, within the confines of that area in the congested city. But it is imposing, and can be seen from over twenty miles away.

Like my previous choice, Eltham Palace, it has attracted the attention of many film-makers, so you may well have seen it on screen.

Rochester Castle, Rochester, Kent, UK.

Built in the 11th Century, this imposing castle dominated the River Medway, and the main road from London. Despite the ravages of time, the imposing keep remains, and still looks formidable to this day. During its heyday, it was fought over many times, but saw little action after 1381, when it was all but destroyed during the famous Peasants’ Revolt.

During the late Victorian Age, it was opened as a park around the ruins, and it was not until relatively modern times that it was restored to its former glory by English Heritage, who now own the site. It is open to the public as an attraction, and continues to be well attended, and admired. Listed as a Grade 1 building of historical importance, it may be better known to anyone who has seen the film ‘Ironclad’ (2011), which was filmed in and around the castle.

These next examples are those that I have never seen, and for different reasons, probably never will. My admiration for them is no less diminished by this fact.

Ghengis Khan Equestrian Statue, Mongolia.

I have not seen this of course. It was built in 2008, funded by a Mongolian businessman who had made his fortune after the country’s independence. Determined to keep the name of his famous ancestor alive, he paid to have this statue erected, overlooking the steppes from where Ghengis began his conquest of the known world.

I saw it on TV recently, when Joanna Lumley visited it, on her Trans-Siberian tour. It may seem garish on first glance, but you have to consider how important a figure that Genghis Khan was to modern day inhabitants of Mongolia. His conquests exceeded those of Alexander The Great, and anything that the Roman Empire achieved.

During the Soviet years, he was all but erased from history, so it is fitting that such an edifice be erected to his memory. Some sixty miles from the large city of Ulan Bhator, this magnificent statue stands looking over the boundless plains of Mongolia. Visitors can access the viewing platform, on the top of the horse’s head, and gaze over plains unchanged since Ghengis rode across them. Simply marvellous.

The Motherland Calls, Volgograd, Russia.

When this amazing memorial to the battle of Stalingrad was opened in 1967, it was claimed to be the largest statue in the world. Volgograd is the modern name for Stalingrad, but the city is the same one that saw the terrible battle during the Second World war. A battle where the Germans were defeated, and indisputably changed the whole tide of the war, in favour of the allies.

The statue symbolises ‘Mother Russia’, sword in her hand, defending her nation from the invader. Despite numerous trips to the Soviet Union, I never got to see this, to my great regret.

Krak Des Chavaliers, , near Homs, Syria.

The recent tragic war in Syria has put the fate of this once magnificent castle in doubt. Perhaps the best preserved Medieval castle in the entire world, the Krak was originally developed by the order of the Knights Hospitaller in 1142, during the Crusades. They held it until it fell to the Saracens, in 1271. The huge castle complex is located in a dry desert area, and this helped to preserve the wonderful architecture over the centuries. At one time, it contained a garrison of over 2,000 knights, who used it to control a vast area of the country.

Until Syrian independence, the castle was controlled by the French in modern times, and they restored the castle to its former glory. Since 2011, the castle has been fought over by the Syrian rebels and government, suffering air attacks, and shelling. More recently, it has also been the site of fighting against Islamic State. So, it’s future is in doubt, and even if my circumstances changed, it is unlikely that I will ever see it.

So that’s my latest selection, including a few I have never seen. It may well be my last, as I have no wish to go over many other buildings and sites that so many others have seen. I hope that you can visit some, and find others to admire.

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.

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.

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.,_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.

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.

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.

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.

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 (4)

For the fourth outing in this series, I am sticking with buildings or structures that I have actually seen, or been inside. Apologies for the bold type. Try as I might, I cannot get rid of it in edit. Grrr!

Bluebird Garage, Chelsea, London.

King’s Road in Chelsea, is now considered to be a very fashionable place; home of designer shops, smart boutiques, and stylish restaurants. During the Punk phase, it was frequented by many adherents of this style, who would visit the shops run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren. Decades earlier, in 1923, the Bluebird Garage was built at number 330, in the very latest Art Deco style of architecture. It had petrol pumps on the forecourt, and sold and serviced cars too, as a main agent for Chrysler. I had always liked this unusual building, painted white, with the obvious Deco references. When I first joined the London Ambulance Service, it had been taken over by the Greater London Council. They had put an Ambulance Station on the lower floor, and used the upper areas for the storage of the vehicles used to take children to school. On my first day after qualifying, I was told to report there, to meet the divisional officer in charge. I later worked out of there on many occasions, and we even used the petrol pumps to fill up our ambulances. When a modern Ambulance Station was later built in Fulham, the building was closed up. It was later acquired by Terence Conran, and extensively redeveloped into the Bluebird Cafe and Restaurant. This name was from the connection with Donald Campbell, who was one of the owners of the original garage. Luckily, the facade is listed, so it remains available to see in all it’s glory, to this day.

Church of St Joan of Arc, Rouen, Normandy, France.<

Rouen is a place full of history. Crammed with wonderful buildings, home to a huge cathedral, and enjoying a picturesque riverside location on the River Seine. It is a place that I would really recommend you visit, the next time you are in northern France. In the former ancient market place, is the site of the execution of Joan of Arc, later St Joan. This legendary young woman led French resistance against English occupation during the early part of the fifteenth century. She was later betrayed, and given over to her enemies. They tried her as a heretic, and burned her at the stake. A large cross marks the exact spot where she died. In 1979, a new church was opened in her name. It was a striking design of modern architecture, yet used the traditional feel of an upturned boat, one of the earliest styles of Christian churches. Inside, the nautical theme continues with the exposed wood, but there is also the delightful addition of original stained glass windows, from the 16th century. Kept safe during both wars, these windows were installed in this new building, and are a marvellous complement to the 20th century design.

A La Ronde, Exmouth, Devon.

Many years ago, I visited this house as a tourist, and it has always stuck in my memory. It is unusual, in that it has sixteen sides, giving a circular appearance, hence the name. Built in 1796, it was the home of two spinsters, and contained twenty rooms. They helped conceive the design, and worked with local architects to realise their dream. If you can imagine two children designing the perfect dolls house, and then living in at as adults, you will get the idea. They decorated the interior with souvenirs of their travels, including feathers and shells, creating a gallery entirely covered in shells in the process. They used the redundant triangular areas for storage, and even included diamond-shaped windows in the design. The house has been owned by The National Trust for many years, and has recently been extensively refurbished. It is due to open to visitors again this year.

Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales.

There are lots of castles in Wales. Most were erected by the Normans, and later English rulers, to help subdue the rebellious Welsh. Many of them are more impressive than Manorbier, and lots more are better restored, and often suitably imposing too. But this small castle has something great going for it. it is on the beach, almost literally, as the sand is a stone’s throw from the walls. It is privately owned, and inside, there is still private accommodation for the owner. But it is open to the public, and well-worth a look. Despite being damaged after the English Civil War, the battlements, towers, and main gate are all still impressive. When I went there in the late 1980s, visitors could walk anywhere they pleased too, a nice bonus. It is one of those few places where I would love to live. I would close it to the public though, and just be my own version of the Lord of the Castle, wandering around the fortifications, and making the most of the coastal outlook. What a place!

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London.

A popular expression in many crafts and trades, is ‘Less is More.’ This simple memorial, designed by Lutyens, and erected following the Great War, in 1920, is a good example of the wisdom of that saying. This monument only really gets the attention it deserves once a year, when it is featured as the centerpiece of the Remembrance Day Parade, on the closest Sunday to November 11th. It is on one of the busiest streets in London, but can be approached easily, and anyone can stand safely in front of it. The building material is Portland Stone, seen on many of London’s finest structures. This replaced the wooden structure that was there the year before. Simple carved wreaths, and the words ‘The Glorious Dead’, are the only decorations, though flags are also placed on it too. It is not very tall, and could even go unnoticed by someone passing in a car or bus. It is dignified though, understatement making the most powerful statement possible, about the tragic loss it reminds us of. It is just right.,_Whitehall

Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain.

High on one of the hills that surround the center of the Catalan city of Barcelona, you will find Parc Guell. It is hard to describe this public park; part fairy-land, part acid-trip, part childish fantasy, and I am still not close. It is none of these however, but an architectural oddity designed by the famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. This man is synonymous with the city of Barcelona, also designing the famous Sagrada Familia Church, The Palau Guell, and the Casa Mila, as well as many other outstanding buildings. Any visitor to the city will soon be familiar with his unusual style, which is definitely unique, and also in the ‘love it, or hate it’ category. With the Parc Guell, built over fourteen years, and not officially opened until 1926, he let his fertile imagination run riot. I have honestly seen nothing else to compare with this unusual place, and I am struggling to describe it in a way to do it justice. There is a heady mix of religious symbolism, iconography, and surrealism, that just seems to all come together so well. Colourful mosaics, unusual features, and panoramic views all add to the experience. Have a look at the link, and then look at Google Images. If you have never been there, I am sure that you will be amazed. I was.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia.

When I visited this place, the city was still called Leningrad, and in my mind, it will always be that.
This was first created by Peter The Great, in 1703, as a bastion against attacks from Sweden, then a major player in international events. It was later rebuilt in stone, and has existed pretty much unchanged, since 1720. As well as its intended military purpose, the complex has also been used as a prison, and a garrison for the city militia. During the early days of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the fort was captured by the Bolsheviks, who imprisoned many Tsarist officers there. In the Second World War, the famous siege of the city by the German Army resulted in a lot of damage to the buildings, all of which was carefully restored after 1945. In the grounds is the marvellous cathedral, burial place of many former Tsars. It has a gold cupola, and a huge spire, visible from much of the city. Situated where the Riva Neva opens towards the gulf of Finland, this really is a striking and historically important building, and one well-worth your time to visit.

There you have seven more architectural recollections from my travels over the years. I hope that you find some of them, if not all, enjoyable to read about. Please click the links to see more. This has been quite a popular series, so I will be sure to add part five, in due course.

Architectural admiration (3)

Here are seven more feats of architecture and design that I have been privileged to see. Spanning many centuries, and a variety of styles, they all have their singular merits. I hope that you enjoy them.

The Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

When I visited Uzbekistan, in the late 1980s, it was still a part of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, it has been an independent country. It has a southern border with Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan is to the north. The city of Samarkand was well known in the west as the central point of the Silk Road, halfway to China, and it was also one of the most important centres of Islamic studies. The Registan is the large public square of that city, including the three buildings that housed madrasahs, schools of Islamic teaching. Built from 1410-1660, these similar buildings are all in an identifiable Islamic style of architecture. The complex includes dormitories, classrooms, minarets, and a large mosque. Arriving on a warm evening in late summer, I was struck by the wonderful colours of the mosaics that decorate the exteriors. I was doubly pleased that the vista from our hotel room balcony gave us a good view of it to savour too. Touring the buildings in a small group the following day, there were few tourists or visitors there; so the large area was a place of great peace, full of wonderful sights. This link has day and night photos. Please explore them.

Michelin House, London.

On the corner of Fulham Road and Sloane Avenue in Chelsea, stands this unique building. It is now called Bibendum, (The name of the Michelin Tyre man) and houses an up-market oyster bar, restaurant, and delicatessen, developed by Sir Terence Conran. Once the home of the UK branch of the French tyre company, Michelin, it appears to have been lifted from fin-de-siecle Paris, and transplanted in this unusual location. The style is somewhere between Art Noveau and Art Deco, with an individual twist. The building was opened in 1911, and boasts three large stained-glass windows echoing advertisements of the time. Exterior lighting appears to emulate stacked tyres, and the central area once housed a large tyre fitting bay. At one time, it had an oval track on the roof, where cars could be tested. In 1985, Michelin left the building, and it was sold to Conran, a style guru, and furniture designer. He and his partners developed the whole complex into a shop, restaurant, and oyster bar, retaining and renovating almost all of the original features. Just to gaze at it is an amazing experience. If you can afford the price of a snack or meal inside, despite wallet-emptying prices, so much the better.

The Forth Rail Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland.

There are undeniably much grander bridges in the UK, and across the world. Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge, the list goes on. I have not seen them, but I have seen The Forth Bridge, which I first saw in 1964, on a family holiday in Scotland. I was struck by it then, and despite crossing alongside it on the road bridge, or passing over it in a train, a total of perhaps forty times since, I still think that it is an imposing and wonderful structure. Spanning the Firth of Forth, a few miles from Edinburgh, it was opened in 1890, for use by the railway companies to reduce the travelling time between London and Aberdeen. It is of cantilever construction, and still considered by many to be one of the finest examples ever built, as well as a monumental feat of engineering. With its distinctive red oxide paint finish, it is best viewed near sunset, and it has enough popularity as an attraction in its own right, that there is a car park close to the south side, and a visitor centre is currently in the planning stages. Just to the west of this rail bridge is the road bridge, a suspension bridge, built in 1964.

The Moscow Metro, Russia.

This is not so much about a building, but an underground architectural marvel, beautifully preserved to this day. The underground train system of the city of Moscow was opened in 1935, under the Stalinist regime. No expense was spared to make it a showpiece for the Russian capital, and it is unlike any similar system you will see anywhere. Stations have marble floors, tiled walls, mosaics, reliefs, chandeliers, statues, friezes, and incredible lighting. They appear to span every style ever known, from Byzantine to Art Deco, and beyond. Heroic figures, propaganda-style pictures made from small tiles, even stained-glass windows, it is all there. And this in a system serving a huge population, used extensively every day. I managed to find a link with some very good photos. There are lots of them, but if you have never seen this wonder, please try to view as many as you can.

Windmills, Norfolk, England.

I have always enjoyed looking at windmills. Many countries have them, but here in East Anglia, we have them in abundance. Once the essential hub of farming communities, they are now mostly used as accommodation, restored as museums, or occasionally used as working examples of the millers’ craft. Norfolk has many fine examples, including Cley-Next-the Sea, Burnham Overy, Stow, and Sutton Mill at Hickling. There is a recently restored windmill near to our home, in Dereham, somewhat incongruously situated in the middle of a modern housing estate. Fortunately, most are listed buildings, so cannot be demolished, or substantially altered. Some are brick-built, others made of wood; many are painted white, others black, with white sails. Some lucky families enjoy living in one as their main residence, and many others take great pleasure in renting one as a holiday home. They are one of the most constant reminders of the past still with us, and stand proud above the generally flat landscape of the eastern lowlands. Here is a link to some good photos of Norfolk windmills. There are many others to explore.

County Hall, Norwich, England.

Opened in 1968, the administrative headquarters for the large county of Norfolk covers an area over thirty acres, to the south of the city centre. To call it incongruous would be an understatement. This huge slab of a building dominates the southern approach to the city, and is generally detested by its inhabitants. So why is it included here? I actually like it. Maybe it it the brutalist style that appeals, or the uncompromising way it is allowed to overwhelm its surroundings. You could be forgiven for presuming that it is home to the Secret Police, or a clandestine government organisation. It is far removed from the Victorian and Edwardian edifices that normally serve the purpose of housing County Councils, and it seems that it would be more at home in Soviet Russia, or North Korea. However, it is easy to forget that many buildings revered today were considered monstrosities when they were built over 100 years ago. I believe that County Hall will stand the test of time, and emerge as something regarded with affection in the future.

SIS Building, London.

Talking of clandestine government organisations, the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) building at Vauxhall Cross, London, must be one of the world’s worst-kept secrets. Home to MI6, one of Britain’s two major spying and intelligence networks, it is so well known, it has even been featured in a James Bond film. But this post is about buildings, and what a building it is. Like something of a cross between an Aztec temple, and a Las Vegas casino, it is unique on London’s riverside. It stands in an unattractive area, opposite an ugly modern bus station, and adjacent to the 20th century Vauxhall Bridge, that crosses the Thames into Pimlico. The building was opened in 1994, and immediately drew criticism from many detractors, being described as ‘Babylonian’, (not a bad thing, in my book) and also as ‘Legoland.’ The cream-coloured stone, together with green tinted windows, sets it apart from anything else in the city. Best viewed from north of the river, I think that it is one of the finest modern buildings in London, and something that will go down as a marvellous architectural achievement. Here is a link to its use in that James Bond film. It shows it off well.

I hope that you are continuing to enjoy this series. I have more to offer, so look out for them in the future.

World War One: A Centenary

I hope that nobody is unaware of the fact that 2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, in August 1914. To many of you, especially those still young, it might seem like a dusty old piece of history, played out on TV in black and white. You may well consider that it has no relevance any more, and it is of no interest to you whatsoever. You will have no intention of sitting through the endless documentaries, dramatised reconstructions, or worthy coverage of commemorations. Please think again. We can all learn much from the follies of this tragic conflict, and the reasons that it began.

My own grandparents were born in the year 1900. Both of my grandfathers were lucky enough to not have to serve in this war, as they only reached the required age of 18 as the war ended. Other relatives, some uncles and cousins of my parents, did take part in this war. When I was very young, one of them would tell me of his experiences in the Royal Flying Corps, as part of the crew of an early type of bomber. I would read books about the battles, which ranged from France to Africa, and across the mountains of Italy, to the deserts of Arabia. Even the outbreak of the terrible Second World War, from 1939, could not diminish the impact and legacy of this first global war.

Look hard enough, and you will see that many problems experienced in the world today, stem from unresolved issues after allied victory. Instability in the Balkans, power struggles in the Middle East and Arab lands, all have roots that can be traced back to the time immediately after the armistice, in 1918. Once-great empires. such as those of Turkey and Austria-Hungary, were shattered by involvement in the Great War, and eastern Europe was splintered as a result. Russia experienced its revolution during this war, and the world changed completely as a consequence of that alone. American involvement late in the war changed the relationship between that country and Europe irrevocably. German resentment at their post-war treatment led directly to the start of the Second World War, and the ‘Cold War’ that followed it for decades.

I used to think that all this was something not to be dwelt on, to be constantly reminded of. Patriotism and Nationalism are not healthy in extremes, and every Poppy Day and Remembrance Sunday seemed to be celebrating the past, instead of looking to a better future. We lived in fear of a nuclear Armageddon, and the flickering footage of troops digging trenches before I was born had little relevance. So it seemed. A little over twenty-five years ago, I went on a five-day trip with a friend. We had decided to make our own tour of the battlefields in Belgium and France, to see for ourselves these cemeteries and monuments, and the preserved sites of these immense battles. Within seven hours of our arrival in Ypres, my mind was changed forever, by something that happens every day, and has done since 1927, interrupted only by the Second World War.

Every night at 8pm, the road under the Menin Gate Memorial is closed. Buglers from the local Fire Brigade arrive, and play ‘The Last Post’ on their bugles, the sound resonating inside the arch. This short ceremony is well-attended , by curious visitors like ourselves that night, and by war veterans; though sadly no longer from that actual war. The occasion is incredibly moving. Surrounded by the carved names of those who died but have no known grave, it was impossible not to get caught up in the feelings and emotions under that arch. The fact that it continues to this day, a tribute by the local people, to those who came from other lands to fight in a mutual cause, is tradition made flesh. We returned to a nearby bar, visibly shaken, close to tears, and quietly reflective.

The rest of the week was spent visiting cemeteries, mostly maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are immaculately kept, and the rows of neatly carved headstones go on into the distance, overwhelming in their scale. We saw preserved trenches, huge craters caused by massive explosions, and everywhere still, pieces of barbed wire, and the metal posts that it once hung from. We visited the massive Thiepval Memorial, like a cathedral in a field, and the monumental memorial at Vimy Ridge for the Canadians who died, again with no known graves. We stopped at tiny isolated cemeteries, containing small groups from one company, then on to massive graveyards on the Somme. It was all too much to take in. The enormity of the loss was beyond all understanding. After that week, everything changed for me. My attitude to remembering this conflict became completely different, and my respect for those involved increased dramatically. So much of Belgium and France contain these cemeteries, it is impossible to appreciate them, unless you see for yourself.

So please don’t disregard the commemorations of this war. Count yourself lucky that you never had to be a part of anything like it, and spare a thought for those that were there. Whatever we may think of the reasons and justifications, with the benefit of hindsight, and the information available to us now; they did their best, for something that they believed in.

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.