Thursday, November 30, 2006

Capital Ring: Sudbury Hill to Hendon

Today Bondi and I picked up our journey around London via the Capital Loop, returning to Sudbury Hill station where we'd left off just over three weeks ago.

I was rapidly unimpressed by the guide book I had, as the map fragments omitted street names, as do many of the actual major streets in London - not a helpful combination. Running between the maps is a long stream of text mixing walking directions with historical snippets. I think the book needs to be completely re-thought with clear maps, and sidebars for the history. On today's walk we ended up straying off the path a number of times, either because the text was ambiguous or the route was blocked and I had to make guesses as to how to reconnect with it.

Anyhoo... the first pleasant part of the journey was at Harrow-on-the-Hill where the famous Harrow School is situated, a dense cluster of buildings with a commanding view to London in the southwest. Bondi distracted some bored students in one class as we strolled down the road past one of the science blocks. Later in the walk I noticed curtains peeled back as elderly residents peered out at Bondi sauntering down their street.

Near to the school is the small church of St Mary's, with its spire made more prominent by the elevated position of the church, at the highest point of the entire Capital Ring. A plaque outside the church displays some poetry written by Byron when he was a student at Harrow just over 200 years ago. His daughter is buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds here.

Looking southwest through Harrow buildings

As we moved down to the Harrow sporting fields, another sacred (to some) location is revealed via the 133m arch of the new Wembley Stadium. As Pelé said: "Wembley is the church of football. It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football".

The last scenic stretch in the walk was the Brent or "Welsh Harp" Reservoir, heavily populated by waterfowl and sailing boats.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Durham & Snowdomia

Durham CathedralDurham Cathedral
On my last day in the North I wanted to pay a visit to Durham, and to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. The Norman-built (1093) cathedral in Durham is a World Heritage site, once voted "Britain's favourite building" and houses the remains of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey was made Prince-Bishop of Durham in 1523 by Henry VIII.

The Sunderland area has a long connection with glass manufacture and art. The new National Glass Centre, overlooking the mouth of the river Wear provides exhibition space, studios and tertiary education facilities through Sunderland University. At the time of my visit there were some displays of snowdome collections, and photo-portraits of the collectors themselves. The actual displays of glassware were smaller than those at the House of Marbles, and paled next to those I'd enjoyed at the Tacoma Museum of Glass a few years back. Let's home the Sunderland centre builds a comparable collection. Today marks 18 months since Bondi and I arrived in Europe for our grand tour which excuses me for seeing the glass as only half full (3 years being the glass/crystal anniversary).

Dusk on the roof of the Glass Centre.
When I was in sixth class, my teacher Norm Gilchrist would present one short biography each week, usually of some selfless citizen or dedicated scientist. One week it might be Marie Curie or Grace Darling, a Microsoft program manager or perhaps a quiet hero from Australian history, like John Simpson and his donkey. Apparently born in South Shields in 1892, making him 25 at the time of the Gallipolli landing, he is memorialised by this statue by the "Where you save much more" sign over the ASDA doorway.
Five and half hour drive back to London this evening.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Baubles, Anglo Saxons and Bede's

I had thought Chris was free today but it turned out that he had his final day in class. Checked out of the hotel and went back to Ouseburn to have a look at more galleries and the Seven Stories children's book centre. The galleries were closed, but while walking Bondi around the back of the Ouseburn canalway (he was off his food and looking for grass to chew on) I spotted a smallish boat, the Sea Song Sang, moored at the back of Seven Stories.

Walked Bondi a bit more in Saltwell Park in Gateshead while listening to a Radio 4 story on "number stations", radio stations presumably operated by government agencies, broadcasting numerical code sequences with computer-generated human speech. Went from the sublime to the ridiculous with a visit to the Metro Centre, a gargantuan retail park, supposedly the largest in Europe, with almost every shop I wouldn't want to visit conveniently located in a sprawling multi-level mall. Away from the eating areas, the filtered air was overly-scented as though I was shopping in a gigantic restroom.

Metro curiosity sated, I turned back towards the east, passing the Angel of the North again, looking like an upended plane, with tail buried in the hillside.

Thirteen hundred years ago, the most brilliant man in Europe was held to be the Venerable Bede, a monk residing at Jarrow. Scientist, historian and teacher, he wrote a great history of his age. Opened in 2000, Bede's World is a museum celebrating his life and works. Bede never travelled far from the monastery that took him in at age 7, but combining knowledge garnered from the monastery library, his questioning of visitors from abroad, and a keen observational sense he wrote of the entire universe as it was known to Western civilization. The scriptorium where monks painstaking copied written works could scarcely keep up with demand for his writings across the Roman Empire.

After touring the museum's galleries, I had a quick look through the model Anglo Saxon farm outside which included some gigantic pig/boar crossbred sows. I think if I curled Bondi up into a ball, he wouldn't have been much bigger than the head of one of these behemoths.
Final stop for the day was near Tynemouth at South Shields, across the river from Tynemouth Priory, where a public sculptural work sits: The Conversation Piece by Juan Muñoz. Set back from the dunes are several scattered clusters of humanoid figures - human from the waist up, globular below like frozen metallic bounce-back punching figures. I recognised these or similar figures from a gallery garden off the Mall in Washington DC that I'd admired during the summer of 2002.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A day out of the window

Did bugger all today but walk Bondi and lunch back at the Sage over a few pages of Fiendish Sudoku.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Angel of the North

I scooted down the quayside to see the Millennium Bridge raising at 9.30am, but it started ahead of time so I caught it mid-rotation, a handful of boats passing under in the slow winking of the eye.
Immediately east of downtown Newcastle is Ouseburn, where I visited Seven Stories centre for children's literature, the Art Works Galleries, and The Biscuit Factory, Europe's largest centre for commercial art. Bondi had spent most of this time in the car, so I took him off to nearby Heaton, to Belle & Herbs. It's one of those cafes with a mishmash of plush settees, gigantic menus with every type of eggy dish (the guacamole-coated California Benedict was great) - a great place to linger as today became colder and wetter. Sadly British cafes and restaurants don't seem to have any smoking restrictions, so it only took one cigarette a few feet away to kill my appetite and send me for the door.

Our final stop for the day was the Angel of the North, the UK's largest (angel) sculpture, on a hill looking to the south. Having a wingspan comparable to a jumbo-jet doesn't save it from rusting silently over South Tyneside, or protect it from idlers scratching their initials in its base.

Settling back into the hotel room, with the remnants of my MSG headache and the seeds of a northern cold, we tried to get the TV/internet console working. The "Power TV" kept crashing whenever we were on the verge of opening a web-page, but there was the promise of a direct connection by taking the TV's network cable and attaching it to my laptop. We were prompted for £12 for a day's connection, an order of magnitude less excruciating than the £8 required for a wireless connection (hotel foyer only). Considering our room's rack rate was 5 times that of the hotel across town where I had stayed before (with free wireless), this one should be providing a free typist to take dictation of my blog entry.
Chris switched to the multi-channel music service, which began with Queen's "We Are the Champions" played at half-speed, followed by the world's longest single "Bohemian Rhapsody", now far from rhapsodic as it played out at a Wagnerian timescale. Every channel the same, like a dreadful school band lumbering through their repertoire: the opening riff of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue drawn out so long I thought the clarinetist was going to run out of breath before the top of the scale.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Baltic, Sage, Newcastle-on-Tyne

Chris is off at Java classes, leaving Bondi and I to have a good look around downtown Newcastle, particularly around Grainger Town. The Side Cinema/Gallery/Cafe is being managed by a Canadian from Vancouver Island, and she knows her way around an espresso machine. While foraging in Spin, an interesting little CD shop, I heard a little bit of interesting music. The vocalist sounded familiar... I fumbled for the name "Is that Jane Birkin?"
"Charlotte Gainsbourg, her daughter...good catch".
"They sing.."
"Not very well? But quite atmospheric, yes".
I heard a fragmentary lyric "five fifty five", and commented "well she sings bigger numbers than her parents". The album's title is in fact "5:55", with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker, and music by Air.

I dropped Bondi back at the hotel to rest while I went to visit the two big landmarks on the Gateshead riverbank, the Sage music centre and the Baltic art gallery.

The Sage is the Norman Foster designed glass armadillo which is home to the Northern Sinfonia, a music education centre and two world-class auditoriums. There's a concert tonight focussing on the early musical lives of Brahms and the Schumanns, but it was sold out even before the season program was printed.

Over lunch at the Sage cafe I finished off The Worms of Euston Square, which I had very much enjoyed, particularly as the author didn't tie himself in knots to be completely faithful to period detail or to be overly mannered in the dialogue. The clever construction of the principal characters allows a great deal of interesting exposition of Victorian England to take place, and allows walk-on parts for Dickens, Marx and the royals.
The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is housed in the Baltic Flour mill, with the great height providing 7 levels of spacious galleries. The main downstairs gallery had a solo show by Chiho Aoshima who blends contemporary manga style with traditional scroll paintings. There was also a 7 minute animated film "City Glow" presented on 5 wide screens that featured glowing skyscrapers looming like giant worms over the lush undergrowth of a fantasy world. In the stairwell leading up through 20+ flights to the upper galleries there was also a huge installation of screens and speakers delivering a raucous tribute to John Lennon.

Went out for dinner with Chris and his colleague Charlotte. Abandoning the concentration of Italian restaurants near the Quay, we set off to find Chinatown, on a quest longer than Marco Polo's excursion to the Orient. Dinner was OK but my middle-of-the-night dreams and headache was a surefire indication of an overload of MSG.

Monday, November 20, 2006


We're in a hotel at Quayside, a few minutes walk from the cat's cradle of bridges spanning the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead. In the downtown area, Fenwick department store has a large mechanised diorama of Gulliver tied up by the Lilliputians.
I drove out to the Newcastle Business Park to pick up Chris from the BA headquarters. I parked on William Armstrong Drive near by the Tyne, and found I was next to a display board detailing Armstrong's invention of the hydraulic crane. This was rather spooky as the book I'm reading, The Worms of Euston Square, opens with the sabotage of such a crane in 1859 London.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

To South Shields

After overnighting in Wigan, I completed the drive to Chris' place in South Shields. I've crossed over this countryside once or twice before, but today's journey was particularly memorable. Autumnal colour, a sprinkling of snow on the Dales before turning off at Penrith, capped with a burst of sunshine near Scotch Corner.

Chris took us on a long walk over the hills toward the sea, up to one of the highest points in South Tyneside. We could see a rainbow falling onto Tynemouth Priory to the north, where Bondi and I had started our Hadrian's Wall coast-to-coast walk about 3 months ago, and had subsequently watched a re-enactment of a medieval tournament.
Today we skirted the limestone cliffs and descended to Marsden Bay where several stacks stand, including the surviving remnant of the Marsden Rock arch which in its heyday hosted bands or choral services.