Essex, heritage skills, history, lifestyle, tourism

The hidden gems of Essex

Essex has got a bad reputation, unfortunately.

As soon as you mention to anyone that you live there, out come the unkind stereotypes about “Essex girls” and, should the perpetrator be of a certain age, their fake tan and white stilettos. Or if they happen to be a bit younger, vajazzling and TOWIE.

Which is all a bit unfair really. Because, although some of the more deprived areas that many people over-identify with the county such as Dagenham and Harlow leave a lot to be desired, the same could be said of any post-industrial or new town anywhere in the UK.

And I can’t say that the majority of people I’ve met since moving here are any louder, brasher or more promiscuous than anywhere else either – although I must confess that I’m not that taken with the local form of Estuary English, which, like the grey squirrel, has now more or less supplanted its more traditional rural counterpart in the more urbanised south of the county and is starting to wend its rather whiny way to the green and pleasant lands of the north.

Saffron Walden, North Essex
Saffron Walden, North Essex

Anyway, the problem with stereotypes is that they tend to mask the hidden charms of a place (or person for that matter) under layers of prejudice and misunderstanding – and that’s definitely the case here. But to fail to see Essex for what it really is means that you end up missing a trick, not least due to the diversity of its landscapes.

There’s little similarity, for example, between the nature reserve-protected salt marsh and mudflats of Wallasea Island near Southend-on-Sea, with its native oyster community; the ancient, former royal woodland of Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, and the charming, rural, rolling north, with its tiny, innumerable picture-postcard towns and villages.

But that’s Essex for you – ram-packed full of unknown, or underestimated, little gems. And I was lucky enough to discover one of them on a Sunday afternoon jaunt to Coggleshall, a pretty, antique little place between Braintree and Colchester –incidentally the oldest recorded town in Britain – in the company of my mam a few weekends ago.

Coggeshall lace

We’d decided to make a visit to Paycocke’s house and garden, a National Trust property that was built by wealthy clothing merchant, Thomas, in 1509. The aim of this sojourn was to observe a lace-making demonstration for Coggeshall Lace Week as we fancied seeing how it was done.

Paycocke's House
Paycocke’s House

But it wasn’t necessarily quite what we’d expected. For one thing, Coggeshall lace isn’t actually lace in the classic sense. Instead it’s net that’s been decorated in chain-stitched embroidery using cotton or silk threads, and even beads in some cases.

This style of “tambour lace” – so-called because workers in the Far East where it originated, used a round frame like a drum that they gripped with their knees to stretch the net in order to work it – was brought to Coggeshall by a French emigre called Monsieur Drago along with his two daughters in 1812.

They taught the craft to the good women of Coggeshall and surrounding villages, albeit on a rectangular rather than round frame, who in their turn sold it on to dealers and manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to the more traditional bobbin lace being made in places like Nottingham.

It was at the time used for everything from handkerchiefs; collars for blouses; frills and flounces for dresses, and even wedding veils – and in its heyday was stocked, among others, by the upmarket Liberty department store in London.

Interestingly though, the industry was given a bit of a boost by Derbyshire-born inventor and entrepreneur, John Heathcoat. He had pioneered the bobbinet tulle net-making process in 1808 and set up a factory seven years later in a converted mill in Loughborough, Leicestershire to mass-produce it.

Which was great for the Coggeshall lace ladies as not only was this kind of net a lot cheaper than the more traditional “pillow lace” – so-called because of the pillow used to create it – but its octagonal rather than round holes also made it much less likely to sheer when worked.

Unfortunately for the domestic workers of south Nottinghamshire though, this very same innovation massively undercut their hand-produced goods – and so the Luddites paid Heathcote a visit and wrecked his precious machines. At which point he scuttled off to Tiverton in Devon, taking what was left of his inventions with him and turning the town’s fortunes around in the process.

Strange but true

In fact, his factory still exists to this day in the form of Heathcoat Fabrics, which sells engineered textiles to industries such as transport, aerospace and the military and employs more than 400 people.

Anyway, after this little blip with Heathcoat, the market for machine-made Nottingham lace took off and continued to thrive until the First World War when global trade was hammered, a scenario that the industry never really recovered from.

Coggeshall lace production, on the other hand, had started suffering as early as the 1860s, when the first chain stitch sewing machines began appearing on the market. An already difficult situation was made even worse 20 years later, however, when the first of the Anglo-Boer Wars kicked off. The big problem here was that the fabric on which the lace was based ended up being used to manufacture mosquito nets and so became really scarce.

Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall
Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall

By the 1930s, things had got so dire for the lace makers that they made a last desperate attempt to secure royal patronage in a bid to revive their fortunes. This led to three handkerchiefs being specially created for Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark when she married Prince George, the Duke of Kent and fourth son of King George V, in 1934. Dresses were also made for their subsequent child, Princess Alexandra, as well as the current Queen and her sister Princess Margaret. But to no avail – the financial return was simply too meagre.

As a result, the only person left in Coggeshall making lace these days is a lady called Sue Game. She still teaches the craft to anyone in the area who’s interested but, happily for tradition, it’s also possible to gain instruction as part of a City & Guilds vocational skills course in lace making apparently. It’s an art that’s also practised by a few members of the Lace Guild so it’s not quite over yet.

Anyway, a final thought on the wonders of Essex – or at least my top three favourite facts about the place:

1 The first crocodile was brought to the UK in 1701 by Richard Bradley who kept it in the lake at his home in Braintree

2 Paper Lace’s 1974 hit pop song “Billy don’t be a Hero” was written in the lounge bar of The Old Dog Inn, Herongate Tye near Brentwood

3 People living in Essex are 38% more likely to be hit by falling aeroplane parts than anywhere else in the UK.

What more can I say.

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culture, genetics, history

Celtic myths: It’s all in the genes

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Celt. And being of mixed English-Irish heritage, I’d have said I was least partially entitled to lay claim to such a title.

So it seems a shame that, in some ways, the whole “Celtic” thing appears to be a bit of a romantic myth. Let me explain: according to the British Museum’s rather good latest exhibition entitled “Celts: art and identity”, which I popped along to see with my parents a couple of weekends ago, this ancient people were not so much a single group inhabiting broad swathes of Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

British Museum
British Museum

They were instead more a bunch of individual local communities and tribal clusters, connected by similar worldviews, values, languages and artwork, but also quite distinct from each other. As the Celtic culture was predominantly an oral one though, they left no written records to elucidate or explain themselves.

And so the vacuum was filled by others, notably the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who has shaped our beliefs about these so-called “barbarians” ever since through the rather superior, “civilised” Mediterranean opinions that he espoused in the first century BC.

But he patently didn’t get them. Or their incredibly sophisticated, shape-shifting art forms, which, unlike classical, naturalist styles, hid animals and birds as well as multiple layers of symbolic meaning in their apparently simple abstract swirls. So it was a totally opposite way of looking at the world.

Interestingly though, Siculus, or any of the other Greeks or Romans knocking around at the time for that matter, didn’t ever explicitly refer to Britain or Ireland as the lands of the “Keltoi” or “Keltae”, roughly translated as the “hidden people” or “those who are different”.

The term seemed, in fact, to be applied mainly to the societies of central Europe and Gaul (France) – even though the “Celtic” moniker is now attributed exclusively to the indigenous cultures and traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and, of course, Brittany in France as well as their various diasporas.

In fact, the name was only assigned to their collective languages as late as the 1700s in order to reflect their pre-Roman origins. But by the 19th century, the whole thing had morphed into a revival movement known as the “Celtic Twilight”, which drew on Celtic artistic and literary traditions and recast them in the form of a reimagined, romanticised Celtic past.

Over time, however, the word seems to have become increasingly true to its original meaning of “outsider”. And as such, it has been used widely as a tool to help the peoples it denoted affirm their difference to and independence from their dominant English and French neighbours, becoming in the process a hook to hang their increasingly confident national identities on. Which, depending on your viewpoint, is really no bad thing.

The power of genetics

Anyway, another area in which the Celtic myth comes into further question is in the field of genetics. According to a Wellcome Trust-funded study led by Oxford University over the course of 20 years and published in the journal Nature in March this year, there is simply no genetic basis for claiming the existence of a single “Celtic” group in the UK or Northern Ireland.

In fact, amazingly, inhabitants of the so-called Celtic regions are among the most genetically different from each other when compared with other groups from the British Isles. This is likely because people from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the like diverged over time to form separate genetic clusters – a finding that provides a scientific basis for the idea of regional identity for the first time.

And one which also appears to support the opinion that the Celtic thing these days really has more to do with traditions and culture than it has to do with DNA or race per se.

But that is not to say that certain genetic remnants don’t still remain. Take red hair, for example, which is definitely usually considered a Celtic trait. And interestingly, it is among the Irish that you’re more likely to find a redhead than anywhere else in the world – indeed they account for up to 30% of the population.

Red-haired girl
Red-haired girl

Next come the Scottish at up to 25%, followed by the Welsh at up to 15%. But because red locks are the product of a recessive gene, both parents need to bear it in order to produce a flame-haired baby. So lots more people carry it rather than show it.

Another much more unpleasant hereditary condition though, and one that is even nicknamed the “Celtic disease” is haemochromatosis. This disorder, also caused by a recessive gene, leads the body to store too much iron, which is then deposited on vital organs such as the heart, liver or pancreas and, over time, prevents them from working effectively.

Over the course of years, this situation leads to an iron overload, which can prove fatal. But in the interim, it generates symptoms that are unlikely to become apparent before middle age and that can make it tricky to see a direct link. These include low energy levels, stomach or abdominal pains, arthritis and depression. In reality though, the only reliable way to find out if you’ve got the condition really is to have a blood test.

Meanwhile, although, as its nickname suggests, haemochromatosis is most commonly found among people of the so-called Celtic nations, it is – rather unfortunately for me and my ilk – by far the most widespread among the Irish, and particularly those from the west of the country.

While across Europe as a whole, between one in 300 to 400 have the offending DNA, the figure jumps to a huge one in 83 in Ireland – with a horrendous one in five people being carriers. So when folk say to you ‘it’s all in the genes’, all you can do is hope to God that, in this case at least, it simply isn’t.

countryside, leisure, tourism, UK

Saffron Walden: A little town making it big

There are a number of reasons why my charming, little home-town of Saffron Walden in North Essex is special, it seems, not least of which are its sausages.

Burtons Butchers’ King Street banger, which comprises 80% Blythburg free range pork as well as a few secret spices, has just been awarded a rare five-star rating by the Sausage Review website, whose members go around the country evaluating the nation’s best and worst.

Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden
Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden

But it doesn’t stop there. A further three varieties on top of the recent King Street celebrity have also been entered into that culturally vital event, the British Sausage Week competition, which will be judged by Michel Roux Jr, Michelin-starred chef and owner of London’s upmarket Le Gavroche restaurant, at the start of November.

But its superlative sausages aren’t the only reason that Saffron Walden has been hitting headlines lately. Another is its world-class concert hall, which was built from the ground up with state-of-the-art acoustics in mind and is already gaining a reputation for itself. Growing numbers of people from as far away as London are now making the hour-long train journey from Liverpool Street in order to park themselves on one of its 730 really quite comfy seats to listen to classical music – although some might argue it’s shame that its remit is so narrow given the quality of the space.

Anyway, the Saffron Hall, as it’s known, was opened in 2013 at the 2,000-learner-thronged County High School while my Beloved and I were away in South Africa. This momentous event occurred following a £10 million donation from the Yellow Car Charitable Trust on behalf of a rich, local benefactor, who apparently loves classical music and wanted the children and local community to do likewise by providing them with access to outstanding facilities.

A particular feather in the Hall’s cap though has been the fact it managed to snare the well-regarded Angela Dixon, former head of music at the Barbican Centre in London, as its chief executive. An Essex girl, having been brought up in Benfleet and having lived in the village of Whittlesford for years, she apparently had had enough of chasing around the world. And so when a local job came up, she jumped at it.

And her international connections have certainly helped in attracting world-class performers to what, in the early days at least, amounted to an untried and untested venue. Now though everyone from internationally-acclaimed Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in tow to top-flight violinists Maxim Vengerov and Nicola Benedetti have strutted their stuff there.

A lot to offer

Somewhat embarrassingly, however, it seems that the rest of the town hasn’t quite caught up with its new-found reputation as a destination for the glitterati. In a place that has never knowingly kept late hours, the rumour goes that when staying at a local boutique hotel complete with rather overpriced gastro-pub in the centre of town, Benedetti had to go to bed hungry after a concert when she was told the chef had upped sticks and gone home. So let’s hope they sort that particular little issue out before she comes back for a revisit in November.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, it seems that the Hall was lucky enough to receive three years of funding from Yellow Lorry to see it through until the end of the 2017 season – by which time it really needs to have become as self-sufficient as possible. Things appear to have got off to a good start though as the venue apparently generated £280,000 last season and so good luck to it – it certainly can’t do Saffron Walden any harm in tourism terms at the very least.

Because this lovely old town, which incidentally is constantly being named as one of the best places in the UK to live and swiftly becoming a commuter-belt haven for ex-Londoners, really does have quite a lot to offer in that department. If you’re into architecture, for instance, it’s a complete dream as much of the centre has been preserved in aspic.

The story goes that local grandee Lord Braybrook, whose family seat was the now English Heritage-run mansion Audley End House, wasn’t too keen on having the London-to-Cambridge train line coming into Saffron Walden and spoiling his nice agricultural idyll – and so the Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant modernisation, completely passed it by.

As a result, you’ll find genuine buildings that are everything from late Georgian to Victorian in origin, with a good few medieval ones thrown in for good measure. A further plus is the widespread presence of a particular kind of decorated plasterwork traditional to East Anglia known as pargeting.

The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden
The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden

Designs range from simple geometric surface patterns to elaborate sculptured flowers and figures of people and animals – fine examples of which can be seen at the Sun Inn where Oliver Cromwell is said to have resided during his 19-day stay in the town in May 1647. At the time of his sojourn at the heart of the English Civil War, he was in the middle of talks to try and reach a settlement between Parliament and his New Model Army apparently.

Ancient history

One of the town’s oldest buildings, however, is the imposing Church of St Mary the Virgin, which takes the crown for being the largest parish church in Essex. Dating mainly from the end of the 15th century and dominating the skyline, it was built using wool money – the area’s major trade for centuries – very patently to show off the wealth of this still well-heeled town.

In fact, even its name is linked to wool production. Originally know as Chepyng (an Anglo-Saxon word for Market) Walden when it was granted a charter around 1300, the town started growing saffron crocuses in the 16th and 17th centuries to dye its own wool and keep prices elevated. But it also made lots of money on the side selling this precious commodity as a condiment, an additive to medicines and perfumes – and even as an aphrodisiac.

Anyway, as the saffron industry started petering out by the end of the 18th century, it was replaced by malt and barley and Saffron Walden morphed into a Quaker town. The most influential family then were the Gibsons, who helped found Barclays Bank and contributed to building a number of iconic buildings in the shape of a distinctive town hall and museum.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

And there are still remnants of that legacy to this day in the shape of a Friends Meeting House in the High Street and a private Friends’ School, which has seen such luminaries as Russian dictator Josef Stalin‘s granddaughter Olga Peters and Tom Robinson of Tom Robinson Band fame pass through its doors.

Other novel things that the place is known for, and for which it is actually unique in the UK, meanwhile, are its two historic mazes – a restored Victorian yew hedge one in the Grade II listed Bridge End Gardens and an ancient turf maze on the still quite extensive Common.

Remarkably the turf maze is the largest example of its kind in the world and is one of only 11 to survive in Northern Europe – eight in England and three in Germany. And they’re important in social history terms because, since medieval times, they’ve been used for religious purposes and as part of community festivities such as village fairs.

According to the medieval Christian worldview, for instance, mazes represented the journey of the human soul, in which the goal was clear but the path to achieving it confusing. So it was considered an act of devotion to walk them in meditation and prayer – something that, in an unspoiled, rural idyll like Saffron Walden, it’s still perfectly feasible to do to this day.

music, racism, regeneration

Britain’s black music: Is integration skin-deep?

In as few as three generations after the great waves of immigration from the Commonwealth that sated British labour shortages, “black music” can in all honesty no longer be called “black music”.

Instead in what must be record time if looking at things from a global perspective, it has simply become “music”, having moved entirely into the mainstream – although its influence on the scene in the interim has, of course, been vast.

This is one of the contentions made by my old mate Lloyd Bradley in his well-respected book on black music in the capital entitled “Sounds Like London”. Lloyd and I have known each other for more than 20 years after working at Dennis Publishing together, albeit on different publications, and whiling away many a happy moment gossiping over a cup of tea in the kitchen.

Cover of Sounds Like London
Cover of Sounds Like London

Anyway, a weekend or so ago now and a couple of years after the original launch of his book, he put on a fascinating “Sounds Like London” film festival in a great arty space called The Russet cafe and bar bang smack in the middle of Hackney Downs Studios.

The Studios themselves used to be part of a industrial estate that has since been transformed by developers Eat Work Art into a lovely little secluded area that includes shops, studio spaces and co-working environment, The Heart Space. Eat Work Art, which was formerly known as Creative Network Partners, meanwhile, sees its mission as being to reclaim abandoned buildings in London and transform them into “spaces for independent creative businesses to grow”.

Which simply has to be a good thing in an age in which rents in the capital are going through the proverbial roof and all too many creative types are being pushed out to the countryside, cheaper provincial towns or even foreign cities such as Berlin to do their thing as they can no longer afford to do it in London.

The dynamic is a well-understood one all over the world though – arty people move into run-down, deprived area because it’s cheap, making it a trendy place to be seen in the process. Over time, they find themselves pursued by young professionals, who want their own slice of “cool”, but as the wealthy immigrants progressively take over and property/rental prices start to rocket, creatives are once more forced to move to pastures new and, more importantly, cheaper. And so the gentrification cycle continues.

Which has essentially been the story of Hackney, whether we’re talking about the town or London borough. For example, when I first moved to the now disconcertingly “cool” Dalston, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from Hackney Downs, in the mid-1990s, it was really rather rundown and deprived.

Dalston

As much as I loved the buzz of the place, its amazing West Indian food market on Ridley Road and the fabulous but now deceased Kurdish restaurants on Kingsland high street, it could be quite dangerous depending on where you went – on occasion, you’d hear the jarring retort of gunshot and there were definitely pubs you knew not to go into in case you got caught in the cross-fire.

In fact, living in John Campbell Road where you’ll still find the indie Rio Cinema to this day, I was lucky enough to dwell just across from Sandringham Road, Dalston’s notorious [front] “Line”, a no-go area for those of us not involved in smack and crack cocaine.

But oh how things have changed. A gaff in the newly regenerated Line will cost you a small fortune these days. But you’d be lucky to spot a backstreet, formica-tabled Caribbean café serving immense helpings of jerk chicken and rice and peas – although one or two do still remain. Just as rarified are the dark, smoky, literally underground music clubs that never seemed to sleep and revelled in playing reggae and jungle till all hours.

Jerk chicken and rice and peas
Jerk chicken and rice and peas

Because everything is so much more sanitised now. It’s all been replaced by trendy “urban” bars, selling top-of-the-range golden ales and other aspirant craft beers. There are lots of boho chic restaurants complete with optimistic outdoor tables and voluminous ferns in the windows. And don’t forget the chichi home decor stores where you need to take out a second mortgage to afford a cushion. You simply wouldn’t recognise the place.

But anyway, to get back to the point, in light of Lloyd’s contention that black music is now a mainstream phenomenon, the obvious question that springs to mind is, have we witnessed the end of racism in this country too then? Sadly, the answer seems to be no.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, published last year, nearly a third of us admitted to being “very” or “a little” racially prejudiced – a figure that, after falling steadily during the 1990s, has ticked up again over recent years.

But the picture across the country also varies widely. For example, while only 16% of inner London residents acknowledged their prejudice, the figure rose to 35% in the West Midlands. Older men in manual jobs were the most likely to admit bias, but levels across both genders increased with age – 25% of 17 to 34 year olds compared with 36% of over 55s. And education also seemed to have a part to play, with 19% of people sporting a degree reporting negative racial feelings compared to 38% with no qualifications.

Racism

London’s Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, also unveiled some rather depressing figures recently, indicating that the numbers of racist and religious hate crimes had leapt by 27% over the last year to a huge 13,007.

And sadly, it was London’s Muslims who suffered the single largest increase as they witnessed a massive 70% hike in Islamophobic attacks, bringing the total number of incidents to 816 in the 12 months to July 2015. Disgracefully, according to Tell MAMA, it was women wearing the hijab, or headscarf, who were the biggest single target.

But there are also more anecdotal incidents of British intolerance. There’s the case of the woman who started ranting at two men talking to each other in an Eastern European language on the London tube, telling them “you can only speak in English while you’re on my train”.

And of the group of black students denied entry to a nightclub in Leicester because of the colour of their skin. And of four Chelsea football fans who pushed a black guy off a Paris Metro train, while chanting racially abusive songs at him.

But even more worrying than such overt bigotry, it seems that institutional racism, which is much more hidden and insidious, is rife in this country too without most of us even being aware of it. The Metropolitan Police, for one, has been called out on this sorry state of affairs on a number of occasions, not least because black people in London are 12 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites.

Metropolitan Police
Metropolitan Police

But law enforcement isn’t the only area where such behaviour is in evidence. A study based on the results of 2007’s SATS national assessment of schoolchildren’s performance, which were blind marked – that is, the examiner was unaware of students’ racial identity – found that black learners performed far better in the exams than when teachers evaluated their work. White students, on the other hand, were found to achieve much higher grades in teacher assessments than under SATS.

To make matters worse, a report published by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed earlier this year that people from ethnic minorities needed, on average, to make 10% to 150% more applications than others in order to get a job. Research going back to 2009 also found that call-back rates for job interviews were between 50% and 90% lower among people belonging to black African and Caribbean communities and those of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin.

But that’s not the end of it – similar tales can be found across all aspects of life ranging from housing to criminal justice. So it seems that, while our music may have become completely integrated, our people – and our attitudes towards them – sadly haven’t.

 

 

Croatia, holiday, leisure, tourism

Dubrovnik: Britain’s latest holiday mecca

Dubrovnik in Croatia has these days become a favoured holiday destination for lots of Brits. And Americans. And Germans. And Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, Russian oligarch and owner of English Premier League football team, Chelsea.

Worth a jaw-dropping $9.1 billion, which according to Forbes, makes him the 137th richest person in the world, his $1.5 billion, 557-feet, super-sleek super-yacht Eclipse can usually be spotted sailing around off the stunning Dalmatian coast for a couple of months towards the end of each summer – a ritual performed for the last three or four years apparently.

P1010752

Strangely though, he is said to never actually disembark and avail himself of the local delights, preferring instead to simply float around different parts of the bay and view things from a distance. Which seems a bit of a shame really. But maybe having all that money isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

Eclipse, which was custom-made to Abramovich’s own specs in 2010, is for example reportedly kitted out with a missile defence system, armour-plating around his master suite, bullet-proof windows and an anti-paparazzi system.

This laser-based system can allegedly detect the electronic light sensors of digital cameras, which it targets with a beam of bright light to overexpose any privacy-busting photos having the audacity to be taken – an ideal accessory for anyone who guards his persona as international man of mystery as jealously as Abramovich does.

But just in case you come away with the mistaken notion that the guy is all work and no pleasure, the yacht also boasts a dedicated disco hall, two swimming pools, two helicopter pads and a mini-submarine, doubtless so he can enjoy the local aquatic life without having to mix with the rest of the tourist hoy-polloi.

In fact, when first built, this extravagant plaything was apparently the largest private yacht in the world – although it has since been usurped by younger model, Azzam, thought to be owned by Shiekh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates.

Not to be outdone though, there are now rumours that Abramovich is in the process of going one better and having the ship to beat all ships delivered into his tender care next year.

Boats of stature

Anyway, Eclipse isn’t the only boat of stature that can be seen sailing around Dubrovnik’s shores by any stretch of the imagination. Astoundingly for a small, essentially medieval-turned-Baroque town following its rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 1667, half again of its entire population of 40,000 souls swarms in each day during tourist season, many being disgorged from gigantic cruise liners the size of small cities.

P1010880

Each of these extraordinary behemoths holds between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers and roughly the same number again of staff. Thankfully for everyone’s sanity after five or six years of madness however, a maximum of three are now allowed to dock per day, although no such limits have been imposed on smaller ships in the 1,000 or so passenger range.

Which all makes the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, a bit of a crush to say the least – or between the hours of 10am and 6pm anyway. And we went there at the end of September so I’d hate to think what it was like in the peak months of July and August, especially now that Game of Thrones worshippers have added themselves to the throng.

Doubling as King’s Landing in Westeros, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, in the HBO epic fantasy series, the city has as a result become a mecca for avid fans who can even take a three hour walking tour to treat themselves to a unique modern take on traditional gems.

It’s all a far cry from the quiet backwater that I first visited in the mid-1980s when Croatia was still part of the post-war socialist state of Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito reigned supreme. Then it was all about women in long black dresses and headscarves selling oranges outside their homes and taking produce to market by donkey. How times have changed.

But the scrum that Dubrovnik can unfortunately become doesn’t ever seem to put people off – and in many ways you can see why. Surrounded by two spectacular if exposed kilometres of stone battlements that everyone walks around for the bargain basement price of 100 Croatian kuna (about £9.65), this exquisite city jutting into an azure Adriatic Sea with its terracotta-roofed Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces, truly is picture postcard fare.

Food and drink

And its seafood is equally magnificent. With everything from sea bass and gilt-head sea bream to squid and octopus on the menu, it’s all about fresh ingredients cooked simply and served with tasty side orders of salad, rice or French fries. Other traditional delicacies also worth trying include cevapcici, which is a kind of highly seasoned rissole, and chicken or lamb slow-cooked under a metal lid called a peka that is covered with hot embers.

Equally as ubiquitous, meanwhile, are the excellent pizzas, pasta dishes and ice cream in myriad flavours of a quality rarely experienced outside of Italy – a line-up that may at first glance seem rather odd. But given the proximity of its Mediterranean neighbour to northern Croatia and the powerful commercial relationship engaged in particularly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries between the key maritime trading centres of Dubrovnik and Venice – which incidentally apparently tried to invade the former a huge 70 times – it’s possibly not quite as strange as it seems.

P1010674

Also not to be missed though are Croatian wines – and the reds in particular. Although a bit of an unknown quantity in the UK for many, the industry is, along with olive-growing and citrus fruit production, a traditional and well-established one. It’s just that the vast majority of its outcomes are drunk at home and the country’s export market is tiny, which means that the average European simply isn’t particularly familiar with its delights – or the tongue-twisting names assigned to its grape varietals and brands.

Because it must be said that words belonging to the Slavic Serbo-Croatian language, which is spoken in a mutually understandable way all over the Baltics, do seem to include an unreasonable number of consonants – a case in point being the white wine grape “Trbljan bijeli” or a red wine version “Grenas crni”. Which is all a bit daunting initially.

As is the apparent shamelessness of rotund, middle-aged, Croatian men wearing tiny, weeny little Speedos at the beach in our holiday retreat of Zaton, about eight kilometres out of Dubrovnik itself. But over time, I can only say that I truly got to admire the lack of body consciousness displayed by both Croatian genders – a state of being so far removed from the average set of constraining British inhibitions as to be deeply impressive.

Because when push comes to shove, the fairy tale exotica of Dubrovnik and Croatia really are best enjoyed if you simply take them as you find them.

Briitish industry, food and drink

The English wine industry: A great British success story

Traditionally the UK has been a proud nation of beer drinkers – and popping down the pub for a pint has been a characteristically British pastime since time immemorial.

But times are changing, it seems. A poll published earlier this year by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) revealed that wine has now become the tipple of choice for three out of five of us.

This equates to a huge 30 million or so regular topers drinking on average 10 litres of Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc each as their top three snifters.

As a result of this new-found enthusiasm for all things grape-y rather than grain-y, the entire sector is now worth a huge £17.3 billion. It supports 270,000 jobs and contributes a significant £8.6 billion in taxes to the Chancellor’s coffers.

Even more amazingly though, the UK also boasts an unexpected 572 commercial vineyards, which are found mostly in England, although there are also 22 in Wales and four in Scotland too. They produced 6.3 million bottles in 2014, an increase of 42% in volume terms over the year before, according to professional body, the English Wine Producers.

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Although such figures pale into insignificance behind France’s seven to eight billion bottles, the market is still only a young one. But it’s growing fast. And this growth is at least partially due to fact that the amount of land given over to vineyards has doubled in the last seven years, now standing in excess of 4,900 acres (2,000 hectares).

The shift has come about as a result of increasing numbers of farmers turning their land over from arable crops to vines – despite the hefty three to five years it takes for them to mature enough to produce wine grapes, explains Charles Hardcastle, owner of Joseph Barnes Wines, a lovely boutique wine shop in Saffron Walden.

And the reason is simple – despite the long lead-time, as and when the crop arrives, it tends to be much more profitable than traditional alternatives. According to the Wine Investment Fund (WIF), which invests in fine wines from Bordeaux, it is also a gift that keeps on giving, especially in bad times.

WIF believes that, as a commodity with similar characteristics to gold, fine wine tends to benefit from uncertain economic conditions such as those that we have at the moment.

Growing industry

But while gold is currently losing its lustre as an investment ‘safe haven’, “wine’s intrinsic value and inherently diminishing supply dynamic should mean that it retains its appeal in unstable market conditions”. Apparently.

Anyway, other reasons for the rapid growth of the English wine industry in particular, says Charles, include lots of new investment in cellar technology, machinery and, importantly, temperature control.

But it also helps that the UK has got warmer over the last few years due to climate change. “English wine-making is growing rapidly as the country gets warmer and we’re now seeing grapes that you wouldn’t have grown 10 years ago,” he explains.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have, in fact, now become the most popular national choice of varietal, not least because they cope well with our still relatively cool climate. And they also happen to love the chalky soils of Sussex, Kent and much of Essex just as much as those of France’s Burgundy and the Languedoc.

But it is sparkling wine that has been the UK’s true success story. Although it still accounts for only 1.5% of domestic purchases, producers won an impressive 14 gold medals in the International Wine Challenge this year compared to just five last year.

As a result, at least two thirds of UK production is now given over to it due to the higher margins that it generates, with volumes having grown by a massive 150% over the last five years.

The only small fly in the ointment is that English wines are still quite expensive for what they are. Charles estimates that you’d probably pay £9 to £10 for an English wine that would cost you maybe £6 or £7 for an equivalent French one – which, incidentally, is still the UK’s favourite wine producing country behind only Australia, but ahead of Italy (data from researchers, the IWSR).

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But that hasn’t stopped high street chains such as Marks & Spencer and Waitrose getting in on the act, with the latter reporting a 95% increase in 2014 sales over the previous year. In fact, Waitrose now offers more than 100 varieties of wine from both England and Wales.

Success story

But as well as the supermarkets’ support – something that Charles points out has been directly responsible for our new-found love of wine no matter what its origins – another thing that’s helped the British industry to blossom is the fact that English food has started to become trendy again.

And of course chefs are often keen to offer local wine in order to complement their local fare – something that has resulted in it appearing on the menus of restaurants owned by such celebrity greats as Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal and even home-grown North Essex boy, Jamie Oliver.

Anyway, the reason that I started looking into all of this in the first place was the fact that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to an English wine festival last weekend, at least partially to see how it compared with the fabulous three-day event held each year in Stellenbosch where we lived for nearly a year while in South Africa.

Although not quite on the same scale, it was held at the New Hall Vineyards, which is one of the oldest and largest in the country. Set up in 1969 in the small Essex village of Purleigh near Chelmsford, it comprises 100 acres of vines.

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And my favourite tipple there had to be the Huxelrebe, which is a German grape, tasting – to my uncultured palate anyway – not dissimilar to a nice, crisp Pinot Grigio.

The worst, on the other hand, was the Baron’s Red. But, I’m reliably informed by Charles, the climate still has a bit more changing to do before it’ll warm enough to make the most of red varietals really.

Anyway, one little money-making venture that I’d not come across before, despite having been a regular visitor to Stellenbosch’s wine farms when we were there, was the idea of an “own you own vineyard” scheme.

What New Hall proposes is that for the tidy sum of £350, you can rent yourself a vine row for a year, or two years for £650. They’ll look after it for you as part of the price, and then subsequently process your grapes at a cost of £1.98 per resultant bottle of wine, or £7.73 if it’s sparkling.

So it’s nothing if not entrepreneurial. Which is presumably why the English wine industry – despite the cynics – is rapidly starting to become one of the UK’s big commercial success stories.

Manchester, regeneration

Manchester: Plus ca change

I love Manchester. And I can say that with at least some authority as I lived there for nine glorious months in the late 1980s at the height of the infamous “Madchester” era.

At that point, it was impossible to go into a shop or pub without being deafened by the latest anthem from the Stone Roses or Happy Mondays. Or without tripping over baggy jeans and tie-dye tops, particularly in that indie shopping mecca, Afflecks Palace, located in the now bohemian, but formerly scruffy, so-called Northern Quarter.

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And it’s still there in all its glory, thankfully. All vinyl record stalls and alternative clothes stores, piercing and tattoo parlours strung out over the three scuffed floors that betray its department store heritage – although presumably the esteemed owners of the old Affleck & Brown wouldn’t really recognise it these days. Or get the perverse hipster charm of novelties such as the Black Milk Cereal Café bursting with sugar-laden breakfast treats.

Anyway, to get back to the point, most of my Manc friends in the late 1980s were gay. Which meant that the majority of my going-out-of-an-evening exploits were focused on the Canal Street area of town – although in those days, it was all about dark and dingy pubs around Princess and Sackville Street near China Town

Which, it must be said, stands in stark contrast to the bright and airy chic of today’s Gay Village canal-side bars – something that’s probably really quite symbolic of the change in public attitudes to all things homosexual, and not just in Manchester.

But whatever the truth of it and despite my focus elsewhere, I’m pleased to say that I still managed to make it to that most iconic of nightclub/music venues, the Hacienda, which was just down the road. And I really loved the urban warehouse style of the place too, with its exposed brickwork and police-no-entry barrier tape plastered everywhere – it may all be a bit clichéd now, but it was definitely new and exciting then.

But how Manchester has changed, and not just a bit, each time I’ve been back. I know it’s all been said before but every time I visit, I’m truly amazed by the continuing transformation.

Because it’s been a city in transition for the last 20 years – since 1996, in fact, when the IRA set off the UK’s largest peace-time bomb in a van in the city centre’s Corporation Street, injuring 212 people and causing £411 million-worth of damage in the process.

Regeneration

But despite the tragedy, Manchester has never looked back. When the regeneration money came pouring in from the private sector and Europe, it grabbed the chance to reinvent itself, almost beyond recognition.

And interestingly, culture and the arts have played a central role – the pocket-sized Victorian-style Cornerhouse cinema and visual arts centre on Oxford Road has, for one, just transmuted into a huge £25 million futuristic exhibition, theatre and film complex called Home.

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Also waiting in the wings is the Factory, described by Chancellor George Osborne in his autumn statement, as a “large-scale, ultra-flexible arts space”, to the creation of which he dedicated a healthy £78 million.

Scheduled to rise on the site of the former Granada TV studios and named in honour of Manchester’s music mogul Tony Wilson, it’ll provide a permanent home to the city’s biennial International Festival of performing and visual arts as well as performances of all kinds throughout the year.

In fact, within 10 years, the centre is expected to create as many as 2,300 full-time jobs and to add a huge £134 million to the city’s economy.

So the theme, it seems, is very much one of renewal. While some places like Albert Square with its Victorian Gothic grandeur and the Pantheon-inspired Central Library haven’t changed a bit, other downtown areas have morphed considerably.

Today Manchester is rather more about steel-and-glass skyscrapers, outdoor cafes and shiny new trams than grubby, red-brick edifices, dank, dingy towpaths and greasy spoons – although, to be fair, lots of the old classics are still there where I left them. You just have to strain a bit harder to see them.

But despite the metamorphosis, Manchester still feels the same at heart. The imposing warehouses may have turned into trendy city centre flats and the smoky pubs into fashionable bars, but the people with their wry humour and down-to-earth manner are still as friendly as ever.

Northern Powerhouse

But it does make you wonder somewhat just what impact the much-feted Northern Powerhouse notion will have on the place.

A concept cooked up by the Chancellor with the encouragement of Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council, the idea, on the face of it, is about rebalancing the national economy in order to mitigate London’s dominance – although recent research would appear to indicate that investment to this end is still “heavily biased” in favour of the capital.

But in reality, it seems to be more about supporting the town and its environs to become the UK’s second city behind London. Or at least the capital of the north – much to the disgruntlement of the town’s notoriously independent and very distinct northern neighbours – wealthy Yorkshire, in particular. And Birmingham, of course, which currently claims the number two slot for itself.

Anyway, a key element of the landmark £1 billion devolution settlement for Manchester involved greater powers over house-building, planning, skills development and health in return for electing a local mayor by spring 2017 – with hints that other northern areas might be allowed to follow suit if they behaved themselves and found themselves a mayor too.

Just as important was the implementation of a so-called Northern Transport Strategy in order to boost economic development across the wider region after years of underinvestment. But the Strategy, which was intended to slash journey times between major northern cities by means of a high-speed rail infrastructure, has now been delayed indefinitely.

Which makes it’s all a bit unclear what’s going to happen next really. Certainly people locally seem to have little belief that things will change much, taking a “who-knows’ and “we’ve-heard-it-all-before” stance.

But despite it’s glitzy make-over, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to see that Manchester still has its challenges.

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For instance, at 80, it has the lowest female life expectancy in England and Wales, more than six years behind the front-runners. The city’s child protection activities were deemed inadequate by schools watchdog Ofsted lately, while deprived areas such as the infamous but regenerating Moss Side, where I lived for a while, still suffers child poverty rates of 59%.

So it seems that the city does still need some support, just in other ways too. Because as far as I can see, it’ll take more than promises of devolution and a bit of fancy building work to really solve its post-industrial problems.