Out on the tiles

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Readers of some of my other posts may know that I am very fond of ceramics, in particular the high-glazed pottery tiles synonymous with the Victorian arts and crafts movement. I love the lustrous decadence of the rich intense colours from the period, and  the opulent crackle of the glaze.

Some of the best examples can be found beneath our feet gracing the ticket halls and the platforms of subterranean train stations or even the humble relics of gentlemen’s public conveniences. I have been known to visit places ( not men’s toilets!)  just for the tiles, whilst on other occasions I have made unexpected discoveries, sometimes in unlikely places. Here are three of my favourites in the city of Manchester.

1. The Principal Hotel ( formerly the Palace Hotel). This grade 2 listed building on The corner of Whitworth Street and Oxford Street was built between 1891 and 1895 by the architect Alfred Waterhouse for the Refuge Assurance Company, a very successful insurance business. The outside of the building is nothing extraordinary….

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…but the inside is glorious!

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I love the glamour and the sense of the exotic conjured by the pillars and foliage. The design is of glazed brick and Burmantofts faience, a decorative style of architectural terracotta and glazed pottery which used warm cream, buff, rich orange and rusty tones. The Burmantofts company emerged in Leeds in the late 1850s with Waterhouse being one of their patrons.

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An overseas-based friend and I meet in Manchester once a year when she visits family in the city. Our venue of choice is almost always the Palace where for a couple of hours we can escape the Manchester rain and the hustle and bustle of the world outside and marvel at the sparkling chandeliers’ reflections on the glossy surfaces of the walls around us as we indulge in afternoon tea.

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2. Peveril of the Peak. This iconic Manchester public house has stood near the Bridgewater Hall since the 1820s and is named after the novel of the same title written by Sir Walter Scott (better known as the author of Ivanhoe) in 1823, but set in the 17th century.

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Peveril is brilliant. It’s actually nothing special inside, but wonderfully incongruous in its modern and muted surroundings this Victorian pottery pub is also grade II listed. Some of the outer tiles were added in the 1920s but have remained unaltered since – happily for those of us who like its style.

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3. J&J Shaw Ltd. This is my favourite doorway in Manchester.

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J & J Shaw established the furniture warehouse in 1924. This place is a hidden gem, tucked away close to Oxford Road train station.  I love the colours and the detail and can never resist tracing the shapes of the smooth leaves and fruits when I pass by. Its gorgeous art-deco entrance hints at the possibility of stylish furnishings that customers might have perused once they had stepped through the pottery portal. How exciting! They don’t make doors like they used to, do they?

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Spring is in the Air

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We are on the cusp of seasons. Spring is tantalising us, slowly but surely shedding her outer layers and revealing flashes of warm light and emerging greenery. In my little patch the daffodil bulbs, which I thought I’d left too late when I planted them in December, are pushing through towards the sun. Today has been a cold day but I felt the occasional warm ray on my face, enough to power up the solar garden lamps which are gracing the dusk for a little longer each day. It is still light when I arrive home from work which is bliss! The new energy is almost tangible.

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February 1st was the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc: for Pagans the first day of the ‘quickening’ – the turning of the year, and later adopted by Christianity and renamed as St Bridget’s day. It is a fire festival and marks the advance towards light and warmth….. even though in these parts we had seen snow just a few days earlier.

Although there’s still a way to go before we can put away our winter coats and scarves, it is heartening to see the early signs of renewal and enjoy the lengthening days. It’s a special time.

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I am often guilty of forgetting about the many lovely places close to my home in favour of more interesting locations further afield. At this time of year when the grand houses of the National Trust have not yet opened their stately doors to the public, and when the countryside has not yet come into bloom, there is still much beauty to be found locally.

Scotsman’s Flash is one of many ‘flashes’ in the Wigan area, lakes formed as a result of mining subsidence on the sites of former coal mine workings. Scotsman’s is the largest and is a designated area of scientific interest due to the presence of rare plants and migrating birds such as Reed and Sedge Warbler. It is popular with canoeists, and people like my friend who sometimes walks her dogs there at the weekends.

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Our stroll took us along a stretch of the Leigh branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

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A new road – a busy dual-carriageway – which will ‘fly over’ the canal and the edge of the Flash is in the early stages of construction after decades in the planning stage. The next few months may be the last chance to enjoy views like these. It remains to be seen what the impact on the wildlife will be, so all the more reason to enjoy days like this one whilst I still can.

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Snow and trees at twilight

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The early hours of Tuesday saw the first snow fall of the season in my part of the world. It has all gone now, having stayed for little more than a day. The bizarre temperature fluctuations continue; today we’re back in double figures.

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I am not lamenting the snow’s melting. Yes, it makes for a pretty scene when viewed from the warm side of a window, and undeniably there is pleasure in the crunch underfoot and the sight of animal prints in freshly fallen ground cover. I dread the yellow-grey slush which follows, seeping through shoes, dampening trouser bottoms and treacherous when it freezes over, turning pavements into ice rinks. I have twice fallen victim (literally) to icy ground, as X-rays and a now very faded suture scar would bear witness.

The daylight lingers for a little bit longer each day, which is wonderful. It won’t be long before we see the arrival of the first signs of early spring. I love that time. Today, it was almost five o’clock when the streaks of twilight dipped behind the trees near my home. I took some photographs of the bare branches, appreciating the cycle of the seasons but looking forward to greener times ahead.

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Last week saw the death of one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, whose observations of the natural world strike a chord with me. White Eyes is a poem about winter and about a bird, about the promise of things to come, and about life ….. perfect for this time.

White Eyes – Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)
In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us
he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds
from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.
So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.
I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—
which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—
thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird
that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

 

 

This Sensation of Flying

On 15th September 1830, actress Fanny Kemble was one of a group of lucky VIPs gathered in Liverpool to be part of a very spectacular event: the world’s first inter- city train journey.

The train – Rocket – set off from Liverpool on its historic journey to Manchester. Rocket’s coal-hungry furnace fired its powerful pistons, driving the steam engine to a mind-blowing top speed of 35 miles an hour; no great feat to the 21st century passenger, but Fanny Kemble and all those on board would surely have been awe-struck.

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Fanny is reported to have said of the experience, “ I closed my eyes and this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.”

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This print from 1831 on display at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry shows an early journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway
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Also on display at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, this sketch shows the variety of goods and passengers and the range of carriages in use

In 1830 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and Britain was renowned as the workshop of the world. A railway linking the port of Liverpool to the coal and textile centres of Manchester and the rest of Lancashire would make for speedy transportation of goods and raw materials and would offer fast passenger transport to those who could afford it.

There had been other steam locomotives before, but Rocket was the first of its typeinvented and built by father and son George and  Robert Stephenson at their works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the Rainhill Trials in 1829. The Trials had been set up to choose the best locomotive for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway which would open the following year. Despite a tragic accident where Rocket struck and killed the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, near to what is now Newton-le-Willows station,  Rocket won the contest and became the design template for almost all steam locomotives that would follow.

Rocket continued to run on the Liverpool to Manchester line into the 1840s before becoming obsolete when better engines were developed. After 150 years at the London Science Museum and a short stint in Newcastle in early 2018, Rocket returned last September to the site of her maiden run at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.

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A few weeks ago I travelled, by train, to nearby Manchester to see the world’s first inter-city loco, which will stay in Manchester until April before moving to the National Railway Museum in York.

 

 

I had been expecting Rocket to be bigger, but that apart I was fascinated and quite moved to be up close to this historical ‘game-changer’.

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It was easy to imagine how those first passengers, having only been used to travelling by horse and carriage or possibly on a canal barge, must have felt as they moved at a fantastical speed.

Rocket arrived triumphant at Liverpool Road Station, which was built for the occasion in 1830 and is the oldest railway station in the world which is still in existence. It is within the Museum of S&I where it has been lovingly restored.

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An 1830s view of Rocket as she zooms past
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The original track

Inside the station, visitors can enjoy some of the original fixtures and fittings.

 

 

 

 

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The booking clerk’s desk 

The spacious exhibition area provides a sense of the proportions, comfort and overall impressiveness of the station in its glory days. Anybody who was lucky enough to travel by train must have felt quite important.

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The exhibition is interesting and tells the story of train travel from that first journey to the present day.

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As with all new technology, railways were not welcomed by everybody, especially those whose commercial interests might suffer. This sketch of the time shows thin and redundant horses singing for their suppers because of the decline in canal traffic
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Bust of George Stephenson
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I would love a copy of this print

Within the Museum’s large engineering exhibition hall I found another of Stephenson’s locomotives, Planet, whose improved design later rendered Rocket obsolete.

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My journey home on another Northern line was somewhat faster once the train eventually arrived, 40 minutes late and with two of its four carriages out of action. My carriage seemed considerably more congested than those depicted in the 1830s sketches looked to be, but at least I wasn’t open to the elements. Things have come a long way since Fanny Kemble’s delightful sensation of flying……… possibly 😉.

Formby Point: the beach beckons

Happy New Year to all – and welcome to my first post of 2019! I’m really excited about the year ahead and about sharing some of my adventures with you as we travel around the sun one more time. I’m quite new to blogging myself and have been inspired by some great writers who I have found over the past year or so;  I look forward to following my favourite blogs again this year and to making some new discoveries.

And so it begins. January arrived, dry and bright. I carried on with the ruthless clear-out I started after Christmas, and I even got out into the garden for a bit of a tidy up in preparation for the start of the new growing season. Spending time in the sunshine always makes me feel good, no matter what the time of year.

Today was reasonably mild and the sky a joyous blue, so I decided to make my first seaside outing of 2019.

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Formby is a coastal town between Liverpool and Southport in the north-west of England. Its abundance of very rich and celebrity residents (including premiership football players) and luxury properties has resulted in the dubious nicknames  Califormbia and Formby Hills. The chances of me recognising (or even having heard of!) a reality TV ‘star’, a current ‘soap’ actor, or a football player are roughly equal to the chances of one of them recognising me. I was really hoping to see some of Formby’s other famous locals, the indigenous red squirrels whose abode is the large area of National Trust pine woodland which stretches out along the Formby coast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be on this occasion.

Temperatures had dropped overnight and the ground frost sparkled in the sunshine. Sections of felled fir trees had been left on the path.

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There are two approaches to Formby beach: the first which is shorter and probably more popular involves a very energetic scramble over a range of steep sand dunes; the second – which I opted for – took me on a longer, beautiful meander through the dunes along a sandy path. The azure sky and the landscape reminded me of long ago Aegean holidays.

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Several benches along the walk have been dedicated to the memory of people who loved to spend time here. What a lovely way to be brought to mind each time a loved one or stranger sits for a while to admire the vista.

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On top of the dunes, sand mountaineers looked out to sea.

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Squawking magpies kept their own lookout from the trees tops.

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And apparently it’s never too cold for an ice cream.

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The National Trust has laid a long board walk to make the beach accessible for prams, wheelchairs and folks like me who don’t climb dunes.

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The entire path from the Lifeboat Road car park down to the beach is navigable for wheels and bad knees. Here, I made some new friends in their stunning hand-knitted jackets.

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The board walk ended and the wide beach came into view. The tide was out and the firm sand was perfect for walking. whether on two legs or four.

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One of my new colourfully-clad friends insisted we had a long game of throw and fetch the stick. Fortunately, he did all the running!

With my playmate called away to rejoin his family pack, the steps of the lifeboat station served as a convenient bench for me to sit for a while and enjoy my first beach visit of the year… hopefully, the first of many.

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The shortest day

 

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The final few days before Christmas can become quite fraught as folks pile into the shops to buy those last-minute presents and to make sure provisions are in store for seemingly hundreds of unexpected but potential visitors.

I don’t much like grocery shopping, preferring instead to ‘click’ my selections into my basket and await delivery in the comfort of home, but having been defeated earlier in the week by a particularly potent (but fortunately short-lived) winter bug (and not being able to secure an online delivery slot) I had to face the trolley gauntlet on Friday. It looked like the shortest day was going to become a very long one. Drawing on every bit of festive cheer I could muster, I patiently navigated the obstacle course of spatially unaware (or unconcerned) fellow shoppers, and reached the check out as quickly as I could.

When a friend called to ask if I’d like to go for a walk, my first thoughts were that I didn’t want to leave the house again that day. After a  few moments’ reflection I phoned her back. If I wrapped up properly, a drive off the beaten track, some fresh air and appreciation of nature would be a good way to end the shortest day of the year.

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These pigeons were also having a quiet moment as we rounded the path in their direction.

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The sudden beating of wings in flight was the only sound apart from our footsteps on the squelchy leaves.

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Creatures watched from their posts in the undergrowth: traditional Christmas card scenes and flashes of exotic colour.

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The year continues to be relatively mild, and there was no ice cover on the pond. Water dwellers looked peaceful both above and below the surface.

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This is a time to reflect on another year now passed, and a time to look forward as the days lengthen and we move away from the dark and towards the light. What adventures will there be for us in 2019? For now, I’m happy to stay cosy inside.

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Manchester Canal Walk

At this time of year I love to spend cosy weekends at home with books and copious cups of tea, pottering about and conserving energy to keep those winter bugs at bay; but it’s good to get out sometimes, to blow away those cobwebs.

I decided on a Sunday afternoon visit Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Rather than push through the crowds of Christmas shoppers, I opted for a relaxing stroll along the Rochdale Canal.

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The Rochdale Canal runs down into the city of Manchester from high in the Pennine hills. In the late 18th and early 19th century it was key to the city’s industrial growth, through the transportation of cotton and finished goods to and from the plethora of mills and canal-side warehouses.

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Of course, the industrial buildings have all now been repurposed, some as swanky offices or apartments, or even trendy clubs and restaurants.

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The Sun was shining and quite a few people were out cycling or running or, like me, finding a quieter path through the city clamour.

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Locals of the feathered variety ventured out from their desirable residences.

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An art installation celebrates the late famed Tony Wilson, Mr Manchester: journalist and broadcaster, founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub.

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I walked by Deansgate in the direction of Castlefield, passing under dark low bridges and alongside swelling lock gates holding back walls of water

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A couple of work men repaired railings on the towpath

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A little further ahead, Castelfield hub offered light and space

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The wharfs and basins around Castlefield, once a hive of commerce where boats were unloaded at the city warehouses, is now one of the most popular spots in the city, especially in summer where people gather on the towpath and at the bars and restaurants. A wedding party posed for photographs. I offered my congratulations as I passed.

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A small cluster of boats is permanently moored ….

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….where an attractive space is used for outdoor performances and recreation. A single practitioner of Tai Chi moved gracefully whilst a group of boys practised skateboard stunts on the steps a short distance away, where my canal walk reached its end.

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