Walking the Manchester Curry Mile

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It’s said that variety is the spice of life, and a walk along Manchester’s spiciest street is nothing if not varied.

Rusholme is a district of Manchester just outside the city centre. It is term-time home to a large student population residing in local halls of residence. It’s also a  global village of different communities, mainly from south east Asia.

A hundred years ago, Rusholme was leafy and salubrious, and notable amongst its more illustrious residents were the Pankhursts, champions of women’s suffrage. Now, many of the larger Edwardian and Victorian houses have been turned into student flats.

The area is most famous for its curry mile which attracts fans of international cuisine from all over Manchester and beyond. Actually, the curry mile descriptor  probably needs to be updated, as there are now more eateries selling Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, Turkish and Afghani  food than there are Indian curry establishments.

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It’s a bit run down, and daylight hours don’t show Rusholme at its best; it’s after dark that it comes alive and the bright lights illuminate the street scene with delicious oriental aromas enticing spice lovers through the many welcoming doors.

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World-food stores sell a vast range of unusual ingredients with  lush fruits and vegetables displayed out front.

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The start and end of the curry mile are marked by public parks. I started my walk at Platt Fields at the south end where Manchester Museum of Costume is located. I’ve visited the Museum previously but it is currently closed for cataloguing of exhibits and to deal with a moth problem.

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Platt Fields is used a lot for community events, including festivals which always involve lots of delicious food. The local communities associated with Rusholme are represented in art on the outbuildings.

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Within Platt Fields is the remains of a link to Manchester’s distant past. The Nico ditch is what is left of an ancient earthwork, the purpose of which is not known for certain,  though there are some interesting theories. The section of the Nico ditch which skirts Platt Fields is now listed as a protected ancient monument. It isn’t easy to locate, as much of the signage around the park is weather-beaten and  unclear. I have tried to highlight the ditch below.

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The ditch runs across what was the old border between Manchester and Stockport. It isn’t known when it was constructed; some time during the 600 years or so between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving, it is thought. Possibly a defensive work to keep out Viking invaders from the Danelaw; possibly, and less dramatically, a simple boundary marker, Nico ditch’s purpose is subject to speculation. There are a lot of ‘maybes’. My favourite Nico folklore narrative tells how it was built in one night by the men of Manchester, each man building a section as tall as himself, to keep out the Norsemen.

Nearby, Platt Fields wildlife feasts on nature’s offerings, concerned only with the present.

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Back on Wilmslow Road again, we find Hardy’s Well.

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Once a popular watering hole, last orders were finally called in 2016 but the pub has become iconic because of the poem of the same name – a celebration of alliteration – which is composed upon its gable wall.

Hardy’s Well is the creation of Lemn Sissay MBE, Chancellor of the University of Manchester and poet of the 2012 London olympics amongst his many accolades. Unfortunately, Lemn has neglected the addition of possessive apostrophes.

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Lemn Sissay was born in Wigan, about 17 miles away and brought up in the care system after his mother, an Ethiopian student, was initially unable to look after him. Lemn has described bitterly in print and in film his early life in care and has recently succeeded in claiming compensation from Wigan Council. As a young adult, Lemn reclaimed his Ethiopian heritage and the name given him at birth. His poetry is internationally renowned but Hardy’s Well is my favourite. Yesterday was National Poetry Day in the UK with the theme being ‘change’. I thought it very apt that Hardy’s Well graces a spot which had seen an incredible amount change over the last century.

The property developers who have bought the building have undertaken to preserve the iconic script but the vandals have already got to work making their own marks.

Negotiating  the crowds gathering to share mouthwatering masalas and tantalising tikkas, I savoured the aromas and admired window displays of Bollywood fashions as I continued along the curry mile.

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Whitworth Park is at the north end of the curry mile near to the University and the city’s main hospitals. Whitworth Gallery is alongside. It’s one of my favourite galleries: modern, unpretentious and always with a thought-provoking exhibition.

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Manchester has become famous for its bees which represent the city’s resilience and industrial heritage. Bee sculptures  can be found all over the city and here are two at the Whitworth.

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I do love a roll of wallpaper with a bold pattern, and I was not disappointed by the examples included in the exhibition, Bodies of Colour: breaking wallpaper stereotypes.

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I wondered who would want a gallows scene on their wall, or even the rather unsettling ‘Sindy’ print from the mid 1970s. The character in the pink outfit and shades would surely keep any child awake at night!

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Thread Bearing Witness, an exhibition by Alice Kettle, celebrates the lives and contributions of female refugees who have come to live in the Manchester area. Their traumas and aspirations are expressed through their contributions to the exhibition.

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I finished my walk along the curry mile with a look around the Whitworth Art Garden where haute cuisine seemed to be the order of the changing day.

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A walk along the Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden

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Several weeks ago when I arranged yesterday’s visit to London, I had expected that the last Saturday in September would be more autumnal. However, a forecast of 17 degrees and dawn to dusk sunshine resulted in a change of plans for the day. Museums and exhibitions can wait for colder days; this was going to be a perfect occasion for a stroll along one of the capital city’s waterways.

Having walked the stretch of the Canal from Regent’s Park to Camden last year, I decided that this time I’d begin at its starting point, Little Venice, where it meets the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin.

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The nearest tube station is Warwick Avenue. From there, it’s just a five minute walk to the Basin.

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I had expected there to be more boats around, but then it was only 09:40. Queues had already started to form for the water buses and private hire boats. I considered a cruise aboard Jason, but as embarkation was not for another 45 minutes I decided to walk instead.

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Heading north along the towpath, I soon found to my annoyance that I had to walk back up onto the road which runs parallel to the water. It seems that the permanent boating community whose vessels are moored there are entitled to lock an access gate which essentially turns that stretch of the towpath into their private gardens.

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Whilst I don’t begrudge them the privacy which this offers,  I wish it had been made clear on the various websites I had consulted when planning my walk. At that point I briefly regretted not having waited with the other Argonauts to set sail with Jason

My diversion took me past a nice looking cafe bar situated above the Canal tunnel.  I’d had a quick breakfast at 05:30 so I decided to break off for coffee and toast with a view of Little Venice.

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From there, the diversion took me further away from the water and through a housing estate. I consulted my map which seemed to suggest that I was still on track, but I had no idea where I would get back onto the towpath. A jogger helpfully pointed me in the right direction, informing me that I would pass a “nice pub” further ahead and that close by there would be a gate leading back down to the canal. Both were easy to find, but to my dismay this gate too was padlocked shut. A sign indicated an alternative route should the gate be locked, suggesting that there was actually no way for a pedestrian to ever know in advance whether the towpath would be accessible, as this depended on the choice of the boat residents at any given time.

With the water back in view, I ambled along past St John’s power station where on the other side of the Canal yet another cluster of boat people had made a pretty little floating community.

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They had also closed off the towpath where they had assembled some lovely gardens and homely structures. At that point, as I focused my camera through a gap in the railings, Jason sailed past. On balance, even though I had been diverted away from my chosen path through an insalubrious residential area , I was still glad I hadn’t wasted 45 minutes of my day waiting for that particular voyage to commence.

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A little further on, I was able to cross over to join the towpath. By this time, more people were canal-side: walking, running and cycling, with some even on the water. The capital’s waterways are havens for busy city-dwellers.

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My walk revealed a spectrum of city living, from the palatial properties on the far bank, through the array of quirky boat homes to the sleeping bags and tents under bridges and amongst the trees. One tent dweller bathed in the water as people passed by. I was quite moved by the sight of his little grooming kit of soap, shampoo, comb etc., guarded by his faithful canine companion. I hope he doesn’t have to do that for much longer as the days become colder and the water icy.

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This part of the canal skirts the western boundary of Regent’s Park and cuts through London Zoo with bridges connecting the two sides. Animal sounds can be heard from within the grounds. The photographs below show an aviary on my left and the giraffe house across the bank.

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The familiar view of the floating Chinese restaurant told me that I was to take the left turn under the next bridge.

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Camden lock was just a little way further ahead, as announced by the Bohemian air and herbal aroma.

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Camden Lock is a noisy and very vibrant hub of activity. It was almost midday and the area was teeming with visitors, exploring, shopping or just watching the world go by. The finger post told me I had walked two-and-a-half miles from Little Venice and that I could walk 302 miles to Liverpool if I fancied it. I decided to pass on that.

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I love Camden and have been countless times over the years, but I have found that as I get older I am less comfortable and less patient in the thick of the very slow moving swarms of spatially unaware sightseers, but it’s still good to see the amusement and wonder on the faces of visitors as they pose for selfies in this bizarre and very unconventional part of London where anything goes.

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The late Amy Winehouse  was a Camden girl, a fact which is celebrated through art works around the Stables market where she once worked on a stall. Would she still be around now if she hadn’t found fame?

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The Stables Market was formerly a horse hospital, dating back to 1854. Camden was an industrial hub where horses were instrumental in hauling goods between the canal and railway networks. References to the site’s former use are displayed throughout the market place’s alleys and courtyards.

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Stables

I amazed myself by keeping my purse zipped shut as I mooched around the winding passageways, a cornucopia of ethnic, vintage, and curio shops.

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Very ready for a sit down and a spot of lunch, I walked the short distance to Chalk Farm tube station to head back by train to the heart of the city.

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A tour of Smithills Hall, Lancashire

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Smithills Hall is a grade 1 listed manor house near Bolton, Lancashire, close to the West Pennine Moors. Last Sunday I took a tour to find out more.

 

First things first. The popular tea room makes tasty soup and sandwiches which were just what we needed before the hour-long exploration began.

 

According to Dorothy, our excellent guide, when the Anglo Saxons settled in the area in the 7th century, they described the surrounding hylls as smeƥe, or smooth. By 1300s, Smeƥe hylls had evolved into Smythell as noted in the earliest records which mention a manor house in that location.  In 1335, house and land were bought by the powerful Radcliffe family who built the oldest parts of the present great hall from timber frames and stone.

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Dorothy, our tour guide

 

Original features are still present; my favourites are the alms windows where bread would be left in the loaf-shaped openings for collection by the beggars of the parish, so that physical contact with them could be avoided.

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After the last of the Radcliffes died heirless in 1485, Smithills (as it was by then known)  passed into the possession of the Bartons, wealthy gentlemen farmers who held onto it for two centuries. There are some wonderful features from this period including examples of carved wood.

 

 

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The Bartons were enthusiastic recyclers, repurposing the solid oak planks of decommissioned ships which happened to make splendid beams and joists.

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The Tudor period was one of great turmoil in England. Henry VIII had brought religious reformation in the 1530s  when he declared himself Head of the Church of England and severed ties with the Pope and Rome. After Henry’s death in 1547, his son, Edward, became King, but died after just six years. The new monarch, Queen Mary, re-established Catholicism.  She became known as Bloody Mary due to her persecution of Protestants and the gruesome burnings which she ordered to be carried out on Protestant clergy who would not recant their faith.

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In 1554, George Marsh, a preacher from Bolton, was interrogated or ‘examined’ in what is known as the ‘green room’ at Smithills Hall before he was eventually burned at Chester. The ‘green room’, with its incredibly uneven and creaky floor, can normally only be viewed on special tours such as the heritage event we were attending……and ghost tours.

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The green room where George Marsh was interrogated

All old English houses have their stories of ‘things that go bump in the night’ and Smithills is no exception. After his interrogation, George Marsh is said to have stamped on a flagstone, leaving a strange supernatural footprint which is now under a glass cover for protection. It was impossible to take a decent photo due to poor lighting and visitors walking past so here’s one I found online.

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An original private chapel was thought to have been established in the 8th century with the present chapel (still in use), being built in 1520 by the Bartons and later refurbished and extended.

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I particularly liked the splendid stained-glass windows and the wooden panels, some of which are engraved with Masonic-looking symbols which also appear elsewhere in the Hall. Another member of the tour group asked about these but was told that they’d been checked out by the Freemasons who denied the images were associated with their secret society.

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The Ainsworth family took ownership in 1801. They were ‘new money’, owning a very successful bleaching business and a family fortune which demanded a residence to match their status.

The different wings converge around a courtyard, now turned into an herb garden. Formal gardens surround the Hall and the wider grounds include extensive woodland and lawns.

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The west wing was the last part to be added in the Victorian era. Mr and Mrs Ainsworth’s separate sitting rooms have been set out authentically with some original features.

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Mr Ainsworth’s room containing some unpleasant taxidermy
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Gorgeous Delft pottery tiles

 

I was delighted to find his and hers fireplaces decorated with gorgeous tiles; his in a Delft design and hers created by my favourite ceramic artist, William de Morgan (read my blog post about him  here  ).

 

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William deMorgan tiles in Mrs A’s fireplace

Although I’m not a great fan of Victoriana in general, I found it interesting to compare the different sections and styles of this somewhat disjointed house.

After Smithills was sold to Bolton Corporation in 1938 it was put to various uses including as a home for elderly ladies; hopefully they were accommodated in the warmer west wing and not in the mediaeval grand hall…

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Seven Dials, London: mystery and magic in the city

 

 

In 1929, British mystery writer Agatha Christie penned a novel, The Seven Dials Mystery, an intriguing tale of murder and espionage with all the usual twists and red-herrings before it is revealed that Seven Dials is not just a place but a secret society of international spies.

 

 

There is a new unsolved mystery if you know where to look: read on…..

Tucked in between the theatres of London’s West End and bustling arty Covent Garden is one of my favourite parts of the city: Seven Dials. It’s a small area, consisting of just seven streets which converge at the landmark from which the locality takes its name.

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When I visited 2 weeks ago the plinth had become a popular sunbathing spot so this is a photo I took last September

A 20ft Doric column adorned with six sun dials sits upon an 8ft plinth; the obelisk itself represents the seventh ‘dial’. The original monument was installed in 1694, orientated so there was a direct south and direct north vertical dial, and four vertically declining dials. It was removed in 1773 as it had become a congregation point for the drunk and disorderly of the area, and the modern replica was erected in 1989.

By that time, the area’s fortunes had completely reversed, and it had become what it is today: buzzing, lively and full of high-end shops and cool places to eat and drink.

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The French Hospital and Dispensarie, opened in 1867  for ‘the benefit of distressed foreigners of all nations requiring medical relief’ now serves as a trendy and popular cafe bar

It has also attracted practitioners of alternative and healthy lifestyles.

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Originally open farmland, the area was first planned and developed in the 1690s by politician and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641 – 1699), a flamboyant character who, alongside his long career as an MP, always seemed to have various enterprises on the go, including civil engineering projects of which Seven Dials was just one. Neale’s CV is an impressive read and includes ventures in colonial America where he was instrumental in setting up a central postal service.

His vision for Seven Dials was one of gentrification; a desirable residential area for the rich, whose rent money would line his pockets. Instead, it became synonymous with poverty and degenerate living and joined the list of failed speculations which ultimately led to ‘Golden Neale’ dying insolvent, due in no small part to his gambling habits.

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In Sketches by “Boz,” Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People, Charles Dickens described Seven Dials in 1835

‘streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.’ 

He also alludes to the variety of life to be found on the seven streets

‘The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…’.

William Hogarth’s propaganda print Gin Lane about the evils of drinking is believed to depict the area around Seven Dials.

That curiosity of which Dickens wrote in the 1800s inspires many of today’s visitors, though instead of ‘unwholesome vapours’ and ‘dirty perspectives’ they are more likely to find a very wholesome, inspiring and soulful environment and an unusual piece of art.

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On the white-washed wall of a passageway on Monmouth Street a spray painted mural appeared on 31st August 2017, the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.‘Be As Naughty As You Want’ shows Diana in the guise of Mary Poppins with her magical flying umbrella, watched by Prince George and Princess Charlotte. His mother’s advice about naughtiness was reported by Prince William in an interview earlier in the year.

This thought-provoking image is the work of famous street artist, Bambi, whose true identity remains a mystery despite her fame and the controversy surrounding the social and political messages expressed through much of her work. Tourists queue to have their photo taken next to the royal graffiti but I was able to get a quick shot between poses.

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The short passage leads to gloriously colourful Neal’s Yard, a radiant and vital hub of energy where a tour of the courtyard offers exciting food and drink, courses in natural apothecary and the chance for some self-indulgence at surely the brightest hair & beauty salon in the capital.

 

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The Yard and nearby Neal Street are named after the architect of Seven Dials, though why the ‘e’ was dropped from his name is another mystery.

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Sitting in Neal’s Yard is always joyful no matter what time of year, but especially on a sultry afternoon such as on my recent visit when the temperature hit 30 degrees and the baking hot sun and spice-coloured buildings almost made me forget I was in England.

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Halifax, West Yorkshire: mysterious creatures at the historic Piece Hall

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I recently made my first visit to the town of Halifax which sits high in the lovely Calderdale area of West Yorkshire. Halifax has been a centre of wool manufacture from the 15th century onward, its 19th century wealth arising from the cotton, wool and carpet industries. Like most other Yorkshire towns, Halifax had a large number of mills, many of which have been lost or converted for other uses.

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Minster Status was conferred on the 15th century Parish Church of St John the Baptist in 2009. I recommend a look if you visit the town. There is a lovely team of knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers and it was refreshing to be ‘loaned’ an information leaflet that I could read and give back or decide to buy for a couple of pounds. I particularly liked the Commonwealth windows, added in the 17th century to replace the ornate coloured glass banned by Oliver Cromwell. I think this simple design is just as attractive, if not more so.

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Another feature is the Jacobean box pews. Many churches from the same period still have these, but they tend to be fewer in number and towards the front, as they were often installed for the richer families of the parish to keep themselves apart from the poorer congregation. Here, all the pews are of this same design which is less common.

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Inside the porch is the broken headstone from the grave of Anne Lister, a member of one of Halifax’s prominent families who died in 1840.

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You can read my post about her remarkable life at beautiful Shibden Hall here .

Halifax is the home of Rowntree Mackintosh (now owned by Nestle) manufacturers of sweets and chocolates. Founder, John Mackintosh, was a local man whose first shop was in the town centre where his wife, Violet, formulated the recipe for their famous toffee. The town is also the home of the Halifax Building Society. Halifax boasts a long list of famous former residents which includes: John Christie -murderer and necrophile later of 10, Rillington Place, London; Shirley Crabtree, better-known as the wrestler, Big Daddy; the marvellous John Noakes of Blue Peter; Percy Shaw, inventor of Cats’ Eyes and singer/song-writer, Ed Sheeran, though he moved south at an early age. I was surprised at the size and bustle of the town which offers a lot to explore, but on this occasion my destination was the historic Piece Hall.

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Halifax’s Piece Hall is where ‘pieces’ of woollen cloth were traded by hand-loom weavers during the 18th and 19th centuries. It opened its gates in 1779 with trading taking place every Saturday morning in a total of 315 merchant trading rooms where producers and buyers would gather. The Piece Hall later became a public market after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the mills brought an end to the hand-loom cottage industry. After it started to fall into disrepair, a £19 million conservation and transformation programme began in 2015 to bring back the grade 1 listed building to its former glory.

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The building fully reopened on 1st August 2017 and is now the site of independent shops, cafes, arts and crafts galleries and a variety of events throughout the year. I was most impressed by the massive piazza which brought to mind more exotic locations. The expertly restored gates include a woolly clue to the original purpose of Halifax’s finest building baaaa none.

 

 

Blondin’s ice cream parlour offers a nod to the famous occasion in 1861 when internationally celebrated French performer, Charles Blondin, traversed the Piece Hall courtyard on a tight-rope. A gala festival – including tight-rope walking, obviously – will take place there on 15th September.

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Next stop for me was the Piece Hall gallery to see the spectacular Transformations exhibition by artist Pamina Stewart who has created from ‘found’ seashells an array of mesmerising, mysterious and even menacing creatures, composed in exquisite detail and expressing, to me, an inherent inner-spirit and the seed of a suggestion that they may not always stand so perfectly still. The curator must have read my thoughts, adding that she often wondered what went on in there at night!

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Pamina Stewart states that her intention is to ‘… take these discarded materials and give them a meaningful form’. I think she has certainly achieved that.

 

 

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I resisted the temptation to shell out on a very expensive impulse buy but was delighted to learn that several pieces had been sold, one to an unnamed ‘celebrity’, perhaps one of the many connected to this interesting town.

Sublime Symmetry exhibition: celebrating the ceramics of William De Morgan

Last Saturday, I went to London to see the Sublime Symmetry exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

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A collaboration between the London Mathematical Society and the De Morgan Foundation, the exhibition celebrates the influence of symmetry in the designs of the Victorian designer, potter and later novelist, William De Morgan.

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William De Morgan

Born in London in 1839, William was the son of distinguished mathematician and founder of the London Mathematical society, Augustus De Morgan and his wife, Sophia, who were liberal and encouraging parents, supporting William in his desire to become an artist. Although he entered the Royal Academy, William left soon after to better find his own creative style. Out of a life-long friendship with textiles designer William Morris, the two went into business together between 1863 and 1872 with De Morgan designing stained-glass and furniture for Morris & Co.

Overall, De Morgan was best known for his fiction, but his most celebrated ceramics work emerged between 1872 and 1881 when he set up his own pottery works in Chelsea, experimenting with and perfecting innovative firing and glazing techniques which led to several noteworthy commissions from the rich and famous such as the painter Alfred, Lord Leighton and department store owner, Ernest Ridley Debenham.

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I fell in love with William De Morgan’s tiles ten years ago. A friend, knowing of my passion for Islamic architecture and art, recommended that on my next London trip I should visit Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, the former residence of Lord Leighton.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lord Leighton was part of the Orientalism movement, where western artists, writers, academics and philosophical sorts imitated aspects of middle-eastern and north-African art, design and literature and developed an interest in Islamic spirituality.  This is illustrated in the design of the magnificent Arab Hall at Leighton House. The wood and metal work were imported, mainly from Egypt, but the lustrous ceramic tiles in their peacock hues of cobalt and verdigris were created by William de Morgan. It was love at first sight and I have returned five or six times since my first visit. As photography is not permitted, the images below are from the internet.

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Leighton House 2 Arab Hall

Debenham House (also known as Peacock House) is just a few streets away and was built in 1905 for the department store owner Ernest Ridley Debenham with De Morgan being commissioned to design some of the interior tiles. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to enter the property which has occasionally been used as a film set and, in the past, has held open days. I discovered that the property is currently being renovated and tried to persuade a work man to let me inside for 5 minutes, but to no avail. These images from the internet show more examples of De Morgan’s tiles inside Peacock House.

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The unique blue and green glazed bricks on the exterior mimic the feathers of the gorgeous peacocks I was lucky enough to see whilst eating my lunch in nearby Holland Park.

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After the Debenham House commission, the fashion for Moresque design started to decline and De Morgan left ceramics behind, turning his multi-talented hand to writing.

Apart from Arab and Persian influences, de Morgan also depicted mediaeval themes, mythical creatures and animals as can be seen in some of the Sublime Symmetry exhibits.

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As well as his artistic talents, De Morgan had great mathematical aptitude, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his father’s eminence in that field. Geometry and symmetry were central to the Islamic designs which inspired much of De Morgan’s work. Here are some examples.

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The exhibition is both visually stunning and informative and runs until 28th October.

Sunderland Point, Lancashire: Sambo’s grave where the river Lune meets the sea

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I have a new location to add to my list of favourite places: Sunderland Point. Today, I had the chance to finally explore a unique Lancashire village which exceeded all my expectations in its beauty and serenity.

Sunderland Point is a peninsula between the Lune estuary and Morecambe Bay.

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It is unique in that although it is part of the mainland, it is cut off twice daily at high tide, making it impossible for about eight hours each day to cross the causeway which separates it from the village of Overton. Sunderland’s small population must to some extent organise their lives around tide timetables. Since early spring, I too had been consulting the tide times on those Saturdays when I was free, but my hopes were repeatedly thwarted either by tides and trains not matching up, or by inclement weather. As my travel is not restricted just to weekends at present, I found that today the Fates had smiled, and everything came together.

Waiting at Lancaster station for the connecting train to Morecambe, I felt a bit peckish and bought a packet of crisps for the exorbitant price of £1.10, a purchase I was later very glad I had made. From Morecambe, I boarded a bus to Overton, arriving there 35 minutes later. I was very disappointed to find that The Globe Inn – the closest building to the causeway and where I had planned a light lunch and visit to the loo before making the crossing – was closed for refurbishment.

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No longer resenting a single penny spent on those crisps but frustrated at not being able to spend a different penny, I set off on the 1.5 mile walk across the causeway

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The walk was peaceful and for the most part I had the road to myself, enjoying the sounds of sea birds and admiring the views over to Lancaster 5.5 miles away.

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Zooming in on Lancaster

The greyness of the sky only added to the atmosphere. A few cars passed me heading in both directions. The road beneath my feet and the salt marsh around it had earlier been submerged and would be again later in the day.

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Walking along the causeway

Boats grounded would later be liberated from the silt by the returning tide.

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The end of the causeway came into view and I saw other boats with their best days behind them and unlikely now to be seaworthy.

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To my relief – quite literally – the first building I came to was a toilet block, looked after, according to the sign outside, by the parish of Overton. Bless that parish! The toilet even has a twin in Afghanistan!

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I walked along First Terrace and Second Terrace, two rows of Georgian houses overlooking the old dock area. The houses look bright and some are really lovely with colourful gardens and some with quirky touches. Two or three are occupied as artists’ studios, part of a flourishing and creative community

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Sculpture by the late Ray Schofield

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On Second Terrace is the stump of a cotton tree, believed to have been brought back as a sapling on a ship in the early 19th century. The tree finally fell in 1998 after particularly strong storms and due to its old age. Cuttings were taken and are thriving in the area. Its fruits when it blossomed resembled cotton.

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The living cotton tree

In the 18th century, the terraces would have been occupied residentially and commercially by people who worked in the shipping trades. Vessels returning from the West Indies would dock at Sunderland if they were too large to enter St George’s Quay, Lancaster, or if they had to wait for high tide. Developed by George Lawson, a Quaker, in the early 1700s, Sunderland had ceased to operate by the end of the century as nearby Lancaster had expanded and opened a deep dock at Glasson.

Lancaster had been the third largest port in England after Liverpool and London and traded not only in goods such as cotton and sugar, but also in human beings. Sunderland Point is the burial place of Sambo, a slave who was ‘elevated’ to the position of servant to the Master of an unidentified ship which docked in 1736. He was sent to stay with other ship hands at the inn whilst the Master travelled on to Lancaster alone on business. The popular narrative is that Sambo thought he had been abandoned in this strange place. He became distraught and ill, refused to eat, and died. The ship’s mates buried him in unconsecrated ground near to the estuary due to him not being a Christian. Sixty years after Sambo’s death, his unmarked grave was given a headstone which was organised by James Watson, brother of Lancaster slave trader, William Watson, perhaps out of a sense of family guilt. Strong opposition to slavery was gaining momentum at that time.

The grave is reached along a sign-posted bridle path which leads to the beach.

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Lots of visitors now come to pay their respects at the grave and leave a message or memento. I added something of my own, and spent a few minutes trying to imagine what this man must have experienced being torn from his family, community and land and dying in this place.

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I luxuriated in an undisturbed half hour on a nearby bench with just the landscape, the sea birds and the flotsam and jetsam for company.

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Many years ago, I experienced a frightening incident when some friends and I were almost trapped on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne which is also separated from the mainland by a tidal causeway, only just making it back ahead of the returning water. Keen to ensure nothing like that happened again, I started my walk back in plenty time though the tide had already turned, and fishing boats bobbed around on the water.

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Back in Overton, I was looking forward to a cold soft drink at its other pub, The Ship. I had drained the last of my water hours earlier and was incredibly thirsty.

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Discovering that the pub only opened at 5pm and that there wasn’t  a shop in the village, I asked a lady pruning her roses if she would refill my water bottle; fortunately, she was happy to oblige. The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing.