Tag Archives: English Heritage

A Mad Mini Adventure – East Sussex and Kent

16 Sep

One of my closest friends texted me during my latest trip saying ‘the idea was that on this holiday you rested… Maybe next time you should go to the middle of a desolate field with no cultural sites or activities within a 20 mile radius. I would suggest a spa weekend but somehow I still don’t think you would stop working or finding things to do…’.

It’s not that I can’t relax (I enjoy beach holidays and sunbathing very very much) but I do get the urge to see everything nearby and can’t sit still properly until I feel I’ve ‘done’ an area, particularly in the UK.  And, so it was, that half way down to Sussex for a relaxing break by the sea, that I opened my National Trust handbook, looked at the English Heritage website and made one of those lists that didn’t really allow much time for R&R.

Camber Sands. Own photograph.

So, on a sunny Sunday morning with my Mini hurtling southwards, my mini break began.

The very first stop on this trip was Sissinghurst Castle – somewhat of a misnomer as the house is still a lived-in property and it is the wonderful gardens that people come to visit.  Sissinghurst has a varied history – beginning life as a Saxon pig farm, before becoming a family house.  In the late 16th century, it was transformed into a magnificent courtyard house, a far more upmarket property with a newly constructed tower.  It then became a prison (destroying most of what we know call Sissinghurst Castle), a poor house and, in the 1800s, it returned to being a family home and became what we see today.  Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, moved to Sissinghurst in 1932 and brought the gardens to life, creating ‘rooms’ with planting schemes offering different colours and scents, in particular her famous ‘White Garden’.  The library and tower are all that remain open of the house and, if you’re feeling intrepid, then the 78 steep, spiral stairs are worth the climb, especially as Vita’s study can be viewed half-way up.

Sissinghurst Castle. Own photograph.

As with any garden-based property part of the enjoyment depends upon the time of year you visit.  This wasn’t the best time to appreciate the colours and floral dynamism of Vita’s garden but its craft and design was still evident.

Sissinghurst Castle and the White Garden. Own photograph.

I had studied the map carefully in the car and we headed towards Smallhythe Place.  I love the story of how Ellen Terry (‘Queen of the Theatre’) found Smallhythe Place; apparently, in the late 1890s, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were driving around Sussex and Kent when they reached a small bridge.  On their right was an old farmhouse with dark timbers and a sloping roof.  The house was full of character and charm and Terry announced that it was here she would like to live and die.  They went inside and found an old shepherd who said he didn’t live there and wasn’t able to offer them much information.  But, not one to be deterred, Terry asked him if he would let her know if it was ever for sale.  Her charisma obviously left its mark and, in 1899, Terry received an unsigned postcard saying ‘House for Sale’ postmarked Tenterden.  That year, she bought Smallhythe Place.  The story still makes me smile – it is very easy to see why she fell in love with the 16th century house.  Smallhythe is a continuous-jetty house, meaning that the upper-storey overhangs the lower.  The original features remain with uneven floors and sloping ceilings.  When Ellen Terry died, her daughter Edy decided to make the house a shrine to her mother’s memory and created a museum where her theatrical treasures and relics could be on permanent display.

Smallhythe Place. Own photograph.

Edy did not have an easy ride in garnering interest for her project but, thanks to her perseverance, the house remains.  In 1938, a representative from the National Trust wrote ‘In Ellen Terry’s little house one feels she might walk past one at any minute, and in her bedroom that she might appear sitting before her dressing-table brushing her hair.’  I could not express it better.  The house captures Ellen Terry, her passion for it and her incredible life on the stage.  Despite its relatively small size, this was one of my favourite properties.  The costume room holds her famous beetle-wing dress, sewn all over with real green beetle wings, that she wore as Lady Macbeth in 1889 and in which she was painted by John Singer Sargent.  Also, the garden now contains the Barn Theatre, which Edy transformed after Terry’s death, that is still in use today.

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,1889.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

We wanted to make the most of the sun and head to the coast but couldn’t resist stopping in at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day – an annual event that pulls in the crowds!

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day

After struggling with the dodgy Camber Sands’ internet connection over breakfast the next day, it was time for me to try something new.   Apparently the best way to see the coastline is by plane.  Now I don’t like to do things by halves so it seemed to make sense to fly a little plane up for a look!  With Ivan from the Lydd Aero Club at my side, I set off in a Cessna 172.  I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t rather terrifying at first but, as I got used to it, I loved being in the air and in control of the plane – it was exhilarating and wonderful.

Flying. Own photograph.

Lydd is very close to Dungeness and the garden of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage which, although not open to the public, is lovely to drive past and have a look at.  Dungeness itself is a tad bleak but there are some great fish and chips to be had by the sea.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Own photograph.

Onwards, and Monday’s main aim was the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, a stunning example of Modernist architecture on the south coast.  It was commissioned as an ambitious cultural centre by the 9th Earl De La Warr and broke new ground in terms of architectural practice.  Welded steel frames had not previously been used in Britain and the interior played with colour in unusual ways and made use of innovative soft furnishings.  The building’s influence was immediately felt across the UK with Peter Jones in Chelsea opening in 1936, only one year later, designed with many of the same architectural techniques.  The architects of the De La Warr Pavilion sought to integrate their design with the site, practically and aesthetically; the horizontal shape and lines responding to the sea horizon.

The view from the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

The De La Warr Pavilion has, no doubt, suffered over the years particularly from severe bomb damage in World War II.  The 1980s saw a new beginning for the pavilion and, in the years since then, there has been major restoration and redevelopment that has transformed the building into what we see today.  Eighty years after its opening the pavilion is once more being recognised for its architectural beauty and ingenuity.  Much of the building isn’t really open to the public so it is hard to see the scope of available space and what has been done here.  The exhibitions I saw at the De La Warr are not showing it at its best; Everything Flows sees four artists consider the idea of being ‘in the zone’, looking at the state athletes must reach to achieve the heightened sense of performance that prepares them for battle.  These artists have each produced a new moving image artwork that, when seen together, presents a cacophony of noise celebrating sporting achievement.  For me, these were sports films, not far enough removed from watching Sky Sports at the weekend.  Upstairs is Sean Dower’s The Voyeur which has a far more invigorating concept but is still not curated in the most visually exciting presentation.  Each work in the exhibition emits, transmits or reflects sound, visualising the activity of communicating between remote places.

De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

On the roof is Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea which recalls the final scene of The Italian Job where the coach, containing  gold bullion and a gang of robbers, hovers precariously on a cliff.  Here, Wilson’s bus hovers on the edge of the pavilion with clever mechanics that means it moves to enhance the feeling of its teetering.  Wilson feels the work is a metaphor about the absolute limits of everything; the building is part of the work, playing with the idea of ‘what if’.  The spectacle is at its best when viewed from the roof.  On the floor, it loses something but it is still a splendid piece that plays with the architecture of the pavilion in a fun and vibrant way.

Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea at the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

I adored the architectural genius of De La Warr Pavilion but felt there is some lost potential here and more that could happen.  I wanted the excitement of the design to be felt in the exhibitions mounted inside.  I wanted the opportunity to explore more of the building.  I wanted its genius to have the space to shine a little more than it is currently doing.

Moving back inland, it was time for another National Trust property.  Bateman’s was Rudyard Kipling’s home from 1902-1936 and provided him with the calm and tranquillity that let his imagination run wild and enabled him to write – ‘a real House in which to settle down for keeps’.  The volunteers in every room of his house, enthusiastically quoted Kipling at me, encouraging visitors to head to the shop to stock up on his literature!  Built c. 1634 (the date can be found over the porch), the house is preserved as it would have been during Kipling’s day.  There is no doubt it is a beautiful property but I was more struck when viewing the exterior.  The inside didn’t entrance me in quite the way Smallhythe had the previous day.

Bateman’s. Own photograph.

We were exhausted but I knew that Battle Abbey was just around the corner and that was unmissable.  Regardless of your historical knowledge or interest, everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.  To mark his success, King William I established a Benedictine Abbey on the northern part of the battlefield.  Although it has, of course, changed over the years, a number of the abbey buildings remain while the gorgeous main house is used by Battle School (lucky them).  One of the most remarkable features is the condition of the vaulted ground rooms that give an impression of how magnificent this site would have been in its heyday.  Battle Abbey is a stunning and emotive property.  I love walking round ruins, studying the architecture and imagining what has taken place here before.  The site could not lend itself more perfectly to this.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

The great gatehouse is still in use by both the school and the Abbey and fulfils its original purpose of increasing security – all traffic had to pass through it and be checked by the porter.  The scale of the building and the decorative stonework reflect the power and importance of the Abbey while the crenellations and arrow slits remind of us the gatehouse’s defensive purpose.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

It was time to return to the deserted beaches of Camber Sands and enjoy some cocktails as a reward.

Tuesday’sfirst stop was the National Trust’s Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge.  All of the NT sites in this area are beautifully maintained and Bodiam is no exception.  Again, we were stoic and climbed one of the towers which afforded a stunning bird’s eye view of the castle and of the surrounding weald.  Bodiam is as you expect a medieval castle to be, perched on a point, broadly symmetrical, imposing but comfortable, easily expressing rank and status.  It is not known whether Bodiam was actually built as a fortress or a status symbol but it immediately gives the impression of great strength and power, enhanced by its approach across a moat.  Whereas the exterior is fabulously preserved, the interior is in ruins – the remnants do give us a suggestion of the original layout but little remains.  As with all these properties, I could easily get carried away harping on about their history but…I won’t.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

I managed to buy a guide book at every property so a small stack was building up on the back seat of the car.  Both the NT and EH produce great small books about all their properties.

One thing that I am still confused by is the National Trust entrance scheme.  Most of their properties have two prices available – standard admission and Gift Aid admission.  Gift Aid is a higher price and automatically includes a Gift Aid donation but this seems to be contradicted by the Trust saying that ‘Gift Aid donations must be supported by a valid Gift Aid declaration’.  We were never asked for the extra details that would, in theory, turn this into a declaration.  In the past I have always been offered the opportunity to fill out a form that Gift Aids my standard ticket price thereby allowing the charity to reclaim the taxable amount rather than being told to pay more (which they automatically charge unless you request a standard ticket).  They seem to be losing out with this new arrangement.  I have the utmost respect for the NT’s work and their properties, finding their schemes and work innovative and exciting but I will say this entry arrangement leaves me a tad perplexed.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

Nearby is Great Dixter, the family home of the late Christopher Lloyd (not the one from Back to the Future but the gardener) which is still the most incredible garden.  The 15th century house, which is also open to the public in the afternoons, was restored and enlarged by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was responsible for revealing the splendour and enormity of the Great Hall – the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country.  The gardens at Great Dixter surround the house and most of their design was also by Lutyens which could explain the fluidity and the seamless progression from house to garden, from garden to house.  I think that no matter what time of year you visit these gardens, they will always be a sight to behold.  The colours at Great Dixter are spell-binding.  Lloyd saw it as a challenge to combine every sort of colour and not allow himself to be constrained by conventional colour schemes.  He planted what he thought would look good and it certainly does!

Great Dixter. Own photograph.

Wednesday heralded the final day of my Mini Adventure and I still had places to tick off my list.  Importantly, one mustn’t visit the English countryside without popping into a vineyard and we were within spitting distance of Chapel Down, one of my favourite English wines.  It would have been rude not to pop in to buy a few bottles.

Nearby is also Fairfield Church.  We didn’t get the keys, which are apparently available from a neighbour, and instead just passed by on one of the surrounding country roads to admire its beauty in the middle of a desolate field.  See – there are things to be found even in the middle of a field.

Fairfield Church. Own photograph.

Scotney was quite an ambitious property to visit on the last morning, especially after a generous wine tasting (not enough to put me over the limit mind you) and with the clock ticking.  This is because Scotney is actually two properties and a rather large garden all rolled into the one estate.  The new house, for which you need a timed entrance ticket, was built in 1837 in Elizabethan style while, at the bottom of the steep valley, are the ruins of the original medieval castle and moat.  With new at the top and old at the bottom, the landscape at Scotney could not be much more picturesque.  It is an amazing combination but best viewed from the outside.  For me, the inside of the house was a hotchpotch of styles that confuse the eye – I notice that the strange pink bathroom doesn’t get a picture in the guidebook.  The library is the most fabulous interior room and book presses H to J conceal a hidden door, decorated with false spines.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The new house was built for Edward Hussey III – there is probably no connection but my MA thesis was about Giles Hussey (1710-88), a little-known, eighteenth-century, English artist whose hundreds of intricately annotated drawings remain at the British Museum, demonstrating his theories of harmonic proportion.  The Hussey family tree will have to wait for another day though.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The final stop was Bayham Old Abbey, a 13th century Abbey that was mostly destroyed at the Reformation.  Bayham has a fairly standard monastic arrangement; the cloister and its accompanying areas are at the south of the church, the refectory ran parallel to the nave, the dormitory was on the east.  The layout has been somewhat obscured by a completely new east end that mutilated the old transepts.  The guide book has a lovely glossary at the back allowing me to test myself and see how much church architecture I remember.  Bliss – what a perfect site to finish on.

Bayham Old Abbey. Own photograph.

Somehow, we made it back to London in time for me to change and dash onto the tube to go to the opening of Scream’s new gallery on Eastcastle Street, one of the new and exciting hubs of the London art scene.  Having been checked off the guest list, I walked through a small section of rather unattractive corridor which seemed out of kilter with the highly polished perfection of this gallery.  Inside, it’s a lovely space with great frontage onto the street (my estate agent’s description here is unintended, I just can’t help it).  The inaugural exhibition is work by Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing – using collaged mass-produced kitsch and kaleidoscopic material, his works aim to address the anthropological, technological and economical developments that are happening in China.  It was hard to have a proper look at the works but the exhibition does raise some interesting comments about society and modern life: the title recalls H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel, The Modern Utopia.

Scream on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.

And, because I hadn’t quite squeezed enough into the day, I headed off to play Urban Golf (amazing!) but that is another story!

Ye Hongxing: The Modern Utopia is at Scream until 20 October 2012, www.screamlondon.com.

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Kenwood’s Closing…

13 Mar

I don’t often make it over to the Estorick Collection – a gallery which I still think is one of the most unknown and undervalued in London.  This afternoon I decided to take a break from the computer and drive to Canonbury.  I know the Estorick is shut on a Monday (having nearly been caught out in the past) but, be warned everyone, it is also shut on a Tuesday.  I arrived to find the gates locked.  I was not a happy bunny to say the least.

So the challenge arose to find somewhere to visit on the way home in order not to have a wasted journey.  My choices were Highgate Cemetery (but I didn’t really fancy walking around in the cold), Keat’s House, Freud’s House (also closed on a Tuesday (!)) or Kenwood House (one of my all time favourites).   Kenwood won!

If you haven’t been then this really is a must-visit property.  Known for its amazing summer concerts, which have not been without controversy over the past few years, and for having appeared in many films including Notting Hill, Kenwood, owned by English Heritage, is set in the parkland of Hampstead Heath.

Kenwood House. Image via www.english-heritage.org.uk

The house dates from the 1600s but, on acquisition by Lord Mansfield in 1754, was remodelled into what we see today by Robert Adam, who worked on the stucco frontages, the North Front portico, the library wing and the third storey.  It is acknowledged to be one of England’s greatest stately homes and an obvious identifier of Adam’s style; this was a terribly important commission for Adam due its position and would have propelled him into the awareness of the London aristocracy.  There have always been problems with his famous stucco exterior and Lord Mansfield apparently commented that it would have been cheaper to cover the whole front with marble.  Some of the details that are there today are replicated in fibre glass from Adam’s engraving.

Kenwood House. Own photograph.

Of course, the building has undergone many more changes since Adam’s involvement, including, in 1793, the addition of two wings by George Saunders that flank the entrance portico, but it still preserves the grandeur and elegance that Adam intended.

Kenwood House. Own photograph.

The library, then called the Great Room, is the epitome of Adam’s work, his tour de force and the house’s crowning glory.  It would have appeared even more splendid in the 18th century as the climax of Adam’s suite of rooms.  Remarkably, it remained nearly unaltered until 1922 when some of the furniture was sold at auction.  It’s yet another place where I did some work experience during which I helped to conserve and clean not only some of the paintings but the library.  Cleaning has never been top of my list of favourite things but there was a bit more to it than dusting and vacuuming.

The Great Room at Kenwood.  Image via http://londonbytes.wordpress.com

Kenwood also contains the Iveagh Bequest, the art collection of Edward Cecil Guinness, great grandson of the founder of the Dublin brewery.  He retired early to devote himself to the collection of art and acquired works by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds, Turner, Hogarth as well as a self-portrait by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s Guitar Player, exemplifying his late style.  Although the house couldn’t be more English in character it provides a setting for global art, an exemplar collection of the very best of European paintings.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, 1665. Image via www.rembrandtpainting.net

Specialising in the 18th century, it’s hard for me to pick favourites but one of my personal highlights is Hogarth’s Taste in High Life which shows the folly and superficiality of aristocratic taste.  A forerunner to Marriage à la Mode, the humour is typically Hogarthian showing two heavily caricatured connoisseurs in raptures over a mundane cup and saucer.  Another aristocrat examines a black pageboy, a satire on his masters and the embodiment of the Orient and sexual excess.  There is also a gorgeous small Constable of Hampstead Heath with Pond and Bathers from 1821, a view that Constable often painted to aid him with his focus on the sky.

Print of William Hogarth, Taste in High Life, 1746. Image via www.vam.ac.uk

Outside, the landscaped gardens lead down to the beautiful lake and acres upon acres of muddy marshland.  I always end up coming to Kenwood without my dogs despite this being a dog walkers’ paradise, probably because I appreciate the house too much and can spend time with my two slobbery Clumbers any day.

The fake bridge at Kenwood. Own photograph.

You’ll have to hurry to Kenwood as it is scheduled to close at the start of April for a £5.3 million restoration project that will include vital roof repairs, the replacement of the skylights, repointing and sweeping of more than 100 chimneys and the stripping down and repair of the façade.

Fear not!  When I first heard this news I thought what a travesty it was to shut away such a wonderful collection even if repairs are essential but English Heritage has had great foresight and their incredible art collection will tour to three American galleries while the Vermeer will be loaned to the National Gallery.

The grounds, however, will still be open so there’s the opportunity to picnic and sunbathe, admire the contemporary sculpture and watch the restoration taking place but if you don’t manage to visit the house this month you’ll have to wait until late summer of next year.

Kenwood’s Orangerie.  Image via www.omgimgettingmarried.com

Kenwood is a beautiful place to visit and, amazingly English Heritage still open it to the public without charge.  I wonder if this will change post-restoration.  In the meantime, it is truly splendid and somewhere I don’t pop to often enough despite its close proximity to my home.  I’m glad I was able to see it again before it closes and was able to turn my earlier misfortune to my advantage.  Plus, rather surprisingly, I was even in appropriate footwear for a romp through the grounds.

Kenwood House is run by English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood-house/.  It will be open until 31st March 2012.

Out of London and out of Heels – A Dreary Day Out in Colchester

17 Nov

I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country.  This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini.  My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done.  Sorry Sean.  My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.

Colchester. Own photograph.

Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall.  It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!

Colchester Castle. Own photograph.

Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror.  The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build.  It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults.  Wasted opportunity #1.

Inside the Castle. Own photograph.

A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall.  The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on.  Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.

The River Colne. Own photograph.

The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area.  The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3.  It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC.   There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around.  Oh yes, #4.

The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.

After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip.  Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year.  Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million.  It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start.  Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building.  The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring).  This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.

On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour.  But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.

Firstsite.  Own photograph.

Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city.  While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space.  It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present.  In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered.  This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here.  But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap.  Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.

An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.

They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement.  There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo.  The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room.  Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped.  Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK.  What a waste of space!

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.

Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round.  Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets.  Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.

Inside firstsite. Own photograph.

Onwards…  We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite.  Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off.  Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6).  Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.

The Minories. Own photograph.

The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day.  Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.

The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.

We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been.   Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water.  Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up.  It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).

Jumbo. Own photograph.

Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement.  Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day.  Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.

Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.

Margate Mini Adventure – Turner Contemporary

22 Apr

Never being one to do things by halves, when I decided to drive my Mini to Turner Contemporary, I took the opportunity to cram a jam-packed schedule into two days and explore Kent.

My time in Canterbury started with a scrummy picnic lunch punting on the Stour.  I’m a Cathedral addict and Canterbury has long been one of my favourites in England.  If you haven’t been, shame on you.  With wide-ranging, mostly French, influences, the building presents a harmonious and inspiring interior.

All photographs are my own unless otherwise stated

Buildings of the Gothic era, particularly Cathedrals, were ornamented appropriately to the function they served.  Such ideas of decorum ensured that a Saint’s shrine and its surrounds required the most lavish design and sculptural decoration and reflected the valid aesthetic ideas of the period.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket became a ‘medieval celebrity’ after his brutal murder in the Cathedral on 29th December 1170 and he is buried in a majestically designed chapel, approached by increasing architectural richness on the climatic processional pilgrimage routes.

The monks of Canterbury regarded him as a second Christ.  Like Christ, he returned on Palm Sunday, presided over his ‘last supper’,  was struck down by enemies of the state and had five wounds inflicted on him.  Poetic hagiography is incorporated into the Trinity Chapel where red and white stone symbolise Becket’s blood and brain; the red also depicts Becket as a martyr and the white shows his inner martyrdom.  This analogy has strong Christological references as blood and water spilled from Christ’s side wound.

This trip included many favourites for me: cathedrals, ruins, the seaside and the work of Antony Gormley.  Nowadays, his sculptures are ubiquitous in cathedrals and one is suspended in the crypt.  Made of recycled iron nails from the repaired roof, Transport hangs above the site of Becket’s first tomb.  The 6ft floating man reminds us that we are temporary inhabitants of our bodies; they house our souls and are the instruments through which we are able to communicate our emotions.  The piece expresses transience and reflects the way in which sacred spaces communicate a sense of time and eternity.

After popping into St Augustine’s Abbey (founded in AD 567 by St Augustine during his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity), I headed to Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre.  Although Richborough is now over two miles from the sea, it was once a bustling port that saw the first Roman landing – hard to believe now when looking at the surrounding countryside. 

After struggling with English Heritage’s poor signage, I finally found St Augustine’s Cross – a 19th century cross of Saxon design marking what is thought to have been the site of St Augustine’s landing on the shores of England in AD 567.

After a wonderful day, I arrived at a gorgeous B&B in Broadstairs before heading off to a wonderful dinner in Ramsgate.  The coastal villages seem to be stuck in a time warp – old chippies, amusement arcades and enormous beaches – with shabby, run down seafronts. 

That’s not to say that they aren’t charming in parts as Kent really is a beautiful county but some of these places feel like they have been left behind. 

Early the next day, I drove along the pretty but somewhat dilapidated coast to Margate.

Margate must have been wonderful in its heyday but is now very sad, mostly boarded up and shut down.

Turner Contemporary, the brand new public art gallery, is an imposing landmark and rises from the site of the lodging house where Turner stayed in Margate.  The view outside probably hasn’t changed much since his visits.  Sitting on the seafront, the building needed to be tough and robust.  After the initial shock factor of the arresting structure, designed by David Chipperfield architects, its charm becomes apparent.  Formed of six interlocking rectangular blocks, the two-storey building can evoke boat sheds or connecting artists’ studios. 

Flooded with natural light, the interior consists mostly of polished concrete and glass – a simple and clean design that is both austere and beautiful.  Chipperfield wanted art to be experienced rather than viewed and has made the open spaces like studios.  He succeeds, at the same time creating an intimacy conducive to wonderful exhibitions.   It is a triumph, perfectly in tune with its purpose and location.   

Turner spent time in Margate throughout his life and many of his works feature the Kentish coast. Turner Contemporary celebrates his connection with Margate and one or more of his paintings will always be on display in the gallery.  The current exhibition Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens takes inspiration from Turner’s 1815 painting of a volcanic eruption on the island of St Vincent.  Turner was fascinated by the power of nature and this painting captures the drama.  His works give the viewer sensory experiences transcending their surroundings to become part of the scene.

Image via www.anothermag.com

The only permanent work, Michael Craig-Martin’s neon Turning Pages invites you to begin your metaphorical journey around the galleries.

I don’t have a bad word to say about the current exhibition.  Daniel Buren makes use of the large window and walls.  His work frames the outside panorama, using mirrors to reflect and amplify the glorious coastal scene and a vivid yellow to further lighten and brighten the galleries. 

Douglas Gordon’s text work Afterturner, on the treads of the staircase, plays with Turner’s supposed last words.  Though the stairs have generated criticism for being tucked away and simple, I had no trouble finding them and felt a grander structure would have been out of place and detract from the large open plan resonance.

Ellen Harvey’s newly-commissioned Arcadia is a scale reconstruction of the gallery Turner built to house his work, filled with engraved lightboxes with views of present-day Margate.  There are also great works by Teresita Fernández and Russell Crotty.

For me the star of the show was Conrad Shawcross; his ingenious installations Projections of a Perfect Third seek to understand the musical chord.  Shawcross is fascinated by science and philosophy and this dramatic installation brings together different threads from his practice.  His mysterious, enigmatic structures leave you in awe, staring at the near-sublime rotating form that hangs above you, whirring in perpetual motion no matter what.  Shawcross’s machines are designed with no specific working purpose, suggesting a quest for a perfect ideal.  They are intricate manifestations of his thoughts and ideas showing the skill of his craftsmanship through beautiful, mesmerising forms.  The giant rotating wings (like helicopter blades or windscreen wipers) captivate viewers, leaving them standing engaged but lost. 

Strangely, Emin, Margate’s most famous daughter, is not included in the exhibition but her pink neon sign, I never stopped loving you, is installed above the door of the nearby tourist information centre and harbour master’s office.   The work is almost invisible in daylight and I had to ask someone to point it out.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I wasn’t in Margate at night to see if the work is more effective, dramatically illuminated on the front but, when the sun is shining, it is lost to the surrounding architecture and Emin’s thoughts remain unheard.

Due to the amount of walking, this was a flip-flops only trip but, in my hurry to get down to the beach to take photographs looking up at Turner Contemporary, I didn’t spot a large slimy patch of seaweed and managed to launch myself down the lifeboat ramp.  Splat!  Ouch!  That’ll teach me not to wear flat shoes!

Once a popular seaside resort (the famous Dreamland is expected to re-open in 2013), Margate is now rather run-down.  The perfect weather when I visited only served to highlight the town’s shabbiness.  Turner Contemporary is meant to be a catalyst for regeneration but, as much as I adored it, I’m not sure that this alone is enough.  The effect Turner Contemporary will have on the town and whether it will initiate the long-awaited Margate renaissance remains to be seen.  The locals have already embraced it, nicknaming it ‘The Turner’, but will it trigger the much-needed regeneration and prompt change?

On the way home, I stopped at Reculver where the 12th century towers of a ruined church stand defiant among the ruins of a fort and monastery.  Finally, oysters and a wander in Whitstable before returning to London.  And all in less than 2 days. 

Of course, if you aren’t feeling quite that intrepid, the train will get you to Margate in only a couple of hours and you too can spend the day at the seaside.

All photographs are my own.  More can be seen at: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.187173014662889.42704.121039074609617

http://www.turnercontemporary.org/

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/

http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/

http://belvidereplace.co.uk/

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