Friday, 22 January 2010

Bristol's Lost Quarter

In November 1940 cities across Britain burned. On the 24th of the month the Luftwaffe's assault on the City Docks missed its target and instead left the heart of the city in ruins. Until then, Bristolians worked, shopped and played in and around Castle Street and the surrounding area, where cinemas, restaurants and chain stores like Woolworths stood cheek by jowl with the metalworking shops, haberdashers, costumiers and a host of other independent commercial enterprises.

Since the demolition of the Norman castle some three centuries earlier, the area had evolved into a bustling centre of commerce, only a short walk from the City Docks. If Park Street was then the most prestigious shopping street in the South West of England, Castle Street attracted the crowds. They came from the north along Gloucester Road, from the south over Bristol Bridge and from the east along the wide boulevard of Old Market - a street that combined the qualities of thoroughfare and marketplace as Whitechapel Road does on the eastern approach to the City of London.

Old Market today is a broken stub of a street, cut off from the city centre by the traffic-filled canyon of Temple Way and from the eastern suburbs by the outer ring road. And while Cabot Circus and Harbourside pull in the crowds, the space between them is still empty.

The humps and hollows of Castle Park give it the air of an ancient site, but the humps and hollows are not vestiges of the castle, but of shops, factories and cinemas.

After the war, the Broadmead shopping centre was built and this convenient space used as a car park. There were plans for a Museum of Bristol on the site, but in the 1950s and 1960s forward-thinking city councils built roads not museums. The past was pedestrian; the future had wheels. So Bristol got its Temple Way and its M32, and the city sprawled outwards, away from its historic centre.

Castle Park, the office worker's favourite summertime haunt, became the city's green oasis more or less by default. In wider terms it's a classic piece of SLOAP - Space Left Over After Planning.

So what should be done? As debate continues to rage between developers and park-lovers, the Architecture Centre is hosting an exhibition put together by Architecture postgrads at UWE. Recovering Bristol's Lost Quarter explores the history of Castle Street and the surrounding area, then suggests ways in which it could be improved, with a wide deck over Temple Way to tie Old Market back into the city and myriad inventive ideas that aim to connect the park to the surrounding streets and structures.

And underlying the various schemes for museums and health centres, gardens and bike parks are a well-thought-out set of aims and principles - designed not to try and recreate a lost city but to learn from it as we continue the decades-long task of rebuilding.

Monday, 18 January 2010

'Empire of the Seas' vs 'Being Human'

In the last few days I've had two Bristol-related TV experiences, one good, the other not so good. Channel-hopping on Friday night I found Dan Snow, who was standing at the bow of an antique sailing vessel. He looked familiar (son of Peter?) and so did the ship. It was the Matthew, I realised, Bristol's favourite replica 15th century trans-Atlantic craft. And there, briefly, was her skipper, Rob Salvidge.

Unwittingly I had stumbled into the first chapter of the BBC's new series about Britain and the navy. Ah, I thought, John Cabot - good place to start. Only the presenter wasn't talking about the Bristol-based mariner. Instead he was using the Matthew as a setting for the story of Drake and Hawkins and the build-up to the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Fair enough. Snow might have mentioned Cabot, but perhaps he didn't want to confuse people. So on to the Armada, but here things took a strange turn. The Spanish invasion fleet was assembled and sent off to England, we were told, to take revenge against Drake and his attack on Cadiz. The upstart Englishman was to be taught a lesson, so the story went, but the small English fleet proved better organised and armed than the Spanish, and sent it packing.

It's a good story, in a 1950s prep school primer sort of way, but a bit disappointing on the history front. The aim of the Spanish invasion of England was, after all, to reverse the Protestant Reformation by force and restore the Catholic church. This may sound a bit dull for the Friday night viewer, but the subsequent history of Europe and the wider world would have been rather different had the Armada not been defeated. The subject of religious war may be delicate these days, but surely this is all the more reason to remember the great conflict that, at the very least, shaped Europe and the Americas.

To its credit, the BBC more than made up for this poor history lesson with a cracking episode of 'Being Human', the gothic soap opera which makes better use of Bristol's charms than 'Skins' or 'Casualty'. It has everything: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, creepy scientists, and a fantastic, atmospheric sense of place.

There's the wonderful old Bristol General Hospital on Bathurst Basin, part of the Bristol City Docks, and Redcliffe Wharf, which is just round the corner. Best of all, the three odd housemates live in Totterdown, a unique hilltop neighbourhood that boasts palm trees and a mosque with an elegant dome, a tremendous set of stone steps that would not look out of place in medieval France and streets that twist and turn as if designed by a builder of mazes on his day off. It's also home to the Totterdown Press.

Scenes for this series were filmed at my kids' school, just a short walk away - another inspired choice of location.

Bristol has a long connection with things gothic or fantastic: there's the connection with Coleridge, and Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey after visiting the Blaise Estate; Angela Carter relished the run-down streets of Clifton and Cliftonwood in the 1960s. The vampires, ghosts and werewolves fit right in.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Food 2030: The Future History of the Countryside

I was listening to Hilary Benn on the radio this morning. He was describing a green and pleasant vision of the future in which shoppers chose to pay over the odds for food produced locally on small farms, and in which - somewhat miraculously - these farms increased productivity while reducing their impact on the environment.

One or two farmers may have choked on their cornflakes at this. A government initiative to promote home-grown agriculture is undoubtedly A Good Thing, but the history of farming suggests that consumer choice will not, as Benn hopes, power a food revolution.

The problem for British farmers is simple: grain, meat and fruit can be grown more cheaply in other countries, so much more cheaply that shipping costs are practically irrelevant. This isn't anything new. When, in 1815, farmers found themselves unable to compete with cheap imports, the government introduced the Corn Laws, which imposed tariffs on grain coming into the country. But Conservative economists protested that high food prices meant higher wage bills for industry and lower demand for manufactured goods, and in 1849 the tariffs were removed.

As cheap grain and other products flooded into the country British agriculture went into freefall, and so did the fortunes of the landowning class. The mass migration from village to city accelerated, and the balance of power shifted from landowner to industrialist.

Except for a brief period after World War I, when tariffs were again imposed, farming was in recession until the 1940s, when German U-boats did for British agriculture what successive governments had failed to do. Post-war, governments obsessed with food security paid farmers to grub up orchards, tear down hedges and fill in ponds. EEC and EU subsidies had the same effect.

Today, the buying power of the supermarkets makes life hard for all but the biggest, most highly industrialised farms. Where small farms survive, as they do in Somerset and Gloucestershire, they rely on a niche specialism (a rare cheese) or sell through farmer's markets and car boot sales.

The effect on the countryside - and on nature - of these historical processes is visible and fascinating. In his book Nature Cure, Richard Mabey writes of his move from the Chilterns to the industrial farmland of East Anglia, a landscape reduced to its most simple form (sky, earth, wheat), in the quest for profit. Downland has suffered a similar fate, with much of Dorset now covered in a vast expanse of corn.

In the West Country the disappearance of orchards from the landscape provoked a backlash, led by Common Ground, and a resurgence of interest in local fruit varieties. But what strikes me as I drive or walk around the Somerset hills is the emptiness of fields that had fed countless generations of cattle and sheep.

Why, when meat and dairy products can be imported for a song, should our farmers bother?

The countryside of 2010 has two distinct faces. One shows huge fields of crops fattened by fertilisers and protected by pesticides. The other shows overgrown hedges and empty pastures. The first is the face of commercial reality; the second the face loved by the walker and the Romantic.

Hilary Benn seems to wish he could bring the two together - make the commercial more Romantic and the Romantic more commercial. Whether he succeeds or not is, I suppose, up to us.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Country Life names 'The Story of High Street' in 2009 Best Books

Country Life magazine has picked 'The Story of High Street' as one of the Best Books of 2009. Peyton Skipwith wrote:

Alan Powers's and James Russell's Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street not only reproduces Eric Ravilious's lithographs and JM Richards' 1938 text from 'High Street' (Country Life) - copies are rare because the plates were destroyed in the Blitz - but includes informative essays that put it in context, as well as identifying for the first time a number of the shops, bars and restaurants depicted. These are nostalgically evoked in the original words and pictures, but, as Mr Powers says, Richards and Ravilious 'have left us with the key to unlocking forgotten rooms in the mansion of English culture in the 1930s'. A rare case of having one's cake and being able to eat it as well.