A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Monday, June 3, 2019


For some time, I have been writing blogs - recording some of the many sights and sounds I have come across in my travels across China, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Some are unashamedly "un-PC" – and if you are easily offended, may I respectfully suggest you move on to other pages on the web?

An Oasis of Beauty in One of Britain’s Ugliest Cities

Bradford is hardly what anyone would describe as an attractive town. In fact, if truth be known, it must be one of the yuckiest towns in the UK. OK, the local city council has done its best to try to smarten the place up, but it really is a depressing place.

But travel to its north-western extremity and a very pleasant surprise awaits you. I’m referring to the model village of Saltaire, located in Shipley. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, it really is a stunning place that is well worth a visit if you are in West Yorkshire.

Saltaire is a Victorian model village which was built in 1851 by Sir Titus Salt, a leading industrialist in the Yorkshire woollen industry. (The name of the village is a combination of the founder's surname and the name of the river.) Salt moved his businesses, which included five mills, away from Bradford to this site by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and close to the railway. He built neat stone houses for his workers (a vast improvement on the then-slums of Bradford), wash-houses with tap water, bath-houses, a hospital and an institute for recreation and education, with a library, reading room, concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and a gymnasium.

The village even had a school for the children of the workers, almshouses, allotments, a park and a boathouse. The new model town represented a landmark example of philanthropic and enlightened 19th century urban planning. It has survived remarkably complete even to this day.

The mill opened in 1853 on Sir Titus Salt's 50th birthday, but closed as a textile mill in February 1986. Today it houses a mixture of business, commerce, leisure and residential use.

Salts Mill was considered a masterpiece of its time and was hugely productive, turning out 18 miles of worsted cloth a day on 1,200 looms attended to by 3,000 workers.

Salts Mill is Italianate in style and was designed by the architects, Lockwood and Mawson. It is 545 feet long – exactly the same as St Paul’s in London. It has six storeys and is 72 feet tall. The top floor runs the whole length of the building. Beneath the mill is a tank which holds 500,000 gallons of rainwater, while on top of the warehouse is another tank holding 70,000 gallons drawn from the river, which was built for use in case of fire.

Nowadays the mill building is home to a number of businesses, as well as galleries used by local artists, the most famous of whom is Sir David Hockney. (Hockney went to Bradford Grammar School about two miles distant.)

At the end of one of the lower galleries is a mini-museum of table ware displaying crockery from as far back as the 1960s and 70s. It’s rather galling when you see items you used to use yourself on display in a museum!)

One of the rather nice things on display is a Hunter Penrose camera which was originally used by a company manufacturing wallpaper in Oldham, across the border in Lancashire.

It is truly massive and is regularly taken ‘on the road’ in a Ford Transit van.

It was designed to use huge negatives 24 inches square. The restorer’s solution was to create a grid which could take smaller negatives, resulting in images made up of 20 separate prints.

The history of Salt’s Mill is very much on display throughout the building, with models such as this one adorning the galleries.

There are also some of the machines that were used to manufacture the cloth.

I mentioned above that several large rooms are given over to the works of the Bradford-born artist David Hockney, including the ‘1853 Gallery’ which displays the world's largest permanent Hockney collection and ‘Gallery Three’ which shows a smaller collection of his, representing a detailed study of the changing seasons, which he executed in 2011.

Personally I am not a fan of Hockney and really wouldn’t want any of his works on my living room walls (fat chance of that anyway, I’m thinking!).

The Saltaire Congregational Church across from the mill was opened in 1859 and, like the mill, was designed by Lockwood and Mawson at a cost of £16,000. It’s also Italianate in style and was designed in the style of a temple with Corinthian columns. It can seat 600. In the mausoleum attached to the side of the church, and opened in 1861, lie Titus Salt, his wife Caroline and three of his children. The church is now a Grade I listed building.

The church is situated right beside the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, which is now used to ferry tourists in flat bottomed barges.

Sir Titus died in 1876 and when his son, Titus Salt Junior, died, Saltaire was taken over by a partnership which included Sir James Roberts from Haworth (who bought the Brontë sisters’ Haworth Parsonage for the nation). Saltaire Park on the north side of the river was later renamed Roberts Park, but it suffered years of neglect and vandalism until Bradford Council stepped in and restored it to something of its former glory.

Opened in 1871, Roberts Park was landscaped by William Gay of Bradford. Nowadays it has 14 acres of lawns, among its six hectares.

The park lies on an east-west axis, with pavilions, a central bandstand and croquet and bowling greens. The original bandstand disappeared a long time ago, but this one was erected in 2009 when the Park was restored.

Across from the bandstand is a statue of Sir Titus Salt, erected in 1903 to celebrate 50 years of the opening of the Mill and Salt’s 100th birthday. The statue was commissioned by Sir James Roberts (who then owned the mill).

Just to the north of Roberts Park you can also find Shipley Glen Tramway – if you look hard enough. It’s the oldest working cable tramway in Great Britain, and dates from 1895, when it was built to serve a local beauty spot nearby. It’s only a quarter-mile in length, and few people can be bothered to use it. But as a piece of local history I guess it’s nice that it is being still preserved. A return fare costs £2, assuming you get there when it is actually open.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

An Underwhelming Experience in North Yorkshire

When my late ex-mother-in-law was alive, she used regularly to visit one of the public gardens run by the Royal Horticultural Society, located on the western edge of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. For some reason I never had the opportunity to visit Harlow Carr... until recently when I visited the UK for a month... but to be perfectly honest I have to ask myself what all the fuss is about. Can half a million visitors a year there know something I don’t? I mean, it’s all very pleasant, but hardly breathtaking, despite the many reports on the internet to the contrary. IMHO it’s just a very over-priced garden which is nevertheless an OK way to spend an hour or so if you have nothing else to do.

The original Harlow Carr was established by the Northern Horticultural Society which was founded in 1946. The Society leased 26 acres of mixed woodland, pasture and arable land at Harlow Hill from Harrogate Corporation and opened the Harlow Carr Botanical Gardens in 1950. The stated aim at the time was to set up a trial ground where the suitability of plants for growing in northern climates could be assessed.

The Royal Horticultural Society merged with the Northern Horticultural Society in 2001 and, with the merger, came the acquisition of Harlow Carr. Since then the original 26 acres has since been extended to 58 acres.

Originally this area was part of the Forest of Knaresborough, which was an ancient royal hunting ground. Springs of sulphur water were discovered here in 1734 but it wasn’t until 100 years later that the then-owner of the estate, Henry Wright, built a hotel (the Harrogate Arms ) and a bath house. People paid half a crown (about £11.00 at today’s prices) to bathe in the warm waters, and the gardens were laid out around the bath house.

I visited in April when the tulips were in full bloom, and I have to admit that they set off a nice backdrop near the main entrance.

Ericas (heathers) too were just coming out in bloom, yet they were a week or two away from being in any way stunning.

Turning to the right there’s a nice idea which has been dubbed the ‘Rhubarb Crumble and Custard’ garden – which was awarded a silver medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2010. In the bowl is Stockbridge Arrow, an early outdoor grown rhubarb, while bronze fennel creates the feathery sugary topping. The ‘custard' is yellow sedum.

Featured in the garden is also liquorice (synonymous with locally made Pontefract Cakes) and hops, representing Yorkshire's brewing heritage. The traditional dry stone wall behind is meant to represent the topping, while a handcrafted chair resembles a spoon. OK, it takes some imagination (and a large explanatory notice board) to work all that out, but the idea is quite quaint.

A lone windmill representing sycamore seed heads turns in the wind, but again the idea is probably better that what is achieved in practice.

A wall of apple tree plants is covered in blossom which makes a nice addition to the path...

...behind which is an alpine zone greenhouse ... not to keep them warm, but to keep them dry, since many alpines cannot survive a cold wet winter.

I can’t get very excited by alpine plants, however, as their appeal seems to be getting something to survive in non-native conditions, rather than something that is all that intrinsically beautiful.

Throughout the year Harlow Carr runs a number of workshops and courses. Today there is a free demonstration of cooking that is a good place to park your tired bottom. Local personalities Martin and Jill Fish are busily trying to promote their book and demonstrate how to cook ‘perfect’ potatoes and rhubarb crumble.

Unfortunately, the barbecue oven behind their demo bench has been invaded by squatters in the form of blackbirds having built a nest, so the oven cannot be used. Instead we listen to Martin Fish describing how to grow potatoes in succession in order to enjoy new potatoes over a long planting season. His wife fries them up on an electric ring, while we all smell the wafting aromas with growing appetites.

To make it more appealing, she adds chopped chilli to the mix... but is so busy making well rehearsed jokes with her husband that she inadvertently adds twice the amount of chilli, with the result that when it comes to trying out our samples, one member of the audience is nearly at the stage of having to be carried off by his partner, breathing fire.

The rhubarb is similarly underwhelming and I don’t see anyone rushing forward to buy their book.

After that we head off to the arboretum. Again, it is pleasant enough, but there is no ‘wow’ factor, at least as far as I am concerned.

But something that catches my eye is ignored by virtually every other visitor in this part of the park. It’s a clump of purple (or black) bamboo that I have only ever seen before in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo park... a rare species whose stems are dark compared with other types of bamboo.

Walking round, looking for something else to make one stop and take notice, I eventually come across this unmarked ‘sculpture’ of, what... a wood urchin? Rather sweet, I guess, in a funny kind of way.

There’s a section of garden devoted to rhododendrons and azaleas, but having visited the Himalayan Gardens only the previous day that features hundreds of these plants, I find this display somewhat lacking in wow-factor.

Likewise there are some pretty magnolias, but again, nothing to make one determined to come back again and again.

After this, the park goes rapidly downhill in my estimation. Someone has been so desperate to attract the kids that they have decided to create temporary sculptures such as this drone bee which has been given the name of Betsy. Clever? Maybe. But appealing? I’m not convinced.

There is also a ‘Logness Monster’... Oh please!

And dinosaurs littering the verdant banks. (Why does everyone assume that kids just have to see dinosaurs wherever they go?)

More interesting is a whole array of skunk lilies – originally from America, these plants are now banned in the UK and many parts of the world since they smother and take over virtually all habitats. One is simply not allowed to plant them or take cuttings from them, and only existing plants can be kept as long as they are stopped from spreading.

At last we come across a tulip competition where amateur growers show off their best specimens.

Some are stunning – I love this ‘parrot’ variety.

While the black tulips make a sombre display.

But tulip fatigue soon sets in when you peer at yet another vase of cultivars.

Outside there are one or two miniature show gardens that have been created to show off in special venues, such as the Chelsea Flower Show I referred to above.

But frankly that’s it. So, a pleasant enough hour or two of wandering, but with an exorbitant entrance fee I really do have to wonder why anyone would make a point of coming back here again and again. Maybe they simply don’t know that there are very much better gardens to visit that charge only a fraction of the price of this one.

Harlow Carr Garden can be found on Crag Lane, off Otley Road (B6162) about a mile and a half from the centre of Harrogate.