The town on the eastern end of the border between England and Scotland was fought over for centuries.
With the eventual peace (I hope I don’t speak too soon) a road Bridge was started in 1610 by order of James I of England (VI of Scotland) and finished in 14 years. It cost £15,000 and was to carry the Great North Road, later the A1, between London and Edinburgh and it still carries traffic, albeit one-way but was closed for repairs when we visited recently.
I don’t know if it is because I spent a lot of my childhood in Welwyn Garden City but I really like towns that have been designed as ideal towns — one man’s dream — models of social engineering. I sense it the moment I enter — the street lay-out, the civic pride — the avenues of trees — the fountains!
Welwyn Garden City was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928). He founded the Garden City movement that spawned Letchworth and WGC, probably in an ornamental pond surrounded by flowering cherries! He had a utopian vision — people living happily in harmony with nature, tamed by an enlightened municipal workforce — that is pretty well how I remember it as I grew up there.
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) also had a vision (I don’t know enough to examine his motives), but I wonder if Ebenezer ever visited the cardinal’s hometown in Indre-et-Loire, France. The moment we blundered into the small town which carries his name, we knew it was no ordinary place.
It reflects the social order of its time — there was a massive palace nearby that was demolished by 1805 when times had changed. The town though survives with its surrounding canals servicing the artisans dwellings and the centrally placed town houses built for the bourgeoisie (currying favour with Richelieu, the man). He was Louis XIII’s first minister — cardinal, politician, patron of the arts — a very powerful man who died of tuberculosis at the age of 57.
I am reminded of all this by our recent sojourn, birdwatching, in Grantown on Spey. As we drove into the town along its wide central vista with its impressive central buildings I thought “this is an ideal town!” And it was.
Sensibly he started with a linen mill to provide employment — this thrived and bought other trades and services to the town. By 1860 when Queen Victoria visited and stayed, as we did, at the Grant Arms, the population was about 1300. With the advent of the railway the town became a centre for tourists visiting the Highlands, made popular by the Queen.
If I couldn’t live in the country or a walled medieval hotchpotch, I think I might like to live in an “ideal” town.
You can tell a lot about a place when you visit its more intimate corners.
I was recently caught short at Braemar Castle in the Highlands of Scotland.
Overlooking a magnificent stretch of the River Dee one could imagine a member of the royal family fly fishing in these beautiful waters. Location, location, location! The 17th century interiors were closed to us due to Covid but the downstairs, outside loo had kindly been left open by the community charity which leases the building from the Farquharson clan leader and works to maintain its fabric. They must all work very hard — in lots of places the rendering is parting from the underlying higgledy-piggledy masonry which is crumbling in the elements — one can feel the old place sucking up all the money and efforts of the volunteers that tend it!
Down in Fife in the town of my ancestors (and Bill’s youth) we visited the museum and public library.
Here we enjoyed the magnificently renovated basement lavatories with their tactile, sensuous mahogany seats and splendid door furniture. All resplendent in an aura of chlorine and civic pride.
The gents was equally spectacular though my companion was reluctant to photograph the facilities. The librarian swelled with pride as we congratulated her and admitted that because it is a listed building it had been a meticulous and very expensive refurbishment (£2,500,000 from Fife Council).
‘It’s the building with the huge golden knob on the top,’ said the handsome soldier recruiting in Victoria Square. He had real leadership potential — I found it immediately — the Library of Birmingham.
He could have said, ‘the three tier cake with squiggly icing, or ‘the Spirograph Building,’ that would have found it too.
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover and neither can you judge a library from the outside. Judge the inside for yourself–
Tiered circular balconies
Central suspended escalators
Looking out at traditional cityscape
From a circular mezzanine
And at the very top, the golden knob illuminates the whole — the hole in the bibliographic doughnut.
Next to this enormous roof-light is the Shakespeare Memorial Library, remember we are near to the birthplace of the bard. This has travelled through time and space and been given new life on the roof of this iconic building, designed by Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten and opened in 2013.
Shakespeare Memorial Library
Original stained glass roof of Shakespeare Memorial Library
Farsighted sons survey cityscape
There’s the bard
Birmingham’s civic pride
Nothing is perfect though: the glass lift was out of order, to the great relief of my lift-phobic friend, and the route to the top was through a warren of corridors, the ceiling of which I could easily touch — two meters perhaps.
‘Why so low?’ asked friend (her son is 6’8” tall).
‘Mistake!’ said I (having run out of head-room in our barn conversion), ‘Still, at least there are no beams!’