Ferry ‘cross the Mersey

Tim’s mother’s family came from Bromborough, a suburb of Birkenhead on the Wirral Peninsula. The Wirral is directly across the river Mersey from Liverpool. It is easy to get there by rail – there is a tunnel under the river. But of course the more interesting and fun trip is by ferry. Ferry ‘cross the Mersey.

Tim on the Mersey Ferry, at the dock in Liverpool

The Gerry & the Pacemakers song plays as you start out on the ferry. Click on the link for a wonderful YouTube clip of them singing on the ferry. Nothing has changed. You can’t get the song out of your head for days.

The ferry took us to the Woodside dock, where we took a side trip to “The U-Boat Story” – a tour of a WW2 U-boat.


U-534 was sunk the day that peace was declared. It had not surrendering and seemed to be evading capture. There were rumours that it was carrying important Nazi documents, or perhaps even Nazi officials. It was attacked by RAF fighters and sunk just beyond Norway. It rested on the bottom of the ocean until 1993, when it was raised, cleaned up and brought to Merseyside as an interactive display. They have divided it into sections so that you can see the inner workings. No treasure was ever found, and the boat remains steeped in mystery.

From the Woodside dock, we got on the Merseytravel train (like a metro) and travelled about 20 minutes to Spital in search of “Ravensheugh”, Tim’s mother’s family home. Tim and his family had stayed there just prior to immigrating to Canada.He had gotten rough directions to the house from his cousin.

Much has changed in the intervening 60 years of course. Spital Road is a busy thoroughfare, and we felt quite disheartened as we walked along. We looked carefully at all of the houses that we thought might be Ravensheugh, but we had no number and there were no names posted. We were just about to leave when a couple pulled up into a driveway next to us. We asked them if they had ever heard of a house called Ravensheugh. Sure, they said, the house just down the street calls itself Ravensheugh, but the original Ravensheugh is just where you are standing.

Tim at Ravensheugh, Spital Road

The house is not as grand as it was when Tim’s family was there, but at least we had found it. We walked back through the wild and wonderful park that Tim would have played in as a child, feeling connected to a personal past.

We got back on the train and got out at the next stop, Port Sunlight. In 1887, William Lever and his brothers were looking for a place to build a new soap factory to expand their business. They purchased acreage between the Mersey river and the railway line and proceeded to build a factory, plus a model village to house the workers which they called Port Sunlight. Lever thought of the business as a profit share, but instead of giving the workers the extra money, he built them homes based on principles promoted by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

Port Sunlight

There are 900 lovely homes in Port Sunlight. Lever used a number of different designers for the homes, so each section is quite unique and fronts on wide, open streets. Lever built schools, community centres, a hospital and the Lady Lever Art Gallery. The community is protected from further development and preserved as an important historic area. It was a bold social experiement in valuing the lives of workers. Certainly it didn’t hurt the Lever Brother’s business. Sunlight soap is known the world over.

Some of the workers houses in Port Sunlight

By the time we arrived at The Lady Lever Art Gallery it was closing in 20 minutes.  We dashed in and were stopped dead in our tracks by some of our most favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat, Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel– our jaws dropped. We started rushing from room to room trying to gather them into our hearts before they closed the doors. A very kind guard said to me, “You know, most people plan to spend a whole day here.”

They gently pushed us out the doors and we drifted back to the train and back to the 21st century.

Of course one of the must sees in Liverpool is the Cavern Club on Matthew Street, where the Beatles played as their fame took off. The club is still there, although it has been moved a bit over from its original location. Three floors under the street, the stage is at one end of the small brick cavern, and the whole club is only 3 cavern arches wide. Adele played there just last year – it is hard to fathom how her huge voice would have reverberated off of these brick walls. We watched a Beatles tribute band,  and joined in as everyone sang “Love, Love Me Do” and “Please, Please Me” in the darkness of the cave.

The Cavern Club

Filled with bittersweet Beatle lyrics, we went back out to Matthew Street and went into another club across the road. There was a big band there, with a horn section, guitars, piano and a decent singer. They were covering Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Santana. Great vibe and energy, lots of people dancing.

We headed out and into the Cavern Pub where we saw an amazingly flash guitar player, doing some brilliant Hendrix stuff. He had only one hand – his picking hand was a very effect prosthetic. He was brilliant. The band is called “Xander and the Peace Pirates” Really, really good.

There were no chairs in these clubs. People stood and drank and danced. Most of all, they paid  attention to the music. When they wanted to hear something else, they bought drinks and carried them from one club to the next. Being on Matthew Street was like going to one big street party, and this was on a Sunday night in February! We walked home late through the misty Liverpool streets with music in our ears.

The next day we had a great visit with Tim’s cousin Keith, who lives outside Manchester and was able to give us a few more details about growing up in the Wirral. We had lunch and went walking through Liverpool, passing through a rather torn down and dispirited Chinatown. It is the oldest Chinatown in Europe but with there wasn’t a lot to recommend it.

Chinatown in Liverpool

We ambled through the new Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The design is very Gothic, with wide vaulting ceilings and the world’s highest and widest Gothic arches. It wasn’t particularly inspiring to us, even with the UK’s largest pipe organ 910, 267 pipes), but perhaps it is still a bit new.

The wide arches of Liverpool Cathedral

We ended up back at the Adelphi for tea with Keith. We ensconced ourselves into the plush sofas under massive chandeliers.

Keith, Amanda and Tim having tea at the Adelphi

Having made a wonderful connection to Tim’s cousin, I couldn’t help wondering how different Tim’s life would have been had his family stayed in the area. Would he have spoken with the same beautiful Liverpudlian accent as Keith? Would he have hung out in the Cavern Club as a teenager, groovin’ on the Merseybeat?

Our last morning in Liverpool was spent in homage to The Beatles. “The Beatles’ Story” is an excellent museum down at Albert Docks. An audio guide (read by Julia Lennon, John’s sister) takes you through the history of the Fab Four from their days in high school to the break up in 1970. The phenomenally short 8-year recording career that changed the way the world thought about music.

There were recordings of the Quarrymen and photos of the teenage John playing in his skiffle band. There was a recreation of the office of The Merseybeat (the newspaper that promoted the Mersey sound), of the recording studio at Apple Records, and of Brian Epstein’s record store. The life-size cover for the St. Pepper album was there (they made it life-size for the cover shoot). At the end there is a section devoted to what each Beatle has done, creatively, since the band broke up.

We came around the last corner, ready to head out to get the train back to London and walked into a recreation of John’s white room. “Imagine” was playing.

John Lennon's white room

We left Liverpool with music in our hearts.

Liverpool. A world of surprises

“I have heard of the greatness of Liverpool but the reality far surpasses my expectation” Prince Albert, 1846

The Liver Bird welcomes all to Liverpool

We decided to go to Liverpool for a couple of days. I had some research I wanted to do there, and Tim had some family roots that he wanted to explore. We didn’t have major plans, but thought it would be an interesting part of the country to visit. Like Prince Albert, the reality far surpassed our expectations.

The ornamental gateway to the old Liverpool Sailor's Home

Liverpool was one of the world’s most important ports and it is no exaggeration to say that it played a part in the fate of nations. In the 18th century it was the hub for trade from Ireland, Europe, and the West Indies. By the 19thcentury 40% of the world’s trade went through Liverpool. It was richer than London. But when trading practices changed, Liverpool changed. Container ships were created and thousands of dockworkers were unemployed. The Germans tried their best to destroy the city during the Liverpool Blitz of the Second World War. Over 4,000 people were killed and much of the city destroyed. Liverpool has been a city of great wealth and great poverty, great building and great destruction. What we saw was a city that has put thought and energy into reconstruction. The past is valued. Contemporary architecture and world culture is embraced. There is a reason why the city was the European Capital of Culture, 2008.

We booked ourselves into the historic Adelphi Hotel.

Amanda writing in the lounge of the Adelphi. Product placement for Apple computer.

Built in 1911, the Adelphi was regarded at the time as the most elegant hotel outside of London. Its grandure has faded but it has old style character and charm and was surprisingly inexpensive. It symbolized the many contradictions we found in Liverpool.

We had arrived hungry and set out to find a bit of lunch, perhaps a little pub. We discovered The Salt House where we were surprised to find fabulous tapas, as good as anything we had in Barcelona. The first of many surprises in this visit.

The Salt House. Fabulous Tapas in a great renovated building

We finished lunch and went to investigate the new Museum of Liverpool, the largest newly-built national museum to be built in the UK in over 100 years. It is a great piece of architecture sitting beside the Mersey River. We had just started to explore displays about the history of the city when we got a call from cousin Matt, who was coincidentally in Liverpool, taking a break from university in Newcastle. So of course we met up and went for a drink in an archetypal Liverpool pub.

A Liverpool/Manchester football (soccer) game had just finished. The pub was filled with at least twelve huge flat screen TVs, all playing highlights. Loud, energetic, and filled with delicious Liverpudlian accents, the pub was a real hit of what we imagined we’d find in Liverpool. We watched a table of young men, each with 2 pints of beer in front of them, drinking mixed cocktails out of fishbowls that they passed from one to the next. Guzzle drink from fishbowl, pass it on, guzzle another until all were gone and attention could be focused back on the beer.

We decided to find somewhere to go for dinner. We walked around the corner from the pub and travelled into an entirely different world.  A large, modern pedestrian mall goes through the centre of town, filled with stylish chain stores. Usually I hate this kind of consumerist centre, but the area had a good, honest energy about it. Maybe it was the width of the mall, maybe it was the way that people were using it, enjoying the angled walkways on this damp grey evening.  A few hearty souls were sitting outside for coffee.

We decided to splurge on a dinner at “Jamie’s Italian”, Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant, where we sat in a glass fronted restaurant overlooking the mall, feasting on squid ink pasta and shell fish risotto A far cry from the pub around the block, but this too is the real Liverpool. Modern architecture embracing the old buildings in the kind of eccentric mix that comes from re-thinking a city after devastation. International cuisine created by someone who has worked his way up from cooking in his parent’s pub.

The Pump House (now a restaurant) in Albert Docks. The Museum of Liverpool is in the background

We started our next day of surprises down on the waterfront. UNESCO declared Liverpool’s waterfront a World Heritage Site because it represents a “supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global significance.” The site begins at Albert Docks. Albert Docks has the largest collection of Grade 1 buildings (buildings of special architectural or historical interest) in the UK. The Docks were originally opened in 1846, by Prince Albert, which is when he made his comment about reality surpassing expectations. They were the world’s first non-combustible commercial docks, made entirely of brick, cast iron and stone. They contained the world’s first enclosed dry dock (built in the 18th century) and the first hydraulic lifts. The docks were built to support the huge volume of goods that came through the port. But the days of shipping into the Mersey estuary were numbered and the Albert Docks closed down for commercial shipping in 1972.

Albert Docks

They were refurbished and re-opened in 1988 to house museums, shops, and various cultural attractions.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum are here. The Maritime Museum gives a great background to the importance of the port city of Liverpool. There was a special exhibit about the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland and the Lusitania, three magnificent ocean liners that left from Liverpool between 1912 and 1915 and all sank with great loss of life. There was also a great exhibit called “Hello Sailor” about gay life on the ships. With terribly punitive laws on homosexuality, ship life was, apparently, the place where men could come out of the closet safely. There were fabulously happy, campy photos from life aboard the ships.

The ugly side of Liverpool’s prosperity is examined at the Slavery Museum. Liverpool’s wealth was due, in no small part, to its connection to the slave trade. During the American Civil War, they were unofficially backing the Confederate army. Ships left from Liverpool and collected goods in Europe that they could trade to African traders in exchange for human slaves. It was disconcerting to see some of the same lovely glass beads that we had seen in Venice used to buy slaves in Africa. The museum sets exhibits about African culture beside hard-hitting stories of life on the ships and in captivity. Exhibits showing the contribution of black culture to European and North American culture aim at reconciliation. It’s powerful museum, and given a place of honour in the city. A city of contradictions. A city of stories. And we hadn’t even been on the Beatle trail yet…

The old and new mix at the waterfront. The Museum of Liverpool (the low white building) is in the distance behind the bridge.

Steeped in history and tradition

It never ceases to surprise me that Britain is both large and small at the same time. It’s like a magic box. Some journeys are interminably long and complicated. But then there are times when you can go from London to an entirely different city for lunch, then be back in London in time for cocktail hour.

Such was our experience when we were invited to lunch with writers Jill Patton Walsh and John Rowe Townsend in their home in Cambridge. Tim has known Jill and John for years and I was very much looking forward to meeting them and to seeing Cambridge.

As a North American who grew up at a time when educational systems were under scrutiny (when I was a teenager I propped “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman, on my desk as a flag to my decidedly out of date high school teachers), it is hard for me to understand how generations of people in the UK are affected by their university status. Getting into Oxford or Cambridge is the single most determining factor for the outcome of a life. That’s not to say that all Oxbridge grads are successful or happy. Only that the experience will mark (and some say mar) them for life.

Tim in front of King's College, where he had hoped to sing as a choir boy

Cambridge is an exquisitely beautiful city with the university at the heart of everything. College after college proudly declares its noble patrons. Inner quads are immaculately kept.

One of the quads

Shops in the city centre are exquisitely tasteful, filled with expensive clothing, jewelry, handcrafted shoes and gifts one imagines visiting parents purchase.

The high street, filled with Saturday parents

History, and privilege is everywhere, as is the craftsmanship that creates these buildings, carvings and ornaments. But there is also a marvelous eccentricity about it all.

A tomb for a beloved 19th century dog

Walking through a peaceful path in Magdalene College, we came upon a few tiny, tasteful, carved memorials. A late 19th century graveyard for beloved pets.

Inside the Round Church, the second oldest building in Cambridge

Gargoyles, faces and impressive statues watch you from every  angle of every building.

The streets are cobbled and cut off to car traffic. Thousands of bikes are chained up outside of the colleges and students whizz past, scarves identifying their colleges flying in the wind. They rule the road and low betide anyone stepping off the curb.

A city of bicycles

Is it any wonder that these young students feel and behave in an elitist fashion? That the city exudes a rarified atmosphere guaranteed to make us mere mortals envious? It is the epitome of a combination of wealth, intellectualism, beauty and youth. All we could do was to watch it all go by, and feel like somewhat lesser humans.

The river Cam. Even in November the rowers and punters were out.

But then we went to visit Jill and John, in a house that overlooks the river. They are as marvelous as Tim had led me to believe. It was a fabulous visit that blended politics, children’s literature and food. Salmon with wild rice, followed by a delicious apple tart (When I asked Jill about the apples she replied, “I always use Bambery apples when I can. They are perfect for apple tart”) and local chesses, including a particularly scrumptious Wesleydale with apricots. All enhanced by a delicious white burgundy supplied by their wine club.

We may not be a part of the Cambridge “set”, but for one lovely afternoon, we were fully welcomed and at home there.

John, Jill & Tim

A new doorstep in an ancient landscape

We had never met Mal Peet and his wife Elspeth Graham before we landed on their doorstep in Exmouth. Mal and Elspeth are writers. Mal and Tim share the same publisher, and have many mutual friends in the world of young adult literature. We were invited to spend a night if we ever found ourselves out their way.  So we conveniently found ourselves in Exmouth.

Exmouth is on the coast of East Devon and has stunning long sandy beaches. It is a part of the coast where there are wonderful seaside towns devoted to easy beach living. But it is also the entrance to the “Jurassic Coast”, an area of English coastline that stretches from Exmouth in the west to Swanage in the east. The “Jurassic Coast” is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because it represents a geological walk through time. In ninety-five miles of coastline, you cover 185 million years of geological development, spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Too much for one day. It is an area that I definitely want to come back to.

Mal and Elspeth live mere blocks from the beach in Exmouth, in a wonderful Victorian house with their too adorable dog Pedro. As Mal cooked, we launched ourselves into riotous discussions about children’s literature, rogue construction, rock and roll, aging and everything we’ve ever encountered in our lives that brought us to this point. Literature, art, music, theatre, politics – we travelled late into the night solving the problems of the world.

The next morning, a little the worse for wear, Mal and Elspeth drove us through the lovely seaside town of Budleigh Salterton (and who could resist that name!) to the extensive salt marsh commons of the Otter Estuary Nature Reserve. We walked along an ancient public walkway bordered by huge chestnuts, oaks and tamaracks to get to the town of Otterton.

A view into Otterton

Otterton is an old Saxon village on the River Otter that used to be the largest settlement in South East Devon. Formerly a port, the river became dammed up with rock and silt several hundred years ago, and the land became agricultural. It is an archetypally beautiful rural town, with thatched cottages, cob and brick buildings and a restored mill. The Otterton Mill, which is open to the public, has been in use for 1000 years. The mill grinds locally produced organic wheat for the breads that they sell in the restaurant bakery.

Elspeth, Mal, Tim and Pedro outside the Otterton Mill

We had coffee in the outdoor café, visited the great local crafts shop (with some of the most exciting and dramatic pottery that I have seen in a long time) and walked back along the River Otter.

The River Otter

We had known Mal & Elspeth for only a few short hours, but it felt as though we were lifelong friends as we meandered our way back to Exmouth.

The Otter Estuary Nature Reserve, and Pedro

From Exmouth, Mal & Elspeth took us to Exeter where we were to meet up with cousins Penny & Eric. A trading town since 250 BC, Exeter, like Plymouth, suffered greatly during bombing raids in the Second World War. Recently however, the downtown has been revitalized and is now a great blend of contemporary and historical architecture. The downtown shopping district manages to incorporate the remains of the Roman wall, the 15th century St. Catherine’s Almshouse and chapel, and rows of well-preserved houses from every architectural period.

The central feature in Exeter is of course the cathedral.

The Exeter Cathedral

Built in 1170, the cathedral has been added to and restored over the course of the last 900 years and is an imposing and inspiring sight. Inside, we were treated to the sounds of the choir and organ, reverberating on the stone arches.

Inside the Exeter Cathedral

A perfect way to send us off, bidding farewell to Devon, Cornwall and new friends, and heading back up through the country, to London.

Cathedral Gargoyles

Discovering a corner of Devon

There is a reason why everyone raves about Devonshire Cream. When you eat it, you feel like you have a direct connection to lush green grass and sunshine. Even though it was the end of October, the fields of Devon were welcoming and the cream was plentiful.

Visiting Tim’s cousin Pip and her husband Steven gave us a chance to explore a bit of the Devon countryside. There is a huge organic farm, Riverford, right near their house, with open fields that we could see from the back windows. Riverford runs a kitchen, restaurant, stores and box deliveries of organic produce.

The fields of Riverford farms in Devon

After our Looe cottage with no views, it was wonderful to see land in every direction. And after our focus on the fruits of the sea, it was good to come back to such wonderful fresh produce.

Pip and Steven live quite close to Totnes. “Did you inhale?” is the common question you get asked after you tell people you’ve been to Totnes. A town of only 7,600, it has a reputation as being a centre for the arts, healing therapies and alternative lifestyle choices. It’s an old market village, filled with “new age” stores, high end fashion, health food and book stores all set in the twisty streets under the shadow of a Norman castle.

Totnes High Street

Our mission, however, was only to find all of the ingredients to make Tim’s wonderful Thai fish stew. Tim’s Thai Fish Stew is our “default” meal – it is quick to make, comforting and delicious. In Totnes, the hardest ingredient to find on main street was the Nam Pla (fish sauce), but once we located a bottle of that, the rest was easy. The meal warmed up a chilly fall evening.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we were ready to head out for a walk and adventure. We started in the town of Ashburton, a lovely village of about 3,500. Formerly a “Stannery” town (the administration of tin mining), it has great produce stores, interesting crafts and a very welcoming atmosphere. Ashburton is on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, and we had hoped that there would be a good walk to near-by Buckfastleigh. But the only paths were along the highway, so Pip drove us instead to Dartmoor for a brief walk.

Dartmoor, with shadows from the clouds skittering across the land

This moor-ish adventure was quite different from our experience in Bodmin. The sunshine helped a lot, but there is defnitely a bit more colour in the surroundings. There was almost a lushness to the landscape. That is, if something can be lush and desolate at the same time.

Dartmoor is enormous. Vast. Once you are in the park, there is moor in every direction. But really, there is not a lot of variety in a moor. A little bit goes a long way.

Tim & Pip on a Tor

So after a great walk with Pip and Alfie the dog, we were fine to move on.

Pip dropped us in Buckfastleigh, a tiny town of about 3,600 that used to be a wool-producing centre. Now, however, the main attraction of Buckfastleigh (other than that the name uses half of the letters of the alphabet, and each only once) is the South Devon Steam Railway.

This lovely steam train runs from Buckfastleigh through Staverton to Totnes and having just seen the “Railway Children” in London, we wanted a chance to experience this adventure first hand.

Tim, in the train, waiting to leave the Buckfastleigh Station

The train hugs close to the river Dart on a former Great Western Railway branch line through the Devon countryside.

Chugging beside the River Dart

Filled with train enthusiasts and excited children, we chugged along, steam pouring from the engine’s chimney and the train literally making a “Choo-choo” sound. I stuck my head out the window to watch the sunshine on the steam, the image from so many classic movies.

South Devon Steam Train

And yes, I got a bit of soot in my eye just as they say you will if you stick your head out of the window to watch the train. But it was worth it for the chance to step back in time.

Farewell to the Sea

Dynnargh dhe Logh. Welcome to Looe. I didn’t see this sign until our last evening. But I did feel very welcome.

Our last night in Looe was just about as perfect as it could be. The previous days had been stormy, but massive rains left everything feeling clean and fresh (and flooded – there were floods throughout the area).

The early evening tide was very high, the fishing boats were coming in laden with mackerel and accompanied by masses of seagulls.

Fishing boat, surrounded by gulls

We walked up the cliff for pre-dinner drinks at our “lounge” in Hannafore, overlooking the sea. A last talk with the friendly bar tender (who is writing a book called “My Life Behind Bars”) Then as the sun was setting, we went down to East Looe for a dinner at Papa Ninos –  a little restaurant that has only 5 tables and makes everyone in the room feel connected to each other. As a starter, we had the best mussels we’ve ever eaten. They were fat and flavourful with a Marinière sauce of white wine, cream, garlic, onion and parsley that was sublime. I’ve had this dish in a number of restaurants in the area, and I would have to say it was the best at Papa Ninos. I’ve included my Moules Marinière recipe if you want to try and make them at home, although I can’t guarantee that they will be as wonderful. Fresh mussels have been a revelation.

I had red mullet that was grilled to perfection, and Tim had Turbot in a pernod sauce that was exquisite. In our 12 days in Looe we had, between us, 18 different varieties of fish and shellfish. This dinner was certainly the cap to an extraordinary seafood adventure.

The Harbour at night

The harbor was dark and misty as we crossed the bridge to go back to West Looe and finish the evening singing with the locals in The Jolly Sailor. We’d been there the week before and were welcomed as old friends. The songs poured out, accompanied by guitar, bodrun, accordion, harmonica, banjo, recorder, penny whistle and that wonderful bottle cap rhythm stick instrument that probably has a name that I don’t know.

(sung to a rolling beat)

“It’s all the young fellows have gone to the city.

All the young fellows have gone to the town.

And soon they’ll be earning there double the money

Than they ever earned on the harrow and plow”

(sung to a sad and mournful tone)

“I asked them who

I asked them how

They answered you

They answered now”

(sung wistfully)

“For Cornish lads are fishermen

And Cornish men are miners too

But when the fish and tin are gone

What will the Cornish boys do?”

We drank local ales and Cloudy Cider and bid a fond farewell to Cornwall.

Trying to discover Plymouth

Looking for day trips from Looe, we decided to go to Plymouth, about an hour’s bus ride away. For North Americans, the big thing about Plymouth is that it is the place that the Mayflower sailed from. Filled with Pilgrims or “English Dissenters”, the boat’s inhabitants were looking for a new life in a land of religious freedom. The rest, as they say, is history.

For the English, Plymouth was a major shipping port, and with neighbouring Davenport as a shipbuilding and dockyards town, the area was of great strategic importance during the Second World War. That, unfortunately, led to it being especially targeted by the Germans. The Plymouth Blitz consisted of 59 different bombing raids on the city and resulted in the destruction of virtually the entire city centre.

We arrived in Plymouth on a lovely sunny day. The harbor was busy with picturesque sailboats and tourists. It was the first day of English half term and there was a feeling of carnival in the air.

Plymouth Harbour

Our time in Plymouth was limited, so we decided to focus on the art exhibit “British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet”. The British Art Show happens only once every 5 years and is recognized as the most ambitious and influential exhibit of contemporary British art. There were 5 different galleries involved with the exhibit in Plymouth, so traveling to each of them would give us a unique view of the city.

Our first stop was to be “The Slaughterhouse” in the Royal William Yard. To get there we followed directions from the tourist information office that led us along the Grand Parade, a promenade along the oceanfront. Prominent on the waterfront is Plymouth’s Lido, and although I have always known the word, I never really knew what a Lido was: “A public open air pool or beach”.

The Tinside Pool from Plymouth archives. circa 1958.

Plymouth’s Lido is the “Tinside Pool”, built in Art Deco style 1935. It survived the bombings, but it was apparently a rather convenient marker for the German raids. A 55-meter diameter semi-circle stretching out from the cliff edge, the Lido has a large fountain in the middle. There are segregated changing rooms and terraces where orchestras used to play above the bathers. It fell into disuse and was closed in 1992, but it has since been restored to its Art Deco glory and was reopened in 2005. Although only open in the summer months, there were a couple of intrepid swimmers on the beach directly beside the pool. It was that kind of a day.

But as our walk progressed, the day turned cool and we went through other parts of Plymouth that have yet to be restored. In fact, we were surprised that the tourist office sent us along Millbank road, a very disheveled part of town. We passed by the marvelous but entirely decrepit Victorian New Palace Theatre. The New Palace Theatre opened in 1898, and most of the great vaudevillians played there over the years.

New Palace Theatre

But after vaudeville it went downhill and became a bingo hall, a dance hall, a disco hall and eventually closed in 2008 in what much have been a rather spectacular drug raid. Judging from the trees growing out of it, I suspect the days of restoration are passed. I’ve found a photo blog by an urban explorer that shows some of the inside. (http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=64222)

Looks like all of the original Victorian fittings are still there, even down to the rigging for the fly gallery. It is horrible to think of something that beautiful being allowed to crumble.

After a much longer and uglier walk than we anticipated based on the directions from the tourist office, we arrived at The Royal William Yard. This is a fabulous renovation project, still in its early stages. The former army barracks are being rebuilt as luxury condos and the surrounding buildings are restaurants, stores and galleries.

Royal William Yard marina. The bakery/restaurant is straight ahead.

We had a good tapas meal at the renovated Bakery building and the gallery we went to was in the old slaughterhouse. With a marina in the centre, this area is destined to become incredibly fashionable, similar to the Distillery district in Toronto. Except for one problem. You’d have to want to live in Plymouth.

Although the gallery itself is a gorgeous space, the art show was a huge disappointment. We travelled to the next location, and on and on, getting lost and frustrated as we negotiated the streets of Plymouth to get to the Art Gallery, the University, the Arts Centre and the Museum. Rebuilding after the war, much of the city centre is grey concrete and uninspiring. Much of the artwork, which is touted as cutting edge, is in fact idea-driven, technically uninteresting and empty. There are only a couple of the 39 artists whose work touches us in any way. George Shaw is up for the Turner Award and we hope he’ll win. He paints with Humbrol enamel paints, the kind used for models, and his work reflects the poverty of growing up in Coventry council estates. They are dark, lonely and melancholy. Wolfgang Tillmans has a huge photographic print (the size of a whole wall) that was made without a camera. He exposes photographic paper to points of light, creating textures and colour that are really uncanny.

By the time we had been to all of the art venues, the day was overcast, and so were we. Plymouth has no “feng shui”, says Tim. We caught the next bus back to Looe and treated ourselves to a wonderful fish dinner on the wharf at The Old Sail Loft. The Old Sail Loft is part of the “Fish Fight” campaign, fighting for sustainable fishing practices. http://www.fishfight.net/the-campaign/ We had a delicious meal of fish that had “extremely low food miles”. It was caught just off the coast by Looe fishing boats, and travelled only 200 yards from the boat to the restaurant. It was a perfect balm to warm us from the chill of Plymouth. We were very grateful for each mouthful.