Sunday, 31 August 2008

Sunday in the city

I was in the centre of Warsaw today to address a climate-change awareness picnic held on Nowy Swiat, along with a number of diplomats, government officials and representatives of business. Climate change is an issue where Polish awareness lags (literally years) behind western Europe. Poland is to host the international climate change conference in Poznań in December, putting the host city on the world stage. Lots to do beforehand in terms of changing attitudes in a country where if your flat's too hot in mid-winter, open the windows.

En route, I passed through Plac Trzech Krzyzy which was being readied for the ten-kilometer fun run that would take place this afternoon. Above: St Alexander's Church looks particularly splendid in the strong August sunlight.

Warsaw's famous palm tree, in the centre of Rondo de Gaulle'a, on the crossroads of Al. Jerozolimskie and Nowy Swiat. Standing there since 2002, it's become a symbol of the new, open, youthful, creative capital city. Click here for its history.

Arriving on Nowy Swiat early (the giełda fotograficzna being so disappointing - see post below), I sat down at a cafe and watched the morning strollers along Warsaw's most prestigious street. I observed the following. Warsaw's getting cosmopolitan. People who visually I'd took for tourists from Scandinavia, America, France or Italy passed me by speaking perfect Polish. Once you could spot a Polish man a mile off due to his clumsy dress sense - today, in Warsaw at least - this is not the case. Indigenous young couples, old couples, families were walking in the city centre, like they do in Spain (el paseo). Walking, not shopping. This is so un-English! Who'd take their family into central London on a sunny Sunday morning?

Above: the stretch of Nowy Swiat between ul. Smolna and Foksal has been paved with grass for the day, for the Piknik z Klimatem event at which I was speaking. Giant blocks of ice were melting in the summer sun, symbolic of what's happening in the Arctic (the ice cap will have mostly gone by the summer of 2013). I was particularly impressed by the speeches from the Danish ambassador and the Swedish commercial counsellor - those countries are so far ahead of Poland in terms of energy use best practice. Sweden, for instance, gets 48% of its energy from renewable sources. Poland - a mere 5%. Climate change is something we must all address ourselves to. No more ifs or buts.

Shadow of its former self

The giełda fotograficzna at Stodoła, the Warsaw Polytechnic students' club on ul. Batorego, was once the largest weekly camera fair in Europe. Who knows, it still may be, but compared to its glory days in the late 1990s, it's fading fast. Gone are all the stands upstairs and along the side corridors, gone are the long queues of punters waiting to get in.

Stodoła itself is legendary. Earlier this summer, Bob Dylan played on the very stage from which I took this photo. Just about any famous Polish musician, and a fair number of British and American stars, have played here. But on Sunday mornings, this is where Warsaw's photographers gather to buy and sell.

In the glory days of the giełda. I'd queue for ten minutes to get in, push through jostling crowds - in the main arena, then upstairs, then the side corridors - to see where the interesting stuff was,. Then I'd rest a bit over a beer before throwing myself back into the fray for some energetic haggling. This is where to come to to get rid of redundant kit and replace it with that new zoom lens or some collectible classic camera. Collectors would flock from across Europe in search of rare items at bargain prices.

Three things have done for the camera fair; the strong zloty (camera and lens prices are some 10%-15% more expensive than in the UK high street, even though prices here are cheaper than in Warsaw's photography shops); online shopping and - the main factor - digital photography. Consumables are now memory cards rather than film, chemicals or paper. Old-school photographers who've not converted to digital, however, will find this place heaven. There's loads of codgers selling their Zenits, Zorkis, Kievs, FEDs, lenses and all the accessories to go with - enlargers, developing tanks, trays, etc. etc. Yet the one thing I came for - a 35mm digital film scanner to turn decades of memory into something that I can manipulate and display on my computer - I could not find. Ah well, in a few weeks time I'll be back in London, so I'll buy one at Jessops or Dixons Tax Free at the airport.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Tuwim's Lokomotywa, in English

Ever since I mentioned Julian Tuwim's verse Lokomotywa last December, and its emotional impact on me as a child (especially the version illustrated by Jan Lenica), I noticed that a fair amount of traffic coming to my blogsite has been referred from people googling the poem in English. I've not come across a good translation of it (click here or here or here for the original in Polish), so I translated it myself.

So here it is. I've worked hard to keep sense, rhyme and rhythm as close to the sense of Tuwim's original; it was not easy. Let me know what you think!

Locomotive
The locomotive’s standing at the station,
Huge, heavy, it drips perspiration –
Oily lubrication.

It stands and wheezes, it groans and gnashes
Its boiling belly stuffed with hot ashes:
Arrrgh, what torture!
Phew, what a scorcher!
Panting and puffing!
Hissing and huffing!
It’s barely gasping, it’s barely breathing,
And still its fireman more coal keeps on heaping.

To it were coupled wagons of iron and steel
Massive and heavy, they weighed a great deal
And crowds of people in each one of these,
And one’s full of cows, another of – horsies,
A third one with passengers, every one fat,
Sitting and eating sausagey snacks.
The fourth was packed with crates of bananas.
The fifth one contained – six large grand pianos.
In the sixth a large cannon, cor! what a whopper!
Each of its wheels chocked up right proper!
The seventh, oaken wardrobes and chairs.
The eighth an elephant, giraffe and two bears.
The ninth, fattened pigs – no spare spaces,
The tenth full of trunks, baggage and cases,
Wagons like these – another forty remain,
Not even I could tell you what they contain.
But if a thousand strongmen gathered right here,
And each one would eat a thousand burgers a year,
And each one of them strained with all of his might,
They couldn’t shift this colossal weight.

Suddenly – WHISTLE!
Suddenly – bustle!
Steam – eruption!
Wheels – in motion!

Slowly at first, like a tortoise just waking
Strains the engine, every single joint aching.
But it jerks at the wagons and pulls with great zeal,
It turns, and it turns, wheel after wheel.
It gathers momentum and takes up the chase
As it thunders and hammers and speeds up the pace.

And where to? And where to? And where to? Straight on!
By rail, by rail, by bridge, now it’s gone –
Through mountains and tunnels, through meadows and woods
It’s rushing, it’s rushing to bring on the goods,
It’s knocking out rhythms like banging a drum
DUM-buDUM, DUM-buDUM DUM-buDUM-DUM!

It’s gliding so smoothly – no effort at all,
No engine of steel, just a little toy ball,
No massive machine, all panting and puffing
But a plaything of tin, that weighs next to nothing.

From where does it, how does it, why does it rush?
And what is it, who is it, gives it a push?
That makes it go faster, all thrashing and hissing?
It’s steam’s scalding power that keeps the train moving.
It’s steam, piped from boiler to a piston that glides
Back and forth pushing rods that turn wheels on both sides,
They’re striving and driving, the train keeps on bumping,
‘Cause steam keeps the pistons a-pumping and pumping,
Producing a rhythm so pleasing to some:
DUM-buDUM, DUM-buDUM DUM-buDUM-DUM!


(Translation copyright Michael Dembinski 2008)

Friday, 29 August 2008

So what was all that about, then?

Warsaw ground to a halt today as 18,000 (police estimate) or 30,000 (Solidarity claim) trade unionists gathered to protest... about what precisely? With their whistles and smoke bombs and firecrackers, marching - why? Jus' talkin' loud an' sayin' nothing, that's what they were doing.

These guys want to retire even earlier. (Poland already has the lowest average retirement ages in the EU). The trade unionists want the rest of us to fund them a cushy life while the rest of us have to work and pay taxes to cover their pensions. Only 28% of Poles aged 55-64 are at work, compared to 48% in feather-bed socialist France and 58% in free-market Britain. Again, the lowest indicator in the entire EU. (My father worked until he was nearly 70, my father-in-law until he was 71. They got on with it.)

It's not as if Poland's number one macroeconomic problem is unemployment - far from it. Poland's unemployment has fallen faster than any other EU member state. Unemployment is officially 1.7% in Poznan, 2.0% in Katowice, 2.2% in Warsaw and the Tri-City. (London's, by contrast, is 6.8%). Employers can't find people. Average wages in Poland have soared from 320 quid in May 2004 to 785 quid today - the effect of a booming economy, plummetting unemployment and a strong zloty. There still are pockets of deprivation in Poland, but they are mostly in rural parts (45% of Poland's registered jobless live in villages). Poland's biggest macroeconomic problem is inflation, stoked by high wage settlements, and an unreformed public budget.

"What do we want?" "Early retirement!"
"When do we want it?" "NOW!"

Poland's trade unions are dinosaurs. Their strongholds continue to be Poland's large, over-manned, uncompetitive, poorly-run state owned "enterprises" that should have been privatised long ago. They have hijacked the Solidarity brand (a political movement instrumental in overturning communism), and are run by populists who stir up discontent based on economic illiteracy.

Privatise the lot of them. Bureaucrats make poor managers. Throw the entire Polish state sector into the free market. Let it thrive like the rest of the Polish economy. The GDP figures for the second quarter of 2008 were released today. 5.8% growth year-on-year (compared to the UK's 1.6% or the Eurozone's sluggish 1.5% Q2 y-o-y GDP growth).

Monday morning, Plac na Rozdrozu: "The parade has passed, the clowns have gone"

This time last year:
Greenhouse sunset
I got those "woke up this mornin', someone done chopped down the wood" blues

Supersized invertebrates this summer

Well I never! This is the biggest slug I've seen in my life! I caught this fellow on the pavement on ul. Górnośląska on my way to work the other day. This is a Great Grey Slug, limax maximus, which can grow up to eight inches (200mm). So this one's still got a bit of growing to do. The two zloty coin, by the way, has a diameter of 21.5mm.

The same evening, returning home, I found this spider in the middle of its web outside our front door. It's the largest garden spider I've seen around our house. The next morning the spider was gone, but its web was filled with the little flies that appear at this time of year in large numbers.

This time last year:
Full moon over Jeziorki

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Of castles, dams and brass bands

Returning into Poland from Slovakia, Eddie and I continued on foot towards the castle on the lake (now dammed) at Czorsztyn.

Rather than walk alongside the main road, we walked along the edge of the reservoir. As we neared the dam, we could here quite clearly the sound of brass bands playing. Some kind of a congregation had gathered along the top.

Above: A dramatic view of the dam's sluice gates and slipways. It turns out that the local voluntary fire brigades (OSPs) had organised a brass band parade this day, with the bands playing on a promontory between the sluice gates. There was a goodly crowd of families, friends and brass band afficionados, and a very pleasant, easy going festival mood.

No chance of the Dam Busters March, then?

Monday, 25 August 2008

Michael Palin was right

About Slovakia, that is. Eddie persuaded me to drive down from Dobra to the Slovak border, and given that we're all in Schengen now, to cross over to see the place. Now, unlike my well-travelled children, I've not been to Slovakia (Czech Republic many a time, but never to Poland's south-eastern neighbour). The plan seemed like a good one, especially when linked to the chance to see other attractions on the Polish side of the border (see next post).

Above: We crossed into Slovakia without even knowing it (Lysa nad Dunajcem, the first village on the Slovak side, is so full of shops selling things to Poles that we were confused by the fact that nearly all signs were in Polish). The picture was taken from just inside the Slovak border, looking in. The customs shed is still there, the border checkpoints unmanned.

I like Schengen. I like being able to drift across national borders the way an Englishman can pop into Scotland or Wales. Extensions of personal freedom are to be welcomed! Slovakia will join the Eurozone on 1 January (not a good idea, but that's a personal macroeconomic view). Left: A post-communist (note PR - Polish Republic, not PRL - People's Republic of Poland) but pre-Schengen sign, a fading reminder that the once people would queue for hours to get from one country to the other.

Below: This sign is still valid, a reminder that, though passport controls are gone, this is border country. (Click here to see my visit to the Polish-Czech border)

After passing through Lysa nad Dunajcem, Eddie and I walked to the nearest town. Spisska Stara Ves is not a good advertisement for Slovakia, a country that took umbrage at Michael Palin's portrayal of the country in his New Europe series. The scenes of drunken excess at a village pig-slaughtering, yokels who could not remember the words of their own folk songs, provoked a strong letter to the BBC from the Slovak Ambassador to Britain. Slovakia appeared in the series to be a contrast between cultured, historic Poland and the cultured, historic Czech Republic.


Spisska Stara Ves reminded me of Victor Lewis-Smith's Ipswich. "Yes, there's plenty to do in Ipswich. You can pick your nose, or you can blink..." Compared to the villages we drove through in Poland, full of Sunday crowds going to church or socialising in the street, pursuing their hobbies or just shopping, Spisska was dead; the few people around seemed sullen, lacking purpose. It's difficult to make generalisations about a country from one small town, but this was so unlike what I'd chanced upon in the Czech Republic (a well-ordered, tidy place) that the idea of the two having ever being together in one state seems odd.

Above: What was this (evidently) state-owned building once used for? The local Higher School of Fashion and Design? Whatever is was, it's now dead. Unless you're looking for a film set to stand in for Chernobyl.

Above: another run-down institution, no doubt dating back to the days of 'Granny Austria'. Below: the bus stop advertises 'Non-Stop Taxi', presumably to get people out of here.

What else? "It's the little differences..." "Example." Traffic signs. Is this a slimline version of Alexei Sayle on his way to a Two-Tone party? Or Elwood Blues heading for the Palace Hotel Ballroom? What's the cultural significance of the pork pie hat?

We returned to Poland, stopping at Lysa nad Dunajcem to eat and do some obligatory shopping. For the equivalent of 12 quid, (50 zlotys) I bought nine half litre bottles of Zlaty Bazant, Slovakia's most famous beer (and excellent it is too - sharper and cleaner tasting than Polish beer), a plate of knedliki and goulash (knedliki are boiled dough balls), a portion of chips, two bags of crisps, four chocolate bars and a half-litre bottle of mineral water. Not bad, eh? But much of the rest has had its day - the old border trade in spirits is alive only because few Poles seem able or willing to do some hard-nosed price comparisons - international spirits brands are much the same price in Warsaw hypermarkets as they are here.

Back to Dobra, back to steam

Couldn't get enough of it! I returned on Friday evening to Dobra, and on Saturday morning Eddie and I set off for another go on the steam train to Chabówka. This time, accompanied by Eddie's friends Sabina and Alex, their cousins and grandparents. So eight return tickets, eight visitors to the museum. And hopefully, six new enthusiasts!

I learned the lessons for getting good pics on this line: back coach out, front coach home. This enables the photographer to get shots of the engine running forward from Dobra, with the curving rails offering many opportunities to catch the engine in three-quarter view. And occupying the same seats on the way home allows you to be right behind the engine, to hear it puffing and panting its way from Chabówka up the incline to Skrzydlna. Only four coaches this weekend, not the five we had last week, so couldn't quite get that 'bend' to work. Still, the engine's the right way round.

Right: An effective composition, if not one for the purist. Steam and electrical traction together at Chabówka. The first three stations are pod drutem ('under wire'), but after Rabka Zdrój, there's no sign of any post-war rail infrastructure other than the occasional signal lights (plenty of old semaphores and manual points still around).

The sound of a Kriegslok steam engine hard at work is awesome, especially when labouring up the steep inclines (2.9m rise in 100m horizontal). The frequent whistles, the whooshes of white steam from the pistons, and the dense black clouds from the chimney make travelling directly behind the engine an unforgettable experience. Soot blown out will speck your clothing, so beware; glasses or goggles will protect your eyes from the pain of something hot and dirty landing in them.

Left: Running down the hill to Dobra. From the summit at Skrzydlna, the engine uses minimal power, so less smoke, less steam, less puff, less drama. We heard a story (from the local media, just two weeks ago), of a less-than-sober mother and her hard-of-hearing six year-old daughter walking along this track, when the steam train came across them unexpectedly. The mother dived out of the way, the child laid flat on the track; the train passed over her and she escaped unharmed! The mother must have been well drunk not to have heard the repeated warning whistles. (Story here, in Polish.)

There's one more steam day this year, next Saturday (30 August), trips down to Zakopane continue into September. Definitely a recommended experience. Timetable in English here. Below: Ty2-953 runs around its train at Chabówka, passing Ty2-911.

This time last year:
Heron spotted over local pondAgricultural scenes in Jeziorki "cause flashbacks"Our garden spiders getting big and fat
Ul. Kórnicka loses dirt track status
Electrical storms continue

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Beskid Wyspowy

Like islands sticking out of a misty sea, the peaks of this small range of mountains (900-1,200m above sea level) are less well known to tourists than the Tatras or Sudety, but absolutely worth a visit. The Beskid Wyspowy ("Island Beskids") Eddie and I climbed three of the highest ten peaks in two days - Łopień (951m) , Ćwiliń (1,074m) and Śnieżyca (1,006m).

Above: Pet cow on one's lawn; a reminder that this is very much an agricultural community. Nearby is the home of Tymbark, one of Poland's top fruit juice producers. Just up the road from this house was a punkt skupu (lit. 'purchase point') where farmers sell tonnes of 'industrial apples' to the juice manufactures. These apples, seen growing everywhere around here, are too small and unstandardised to make it to supermarket stalls, but are juicy nevertheless.

Above: Coming down from Łopień, we encountered the local firemen taking their six-wheel drive STAR 266 firetruck for a spin. Today was the day of the voluntary fire service's annual fete, so the picnic was being carried up by truck. The voluntary fire service (OSP) has a significant social role in rural Poland; you can wear a uniform without fear of ending up in Iraq or Afganistan; you can play in the brass band, you can get married in the local OSP hall (they are legendary for their wedding feasts!)

Above: Descending from Łopień (sloping up to the right of this pic). In the distance are Ćwiliń (left) and Śnieżyca (right). A four-seater chairlift runs to the top of Śnieżyca from Kasina Dolna railway station (now sadly only used for steam train excursions - no regular passenger service). Below: In winter this long, sloping meadow is a ski run. The chairlift is behind the trees to the left.

Something about Dobra...

It crept up on me gradually, that consistent, strong sense of deja vu. This is Dobra in Poland's Małopolska province and yet, though I've never been here before, I had a strong sense of the familiar familiarity, as comfortable in my mind as it's ever been, that these scenes I've observed elsewhere, at some other time. Was this Kentucky? Virginia? Oregon?

I lay awake in my guesthouse bed, listening to the occasional night-time traffic, overpowered by memories as crystal clear as those to my childhood in West London, memories I've always had, just as familiar - yet not of this life. I seek to discover what is causing these flashbacks.

The picture below has been Photoshopped to click closer with that atmosphere of 1940s/1950s small town America.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Serendipity, mountains and steam

I was not immediately delighted at the prospect of a seven hour drive down to the mountains to deliver Eddie at his next summer holiday venue, and less thrilled at an enforced 24 hour prolongation of my stay there. When we arrived it was raining, and the prospect of a wet weekend in the foothills of the Beskidy Wyspowe were not my first choice of spending the long August weekend. However, things turned out nicely!

The place we stayed, an agroturystyka in a large village/small town called Dobra (between Nowy Sącz and Wadowice) was run by really lovely people, great cooking, flexibility at meal times and - at 50 zlotys (around 11 quid) for bed, breakfast, lunch and supper (40 zlotys for children) - a snip. Eddie noted that there was a railway station in Dobra, and given that the weather on Saturday morning was dismal, we thought it would be a good idea to stroll down there to take a look.

The walk through the village (small town really) was long; we got lost, had to ask the way, neared the station (up the hill) and as we neared it... the sound of a steam whistle! Eddie and I simultaneously broke into a jog (I'm delighted to say that this 50 year-old burdened with camera bag can still out-run his 12 year-old son up a steep hill). The whistling continued. Would we catch the train? We made it up to the station - and there it was - a 2-10-0 Kriegslok locomotive, my favourite steam loco of all time ever, manoeuvering around a rake of five two-axle coaches.

To our delight, it transpired that we were in good time for a steam train excursion from Dobra to Chabówka railway musuem. A quick glance at the timetable showed that we were up for a three-hour steam-hauled trip with an hour's musuem visit all for the equivalent of ten quid! The line is spectacular (by Polish standards) for its mountain scenery. It was here that scenes from Schindler's List were shot - both engine and coaches are 100% authentic for the period.

Above: This locomotive (Ty2-953) was one of over 6,000 built in Nazi Germany as an austerity war locomotive, to run over lightly-laid lines (hence the ten driving wheels to spread the axle load). After the war, over a thousand remained in Poland. The design was so good that long after the war, the engines soldiered on across Eastern Europe, both Poland and Romania building more. Poland still has dozens left, only a few still in steam (sadly).

Above: Before the train set off, there was a chance to climb in the cab and see the fireman at work stoking the boiler. Hot work indeed, but on a cool day, a chance to get warm. Our fireman explained in perfect English that it takes eight hours to get this large engine's steam up to working pressures from cold, and that the coal needs to be shovelled evenly onto the firebox floor (not too thin here, not too heaped there).

Below: Closely observed train. The journey to Chabówka took us over the highest point on Polish rails - at the station serving the village of Skrzydlna. From Dobra to summit, our locomotive was puffing and panting for all it was worth, sending up dense columns of black smoke along with the steam. From Skrzydlna it was downhill most of the way to Raba and Chabówka.

Chabówka itself for me was a sorry sight - lots of interesting exhibits resting and rusting, the owners (PKP Cargo) treating the whole thing as a bit of an embarrasment rather than a potential tourist goldmine (the way heritage railways are run in the UK). I did not feel disposed to spend twice the price of adult museum admission to buy a film-and-photography ticket, so put my camera away during the hour's (rainy) visit at Chabówka. Below: The run back to Dobra. The line was built in 1884 by the Austrians as the Transversal Railway, running from Kraków to Żywiec, just south of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's erstwhile border with Russia). From Raba the line climbs all the way back up to Szkrzydlna before dipping down to Dobra.

The train will be making two return journeys next Saturday (23 August), leaving Chabówka at 09:10 and making its last return run from Dobra at 16:50. I certainly hope to be there, if only to catch the 12:00 departure from Dobra for just the one stop up the steepest incline to Skrzydlna, an 11 minute journey. The best shots are from the back of the rear coach, with the engine running forwards to Chabówka. Your final chance this year for this excellent rail journey is on Saturday 30 August.


This time last year:
New housing development springs upBeyond Warsaw's exurbs by bike
Mud yields to paving stone on ul. Kórnicka
Starlings on the wireArmed forces day parade

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Spectacular sunrise

Haven't seen one of these for a while! I was woken up by the roar of a very early charter flight landing over our house just before five am. I looked out of the window to see a beautiful sunrise developing, so I grabbed the camera and raced into the garden. The photo above is a panorama consisting of four vertical frames stitched together (hence the fish-eye effect); this was the only way I could capture the full splendour of the sunrise. Click on photo to enlarge.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Rainbow over Jeziorki

First day back at work and yet another accident on ul. Puławska forced me to take the back roads home. The sun was setting, the easterly sky dark with rainclouds. Ideal conditions for a rainbow - then lo and behold! there it was. Golden sunshine, golden wheat, glowering sky. A few snaps were in order. Above: The far end of ul. Trombity.

Left: ul. Dumki as it joins ul. Kórnicka. I reckon that crock of gold's somewhere between Dumki and Trombity...

Post-summer holiday note: ul. Kórnicka has had speed bumps installed. Good. This will slow down the rat-runners, who, frustrated at the speed bumps on ul. Trombity, would accelerate as soon as they get round the corner. This new feature means that for the Piaseczno rat-running community (on their WPI plates) there's now no stretch of flat asphalt on the backroads running parallel to choked-up ul. Puławska. Only trouble is, there's no alternative and the public transport's inadequate.

Coming into land from the east

Strong westerlies when flying from the UK to Warsaw mean two things: one - a quicker flight home, as the plane has a good tailwind, and two - an unusual approach to Okęcie airport. Rather than Runway 33, used for landing into the prevailing north-westerlies, we landed on Runway 29. So instead of flying over Piaseczno and Jeziorki, we came in over Konstancin and Ursynów. Right: the Vistula east of Konstancin. Note the strips of land, ripe for organic produce, farmed by hand, and sold at high prices to the supermarkets of the West.

Below: Ursynów and the Las Kabacki forest. In the foreground, the upmarket Kabaty district. When I first visited it in April 1993 with Moni (then aged two), this literally was all fields. I wondered why the Warsaw Metro bothered going out this far. Now, it's all built up. Between Kabaty and the forest is the Metro depot, acting as a natural barrier to developers. But all round the forest, land is being nibbled away. Despite being protected by law, the Las Kabacki, 900 hectares of it, will shrink over the coming decades. Yet Ursynów needs all of this forest if it to stay sane.

Below: flying over the Warsaw-Radom railway line. In the foreground the new viaduct linking Okęcie with Ursynów. In the distance, one can just make out the headlamps of a coal train heading towards the Okęcie sidings in the foreground.

This time last year:
Where am I? In the village
I must go down to the sea again

Friday, 8 August 2008

St Pancras - new gateway to London

I find myself passing through St Pancras station frequently these days. The trains from Luton Airport now stop here (now that King's Cross Thameslink has been closed), the Midland Mainline service to Derby, near to where my brother lives, is cheap (if booked ahead) and fast. St Pancras itself was reopened after a long refurbishment, and what a wonderful station it is, eclipsing Paddington as London's finest terminus. From here, trains rush off to the Midlands and the North, and (on the left) the Eurostar service runs to Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel at speeds that beat flying for city centre-to-city centre journeys.

The detail is exquisite. The Victorian rail magnates were people who understood a profit and loss account yet also knew the importance of fine architecture. None of the ersatz shoddiness of Warszawa Centralna for them. Like the Gothic cathedrals it was inspired by, St Pancras will stand for centuries. Warm brick, cast iron and glass come together to form a magnificent and functional structure.

Below: A fitting tribute to the man who saved St Pancras from demolition in the 1960s, Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, and my favourite poet. The statue captures the essence of the man admirably - raincoat, bag and trilby hat, head raised in wonder at the Victorian temple to steam. Around to the left is the Betjeman Arms (a questionable name, as Sir John's industrialist father hailed from Germany), yet the atmosphere is nice enough to spend some while waiting for your train. Quotes from the former Poet Laureate line the corridor walls.

Seeing me reading the lines of poetry prompted a member of the bar staff to offer me a selection of Sir John's poems printed specially for the opening of the Betjeman Arms earlier this year, a very nice gesture that shall ensure my return. The food was reasonably priced and unfussy, and there was a summer cider festival taking place with a number of excellent ciders (unavailable in Poland) available on tap.

And so, on time, my train departs for Derby. Modern efficiency coexisting with the timeless magnificence of fine architecture.

This time last year: