Sunday, 29 June 2014

Down the line from York

While I got to Ripon quite easily by air (Warsaw-Heathrow-Leeds), getting back was troublesome, given that there were no connecting flights from Leeds to Warsaw on a Saturday, either via Heathrow or Amsterdam or indeed Paris (thanks to a strike). So I took the train down to London from York, taking a bus from Ripon to Harrogate, thence a train on to York.

Warming to Yorkshire for its landscapes, friendly folk and rich history, I took the opportunity to catch an earlier train to York and spend an hour wandering around the city (which I'd never been to before).

Alighting at York station, I marvelled at the vaulted, cast-iron roof over curved platforms (below). When opened in 1877, this was the world's largest railway station. Today it still impresses.

Below: the New Measurement Train (the only one in Britain), nicknamed the 'Flying Banana'. It is stuffed with measuring equipment of the latest sort, lasers, what have you, and as it trundles up and down the railway lines of Britain at speeds of up to 125 mph (200 kmh) testing the railway infrastructure. And here it passing through York.

Below: Stepping out of the station towards the city centre, I'm struck by the skyline. Why, there it is - York Minster.

Below: I proceed further into town, looking up (the best views of historic British cities are above eye-level). To the left of the towers of York Minster, the Catholic church of St. Wilfred's built in 1869.

Below: gazing in awe at the Gothic splendour of York Minster - the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Taking nearly 400 years to complete, this is high Gothic (compare to the simplicity of Ripon Cathedral and its Early English architecture).

The church of St. Michael le Belfrey, next door to York Minister, also in spirit of the Tour de France, the second stage of which starts in York next Sunday (6 July).

Below: three more yellow bikes decorate the lawns on Duncombe Place. Like Harrogate and Ripon, York has been filled with yellow bicycles, yellow, green and polka-dot knitted jerseys and indeed French flags.

This beautifully customised Ford Popular, aptly on Museum St. The Popular was the most-basic Ford, in production until 1959 and a great favourite for customisers who could shove a V8 engine in front and Jaguar independent suspension. Its retro style (even for the late '50s!) made it the perfect hot-rod.

Below: the bus driver waited patiently for the geese to cross the road. The nearby Memorial Gardens is home to around 500 Canada and Greylag geese. They are totally unafraid of humans or their devices, and stroll about as if they owned the place.

York is a walled city, a proper mediaeval fortress town; the walls served a military purpose and are not some faux Victorian decoration. Below: the section of the city walls between the River Ouse and the railway station. Can you spot two more yellow bikes in this picture?

Below: back at the station with a few minutes before my train is due. Time to pop into the York Tap for a chance to sample a Great Heck beer - in this case, a Shankar IPA. Superbly hoppy, bitter and refreshing.

My train left at eleven am, less than two hours later I'm in London, some 200 miles/300km away. A superb service. And once in London, across town by Piccadilly line, and I'm back at Heathrow Airport in under and hour.

This time last year:
Czester and his sister

This time three years ago:
The Cold Weather Guys - a short story

This time four years ago:
Bike ride along the banks of the Vistula

This time five years ago:
Three hill walks around Dobra

This time six years ago:
90th Anniversary of the Polish Navy

This time seven years ago:
Memory and comfort

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Yorkshire's smallest city

Yorkshire is a very specific county. God's Own County. The Texas of England. A county so big, it has to be divided into four administrative areas (North, South, West and East Ridings). Its biggest cities are Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Hull, York. Ten times smaller than York is Ripon, a city by virtue of its 12th Century cathedral. A jewel of a city in a county with attractions enough to fill an average-sized nation.

Ripon is worth a visit. Fly to Leeds-Bradford Airport, then take the number 36 bus to the end of the line. Ripon is, of course, a walking city; and a spa. That's 'spa'. Not 'SPA' or 'S.P.A.'. 'Spa' as in 'Bath Spa', 'Royal Leamington Spa' or 'Harrogate Spa'. Or indeed 'Francorchamps Spa'. But never all upper-case.

Below: the western elevation of Ripon Cathedral. Built on the site of an earlier church, work on the cathedral commenced in 1069, just three years after the Norman Conquest. A plain facade, an example of Early English (after Romanesque, before Gothic).

Below: Ripon is a market town, market day's on Thursday. Overlooking the marketplace is the town hall. The quote comes from Psalms 127:1 - unless the Lord watches over the city, the Wakeman (the title of Ripon's mayor before 1604) stays awake in vain. Each day at 9pm, the Ripon Hornblower blows the ceremonial horn; until dawn keeping the peace in the city was the responsibility of the Wakeman. If there was any crime in Ripon as the city slept, the Wakeman would be held financially responsible. Note the two yellow bikes attached to the railings on the first floor.

Below: in the marketplace, the historic Century cabmen's shelter, built in 1911 by Boulton & Paul of Norwich (who just 26 years later were manufacturing the Defiant fighter plane that fought in the Battle of Britain). Traditional red telephone boxed have been retained on the market place.

Below: another period piece in the marketplace - part of the celebration of Armed Forces Day (28 June), a WWII vintage Jeep stands in front of the Hawksmoor-designed obelisk in the centre of the square.

Below: between the market place and the cathedral runs a steep hill, home to many shops, bars and restaurants. Turn left, along Kirkgate, for the cathedral, carry on right for Duck Hill.

Below: to the west of the market square, is Westgate, leading to the more recent, Victorian-Edwardian, part of town.

Below: Victorian shops on North St. Coming off it - Allhallowgate, yet another street with 'gate' in the name - along with Blossomgate and Fishergate.

Below: a row of Victorian terraced cottages on Church Lane. Housing emblematic of Brictorian Britain.

The Edwardian baths and swimming pool, dating back to 1904. Ripon Spa, drawing on sulphurous waters from a nearby spring, has come and gone (closing in 1947). The name remains in the hotel in which I stayed - a charming, atmospheric place, but with gaps in the windows wide enough to slip a finger through, I'd not recommend the Ripon Spa Hotel for a winter break.

Ripon has a canal - the Ripon Canal. Below: an idyllic scene, taken from the towpath towards the Rhodesfield Lock. Opened in 1773, the 2.3 mile-long canal connected the city with the River Ure, allowing coal from Durham to be brought in by barge.

Below: the end of the Ripon Canal, terminating in a small basin just large enough to turn a barge around in. Can you spot a yellow bicycle in the picture?

Left: the stables and paddock at Ripon racecourse. The horses are led out of the stables to be paraded around the paddock, where punters can examine the form of their chosen bet from close up. Although horse-racing in Ripon dates back to the 17th Century, and Ripon saw the first ever horse-race for women jockeys (1723), this course was only opened in 1900. Ripon is one of eight racecourses in Yorkshire (out of 57 in Britain). It was the venue for the conference at which I was speaking.

Yorkshire is rich in tourist delights, and visitors will find a vast amount to see and do, whatever the weather (I had three days of light rain and drizzle).

Yorkshire's yellow bicycles

This time next week, for the first time ever, the world's greatest, most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France starts - in Yorkshire. For two days (5-6 July), Yorkshire will see the tremendous spectacle on its doorstep. And the county is celebrating this event in a unique and memorable way.

For the past three days I've been in Yorkshire, flying into Leeds Bradford Airport, travelling on to Harrogate and thence to Ripon (a city, on account of its cathedral). Ripon is a charming place, and will see Le Tour passing through next Saturday. All along the route, yellow bicycles have been popping up.

Yorkshire has always been mad keen on cycling since Victorian days. The Yorkshire Dales are best seen from the saddle rather than from inside a car, and you can cover more ground on than on foot. Cycle culture and scenery made Yorkshire a natural venue for an English start for the race.

Below: just outside Harrogate - a town that will see the Tour go through it on both days. Yellow is the colour of the race leader's jersey (the King of the Mountains wears a red-on-white polka dot jersey, the green jersey is for the Tour's best sprinter). Rows of knitted small yellow, green and polka-dot decorate premises along the route.

Left: printing on a yellow T-shirt - the route of the first stage of the Tour de France 2014. The second stage starts in York and ends in Sheffield.

Below: 'Watch England live here' - I'm sure the cycling will prove more interesting for the locals than the football was. With two British cyclists winning the Tour de France in the last two races, hopes for a hat-trick run high.

Below: the roof of The Navigation, a charming Victorian pub at the end of the Ripon Canal. Bricktorian Britain at its best. The bike did the trick - I popped in for a pint of Theakston's.

Below: bricks, slate, chimney pots and drizzle - and a ray of sunshine. Life is made brighter by the arrival of Le Tour.

Below: the entrance to Ripon race course, a third yellow bicycle out of site. The race course's green acres are being turned over to camping and caravans for the weekend. The bike in the foreground is a lovely 1950s Raleigh roadster with drop handlebars and a three-speed Sturmey Archer hub. I hope this bike finds an owner willing to bring it back to its former glory.

Below: the hotel I'm staying at gets into the Tour spirit. Note to my Polish readers - the word 'Spa' is a word, not an acronym, so 'SPA' in all upper-case is incorrect usage.

The road between Harrogate and Ripon will be closed next weekend. French flags are already flying - despite Britain's inability to stop the federaliser Juncker becoming the EU's next president, there's a sense of a welcoming, friendly Euro-enthusiasm around at odds with Yorkshire's famed insularity.

In Ripon itself, shops have been vying with one another as to who has the most inventive display. A crocheted bike, a crepe paper bike - but my vote goes for this skeletal cyclist in the window of a Ripon osteopathist (below). Note the yellow, polka-dot and green jerseys.

Below: a hipster's Amsterdamka with lovely period chainguard - again, I hope this bike finds a new user after the Tour has moved on.

Below: not just bicycles - a little tricycle with flower-basket adorns the front of a house on the Harrogate-Ripon road.

Below: frog and yellow scooter. Is there no end to the inventiveness of Yorkshire folk? One I didn't manage to snap from the bus from Harrogate was a yellow bike with its front forks replaced with a lawnmower.

Left: Brewery Timothy Taylors's has produced a special ale for the occasion, Le Champion. I tried a pint at the Royal Oak - I must say, I prefer the brewery's Landlord (Le Champion being a bit too sweet for my taste). The 'Cask Marque' concept is about getting smaller breweries' products into the bars of mainstream pubs. Poland could do with something like this - there are still too many bars where the choice of beers is limited to the big brewers' products (Tyskie, Lech and Żywiec).

If like me, you crave the taste of hops in your beer, try the locally brewed Shankar from Great Heck Brewery. Outstanding - gives my currrent British fave Brew Dog's Punk IPA a run for its money.

Below: another pub, another yellow bicycle: the King William IV.

Left: another two yellow bikes in Ripon. The Tour shows just how much sporting events can enliven an entire region. Not a stadium-based event, the Tour will bring an estimated three million people spread over hundreds of miles of public roads to see the three English stages. This is great for Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and London, for the businesses along the route, and for Europe. This quintessentially French sporting event will don an English flavour this year from the start, a century after the outbreak of WWI. And fingers crossed for another British victory!

This time last year:
Cramp in the night

This time two years ago:
Football goes home

This time three years ago:
Birds of Omen

This time four years ago:
Yes, it does matter who you vote for

This time five years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time six years ago:
Warmth of the Sun
- the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time seven years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


Things have been going well for Poland these past few years, the country has been in self-congratulatory mood as it celebrated ten years in the EU, and 25 years since the partially-free elections that ushered in the end of communism. The economy continues to rebound strongly from a slow-down (there was no recession in Poland - the economy just kept on growing, albeit at a slower pace) - and then this had to happen. To quote biker Vance (a young Willem Dafoe) from Katherine Bigelow's first movie The Loveless, "...things could be goin' jake one minute, then, presto - before you know it, you're history".

Complacency breeds sloppy behaviour. The release of bugged private conversations between leading Polish politicians, published in the weekly Wprost,  has been a shock to the entire nation, and to the political elite in particular.

Not wishing to go into the content of the conversations, I must say that I was genuinely shocked at the foul language used by politicians I'd hitherto considered gentlemen. People like Jacek Rostowski, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and Radek Sikorski, all of whom I'd met many years before they first entered government. Swearing like a żul lowers a statesman on the level of Pan Heniek outside the sklep spożywczy, barely coherent after his third can of Warka Pstrąg.

Swearing is excusable if you lose your temper - though loss of composure is hardly statesmanlike behaviour. Swearing is excusable if used humorously in a light-hearted context. But use of foul language-as-punctuation-marks either shows a lack of brain-power and vocabulary (not the case with Messrs Sikorski, Rostowski or Sienkiewicz), or else it reveals an immature, insecure macho swagger. I can excuse boorish politicians - President Lyndon B. Johnson on the toilet, trousers round his ankles, yelling obscenities at his aides, demonstrating his Texan swagger - or indeed Polish politicians not too distantly removed from the soil (the late A. Lepper). But well-educated men, scions of noble families - hearing them use such language disappointed me greatly. I felt let down by them.

That's what shocked me most about the tapes. In second place, the fact that this procession of political figures would troop into a well-known restaurant and speak in total frankness, unconcerned by the possibility that their conversations could easily be bugged.

However, with the exception of Slawomir Nowak, rightly-ousted infrastructure minister, trying to wriggle out of some marital tax-avoidance issue, the recordings did not show men trying to enrich themselves at the expense of the state, nor any outright corruption. Rather, the tapes revealed hardball politics in action; men trying to bend public policy in a direction that they genuinely felt was of greater benefit to Poland, though doing so using foul, aggressive language.

The real issue is who was behind the bugging, and the question of whether a newspaper editor should put public good ahead of short-term boost to circulation.

In terms of who's carried out the bugging, and at whose bequest - the first arrests have been made. But two interesting English-language articles are worth reading, published shortly before the ABW stepped in: from the Financial Times, this piece is good. But this piece, from the Swedish-owned Puls Biznesu, is, I believe, so much better. Neither, however, point the finger at the men who were arrested this morning.

The latter article makes the connection between a restaurant that closed because the Polish secret services believed it was linked to Russian spies, and the restaurant in which the bugging took place. The link - an employee of the former place who was working at the latter place. Worth reading.

This afera will go down in Polish history. If one person has come out of it well, it's premier Donald Tusk. His performance at the press conference on the morning of Corpus Christi, his decision to call a no-confidence motion in his own government show high levels of true statesmanship, contrasting with the hypocrisy of those in the opposition baying for the downfall of the government for whatever reason.

This time last year:
Where's the beef? Fillet steak in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time three years ago:
Literature and biology

This time six years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time seven years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high

Monday, 23 June 2014

Local news

Nine and half months after the first signs that Jeziorki is about to get a Biedronka store, here it comes. Due on Thursday, officially announced at last. Below: appearing on ul. Karczunkowska, a banner proclaiming the new shop will open on Thursday 26 June. (Can't make the opening, guys, I'm flying to Yorkshire.)

Soon the car park will be full (the number of potential shoppers within walking range of the shop is no more than a hundred or so). But today, the shop's shelves are being filled with product. Known for being the second-cheapest chain in Poland after the all-conquering Auchan (fabulous range, quality and low prices), Portuguese-owned Biedronka has a good reputation for Portuguese wines. Anything else? We'll see.

The presence of a Lidl one-third of the way between home and Auchan has not changed my preference for the latter. Lidl is good for a) Biernacki 'Beefmaster' steaks, b) healthy, unbleached, uncoloured toilet paper, c) 25cl bottles of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (good feldalkohol) d) Balcerzak's Most excellent kiełbasa polska surowa długodojrzewająca, e) a wide variety of interesting offers, none of which are ever repeated (pair of non-matching cycling gloves, 1zł.). By this time next week, I'll be able to tell you what I think about Biedronka. It is, after all, in terms of turnover and number of stores, Poland's no. 1 retailer, ahead of Tesco.

Above: locals are puzzled by this new and mysterious zebra crossing. It links two dirt tracks, which become impassable in winter and during wet spells. What do we want? A PAVEMENT FOR KARCZUNKOWSKA. When do we want it? NOW!!! Even more mysteriously, there's a sign proclaiming the end of a cycle path, where no cycle path has been provided.

Other news: at the far end of Karczunkowska, where it meets ul. Puławska, a new billboard has popped up. It is large, and strategically positioned to be visible if you are in a traffic jam on one street or the other.

Warsaw's policy on large-format outdoor advertising is chaotic and controversial; personally, I'm not too fussed if the ads are well-presented and up-market. I can't abide bad design and poor choice of typeface.

Left: seen from a long way down Karczunkowska (photo taken with lens zoomed out to 300mm). In the morning rush hour (and on summer Sunday evenings too), traffic's backed up all the way to ul. Pozytywki or even Trombity, so drivers will get a good chance to look at the new billboard. I can't tell, however, whether it's on private land (on the corner of Puławska and Karmazynowa) or on the pavement owned by the city. Jeziorki is slowly changing, changing for the better, the more civilised. But while it's good to get new shops, tidier outdoor advertising - and Most important of all, town drains - the thing that's most sorely needed round here is pavements.

Below: if your lawn is disfigured by moles, apply Mr Dembo's special sauce. At the first sign of talpine activity - let 'em have it! A single application of ten litres, poured directly into the tunnel, should keep your lawn molehill-free for years.

Finally - if you live round these parts, you have until next week to vote in how Ursynów's Budżet Partycypacyjny for 2015 will be spent. This is a great, civilising initiative, setting aside a part of the city's budget for its citizens to come up with ideas for spending it. There are two directly related to Jeziorki - no. 28 (a nature trail along ul. Dumki) and no. 43 (a park next to the newly-renovated lakes). It's up to us to vote for them. Voting is easy and quick - you just need to know your PESEL number. Click here to vote!

This time last year:
New views of Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Motorway finally links (the outskirts of) Łódź and (the outskirts of) Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time six years ago:
Quintessential Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Along Warsaw's ul. Poznańska

Warsaw is becoming trendier by the day; new bars and restaurants are continually popping up - and unlike the unstable 1990s, the there's less of the 'creative destruction' whereby today's hippest hangout becomes a desert tomorrow and collapses the day after. Good places tend to stay and prosper and attract imitators.

Round the corner from my office is ul. Poznańska, a good example of Warsaw's trendification. Check it out on Google Maps; lots is happening here, especially around the junction with ul. Wilcza (where the Ganesh Indian restaurant has recently become Dwie Trzecie, a 'Mediterranean fusion' place). And two doors down ul. Wilcza is Jedna Trzecia, a multi-tap bar specialising in Belgian and Czech ales.

Today, craving some good hummus, I popped into Beirut on Poznańska, famously across the road from Tel Aviv (though you may be forgiven for not seeing the latter as the kamienica in which it is located is currently shrouded in dust-covers for a facelift). While the portions at Beirut are not large, nor the prices cheap, the food is tasty and the place - dead hip. With one wall covered with punk rock and New Wave LP covers (including - hey! The Lurker's Fulham Fallout and Robert Gordon's album recorded with Link Wray (I've been looking for this online for years) Beirut is sew hip.

Below: Beirut to the left, Tel Aviv across the road. The street indeed does have a non-Polish, Mediterranean flavour, shaded with acacia trees, pavements overrun with tables and chairs.

Below: the architecture is an eclectic mix of the brand-new, the new, the lovingly restored late 19th Century kamienice, and one place in a dreadful state (number 19). And everywhere a bar or restaurant to suit all tastes and pockets, from SmaczneGo to Delizia.

Below: a verse, written in felt-tip marker on a fibreboard panel boarding over a broken doorway. It rhymes, but does not scan particularly well, but it conveys the hipster character of the street:

On Poznańska
On Tuesday night
Some sweat
With fear.
As here, at no.14,
Beside the bin,
The parish priest
Meets the Devil.
They eat hummus in Tel Aviv
After which in Beirut
Over a beer
They play cards till dawn
For the barman's soul...

Old and new, rustic and urban, the changing face of Poland manifests itself on Poznańska.

A propos of religion, tomorrow is Corpus Christi. Unlike Christmas, Easter, or even Pentecost, I have no idea what this religious feast is about, or its meaning or significance. Still, a day off work (I have so much to do another Saturday in the office will be called for to compensate).

Once more to Liverpool

My third visit in a year to a British city that somehow avoided my attentions during the 40 years I lived in Britain. Liverpool is a exemplar of urban regeneration, in particular its waterfront. Low-cost flights from Okęcie (WizzAir) and Modlin (Ryanair) open up this city to Warsaw (and yet Edinburgh and Birmingham are not connected). Anyway, a great place to visit, although on business I had a couple of hours to stroll around in the sunshine.

Below: Liverpool's Three Graces (from left) - the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. They all date back to early 20th Century.

Below: close-up of one of the two Liver Birds - the one facing the River Mersey. The other faces the city. The legend of the 'mythical birds' only dates back to time the building was completed.

Below: between the Port of Liverpool Building (opened 1917, left) and Cunard Building (opened 10 years earlier, right), looking towards the Mersey. To the left of frame is part of the Mersey Queensway Tunnel's ventilation and control building, built in the mid-1930s in the Art Deco style with plenty of Egyptian motifs (fashionable at the time).

Below: the ventilation tower and control building. In front of it, a bus shelter flanked by lamp posts. A scene of civic pride - at the time it was opened, the 13-metre diameter Mersey Tunnel was the longest underwater tunnel in the world, a title it held for 24 years. Many Liverpudlians believe that the tower should be considered the 'Fourth Grace'.

Below: a decorative relief from one of the panels facing the tunnel entrance on New Quay, blending ancient Egyptian motifs with representations of modernity - speed, movement, electricity.

Art Deco came and went in less than two decades; by the end of WWII, it was old hat. Today, such architecture should be cherished.

This time last year:
What goes round comes around: retro is cool - again.

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?
[No, it was September 2013]

This time three years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time six years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

This time seven years ago:
Legoland, Dawidy Poduchowne