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August 17 2012

Written in stone: the UK's best historic towns

TV historian Dan Cruickshank picks beautiful towns around the UK noted for their historic architecture and the tales they tell of life down the centuries

Our historic towns are a precious cultural treasure. I've been exploring them for decades, extracting secrets about the ways people built, lived, toiled and took their pleasures through the generations.

A particular joy is the great diversity in the building materials and methods with which towns were built. Within a few miles the very nature of the settlements can change, depending on available materials. So you find brick in much of south-east England, timber in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, limestone in Somerset and the Cotswolds, sandstone in Cumberland, and granite in much of Cornwall and Scotland. Architectural and building styles also change, evolve and survive in a most charming way, to give each town its own vernacular character.

The most beautiful and best- preserved of our historic towns are well-known, and rightly so, but one of the wonders of these islands is that many fascinating places are taken for granted or overlooked. Ludlow in Shropshire is a perfect example: rising on a plateau above the river Teme on the border of England and Wales, it was a frontier town and fortified with wall, gates and a mighty castle.

It was also a market town, so it has a long wide market square and a "shambles" of alleys once home to victuallers and butchers. But best of all is its glorious mix of building materials and styles. You find 16th- and early-17th-century timber-framed structures with late Gothic or Renaissance details – such as the Feathers Inn – jostling with sedate brick-built Georgian houses. A stroll through the city gate and up Broad Street – lined with the mansions of long-forgotten rural grandees – is a great urban experience.

Frome, in Somerset, is very different. It is primarily a limestone town, its houses built of square ashlar blocks or coursed rubble rendered with lime. Its golden age was in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it flourished as a market and coaching town and a centre for the wool industry. The old weavers' quarter, called the Trinity, dates from the late 17th century and incorporates charming and pioneering industrial housing. It was almost swept away in the 1970s but, at the 11th hour, enough was saved to remind us of what had been, and give extra character to this most rewarding town.

As with all the best towns, the pleasure of a walk through Frome is far more than the sum of its parts. The spaces, the sustained streets, the sinuous forms, the vistas framed and enclosed, the surprise as corners are turned and amazing buildings or compositions emerge, offer great aesthetic thrills. There is Cheap Street – lined with early buildings, steep, paved and with a central gutter or "canal", once a common feature in our towns and cities – the steep and cobbled Catherine Hill, Stony Street and Gentle Street with their generous Georgian houses, and the astonishing temple-like early 18th-century Rook Street Chapel.

For urban brick at its best, explore Blandford Forum in Dorset. Here the town centre, destroyed by fire in 1731, was soon rebuilt in a splendid English baroque manner by equally splendidly named local builders the Bastard brothers. The bricks are of superb quality and colour, and the way they are laid and detailed displays superlative craftsmanship and deep sensibility. Add to this the Bastards' eye for baroque styling, particularly fashionable in the West Country: facades articulated with pilasters and dressed with details inspired by the work of Borromini in Rome.

It's all amazing, and organised around a splendid baroque parish church, also designed by the Bastards. This heady combination of grand church and swaggering houses gives this little town the architectural sophistication and, at moments, the presence of a great city.

For yet greater 18th-century architectural and metropolitan sophistication in a smallish town, visit Stamford in Lincolnshire. Here all is stone-built – to the highest quality – and baroque in spirit. The building types – theatre, assembly room and elegant shops as well as large terraced houses – act as reminders that provincial towns were once the centres of their own world, places of culture, sophistication, fashion and local pride.

A walk through the streets of Stamford today offers striking contrasts. There is wonderful 18th-century architecture – the memorable George Hotel on St Martin's offers a vivid vignette of the glorious age of coach travel – and there are the more commercial streets, now too often strewn with litter and lined with bland shopfronts and chain stores.

In Wales the coastal town of Tenby, with its nearly complete late-13th-century walls, was created as a fortified redoubt of English and Flemish settlers and merchants within Wales. Much survives of this period, but there is also evidence of the town's brief time as a resort for the early-19th-century novelty of therapeutic sea-bathing. So elegant walks look onto splendid beaches that were once part of the town's medieval defences and by the Regency period were picturesque attributes of a fashionable pleasure.

Among defensible towns, little can compete with Berwick-upon-Tweed, the long-disputed border town between Scotland and England. It has Britain's only complete set of 16th-century town defences, and within these the town is mostly Georgian, including a sprawling early-18th-century barracks designed in bold and masculine baroque manner by Sir John Vanbrugh's Office of Works.

One of my favourite towns, and one often overlooked, is Armagh in Northern Ireland. Its two cathedrals, both dedicated to St Patrick – one medieval and Protestant, the other mid-19th-century and Catholic – eye each other from high ground at either end of Armagh. Because of the cathedrals and its administrative importance, Armagh was made a city in 1994, one of the UK's smallest. Both cathedrals are remarkable – the Protestant one largely because of its glorious monuments, the Catholic one because of its astonishingly ornate and colourful Gothic Revival architecture.

But for me the great glory of Armagh is its domestic and civic architecture, much of it Georgian and the legacy of an enlightened late-18th-century Protestant cleric, Archbishop Richard Robinson. He gave the town a number of buildings of fine design that express admirable and civilised virtues, including a handsome neo-classical public library, built in 1771, and an observatory, built in 1790.

More visually thrilling are the streets: the park-like Mall, lined on one side with splendid late-Georgian houses, and, best of all, the terrace on Vicars Hill, by the Protestant cathedral. The house facades have no ostentatious detail: the doors are simply marked with blocks of stone, the windows no more than holes punched in the rendered wall. But what holes! In their proportions and relationships they reflect classical design stretching back to the Renaissance, Rome and beyond. In their humility and self-effacing beauty, they are emblematic of all that is best about UK architecture.

Dan Cruickshank presents BBC2's The Country House Revealed, and Brick by Brick: Rebuilding Our Past


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August 08 2012

London street photography walk

A new guided walk of east London includes a hands-on photography lesson – and lunch thrown in – all for £30

"Always treat a jar of gherkins like a person." This eccentric piece of photography advice, from Eleanor Church of Fox&Squirrel Lifestyle Walks, struck me as deeply profound. At last: the key to taking great pictures! In hindsight, I may have got a little carried away, but at least it was a good reminder to get up close and personal with your subject, however banal it may at first seem.

In fact, that was one of the main lessons I learned on a street photography walk in east London: anything can make a good picture. What might seem meaningless now could be of interest to future social historians. (OK, it's unlikely that anyone will write a thesis on the Pickled Foods of Early 21st-Century Britain, but you never know.)

I took the pickle picture as part of a warm-up exercise at the start of the walk. Over coffee and a chat with Eleanor at Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch, one of London's excellent New Zealand-owned coffee shops, I was told to pick a colour (I chose green). The walk began on Brick Lane, where I had to take photographs of anything as long as it was green. Eleanor advised me to keep an open mind and be – or at least act – confident.

I felt a little nervous aiming my camera at assorted shoppers, cyclists and street sweepers, but most didn't seem to mind. Street photography is so common now, thanks to the ubiquity of cameraphones, that no one bats an eyelid. And in this part of London, half the population choose their outfits with "street style" photographers in mind. I was soon snapping every green object in sight: shop fronts, shoes, bikes, sunglasses ...

When we went through my shots, any embarrassment I felt at having an award-winning photographer and documentary-maker looking at my out-of-focus snap of a woman in green trousers soon dissipated. Eleanor was positive and encouraging about every photo, even finding something to praise in the most prosaic picture of a green door, and making gentle suggestions of how each could be made "even better".

I was on a private preview of the walk, a new one for Fox&Squirrel – they also run art, fashion and vintage walks – so I had Eleanor all to myself, which probably meant I got more detailed feedback on my photographs than the average customer. Usually there will be a group of up to eight with one guide, or up to 12 with two, and people will be encouraged to critique each other's photographs. At lunch, the guide – either Eleanor or Stuart Beesley, another professional photographer – will give feedback on each person's pictures. That kind of personal attention usually commands a premium, so this walk is remarkably good value for £30, especially as lunch is included.

Eleanor stressed that the experience is a guided walk, not a photography lesson, but I found I was focused entirely on finding photo opportunities rather than enjoying the stroll. I picked up lots of useful photography tips, but I didn't really learn anything new about London, as you might expect to on a city walk. On the other hand, I noticed things that I would usually stride right past: a sculpture of a crushed car high above my head; a clump of grass pushing through a sea of concrete; a cyclist with six baguettes poking out of his rucksack.

These details were important in the next exercise in and around Spitalfields, which was all about capturing a moment and telling a story. This was a lot harder than just photographing anything green. At the end of the segment I felt I'd done badly (not that it was a test). But actually my favourite shot of the day, of an elderly woman at a tea dance I stumbled across (pictured below), was taken during this exercise. It just goes to show that you have to take a lot of bad photographs to get one (relatively) good one.

After lunch at the Barbican's Foodhall, a modern cafe with light installations and tables out on the terrace next to the lake, my next brief was to use the arts centre's brutalist architecture as a stage for photographs. I tried to implement the things I'd learned: symmetry, the rule of thirds, straight lines, light and shade, colour, detail. The end results weren't exactly thrilling, but I felt I was starting to frame my shots with more purpose.

The walk usually ends with a photoshoot at King's Cross St Pancras, but Eleanor had been warned by a police officer that anyone taking pictures at a train station during the Olympics would have their camera confiscated and destroyed. On balance, we decided to skip that part.

A bonus feature of the walk is the aftercare: Fox&Squirrel send out instructions on editing your pictures for maximum impact, and there is a Flickr group to add to as you practise what you've learned. For as Eleanor says, good street photography ultimately comes down to a little bit of luck – and a lot of practice.

The three-and-a-half-hour guided walk was provided by Fox&Squirrel (foxandsquirrel.com); it costs £30pp, including coffee and lunch. Next walks on 11 and 15 August. Suitable for smartphone cameras, compact cameras or SLRs; lomography walks also available


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November 14 2010

Great sculpture parks and trails

From life-sized elephants to figures hanging from the trees above you, England's sculpture parks and trails make for an enlightening winter walk. Here are 10 of the best

The vast number of sculpture parks and trails around England seems to be one of the nation's best-kept secrets. Scattered across the country, they offer a wide variety of artworks to be enjoyed outdoors and the general ambience and landscape of each is uniquely different. They are also a great way to encourage the enjoyment of art for children who might otherwise rebel at being taken to a gallery. Best of all, many are free. The ones selected here remain open all year so you can enjoy them with the end of the autumn colours, and even in the snow.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Is this the best sculpture park in England? Probably. The park has pieces by many internationally famous artists, including Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Antony Gormley. A huge variety of work is permanently scattered throughout the grounds, while exhibitions in the galleries also spill out into the landscape (currently David Nash until the end of February). It gives a perfect overview of British sculpture in the 20th century and is set in lovely scenery with sweeping views towards the lake and sheep grazing around the plinths of huge Henry Moore sculptures. Seeing everything is exhausting (allow at least five hours), especially if you walk to the Longside Gallery, but be sure to spare time for Skyspace by James Turrell, a hidden chamber with an Egyptian feel. Details West Bretton, Wakefield, 01924 832 631; ysp.co.uk. Opening times: grounds and centre, all year, 10am-6pm (Longside gallery 11am-4pm). Admission free (donations only), car parking £4. Facilities: toilets, cafe, shop, galleries.

New Art Centre, Wiltshire

An impressive list of artists have shown their work here over the past 17 years including William Turnbull, Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon and Anthony Caro. There are also always a few pieces by Barbara Hepworth on display, but most of her work is only here temporarily, usually for several months. The sculptures are shown in beautiful grounds (allow about an hour and a half to see everything). The map leads you through the carefully planted gardens, over a stile and down to the bottom of a big field (Barry Flanagan's Acrobats is permanent and worth the walk), and then back by a small wooded area. The house is sometimes shut, but maps are left on the shelf on the porch.

Details Roche Court, East Winterslow, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 01980 862 244; sculpture.uk.com. Open daily all year, 11am-4pm. Admission free (donations welcome).

Kielder Water and Forest Park, Northumberland

Some 22 sculptures are scattered along a 27-mile forest trail around a lake – and are best seen by those who love walking. Fortunately, the sculptures are often grouped together so, using your map, choose a few, drive to the nearest car park and walk from there. With kids, visit the Minotaur Maze, the Play Garden or the sculpture trail called the Kielder Keepsake. You can buy a Keepsake pack from one of the visitor centres (£4.99) and follow the trail to find 12 brass plates. Make a rubbing of each one to produce your own souvenir book. The trail is only two miles but can take hours to complete as you have to hunt for the plates. Other sculptures worth a hike for are Belvedere, Skyspace by James Turrell or, on a sunny day, Mirage (silver discs hanging from a tree) and Wave Chamber (a huge stone camera obscura).

Details Kielder, Northumberland, 01434 220 616; visitkielder.com/site/things-to-do/art-and-architecture. Leaplish visitor centre is open daily Feb-Dec, 01434 251 000. Kielder Castle visitor centre open Nov-Dec, Sat and Sun, 11am-4pm, then Apr-Nov, daily 10am-5pm. Tower Knowe visitor centre open Jan-Oct, daily 10am-4pm. Admission free; car parking £3, which covers any of the car parks.

Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, Cheshire

This crumbling monastery is a well-hidden retreat from the modern world. The sculpture does vary in quality, but the gardens are gorgeous, with little bridges over the stream, grassy areas by the river and part of the grounds are covered by woodland. The trail is an on-going project which has been some 20 years in the making, and is set in 38 acres. Allow about two hours plus to see all the sculptures, about four of which are in the walled garden. Be sure to see Kitty's Gate, inspired by a story about a maid who drowned herself in the pond. Most of the other sculptures are very colourful, such as Planthead by Diane Gorvin in the rhododendron bushes, her face framed by sculpted and natural leaves.

Details Tudor Road, Manor Park, Runcorn, Cheshire, 01928 569 895; nortonpriory.org. Admission: adults £6.25, children £4.40, under-5s free. Family £15.25. Open daily in winter, 10am-4pm (walled garden shut), and summer, 10am-5pm. Shut: 24-26 Dec and the first two weeks of Jan. Facilities: toilets, cafe.

Burghley House and Gardens, Lincolnshire

The sculpture garden is separate from the Garden of Surprises, which is in a smaller courtyard and has lots of exciting water features. The sculpture garden is spread throughout the original gardens of the house. The sculptures are carefully sited to make the most of the beautiful lake, old open-air theatre and grounds. There are about 20 permanent pieces and the walk takes about an hour and a half. From April to October there is also a temporary exhibition. Be sure to see Balance by Sophie Dickens, three life-size figures balancing above you on the branch of a tree – easy to miss among the leaves in spring. Vertical Face is a giant rust-coloured face made from small pieces of steel that has great presence and drama.

Details Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire, 01780 752451; burghley.co.uk. Open (gardens only) 11am-5pm daily. Admission free in winter. From 20 Mar-31 Oct, £6.70 adults, £3.40 children (includes Garden of Surprises). Facilities: toilets, garden cafe (11am-5pm in season).

Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, Gloucestershire

This is one of the oldest trails in England which is befitting of an ancient royal forest. The trail is 3.5 miles long and begins at Beechenhurst Lodge. It follows a circular path that starts with the enormous and iconic Place, a giant chair. Do not be tempted to stray too far from the signposted path as the forest is huge. The trail takes up to three hours, with about 20 sculptures along the way. The map helps you find the larger sculptures which are hidden just off the path. These sculptures are all permanent and some are a little worn. Be sure not to miss Cathedral, a giant stained-glass window suspended in the trees, David Nash's Fire and Water Boats, and the tall and skinny House by Miles Davies.

Details Beechenhurst Lodge, Coleford, Gloucestershire, 01594 822 612; forestofdean-sculpture.org.uk. Open daily Nov-Mar, 10am-4pm, Easter-Oct, 10am-6pm. Shut Christmas Day. Admission free, car parking £3, map £1.25. Facilities: cafe, toilets, shop.

The Pride of the Valley Sculpture Park, Surrey

This park is opposite a very nice pub, also called the Pride of the Valley, which means you can easily include lunch in your visit. The park has an enormous number of sculptures (at the moment there are more than 180, including Rolling Horse by Lucy Kinsella, Speed Skaters by Michael Marriott and Adolph Hitler or Mother Theresa by Wilfred Pritchard) squeezed into a small area. It has a varied landscape, with a lake, woodland areas and intimate clearings. Start from the office which is inside the actual park. There are several routes, the longest being about a mile and a half which will take most people up to two hours to complete. Some areas of the gardens look a little unkempt, but there is an amazing and eclectic mix of sculptures to see at every turn, including some life-size circus elephants.

Details Jumps Road, Farnham, Surrey, 01428 605 453; thesculpturepark.com. Open daily apart from Christmas Day. Admission: adults £6, children £3, under-5s free.

Another Place, Crosby Beach, Merseyside

Another Place is an installation of life-size figures by Antony Gormley. About 100 cast-iron figures which gaze out to sea are scattered along a mile of beach. Are they watching the horizon for the arrival of something? Or quietly trying to leave? If you want to get up close you'll need wellies unless you get lucky with the tide (officially you are advised to stay back). Gradually the figures are changing – their varying encasement in barnacles and seaweed only adds to their beauty as they are gradually claimed by the sea.

Details Off the A565, follow signs to Crosby beach or Another Place. Nearest rail stations are Blundellsands or Hall Road, and then a 10-minute walk. Detailed directions can be found at tiny.cc/pi35t. Facilities: toilets and seasonal mobile catering.

Grizedale Forest Park, Cumbria

Grizedale boasts about 80 sculptures, spread out over 6,000 acres, making it impossible to see everything in one visit. Some of the work has softened with time (a few pieces have been here for 26 years) and almost disappeared into the forest – you often have to venture into the trees to find things. Some pieces have benefitted from the weathering process, such as Some Fern by Kerry Morrison, an enormous fern-like carving that has blended into the bracken around it. A map is essential and shows a variety of trails graded by length and difficulty – from the shortest with the most sculptures (one mile) to the longest of 9.5 miles.

Details Hawkshead, Ambleside, Cumbria, 01229 860 010; forestry.gov.uk/grizedale. Open daily in winter, 10am-4pm (shut 23 Dec-2 Jan), and in summer 10am-5pm. Admission free, car parking £3, map £1.50 or catalogue £3.95. Facilities: toilets, cafe, shop.

Broomhill Art Hotel and Sculpture Garden, Devon

The sculpture garden is attached to the hotel so combine your visit with lunch, a cream tea, or an overnight stay. The gardens have 300 sculptures set in 10 acres of land. The hotel is at the top of a steep hill and the paths wind down through various levels of woodland to the peaceful river below. The sculpture is from a wide spectrum of artists – more than 60 sculptors in all – with many bronzes and figurative works. The top terrace is the most open and flat area, with many small sculptures dotted throughout. The lower levels feature the larger and more dramatic pieces.

Details Muddiford Road, Barnstaple, North Devon, 01271 850 262; broomhillart.co.uk. Open daily, 11am-4pm, shut 20 Dec -15 Jan. Admission: adults £4.50, children £2.50, family £10. Facilities: toilets, restaurant, indoor gallery and hotel.

• Sculpture Parks and Trails of England by Alison Stace is published by A&C Black, price £15.99. Buy it from the Guardian Bookshop


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