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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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July 27 2012

London's top five architecture walks

Check out 1,000 years of London's history written in stone, bricks, mortar and steel

Hackney Wick

To understand how the Olympics is changing London, rather than visiting the Olympic Park, walk around it – through Hackney Wick, Bow and the thrusting new landscape of Stratford. Start with coffee at the Hackney Pearl (11 Prince Edward Road, thehackneypearl.com), and the surreal sight of a tree growing in the middle of the road. Head past industrial goods yards and artists' studios. At White Post Lane drop into The White Building (thewhitebuilding.org.uk), London's newest arts centre. Since the towpath across the canal from here has been closed for the Games, pick your way through one of London's last light-industrial landscapes to Dace Road, where Bridget Riley and many others have turned these Victorian warehouses into an artists' enclave.

Smithfield

This is a taste of ancient London. There has been a meat or livestock market at Smithfield since medieval times, and it still operates today, despite attempts by developers to redevelop it as offices. There are pleasures to be had either side of the grand Victorian central market building: to the north on Britton Street is the Jerusalem Tavern (stpetersbrewery.co.uk) and the tiny Museum of the Order of St John on St John's Lane, (museumstjohn.org.uk), while to the south is the church of St Bartholomew the Great, parts of which date back to Norman times. Around the church, in the narrow alleys and passages off Cloth Fair, for instance, you can feel the atmosphere of the medieval city.

Southwark's backstreets

Three parallel streets between Waterloo and Southwark combine, in their modest way, to create one of the jewels of south London. Whittlesey Street is almost theme-park London, a perfectly preserved brick terrace from the 1820s that is used endlessly as a location for Victorian period dramas. A block to the north is Theed Street, which doglegs round to meet the saw-toothed pitched roofs of Roupell Street, a block to the south. These few blocks, with their secret gardens behind brick walls, are a microcosm of a London that no longer exists.

O2 to the Thames Barrier

Turn your back to the former Millennium Dome, look east and imagine that you're going to walk out of London. This would be the way to do it, and before you're too far along this river path you will smell the sea. But the route starts with the capital's newest addition, a cable car across the Thames to the Royal Docks (tfl.gov.uk/emiratesairline). From here on, you're in London's industrial hinterland. On the north bank is the Tate & Lyle factory in Silvertown, while on this side you negotiate a cement factory. In the early evening, the great pleasure of this walk is the silence – except for the odd plane landing at City Airport.

Hampstead

If Hampstead retains a bohemian air, despite being an enclave of the super-wealthy, it is because its picturesqueness muffles all else. Any number of routes will reward a stroll, but do head down Flask Walk and then Well Walk to number 40, where John Constable lived in the 1820s when he was painting his cloud studies on the Heath. Then amble down Willow Road to two more famous houses. One is at number two, the home that the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger built in the late 1930s to test his ideas. The other is just around the corner on Keats Grove, the Regency house where the young poet wrote Ode to a Nightingale.


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Crowd-free places: My perfect London day out

For calm contemplation during London 2012, the author of Quiet London suggests peaceful galleries, an art bookshop, a life drawing class – and a visit to William Blake's grave

I'd start my perfect day with a bowl of muesli, eaten in my swimming costume, ready for a gentle swim at the Golden Lane leisure centre, a small, quiet pool near the Barbican . Next I'd walk up City Road to two art galleries: the Parasol Unit (parasol-unit.org) and Victoria Miro, (victoria-miro.com) both in beautifully converted old buildings on Wharf Road. I really like the architecture around here – the exterior of Trevor Horne Architects (trevorhorne.com) round the corner on Micawber Street is my idea of heaven in a building. With its huge gabled roof, this would be the blueprint for my own house and studio.

Still eager to see more contemporary art, I'd wander back down to Iniva (iniva.org) the Institute for International Visual Arts), a culturally diverse organisation on Rivington Place which is also an education and research centre. Its exhibitions are thoughtful reminders that quietness and excitement are perfectly compatible. It would be tempting to spend a few hours in its library, too, but I'd probably be hungry by now. I'd walk through leafy Bunhill Fields, the former dissenters' burial ground, passing William Blake's grave, to Carnevale (020 7250 3452, carnevalerestaurant.co.uk). This quiet vegetarian restaurant and deli has a small patio room at the rear and I'd invite a friend to join me for tabouleh and roasted red peppers.

Afterwards, I'd try out an awareness through movement class at the nearby Open Centre (opencentre.com) on Old Street then follow my gentle exertions with a leisurely browse in the fascinating BookArtBookshop (bookartbookshop.com), 10 minutes' walk away on Pitfield Street. It's one of the best places to find limited edition artists' books in London.

My perfect day wouldn't be complete without doing some drawing, however, so I'd quickly walk back down Old St to the Prince's Drawing School, for a life drawing class (princesdrawingschool.org). In addition to drop-in classes, which start from £16 (£5 for young people), this is also a good place to see perceptive, intelligent drawing by current students. After doing a few charcoal sketches I'd treat my husband to a meal at the urbane Searcy's Restaurant in the Barbican (020 7101 0220, searcys.co.uk/barbican-centre). Together we'd watch the sun set over the peaceful, inner city lake.

• Siobhan Wall is an artist and author of Quiet London (Frances Lincoln, £9.99), a guide to London's more peaceful side. To buy a copy for £7.49 go to guardianbookshop.co.uk


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October 12 2011

10 of the best contemporary art galleries in Edinburgh

Edinburgh's contemporary galleries enjoy great locations and offer playful and challenging art, says Rosamund West

• As featured in our Edinburgh city guide

Axolotl

Dundas Street is the traditional home of Edinburgh's staid commercial galleries, places where you can go to buy a nice landscape in oils or a watercolour of some roses. Axolotl aims to change that with a commercial gallery striking a balance between the edgy and the traditional: selling paintings, drawings, prints and jewellery by figurative, early-career artists. They also like to mix things up a bit with installation pieces – either here or in their partner space, Axo, in Leith.
• 35 Dundas Street, 0131-557 1460, axolotl.co.uk. Wed-Sat 11am-6pm

Collective

Collective creates exhibitions and programmes that provide development for emerging artists, engage their audience and aren't afraid to experiment. Two of its rooms have windows onto Cockburn Street, a busy Old Town road popular with shoppers, tourists and emo kids, meaning that installations can often be viewed from outside. Throughout autumn and winter Collective runs New Work Scotland, an ever-evolving programme of solo exhibitions from selected recent graduates, as well as opportunities for curators and writers; in 2010 a sculpture student named Kevin Harman smashed one of its windows with a pole as a unique form of collaborative art, which got him arrested – albeit briefly.
22-28 Cockburn St, 0131-220 1260, collectivegallery.net. Tues-Sun 11am-5pm

Sierra Metro

It's a bit of a trek to get out to Sierra Metro if you don't have a car, as it's tucked away in Newhaven. It's worth the journey though (you can get a bus on Leith Walk) because this not-for-profit gallery has spent the last three years gaining a reputation as the place to go for well-presented work by early-career artists. Previous exhibitors have included Cara Tolmie, who's since gone on to have a show in DCA, and Caroline Gallacher whose wrestling-themed exhibition proved a critical hit. Sierra Metro also throws a good launch event, bringing in bands and DJs to ensure people make the journey.
Ground Floor North, 22 West Harbour Road, no telephone, sierrametro.com. Thurs-Sun noon-6pm, or by appointment

Inverleith House

In an 18th-century mansion in the centre of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Inverleith House has the most beautiful location of any of the city galleries. The programme can be variable, walking a line between botanically themed exhibits and the curator's inclination to use the unique space to display work by more avant garde artists. The comments book is always worth a read, as the well-to-do ladies and gents of the New Town often use it to express rage at with art which is neither figurative nor plant-related. In the last year the gallery has been swamped by Karla Black's trademark pastel powders in an exhibition which contributed to the Glasgow artist's Turner Prize nomination..
Royal Botanical Gardens, Arboretum Place/Inverleith Row, 0131-248 2971 (0131-248 2849 at weekends), rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/edinburgh/inverleith-house. Tues-Sun 10am-5.30pm

Superclub

At the top of Leith Walk on Gayfield Square, Superclub is one of three galleries which have recently sprung up in the old doggerfisher spaces. It nestles between Whitespace (a gallery which offers both art and occasional Zumba lessons) and Framed, a recent addition to the commercial gallery scene. Superclub is a studio-cum-gallery-cum-shop, set up by a collective of recent graduates as a place to work, exhibit and (hopefully) sell. Out front is the pristine gallery space recently occupied by Alex Gibbs's tranquil paintings, while at the back is a rough and ready installation space used for video projections, launch nights and the occasional gig.
11a Gayfield Square, email: info@superclubstudios.com, superclubstudios.com. See website for upcoming exhibition opening times

Embassy

Run by a committee of artists, the Embassy was set up to represent Edinburgh's grassroots creative community with an elected board whose members are replaced every two years. Its annual members show is worth a look to see the best and the worst of contemporary art in Edinburgh. As the committee changes so does the gallery's character and, frequently, location. It's currently on Broughton Street Lane and seems to have a taste for cerebral installation art. The Embassy also co-ordinates the annuale, an alternative visual art festival and counterpoint to August's more mainstream Edinburgh art festival which runs every year in early summer.
10b Broughton St Lane, email: info@embassygallery.org, embassygallery.org. Thurs-Sun 12-6pm

Fruitmarket

Slap bang in the middle of the city, the Fruitmarket is probably the most high-profile of the city's contemporary galleries. The annual programme intersperses solo exhibitions by Scottish and international artists with group shows by guest curators. Recent hits have included Martin Creed's 2010 Edinburgh art festival exhibition, which saw the artist turn the gallery steps into a musical staircase. 2011's Narcissus Reflected exhibition has also proved to be a crowd pleaser, giving the Edinburgh audience a chance to get up close to Dali's Metamorphosis of Narcissus and Narkissos, the astonishing masterwork of San Franciscan artist Jess Collins. Summer 2011 sees the opening of the Scotsman Steps opposite the gallery.
45 Market Street, 0131-225 2383, fruitmarket.co.uk. Mon-Sat 11am-6pm, Sun noon-5pm

Stills

Opposite Collective on Cockburn Street, Stills offers the city's only dedicated photography gallery and centre. The exhibitions often include installation, video, and performance, and locals make the most of its huge technology lab, offering equipment hire, training and access to photographic facilities. In winter the nights are lit up by the projection of artist's films into their windows, while in August it usually pulls out all the stops for a major art festival exhibition – 2011's Stephen Sutcliffe exhibition was highly acclaimed.
23 Cockburn St, 0131-622 6200, stills.org. Mon-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri-Sun 11am-6pm

Edinburgh College of Art (ECA)

The ECA has exhibitions all year round, whether that's the degree show bonanza of June, the various student shows during term time or the annual major art star's arrival in August – from Sam Taylor Wood to Anish Kapoor. The Sculpture Court is the main exhibiting space: a neo-classical indoor courtyard lined with the original casts of the Parthenon frieze, unfortunately now yellowing thanks to an over-enthusiastic paint job by an earlier restorer. They make for an interesting counterpoint to the many variations of student work.
The University of Edinburgh, Lauriston Place, 0131-221 6000, eca.ac.uk. Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-2pm

Ingleby

This is an intriguing mix of a commercial gallery and an ambitious exhibition programme. Upstairs is an airy loft space, with windows looking onto the industrial iron of Waverley station; downstairs is a smaller gallery, which hosts more intimate works: a trail of precious stones is spattered across the floor, a remnant from an exhibition by Susan Collis – and on the other side is a print room where works by the gallery's artists can be purchased. Outside, its Billboard for Edinburgh project presents special commissions by big-name artists on, of course, a billboard. Previous commissions have included Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormley and Tacita Dean.
15 Calton Road, 0131-556 4441, inglebygallery.com. Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun noon-5pm (August only), or by appointment

Rosamund West is editor of Scottish arts and culture website the Skinny


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