A Site for Sore Eyes? (Pt I)

When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey.  In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

That trips off the tongue doesn’t it?  What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge!  Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town,  and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.

So what were UNESCO thinking?  Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:

…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).

If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.

Bay of Palermo viewed from Monreale

From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit.  I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography).  As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.

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When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason.  I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold.  Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below.  With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash,  I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures.  These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.  The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.

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Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.

Time to dry my eyes and return to the real world.



Fit for a Prince

Though most of its citizens are doubtless unaware of this, Durham has a pretty special history.  There was probably an earlier settlement here, but the place was really put on the map when the monks of Lindisfarne arrived with the bones of St Cuthbert (hermit of the Farne Islands) 300 years after his death to keep him safe from Viking raiders.  I say bones, but one of the features of Cuthbert’s body was that is was supposedly incorruptible.

Durham was England’s greatest pilgrimage site until the murder of St Thomas a Becket gave Canterbury a claim to fame (and an easier journey from the capital for the pilgrims).  Nevertheless Durham continued to draw in the crowds until the monastery was stripped by our old friend Henry VIII.

But let’s rewind a little.  When the Normans invaded, they placed great importance on Cuthbert’s shrine and built the great cathedral that houses his bones and those of St Bede.  Two saints for the price of one and two of the figures that made Northumbria the century of European culture in the dark ages.  Given its distance from London, and the unruly nature of the north they made the bishop a very powerful man, second only to the King.  Thus Durham became the land of the Prince Bishops – a title that into the 19th Century, and a castle was built alongside the cathedral to house the potentate._pw_3843_hdr

I tend to undervalue the castle and for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s difficult to view it all in one go, therefore difficult to envisage its size unless you resort untitled-8236to a drone (or the view from the cathedral tower)
  • From the Palace Green, where the gatehouse stands,  the keep atop its hill (motte to be accurate) seems insignificant when  you have the towering mass of the great church to your back.

From the riverside it has a more imposing aspect, given greater prominence by the hill on which it stands (Durham has seven like Rome), and some streets do their bit in blocking out the larger neighbour, but from most places there’s no getting away from the fact that the castle is the junior partner in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Which is a pity, because the building embodies some rich architectural heritage; inevitable given that it was home to a series of princes.  The original builders were Anglo-Saxon and so there are traces of Anglian styling.  Romanesque arches imported by the Normans are topped with characteristically English Gothic windows.  The courtyard beyond the gatehouse feels like an Elizabethan palace, and the Great Hall, built in the 14th century, was Britain’s largest until shortened towards the end of the 15th!

Another claim to fame; it is the only Norman castle in England not to have been breeched in combat.  A Scottish invasion in 1346 was routed at the nearby Battle of Neville’s Cross and the Scots King David II was captured, apparently after the divine intervention of Cuthbert.

When the Bishops decamped to a new home in Bishop Auckland, Durham Castle became home to students of the university, who have been in residence ever since.  Consequently access to the interior is limited and on the day I visited not allowed.  It seems the young from the around the world are the new princes.  And princesses._pw_3941


With a Pinch of Salt?

_pw_7741William Blake’s poem that questions whether there is any truth to the legends that Jesus Christ once came to England refers to England’s dark Satanic mills, and though there are conflicting interpretations, many take the literal option that this refers to the fruits of the industrial revolution.

Bradford was a fertile ground for the mills to take root, being ideally situated to access stone to build the mills, coal to power them, and the soft water of the Pennines to wash and dye the textiles produced there.  There were over 50 built here._pw_7794

The mills needed a workforce, and in the first half of the 19th Century the town’s population is said to have grown from 6000 to over 100,000 with a reliance on immigrants that continued for another century after that.  The work was hard, the hours were long and the environment was hazardous.  Children as young as five worked alongside the adults.

_pw_7746Home was no refuge.  Without housing regulations many lived in unsanitary slums.  Whole families might share a damp cellar room.  An epidemic of cholera claimed over four hundred lives.  Dark and Satanic?  It’s easy to reach that conclusion.

Enter Sir Titus Salt.  Builder and owner of Salts Mill which on completion in 1853 was the largest industrial building in the world, but also a philanthropist who build the adjacent Saltaire village (a conflation of his surname and the name of the nearby river) to house his workers in what were then exemplary conditions.  As well as the housing there were washhouses, a school, a hospital, almshouses and an institute for public meetings, concerts and education.  It incorporated a library, a gym and a scientific laboratory.

Titus, it seems, cared for the minds and bodies of his workers, and their souls too.  My favourite structure there is the Congregational Church which could accommodate 600 worshippers, though rarely Titus as he and his family often worshipped elsewhere.  He did return to take his place in the family mausoleum which stands to one side of the church looking a little like an ostentatious afterthought.  Salt was a devout Christian himself and many believe this to be the driving force behind his enterprise.

Others see a more selfish motive; he was looking after a critical asset of his business and their productivity.  Perhaps this is why Saltaire is a rarity in being an English village without a pub (and check out the name of the licensed restaurant that is now at the heart of the village)_pw_7800

And then there’s a third option.  Self aggrandisement.  If he wasn’t out to impress, why adopt an Italianate architectural style in the embellishment of many of the buildings (the chimney of the New Mill building being a direct copy of a Venetian campanile for example)?  Would Victorian millworkers really appreciate the cultural reference?  At one stage the mill, village and park all bore his name (though a subsequent owner imposed his surname on the park).  Perhaps Titus just lacked imagination.


Stencil of David Hockney, Salts Mill, Bradford

Whatever his motivation he has left us a village that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and even the mill has found a modern use.  Converted into smaller units it features, warehousing, specialist retailers and galleries.  It’s the perfect place to exhibit the output of a more modern Bradfordian son of note.

So Saint or Sinner, Control-Freak or Egotist?

Or maybe a soupçon of each.

Just a pinch?

Rest in peace Titus._pw_7765_6_7


Worth Doing Güell (SOS)

_PW_1830Situated much further out from the city that the other Gaudí sites that I’ve written about, Parc Güell seemed no less popular, based on my inability to get a shot of the famous mosaic salamander without someone draping themselves over it for their holiday album.

To be fair, I like to try to find a different way of shooting iconic locations so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it but perhaps the vandals who damaged it with an iron bar in 2007 didn’t feel the same.

The park was originally intended as a housing development mooted by the entrepreneur Count Eusebio Güell and inspired by the English Garden City Movement.  Perhaps he should have waited to see how the English took to the concept; only two such cities were built (Letchworth & Welwyn).  At Parc Güell only two houses were built, in addition to the existing country house home of the Count, and neither  was designed by Gaudí.  He did move into one of them and that has now become a museum populated with his works and those of his collaborators.  (Entry is not included with the park ticket unfortunately)

Still there is much in the park to enjoy, on a larger scale than the details he has crafted elsewhere, and additionally the garden setting permits the comparison between his work and the natural features that he sought to incorporate.

The main terrace, called The Greek Theatre by some and The Nature Square by others, was intended for public performances and is surrounded by a serpentine bench that provides plenty of seating and yet a modicum of privacy at the same time by creating small booth-like recesses.  Naturally this evolved into a public park when the project failed, though in doing so it became difficult to control the numbers onsite and thereby ensure the protection of the structures.  It was the intervention of the authorities to make the park open only to those willing to pay for entry that led to the act of vandalism.  Whilst the frustration is understandable, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and charging the many international visitors for the privilege is a logical way to fund its preservation.

_PW_1550Many of those features have been photographed from every angle, so the challenge of finding something new is considerable.  Visiting early allowed me some different lighting options, but even so the features are immediately recognisable.

So where to find something photogenic but with a hint of originality?  In the place that most of the tourists overlook.  The two lodges that stand on either side of the main entrance function as gift shop and a venue to display photographs and information on the history of the park.  In each case most people are distracted by the contents, or the opportunity to lean out of windows and be photographed by friends or family.  They miss the curving lines of plasterwork and window frame in their rush to see the park, and thus presented me with my opportunity…


Behemoth (Venezia 158)

‘Dear Prime Minister, dear Minister,
‘Having prevailed against flood, pestilence, and war for more than thirteen centuries, Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, and unparalleled UNESCO Word Heritage site, now, in a moment of relative tranquility, finds herself mortally threatened by the daily transit of gargantuan ocean liners, indifferent to the probable risk of catastrophe.
‘Since the flood of 1966, Italy and countless Italian and international supporters have contributed to the defense of the world’s most fragile city, eternally subject to destruction.
‘The absolute lack of respect presented by the outlandish spectacle of the ongoing obstruction and potentially destruction, of one of humanity’s pre-eminent monuments is not only dumbfounding but both morally and culturally unacceptable.
‘We urgently request an immediate and irrevocable halt to the traffic of the Big Ships in front of San Marco and along the Giudecca Canal putting an end to this senseless devastation.’

Thus read a petition signed by a group of celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Michael Caine and Michael Douglas that was submitted to the Italian government during the same summer that I shot the Serenade of the Seas preparing to negotiate the Giudecca channel.

Shortly afterwards a ban was announced.Venezia-7