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Saturday, 21 October 2017

A SURPRISING VILLAGE IN ESSEX


James Thorne wrote (in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”) in 1876: “East Tilbury is curiously out-of-the-way and old world like…”. It retains its feeling of being out-of-the-way, but no longer looks old world. Apart from the church, its rectory, and the fort, there are four cottages dated 1837. The rest of the buildings are much newer. The same goes for the village’s only pub, The Ship, which was rebuilt in 1957 when it looked the same as it does today. There has been an inn on its site since the 18th century, and maybe earlier. I had a mediocre lunch in the pub. I thought that was nowhere else to eat in the small village, but later discovered that the Fort (see below) has a café.

The flint and rubble gothic church of St Catherine contains much fabric dating back to mediaeval times, back to the 12th century. When viewed from the north or east, the church does not appear to have a tower. The reason is that the tower and part of the south aisle were destroyed by naval artillery in a battle between the British and the Dutch at Tilbury Hope in 1667. According to contemporaneous church records, by 1667 the tower was already in a poor state. Some say that it might have collapsed without the help of military intervention.

From the south side of the church, you can see an ugly square-based stone addition to the old church. This stump is all that was built of a replacement tower begun in the First World War by men of a garrison of the Coalhouse Fort (see below). It was to have commemorated those fallen in WW1. However, the authorities stopped the building works because the builders were not following correct procedures. Across the road from the church, stands the Rectory, an elegant brick building with large windows. It was built in the early 1830s to replace an earlier one which had been badly damaged in the battle mentioned above.


The village’s only thoroughfare continues downhill, almost to the north bank of the Thames. It ends at the car park for visitors to the Coalhouse Fort. During the early 15th century following an infiltration of the Thames by the French, King Henry IV allowed the inhabitants of East Tilbury, at that time classed as a ‘town’, to build defensive ramparts. In 1540, King Henry VIII ordered that a ‘blockhouse, be constructed at Coalhouse Point. This point on a curve in the Thames is so-named because by well before the 18th century coal was being unloaded from craft at this ferry point close to the village. The coal was transported westwards towards Grays and Chadwell along an ancient track known as the ‘Coal Road’.


In 1799, when it was feared that the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte would try to invade via the Thames, a new gun battery was built at East Tilbury.  In the 1860s, when another French invasion was feared, a series of forts were built along the shores of the estuary of the Thames. One of these was the Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury. Thus, the by then somewhat insignificant village became part of London’s defences.

The Fort was built between 1861 and ’74. Surrounded by a semi-circular moat and raised on a mound, the Fort is not particularly attractive. However, it is set in beautifully maintained parkland. From the slopes of the mound, there are great views of the Thames, which sweeps around the point, and its rural southern shore. The moat is separated into two sections by a short sharp-ridged stone wall, which was likely to have been built when the Fort began to be constructed. When I looked for the Fort on old detailed (25 inch to the mile) Ordnance Survey Maps (pre-1939), the moat is marked, but the Fort is not (probably, in the
interests of security). A ‘Coalhouse Battery’, which ran more-or-less parallel to the village’s only street was marked as “dismantled” on a 1938 map, but not the Coalhouse Fort.


The outer walls of the Fort have had all manner of later structures built on them: gun-emplacements, searchlight emplacements, and other shelters, whose functions were not obvious to me. There is a large concrete bunker outside the Fort, between it and the moat. Its shape might be described as three intersecting concrete blocks.  This is marked on the tourist map as a ‘minefield control tower’. I believe that was it used to control electrically-fired mines in the estuary. Nearby and closer to the river, there is a smaller concrete bunker. The Fort’s interior was closed when I visited it, but I was able to get a peek through its main gates, which were open. Tramway tracks lead into the Fort. Old maps show that these led from the Fort to a small landing stage at Coalhouse Point, which is a short distance southwest of the Fort. The Fort ceased to be used after 1957.

Just over a mile north-west of the Fort, the road to East Tilbury Station passes through a most fascinating place. One of the first things you will see along the road from the Fort is a vast factory, which closed in 2005. Made of concrete and glass, but in a poor state of decoration, its flat roof carries a high water-tower labelled ‘Bata’. This was part of the factory complex that the Bata Company began building in 1932.

The Czech Thomas Bata (1876-1932) was born in the Moravian town of Zlin. He became the founder of Bata Shoes in 1894 in Zlin. He modernised shoe-making by moving it from a craftsman’s process to and mechanised, industrialised one. Bata’s company also revolutionised the way industrial enterprises were run, introducing a profit-sharing system that involved all of its workers, and provided a good reason for them to work enthusiastically. During the period between the two World Wars, the forward-thinking Bata opened factories and individual companies in countries including: Poland, Yugoslavia, India, France, Holland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the USA. The company in India is still very active, almost every small town or village having at least one Bata retailing outlet. I have bought many pairs of comfortable Bata-manufactured shoes from Bata stores in India.

In anticipation of WW2, Bata’s son, the prudent Thomas J Bata (1914-1980), and one hundred other Czech families firm moved to Ontario (Canada) to form a Canadian Bata company. After WW2, the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and other ‘iron-curtain’ countries nationalised their local Bata firms. Meanwhile, Thomas J continued to develop the Bata firms in Canada and the UK, and opened up new Bata companies and factories in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Bata senior was keen on the ‘Garden City Movement’.  He was concerned that his workers lived (close to his factories) and worked in a pleasant environment, and lacked for nothing. A pioneer of this in the UK was Titus Salt, who built his gigantic mill in the 1860s near Bradford in West Yorkshire. He created a new town, Saltaire, around his textile factory. This consisted of better than average homes for all of his workers (and their families) from the humblest to the most senior. In addition, he built schools, a hospital, open-spaces, recreation halls, a church, and other requisite of Victorian life.  In Zlin, Bata created something similar, a fully-equipped town for his workers in park-like surroundings around his factory in the 1920s. The homes he built for the workers are still considered desirable today.

The factory at East Tilbury, was another example of a town built specially for its workers. One lady with whom I spoke there told me that she had worked for Bata’s for twenty-seven years. She told me that in its heyday the Bata ‘town’ was self-sufficient. It had workers’ homes, shopping facilities (including a supermarket and a Bata shoe store), a restaurant, a hotel, a cinema, a school, a library, farms, and playing fields.
The factory buildings at the East Tilbury site, some of which have been adopted by other businesses, were built using a construction system devised (employing reinforced concrete frames that allowed for great flexibility of design) by the Czechs Frantisek Lydie Gahura (1891-1958), Jan Kotera(1871-1923), and Vladimir Karfic(1901-1996). The site bought by Bata in Essex in late 1931 was ideally placed in level open country near to both the railway and the river.  His intention was to build a vast garden city around his factories, which was to produce boots and shoes in East Tilbury.
Mr Bata senior was killed in an air-crash in 1932 near Zlin, and so never saw the completion of his creation in Essex, whose construction only began in early 1933. Construction of the factory buildings and the workers’ housing went on simultaneously.  By 1934, twenty semi-detached houses of the same design as those in Zlin were built by local builders, and equipped with Czech fittings. The houses look just like many houses built in Central Europe. As Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian newspaper (19th June 2006):
“East Tilbury doesn’t look like it belongs in Britain, let alone Essex, and in a sense it doesn’t. It’s a little slice of 1930s Czechoslovakia, and the most Modern town in Britain.”
Later, more homes were built, but designed like many British suburban houses.

There is a huge building across the main road opposite the factory buildings. Part of its ground floor is now home to a Co-op supermarket. The whole building, which has now been converted to flats, was the ‘Bata Hotel’. Until recently, the Co-op was still named the Bata supermarket. One man, who has lived in the Bata Estate for many years, told me that he recalled seeing swarms of workmen in white protective clothing crossing the road from the factory and then entering the hotel during their lunch-break. He told me that the first floor of the hotel was a ‘restaurant’ for the factory workers. 



I met this man in what is now called ‘East Tilbury Village Hall’. This was formerly the Bata cinema.Looking somewhat Central European in design, the former cinema was undergoing much-needed electrical re-fitting. In a way, I was lucky because the workers had left the door open to a building that is often locked closed these days. I entered the foyer, which was being used to store the stock of the local public library. An office to the left of the foyer used to serve as the cinema’s ticket office. A couple of old-fashioned film posters have been put on the foyer’s walls to recreate what it used to be like.

A man, who oversaw the hall’s maintenance, showed me the auditorium. It had a new wooden floor marked out for indoor sports. He explained that the floor had been ‘sprung’ when it was laid originally. This was so that it could be used as a dance-floor. The banked chairs for the audience were originally designed in an ingenious way, only lately beginning to be employed in other much newer buildings, so that they could be folded away when the hall was needed for, for example, a dance. There was a proper theatre stage at the far end of the hall. This still has the original stage lights that were fitted when the hall was built. The old-fashioned control panel for this lighting was still in place.

My guide then told me that beneath the stage, there was a reinforced bunker for use during air-raids. He took me through a door at the back of the stage, and then down some concrete steps. At the bottom, there was a heavy metal sliding-door painted grey. He slid this open to reveal the large reinforced concrete bunker beneath the stage. Its walls were thick. It is now used as a storage area.
After seeing the old cinema, I entered the large grassy area to the south of it. In the centre of it, raised on a stepped plinth, there is a war memorial. The memorial bears the words: “… to the memory of those of the British Bata Shoe Company who gave their lives for freedom 1939-1945”. To the south of the memorial park, there is a large field, now used for agricultural purposes, that was once a Bata playing field.

Across the road from the war memorial in the grounds of the factory, there is a statue of Thomas Bata senior, who died in 1932. When I visited it many years ago (in the late 1980s), it stood in a small green area, a little park. During my recent visit (October 2017) it was surrounded by tall piles of sand being used by building contractors.
Some of the Bata factory buildings have already been modernised and are being used for industrial or commercial operations. The main large derelict building, which is surmounted by a water tank, might be destined for conversion into ‘loft apartments’ for residential use. One building, a small tall construction near the main road, remains derelict at present. It might, one informant suggested, have been used for milling activities.
During the early 1980s, British Bata began greatly reducing its production activity at East Tilbury. The Bata industrial estate finally closed in 2005. With the closing of the British Bata firm, Bata shoe-retailers, which were common in British high streets, have disappeared. The nearest Bata shoe store to the UK is now in Best (just north of Eindhoven) in the Netherlands.

From having been one of the bastions defending London from naval attack along the River Thames, East Tilbury became home for an exciting and successful industrial enterprise. Now, the extensive vestiges of this are being restored and re-used in an attempt, which looks like being successful, to keep the area alive and prosperous.



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Sunday, 15 October 2017

DAVID HOCKNEY IN BRADFORD




The renowned contemporary artist David Hockney was born in Bradford (West Yorkshire) in 1937. In the suburbs of Bradford, there is an art gallery, Cartwright Hall, which Hockney used to visit in his youth. He said of this place: “I used to love going to Cartwright Hall as a kid, it was the only place in Bradford I could see real paintings.” He used to visit it as a schoolboy and young student during the 1940s and ‘50s. In July 2017, the establishment opened a new gallery dedicated to Hockney’s works. It was to see this that we set off by bus (a ten minute ride) from Bradford to Lister Park in which the Hall is located. What we found exceeded our expectations.

The building of Cartwright Hall (as a purpose-built art gallery) was financed by Samuel Cunliffe Lister (1815-1906), the son of a Bradford textile mill owner. Lister became wealthy through the development of new and improved textile mill technology. The house was named after Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823), an inventor of various textile processing machines including one for wool combing, which contributed greatly to Lister’s financial success. Modestly, Lister named the Hall after the inventor rather than himself.

Lister Park is extensive. It includes a fantastic feature, The Mughal Garden. If it had not been for the miserable grey sky and the absence of the Taj Mahal, with a little bit of imagination one might mistakenly believe that this garden was a replica of the water features that the Mughals delighted in creating in what became (in 1947) India and Pakistan. Opened in 2001, this garden, designed in conformity with Mughal gardening convention, reflects the cultural affinities of Bradford’s large South Asian community. This exotic-looking place, set within a conventional British municipal park, is in harmony with the multicultural range of exhibits within the Gallery.

The neo-classical Cartwright Hall was designed by the architects JW Simpson and EJ Milner Allen, both from London. Its interior is spacious, not in the least bit stuffy or airless (as for example is the National Gallery in Edinburgh).


Stained-glass by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


We began by looking at some of the works that Hockney might have examined during his youthful visits. These include paintings by well-known artists such as: Romney, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Vasari, Reni, and many of the Pre-Raphaelites. Mingling with these, there are paintings by some of Hockney’s predecessors from Bradford. One of these was Richard Eurich (1903-1992), the son of Dr Frederick William Eurich (1867-1945). Dr Eurich, who arrived in Bradford from Chemnitz (in Germany) aged seven, pioneered a method of cleaning wool so that it became free of the deadly anthrax spores that had taken the lives of many wool workers in Bradford. His son Richard studied at Bradford School for Arts and Crafts, where Hockney also studied later.

Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) attended Bradford Grammar School, where both Richard Eurich and, later, David Hockney were pupils. He studied art at the Slade School in London. He became a war artist in WW1. At least one of his war paintings was on display. Rothenstein was a son of Moritz Rothenstein, one of several Jewish entrepreneurs who came from Germany to Bradford in the mid-19th century. These entrepreneurs played important roles in promoting the city’s textile industry. William’s painting “Carrying the Law” has a particularly Jewish theme.  In the 1930s, William, by then in London, hosted the Indian Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, who dedicated his collection of poems “Gitanjali” to him.


By William Rothenstein


This brings me to something that I really liked about the Gallery. The paintings (and stained-glass) by European artists, both well-known and not so famous, are hung side-by-side with works by artists with South Asian heritage. This is done so successfully that one does not feel that there is any cultural clashing between them. It made me think how wonderful it would be if people of different origins could coexist so harmoniously. 


By Sylvat Aziz


The South Asian artists, to mention but a few, include Jamini Roy (whose pictures we did not see on display during our visit), Salima Hashmi, Arpana Kaur, Sylvat Aziz, and Gurminder Sikand. In addition to these paintings, we saw one Indian film poster on display.  Just opposite the main entrance on the ground floor, there is a reflective sculpture by Anish Kapoor.



By Anish Kapoor


The new Hockney Gallery is itself a masterpiece of gallery curation. It contains some of Hockney’s earliest works done in the 1950s. These works, somewhat more conventional than his later creations, show him as a highly skilled draughtsman and artist. They portray his home town beautifully. The gallery also contains some of Hockney’s more current work, including a series of paintings done during one of his visits to his native Yorkshire. There is also one of his famous swimming pool pictures. The gallery features a ‘recreation’ of one of Hockney’s studios. This display includes a couple of the artist’s sketch books and pads.  I was particularly intrigued by two publications on display, which were illustrated by Hockney: one was a Bradford telephone directory, and the other a guide book to Bradford.


David Hockney: Self-portrait (1954)


Our visit to the Cartwright Gallery was enjoyable, and left me thinking that even if one saw nothing else in Yorkshire, this place is a ‘must’.


The town of Saltaire is a short bus ride from Lister Park, and another mecca for lovers of Hockney’s art. Before 1851, this place did not exist. It was built by a benevolent industrialist Sir Titus Salt (1803-1876) as a model village for the workers in his textile factory, Salts Mill, which neighbours it. The place’s name derives from Sir Titus’s surname and the River Aire, which runs close to the mill. The mill is separated from it by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Saltaire is a well-preserved ensemble of Victorian buildings. It has been designated a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’. 


Salts Mill painted by David Hockney


Hockney lovers might focus only on the enormous Salts Mill, but this is a mistake because it would mean missing the fascinating little town, an industrial forerunner of ‘idyllic arcadian’ garden suburbs and cities, such as those in north-west London, Letchworth, and Welwyn.  It is also an antecedent of garden cities designed to house factory workers such as: the Bata village at East Tilbury; Zlin in the Czech Republic; and Zelenograd (i.e. ‘green city’) near Moscow in Russia.

Victoria Street leads down towards the railway, the mill, the canal, and the river. The upper section is lined with attractive stone buildings on one side. On the other side, there is a rectangular green space, Alexandra Square, surrounded by more buildings, alms-houses. The former ‘Sir Titus Salts Hospital’ (dated 1868) stands where Victoria and Saltaire Roads cross each other.

Further down the hill, we reach the Salt Building, which is marked as ‘schools’ on an 1889 map. It was a ‘factory school’. Mill owners were obliged by laws (passed after 1833) to provide their child-workers with education. Now a part of Shipley College, it still serves an educational purpose.

Opposite this architecturally whimsical building, there is a larger one set back from the road. With two storeys of windows topped with circular arches and a grandiose central doorway surmounted by a tower, this is Victoria Hall. This was completed in 1871 for Sir Titus to the designs of Lockwood and Mawson. Originally, it was an educational institute, but now its grand hall and other rooms are also used for special occasions such as weddings.



The Salts Mill stands almost at the bottom of Victoria Street. Ignore this for the moment, and enter Albert Terrace. But, before doing so, you should take a look at the Saltaire United Reform Church, which stands in its own grounds close to the canal.  This interesting Italianate building with a circular tower mounted on a circle of Corinthian pillars was built for Sir Titus in 1859, designed by Lockwood and Mawson.

Albert Terrace runs along the lower ends of several steep streets where the mill employees lived in houses of different sizes according to their inhabitant’s ranking in the firm’s hierarchy. The streets are separated by the backyards of the buildings on them, and between them the narrow back alleyways, which are now crowded with ‘wheelie-bins’ used for placing domestic refuse.

Some of the buildings on these streets are taller than their neighbours. These housed lower-paid workers. Those houses between them, which have small front gardens, were homes to foremen and supervisors. Senior members of the firm had larger houses with bigger front gardens.

On Titus Street, parallel to Albert Terrace but at a higher altitude, there are small terraced dwellings without front gardens whose front doors open straight out onto the pavement. These residences were the homes of the lowest paid workers and their families. Although different classes of mill employees were allotted different kinds of houses, all of them from the humblest to the highest lived together in close proximity.  It is interesting that the founders of Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London, where I grew up, tried to achieve the same social mixing. I do not believe that it was ever achieved there.

The school on Albert Road, now a primary school, has been present since 1893 if not before. Near the south end of Albert Road at its meeting with Saltaire Road, there is a stone building whose two sets of enormous doors are surmounted with triangular pediments bearing weather-worn coats of arms. Now a restaurant, this was formerly a tramway depot.



The Salts Mill, the former textile factory, is now home to a huge exhibition of works by David Hockney. This is arranged on three floors of the building in what were once huge halls where William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ churned out the materials that made Bradford prosperous. Actually, this particular mill seems to have been quite well-lit.

On the lowest floor and the one above it, the walls are hung with works by Hockney, mostly prints, but, also some paintings. Much of the floorspace in the ground floor gallery is filled with tables containing merchandise for sale, including, appropriately, artists’ materials. On the second floor, there is a vast bookshop, also lined with works by Hockney.

The uppermost floor is a huge exhibition space without merchandise. Its walls were lined with Hockney’s pictures. They can be seen at their very best in this spacious hall supported by cast-iron pillars. This gallery leads to a café, where ‘light bites’ and drinks are available.

Beyond the café, there is a permanent display of objects relating to the history of Salt Mill. These include items such as: old factory equipment; examples of textiles produced; a dental chair from the factory’s own dental clinic; and a small fire-engine. On one wall there was an old notice informing workers what to do if fire broke out. This was printed in English, Italian, and Polish. The factory closed in 1986, long before Poland joined the European Union and the recent influx of working people from Poland. The existence of the Polish instructions suggests that even in the 1980s Bradford had a significant Polish population. According to an article published on a BBC website (in September 2014): “In the 1940s it was immigrants from Poland who came to Bradford. They viewed themselves as political émigrés so it was important to maintain a national identity, traditional ideas, values and customs, all of which were being suppressed in their homeland which was under Nazi rule.”



Some decorative porcelain in the museum bears the crest of the Salts family. It includes an alpaca, whose wool, combined with other animal’s fleeces, was an important contribution to the prosperity of Sir Titus’s family.  Near this display of porcelain, there is a cleverly devised portrait of Sir Titus made using fabric from which pieces have been removed selectively to produce the image.

We did not eat at the café, but at Salts Diner on the floor with the gallery/bookshop. The Diner’s menu cards and napkins are designed by David Hockney. The diner’s walls are lined with the artist’s works. We ordered two dishes: a smoked chicken with mango salad, and steak with chips and Béarnaise Sauce. We washed these down with a lovely beer specially created for the Saltaire Diner. Without hesitation, I can say that this was the best quality food that we have ever eaten in a café or restaurant attached to a museum or gallery.


Napkin with a drawing by David Hockney


Although there is no shortage of works by Hockney at the Salts Mill, I much preferred the smaller but exquisitely curated gallery of his art at nearby Cartwright Hall. However, a Hockney aficionado will be missing a great experience by not making the trip ‘up north’ to see the Hockney exhibits just outside Bradford.


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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

FRESTONIA lives again!




Overshadowed by the charred remains of Grenfell Tower (built in 1974 as part of the Lancaster West Estate), Freston Road runs close to Latymer Road Underground Station. During the early 1970s when tower blocks, such as the ill-fated Grenfell, were being built, Freston Road was a jumble of run-down, mostly vacant, Victorian dwellings.

Squatters moved into these empty houses in the early 1970s. When the Greater London Council (‘GLC’) wanted to redevelop the area that included Freston Road, all of the residents adopted the surname ‘Bramley’, so that the GLC would be faced with housing a very large family. When the Council threatened compulsory eviction at a meeting attended by more than 200 residents, the residents under threat declared that the area around Freston road should become an independent republic, separate from the UK. Thus, was born the ‘The Republic of Frestonia’ in 1977.

The Republic, which applied for membership of both the UN and the European Economic Community, survived for several years. Life in the ‘Republic’ was recorded in photographs by the photographer Tony Sleep. An exhibition of his beautiful photographs of life in Frestonia opened this evening (11th October 2017) at the Frestonia Gallery at 2 Olaf Street, W11 4BE. It will continue until 10th of November. The gallery is housed within the Peoples Palace (built 1902), which is almost the only remaining building amongst those which existed during the lifetime of the Republic.

In addition to the wonderfully composed black and white photographs, there are also display cases containing documents relating to the Republic. These include contemporaneous press-cuttings, the application to the UN, and special postage stamps issued by the Republic. The exhibition is a worthy homage to a fascinating episode in London’s complex history.


Tony Sleep with one of his photos projected behind him


The opening of the exhibition was a very special occasion. Not only was Tony Sleep present, but also some of the now ageing inhabitants the short-lived Republic.

This is an exhibition well worth visiting – not to be missed.



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Sunday, 8 October 2017

AN ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR IN LONDON



CONCERT 7th OCT 2017 AT ST STEPHENS CHURCH SW7 4RL

Last night (7th Oct 2017), I attended an orchestral concert performed by the London City Philharmonic, an orchestra whose players come from all over the world. The conductor was the Albanian Olsi Qinami, a founder of the orchestra. The programme, “Tales from the East”, consisted of music by eastern European composers with one exception.

The concert began with a sensitive rendering of Antonin Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances”. This was followed by Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”, Adagio on Hebrew Melodies”. Bruch was not an Eastern European, having been born a Protestant in Cologne (in 1838). He was fond of using ‘exotic’ themes in his compositions. The piece for cello soloist and orchestra, which we heard last night looks eastwards in a romantic way at a prayer of the Ashkenazi Jews, which is recited at Yom Kippur. The cellist, Alexandra Fletcher, a Londoner, played beautifully.

These two well-known pieces were followed by two compositions, which deserve to be better-known. The first was a piano concerto (“Concerto for piano and orchestra in one movement”) by Fatos Lumani (born 1983), a Professor at the State University of Tetova in Macedonia. The soloist in this powerful, invigorating piece was Shkelzen Baftiari, an Albanian Macedonian who lives in Skopje (Macedonia). His playing of this complex composition was masterful. The orchestra accompanied him skilfully, seemingly with great ease given how difficult this piece is to perform.

The evening continued with an orchestral piece, “Arbereshes Sime”, by the Albanian composer Gerti Druga. He was born in Kuçovë (Albania) in 1986. The first part of this beautiful composition was based on the melody of a song sung by the Arbëreshë people, descendants of Albanians who escaped from the Ottomans in the 15th century and settled in Italy, where, to this day, they speak an archaic form of Albanian and maintain the traditions of their ancestors. During second half of the piece, the music livened up considerably. It reminded me, and I mean this in a positive way, of the best of the stirring propagandistic music that the former Communist regimes used to inspire their people. The orchestra was accompanied by Shkelzen Baftiari on the piano and featured solos by the orchestra’s leader, the Finnish-born violinist Alina Hiltunen. I was not alone in enjoying this piece; the audience loved it.

After the interval, the orchestra, as always directed skilfully by Olsi Qinami, gave a great performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 4. Lasting just under an hour, the orchestra never flagged. Their account of this moving piece was exhilarating.

If you did not attend this concert, I feel sorry for you because you missed a great musical experience!


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Saturday, 11 February 2017

VISITING VYPIN ISLAND - a lovely excursion from Cochin


Chinese fishing nets, Fort Cochin


Goat on a boat: on the ferry from Vypin to Fort Cochin


Like Venice and Istanbul, Cochin is a city where water plays an important role both functionally and aesthetically. The Cochin ‘metropolitan’ area that includes Fort Cochin, Mattancherry, the modern city of Ernakulam, Willingdon Island, and other islands is infiltrated with waterways that flow past them and out into the Arabian Sea. These watery channels are alive with shipping, lined with fishermen, flanked by warehouses, and swarming with waterfowl. The sun reflects off the waters, producing a rare quality of light that heightens the beauty of the area.

The historic city of Fort Cochin with its many historic buildings, its Chinese fishing nets, and its colourful shoreline, makes for a wonderful place for tourists to linger. I have visited the place three times in two years, and Cochin’s attraction simply continues to grow for me.

The elongated island of Vypin (aka ‘Vypeen’) runs in a north-south direction, its southernmost tip being across the estuary from Fort Cochin. Two ferries connect Vypin with Fort Cochin. One carries foot passengers only, and the other carries both vehicles and foot passengers.

Ticket office for ferry at Vypin


The first time that I crossed to Vypin on the foot passenger only ferry, I noticed that a section of the boat was reserved for ladies only. Indeed, the queues for the ticket boot were segregated by gender. Lately (2017), I did not notice any separation of male and female passengers.

Leaving Fort Cochin, the ferry passenger gets a good view of the Chinese fishing nets on one side, and of the waterfronts of the Brunton Boat House and its neighbours (such as the old Aspinwall warehouse complex).

The ferry captains have to navigate carefully, so as to avoid colliding with all manner of craft: everything from ocean going liners and enormous dredgers to tourist pleasure boats and smaller craft used by the local fishermen.

Boats moored at Vypin


As the Fort Cochin shore begins to recede and mingle with the heat haze, the Chinese fishing nets of Vypin get nearer. Behind them, it is not difficult to see a couple of huge cylindrical structures, which are part of an oil refining site near to the Arabian Sea shore.

Belts in a small shop in Vypin


Both ferries dock at the aged, rather shabby Vypin ferry terminal, which until recently contained an even shabbier café, The Sealand, now closed. Passing through the terminal, we reach a line of small shops that face a parking area where multi-coloured busses and auto-rickshaws park. These busses carry passengers to a variety of places including Ernakulam and beaches at the northern tip of the island.

Detail on a private house in Vypin


The southern shore of Vypin is a peaceful contrast to the relatively busy shore of Fort Cochin, which faces it across the water. A good paved footpath follows the shoreline, passing several Chinese fishing net set-ups, upon whose ropes and wooden structural elements sea birds roost. On a recent visit, most the avian population consisted of white egrets. Landward of the path but partly hidden by the dense foliage of luxuriant gardens, you can just about spot low dwellings.



Taking one of the paths that lead away from the sea, one enters a series of narrow lanes lined with domestic residences surrounded by lush gardens. Wandering around these lanes reminded me of the lesser visited parts of Venice. There was hardly anyone around, little or no traffic, and a lovely calm silence.



The village of Vypin is built around The Church of Our Lady of Hope, (aka "Nossa Senhora Da Esperança"), which was built during the Portuguese occupation in 1605 AD (see picture above). Along with many other Roman Catholic buildings in the Cochin  district, it was badly damaged by the Dutch in 1663, but has been restored lovingly since then. Usually this is closed except for early morning masses. My wife managed to persuade a passing nun to get the sacristan to open up the church for us. While its interior (see picture below) is not as grand as some of the churches we saw in Goa, it is nevertheless worth seeing. A great anchor hangs from the northern wall of the chancel. A highly-revered effigy stands in a glass-fronted cabinet covered with a curtain near the southern wall of the church.



A short walk through more narrow lanes brings one back to the ferry station. Whereas the passenger only boat is quite comfortable for passengers, the boat that carries vehicles is less so. Passengers congregate at the covered foremost part (the bow) of the boat. Cars and vans are tightly loaded onto the ferry, and then the two wheelers motor bikes and scooters) squeeze their way into the remaining spaces including at the bow of the ship where foot passengers congregate, trying to avoid being knocked by mirrors or getting their feet run over by wheels.



Disembarking, one realises how peaceful Vypin is in comparison with Fort Cochin. This is not to say that Fort Cochin is not particularly unrestful (as is the city of Ernakulam); it is just far busier than that  peaceful haven Vypin.

The vehicular ferry at Fort Cochin


Now WATCH a short video showing a crossing from Fort Cochin to Vypin by CLICKING HERE

Church hall on Vypin Island next to Church of Our Lady of Hope 

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