Monday 18 December 2023

Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway sloe gin

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway starts on the outskirts of the picturesque town of Hythe in Kent. Since the late-1920s, it has connected the historic Cinque Port with the smaller seaside towns of Dymchurch and New Romney and, eventually, the vast single split of Dungeness. 

Dubbed ‘the world’s smallest railway’, it leaves Hythe against a background of suburban back gardens belonging to flat-roofed terraced and semi-detached houses of the post-war prefabricated Orlit-type (pebbledashed cream and brown against the harsh seaside elements) and small-scale shops offering fishing tackle, traditional fish and chips and TV repairs. 

At first, the route roughly follows the A259, a long-distance coastal road that links Kent with Hampshire via Sussex. At Hythe, the Dymchurch Road section of the A259 snarls up with daytrippers on a sunny summer’s day, taking sun-lovers away from Hythe’s pebble beaches to the sandy vistas of Dymchurch and St Mary’s Bay. 
A quieter, slower route out of town for walkers, horse-riders and cyclists – punctuated only by the distinctive whistle of the steam train – runs either side of the Napoleonic-era Royal Military Canal, which reaches 28 miles into East Sussex, and runs roughly trackside until it hits the housing estates and bungalows of Burmarsh. Here, the train splits, striking out through flat, sparsely populated Romney Marsh. The bushes that overhang the canal on one side of the path, and separate the walker from the smoke of the train on the other, offer an abundance of blackberries and sloes in the summer and autumn months. The observant walker might also catch a glimpse of an exotic, curious animal or two from nearby Port Lympne zoo or the crumbling Roman remains of the Portus Lemanis fort, which sit beneath medieval Lympne Castle. 

Climb up onto ‘the Roughs’, the low-lying hills that flank the canal – today forming part of the Ministry of Defence’s estate – and dense undergrowth reveals a crumbling sound mirror, a remnant of experimental early 20th century technology designed to defend this stretch of coast against invaders. 
Although today the light railway mainly carries pleasure seekers and the occasional commuter – plus the all-important festive figure of Santa paying a visit at Christmas-time – it too once played an unlikely part in the Kent coast’s frontline defences. 

A typically jaunty Pathé newsreel of 1944, entitled ‘Toy Train Goes to War’, shows tourists replaced with soldiers aboard a special armoured train: during the Second World War, the light railway was taken over by the war effort and placed into the services of Operation PLUTO (Pipeline Under the Ocean), which sent fuel under the English Channel from Romney Marsh to support the allied forces in Normandy. PLUTO infrastructure was cleverly disguised as coastal bungalows; the remaining structures which are in residential use are now known as ‘PLUTO houses’, and are another historical curio of the quirky British seaside.

Sunday 18 December 2022

Pilgrims Way damson gin

Thursday 15 September. The Queen is Dead and it’s day ten of national mourning. The weather is changing from summer into autumn and it feels like the mood – in fact the world – is changing, too, from an era of relative stability into an uncertain and unsettled future. There’s a chill to the wind and the sun is struggling to break through, only occasionally piercing the low, grey, moody Kentish skies to diffuse weakly outwards. I decide to set out from Hythe by bicycle to Wye crown, carved into the North Kent Downs high above Wye in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII, by students from the town’s agricultural college. I first spotted the giant crown from the train earlier in the year, en route from London to Margate, and was intrigued, wondering what on earth had made them to go all that effort. 
My route takes me uphill to Saltwood, where I get up close to a group of curious peacocks from the writer and broadcaster Kenneth Clark (and later, his right-wing politician son, Alan)’s castle, past the nursery where we used to go to pick out a Christmas tree every year from austere rows of pines, and over the M20 to Postling, a village that, while quite pretty, has no amenities except for a museum in a phone box. Joseph Conrad’s former home on the outskirts now has an airstrip outside, the fins of vintage planes peeking out of an old barn building. 
Soon afterwards, I pick up the Pilgrims Way, the route once taken to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury cathedral, which crosses Stone Street, the former Roman Road. The narrow road looks over the flat landscape below; marsh sheep and oast houses are now joined by vineyards and wind turbines. I pass homemade produce signs and honesty boxes closely monitored by CCTV and The Tiger Inn, advertising Mackeson’s Hythe Ales in large letters on its frontage. Damsons line the side of the road and apples rot in large back gardens; no-one’s picking them. As I struggle uphill, a couple overtake me on electric bikes. They have the right idea, I think to myself. 
As I reach Wye, I leave the road for an exposed, elevated footpath and the ground turns sandy and orange. The crown comes gradually into view, but the picture is partial and fragmented; close up it’s just a collection of white-painted rocks, enmeshed in wire. I follow a curve and try to picture the sections forming a crown in my head, then walk down the slope to see if I can get a better view. It’s impossible to see the whole from here – it’s best seen from the train line below, passing at speed, on the way to somewhere else.

Tuesday 8 February 2022

Gertrude Hermes’ Ordsall Peacock: a portal between Salford old and new

This winter, a large bronze peacock appeared in the grounds of Ordsall Hall in Salford, on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. 

Whilst a peacock might seem an unusual sight in inner-city Salford, the sculpture has a long history in Ordsall and plays an important part in the local community’s sense of identity. 

The Ordsall peacock is the work of Gertrude Hermes, a major mid-twentieth century British artist who was elected to prestigious exhibiting society the Royal Academy. Although her name may not roll off the tongue as easily as that of her peers, such as Barbara Hepworth, Hermes’ work has attracted renewed art historical and public interest in recent years following an exhibition at the Hepworth in Wakefield in 2015. Working across industrial design, sculpture and finely detailed woodcuts and linocuts, Hermes drew animals and famous English landmarks such as Stonehenge. She also depicted elements of the natural world, such as rock formations and waterfalls, in stylised close-up. 

Like many artists of her generation, Hermes did not just create work for galleries but made pieces for public places. After the Second World War, her artworks were purchased for numerous schools and teacher training schemes around the country. She also helped select prints for the annual Pictures for Schools exhibitions, held in London between 1947 and 1969, which aimed to provide affordable artworks for educational buyers. 
Hermes’ peacock was installed at the new Ordsall Girls School in 1961, using money from the local authority and funds raised by pupils (another proposed facility, a swimming pool, was apparently too expensive). A frog was placed outside the boys’ school; its location is now unknown. 
Ordsall High no longer exists, and the Ordsall of the early 1960s is unrecognisable from the Ordsall of today. Then, it was a densely populated area of Victorian housing, built for workers at the nearby docks. By the mid-1970s, the majority of the old housing stock had been knocked down as part of a slum clearance programme, and many of the residents had been moved to new housing in areas further out of the city. In the 1960s, film-maker Mike Goodger documented the run-down conditions in which many residents lived, lacking in basic facilities, whilst the bittersweet super-8 footage of local newsagent Ralph Brookes captured the final days of life and established social relationships in the old streets. Medieval stately home Ordsall Hall, whose long and interesting history included a stint as a working men’s club for a nearby mill, also fell into a state of disrepair. 

Since then, the area has comprehensively rebuilt, at a far lower population density. The majority of homes are still socially owned, an increasing rarity following the right-to-buy policies initiated by Thatcher in the 1980s. Whilst the area is still home to families who remember the ‘old Ordsall’, the docks down the road are long gone and the site has been rebranded ‘MediaCity UK’. Manual work has been replaced with media and creative industry jobs for those with qualifications and connections, alongside a university campus, apartments, shopping outlet, bars and the Lowry arts centre. A place of industry has become a leisure destination for those with disposable income. Ordsall Hall is now a council-owned museum with a tranquil garden and even the once polluted waters of the ship canal are clean enough for swimming and watersports. 
Hermes’ peacock remained at Ordsall High until the school closed in 1988 and the site became part of Salford College. The peacock was subsequently moved to a Salford College site in another inner-city area, Charlestown, a couple of miles away. Here, it was unceremoniously sunk into concrete and languished in what Gail Skelly, a volunteer and director of Ordsall Community Arts (OCA), describes as “an inauspicious place, full of weeds”. In 2012, the peacock was put into storage at the OCA’s headquarters whilst a new location was sought. Spearheaded by local man George Tapp, the community embarked on a campaign to bring the peacock home.  
Enabled by Heritage Lottery Funding, OCA spent several years working with Noah Rose, an artist with a long track-record of working in public art focused on communities and heritage, both in the UK and internationally, who led on the restoration of the sculpture. In collaboration with consulting structural engineer Peter Hewitt, Noah also designed a new plinth in red sandstone, sourced from St Bees in Cumbria, for the grounds of Ordsall Hall. 
Shortly before the completion of the completion of the restoration process, I visited Noah at his studio in a former printing works in Salford, where he outlined some of the challenges of restoring the peacock and remedying the damage done when it was removed from public display. I watched as Noah carefully cleaned away residue left when the artwork was embedded in concrete and showed me a heavy-walled bronze tube designed to secure the sculpture in its new home. “It’s been a big honour and responsibility to restore an iconic bronze sculpture by such an important artist,” Noah told me. “I want to honour the work, and it’s daunting, but by using the right materials I’m hoping to give it the best possible resurrection.” 
Gail emphasises that the project hasn’t just been about bringing the sculpture back physically, but has sought to explore its social significance and celebrate the area’s shared history. “We just have to tell people the story and they are interested,” she says. “The peacock is quite famous around here and everyone over the age of thirty who grew up here remembers it. It was originally situated on a pedestrian through-way, so even people who didn’t go to the school had seen it. People would meet there for a fight, a fag or a photo. It was their peacock.”
Associated events have included school drama, a map, a film and a social history project to develop a personal timeline of Ordsall with long-term residents of the area. Gail has worked with young women from Salford Girls’ Club, using Hermes’ position as a woman artist – she notes that Ordsall is a community in which women are often the most active members – to reflect on their own lives and the challenges they face; in the 1960s, Hermes catalysed a rule change to allow women to attend Royal Academy dinners, following her exclusion solely on the basis of her gender. 
In 2018, OCA marked its fortieth birthday with a peacock-themed lantern parade. A group of peahens were created for the peacock and hundreds of children were brought together in the dark to imagine what Gail calls a “daft love story”. In spring 2019, the peacock was celebrated with a light installation at the alternative arts festival Not Quite Light, which took place across Salford. 

Salford continues to develop rapidly, particularly those areas within walking distance of Manchester city centre. Geographically relocated by estate agents to be part of ‘Manchester’, these areas are being built up with apartment blocks promoting aspirational city living, often funded through foreign investment. In spite of this, there is a huge gulf between the old and new populations. Whilst higher earners have taken advantage of the ability to commute in to MediaCity from Manchester and its surrounding towns, or live in Ordsall and use it as a convenient base for working and socialising in Manchester, longstanding communities have been hit hard by austerity policies and the loss of services and amenities. Existing residents are often isolated and disenfranchised. 

Another peacock sculpture by Hermes was listed for £95,000 at auction in 2015. At a time when local authorities continue to sell off assets such as publicly owned artworks, this must seem a huge amount of money in Salford, a city which, despite its proximity to the cultural attractions of Manchester and Salford Quays, has one of the lowest levels of engagement with the arts in the country. Gail acknowledges the difficult balancing act between “money we desperately need to spend” and “the value of public art, whether that’s financial or cultural”. 

In spite of this, there is a recognition that the peacock means a great deal to Ordsall. “People really feel personally for it,” reflects Gail. “It’s a real focal point.” Above all, she says, “It’s a symbol of resilience and toughness, a reminder of the past when so much has been lost. It’s a portal between the old and new areas.” 
Visit the peacock in the grounds of Ordsall Hall now: 

Watch a video about the peacock’s return to Salford online here.
A launch event and celebration will be held from 4-5pm on Thursday 17 February. 

An exhibition of material relating to the project will be held at St Clement’s Church, Ordsall. The exhibition launches from 1-3pm on Sunday 20 February and will be open to visit on Sundays from 1-3pm until Sunday 13 March. 

Archive photos courtesy Paul Blain/Ordsall High School.

Friday 17 December 2021

Winter Hill sloe gin (Is this the way to San Marino?)

I had never been to Winter Hill – an open expanse of moorland above the large industrial town of Bolton – before. As a committed urbanite, I hadn’t walked up many hills of any scale. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that I finally fulfilled a long-held ambition of climbing Kinder Scout in the Peak District. I was inspired by a longstanding interest in the famous Kinder trespass of 1932, which pitted the rights of working people against private landowners who sought to deny them the freedom to roam in the open countryside that surrounded polluted, overcrowded towns and cities. When I heard about ‘Winter Hill 125’, therefore – a march to commemorate another successful and significant, but lesser-known, mass trespass – it seemed like the perfect excuse to get on the train to Bolton and take another walk. 
I didn’t expect it to be so far – or for this sunny Sunday in early September to be one of the last blazing hot days of the year. From the station, I walked alongside busy arterial roads to the start point of the march, a nondescript health centre a mile and a half out of Bolton town centre. Mingling with the crowd, I followed a colourful array of banners bearing socialist slogans and campaigning imagery, as the beats of the PCS union’s samba band buoyed us uphill through residential streets. Most of my fellow walkers seemed to know each other – and commented that I appeared to be the youngest on the walk by some distance! Many shared memories of taking part in similar commemorative walks, on previous anniversaries (including the centenary of the Winter Hill trespass in 1996). 

As we passed through different neighbourhoods, people turned out to wave: everyone, young and old, seemed pleased to see us. Heading towards the outskirts of the town, the houses changed in character, from dense redbrick terraces to mellow stone. Eventually, the roads narrowed to a country lane. I ate handfuls of blackberries from the side of the road, and picked a few sloes – a woman of South Asian heritage, curious, asked me what I was doing. 
As we left the town behind, the air began to clear and the samba band dispersed. For the first time, I stopped to look behind me, and saw the mass of people in the distance. There were hundreds – you don’t appreciate how many there are when you’re in the middle of it. I realised how high we were now, the town far below us. 
I kept walking. As we picked our way across the moors, over rough stones and clumps of grass, my footing became less steady. What should have been panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes were obscured by haze, and sheep and moorland was all that could be seen. Climbing higher and higher, I began to wonder where we were actually aiming for – and if we would ever reach ‘the top’. Eventually, six miles out of town, we seemed to come to a natural pause at a TV transmitter, a giant aerial stretching into the deep blue skies above, almost too tall to comprehend. 
Other walkers took out their sandwiches and made small talk with the Bolton Mountain Rescue team, parked up in a van. I wondered what going on. It turned out these were splinter groups, local rambling societies with plans to go in different directions and find their own routes across the moors. It appeared that I had, in my zeal, outpaced the rest of the organised march, and that we were now waiting for them to catch up. I felt truly as if I was in the middle of nowhere. It would be a long walk back down again and I began to panic, wondering how I would ever find my way back to the station. 
‘There’ll be buses from San Marino,’ I was repeatedly reassured. But what was San Marino? A little bit of southern Europe in windswept, post-industrial Lancashire? It seemed unlikely. Eventually, and gratefully, I was rescued by some friendly faces. Two former colleagues from my past working in the co-operative movement (which felt like a lifetime ago) appeared, who I hadn’t seen in years, and who lived nearby. 
We walked downhill together, a shorter and gentler route. San Marino was a Mediterranean restaurant in a picturesque spot overlooking a reservoir (one of many in the area, originally built in the Victorian era to service Bolton’s growing industries). There, we were met by local buses, which took us back to the town centre free of charge. The short journey back to town wasn’t just a welcome opportunity to rest my legs, but to catch up with others on the walk, find common ground and connections, and share stories. Winter Hill had brought us together.

Thursday 18 November 2021

The Shrieking Violet in the University of Salford Library

A full set of back issues of The Shrieking Violet is now available to view in the University of Salford Library zine collection.
This has entailed returning to the cheap photocopier shop on Oxford Road where I copied issues of The Shrieking Violet between circa 2009 and 2014.  
It felt really strange stepping back into a spot where I had spent so many hours engaged in the repetitive and almost meditative motions of copying, folding, ordering and compiling. I always thought of The Shrieking Violet as a zine about the city, but I realised for the first time how personal and autobiographical they were at the same time, almost like a diary of discovery and learning at a formative time of my life. Reading back now, I was struck by how righteous my younger self was at times, but also by how long I’ve held the same interests and motivations (from a very early age), which have only deepened and expanded over time.

Part of me wondered how I ever had the time, energy and motivation to do such things, how I managed to write so much, and if I was mad to do this. 
I thought about getting a set of back issues printed professionally for the library (which would have been a lot less onerous and time-consuming), but going back to the photocopier made me realise how intrinsic the material and act of photocopying and folding by hand was to The Shrieking Violet. While there are many things I would do differently now, not just from a design perspective, but to improve accessibility and legibility (for example I never realised how tiny the text was!), there’s something that really appeals to me not just about the instant, cheap format, but the unpredictability and randomness of the quality of the reproduction and the tone of the ink according to the individual machine. Perhaps it’s because no matter what my interests are, the spirit of punk is there somewhere in the background, underlying everything I do … 
I also always enjoy becoming reacquainted with one of my favourite ever interviews, with the artist Maurice Carlin, in issue 12 of The Shrieking Violet (2011), about his project The Self Publishers, which collected and compiled discarded sheets found in photocopier shops around Manchester and Salford. 
Other issues particularly pertinent to Salford include issue 9 (a special guide to Sounds from the Other City festival), issue 23, which features Claire Hignett on the story of the Basque children who were evacuated to Salford during the Spanish Civil War, and issue 24 (The Shrieking Violet guide to the Public Art of Central Salford). 
The zine collection can be viewed during library opening hours (24-hours daily for students) and during staffed hours (until 9pm daily) for visitors, at the Clifford Whitworth Library, University of Salford, M5 4NT. 
All back issues of the Shrieking Violet can also be viewed online at

Saturday 4 September 2021

Modernist Heroines article in Gender, Place & Culture by Morag Rose

Congratulations to Dr Morag Rose on the publication of her journal article in Gender, Place & Culture, ‘From an aviatrix to a eugenicist: walking with Manchester’s Modernist Heroines’, which documents Manchester’s Modernist Heroines, a joint local history project between the joint Loiterers Resistance Movement, Manchester Modernist Society and the Shrieking Violet in 2011. The article focuses on the alternative walking tour Morag developed, inspired by the ten twentieth-century women we highlighted through the project, and explores walking as feminist pedagogy; it's been great to see the project revisited, contextualised and reevaluated from a new perspective.

Read Morag's article online here.

Read the Manchester’s Modernist Heroines publication here, and find out more about the project and the heroines, here.

Sunday 27 June 2021

How it started: How it’s going: Darren Nixon and Laura Hopkinson, in dialogue with Natalie Bradbury, PAPER Gallery, 3 July-7 August

How it started
How it’s going
brings together new work on paper by Darren Nixon and Laura Hopkinson, shown in dialogue with The Fourdrinier writer Natalie Bradbury. For Nixon and Hopkinson as artists, and Bradbury as a writer, the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have also presented an opportunity to experiment with new media and explore different ways of working. In the past, Nixon and Hopkinson have worked primarily with video, incorporating elements of performance, painting, installation and sculptural intervention. Shown across PAPER and PAPER², the work on display in How it started How it’s going reflects a change of direction for both artists, both of whom are working with paper for the first time. This was prompted in part by the constraints imposed by lockdown, including a lack of access to studio space and a necessity to work with materials found close to hand. 

 Nixon’s resulting work is drawn from a large mass of collages, numbering more than four hundred in total. In these collages, found images, alongside images newly created by the artist, are reworked, redrawn and reimagined in new combinations and pairings, creating absurd, surreal and playful juxtapositions. Hopkinson has developed a series of witty text-based drawings, incorporating elements of wordplay alongside found phrases sourced from Amazon product reviews. As a writer whose work usually entails in-depth research, a tightly controlled style and close attention to detail, Bradbury has sought to rediscover the freedom, looseness and spontaneity of writing freehand on paper, without a pre-determined outcome. From their origins on paper, the bodies of work created by Nixon and Hopkinson have undergone a process of transformation. Scanned and transmitted digitally, the artworks have travelled backwards and forwards between Bradbury, Nixon and Hopkinson as large-scale file transfers. 

These electronic images have formed the basis of an ongoing, three-way collaboration: each has navigated through the work with a shared sense of humour, play and openness to multiple readings. 

The aim of How it started How it’s going is not to present two artists’ work side-by-side; instead, the show offers a snapshot of a conversation in progress. Rather than seeking to interpret or explain, How it started How it’s going sketches out creative connections between the artists’ work, which may act as starting points for further stories.

PAPER #67: How it started How it’s going: Darren Nixon and Laura Hopkinson, in dialogue with Natalie Bradbury 
Exhibition dates: 3 July-7 August 2021 
Opening Times: 11am-5pm every Saturday 
PAPER Gallery, Mirabel Studios, 14-20 Mirabel Street, Manchester, M3 1PJ 

Monday 14 December 2020

New website and Shrieking Violet online archive

Earlier this year I commissioned the designer Des Lloyd Behari to make me a new website to bring together most of my writing, projects and other work in one place.

The website features an archive of back issues of the Shrieking Violet, which can be explored at in a more reader-friendly way than they had previously been available.

While I still have a lot more of my writing archive to add, the website is live and can be explored at

Monday 7 December 2020

Manchester: Something Rich and Strange

I'm pleased to be a contributor to a new book, Manchester: Something Rich and Strange (edited by Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler), published by Manchester University Press with a beautiful cover by Simon Buckley (Not Quite Light). Aiming to get under the skin of the city and offer alternative perspectives beyond the usual, tired narratives, writers, artists and academics have each taken a series of words as prompts for short essays. I have written about 'Newspaper', 'Loop', 'Co-operative', Sculpture' and 'Statue'. 

Manchester: Something Rich and Strange is currently available for the bargain price of £7.79 (usual price £12.99). Buy here.

Listen to a short extract of me reading from my piece about the Loop lines, former railway lines converted to walking and cycling routes.
I also recorded a short video on the Fallowfield Loop talking about my contribution.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Best of 2019

2019 has been characterised by a precarious balance of full-time work, freelance work, conferences and attempts at academic writing. My primary output has been through the Fourdrinier, a new art writing site focused on work on paper, for which I have interviewed and written about artists including Jade Montserrat, Jenny Steele and Hondartza Fraga.

On Monday 15 April (it was made particularly memorable by the fact that later that day, in Paris, Notre Dame was to burn down), I was cycling to work in perfect conditions – sunny, windless and traffic-free due to the Easter holidays. Speeding along a straight section of the A6 on the borders of Lonsight and Ardwick, I realised my feet were racing around the pedals and I was going far too fast for the gear I was in. I tried to change gear, misbalanced, fell off and hit the road hard on my shoulder, breaking my collarbone. This put a stop to cycling for an interminable three months and, whilst I’ve now made a full recovery (unfortunately the recovery of Notre Dame looks far less certain), it sent me a message to try to slow down and take life at a bit less of a frantic pace. In spite of this, this is what I did manage to see/enjoy in 2019:


I spent two weeks in India this winter, which was an immersive sensory experience: there were so many sights, smells, sounds and colours to take in everywhere. I loved how colourful it was, particularly the clothing. In the UK I am used to standing out a lot with my colourful clothing. In India, it was the norm for people to wear bright yellows and greens and hot pinks.

One of the really big surprises was how green the cities were – there was such a variety of flowers and trees. In New Delhi, even the roundabouts were landscaped, and everywhere you looked were carefully tended pot plants. There was great variety in birds and animals: I was really excited by seeing ibises and eagles and bats, and colourful butterflies.
I really liked the street culture, and how alive the cities felt – the streets were used by people selling food, chai and clothes and offering services such as shoe shining and barbering. They felt like public spaces – families gathered in the parks and gardens, even after dark, picnicking or playing cricket. Everyone was really curious about visitors – people wanted to have selfies taken, to talk to you and find out where you were from and what you thought of India, and to shake your hand.
It was a vegetarian’s paradise: I loved eating idli, paratha, channa, uttapam, poha and bonda for breakfast every day, and trying regional dishes and variations on dosas and thalis and pani puri.
I enjoyed cosmopolitan New Delhi, especially the extraordinary eighteenth century Jantar Mantar observatory, and Mumbai, with its high concentration of luxurious art deco blocks, built on land reclaimed from the Arabian sea. However, visiting Chandigarh, the new capital city planned and designed for the Punjab post-partition by Le Corbusier (reached by a spacious train, with a lavish at-seat breakfast service consisting of multiple food courses and rounds of tea), was undoubtedly the highlight.
I loved exploring road inspector's Nek Chand's fantastical, magical rock garden – busy with families, selfie-taking couples and smartly-dressed, excitable parties of schoolchildren – and the grid-planned city's housing districts for government workers (enviable cycling infrastructure was designed into the city, and the bicycle appeared to be the dominant mode of transport, unlike car-choked Delhi), designed by Le Corbusier's cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the British couple Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, just as much as Le Corbusier's grandiose, awe-inspiring Capitol complex.
Whilst Gujarati city Ahmedabad is a World Heritage Site due to its high concentration of historic mosques, most of the city appeared to be a construction site: everywhere buildings were being knocked down and replaced with hotels and high-rise apartment blocks, leaving clouds of building dust. In spite of this, Le Corbusier's Millowners' Association was a real highlight of India. Formerly a centre of calico production, known as the 'Manchester of East', the Millowners' Association once overlooked the river to a view of hundreds of factory chimneys. Built as a networking space, and to show off new innovations in manufacturing, with its dramatic interplays of light and shadow, and fluidity between inside and outside spaces, this felt the closest I have ever felt to being inside a sculpture. Two houses built by Le Corbusier for mill-owning families felt like green oases as the city expanded around them.
In the summer I spoke at a conference in Porto, a sprawling city split across a river like Manchester-Salford or Newcastle-Gateshead. Full of old, hilly, cobbled streets to get lost in, a surprising amount of dereliction and facades with nothing behind, as well as the famous tiles which act like a ‘raincoat’ for the city, it was also strikingly rich in art deco buildings and details, from housing and cinemas to garages. The Worst Tours, a three-hour tour delivered by an architect turned tourguide (who had been forced into tourism by the financial crash and ongoing austerity), was a great introduction. Our guide spoke about the way in which Porto has developed over time and the politics of space and regeneration. A highlight was the architecture of Álvaro Siza, including the co-operative SAAL Bouça Housing designed after the Portuguese revolution.
Closer to home, Doncaster was bustling and lively but had a tough edge.
Loughborough was a pleasant industrial market town dominated by a huge post-war university campus (since expanded) – and a 1923 carillon on the skyline, which also serves as a war memorial. A collection of campus artworks contrasted with the sportiness of the students, and the high concentration of sports pitches.
Uppermill, on the edges of Oldham, with its swishly done-up Weavers Factory, had a spectacular landscape and views over Greater Manchester, but felt otherwise claustrophobically twee and bourgeois.

Waterlogged fields made for a muddy walk from Marple Bridge, on the outskirts of Stockport, to Mellor, on the edge of the Peak District. Tall terraces backed onto a loudly rushing river at pretty hamlet Mill Brow, and the ancient hill-top church of St Thomas, next to the site of an archaeological dig and a reconstructed roundhouse, contrasted with the views over the tower blocks of Stockport and Manchester’s modern-day glass high-rises.
At Upnor in Kent, the River Medway left a muddy beach of oyster shells, pottery, bricks and glass, with chalet communities on the banks. An estuarine fort and rows of houseboats made for a picturesque walk towards Sheerness bridge in the distance.

Sandford Park Lido, a long pool surrounded by lawns in the extremely posh Cotswolds town of Cheltenham, was heaving on one of the hottest days of the year. The pool has consistently well-used since the 1930s and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. It’s adapted well to the times, though, serving vegan burgers and ice cream.
Cirencester’s Victorian Open Air Swimming Pool, by contrast, was far less busy and more relaxed. Run by volunteers, and featuring a book and swimwear swap, it had a community feel and was heated to the perfect temperature. Down a lane alongside a half-dried up river, and overlooked by a castle surrounded by medieval streets, this has got to be one of the most scenic settings for a swim in Britain.
I was extremely disappointed to find Álvaro Siza’s Tidal pools of Leça da Palmeira, on the coast outside Porto, shut for refurbishment, as big waves crashed over the rocks of Porto’s cold, windy, misty beaches. Luckily, another sixties pool by Siza, the tranquil Piscina da Quinta da Conceição, provided a more sheltered spot, set in parkland with grassed sun terraces and polished wood changing rooms.


Penny Woolcock’s film-based exhibition ‘Fantastic Cities’ at Modern Art Oxford brought together a plurality of viewpoints exploring how our experiences of cities and how we behave in them are affected by identities such as gender, class and race.

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s ‘Genetic Automata’ at Arts Catalyst in London was an engaging film installation challenging our ideas of race, heritage and identity through a collage of popular cultural imagery (from videogames and emojis to Darwin’s taxidermy collection), with an alternative music soundtrack.
‘But what if we tried?’ at Touchstones in Rochdale was an illuminating experiment to display as much of the town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces), exploring the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a gallery, the legacies and ongoing acquisitions which shape collections, politics of funding and ownership, and the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care.
‘Still I Rise (Act 2)’ at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill was an immersive and all-encompassing survey of feminism and culture which ranged across activism, representation, sexuality, urbanism, spirituality, new models for living, working and organising and much, much more.
The Festival of Making and ‘Art in Manufacturing’ programme brought together art, science and industry in Blackburn. Dan Edwards' series of street signs ‘We Can Do More’, displayed around the town, were reminders and prompts to act, subverting a workers’ instruction manual and street signage. Amy Pennington’s ‘Return to Sender’ project, working with an envelope factory, asked local people to send responses to questions about their working practices, and Daksha Patel’s ‘Connecting Yarn’, looked at the UK and worldwide destinations of yarn dyed in Blackburn. The highlight, though, was Liz Wilson’s repetitive, hypnotic video and sound installation ‘The Optical Mechanical’, which gradually built up an ensemble of found sounds and images resembling minimalist classical music.
Nika Neelova’s ‘EVER’ took place across the former brewery offices of the Tetley in Leeds, reimagining the building’s gallery spaces through a series of sculptural interventions exploring and subverting the materiality of its interiors.
Laurie Anderson’s virtual reality experience ‘To the Moon’, at the Royal Exchange in Manchester was a rare opportunity to fly and explore space in the body of an astronaut. Her dreamy yet subtly political installation suggested that stars are the one thing man can’t harvest or destroy.
Frances Disley’s participatory solo show ‘The Cucumber Fell in the Sand’ at Humber Street Gallery in Hull asked us to slow down and focus on our experience, whilst thinking about approaches to care and growing, and how we look after ourselves and others.

'Instituting Care', Jade Montserrat’s huge wall drawings and installation/reading room/library at the Bluecoat in Liverpool (which then toured to Humber Street) explored ideas of education and care, both through institutions and alternative models and ways of thinking.
There was lots to look at and think about in ‘Future Cities’ at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, but the highlight was Laurence Lek’s time- and city-travelling video work Pyramid Schemes, which explored architecture as sign, symbol, fantasy and spectacle, and its cultural and physical meanings and impact.
I was excited to visit Radar at Loughborough University, whose research-led visual arts programme I have long admired. 'This Was Just What I Saw' was the result of a collaboration between Human Geography lecturer Dr Sarah Mills and artist Katarina Hruskova, inspired by the art teaching methods of Marion Richardson, an interwar educationalist associated with child art, who worked to develop children’s powers of self-expression and ‘inner eye’ using the power of memory, description and observation. Mills and Hruskova worked with Richardson’s archive, and children in present-day Midlands schools, to reanimate and reimagine Richardson’s methods.
The British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent explored the legacy and heritage of clay in the area, and its international connections, pushing the boundaries of what ceramics are and the form they take, raising issues round authenticity, copies and their relation to the original. Highlights included Terms & Conditions at Airspace and Victoria Lindo and William Brookes’ pots at Spode Works, where a tragic story lurked beneath the beauty of ornately worked surfaces.
Elizabeth Price’s ‘A Long Memory’ at the Whitworth in Manchester was full of bizarre and bewildering juxtapositions and references to memory, culture, language, technology and change: in her films, it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s fiction. The highlight was At the House of Mr X, an increasingly surreal tour around a modernist house which offered an alternative perspective on value, lingering on seemingly banal details about the materials of the house, its decor and contents.
‘Banner Culture’ at Brierfield Mill, part of the British Textiles Biennial, brought together the most banners I’ve ever seen in one place: the variety of media and techniques used, and political causes and makers, from professionals to collaborative and community-based projects, was astonishing.

Amalia Pica’s solo show ‘Private & Confidential’ at the New Art Gallery in Walsall subverted bureaucratic motifs of officialdom and attempted to find joy in the paper trails of institutional correspondence she had to navigate when going through the process of obtaining British citizenship.
I found Katie Paterson’s transmissions across time, space and distance, and explorations of our planet and others, at Turner Contemporary in Margate, whimsical but quite engrossing.
Also at the Turner Contemporary, Lawrence Abu Hamdan's films were the highlight of this year's (extremely serious) Turner Prize. The standout was After SFX, an alternative dictionary of sounds with connotations of torture, compiled through interviews with former inmates of Syria's Sednyaya Prison, which showed how our sensory perceptions rely on our prior knowledge and experiences to explain and make sense of the indescribable.


‘The Favourite’ had absolutely fantastic performances from all three leads and made you wonder who was manipulating whom.
It was a great year for British film: Carol Morley’s ‘Out of Blue’ was a modern-day noir and detective story set in New Orleans. Featuring an astonishing performance from Patricia Clarkson, and playing with masks and appearances, you didn’t know what to believe and it made you question the extent to which you can ever really know someone.

Both humorous and sad, ‘Bait’ looked and sounded beautiful. Though sometimes straying close to parody and stereotype, the tension rose perfectly in this tale of conflict between locals of a Cornish fishing village and second home-owners.

‘Ray and Liz’ was a social realist drama with a surrealist, dreamy twinge, like Terence Davies meets Andrea Arnold. Flitting backwards and forwards in time between a terrace and tower block, it was a portrait of Richard Billingham’s childhood – and of neglect – as much as of his parents.

‘The Souvenir’, Joanna Hogg’s Jarmonesque story about the lives of Sloaney upper classes was her best film yet, and one whose characters – including fantastic mother-daughter performers by Tilda Swinton and Honor Byrne Swinton – and their stories stayed in your mind long afterwards.

Elsewhere, Claire Denis’ first English-language film, the melancholy ‘High Life’, featured a confusingly twisted and often disturbing sci-fi plot and a characteristically atmospheric score by Stuart A Staples.

‘Capernaum’ was a tender, heartbreaking Lebanese film exploring ideas of family, care, nurture, choice and responsibility, and based on the premise of a boy (who was old before his time) suing his family for being born and for child neglect.

‘The Chambermaid’ explored frustrated ambition, claustrophobia, class, exploitation and stoicism, all within the confines of a luxury hotel in Mexico City.

‘Book Smart’ was improbable but hilarious. ‘Woman At War’ was a subtly funny, surreal Icelandic comedy in which the landscape and the weather was ultimately the star.

‘Pain and Glory’ was muted by Almodóvar's standards, and surprisingly moving, telling a story of creative inspiration, ageing and loss.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ was beautifully shot with a lush score and contemplative voiceover. Combining the personal with the institutional, a love story was intertwined with the sound and colour of a sultry New York summer.

I enjoyed 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood' and 'The Irishman' for their soundtracks and period styling as much as for their plots (and Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio's on screen chemistry in 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood').

‘Bridges of Time’ brought together new and historic documentary film showing everyday life in the Baltic states behind the Iron Curtain, from children dancing, singing and at school, to seal-hunting, fishing and forestry, to the uniformity of Soviet apartment blocks, surveyed from above. Dating from the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, elderly film-makers and their subjects were brought together with extremely moving results.

‘Island of Hungry Ghosts’ had a strong sense of place, exploring the migration of crabs and humans on Australia's Christmas Island.

‘Being Frank’, the Frank Sidebottom documentary, was both hilarious and tragic. It told a very personal story – encompassing the dual personas of Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey – and presented a picture of thwarted ambition and unbridled creativity across music, comedy, art and even computer programming.
‘Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records’ was not just the story of Trojan records but an exploration of migration, identity, cultures, relationships and social change.
‘Stories from the She Punks’ discussed how and why women got into bands and learned to play, arguing that it gave often shy young women a voice, something to say and the means to say it.


‘Black Mirror’ continued its preoccupation with technology. The British-set episodes were the highlights: Striking Vipers, which explored the implications of pornography and the boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds and Smithereens, with its screen-mediated lives, couldn't have been more topical.

Jeremy’s Deller’s documentary ‘Everybody in the Place’ provided a social, material, political, cultural and musical history of rave culture – and the 1980s. Presented in the form of a sixth form history lesson, it mercifully avoided the usual staid talking heads.

Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ series made a welcome return to the TV. Now aged 63, the participants’ relationship with Apted had become as central as the initial themes of class and work. The programme was given an added poignancy through the participants’ experiences of ageing and loss, and a topicality through attitudes to Brexit.

‘Tao of Glass’ was an incredibly funny and moving one-man monologue from Phelim McDermott offering a deeply personal reflection on art, creativity and inspiration. McDermott took us on a journey from his teenage years in Blackley, north Manchester, listening to Philip Glass records and dreaming of being on stage at the Royal Exchange to moving to New York and producing Philip Glass operas. Visually and musically gorgeous, combining paper, music and puppetry, 'Tao of Glass' felt genuinely international and collaborative. When Philip Glass himself appeared on stage at the end, hugging McDermott and holding hands, I wasn’t the only audience member moved to tears.


‘From Rzycki, Michael Galeta, a 20th century life’ was an extremely moving tribute by Robert Galeta to his late father. It pieced together and tried to make sense of his life, firstly as a teenager taken from his family and village in Poland (now in the Ukraine) to a forced labour camp in Germany during the war, and passing through a series of camps in France and Italy, before settling and making a life in Bradford – from where Galeta and his father took journeys together and re-eencountered traces of the people and places his father had formerly known.

‘Present Tense’, published by Liverpool culture site the Double Negative, reflected on the legacy of the city as Capita of Culture, a decade on. One of the highlights was a Liverpool sculpture walk by Denise Courcoux, which made me want to go and hunt some of the sculptures down.
Finally, although Essex and its architecture and culture has been a place of renewed interest in recent years, thanks in large part to the efforts of Focal Point Gallery's Radical Essex programme, Gillian Darley's return to her home county for 'Excellent Essex' shed some light on some of the county's still lesser-known histories and figures.

The most beautiful record of the year was Jessica Pratt’s aptly named 'Quiet Signs'. At times Tropicalia-esque, her guitar and voice were augmented by piano and flute, bringing to mind Hope Sandoval, 'Pink Moon'-era Nick Drake and even Erik Satie.

Mark Stewart’s distinctive voice rang out like a timely warning call on Jah Wobble’s A Very British Coup, also featuring Andrew Weatherall, Keith Levene and Richard Dudanski.

Kate Tempest’s Firesmoke was downbeat and vulnerable, but personal and ultimately affirmative electronica.

My discovery of the year was the Afrobeat/gospel/jazz of 'Where the Future Holds' by Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble, the highlight being the catchy and urgent Sounds like Now.

David Berman made a welcome return with Purple Mountains’ droll country, particularly on the contradictorily upbeat All My Happiness Has Gone, before his untimely death.

Another welcome return was No Rock: Save in Roll, a new single in Cornershop’s classic style.

Elsewhere, Trash Kit went all jammy on Horizon, Pozi’s Engaged was nursery rhyme-esque grunge with a raw, simple violin line and Dogs by All Girls Arson Club had the ramshackle charm of Tallulah Gosh and alt-folk, and I can't get Liz Naylor (named after the iconic City Fun writer and friend of the band) by Barry out of my head.


It was too busy to actually see Jessica Pratt during her gig at Manchester’s hippest new venue, Yes, but the minimal set up of her band – just her, a guitar and a Korg keyboardist, with an encore performed solo – allowed her voice and otherworldly melodies to shine through. The audience was rapt, appreciative and appeared to be intimately acquainted with her work.

Sauna Youth and Trash Kit played short but sweet 35-mintue sets at the White Hotel in Salford. At Yes, Trask Kit side project Sacred Paws expanded with a bassist and second guitarist, but it was best when it was just the two of them playing fast punk.
At the Bridgewater Hall, Mark Elder explained and contextualised the Hallé Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony with a knowledge and enthusiasm that made you want to learn more.
The richness and dour beauty of Bill Callahan’s songs shone through at the Albert Hall in Manchester, during a stripped down set featuring a bowed and plucked double bass, bowed and plucked.
Jazz trio GoGo Penguin performed a live, post-rock-style soundtrack to 'Koyaanisqatsi' at the Royal Northern College of Music, keeping pace with the intensity of the film and its frenetic visuals.

The most fun gig of the year was the Broadcast-esque weird-pop of Stealing Sheep at Yes. Their psychedelic a capella, three-piece vocal harmonies and co-ordinated dance moves culminated in an inflatable sheep in the crowd. Wearing matching body-tight, glittery dresses, and sparkling faces and hair, they appeared to be delighted to be there. Dancier and more bassy live, they even incorporated a cover of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.
Finally, it was good to back on stage, performing with experimental poetry project Chelsea from Essex at Band on the Wall's free jazz showcase.