Monday, 30 September 2013

Friends in the north

As has always seemed to have been the way in my life, plans carefully constructed after much thought and deliberation, are frequently subject to late and radical change. Prompted by the need to ensure the safe delivery of two pictures to the far north of Scotland, an intricate programme of business - and just a wee bit of pleasure - was on the cards for these last few days of September,

Just as everything was more or less in place, a single phonecall resulted in a fairly fundamental change of plans. We still headed north, but stopped short at Newcastle to have dinner with author, academic and probably my oldest friend, Professor Andrew Ballantyne. Not having been into the city for many years it was great to get a feel for how it now is, eating and sleeping in Jesmond, just north of the city centre. By all appearances this is where cool people - and wealthy students - hang out. Great houses in very attractive streets, sprinkled with an ample supply of bistro's, cafes and cool shops. Having been watered and fed by Andrew in some considerable style, it was back to earth with a bit of a bump the following morning with a brief visit to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Baltic Contemporary Arts Centre, neither of which were in existence when I last visited!

The bridge is simply stunning, but I have to say the Baltic and its surroundings - or lack of them - didn't really do it for me. These waterside venues really do need people and activity, both of which were sadly lacking on this occasion. Couldn't help feeling I would become very withdrawn very quickly if I was one of the gallery attendants there - but maybe it was just a bad day.

Having no need to head for Edinburgh and beyond, two hours later we were in the soft south or West Yorkshire as it likes to be known. Filling another gap in my cultural experience, Salts Mill in Shipley couldn't have provided a greater contrast with the Baltic. Another conversion and also housing contemporary art - in this case the Hockney collection.

This one was buzzing with life. Art, colour, activity, food, drink - just fantastic and on the same day that not much more than a hundred miles away it all felt just a bit sad. Not just the Hockneys and not just hanging on the walls but percolating into the life of the place.

Whoever masterminds this should be very, very pleased with what they have achieved.

The sun was shining and Yorkshire was looking as good as it ever gets, and it really was quite easy to get carried away.  And it's not simply populist. On the top floor - or rather above the top floor - there is currently a fascinating exhibition 'Cloth and Memory' - which is normally the kind of thing I avoid. In what was once the largest industrial space in the world is a collection of intriguing and fascinating installations inspired by the activity that this building used to house. Anywhere else it might not have worked; here it most definitely does.

Heading on into the deep south - Sheffield - culture was replaced by more food with, this time, family. Overnight in the slightly unreal if very comfortable world of a city-centre Premier Inn and away again, this time to the cloistered world of Repton School, not for educational reasons but to collect a few pieces by one of my favourite potters, John Wheeldon. As with a number of others who show with us, I first became aware of John's raku work through the good offices of Richard Godfrey. John is currently developing a new range of domestic work so, of course, we had to test this in use, with a coffee while we talked. It was fantastic to hear from John that Richard is making real progress in his recovery and is not only making again but has been out on his travels. On John's advice we took one further small diversion into the crypt of Repton Church to view the Saxon columns in the crypt. Extraordinary where gallery life takes one.

To round off this social whirlwind, we headed first to Northamptonshire for more food and friends and finally back to my roots in Warwickshire. Walking along the canal and then the banks of the Avon into the heart of Warwick was a timely reminder of just how good England can be at this time of year.

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