Alex's (very) occasional blog

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No river, Nor Loch.

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The Nor Loch.

All cities should endeavour to have a body of water. Something to break the confines, open the horizon. Edinburgh had a loch. But drained it and stuck a railway station in there instead.


Written by alexconnor

October 27, 2012 at 16:16

Posted in Uncategorized

The mouth of the river Effra.

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Engineering and science.

Alfred Drury’s bronzes on the downstream side of Vauxhall Bridge recognise the great pillars of the national culture : science (seen here), fine art, education and, er, local government.

Written by alexconnor

August 11, 2012 at 20:11

Posted in Science, Sculpture, Sunburn

Things going places.

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I was reading the other day that ‘industry’ is hidden or missing from the UK landscape. I am of the view that people just aren’t looking for it. Felixtowe is a nice little seaside town on the uneventful Suffolk coast. It is also the biggest container port in the UK, the 6th largest in Europe and the 34th largest in the world. One of the most important places in the UK for international trade. Just look at them go.

The CSAV RUNGUE, flying the flag of the great maritime nation of Liberia, on its way out of the Europoort at Rotterdam. Not sure where it was heading on the 12th of July, but it rolled into Miami a couple of weeks later.

Written by alexconnor

August 10, 2012 at 17:55

The things you can see with a digital camera.

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Written by alexconnor

July 1, 2012 at 13:36

Posted in Sunburn, Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

High roaring pines.

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Liberec, 28 December.

Growing up in the east of England, home of arable fields and pigsties, I have always seen mountains and forests as mysterious and enticing things. Filled with woodland realms and mountain kings. So it was with no little anticipation that I took my girlfriend off to the mountains in the north of the Czech Republic for the New Year. We were to be based in a hotel on the top of the Ještěd-Kozákov ridge, just outside Liberec and surrounded by woodland. And not just any woodland. A lush, ancient, Peter-and-the-Wolf style forest. Ripe for walking in.

Plans were made in short order and once installed in the hotel we set out down the mountain, wearing clothes that would not look out of place in London on a brisk afternoon. We laughed at the German tourists and their gortex and hiking poles, and their seriousness. We had seen their group at breakfast, as boorish as visitors from the local large country can be when they drop in on a smaller neighbour. We in contrast, cowed by our lack of language skills, were Über-polite. Courteous to the point of diffidence. The very soul of the relaxed traveller. And so it seemed even more appropriate that they should see us striding off in to the woods in such casual attire – we know what we are doing, and we can do it with making such a fuss about things.

We wound our way down a path that seemed to have been built by the trees themselves. This was the forest I had imagined. The walk was easy, fun. Making snowballs and marvelling at the virgin snow stretching out on the path before us. Sampling the silence and the infinity of the ancient forest, the long range order of the trees.

We reached the base of the mountain all too soon, and, after a brief moment to congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments, we turned and started back up. It was slightly harder going than we had anticipated but no less of adventure. We still had the trees, the mythology.

About an hour later we were still going. The path, curiously, as unfamiliar and untouched as it was on the way down. But such concerns were muted by the footprints of some other hearty walker and his dog in front of us. They went this way, surely we can too – after all, there was only one path, and we knew where it came from. We collected a couple of walking sticks from the forest floor. Only for appearance, of course. And took in the view across a vast snowy valley that somehow we had missed on the way down

Half an hour more and the romance was beginning to fade. The snow was up past our knees. The forest had opened out and we found ourselves on what appeared to be a mountain ridge, with night about to fall. Thoughts began to wander to half-remembered snippets on mountain survival. Should it be a snow hole, or shelter made of pine fronds? Pine cones are edible, aren’t they? Thoughts also drifted to the indignities of being rescued : hapless tourists rescued in good health, probably about 200 yards from the hotel reception. Maybe they would send a helicopter. The footprints we had been following stretched resolutely out ahead of us up the mountainside. Two clear sets, a man and his dog. A dog!

As the light began to dip further, common sense began to overcome pride. Footprints be damned. We were going back. A dog had beaten us.

It seemed only moments later that we arrived, exhausted, wet and delirious at the car park half way up the mountainside. We strode in as Shackleton to be met by the barely expressed indifference of the young families loading up their cars with sledges and pushchairs.

A glance back up the hill explained it all. There were two paths! To the right, a familiar welcoming trail into the magical forest, and on the left, a rugged goats’ path, marked only with a faded wooden signpost pointing to the next village some 16 km away.

It wasn’t long before we were back in the hotel. Huddled round bowls of soup, not looking at the Germans.

Written by alexconnor

June 25, 2012 at 23:36

Posted in Not really Flanders., Sunburn

Tagged with ,


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London is awash with the relics of Empire. Great statues and monuments commemorating great men and greater victories. But it is not always the British Empire. There is the occasional Roman Wall. And then a couple of minor road signs and a plaque, which are all that remain of the London outpost of the Hanseatic League.

The League was an empire of trade which ran northern European commerce, and so much of northern Europe itself, for more than a century. Its offices stretched from Kievan Rus and Riga in the east to London in the west, with a sphere of influence that took in Greenland and Colchester.

The westernmost point of empire.

The English tend to know little of their history (relative to other occupants of these islands), and that which they do know is often somewhat heroic. Tales of kings and queens and splendid isolation. Something about being on an island, perhaps. Possibly something to do with Shakespeare: Richard this, Henry that. But also something to do with the compromises required if a “national” history is to be taught. Among the under-reported events is the Anglo-Hanseatic war of 1470-4, where the Hanse dealt such a spanking to the English navy that Edward IV was forced to Utrecht to sign a treaty which locked England out of trade in the North and Baltic seas and, essentially, ceded a chunk of prime territory in the centre of London to a foreign power. (The treaty also granted the Hanse the right to build a warehouse in King’s Lynn. It’s still there today, though now resolutely the property of Norfolk County Council). Utrecht firmed up the arrangements in London where a Kontor in one form or other had existed for centuries.


The Stalhof, on the bank of the Thames just west of London Bridge, controlled amongst other things the export of English cloth to much of Europe. It had its own currency, with merchants seconded from the major centres in Lübeck and Hamburg. But not many windows that faced outwards. “Rich German merchants” were targeted by Wat Tyler’s rebellion, and their presence was no more welcomed by the good Städtern of mediæval London.

Not cannon street.

The land under the steelyard was bought by the city in 1853 and turned into Cannon Street station, the site of the aforementioned plaque, and, aptly, right next to what is (I think) the last working wharf on the square mile. By then the great League was no more than a rump, subverted by rise of the Swedes and the Dutch and ultimately sunk by Bismarck. It was finally written out of history in 1862, but the memory persists (if only as a politicised ideal).

It is a bit of a shame that none of the Hanse architecture survives in London to rival the gables and conical spires that decorate Lübeck and Hamburg. But there is some historical resonance in a great trading empire parked in the square mile (even if the English once went to war against the free trade it offered) and it played its part in establishing modern London as the entrepôt that it remains today, if more for people than for goods and grain.

A working river.

There are loads of great histories of the Hanseatic League and its role in European history, though they are mostly in German – it isn’t a subject much covered in the English language. A friendly intro was written in 1891 by Helen Zimmern.

Written by alexconnor

June 6, 2012 at 01:41

Two roads diverged in a wood.

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Written by alexconnor

April 10, 2012 at 19:39

Posted in Uncategorized

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