British Cities Aiming for
‘Capital of Culture’
by Hilary Macaskill
NOTE: Since this article was written the winning city was announced: Liverpool
Six UK cities have been short-listed for the most coveted prize in Europe:
the title European Capital of Culture 2008. Though that year seems a long way off (the
first European capital will be in Ireland in 2005 and the final UK nomination for 2008
announced by the British Prime Minister this May) the finalists are all surprisingly
good destinations for culture vultures right now.
The proliferation of low-cost airlines also means they have never been
more accessible: making them ideal for short breaks or as touring bases for longer stays.
The transformation that has taken place in the cities - Birmingham, Bristol,
Cardiff, Liverpool, Oxford and Newcastle-Gateshead - has been remarkable. All, with the
possible exception of Oxford, were traditionally thought of as centres of industry and
commerce rather than art and culture (the same was said of , Scotland, honoured
as City of Culture in 1990). Things have changed. Each has become a showcase for culture,
creativity and regeneration.
Industrial relics have been transformed into temples of art. New and
arresting architecture is complementing the old. Fashionable waterfronts have become
places to linger. Youthful energy and vitality is everywhere.
Birmingham, England’s second city, 118 miles north-west of London,
has undergone a thorough makeover by award-winning architects.
It has more canals than Venice - now displayed to great effect with
lively waterfront complexes, notably at Brindleyplace with its fountains and stylish
restaurants. It is home to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (the Symphony Hall
is one of Europe’s best concert venues); ballet; theatre; opera - and notable art
galleries. There’s the City Museum with its pre-eminent collection of pre-Raphaelite
art and, at the University, the gem of the Barber Institute, small but star-studded.
There are real gems too in the Jewellery Quarter, home to 100 designer-makers and a
fascinating Discovery Centre. Stratford-upon-Avon - heart of Shakespeare country - is
within easy reach.
Liverpool, in north-west England, is best known for its football - and
the Beatles; the Mersey sound that revolutionised popular music. The city still pays
homage with exhibitions, tours and live music: Paul McCartney’s childhood home is open
to visitors, with John Lennon’s expected to open in spring 2003.
But this was also once the richest city in England, with magnificent
buildings that befit that status, as well as two cathedrals and Europe's largest
Chinatown. On the Mersey riverfront are the so-called Three Graces - the Port of
Liverpool, Liver and Cunard Buildings: a Fourth Grace will be added after a recent
architectural competition. Close by, the old warehouses of Albert Dock have been
transformed into a collection of restaurants, pubs, museums - and Tate Liverpool,
home of modern art in the North.
On the opposite coast, 280 miles north of London, Newcastle upon Tyne and
Gateshead are divided by the River Tyne. The Millennium ‘winking eye’ Bridge is the
latest of several landmark bridges - so called because it closes like an eyelid to let
vessels pass. The adjacent Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is a unique gallery in a
vast former flour mill: don’t miss the rooftop restaurant.
More pleasures await at the Metro Centre, one of Europe’s largest
shopping malls with 350 stores; and in Newcastle’s celebrated nightlife - the Geordies
(as the locals are called) know how to party! The restored Georgian city centre has
many listed buildings: it is second only to Bath. Museums include Segedunum, marking
the most easterly Roman fort on Emperor Hadrian’s Wall. Gateshead’s best known artwork
is the Angel of the North, a metal giant by artist Richard Gormley dominating views
from the main road and railway. The castles and wild scenery of Northumbria are nearby.
The re-birth of Cardiff, Wales, 155 miles west of London and
Europe’s youngest capital, is focused on Cardiff Bay, with its lake and marina, centre
for the city’s explosion of cultural activities. The café and restaurant quarter of
Mermaid Quay offers more choice.
It is home to an ornate castle (embellished as only the Victorians could);
the Welsh National Opera, galleries, open-air sculptures, and five-star hotels. Visit,
too, the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, one of the world’s largest collections
of impressionist paintings, and the Millennium Stadium, host to football and rugby
finals and rock concerts.
Bristol, 120 miles west of the capital, has also made the most of its
waterfront, its warehouses home to distinctive restaurants and museums such as
‘At Bristol’, a hands-on science and nature discovery centre. Temple Meads, one of
the world’s oldest rail stations, houses the new British Empire and Commonwealth
Museum, which takes an unbiased look at the imperial past, including the city’s part
in the slave trade. The maritime past is also recalled when you visit the Great Britain,
the world’s first ocean-going iron steamship or The Matthew, replica of the vessel
John Cabot sailed to America in 1497.
Art galleries range from the distinguished Arnolfini displaying
contemporary art, and the multi-cultural Kuumba. Theatres include the Old Vic, England’s
oldest continuously working one, and the Hippodrome, where local boy Cary Grant made his
debut. Bristol’s festivals include those celebrating kites, balloons and film, and the
Caribbean-style St. Paul’s Carnival. Bath, a World Heritage City, is 13 miles away.
The ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford (an hour north-west of London) and
the boats punting on the River Cherwell, give this city a romantic as well as academic
atmosphere. The golden-stone university buildings - all 39 colleges, plus the Bodleian
Library and Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre - are best appreciated on a walking tour.
It makes the most of its many literary links, especially with children’s
authors. From Lewis Carroll (Alice, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford’s
largest college, was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) to Philip Pullman; and
the Inklings, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who used to meet at the Eagle and
Oxford can also claim Britain’s first public museum, the Ashmolean - as
well as one of the most quirky - the Pitt Rivers, the collection of one man (both have
free admission). The picturesque villages of the Cotswold Hills are on the doorstep.
Though there can only be one Capital of Culture in 2008 there are no
losers in this contest. The runners-up will be titled Centres of Culture, ensuring they
are popular with visitors for a long time to come.