Archive for June, 2007

London belongs to us

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Today we’ve had our feet firmly stuck in the past, walked around the present, and strided into the distant future.

London was the host of today’s activities, as we toured what will be the new Olympic Park site, and then caught a history of the grand old dame of the South Bank, the Royal Festival Hall.

Royal Festival Hall, London (image taken from ‘This is Tomorrow’, courtesy of Saint Etienne and Paul Kelly)
Royal Festival Hall, London (taken from ‘This is Tomorrow’, courtesy of Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly)

The day started in Stratford. The official Olympic Park Walk looked especially official and interesting on the map, but the reality of the gravel tracks and gritty roads are somewhat different.

And not in a good way.

When lorries driving past aren’t spewing up contact lens-disturbing road grit, there are walls of disused tyres to look at, large dirty puddles to be avoided, and  rain to be sheltered from under iron bridges. And, that’s without the extra ‘points of interest’ (which clearly aren’t anything of the sort), which are tacked on to the southern loop, presumably to make it more scenic, but just make it an hour too long.

There are no official hoardings as to the architectural wonders that will fill the still-to-be-developed spaces, the official footpath signs are so small that they can easily be missed, and there are no diversions to take the walker around the sections of the route which have already been courdoned off.

It’s all largely academic now anyway, as the site is sealed off on Monday to let the building works really get underway. All in all, very disappointing, and I dread to think what overseas spectators will make of it all (and the muddlesome logo) in 2012.

This part of East London needs some more than drastic improvements in those intervening five years. The building works and Olympic visions need to be good, to tranform this blot on the city’s landscape.

In fact, we gave up on the northen loop, and while the DLR provided us with a ride to Canary Wharf, it was only a connecting interlude, as our final destination was the South Bank.

 ‘This is Tomorrow’ film promo (image courtesy of Saint Etienne and Paul Kelly)
‘This is Tomorrow’ film promo (courtesy of Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly)

To celebrate the Royal Festival Hall‘s reopening, artists in residence Saint Etienne were premiering their latest film, ‘This is Tomorrow‘. It’s been well-documented on these pages before that I am a big fan of the London-loving band, and so the thought of a film about an iconic London building by my favourite pop group seemed to be the perfect pairing.

(In a synchronistic twist, the band’s earlier film, ‘What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?‘ chronicled the demise of the Lower Lea Valley, and trod some of those same Stratford paths which we walked a few hours ago.)

Not only that, the 75-minute film is soundtracked by the band, and the premiere would see them performing the score live, along with a 60-piece orchestra and choir made up from musicians at local schools. A fan of their previous and well-received film about London, ‘Finisterre‘, I was eager with aniticipation and excitement.

It didn’t disappoint. The film itself was engaging and diverting, wonderfully shot, and detailed the Hall’s history from its prominence at The Festival of Britain (for which it was built) in 1951, through to the grand reopening.

With interviews and comments from the people involved, everyone was included from the original architects, through to the builders who helped restore the place.

Carpet, Royal Festival Hall, London (image taken from ‘This is Tomorrow’, courtesy of Saint Etienne and Paul Kelly)
Carpet, Royal Festival Hall, London (taken from ‘This is Tomorrow’, courtesy of Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly)

No stone was left unturned, and while the stories of the aisles, wonderful balconies (which appear to be floating), iconic carpets, hallways, seats,  and stairs unfolded, you had to allow yourself an occasional glance around the auditorium, in order to see those exact same items in situ, and in glorious technicolour.

The refurbished site is fantastic, and anything post-1951 has been junked, so that the rediscovered Royal Festival Hall is seen as it would have been at its opening all those years ago.

Of course, the soundtrack is very Saint Etienne (I hope it gets a commercial release), and the performance itself was exceptional, as the music was perfectly in time with the film, and at times, I forgot that what I was hearing was actually being played in the same space, only a few metres in front of me.

‘This is Tomorrow’ embarks on a UK tour later this year, before global showings in 2008. Catch it if you can.

A day of synchronicity and contrasts then, of rebirth and rebuilding, and filled with but only two of the ever-changing faces of our capital.

Volkswagen Polo GTI: bordering on brilliance?

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

2007 Polo GTI

Today signalled the last day of our northern borders adventure, and as we loaded the little red car that had provided lots of driving fun on a variety of roads over the last few days, our thoughts turned to the seven-hour journey home.

Hot Polos don’t come along that often. And so it was with great anticipation (and frantic emails to the Volkswagen UK Press Office) that OY07 HRM was delivered, before our break in the north east. I was pleased it was brightly-coloured too, as a stand-out hue made for good photos, though would have been equally unhelpful had we not been keeping an eye on all things to do with speed.

The smaller GTI brother to the Golf was certainly tested (a full report will appear in the next issue of the VW Polo Register newsletter). Preliminary itineraries meant that we thought we would cover at least 800 miles over the course of six days. In fact, ‘our’ hottest Polo in the pack was reluctantly sent back to the Volkswagen press garage with over 1,300 miles added to its barely run-in 1,850-arrival mileage.

Not having been to the north east of England for some time, I didn’t know what type of roads to expect, but ribbons of sweeping moor land tarmac, combined with fast, long stretches of motorway, gave us perfect opportunities to challenge the car, and see where its talents lie. A spot of town driving ensured that every base was covered.

First impressions were good, with the looks bang on the money. The larger GTI styling cues of the Golf transfer equally well to the Polo. Looking chunky, purposeful, and squat, in an all-of-a-piece kind of way, and finished in retina-popping Flash Red, it appeared every inch the hot hatchback. It promised much. And, I so hoped it would deliver.

2007 Polo GTI

Powered by the ubiquitous and previous-generation Golf GTI’s 1.8T engine, you wonder why it took Volkswagen so long to drop it into their second-smallest car. The 1781cc unit gives 148bhp and 162lb ft of torque, making the Polo feel very spritely. The loudest and most sporting exhaust seen on a recent VW completes the GTI picture, and complements the extrovert and stylish looks perfectly.

HRM didn’t get off to the most ideal start, as under heavy, emergency-style braking, it would weave all over the road, making some of my confidence fade. To be fair, the A12 was very wet that night, and I’d only had the car a short time, but I had hoped for better.

It may be down on power compared to its best-in-class rivals such as the Renaultsport Clio 197, but in isolation, the Polo GTI doesn’t want for speed. Volkswagen quotes a 0 to 62mph time of 8.2 seconds, but I would say that figure is on the conservative side.

Although we never got out the stopwatch, we’ve never found ourselves in compromising situations, the GTI growling pleasantly when it’s time to up the ante. Of all the available rivals, the Ford Fiesta ST and SEAT Ibiza FR provide more realistic competition, both at a less expensive price.

With that turn of speed, comes refinement. On motorway schleps, the GTI is not only a comforting companion, but also a more than able cruiser. Only minor wind noise at lower speeds and tyre roar at higher speeds blot its copybook. The ride is on the firm side (but the right sporting side of firm), and seems well damped on most surfaces, coping well with expansion joints and sleeping policemen.

2007 Polo GTI

Disappointing body control shows up the limitations of the suspension, though. As with previous hot Polos, the set-up is too soft, and if you really fling it into a corner, safe but steady understeer is the unsurprising result.

For keener drivers, it’s all the more disappointing, as it’s so close to being a more talented handler. If that and the slightly over-keen and too-light (though direct) steering were sorted, it would be even more of an entertaining little car than it already is.

Even so, HRM felt surefooted and safe, and ferried our things and us to our dry-stone, wall-lined countryside destinations, comfortably and unflustered.

Minor passenger seat comfort niggles aside, the interior is a nice place to be, with the leather trim and sporting touches livening up the standard (and all-too grey) Polo cabin. The overall impression is one of quality when compared to rivals’ efforts, although the centre console and air vent trim finish could be better. Our in-dash ratcheted cup holder refused to open, too.

It’s disappointing to report, that, on evidence of our time with the car, I’m not entirely sure of Volkswagen’s long-lasting reputation. Though HRM is a press hack (and only two months old), the driver’s seat outer bolster is showing signs of bobbling and wear; a creak has surfaced in the boot; and just today, the driver’s door has started creaking.

2007 Polo GTI interior

Whether any, or all of these are down to the build of this individual car or not, is something of debate. I’ve not come across any of these problems with any low mileage Polos I’ve tested before.

Durability and handling niggles aside, though, I warmed very much to the smaller member of the VW GTI family. It’s fun to pilot down a mildly twisty and sheep-lined road, large enough to shrink around you (making placing it on the road easy), and provides exciting looks and a big-car sounding soundtrack.

Add in a reasonable 30+ mpg, and a £5k saving over (the admittedly more-talented) Golf GTI, and Volkswagen should be onto a winner. And, contrary to what I’ve read in certain quarters of the motoring press, it certainly doesn’t do the GTI brand any harm.

Yes, £15,022 is a lot of money for a small car, especially when there are more powerful and gifted rivals waiting around the corner to give the Polo a bloody nose. But, the old hot hatchback combination of little car and big engine serves the hot Polo well. It is frustrating, though, that after over 20 years, a truly outstanding hot Polo still seems to be out of Volkswagen’s creative grasp.

But, having said that, the current car will suffice for the majority of drivers, myself included. The Polo GTI is feisty, fun, and has something which many modern cars lack: character. I like it very much, and now that our week’s trip is over, I will be sad to see it go.

Special thanks to Nikki Joyce of the Volkswagen UK Press Office.

Notes from the north east: day two

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Polo GTI on Lindisfarne causeway
B-b-r-r-i-i-n-n-g-g. ‘Nikki…’

Things all pointed even further north today, so we programmed the TomTom and drove the car to the farmost reaches of England. Actually we went further than that, and travelled across the border to Scotland. But, as we were in the historic walled town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed (its impressive viaduct looking still better on television), it seemed silly not to.

Today though, was all about Lindisfarne, or as it’s otherwise known, Holy Island. Once a place of pilgrims and worship, getting to the tidal island is an event in itself. Cut off by high tides twice a day, it can only be reached by a causeway, which if tide tables go unchecked, can leave car owners high and dry (though obviously not their cars).

Even though the previous evening’s paper has printed that day’s tide times, we found the correct causeway access window in Berwick, and parked the car on the edge of the road for some interesting pictures, with the receding waters of the mud flats slowly ebbing backwards. Luckily, any distress calls to the Volkswagen Press Office were avoided.

Lindisfarne Causeway
Don’t get caught out on the causeway

Tall sticks rise up from the huge expanses of flat land, marking the Pilgrim’s Way, which still plays a part in the pilgrimage trail, where many pilgrims would walk across the causeway mud flats to see the fabled Lindisfarne Gospels. Even the Scottish historical novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott noted the twice-daily high tides:

For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shood o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandelled feet the trace.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindisfarne

The island itself is made up of a village centre, the remains of a monastery, a pretty almost Spanish-looking church, coastal fishermen’s upturned boat sheds, and the jewel in the Holy Islands’ crown; Lindisfarne Castle. Built on a rocky outpost, and looking out to Bamburgh Castle further down the coast, it is based on a Tudor fort, and was refurbished in 1903 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, in the Arts and Crafts style.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle

It looks much better in pictures than it does up close, its walls resembling a patchwork quilt, with cement adjoining the rocky foundations. The numerous flocks of sheep guarding it don’t seem to mind though, as they bleat and baa their way around the steep and sometimes slippery slopes on which the castle is built. Cautiously stepping on the rocks near Castle Point, we took pictures that recreated our postcard scenes, the blue skies above us seemingly turning ever more grey as the minutes rolled by.

The rolling clouds signalled both a shower, and time to go, but we had one more stop to make before we wound our way back past Alnwick, Morpeth, and Newcastle.

The Angel of the North
The Angel of the North

Keeping with the religious theme, we wanted to see the striking celestial being that is the Angel of the North, which, on a hill just outside Gateshead, was on the way home. Standing proudly on the side of the A1, it really is striking, being able to be seen for miles, looking like an aeroplane, which has had a rather unfortunate end. Made of steel, it stands 20 metres tall, with a wingspan of 54 metres, which makes it wider than the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Up close it really is enormous, but with that enormity comes a gracefulness, which, coupled with the stillness and quiet at the top of the hill, created a surreal experience. It certainly didn’t disappoint, and we were glad we’d made the slight detour to catch the Angel blankly gazing away from the sun.

Somewhat smaller, sculptor Anthony Gormley’s life-sized statues of people are currently gazing equally blankly off buildings in London, as part of his Event Horizon installation. Looking unnervingly like suicidal jumpers, they are no less striking than the Angel, and have certainly created interest and bewilderment in the capital.

Notes from the north east: day one

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Polo GTI at Stanhope ford
A little red Volkswagen at a watery green ford

I’ve a feeling that if tomorrow is as busy as today, we’ll be so tired by the time we head home on Thursday. Although not leaving our holiday cottage terribly early, we did cram an awful lot into the day.

It’s been a very enjoyable day, though. First stop was High Force, billed as ‘one of the most impressive waterfalls in England.’ Situated in a gorge at Middleton-In-Teesdale, the River Tees flows over the top, and then plunges down the gorge face, creating an impressive torrent of water. Constantly eroding the Whin Sill rock underneath it, the river is always retreating upstream, however slow.

High Force
High Force

We thought the entry fee of £1.00 paltry, for the sounds, and sensations we witnessed. Meandering our way down the winding path to this spectacle of nature, we clambered on the large blocks of rocks, lining the bottom of the pool. It really was like something from a fairy tale, the plunging torrent of water rushing down the gorge face at a frightening speed. We set up the tripod and captured some slow shutter speed pictures, before retreating to the top of the gorge to see the river slowly approach.

Water had featured strongly on our journey there, too, with a fjord at Stanhope making the road through impassable, but it was nothing that a quick detour couldn’t solve. We then traced the river back to Cow Green Reservoir, a few miles west, and after parking the car in a remote car park by the huge manmade expanse of water, we walked to another fabled river spot: Cauldron Snout.

Cauldron Snout
Cauldron Snout and the Cow Green Reservoir dam

Almost as impressive, this smaller group of waterfalls run along the Pennine Way, but the rocks were far too slippery and steep for us to walk very far along it today. Last night’s torrential rain made the legendary pathway dangerous, although undoubtedly today was the best day to see both watery forces of nature, as the river was fuller and faster, pushing and weaving its way through the beautiful, undulating landscape.

Hadrian’s Wall path
Hadrian’s Wall Path

After lunch in pretty Alston, we set off to see another spectacle, manmade this time. Hadrian’s Wall spans 73 miles across the width of the UK, and is a lasting monument to the Roman Empire. Many forts, mile castles, museums, and turrets litter its winding path. Stopping at Housesteads Fort, the most complete example of a Roman fort, we walked a small part of the 2,000 year-old wall, amazed at its completeness, and longevity.

Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

Looking for all the world like the spines on the back of a sleeping green dinosaur, it twisted and turned into the distance, and as we came to the gate which marked the end of our particular path, we were happy that we’d seen the stone fortification which was designed to protect the Romans from invaders across the border, all those years ago. It might be the lesser of the two much-vaunted walls, but it was impressive all the same.

Northern exposure

Monday, June 25th, 2007

So began our trek up to the Northeast, this morning. We decided on a break in the Pennines, as it’s somewhere we both hadn’t been, and, upon further investigation, there was lots of countryside to see and explore. Family ties also sent us the 300 miles or so towards the lands of stark hills and valleys, road-roaming sheep, and inclement weather.

We left this morning, and it’s taken us most of the day to get here. We’re lucky we got here at all after today’s deluge of rain, as many of the main artery routes across the country are closed. Turning off just before Newark was obviously the right thing to do, as the traffic was backed up for miles, and could still be now for all we know.

The Polo GTI on loan from the Volkswagen UK Press Office has proved a fast, and comfortable companion, for one so sporting. It was launched in May last year, but as I’ve not had chance to drive one yet, I thought that it would prove ideal holiday transport, give us an exciting travel companion, and (most importantly of course) give the next issue of the club magazine some content, in the form of a drive story, a long road test, and some very honest opinions.

I’ll tell you one thing; the countryside is very different up here. Although the hills and valleys are plain, with the odd farmhouse or pretty stone village punctuating the undulating green landscape, there is undoubtedly a brutal beauty to it all. We’re staying near Consett, quite literally a stone’s throw away from the Derwent Reservoir, in the heart of the North Pennines. I think exploring will be fun, and it’s something that both of us can’t wait to do, when the sun rises tomorrow.