Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Shropshire Guide: Stepping Up To Bridgnorth

The photogenic market town of Bridgnorth in southeastern Shropshire is also home to a public transport oddity.

Bridgnorth Town Hall   -   (Image - Peter Feuilherade)

The ancient market town of Bridgnorth is actually two towns - the High Town, perched on a ridge above the River Severn and with a view that King Charles I called "the finest in all my kingdom", and the Low Town, spread along the river bank 120 feet below, which was formerly a thriving port. The two are connected by a steep lane called Cartway, seven stairways, and a modern road. Or you could take a ride on England's only remaining inland electric cliff railway.

Bridgnorth's many historic and photogenic sights include the ruins of a Norman castle, several timbered buildings from the 16th century onwards, and St. Mary Magdalene parish church, built by Thomas Telford in the late 18th century.

The town is also the northern terminus of the Severn Valley Railway (SVR), a steam-hauled passenger train service which carries tourists on a picturesque 16-mile cross-country route to Kidderminster in Worcestershire.

The Castle Ruins

The ruins of Bridgnorth Castle are in the High Town, on a cliff by the side of the River Severn. Little remains to see now, apart from the early 12th century Norman tower and other stonework added decades later during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189).

What is left of the tower leans at a perilous angle of 15 degrees, more than the Tower of Pisa, as locals are fond of telling visitors. The reason, as the Bridgnorth tourist website recalls, is that in 1646 "the building was blown up in the Civil War by the parliamentarians - who botched it, as parliamentarians are wont to do".


St. Mary Magdalene is the parish church of Bridgnorth. It was built by the eminent Scottish architect and civil engineer Thomas Telford in 1792 to a classical design, on the site of the original medieval chapel of the adjacent castle.

St Leonard's Church, also in the High Town, dates from the early 13th century, although it was extensively rebuilt in the 1840s and 1860s.

Cliff Railway

(Image - Peter Feuilherade)

Bridgnorth boasts the steepest cliff railway, or "funicular", in the UK. It began operating in 1892, and was originally driven by a system of water balance. Now powered by an electric winding engine (added in 1943), the Castle Hill Railway connects the Low Town and the High Town in less than 60 seconds. At £1 a ride (return tickets only – for unexplained reasons, the company does not offer one-way tickets), it is a popular alternative to the scenic but tortuous walk uphill.

Historic Buildings and Other Sights

The town's oldest house is Bishop Percy's House, a gabled and timbered building which dates from 1580. It was the birthplace in 1729 of Thomas Percy, poet and antiquary, who later became Bishop of Dromore in County Down, Ireland.

The High Street is dominated by the 17th century Town Hall, a striking half-timbered building which stands on open arches. The street is lined with long-established family-run shops. On Market Days, local produce and antiques are in great demand.

For hard-to-find bottled ales and farm cider, as well as international beers, head for the Hop & Stagger, a specialist shop on West Castle Street.

A popular walk takes day-trippers half a mile south from Bridgnorth, a few hundred yards after the bypass bridge along the B4555 Highley road, to visit Daniel's Mill, owned by the same family for more than 250 years. This corn mill, with a stream running up to a viaduct of the SVR, boasts the largest waterwheel still in use in England.

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Friday, 13 May 2011

Pakistan - Music instrument makers in Peshawar's Old City

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn has a beautiful photo-essay on musical instrument makers in the Old City district of Peshawar.

This report was published in Dawn on 12 May 2011

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Eight Kings to Form Club of Arab Monarchs

Jordan and Morocco will join the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council in an extended union comprising all eight Arab monarchies.

The Saudi capital Riyadh

Article first published as Eight Kings To Form Club of Arab Monarchs on Technorati.

Leaders of the six Arab Gulf states have welcomed bids by Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which between them supply about 20% of the world’s oil. It was formed in 1981 to coordinate political and economic policies. More recently, this has extended to defence and security too. In April 2011 the GCC sent troops into Bahrain, where the monarchy faced protests calling for democratic reform.

The GCC leaders' decision will result in an extended alliance including Jordan and Morocco. Both these kingdoms have seen limited protests and calls for political reform and constitutional monarchy during the "Arab Spring". In the GCC itself, as well as the Bahrain unrest, there have been small-scale protests in Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Regional unrest

Expanding the GCC is aimed not only at countering unrest across the Arab world but also strengthening the oil-rich Arabian kingdoms against what they perceive as the regional threat from Iran, their powerful neighbour across the Persian Gulf. They have accused Iran of fomenting the insurrection in Bahrain and of seeking to destabilize Arab regimes.

Iran denies involvement in the protests, saying it only gives Bahrain protesters "moral support".

In the impoverished Republic of Yemen, the GCC has been mediating, to no avail so far, to persuade rival factions to sign a transition deal aimed at ending months of anti-government unrest.

Yemen, which stands in stark contrast to its wealthy neighbours in the Arabian Peninsula, has limited observer status in the GCC.

Arab kings must "stick together"

Although Jordan and Saudi Arabia share close ties through common tribal and family links, the links are less evident between the Gulf states and Morocco, at the other end of the Arab world.

But they do have at least two factors in common - the Arabic language, and the system of monarchy.

The Dubai-based Gulf News cited Shaikh Jaber Al Khalifa, a political analyst, as saying that putting the eight monarchies in the Arab world under a single umbrella would be a positive step. "When political systems with common visions and ideas work together, you should expect good results because they are not held back by divergent political ideologies."

In a separate commentary in Gulf News on 11 May, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government, said that after Tunisia and Egypt, the survival of the 12 remaining Arab republican regimes was not guaranteed. The Arab League was "floundering", and the remaining eight Arab monarchies recognized the need to enhance mutual collaboration.

"They have identified the GCC as the ideal body for them to make an immediate and exponential leap in political, military and economic relations," he said.

The London-based independent newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi on 11 May quoted "observers of Gulf affairs", whom the paper did not name, as saying that "the spread of Arab revolutions in the region, which have reached some Gulf countries, has prompted the GCC members to search for new allies following the collapse of the old alliance of so-called 'moderate countries' after the revolution in the country which was the Gulf countries' strongest ally, Egypt…"

Comments on Gulf websites ranged between those welcomed expanding the GCC and those who opposed it, Al-Quds al-Arabi noted: "Some said the military expertise of Jordan and Morocco would benefit the GCC countries, while others complained of the economic conditions in these two countries which might affect 'Gulf prosperity'."

The expansion plan is the strongest assertion of the GCC's foreign policy role in its 30-year history.

"They are leading the counter-revolution and it makes more sense for them to join with other Arab autocracies," Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, told Reuters news agency on 10 May.

Some analysts caution that an expanded union could have economic disadvantages for the Gulf.

John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh, in remarks cited by Reuters, said: "Greater economic harmonisation and collaboration is needed on the economic front among the current GCC states before further expansion."