14 June 2008

Fabled battlefields that never saw war

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 14 June 2008

The sign was anything but welcoming. “Explosive hazard,” it read, and a little cartoon showed shrapnel flying. “Localised quicksand.” Then, in bold font: “Former military target area. Do not touch any metallic objects. They may explode and kill you.”

Under a slate-grey sky, narrow footpaths tracked by sheep’s hooves ran around pale sand dunes, cutting here and there into patches of tall grass. I heard rustling up ahead, beyond the sign, and looked to see a startled sheep scurry between two dunes. A pause. No explosion. Had the sheep sunk into the ground?

I followed gingerly. I knew exactly where I was going, having plotted carefully in advance my walk on Cheswick Beach, on Northumbria’s North Sea coast. But one steps a bit more gently when advised to watch out for bombs and quicksand.

The lurid warnings were welcome. I had not gone to the beach for unspoilt beauty; it was spoilt beauty I was after. Not many people visit this great, lonesome expanse of sand and water. A few birdwatchers go there because of its location within Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, a mecca for migratory birds. Others make the pilgrimage to Holy Island, the offshore monastic site that played a key role in the seventh-century Christian evangelisation of the north of England.

I went there because Cheswick Beach is heavily polluted by junk left over from the second world war. I had the place to myself – miles of it, battered by the sea wind. Not just old bombs can be found on the dunes, but pillboxes and observation towers. At low tide, so I am told, one can also find the wreckage of a crashed Spitfire.

Yet the casual visitor is unlikely to recognise any of these wartime features. Zipping down a motorway, oblivious, we pass the fabled battlefield, the famous castle or the important ruin. It is hidden behind a barrier, lost in peripheral vision, or simply ignored. Demystifying such landscapes is rewarding work for a tourist.

In early 1940, the British Army, RAF and Home Guard scrambled to prepare for an imminent German air and sea invasion, Operation Seelöwe. Eventually, thanks to the summer’s Battle of Britain, Hitler and Göring called off their plan in September of that year. But tens of thousands of British anti-invasion features had already been built, and many of them remain today. They are gross physical reminders of past horror, yet in places like Cheswick Beach one finds that, over time, they have merged permanently with the pleasant English coastal landscape. These anti-invasion defences are a world to explore, hints of the past that invisibly shape our present.

My path snaked through the dunes until I reached a clearing and found my first objective, a concrete and brick pillbox topped by a two-tiered RAF tower. The pillbox was buried in sand up to its loopholes, as the gun slots are called. To enter, I would have needed to slide in on my belly. So instead I climbed the stairs up the half-shattered tower and found a platform on top, damp and crawling with snails. It offered a fine view of the scraggly dunes, immense sands, tidal pools and waves crashing in the distance. One could begin to make out the military logic of the beach.

Such exploration has never been easier. In 2002 the Council for British Archaeology completed an eight-year project, a Defence of Britain database, now searchable online, that pinpoints such sites. Add to this the satellite imagery published by Google Maps, and even an amateur like me can plan a rewarding day of discovery.

Not far from the tower I found a long row of anti-tank blocks. Had I not known what these great cubes of concrete were, I might have mistaken them for crude post-modern artwork. Dumped across a break between the dunes, like child’s building blocks, they formed a line parallel to the sea. I walked along the line until it began to disappear into the ground. The last visible block poked just an inch or two above the sand. The earth, shifting imperceptibly over time, was swallowing the blocks.

A mile or so down the shore, I found an immense crater, 31 paces across. Standing in the middle, I wondered if this was the work of an RAF test bomber or a Luftwaffe attacker, both busy in the area during the war. I struggled to suspend belief. Could this hole, which mangled one side of a grass-covered dune, really be a bomb crater?

On a different excursion, 12 miles inland at the market town of Wooler, which had been heavily fortified during the war, my search proved simpler.

The town was ringed by pillboxes, and some remain. My favourite was a little lozenge-shaped one all but hidden in the bushes above a bridle trail. From within, looking out over a narrow valley, soldiers posted there would have been well placed to pin down anyone trying to take Wooler from behind.

One pillbox, a great hexagonal structure, was now located inaccessibly in someone’s backyard. Reaching another, on a construction site, necessitated a little discreet trespassing. Yet it was worth it, partly for the challenge of getting there, partly to crouch inside and look out of the loophole, wondering who “Doris” was. Graffiti on the wall had memorialised her.

But it was back at Cheswick Beach that my explorations yielded the greatest reward. A local expert had advised that the wreck of the Spitfire was only accessible when the tide is out . But because of the quicksand warnings my steps were extremely cautious. As I searched for something other than driftwood and seaweed, an almost-full moon peaked through the clouds, shining brightly.

And I found it, or would like to believe I did – a heavily rusted metal form, mostly submerged in the sand. If it was in fact the crashed Spitfire, then it was a small part of the cockpit I saw, poking out of the sand, for fitted into it were surf-worn panes of glass, shattered.

I wondered what I would find there with more time, but left the beach as darkness deepened. A landscape, like a life, guards some secrets more closely than others.

07 June 2008

Next Neighbourhood – Agenskalns

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 8 June 2008

Akmens Tilts, Riga’s broad stone bridge, heaves a busy boulevard across the river Daugava into the heart of the Latvian capital. For morning commuters travelling by car, tram and bus, the crossing works as a gateway into the city. It lifts them up on the Daugava’s less-developed west bank and, having carried them over the water, sets them down among the gracious spires and bustling alleyways of the central area.
In the evening, the structure’s function shifts into reverse as the same commuters return to some of this Baltic hub’s best communities. Back on the west bank, traffic streams into vast parkland, where roads diverge en route to residential quarters of radically varied characters.
One way, a street leads into old neighbourhoods graced with attractive clapboard villas. Go another and one comes across pre-fabricated, Soviet-era mini-cities built of concrete slabs. Elsewhere there are newly built suburbs and even a few luxury high-rise apartments.
At this fork in the road, the quickest route to a quiet life – as Latvian townsfolk have traditionally known it – points toward Agenskalns. This district lies straight across the parkland, just five minutes’ drive from the city centre.
In recent years it has remained amazingly unchanged while immense demand for downtown properties has pushed real estate prices in the very centre of Riga toward improbable parity with major western European cities, triggering rampant renovation and development.
With an aesthetic that owes more to the early 20th century than the early 21st century, most of this mixed district of old houses and towering trees looks much as it did before the recent boom, now turned to slump. Trams rumble down leafy cobblestone streets and in the district’s centre, where streets converge, flower vendors, taxis and pedestrians jostle for room before the entrance of an old covered market.
Now in the wake of the boom, with property prices in the Baltic country down sharply from last year’s highs, the same factors that insulated the neighbourhood from change begin to look like assets.
“Agenskalns is not cool,” says Inguss Hofmanis, of estate agency Latio.
To many Latvian homeowners as well as foreign buyers, cool has meant new or flashy. Agenskalns is overwhelmingly old, and most properties found here lack the obvious allure of those in Riga’s historic centre, where medieval and art nouveau designs interweave gloriously.
Meanwhile to the developers who have rushed to meet the demand of such buyers, cool has meant big. The bigger the project, the bigger the return on investment. Here, Agenskalns also fell short during the boom. Narrow streets, small plots and complex ownership arrangements scared developers away. They found simpler opportunities elsewhere in Riga.
For developers who have attempted to work in Agenskalns, getting in has been difficult. Local factors have made the market hard to penetrate, says Karlis Streips, a prominent journalist and social commentator.
Latvia’s morally unyielding denationalisation programme, instituted after the country cast off Soviet occupation in 1991, restituted formerly private properties not just to original owners but, when original owners were deceased, to their families. Many of Agenskalns’ century-old homes passed to families who lacked the money to renovate.
“One might have expected them to sell but people from Agenskalns have a kind of independent community spirit. They want to stay,” says Streips.
That provincial feeling, available so close to the centre, is increasingly attractive to many frustrated house-hunters in a citywide market where demand still so far exceeds supply that prices soar even in crumbling, Soviet-built zones. Wealthy buyers continue to look elsewhere but first-time buyers see Agenskalns as a good place to start and, potentially, to stay.
“The district is lovely and calm but just a step away from the hurly-burly,” says Zane Sedlova, a 22-year-old university student who earlier this year bought a two-bedroom flat in the area.
Though her property is located in a 1960s-built apartment house – one of the more popular Soviet-built varieties – it stands in a characterful part of the neighbourhood, just steps away from one of Agenskalns’ distinctive landmarks, a water tower built in striking national romantic style.
For such young buyers, accommodating prices are as important as pleasant atmosphere. One year ago, just before Riga’s market turned, prices in the centre topped 3,574 lats (£4,000) per sq metre, and prices in Agenskalns still ranged from about 857 to 1,785 lats per sq metre. Most would-be first-time buyers considered the market impenetrable.
Now, Riga’s inelastic, high-end markets retain price values for the wealthy individuals who can afford to buy there, the credit crunch notwithstanding. By contrast, ­middle-class property prices are falling rapidly. Average property prices fell as much as four per cent in February alone, and other months have seen significant drops, as well, according to analyses published by Arco Real Estate.
In Agenskalns, residential space in an attractive, brick building erected before the second world war is now offered for less than 1,428 lats per sq metre, while historic wooden houses are about 350 lats per sq metre. The most expensive renovations usually cost about 500 lats per sq metes but the pay off can be substantial.
Serving Riga’s market of 1m people, existing stock comprises about 300,000 apartments, 60 per cent of which are Soviet-built. Many of these post-war dwellings are approaching or past their original intended periods of use, says Aleksandrs Kregers, Latvian marketing director for new developments at estate agency Ober-Haus. Some of them might become uninhabitable “in the next 10 years”, he adds.
Under these circumstances, demand is likely to rise dramatically. The same dynamic is already helping to fuel a fresh cycle of new building. Indeed, though Agenkalns’ proximity to the centre remains one of its defining advantages, developments on its outskirts have become a strong source of upward pressure on prices in the area.
The towers of Panorama Plaza, the country’s biggest single mixed-use development, have begun rising in outer Agenskalns. Builders last year finished work on the first of four planned blocks and a second is due for completion this summer, with the entire project by Turkish developer Misa Housing Industries, due to be in place by 2010.
From upper storeys of the first tower, which tops out at 24 floors, residents enjoy expansive views of predominantly low-rise Riga and, looking inland, to dense pine forests.
Demonstrating inelasticity at Riga’s high end, work continues at the site in spite of the slumping market. Evija Ansonska of Mediju Tilts, the developer’s marketing agent, says that price falls seen across most of the city during the past year have not touched Panorama Plaza, where the developer still asks 357,000 lats for a 22nd floor, two-bedroom penthouse of 157 sq metres.
“We have enough people with enough money to buy flats here. We look to the Russian market. One third of our buyers are Latvian, but another third are Russian, and another third are from the European Union,” she says.
This also is Agenskalns. But the 22nd floor penthouse is the fruit of Riga’s most recent growth spurt. Far below, the landscape of faded façades, green patches and tramlines looks like more fertile territory for the next one.