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Britain's Best - Which city for ‘Capital of Culture’?

by Hilary Macaskill

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 Glasgow, 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 Child pub.

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.