And so onto the final overview for the bidders up against Leicester in the UK City of Culture 2017 competition – the bidders Part 3. The last 2 on the list, they’re no less interesting or controversial than any of the others. Say hello to Southend-on-Sea and Swansea Bay (covering Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath and Port Talbot). Two very different bidders offering 2 very different visions of UK culture. So let’s ‘sea’ what they’re all about.
Southend-on-Sea City of Culture 2017?
Like other cites in this City of Culture 2017 competition, Southend-on-Sea has got maritime history. Directly east of London, Southend as it’s more readily known, was for years a get-away destination for a certain type of Londoner. Even now, Southend is synonymous with jellied eels, whelks, cockles, and pie and mash; it’s a place that has a very distinct relationship with specific food and specific people, ebullient and unmistakeable. This can be seen in their bid too: Tory MP David Amess was upfront and bullish in his comments backing the Southend-on-Sea bid when he blasted other cities bidding for City of Culture 2017 status as “absolute dumps”. Perhaps not feeling like he got the point across he made his views a little more clear by stating that many of Southend’s rivals “wouldn’t know culture if it was put in front of them” and added “I have looked at some of the competition and frankly they are absolute dumps some of them”, finishing off politely with “I better not say more because I’ll get into trouble, but I really think it is Southend which jumps out.” Now, MPs know a thing of two about how to get the message out but these words are big words, some might go as far as to say fighting talk, so let’s see if Southend-on-Sea is all mouth and no trousers or up to the job. Southend boasts the world’s longest pleasure pier at 1.33 miles long and a Pier Museum, a planned new Museum of the Thames, a tiny funicular railway called the Southend Cliff Railway and a seafront that’s seen better days. So far it sounds a little like Mr. Amess is all bark and no bite but looking a little closer Southend does indeed have stuff worth crowing about. Their Festival of the Air is one of Europe’s largest free airshows (which is in the process of being cancelled?) and their August Southend Carnival peels along their Golden Mile and accompanies the lighting of the Southend Illuminations. There’s a nod to a more rural and less brash and coin driven past too, with the 3-day Leigh Folk Festival and to their seafaring history with the Leigh-on-Sea Fishing Festival, great local events that excite locals and visitors alike. To this of old and new is added the obligatory art galleries, museums and theatres. The Cliffs Pavilion, the Focal Point Gallery and the Beecroft Art Gallery all have something going on worth visiting but the overriding feeling is of a seaside town that’s desperate to shake of its past rather than embrace it and make it part of its future. Undoubtably, if it won it wouldn’t have any trouble in getting curious, well-heeled Londoners to visit; and maybe Mr. Amess is right, perhaps other cities in the list are dumps, but I have a sneaking suspicion he’s wrong and that Southend has found itself in deep, uncharted waters where people expect more than they, unfortunately, have to offer.
Swansea Bay City of Culture 2017? (covering Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath and Port Talbot)
The Swansea Bay bid for City of Culture 2017 is another strange one (and thankfully that last on the list): the city is not a city but an entire bay covering a huge area and the city of Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath and Port Talbot. Once again – and I’m beginning to get sick of asking this question – “Is it fair?” The answer is of course “Who knows?”. So let’s look at what’s on offer. Again its coastal (perhaps they should have called it City of Coastal Culture 2017 and done the polite thing and just dropped Leicester and Chester from the running?) but not in the heavy industry or naval vein these days. However, in the pas Swansea was a hive of industry. During the Industrial Revolution the city expanded and was termed “Copperopolis” due to it’s endless processing of copper and other metals like Tin, Arsenic and Zinc, this in turn leading to an explosion in its population. Like a lot of big industry towns and cities though, the decline hit Swansea and the bay area hard. Mines shut, smelters shut and with that the shipping side of the business also sailed away. What remained however is an area that has its own natural beauty in both its seascapes and landscapes and, although the big industries have gone, it doesn’t mean they have been sitting still. Swansea, like Cardiff has been through it’s own renaissance in the last few years particularly. It’s football team (always a n oddly reliable barometer for measuring a cities inward investment and morale) has been in the ascendancy; Swansea FC is in the Premiership and this, in part, has helped bring the name Swansea to a bigger international stage. Of course, Swansea has other things that have already made it the focus for people at home and around the world. Swansea is home to the Dylan Thomas Centre, located in the Maritime Quarter of the city. It’s a permanent space dedicated to Dylan Thomas and has a permanent ‘Man and Myth’ exhibition, and houses the largest collection of memorabilia of its kind in the world. Want to know what real, epic poetry is? For anyone interested in the English language Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood‘ is a must (particularly the BBC radio adaption with Richard Burton). Its Bay has a full five-mile sweep of glorious coastline which is full of stuff – a beach, a promenade, a children’s lido, a leisure pool and a marina. The aforementioned Maritime Quarter feature both the newest and oldest museums in Wales – the National Waterfront Museum and Swansea Museum and then there’s the beautiful Clyne Gardens which has hosts its ‘Clyne In Bloom’ every May. On top of there’s almost 20 nature reserves in the area to keep you entertained an the world renowned Oxwich Bay on the Gower Peninsular which has won national AND global awards for its striking, unspoilt beauty. In fact, the area is spoilt for amazing beaches, which is amazing in it’s self when taking into account the areas heavy and dirty industrial past. Then there’s the picturesque Mumbles and also Afan and the Vale of Neath. In short, Swansea and the bay are is pretty spectacular. If this was a competition for natural beauty it would beat the other contenders to a pulp and win hands down, but thankfully it’s not. However, there’s no lack of culture to fall back on (there’s been people in the area since the Stone Age) and looking at it as an outsider, Swansea and the bay area looks pretty attractive and a front runner.
So, there we have it. That’s all of Leicester’s contenders for the UK City of Culture 2017 covered. There’s some amazing cities putting themselves forward and there’s some amazing regions getting in on the ‘city’ competition too. Perhaps with this years controversial entrance list it’s looking to make headlines for some of the wrong reasons but as anyone knows, any publicity is good publicity (as long as you can put the right spin on it).
Has Leicester got what it takes to beat the best of the rest? After looking at all the contestants on the UK City of Culture 2017 short list I’d have to say I’m in two minds. Yes, Leicester has amazing things that nobody on the list can claim but also Leicester needs to up it’s game significantly if it wants to be in with a chance. Leicester lacks some of the breathtaking scenery but we have other charms that, if promoted properly and supported by enough people can be every bit as attractive as a mountain or a stretch of open water.
Come on Leicester – it’s time to rise to the challenge and be the city we know we can be! Leicester City of Culture 2017? If we try, just maybe.
To get an idea if Leicester City of Culture 2017 has a chance have a look at our quick overview of Leicester.
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