Wednesday, 2 May 2012

No wonder we Brits called it The Groyne.... A Coruna - April 22

I have been to Coruna. About 55 years ago as a young lad I dreamed of visiting many places but one of them was La Coruna. It featured in school history. It featured in some of the books I read. And it even showed up in or or two comics. It seemed somehow to be at the other end of a lot of British - or at least English - history. To me it also seemed to be the objective that had made some English heroes, not least Sir Francis Drake - El Draco to the Spanish. His exploit at Cadiz is best know perhaps but he nearly took Coruna. And this was also the scene of one of the greatest rearguard actions of all military history - Sir John Moore and a detachment of British Redcoats fighting Napolean's army to give 15,000 bedraggled English troops time to board their ships and escape. He died of course. All real heroes did it seems.
The death of heroes fits nicely with how I have felt about visiting Coruna - anticipation killed off by the sheer mediocrity of what the Spanish have done to the city. This is high rise hell. Must have been quite a place in about 1955 when it all got started. But now? It is a criminal wasteland of architecural and planning brutality.
It is an incredibly impressive harbour in much the way Plymouth is. But where Plymouth Sound is beautiful, Coruna's is besmirched on all sides. The docks are extensive but mostly idle and untidy. It shared with Plymouth an historic and ancient city centre. Where Plymouth's was blown to bits by bombs this has been muddled and meddled with by developers and planners. And where Plymouth carries its historic past proudly Coruna appears to have forgotten hers. In fact they share so much history they should be twinned.
Coruna honours two heroes. One was John Moore who of course was fighting for the allies of Spain and England against Napoleon. The other was Maria Pita, a woman of Coruna who got embroiled in the battle with Drake's brigands, grabbed his colours and so rallied the men of Coruna that Drake was beaten off. So her story goes and inded there is a huge and magnificent square named in her honour, and properly adorned with her effigy, with an English marine under her heel and surrounded by brilliant bronzes of her legendary exploits. The huge plaza is about 300 metres on a side, three of them four storey colonnaded and galleryed late 18th century symmetry and facing a huge, ornate and quite breath-taking triple domed City Hall. And too there is a square we did not find to honour Sir John Moore. Yet there is no signage, no finger boards to point the visitor's way. We stumble upon one, fail to find the other.
But Coruna has even more - this is also where Phillip's much-vaunted Armada was assembled - 130 ships of the line, 30,000 troops and who knows how many support vessels, all committed to giving England a big smack. And of course it was at the other end of this connection, from Plymouth, that Drake and Howard and Effingham sailed to take the Armada on, hopelesslyoutgunned but happily benefitting from the Atlantic's capricious ways as the Spanish were swept almost uncontrollably past their planned rendezvous, forced to shelter while Drake's fireships plunged among them and then foprced out into the wastes of the North Sea, gale-driven north to straggle home - some anyway - via the Irish Sea. But as we walk about do we get directed, encouraged, enlightened? No. Not a mention. Not a line on any board. Nothing to tell us that this is where that great catholoic adventure started. Boards there are but of such parochial content as to almost deliberately insult the names of the illustrious heroes of Coruna.
In fact they gave more direction to the much re-engineered magnificence of the Torre de Hercules, a Roman Pharos that still does service as a lighthouse to this day. It stands on an eminence facing directly at America (if only the Romans had known!). It is in superb if over restored condition, seven storeys high and in mellow marmalade stone. Seen from the land in does all that it should to stir the heart. Seen from any other angle it struggles to overcome to aweful banality of miles and miles of high rise, most of it barely 30 years old. Horrors. I'll keep my childhood dreams thanks. You can have Coruna - no wonder the English called it The Groyne even if thei intent was more geographic than descriptive!
But maybe I shall return one day and find it was all just out of eyeline all the time. I rather hope so.

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