Daily Diary

Getting to start of our climb
We had agreed separate journeys to Heathrow, since I had to get my dog to my parents whilst Sam and Adge were to arrive by a combination of train and bus. Our meeting up at Heathrow was a joyous occasion. My ‘partners in crime’, clearly overjoyed with the excitement of the trip, were raring to go. I’d finally closed down work and was able to join them in getting ready to embark on our adventure. The offtimes-for-most boring wait at an airport only adds to my excitement of any trip. Heathrow is a good watering hole, and always gets me in the mood. For one person this was desperately needed to calm the nerves associated with flying for the first time in many years.

Excellent flights with Qatar Airways, whose personnel looked at our group and kindly gave us the front seats resulting in extra leg room. A couple of flights, nerves overcome, and some sleep for all meant a safe arrival in Africa. Kilimanjaro airport was a small building and runway in the middle of nowhere which appeared to be only a token gesture for the many visitors who flock here for the mountain and safari. Heathrow or Doha international it was not. Our pre-approved visas got us through the queue quicker than most. The small nature of the airport meant only one baggage claim conveyor that was half in the building and half not. Very easy to grab our bags and find our connection. T.I.A – this is Africa. Our taxi drive certainly opened the eyes of some in our party to the way in which life is different in other parts of the world. For me this was yet another fact confirming that there is much more to life than social media and technology that seems to be an alien on a mission to take over the planet. Next time you think you’ve got a problem take a second to mull it over and then think – do I really have a problem?

Finally, at the hotel after a good 18hrs travel, we needed a cold shower. Better still the hotel had a pool – how refreshing. Wait! Before we could dip in and refresh, we needed our brief. We grabbed a cold beer and sat down with what looked like other novices. We had missed most of the talk – looking back it doesn’t seem like we missed much. The important part of this was meeting our guide. Omari was his name! What his first impressions must have been I have no idea… a group of English lads smashing back beer and wanting to be in the pool more than listen to him. If that was his impression he needs to know that we listened to him intently; he was clearly a man of the mountain, oozing vast experience. We had struck gold. We would find this to be true in 8 days’ time. He did his checks, and left, I hope, happy rather than cursing his luck; I mean we weren’t a group of 3 beautiful women were we? We found out at this point we were going to adopt another member to our group. Mike, a solo participant, ticking off some things from his bucket list as he jumped out of a divorce and before the next relationship came along. We finally got that swim, enjoyed the hotel’s cuisine and a few more beers before an early night (the first of many).

Day 1
Morum Barrier Gate – MTI Mkubwa Camp
6km – 3.5hrs walking

So, bags packed in our 4×4, our driver the ever so happy DJ Khaled (not the famous one) was just pleased to have us in his vehicle. I would settle for the company of this DJ Khaled any day of the week. Our driver may or may not have had means to play music in the car and this suited us fine. He was no American rapper but he more than made up for it with a charming and welcoming charisma. How English society could learn from a guy like this. We couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Our non-music drive was disrupted every now and again by our chief making the necessary phone calls or someone commenting on the view. It soon became apparent that we were no longer on our time but Tanzanian time as a short journey took longer than planned. A chaotic drive through the city centre, before having to overtake the slow and often over crowed motorbikes on the main roads slowed us down.

We eventually arrived at the Londorossi gate for the purposes of signing into the national park and for the team to complete their necessary checks. It was close to lunch time. We were given a packed lunch to enjoy while our team of helpers completed the necessary paperwork and got weighed. A tedious process it may have seemed but apparently this ensures the safety of the people supporting us up the mountain. All checks done and lunch eaten, we were back into the 4×4 for a 9km drive down to the start point (Morum Barrier Gate). Here we able to meet our team for the first time, as I gave away the biscuits in my lunch box to grateful recipients. We set off to complete the first day’s walking, whilst they got the final bits together. Whilst we slowly plodded along they came zooming past us, carrying and balancing far more than the health and safety boys would allow us back home. At this stage we couldn’t put names to faces as we had barely met. Our walk on the first day was through the jungle. It seemed slow and laborious. As novices go it was relatively easy. We followed a path all the way to the camp (MTI Mkubwa Camp). Our arrival into camp meant that we needed to complete our customary signing in. This was completed under the watchful gaze of a security guard carrying a rather large automatic rifle. We were informed this was to scare the local villagers from stealing our stuff. Not warning off animals?? Either way I think perhaps we were slightly scared. An introduction to the game of whist followed, whilst the remainder of our camp assembled.

The camp was finally ready to host our first evening. A lack of running water meant that showers and toilet facilities were non-existent and a sign of interesting experiences to be encountered on the rest of the trip. An evening in the main tent was shared by us all as we played a card game that was new to some and it being the only form of entertainment. We retired to bed earlier than any of us were used to for our first night’s sleep.

Day 2
MTI Mkubwa Camp – Shira 1 Camp
7km – 4hrs walking

A new dawn, a new day!

We woke, some more disgruntled than others by a disturbed sleep which may have come about by the snoring from others or the discomfort of sleeping on the floor. As for me I woke invigorated by my first night’s camping – I had enjoyed a tent to myself!! Breakfast was eaten before we embarked on a longer day of walking. We set off on our slow and methodical plod.

Sun cream and mozzy cream were applied to the full. The walk started off along similar terrain as that experienced the day before. How nice it was to almost relax and enjoy the surroundings around us. Surely more strenuous and difficult days were ahead of us. We left the rain forest after an hour and started to climb the edges of a peak. It was crazy to think we had barely climbed, and yet, we were already considerably higher than Ben Nevis back home. We peaked our climbing in thick cloud and rumours were that it was a quite a view that we missed. Never mind, I felt sure that better views would greet us on our trek. The only alarming thing to report from our walk today was a couple of groups blaring out loud music through a portable speaker. How rude to shatter my peace. I certainly made my feelings known to Omari, who concurred with my viewpoint. Isn’t travel meant to be an escape from the mundane and every day? This didn’t seem appropriate or respectful of the surroundings we were in. Our feelings at this time were generally good; some were frustrated perhaps at the speed at which we were walking. For me it was so nice though to be taking my time enjoying the moment rather than rushing around a place.

I was starting to lose my mind to the tranquillity and undisturbed beauty through which I had dared to walk. Such a change from the rush and keenness to explore as much of a place when travelling back home.

At the summit of our climb we weren’t blessed with good weather. The clouds had constantly swept in which was amazing to watch. So, we left the cloudy ridge summit, and were soon heading back down again. Surely, we were meant to be going up the mountain and not down, but the climb was a succession of ridges? We followed a rough rocky path to our night camp. Some people were amused to see a helipad, I was not that interested. Just wanted to get out of my sweaty clothes. Here we got our first view of Uhuru (what everyone believes to be Mt Kilimanjaro) still covered in cloud and looking a million miles away. Customary sign in process and mandatory photo before an evening playing cards was enjoyed.

Day 3
Shira 1 Camp – Shira Camp 2
12km – 8.5hrs walking

I was first to arise, and, upon crawling out of my tent, was blessed with the most magical sunrise over fresh and frosty grounds. Not a cloud in the sky could ruin such a view. There were no clouds. I could finally see the mountain. Imperious to see, its very presence commanding my attention. A mixture of thoughts as I compared it to other mountains I had seen. Flashbacks to those moments in Canada recently, and further back in time to New Zealand. Peace and tranquillity, such a beautiful moment to experience, I stood there and appreciated all around me as my breath was taken away. Sunrises are a beautiful thing as the rising sun ushers in the start of a new day. A reminder that we should be lucky for each and every day and to take full advantage of it. The natural world gives a far more enjoyable experience than humankind can ever fabricate.

How nice to sit there and enjoy the view, with no connection to the world, and no need for social media satisfaction, with just my own two eyes to remember such beauty.

Our group arose in stages, slowly and each member complaining of the cold and lack of sleep. I was glad that I was up first. I didn’t need moaning as I was positively glowing, invigorated by life’s greatest show. We enjoyed our breakfast before getting ready to leave. Shortly into our walk Omari informed us that we could take our time and enjoy the view and take photos. We had been truly been blessed and spoilt with our day. We had the mountain path to ourselves, only shared when the porters came running by, enjoying each other’s company as we looked in amazement at the beauty of something that was perhaps going to cause us so much pain. It looked so imposing, our group like a tiny caterpillar slowly crawling its way up this monster of a mountain.

We were so lucky on this day, all alone and blessed with glorious sunshine, all those that we had seen the day before bombing onto the next camp as they wanted to reach the summit a little quicker. More fools them. How grateful I was and perhaps others too that we had that extra day to climb. I have mentioned before how that I am normally in a rush to see so much of one place when I travel. Thankfully this time the mountain was showing me everything it could as I took my time. Lessons to be learnt here perhaps. We indulged in the salubrious surroundings and some took full advantage with their cameras. We eventually arrived at the camp uplifted by what we had witnessed. Our camp was small this evening, with I think only 15 or so people. The older members of our group took some time to rest before the customary yet friendly rivalry over cards. I couldn’t sleep so found a perfect spot on the edge of a rock and sat and soaked up the view whilst trying to read a book. I soon couldn’t read as I was distracted by the incredible view. Words can’t describe how amazing the view was, to the left of my viewpoint I could see the white sea (a phrase used for describing the large number of clouds as one sat above them), to the right I could see the terrain we had covered getting here and behind me stood the monster mountain. I was eventually joined by my dear friend, Sam, and we sat and discussed the world in which we live. 3 days in and I asked as to what on earth we were going to go home to. We were completely disconnected from the cyber world. This wasn’t a fantasy world and we experienced a dose of reality. We decided to explore the camp and came across a couple of our helpers. Two lovely gentleman who would do anything for you out of kindness and probably for very little money. Their smiles so endearing. Conversation was difficult, language barriers and all that, and I wish we could have interacted more with these incredible members of our group. I will never forget Andrew and Nordin. So, we left our new found friends and made our way back to the main tent just as the others awoke in anticipation of an evening of cards as the sun set on perhaps the best day of the trip.

Day 4
Shira Camp 2 – Branco Camp
10km – 6hrs walking

 The first tough day was what Omari gave us warning about in his briefing at dinner last night. He wasn’t wrong in my eyes.

We were going to walk up to Lava tower to get an experience of altitude of 4600m and see how we would cope with altitude sickness. It all sounded easy; some were hoping to feel something on the way. As for me, I just wanted to enjoy the day and hoped I had no signs or symptoms at all.

It was cloudy as we set off. We were walking to some crossroads on the edge of the mountain. Yesterday it had been pointed out to us about another camp on a different route was directly opposite us on another ridge. During the day we were able to trace their pinpoint shapes on the horizon before we merged and joined the same route. It was here that we realised how lucky those previous, quiet days were as we went from 15 people to over 200 people now crawling up the mountain. A toxic combination of loud talking, colourful accents and loud music made for an unappealing part of our trip.

We finally arrived at heavily populated Lava camp. Personally, I was grateful to arrive and pop some pain killers and recuperate. The others claimed not to have experienced anything. I rather collapsed into my chair to rest and relax. We enjoyed a lovely meal, before meeting our chef who was cooking us some lovely meals on the mountain. I kissed him on the cheek as a way of saying thanks and he was slightly puzzled by this gesture!!

We went back to the welcome sign to get our regulation sign-in picture before setting off back down and round the mountain towards our evening camp. As we started our descent from Lava tower the cold had crept in and meant that we needed to wrap up warm. By the time we reached evening most of these extra layers had been peeled off. This was a downward stretch to the camp as we had gone up for an acclimatisation meal only and were going to spend the next 2 days climbing back up to the same height. As we approached our camp, it was carefully pointed out to us what the start of the next day’s route was. I didn’t think much of it, but it did look pretty steep. Others in the group were a little more concerned, and perhaps hiding fears they had. Our route to camp had become more appealing as there was more vegetation and trees and water seemed to make the landscape more beautiful than that to which we had become accustomed. Arrival into camp meant signing in, before ensuring we got a group photo and finding our tents. We weren’t pleased to see a group of 25 tents next to us, expecting a noise that would disrupt our evening. Thankfully their late arrival wasn’t noticed, their probably shorter route clearly taking its toll, they must have clambered into their tents exhausted and we barely heard anything from them. An evening of cards pursued before our newly accustomed early night for sleep.

Day 5
Branco Camp – Karanga Camp
6km – 4hrs walking

 Waking up, no alarm, what a place to be. Ours was one of the first groups up and ready. We wanted this and had planned it the night before to beat the rush up the cliff. It probably would have been a good idea to hand my daily diary for this day over to my good mate to describe the climb, not in a light-hearted tease but so that he could perhaps express the feelings in the best way, as we encountered what was for some, not only a severe climb but terrifying leaps of faith. Legs shook, bags were dispatched as what seemed like a fight for survival on our mission to get up this route proved rather challenging. The old man showed no signs of weakness (yet there was some apparently), I was surprisingly fine with it all and Sam was christened ‘shaky Sam’ as it was too much for him. After many nerve-jangling moments, lots of laughter and support we all finally made the summit of the cliff where we were able to take stock and relax. I went off in the pursuit of those photos with Mike and Omari. Izandini, assistant guide, stayed with the others who didn’t dare leave their perches on the safe ground. After a period of rest, we were ready to set off again as we went back down the other side of the ridge that we had climbed before climbing up the next ridge to our camp.

Along the way we were now much more relaxed and engaged in conversation with each other. We also joined in conversations with other groups going past as well as all the porters flying along the path. The sight of these porters working really is impressive yet cruel. We passed one who was struggling so we gave him all the food we had to give him the energy to keep on going. He didn’t take it just for himself but shared it amongst his colleagues. Their energy consumption must be so much more than ours yet were surviving on very little. Towards the end we had to go down an up one of the ridges to our camp. By this point I was now severely struggling with a flu bug and coughing up I hate to think what at every possible opportunity. We made it down and took rest at the river before the final climb up to our camp and watched as some of the other porters from other groups descended by different routes from ours. Incredible sight as they picked a route and just went for it, where’s the health and safety? Our porters were busy walking to and from the river to get fresh mountain water, our camp already made up for us. We arrived, exhausted from another big day, knowing that the next day was the last easy day before the biggest day of the trip. Sign in was completed and the customary photo was taken before an early night. Our dinner was accompanied by a vivid sunset. During yesterday’s briefing we were told to stop playing cards and staying up late for this one evening to ensure we were in the best shape possible. Promises were also made to Omari not to let him down, and, if we struggled, to dig deep. It wasn’t going to be easy…..

Day 6
Karanga Camp – Barafu Camp
4km – 3hrs

We woke up in stages again. Mike and I were the first risers. We set off with cameras to catch that magical morning sunrise. It really is a poetic and remarkable way to start the day, and one I wish I could experience more when I return to reality. Everyone now finally surfaced we all convened in the main tent for breakfast. Our walk today was to Barafu Camp or base camp! The final stop before we attempted to reach the summit. The walk was short but steep. We rested, as always, at different points along the way. At one of the last resting places we all remarked about a couple of Arab/French lads who we saw were rushing up the mountain. Perhaps they were in pursuit of an Instagram photo (it doesn’t always need to be instant!).

Rumours and whispers abounded as we doubted they’d make it! Later it was confirmed that they didn’t even make it out of the camp that night. All that wasted money on a trip to reach a peak and they were unable to do so. My advice to them would have been to respect the guides they were with and respect the mountain. We arrived slowly but safely into camp just before lunch. The camp was heaving as people were arriving in preparation for their ascent and people were descending off the mountain. A real smorgasbord of emotions was evident, as some people were clearly overjoyed at their achievement and those who were waiting had a sense of fear and trepidation at what was to come. Tales and rumours were shared as it suddenly dawned on our group that it was about to get real. We tried to spend the rest of the day sleeping and resting before our midnight ascent. Difficult when the tent was perched on the edge of mountain, with ever changing weather conditions and hundreds of people walking past.

We were awakened by the ever reliable porter. So, we started to layer up. Our advice for going up was to wear a minimum of 5 layers to prepare for the cold and to cover our water bottles in a sock to ensure that our water didn’t freeze. By now all clothes packed had been worn so a rather dirty and smelling sock was used to provide much needed insulation for the water bottles. Hygiene of a different kind. We convened in the main tent for the final prep, a cup of soup was drunk, coats were zipped up, gloves were put on and headlights were turned on.

We were all set and ready to go a little bit before midnight.

 Day 7
Barafu Camp – Uhuru point – Barafu Camp – Mweka Camp
5km – 7hrs, 5km – 3hrs, 10km – 4.5hrs

 So, our slow plod had begun, just like all the other campers that were at Barafu Camp. Guided by the expertise of our guides and small lights on our head, we had 1400 metres to climb in 4km. I probably would say that this is a steep gradient! Not long into our walk and the Gaffa was the first to break. He complained of struggling to breathe and coldness in his hands. Regular stops were made to accommodate him and looking after the old man and ensuring that he made it to the top with us. The other three of us seemed okay at this time. Not for long though. I eventually broke, two hours from the top. My body felt like it had nothing to give. Completely lacking in energy, I was now dragging myself up this mountain, looking at the stars to try to inspire and guide me. Those people who don’t believe that altitude sickness is a thing are very mistaken. How I made it I don’t know, and what I can remember is a slight blur, although Sam supported me very well up the mountain. I didn’t find his talking very motivational. And told him so!

We finally made our first target – Stellar point. Never have I felt so relieved at seeing a sign. I wanted to kiss it as the pain of getting there had been so much, my emotions clearly getting the better of me. Apparently, there was a sunrise happening around me. That was lost on me as I celebrated on making the top. I perhaps should ask the others for their feeling at this point. After a short rest we climbed the final 200m to Uhuru point. This was somewhat of an anti-climax after stumbling and crawling to Stellar point. The pain and jubilation of arriving here seemed more that the actual top of the mountain.

Gaffa was a little quiet and cold; all he wanted was the picture and to return. That dreaded altitude sickness badly affected him, but he made it. I had managed a second lease of life and although I had a banging head wanted to appreciate the surroundings I was in. We got that iconic picture under the sign before rather rapidly making our descent down the mountain.

A combination of running and skiing down got us down as quickly as possible. As we went down it was incredible to think that we had walked up this in pitch blackness. Such an array of emotions was overtaking us all. As we approached camp there was Andrew, one of my adopted favourites, to greet us back and carry our bags back. I don’t think he was expecting a proper man hug from me as I ran towards him. He was clearly very happy at our success. As we all arrived into camp the heavens opened. Sleet poured down on us. How lucky we were that it came then and not at any other point on the trip. A celebratory Coca Cola awaited us, which I declined (New Year’s resolution). The porters enjoyed the drink instead of me.

A quick pit stop allowed us to rest (apparently) and take off some layers and get ready for a wet walk to our final night on the mountain. Our spirits were clearly high. We felt over the moon though our mood was a bit dampened by the rain. Rather than rejoicing all the way down we were physically exhausted and stumbled down. I can recall having to pause at one point for Gaffa to throw up, the altitude sickness still taking its toll.

Walking on a considerable high yet with our eyes almost shut, our pace was slow. I think it is safe to say that we were exhausted. Eventually we crashed into camp an hour or so before darkness, Sam clearly feeling more tired than most and was already snoring whilst some of us took a wash. We had to wake him from his slumber as our guide had managed to surprise us with some birthday beers and a bottle of wine. What a perfect end to our mountain odyssey, we somehow managed to stay awake and enjoy good food, company and cards. We headed to bed probably a bit tipsy, our first alcohol in a week, and I will probably speak for all when I say we slept like logs.

Day 8
Mweka Camp – Mweka Gate
10km – 3hrs

 All good things must come to an end. We woke up one final time in our now smelly surroundings. 8 days of no shower and reusing worn clothes had taken its toll. We stepped out of our unhygienic living conditions into similar glorious weather with which we had previously been blessed. A slight coldness was felt as we breathed under warming blue skies. The sun was shining and so were we! Smiles that couldn’t be wiped or washed off our faces as we woke from our well-earned slumber. We traced our steps back to the entrance to the camp to get that customary photo under the sign. It was time for our final meal – our chef Saidi had delivered excellent food throughout. Kabila the ever-reliable porter delivered our food, his limited English able to describe what we were about to eat. Normally, our daily routine would be getting our bags out and preparing for the long walk ahead. Today was different, we got our bags out, but were then walked over to a clearing in the trees. Here our 16 helpers came together to sing and dance and wish us on our way. Some of us joined in with the celebration while others observed. We said our thanks and after many high fives, hugs and pictures we got ourselves together for one final walk. A short 3 hour stroll from Mweka camp to the Mweka gate. The adopted member of our group, Mike, was more like walking spaghetti by now – shoe problems – but he was a member of our team, so we supported him just like he supported us up the mountain. For the three musketeers the promise of a bar was too much as we wanted to run down the remaining part of the mountain.

We eventually limped wearily to the gate. We had to complete the customary signing out procedures, as our chief also collected our certificates. During this time we had found our porters had overtaken us and were already in their van and sharing a well earned bottle of local vodka. We joined in their celebrations as we didn’t want to say goodbye. We finally collapsed into our van and made the short drive to a local outlet store. No DJ Khaled to drive us this time sadly. This was nothing like the designer outlets back home. It was a prearranged destination, considerably well-built when compared to the local neighbourhood. There was clearly an agreed deal to bring us here to part with our money. We had none! All had to be done on tabs and settled up later as we had been told not to bring any money with us up the mountain.

Spend we certainly did, gifts were bought for loved ones and drinks were bought for the many. Dollars spent, presents packed and a drink for the journey home. We finally crashed back to the hotel at lunchtime, with a new lease of life and ready to party! There was a much-needed shower, a pool waiting and a bar the contents of which needed drinking. We did all three, yet still came back to a new-found love of cards. Perhaps a perfect end to our trip as we indulged in a few more games and a bottle of red.

 

Memorable Mountain

Kilimanjaro! Where different worlds collide
Cultures and differences put aside
Tourists and locals unite
We weren’t here to fight

Mt Uhuru, it looked such a beast
As we wandered from west to east
A monster who provides so much hope
How would us tourists cope

Omari was our captain
As we walked the mountain
We were One team
With One dream

With every step
I wish I’d done more prep
Our progress was slow
Our route I would have liked to know

To myself and locals alike
Burdened by the chains of daily life
The mountain represented freedom
It was the pinnacle of Africa’s kingdom

Oh you rugged peak
You looked so bleak
That cold night temperature
Was worth it for the adventure

Promises were given
We certainly were driven
Guided by a million stars
It seemed so far

We reached the top
I’d wanted to stop
A bag of mixed emotions
‘Outdoors’ the great addiction

So there we stood
who could tell our mood
upon the roof of Africa
T.I.A. – This is Africa

Lovely Lincoln

Lovely Lincoln – another city spanning the 2000yr history of Britain. Sounds familiar? Similar to the recent visit Characterful Chester. My job recently has taken me to all points of the compass of this land. I have questioned the logistics of this, and these trips haven’t always made me very happy, but on occasions it presents the opportunity to explore parts of the country not always accessible to me. Lovely Lincoln was my opportunity today; the sun was shining, and my appointment had cancelled. Not one to waste time but seize every chance offered to explore these green and pleasant lands I set off for the city of Lincoln. I perhaps should have completed some admin, but that can be completed in the evening when the sun isn’t shining. I’d heard rumours of its reputed beauty and that it was home to an impressive cathedral, but my knowledge of Lincoln was only its recent cup giant killing success as seen in the football on TV. I didn’t even have any childhood memories of being brought here. I’m sure that my father would correct me if this was the case. He has.

I parked the car legally in a car park adjacent to the castle. I had a quick scan of the local tourist boards to establish a route by which to walk. The car park I chose was ideally located close to the cathedral quarter which meant I avoided the modern metropolitan monstrosity that most people think makes a city. I, on the other hand, much prefer ancient architecture, an abundance of evidence of our history and charming shops and eateries. Lincoln somehow manages to play host to what I love and what I don’t love in cities. I set off at pace, with slightly cold fresh air filling my lungs and the autumnal sunshine beating down on my neck. The smile on my face gave it away. Fine weather on these ventures make me incredibly happy. Sunshine always helps when exploring and I find it adds to and enhances the intrinsic layers of beauty that some places exhibit.

Lincoln is a small cathedral city in eastern middle England. These small cathedral cities are rapidly becoming my favourite cities in England, if not the world. These cities were once the power houses of this country yet now they seem to play second fiddle to more modern places. There was good and bad that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. The Romans clearly had a good eye for a location as they laid down the first roots of this city. The Roman fort that was established on top of the hill has evolved throughout time, yet still remains after all the different eras of our history.

The perfect place to start was to examine the castle. Not until further exploring the city did it identify its perfect strategic location. It is not too far from the coast; was it perhaps the first line of defence for anticipated invasions of Britain? (I am reminded that no one has successfully invaded these shores since 1066) but back then the Romans may have thought so as they established a fort here. Once their era had finished and the Middle Ages commenced, it was time for the great influence of William the Conqueror, who invaded the city two years after his initial landings on these shores. He ordered that the castle and later the cathedral to be built on the former Roman fortifications. How lucky we were for his decisions, for the footprint he has left, which has survived the test of time. It is truly stunning. Perhaps things as they are now (decorative) are not according to the initial vision. The location for both on top of hill would have surely meant perfect defensive positions.

The castle to this day is immaculately presented from the outside. Its fortified walls every bit the castle image I had grown up to know. Strolling around the parameter of these walls there was no evident signs of a keep. A couple of round towers exist in the corners as expected to defend the wall. So with trepidation I stepped towards the main gate to enquire how much I may have to fork out to visit Lincoln castle. Both a pleasant surprise and unhealthy shock greeted me. Access into the castle and grounds was free… can you believe it, what a pleasant surprise? Then the shock… £8 to be allowed to walk around the walls. I almost dropped my camera. After visiting recent cities where city walls have been free to access, I couldn’t believe the fee that was being asked. No doubt they provide stunning views and need maintenance, but surely they cannot justify the price tag. Sorry Lincoln Castle, but no! A rather disheartening walk around allowed me to see the courthouse and Victorian building now located in its centre, but I ultimately left greatly disappointed.

Upon leaving the castle, with sun still shining I went in search of other charms rather than drag myself into the cathedral and lose that glorious autumn sunshine. I meandered my way along the cobbled paths that enhance the olde worlde feel of this part of Lincoln. Shoppers should delight in the unique boutiques and quirky shops that line the roads. Their bright, colourful facades even managed to tempt me in. Meandering around, my footsteps led me down Steep Hill – the connecting link between ‘downhill’ and ‘uphill’. A steep yet charming street of shops illustrating the point made above. Thoughts immediately turn to other similar locations that have been visited for comparison, with ones that spring to mind being in Quebec and Hovis Hill. Quebec, by contrast, is more steps than a steep pebbled incline, but similar in the range of shops and array of colours that adorn these streets. Hovis Hill can replicate the steepness and pebbled road aspect but is a residential area. In leaving the old behind I waltzed under the archways of the guildhall into the chaos of the new. Oh, take me to the old, narrow, quiet and charming quarter I had left behind.

But in search of visiting all of Lincoln’s history I had to grim and bear the hustle and bustle to get myself to Brayford waterfront. My route took me past the war memorial and an unloved church. Close by should be High Bridge, which is oldest bridge in Britain which still has buildings on it. Thankfully I managed to stumble upon that on my return back to more poetic surroundings. Some solace was found down by the Britain’s oldest inland port. Out of season waterways meant calming and undisturbed waters. These provided wonderful reflections of the city and highlighted the dominance that the cathedral plays in the cityscape, the castle hidden mostly by modern buildings. Now a hub of student life and modern entertainment there are still clear signs that this was once a thriving port. Many pleasure boats replace the steamboats and barges that would once have filled this port. During the 13th century, when Lincoln’s wool trade was thriving, so was the port. Decline set in but with every decline comes a resurgence. The connecting waterway was dredged and reopened which led to its heyday in the 18th/19th century. The port we see today would have been a much different picture back then. From here the decline came again as the railway arrived and the port was left to wrack and ruin. It now survived and has been turned around to a thriving pleasure destination.

So I left the waterways after finding the high bridge and retraced my steps up Steep Hill, past those appealing shops, round the corner and through the arches to the cathedral. Sadly, that grand entrance was greeted with the noise and clear disturbance of necessary renovation works. How annoying, but understandable, it must surely present a reason to return. A step inside one of England’s biggest cathedrals is a must, but a shocking fee of £8 to enter may put you off. I have to say I was put off by the fee and will add this as another reason to come back and visit. A wander round the outside confirms the enormous size of it and its unique design. Not like the other cross liked cathedrals in England, this Norman and Gothic combination is superb. Did you know that Lincoln cathedral was the tallest building in the world for 238 years? In 1311 the completion of the central tower replacement was done at 160m high. In 1548 this was blown down. Incredible bits of history on both aspects in the building of something so high and the fact it probably wasn’t very safe to be a builder back then.

So as I sit and enjoy the autumn sunshine, and compose the blog for this city I reckon that this is another jewel in the English crown that should be added to anyone’s itinerary and not ignored when visiting this country. I for sure will be returning to explore its history and surrounding area.

Ripon Rising

Here I was leaving Ripon after a pleasant evening spent there after work and blissfully unaware that I was leaving an English city until I walked pass a sign that said, “cathedral city of the Yorkshire dales”. On this mission to write a blog about every city in England I really should do some study and form a definitive list in order to start planning rather than just stumbling across these places. As I walked around, I genuinely thought I was in a small town that boasted a cathedral but had not got city status. My mind was a muddle as I tried to think about what gives a city its status and ultimately forgot that this might just be one. In an attempt to enjoy my evening, I wasn’t going to turn to my phone to give me the answer, although I did ultimately.

This small and charming cathedral city has left me a little dumbfounded. So small in size and in the middle of nowhere – how did it come about? Was it created as part of a religious area? How comes a large cathedral was placed here? There are no initial and clear signs of industrial links, albeit that as I left there, I could see a canal and railway. Could its existence be traced back through farming and markets? How blind to some things I had been as my eyes were focused on a safe arrival into the city much earlier. I have so many questions as to its creation.

Upon leaving my car, the first stop was the cathedral. It seemed small compared to some, simplistic even, with nothing grand about its appearance apart from the autumn sunshine gently warming its outer shell. This is written not to take away from Rippon’s cathedral but there are certainly more attractive cathedrals in these lands. I took those dreaded steps towards the doors to see if I was going to be charged to enter. Donations only!! Well done, but once inside one is immediately drawn to the way by which these places now have to find a way of surviving – in Ripon’s case it was an art gallery on either side of the main aisles. Diversification.

Some time was spent around the cathedral capturing pictures and finally I was led to the crypt. Although I went around it backwards (entrance not that clear) I wasn’t that interested in what I saw. Upon completing some research later, I discovered that this was in fact a 7th century crypt!! Its small size meant pictures were not achievable, hence my lack of interest. Not one to fuss, I didn’t return to take a picture upon hearing rumours that this is the oldest in the land.

As these autumn evenings start to draw in, time was pressing and as this was a work trip in what I thought was a town, I marched on in search of dinner rather than fully exploring this charming Yorkshire delight. In my search of dinner, I came across the Market Square. Almost completely surrounded by buildings, there are modern roads that now enlarge the breaks in the complete market square vista. A tall and commanding pillar/statue guards the square around it. The city still to this day is full of tradition as at 9 o’clock town’s horn blower blows his horn to the four corners of the square. This tradition (the world’s longest-running unbroken daily ceremony) spans some 1100 years as is referred to as “setting the watch”. As I walk around, I notice a sign that states about rebels gathering in the square in November 1569, after capturing Barnard Castle. By January 1570 hundreds of these rebels had been hung in the square for their rebellion against Henry VIII’s dissolution.

Close to the city lies Fountains Abbey, something that must surely be explored upon returning to this area. This is a fine example of the footprint/legacy that Henry VIII left on this country. The ruins that remain still show the sheer size that abbeys/monasteries once were and, consequently, the power they once had. I would imagine that if they could be lined up against each other that Fountains Abbey would dwarf Ripon’s cathedral. It adds a layer of intrigue and one that must be explored upon returning. Was the cathedral created after the destruction of the abbey or do their histories coincide? Clearly there are signs of a church being at the site of the cathedral for many years. I look forward to discovering more of this history.

So, as I sit and write this blog, I’m still in shock that I have managed to visit another city without realising I was even in one. I’ve already stated my desire to return to Yorkshire and explore this part of the country in greater detail. Ripon has given added incentive as clearly there are some delightful areas to explore within a 10-mile radius. So, as Ripon builds to be a part of the cycling world championships, I hope I find the time to be able to recognise it on TV as the cyclists fly by. Ripon Rising I look forward to returning.

Characterful Chester

It has taken two thousand years to create the Chester of today! The Romans established it as a port some 2 millennia ago and set up a fort here. The area was the ideal location for a gateway to the north. A lot has happened in Britain in the intervening time but there are still some Roman remains to be seen throughout the city. Parts of the wall are 2 millennia old. An amphitheatre can just about be made out along with some foundations in another location. Notes by one area close to the present town hall declare that the ruins on display are the remains of the heart of the fortress located at Deva.

 

My knowledge of English history prior to 1066 is much weaker than that of the post 1066 era though this says very little. It was in Saxon times that Chester’s first cathedral was built; it remains to this day but in the form of ruins next to the St John the Baptist church. Entry to these ruins is free and there are notes on display boards to assist people like me who have little understanding of this part of British history.

What was incredible to believe, as there was no evidence to back it up, was that this was once a key port! Chester sits on the river Dee which back then had not silted up, so it was accessible by boat. It was possible to reach Ireland by boat from here. During these times the city of Liverpool was nothing but 7 streets so, at that time, it was strategically more important than its famous Mersey neighbour. I have no idea what silting is (the dictionary says, ‘the process of becoming filled or blocked with silt and further says that silt is fine sand, clay, or other material carried by running water and deposited as a sediment, especially in a channel or harbour), but this was the main cause of the decline of Chester as a  harbour. As a result, docks were removed with the last one going as late as the 1960s.

The river passes around half the city and the city’s racecourse. This charming setting seems to be slightly neglected. There is a noticeable lack of waterfront pubs and eateries which mean that there are not large gatherings of people here. That is to be considered as an advantage. Perhaps this will come. After walking along the riverbank for a short while, the path and banks are overgrown. Perhaps this is the reason for people staying in the city centre. I can see that improvements could be made along these banks to entice folks away from the hustle and bustle.

In spite of this there are some iconic bridges to explore. The Grosvenor bridge, from which, incidentally, a superb view of the racecourse is possible, is impressive. It is one of 3 main bridges across the river Dee with the majority of traffic crossing into the city via this Grosvenor bridge. Walking across the Old Dee bridges gives a view of one of the four gates through the city walls. The city boasts the most complete walls in the country and are a wonderful way to start exploring the city as they give an idea of its size, structure and layout. With all walls there must be entrance points, and as my meanderings grow, I will begin to learn more about this, but a common theme might be that these gates are located at the points of a compass.

And so to the walls. As I trod along these walls it made me think about their very existence. Were they built to keep an enemy away and protect all that was encompassed by them? Why have they not remained in all cities? When walking these walls don’t be afraid to leave them for you never know what you might find either side of them. A castle? A blue coat hospital? Cannons that were used long ago? Walking along the walls as best as I could (repair works while I was there) I came across a round tower in the north eastern corner. It was constructed during the reign of Charles I, and now aptly named King Charles Tower. The city was loyal to Charles during the Civil War during the 17th century. It is alleged that Charles stood atop this tower and watched his army defeated at the battle of Rowton Moor. It would be difficult see as far as Rowton from this vantage point, but it may well have been that back then he saw soldiers returning from the affray.

Inside the walls is where Chester’s true charm is to be found in, believe it or not, its distinguished shopping area!! The iconic black and white, half-timbered, buildings have lower levels that are shops. It is almost as if delightful architecture and functionality have become entangled through dreamy, though no doubt deliberate, design and that these buildings have stood the test of time. The double delight of the 700 year old row galleries captivate your immediate attention. Their brilliant design was surely light years ahead of its time. These black and white façades still remain in the modern dysfunctional British high streets. Chester seems to have a lure for shoppers and results in busy and overcrowded streets. As these old designs have remained, they were clearly not designed for the amount of people that now overcrowd these streets and there is a definite sense of being hemmed in.

Not one for shopping and always pressed for time in these city visits I made my way to its cathedral. These cathedrals are located at the centre of most cities, and what were once the places where the heartbeat of the city was felt, now, sadly, sit as mausoleums. Chester’s cathedral was not one of my favourites. It is dark, dingy and ugly and could do with a good sandblast. Inside its dark nature owes much to its Victorian ‘restoration’. It’s home to colourful windows and is perhaps famous for its choir. It has weekly organ recitals, but, sadly, my visit tied in with some rather loud and dreary practice. A dour organ practice aside, there was the dreamy shopping mall, still sturdy walls that give the city a real sense of stronghold and leaves you captivated. A city etched with parts from the whole of Britain’s 2000-year history is really a ‘must do’ visit for all.

Central Coventry

The mission is to blog about every city in England. It has gathered pace recently assisted by my work taking me to “Central Coventry”. The title of this blog has been chosen as it is to do with the most central city in England.

 

As my meanderings take me around the country to see each city, I’m sure that there will be winners and losers. My views for each place may not be shared by all but here goes as far as Coventry is concerned which I rank down at the bottom of the list of best cities. Perhaps it was depression brought on by the rain bringing a damp end to the finale of another summer or an emotional state brought on by the civil war and battle lines that MPs were drawing up at Parliament. Whatever the cause, Coventry did not do anything to ameliorate the situation and was a major disappointment. Perhaps another visit in more favourable light and with stability in the political world to bring the mind on an even keel may do it justice….

I had been many times before. There is a family friend who lives there, and an educational childhood meant that I had been privileged to see the place from earliest days. Sadly, memories of the city itself do not abound (where is that childhood blog?).

I managed to find some free parking. As an aside, free parking in city centres might make people more inclined to visit. I strolled towards the city centre via an underground pass presumably under the ring road. It was here that the first impressions were made. One never gets a second chance to make a good first impression. Coventry’s first impression made a lasting impact and left me feeling rather uneasy and, for the first time in a while, unsafe. Homeless people were living in the shelter provided by the pathway under the road. Their ‘beds’ were made up and, clearly, there were no facilities.  Obviously, there was no bathroom and the stench of urine was pungent. Their contribution to this walkway was to leave needles for, no doubt, drug habits. What a terrible sight. As I discussed with a friend the other day, how did our society let it get to this?!

Rapidly leaving what seemed like a crime scene, I followed the signs to the city centre. I noticed a half-battered statue which looked like it had seen better days. This was another proof of the ignorance of our past. I had some strange looks as I tried to get a picture. Further investigation showed the statue to be of James Starley, creator of the bicycle. Coventry became a major bicycle manufacturer which then led to Coventry becoming a major centre in the British motor industry. This led to the formation of a British brand of car, Rover. I can still recall seeing many of these cars on the road when I was younger but as more countries have created their own car brands, so the British ones have almost disappeared, as we now import cars from all over the world. There are still some surviving parts of this legacy; Jaguar has its headquarters in this area and the transport museum shows the motor history associated with the city.

The city centre is now a polar opposite to bygone days with shops selling modern fashion brands, intertwined with coffee shops and abandoned stores. There are people off their heads screaming and shouting about needing a toilet for all the word to see and hear. All round homeless people lie waiting for the generosity of many, yet so few of that many are prepared to give. People are connected like robots, but, alarmingly, with an inability to switch off and see what is all round them. Where did it all go so wrong? What can be done? I was very harsh about Vancouver having this problem, but I also said that this city didn’t stand alone in this world.

At the heart of the city centre is a statue to Lady Godiva. Legend has it she rode through the city naked, only covered by her long hair to stand up against the taxes her husband placed on the city. The event took place circa 1066-1086, and the statue is there to remind the interested visitor the history behind the city. Although history is perhaps a big game of Chinese whispers, the legend has been remembered to this day. Leaving this statue you are immediately drawn to the dominating features of this city, the last remains of part what was once England’s finest medieval city. Hitler and the Nazi air raids led to the “Coventry blitz” or “operation moonlight sonata” and this onslaught put paid to the major part of Coventry’s past as the blitz was one of the most destructive of its kind. Coventry’s central location and supplier of many things required for the war meant it was a prime target. The devastation caused is particularly shown by the old cathedral the remains of which still stand. Sadly, a lot of the damages caused were beyond repair and a new city needed to be rebuilt.

Perhaps the best way to describe the old cathedral is walls but no roof. It is as if the roof has been blown off with the outside wall structure being defiant. Perhaps this has been left as a reminder of not just the human life that was lost in the war, but the devastation of lands. The city decided that instead of rebuilding the cathedral it would build a new one next to it. A step inside this soulless modern monstrosity confirmed my opinion that we really must appreciate those incredible cathedrals that have survived time, and carve such an identity on our cityscapes.

Located around the edges of the cathedral lie the 14th century guild hall and Holy Trinity church. Both buildings are excellent displays of ancient architecture. I would appeal to anyone to visit both, not just for a civic ceremony but to witness such architecture.

So it is with slight sadness in my heart, that Coventry didn’t steal it, but instead left me questioning the state of the world in which we live.

Terrific Tewkesbury

Whisper it quietly but I think I have just discovered one of England’s finest towns. As I’m on a mission to blog about every city in England it was surprising that I ended up here. What a surprise it was to discover this place. I am torn between broadcasting Tewkesbury’s virtues and whispering about this place to help preserve its excellence and keep it one of Britain’s great secrets. This town has a beautiful waterside setting, at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon. Go and learn, discover even, about the town’s rich and vibrant history. It has certainly inspired me to explore another part of England’s intriguing history.

At the heart of the city lies the imposing feature of the town scape. The Abbey! A step inside immediately blows your mind, as it’s almost as impressive as the abbey near to my home in Sherborne. As I’ve mentioned before, when you think of abbeys in this country you would think of them all being ruins as a result of the dissolution, but not this one. It has retained its relevance at the heart of the city with its Norman tower, 12th century ceilings and stained glass windows. The abbey’s survival is, in large part, down to the town buying the abbey from Henry VIII for 435 pounds.

I’m not going to write a history lesson about the War of the Roses or the main people involved. This is mainly due to the fact I need to give myself a history lesson first of all. I know that it was the red versus the white rose. I can remember the name Richard III as being king in this era, and I’m aware of a saying,  ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’ So the only real knowledge I have is of the passionate cricket match that is served up, it seems, at least twice a year between Yorkshire (white rose) and Lancashire (red rose) and how this has been more than just a sporting rivalry stretching back some 600 years. Some serious research must be made to discover more about yet another fascinating part of our history. Perhaps if those people in Hollywood who can’t think of any decent films to make could start looking at British history for inspiration rather than subjecting us to all their remakes.

Tewksbury was the location for a significant battle in the War of the Roses. It surprises me that these two northern counties fought here for supremacy and not closer to their home, but this might have something to do with the return of an exile from France. Something else to research and try to understand – were the shires much larger back then? Or were there less of them than the current number of counties in England. The scene of the battle was played out to the south of the town. The area where the battle took place is known to this day as ‘Bloody Meadow’. Each year the site plays host to re-enactments of the event although they are always scheduled for a time in the year after the anniversary of the actual event no doubt to draw the most crowds. Surely a return visit to Tewkesbury in July of next year is a must, as the medieval town comes alive with wannabe actors reliving those famous tales.

I presume that such a festival brings about an incredible display of colour as a large number of flags relating to the noblemen who fought in that battle adorn shops, inns and houses throughout the town. Does this splash of colour remain all year round? The Tewkesbury Battlefield Society is responsible for all of this colour and information and has done a fine job.

These streets are Tudortastic. Anyone who loves old architecture should strive to visit this time warped town. The layout and buildings have been preserved.  The town seems to have barely altered throughout the ages as black and white timber framed Tudor buildings line the streets, their upper storeys overhanging lower ones to create a truly special high street. Throw in the colourful flags and you have quite the picture. I was amazed at how many different buildings there were and upon a little research was blown away to understand there are some 345 listed buildings in the town. It was also noticeable that the high street had no ‘to let’ signs out. We must surely be looking at what this place does right to ensure filled shops.

The fact that the town is surrounded by flood plains, rivers and meadows means its expansion hasn’t happened and it has retained its long and narrow profile. Instead it has left a tiny footprint of times gone by, and one of the land’s finest townscapes! I beg everyone to discover this wonderful town; you will probably be blown away just like me. For now, though, I will posit that not enough of our incredible history is covered in our education system (I can understand why people don’t want to complete an exam in history, but as we need to reidentify ourselves as a nation, we shouldn’t ignore our past. Perhaps British history should be made a core subject throughout all year groups). I will go now to discover its history and secrets for myself, and, as a local old couple remarked to me, try not to attract too many visitors here.

Viva la Via Rail

This trip to Canada relied heavily on train transportation. My dear old friend is a railway enthusiast and was keen to use the trains in another land. Just before we left, almost by coincidence, Michael Portillo’s ‘great Canadian railway show’ was shown on tv. This gave us a glimpse of what was to come and showcased the railway journeys we were about to go on (I suspect he didn’t have to pay the huge sums of money we did)! Before watching the show, I had already put our itinerary together; if only it had come on before I had made plans. Instead we used his views for comparison. My dear old thing a regular of train travel back home, myself a complete virgin to long distance rail travel. We had tried interrailing across Europe, but somehow feel we got that a bit wrong.

We used Toronto as our central hub, and from here we got two trains to Quebec via Montreal, a trip to Niagara Falls, and the main event the Canadian to Vancouver and back (8 trips in all). I had an extra journey as I returned to Montreal. So, our plan was to make the second largest train journey in the world, which was always going to perhaps be the highlight of the whole trip as we chugged slowly over Canada and through the Rocky Mountains.

My train travel experience is limited but I can now add the ‘Canadian’ experience to my ever-growing list of travel accomplishments and can perhaps be the envy of many Canadians. It seems to be a rite of passage for them to compete this journey once in their lifetime. Dare I say this that it certainly whetted the appetite to experience train travel elsewhere around the world as differing landscapes slowly swept by and you sat back and relaxed.

An engine breakdown aside, our trip to Quebec was totally worth it. It highlighted the creation of the railways in Canada; every city looks like it had a hotel designed by the owners for the benefit of the railway. In each city visited this was clearly evident and in some more than others. The buildings were perhaps inspired by European influences (as perhaps Canada itself is). Take a look at the chateau in Quebec and baronial building in Banff and it’s easy to see European. This European influence was not so evident in the hotels in Toronto and Montreal – clearly, they had been over taken by modern architecture.

The second trip was a disappointing trip back to Niagara Falls for me and an opportunity for my senior friend to say that he had seen the falls. This time the trip allowed us to experience Amtrak, and again this has perhaps whetted the appetite for some American train travel. The least said about a day in Niagara is the best; it was with haste we headed back to Toronto for the main event, duly noting the experience.

The main event was ‘the Canadian’. This was a somewhat slow and sometimes tedious experience as this passenger service was often left to give way to frequent and enormous freight trains. This is a complete and utter contrast to the British railway system where the opposite is true – passengers first, freight second. An interesting timetable schedule meant an unplanned exploration of Winnipeg and a worrying pub visit in Melville. Then almost out of nowhere we arrived at what I had been waiting for – the famous Rocky Mountains. They were still covered in a winter blanket. Awe inspiring landscapes of unbelievable natural beauty were either side of a corridor through which to run. The track ran parallel with differing rivers and canyons at times – was there ever a greater backdrop to travel. To my mind such beauty felt like it was being disturbed and destroyed as trains constantly chugged through the iconic mountain range, something not only the railway but all of us need to think long and hard about. The actions we take in purchasing tickets and pleasure seeking surely cannot be sustained. Food for thought, surely?

Our experience was with Via Rail that appears to be the lesser known of the Canadian railway companies. Certainly, to those in Britain, the Rocky Mountaineer (RM) is well known but this train only travels on part of the rail system to the west of the country. The experience on the well marketed RM comes with a price and surely this train is backed up with powerful financial resources. It would be difficult to compare the services without experience of both, but the impression given is that the RM is for the discerning and well-heeled tourist. Any overnight stop necessitates leaving the train to find a motel and then returning to the train the next day. This would not have suited my travelling companion. We were happy to be in overnight accommodation on the Via Rail train.  Whichever way it is seen daylight travelling through the Rockies is an experience not to be missed. Rumour has it that this is one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys.

The experience on ‘the canadian’ was superb. A great many companions were met, we enjoyed excellent food, and as the waiters said, ‘We’ve heard about you!’ as I ensured I sampled all the meals on the menu!! If only I could have afforded the top of the range rooms, I would have abused the observation bar a lot more. Sadly, if provided a perfect spot for an afternoon beverage.

What wonderful and diverse rail experiences we enjoyed, and it has opened up this traveller’s heart to further railway adventures across the world. There were many pros and less cons to Via Rail and with those in mind it leaves me wanting more.

I wish I could take credit for some of these photos, sadly I have to pass that credit onto Via Rail who very kindly gave me permission to use them.

Magnificent Montréal

Founded on an island by the French in the 17th century on the confluence of the Rivers Ottawa and St. Lawrence is the Canadian city of Montréal. An incredible amalgamation of cultures cut a new identity in this modern Canadian landscape. What was once an economic powerhouse Montréal is now associated the harmonising of English and French speaking communities despite their obvious cultural differences. You’d think that there would be rigid divisions between these communities, but they’re one proud city.

 

I won’t focus on the cultural aspects but on old and new Montréal. I will be brief on the new as it is not my cup of tea. It possesses many of the issues seen all too frequently around the world -pollution, waste, drugs, ignorance, commercialisation and globalisation. I don’t know what the problems were when the new Montréal was built, but to be digging most of it up illustrates that planning and wastefulness is not a modern phenomenon. So lets put to bed my disdain of this area and focus on the area I loved.

Old Montréal has somehow managed to retain its character. The old town was established as a catholic village along the banks of the St. Lawrence river. Missionary efforts failed to flourish meaning it needed a new way to survive. That came, as so many places in Canada, through fur-trading. The wealth and prosperity that particular boom brought meant that fine stone buildings and houses were built. Montréal also established one of the most important inland harbours in North America by the 19th Century. Booms don’t and can’t last forever – world history testifies to that. Montreal was no exception. By the 20th century the city had fallen into decline. From 1980 the city has had its own renaissance. Many of the 18th century buildings were saved and given a new lease of life for what was built back then no longer fitted in with what is needed today.

What there is now is a remarkable combination of old and new, as restaurants, bistros and boutiques merge with wonderful architecture. Yes, you still have your tourist shops, littered with ‘Canadian’ products made in China. My suggestion is to search for and buy the authentic Canadian goods that may be found on the shelves. A conversation ensued with the shop keeper, but I soon ran out of what little French I know though not before he had accepted payment from my credit card. It was then that he changed to English to say something about his wife once working for English speakers.

Canada doesn’t do the “pubs” to which I am accustomed. Invariably the establishments that exist are bar/restaurants with the main focus on food. I had some puzzled looks as I would just enter and only want a beer. One must indulge in some of Montreal’s cuisine, poutine and (a recommendation) a smoked meat sandwich.

The architecture is similar to that in Quebec City (French influence) and was a pleasure to study. The Notre Dame Basilica is worth the entrance fee. As you step into this cathedral, be amazed by the almost ocean looking sanctuary and altar piece. The cathedral probably survives on those entrance fees and not from contributions from regular and faithful attendees. It is the same the world over but aren’t we glad that these places are preserved even if they resemble museums and sometimes even mausoleums. Down the rue Notre-Dame (one could be mistaken for thinking one was in Paris) the Hôtel de Ville captures your attention before Montréal’s own Nelson’s column takes your eye. Ignore the wonderful street entertainers, (for a second you might think you were in Covent Garden in London) and question why it is that one of England’s most famous seamen has a statue there. This evidence confirms the sense of intertwined cultures that have shaped this city.

The aforementioned harbour is no longer the trading post it once was. Now it has undergone serious modernisation as the entertainment features that the youth of today crave have sprung up to ensure its sustainability. A railway line runs parallel with the river and splits the glorious old town from this modern hub of craziness. An entrance to Chapelle Notre Dame-de-Bonsecours provides a view of this divide between the harbour and old Montreal. As you stand there and look across old Montreal you could be mistaken for thinking that you are looking across a city in Europe, as spires, domes and religious buildings dominate the skyline.

Before I left this city, there were still two places that I felt must be visited. A walk to Mont Royal and Oratoire Saint Joseph. I’d been to both before, but both places should be considered on a first visit to the city. On arriving in the city in glorious sunshine I dumped my bags and hiked up “la montagne”. This urban escape provides Montrealers with some much-needed green space in the city. Standing at only 234m high, nature manages to provide the city’s best view point. Oratoire Saint Joseph is perhaps the perfect spot to watch the sunset in the city. After climbing the 283 steps to the top I sat amazed as the sun set. Witnessing behaviour that perhaps wasn’t in tone with the location, it was still a romantic end for my visit to the city.

I’d been before, but Magnificent Montréal, you were worth the second visit.

Jasper Jewel

Is this the jewel in Canada’s crown? Jasper – what a place! We visited this place more than once on this trip. We stopped at Jasper on the railway odyssey, but this stop was extended somewhat as we arrived ahead of schedule. This stopover gave a glimpse of what was to come. We made our way back by car to make a stay and what had been earmarked as a potential favourite destination of the trip certainly became that.

Set in the heart of the Rockies, this gentle and timeless town is an absolute winner. It exhibits an endless alpine landscape of opportunity and, oh, how I wish that I had had more time! Those hiking tracks, river activities and wildlife wonders needed more time than I had allocated. How lucky Canadians are to have it as their backyard!

Stunning mountains dominate the skyline, beautifully covered in snow. How refreshing compared with, apparently, the modern, global appeal of skyscrapers and bright lights. Give me nature’s view over a cityscape every time. Whether it is snow on the peaks or the remains of glaciers I’ll leave that for the experts. What I do know is the destruction of these incredible formations caused by the human race. I must appreciate what is left behind as it is spell binding and strive to do something about preserving it.

Canada is blessed with lakes; Jasper is no different. Some of them are fed by glaciers. These lakes have the most exquisite turquoise-coloured waters. I managed to finally see these wonderful colours walking around lake Annette where the ice had melted. I also found lots of frozen lakes as we were in Canada early in the season.  Between the lake and the snow of mountains lie the vast amount of wildlife and trees, which, until you look closely or walk through them, you do not realise the multitude of trees that are there. It is a mind-blowing amount. It was great to see them all standing proud knowing full well that some, perhaps not these particular ones, will be used for building purposes. I thought of the years that it took for these to grow. Sustainability is the key. Hidden among them is a vast array of wildlife. Whisper it quietly, because if you are there you never know what you might see!

I’m ashamed to admit that our journeys into Jasper were by both train and car. Coupled with the plane journey to get to Canada in the first place we have contributed to the damage caused to this planet. Motivation and inspiration should be taken from two crazy souls who were passed on the Iceland parkway. They were cycling to Jasper. They certainly challenged me to think about future trips and how they can be more of an adventure and exploration rather than a tick box exercise to visit as many places as possible. To what extent have I joined in with those who jump out of coaches to take a photo and jump back in again for the next shot. Time is something more valuable than money, and the one thing that beats us all. Time management to give to and to get the best out of life is a real issue as far as I am concerned. We are here to enjoy what we see but to do so responsibly. A reassessment of the way I travel perhaps should be done to make me minimise my footprint on the world. Food for thought.

I shall leave you with some thoughts about my visit which were noted as I sat and looked at that view.

For a moment I felt a sense of freedom
The evils of a modern world – greed, power,
Destruction, globalism, commercialism –
Abated as nature presented a calming distraction

It takes more than a moment to appreciate the view,
Solace found in a wonderful yet peaceful landscape.
And how one views the scene depends on the viewer –
God’s creation or years of formation

As the shoots of spring were forming
The sun was shining
The birds were returning
The snow was melting

The sound of flowing water
Didn’t disturb the peaceful harmony
Birdsong the angelic voices that
Drowned the heavy beats of my heavy heart

The more you look the more you appreciate
But for how long will we be able?
Whisper it quietly for surely
It won’t be here for much longer

Vancouver Vanity

I’d heard so much of this city prior to arriving there! In this modern world it’s hard to ignore the information and opinions that are so readily available. Sadly, with access to all that knowledge and information at the tips of my fingers, I wish I hadn’t read or believed what I read! Sadly, preparation can lead, transmogrify even, into expectations. It is my sad experience that expectation all too often leads to disappointment. They tell me that Vancouver is one of the best cities in the world in which to live. So, I arrived in the city full of hope only for those expectations to dissipate on sight of the place. I left underwhelmed. Let me elaborate and give another take on Vancouver.

Vancouver’s is set at the bottom of the mountains that almost rise from the sea and this means that land is at a premium resulting, predictably for these parts, in heavily populated skyscrapers. Vancouver is similar to New York in this respect with both places dominated by ugly skyscrapers. NYC may be a concrete jungle, but Vancouver is like a solar farm of glass. I struggled to find Vancouver’s heart and soul and had real issues trying to identify with the city. I realise that I am starting to sound a bit like our Prince Charles and his famous use of the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ in relation to what was then modern architecture. I am amazed to discover that it is 35 years since he made his speech. The city lacked any form of cultural identity, yet another of these modern cities around the world. Was this characterless jungle due to the city’s relatively young age? Was it its multicultural population (surely this should give rise to diversity in design?)? Was it its modernity? Did I react to its drug smelling community? Was it the dirt and smell that got to me? I’m searching for the answers as to why I was disappointed.

 

Its location is prime for exporting Canadian products to Asia. This results in a busy and productive port and many photographic opportunities of dirty great boats waiting in the harbour. The recurring theme from this trip has surely to be about how we are damaging the world. As photogenic as these colourful behemoths were, the sight of them was a massive reminder the damages being caused.

The bays represent the mouth of Vancouver. The boats sail past the lungs of the city – Stanley Park. The green space there perhaps provides the heart, Downtown, its much-needed oxygen to breathe. Although the trees lined along the roads in parts of Downtown provide tiny air-sacks they are trapped by the glass monstrosities above.

South from Stanley Park, following the edge of the bay, leads to my favourite area of the city. As English Bay leads to False Creek, there are a number of sheltered harbours, lovely walks, idyllic “bars” and views aplenty. This really is the best of Vancouver. Why everyone isn’t at Sunset Beach in the evening I will never know as the sun paints the sky a crimson orange and it provides the perfect spot to relax and reflect.

As for the rest of main Vancouver – the suburbs of Gastown, Yaletown and Downtown in particular – which I had hoped to deliver so much, all failed spectacularly. Dirt, smell, homelessness, litter – it was far from the spectacular impression that had been created in my mind. At times I thought, ‘Am I actually walking around in a Canadian city?’ The city boasts one of the largest Chinatowns in North America, an area of no personal interest, but adds to the common lack of English being spoken. What is becoming noticeable in cities these days is the alarming number of homeless people and Vancouver was no exception but the scale of it here is greater than that seen in any other city visited recently. Are drugs the cause? The addicts’ erratic behaviour and way of survival wasn’t pleasant to see and was there for all to see. Is this now a global problem that is spiralling upwards in terms of quantity of addicts and spiralling downwards in terms of ambiance quality? Or are such people victims of a society that places so much store by work and wealth creation leading to the polarisation of its members. Perhaps a lot of the misery is self-inflicted but the juxtaposition of clinical, pristine, shiny, corporation buildings and the filthy conditions in downtown Vancouver is horrendous.

North of the city the Seabus (not a ferry) operates across to Lynn Quay. An up and coming area with a charming market, restaurants and a lovely view of the cityscape. It was from here I was recommended to get the bus to Lynn Canyon. Well worth it with free entry an added bonus.

South of the city water taxis work around the heavily populated harbour. I didn’t take advantage but rather stretched my legs and walked both sides. There are three main bridges providing both pedestrians and vehicles a way across the water. At the far end is the BC place stadium, a truly soulless place. Home to the Whitecaps, it seems an expensive place for just “football”. I hope other sports use and fill it to capacity to generate the atmosphere it warrants for its considerable investment.

So as my time in Vancouver comes to end, I head back to Sunset Beach to watch the sun set yet again. The train ride across Canada awaits. Vancouver, I’m sorry, I still can’t work out what all the fuss is about.

Baronial Banff

There is an undoubted link between the railways and the settlements in Canada. Banff is no exception. It’s a shame that arrival to Banff wasn’t by way of rail but by car. That is not to denigrate in any way an arrival by car. Perhaps we saw more of the amazing views than we would have done from the train as it makes it way down from Vancouver. The journey into Banff was certainly an arduous one, the drive from Vancouver being a monster of a drive. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes! Would I do it again? A resounding no.

Everyone has surely heard of Banff. If you haven’t where have you been hiding? Pictures of the lakes have dominated travellers’ social media feeds for a long time and are always featured in the travel section of newspapers. It was the desire of my dear friend to visit the place. Knowing the time of the year I wasn’t as keen as those dreamy pictures probably weren’t going to be captured. The snow from wintry weather still affected the landscape. April is a bit too early for the thaw.

Perhaps it was due to the weather that I didn’t love this place as much as others. That said, I had heard another refer to the town as ‘nice but pretentious’. I had dreamed of canoeing those turquoise waters and hiking for a view of those snow topped mountains. Sadly, this will have to remain a distant dream and provide inspiration to return to this wonderful part of the world one day provided that is that the tacky tourist or global destruction or a combination of both doesn’t ruin it.

I was interested to find out that Banff became one of Canada’s first national parks in 1885. Although the area had been discovered centuries before by the native people, it was the railway workers who discovered the hot springs in 1883 and therefore set off to create the tourist town of Banff. The town is a combination of shops and eateries, whose survival relies on the tourists that visit the area. Sadly, this aspect was not at all appealing to me. I feel beauty isn’t in those artificial creations but the natural formation of the land on which they are built.

Step away from the touristy town centre and become one with nature. This is surely a memory and experience far greater than mindless entertainment provided by technology. A gentle walk up Tunnel Mountain provided some much-needed outdoor time after being cooped up in transport for so many days. A new friend was adopted as we made our way to the top stopping many times for pictures of the views. Pictures can never do it justice and I always end up taking too many. Does this perhaps mean that the view diminishes slightly as picture after picture is taken to share with the world? As social media, particularly Instagram, changes the way in which we visit these places, I am as guilty of that as the next person but am challenging the thought process and wondering whether I should have left the camera behind.

Dragging myself away from the top of the mountain, with a spring in my step, and fresh air in my lungs and a new sense of general wellbeing, I set off in search of other such delights. I stumbled upon a view point of the famous Banff Springs Hotel that was built by the railway. Such a beautiful monstrosity (a tad oxymoronic but hey ho) sat so peacefully surrounded by nature. Someone down there is surely capitalising on nature’s beauty. Perhaps inspiration was taken from Baronial castles in Scotland and a trip to visit similar landscapes closer to home is a must in the near future. I was dismayed on arrival at the river Bow to find bus loads of people arrive for the inevitable picture before hopping back on the bus. They, like me, were tourists with theirs being a hop on, hop off, conveyor belt type tourism. The industry has put in the aids to access and embellished the viewing points to encourage instant tourism devoid of any sense of adventure. We were there in April. What must it be like in July? I had tiny hopes of finding some water activities and I had to settle for climbing and walking around to find an idyllic spot.

There were parts of Banff that I didn’t see due to the wintry weather that would have perhaps appealed to my enthusiasm. Rather than trying to view these places by modern means, it will perhaps be more rewarding to put in the effort to use the greatest technology of them all, the human body. As I sit down to look at those mountain views, two things amaze me – the creation of what’s in front of me and secondly the mechanisms of the body. Two incredible things that I probably haven’t valued enough in my lifetime as there are distractions and a manic lifestyle that mean that they get ignored in the case of nature or abused in the case of the body. Perhaps it is as I leave that this place, with its mixture of unchanging beauty and its snapshot tourists trampling over it all, that it has caused me to further crystallise my thoughts and even inspired me more than I considered possible on first sight.

Maybe another time Banff…..

Whistle stop Winnipeg

This great Canadian railway odyssey has thrown up many delightful charms and none more so than the City of Winnipeg. There is more to come.

Situated in the heart of Canada, you can begin to see why it’s such a strategic location. It’s remarkable to think I never really knew of its existence! It’s perhaps the combination of the lack of expectation and knowledge that give these delightful discoveries such unbridled joy.

Blessed in glorious spring sunshine but with rumours of -2°C outside the train, I disembarked and went off in search of new found discoveries. My time was limited as after all we were on a railway adventure. A quick dash soon led me to the river. The river provides the backdrop for most of the history associated with the city. In fact there is a confluence of two rivers (Red and Assiniboine) which is referred to locally as ‘The Forks’. It was here that I was able to capture the skyline of the city and found some prose about freedom based on gulls seen as a youngster with her mother at Provencher Bridge in a work entitled Street of Riches by Gabrielle Roy.

“Toward the middle of the Provencher Bridge,
Maman and I found ourselves surrounded by sea gulls;
they flew low over the Red River.
Maman took my hand and clasped it tight,
as though to convey to me a movement of her soul.
A hundred times a day Maman got a lift of joy from the world around us;
sometimes it was nothing more than the wind or the flight of a bird that delighted her.
Leaning on the parapet we watched the gulls for a long while.
And all of a sudden, on that bridge, Maman told me that she would like to be able to go whenever and wherever she might choose.”

Over on the other side I was immediately drawn to a graveyard housing a good number of grave stones and which led you along a path to a ruined church/cathedral! I was fascinated to see these ruins, the result of a fire that destroyed the building in the 1970s. A more modern church has been built behind the ruins which have remained as part of the architect’s new vision of the church, a phoenix from the ashes if you like.

To the right of this is a charming house, which is now a museum. Sat in front of it is a statue to Louis Riel. Louis led the Red Rebellion for the local provisional government against the growing number of newcomers from Eastern Canada. Garnet Wolseley was sent to crush the rebellion – there was no evidence of him here!! This rebellion resulted in Manitoba then becoming the fifth province of Canada.

As time was short, a quick dash along the river and back to the station was made. Around the concert area which led back to the train station there were some old Canadian Pacific carriages resting in the car park. Other parts of the city’s history which are relevant is Bloody Saturday (100th anniversary this year). After the First World War, the city had many men return form the war and looking for work. It was felt that opportunities had been taken by immigrants and this, coupled with a feeling that there had been profiteering from the war by many companies without passing on some of the benefits to the workforce leading to low wages led to the strike of 1919. This ended in tragedy when two people with non-Canadian sounding names were killed by the mounted Canadian police. So this beautiful stop provided some memorable moments and some information for my further interest. It shall be that inquisitive nature that shall lead me to explore this place further upon coming back – apparently the market is a must!!

Niagara Galls

The next stop on my railway odyssey took me back to Niagara Falls. I shouldn’t have put myself through the pain and expense of travelling there again for once you have seen them, you have seen them. I mean they haven’t changed in the 3 years since I was last here. It is true to say that they are powerful falls, but they seemed slightly debilitated, perhaps by the freezing ice and snow (still around at the end of April). The falls seemed crestfallen as though their aura and might had been negated. A sense of slumber hung around the area. We had heard and read from fellow travellers that the sound of the mighty power of the falls may be heard from miles away and we listened out as we walked from the train station. Was the expected noise missing due to the snow and ice on the falls? Did the ice in effect reduce the distance that the water had to fall or dampen or deaden its impact? Was the noise lost to the hubbub of the town coming to life after a winter of hibernation? Other people had come to see the iconic falls – I wonder if they shared the sense of anti-climax views that I felt.

On a bitterly cold day, we should have made for Niagara-by-the-lake for some poetic distractions to kill the time. Rumours of its beauty make me inclined to think that a visit there should outweigh one to its famous neighbour, but, sadly, this is only a whisper known by few and isn’t to be found all over the net. Instead, and foolishly, we made do with entertaining ourselves in Canada’s Las Vegas.

A trip up the skylon tower does provide a panoramic view of both falls and is a rather pleasantly to see the panorama without getting too cold. Of course, it has gimmicks – our Japanese and Chinese friends must be entertained! There is the inevitable and, these days, ubiquitous revolving restaurant to enjoy. Clearly not of those who wanted to spin while eating but who perhaps could have been tempted, we were ushered into a corner to enjoy a beer (I guess our lack of appetite and the fact that we were no more than potential business candidates meant that we were not deemed worthy of the environment). We enjoyed our Canadian beers, but their assumptions cost them dear as our bill could have been so much more.

We left in search of a pub (or sportsbar as they are called this side of the ocean) hoping to watch the football. We were sent to the playground of far too many. In hope more than anticipation we tried to find something that might show the footie. No success, we ended up in a casino bar. Here we received a warm welcome, from people thinking that they had found another couple of deluded humans hoping to win their fortune. I mean the odds really are stacked against you, aren’t they? Who did they think we were? A few drinks and, by now, some much-needed food were consumed while the staff tried to work out how to display the football on the TV!! It never materialised – something about TV rights issues. This was all very hard to believe when it’s the international community that pays so heavily for our football rights. Thankfully the time had come for our train out of there – a buddy in Toronto awaited before the main event was due to commence. Hastily we made tracks in the pouring rain for the station.

Niagara, never again.

Québec City Qualité

The first stop on our Canadian train odyssey from east to west starting at Toronto is the stunning city of Quebec City. This is one of the oldest cities in North America, and it has unequivocally seduced me with its awesome architecture. Shivers down the spine and all that, it was that good. It was difficult for me to believe that I was actually in Canada as Quebec City has its own linguistic and cultural identity. I may have been forgiven in thinking that I had made the small journey across the English Chanel and not the 5000km across the Atlantic. Quebec City certainly feels like a country within a country, as the people stand tall and proud as Quebecers. It’s the history and charm of these older cities fascinate me and sensitise my inquisitive nature.

Quebec stands for ‘where the river narrows’ which is somewhat hard to believe, when you look at the vast size of it from viewpoints in the old city. I mean it’s so wide that not even a bridge connects the two banks of the St. Lawrence. The only bridge across to the other side is where the river narrows.

Like some of the cities I’ve recently visited Quebec City is small and compact and most certainly should be explored on foot! Leaving the digs, I soon discovered the Plains of Abraham. What was once a battlefield during the battles between the British and French forces, it is now a green space within the city. The battlefield now has monuments, towers and statues dotted around. A centrepiece in a little park pays tribute to some of France’s famous people notably Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle. The park runs adjacent to the river and was covered in a white blanket of snow. This was a truly remarkable sight, but one that doesn’t appear to effect the people of the city as they just carry on with life completely unperturbed.

After navigating the snow, we stumbled upon the Citadel. This has an ideal location strategically as it looks down on the river and with the city beneath it. Only having a day in the city meant that a visit couldn’t be made inside to learn and explore more of its fascinating history.

Instead steps were made into the heart of the city, that is the ‘old city’. It was wonderful to see the signs of former fortifications as the city gates (of which 3 remain) act as grand entrances to the old quarter. This means that this is the only city north of Mexico boasting fortifications.

The view of this part of city is almost reminiscent of a postcard view of a city in France as cobblestone streets, colourful buildings create such a picture. Embracing this enchanting scene made the meanderings through the streets a pleasure with the only problem being to dodge the ever-present puddles as the snow was melting. The route taken was leading me to Quebec’s prestigious emblem – the iconic Chateau Le Frontenac!! It contradicts its name, for it has never been a castle, but was one of the Chateau style hotels the Canadian Pacific Railways company built throughout the country. It was built as an ideal stopover for railway users. Where they got the inspiration/design to build such types of hotel I’m not sure, but we can only stand in amazement at what stands. The hotel has been used by a number of famous people, including the former leaders of America, Canada and UK who met here for the Quebec conferences of WWII. The hotel dominates the city skyline and you can appreciate why it is claimed to be the most photographed hotel in the world.

It’s views out over the river can be enjoyed by those lucky enough to afford a room. Those who are not so rich like me can take a walk along the 200 year old wooden promenade which connects the battlefield with the old city. The square can lay claim to one of the most wonderful tourist information buildings I’ve witnessed – grand and colourful in appearance. What a contrast with back home as one is hard pushed to find one anywhere these days.

Eventually and reluctantly I drag myself away via the funicular designed railway to Petit-Champlin. What was once a tiny hamlet is now a thriving area with shops, pubs and restaurants. This colourful area adds to the riverside view of Quebec and encapsulates the identity of the city.

A trip must be taken across the river for the views! Sadly, I missed the boat view in the glorious sunshine but made up for it as the city lights up at night quite brilliantly. A local brewery provides ample refreshments whilst I wait for nightfall. What a display of light reflecting on the river. It all made for a perfect end to our visit here.

Quebec City – très bien!

Cardiff Celebrations

Two down, two to go! Well after a brief and sadly quick visit it is now 3 down 1 to go. I was surprised to learn that Cardiff is one of the more modern capitals in world. Cardiff beat off competition from other Welsh cities, and in 1955 was confirmed as the capital. Long before Cardiff became a city it was surrounded by small villages which included Canton, Splott and Grangetown. These now form part of the city. During the industrialisation boom, Wales discovered its ‘black diamonds’. These were shipped down from the valleys to Cardiff Port. This brought wealth and prosperity to the city, buildings started to pop up, some of which still survive. By 1913 Cardiff Bay was the largest coal exporting port in the world and amazingly by 1964 all coal exports had ceased.

This flying visit means that the inquisitive history lesson was all too brief and one that will need to be explored further. Its early signs of life can be traced back through the castle. This has apparently been here since the twelfth century and was the first place of call. In the centre, still standing proudly is a keep, sitting proudly on top of a motte and bailey. Pictures of castles are the images I recall from my childhood years, and the substance cries out to me to explore. A steep climb up allowed for all too brief an exploration as, sadly, the curse of insurance claims and health and safety issues deprived me of rekindling my youthful exuberance. Like a kid sulking I reluctantly dragged myself inside the main mansion (a clear addition since the centre keep). Here I was blown away by a couple of wooden ceilings and I got lost in the moment capturing images of them on my camera. I entered sulking; I left with a new found appreciation of the castle.

After leaving the castle it was time to discover the buildings that were built up during those diamond years. The City and County Halls are both dirty looking. They are both adorned with statues high up. On each corner of the front façade are interesting words of unity and patriotism, evoking the spirit of a nation. How sad that the country of my birth doesn’t seem to encourage such feelings among its members. The park in front of these buildings doesn’t share such a powerful message – more like ‘clean me up’ as it is covered in litter. I disapprove. Tucked away behind these buildings is a charming garden which is dedicated to the memory of Welsh heroes and should be visited or anyone making a trip to the city. This garden, in contrast to the one at the front of the building, is immaculate.

Where the litter is dropped seems to be of little concern to the inhabitants. It is clearly an issue all over the city. Sadly, visiting on a Sunday meant exploration was completed the day after the night before so to speak. Cardiff is famous for its nightlife (so I’ve heard, I must check this out) and its litter dropping. It definitely has some issues to resolve. As much as it provides a convivial and an entertaining location for an evening out, the significant stench and the disgusting dirt left behind is most unappealing and grotesque. Therefore, avoidance of the city centre was a must after walking through it and even on into Monday morning it showed no signs of improvement. The other disappointing sight and one that should be ringing alarm bells in both Cardiff and Westminster, was the huge number of homeless people. These people congregate in city centres no doubt for survival reasons and perhaps there is a measure of hope among some of them. They make an intimidating sight, even for a 6ft giant. What causes them to be in this situation, I will never know, I only pray that the help and support can be provided.

Enough of the doom and gloom – I take a boat ride along the River Taff and listen to the commentary that is played out. Looking out from the boat I draw the conclusion that not one part of the city escapes the dirt and pollution that effects it all. A net has been strategically placed in the river to minimise and even prevent pollution of the bay. Cardiff Bay is up and coming (it used to be a terrible area I am told); the copper building dominates the new area that is being developed. There are some Welsh words engraved on the outside of this building, but I am left to wonder what they actually mean. Do they actually want people to visit this city whose only language is, unfortunately, not Welsh?

A return trip back from the Bay, and I can sit and reminisce over another year of life. Celebrate all the good that has happened and learn from all the mistakes. Cardiff, although a great time was had, you were a slight disappointment. You need more than you have got and what you have got needs to be kept better than it is. The rugby stadium and nightlife appeal in some way to a part of me, but sadly it isn’t a city that will lure me back. Sorry Cardiff.

Entertaining Edinburgh

This time I was north of the English/Scottish border to visit another of the UK capitals, Edinburgh. Belfast was educational with so much that has happened there in the relatively recent past. Edinburgh was a source of entertainment. Its past holds less interest for me compared to Belfast. It is undoubtedly a popular destination especially at festival time and who can blame the visitors for they did not lie when they praised its beauty.

As I’ve written previously, I was spoilt as a kid, and I was taken to Edinburgh en route to a 2-week caravan holiday in Scotland in 2000. Sadly, my memory of the city doesn’t serve me well (how I wish that I had written that piece about Edinburgh as a kid). I do, however, remember listening to England v West Indies and a certain Andrew Caddick taking 4 wickets in one over on the way up north!!! This time I took the train – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It may take longer than a flight, but the journey was more than pleasant and what a great way to arrive at a new destination.

I spent 4 days in entertaining Edinburgh and would describe it as a bigger version of Bath (see blog on Bath city – is Bath a town or a city?). It would appear that both places became important in Georgian times with a lot of buildings of similar architectural style. Like Bath this city begs to be explored on foot. Edinburgh is a reasonably small city, compact, easily navigable, with only the hills presenting anything like a difficulty to a walker. They add to its charm and beauty and it seems like each one cries out, ‘Climb me.’

Those hills provide plenty of vantage points from which to see great views of the city, and perhaps the gentle hill climbing was one of the highlights of the whole weekend. The three main hills, Calton Hill, the hill on which the Castle is built, and Arthur’s seat are all areas that should be visited. I’ll start with, to my way of thinking, the best one – Arthur’s seat. It is well worthwhile putting the effort in to climb up here, not just for the view of the city, but for all that can be seen out towards the coast. The view also includes the other 2 hills. The castle can be seen clearly, and its fortified structure creates a large shadow which is cast over the city. In front of it lies Calton hill. I christened it Edinburgh’s Athens as the pillared buildings there looked like something from the Parthenon. As you walk up or down from Arthur’s seat you get the best view of Holyrood Palace.

After appreciating the views and the long walk I was in need of liquid refreshment. A stop at the Holyrood palace cafe provided what I needed before I took the opportunity to enter. It is the Queen’s residence when she is ‘in town’. She has many fine homes, but I doubt this is one of her finest. The palace sits at one end of the royal mile, with the castle at the other end. I would question the need for such excessive entrance fees to both attractions as both are surely over priced for what they are. Someone somewhere is getting very rich at the unsuspecting visitors’ expense.

I don’t know under what pretences the street name, the Royal Mile, was given – is it even a mile in length? The first part of the walk up towards the castle is dull with not much happening. As you get nearer the castle the street comes alive as cars aren’t permitted and people crowd the area. There certainly was a buzz the day I was there.  An amazing atmosphere is created with street entertainment provided by locals and pubs and eateries bubbling with excitement. Just short of the castle is St Giles Cathedral. Although looking the size of a church it is worth entering. Dark and mysterious, it thrives on its location in the heart of the city and the surrounding buzz of activity. There were finer churches in Edinburgh. Leaving the cathedral, it is a short walk to the castle. I paid the entrance fee but were the views worth it? I’ll leave that open for debate.

Inside the castle grounds there is a different view of the city from those seen before. The visitor looks down onto Princes Street and the exquisite gardens, museums and what look like cathedral spires. The park running beside Princes Street looks like it could be a haven during the summer months. Then there is the massive Scott monument. Dirty and ugly looking it perhaps needs a bit of TLC. This street is flanked on one side by modern shops. Best to focus on the castle and gardens side of the street. There is a need for care on the street as not only do you have to avoid cars and fellow pedestrians but trams as well. These are not the romantic trams one imagines for these are the boring, modern, silver bullets. Practical, yes. Photogenic, no.

It is noticeable the large number of statues throughout this part of the city. It was also here that I dodged the rain by making my first visit to one of the many art museums. Most museums in UK cities are free to enter which is a definite plus point. Now I am not a huge fan of art as expressed in other blogs. Some pieces of art on display were more appealing than others and that, I suppose, would be true of each visitor. It’s safe to say that abstract art isn’t for me. I am far too conservative enjoying the conventional and traditional masterpieces where the subject matter is recognisable. After the rain had abated, I finally navigated my way to the city’s cathedral, via areas with many statues and the customary stop, mandatory even, to taste some haggis.

Edinburgh has so much to offer. There are two other areas that should be mentioned, albeit briefly. The insta famous Victoria Street and Leith. I couldn’t work out what all the fuss about Victoria Street was. I enjoyed a pint rather than doing it for the gram. In spite of the rumours that Leith was a bad place and should be avoided, I walked on down. There is a ship there belonging to the queen – the Royal Yacht Britannia.  Again, I was disappointed at the entrance fee, so Scotland missed out on a bit more business (I wonder how many others do the same). Instead I took the free walk along the river back to the city. At times I questioned why I had done so, but there is some serious potential there if the investment can be found. If it can be found and attractions established, then, with sensible ticket prices, they may recover the money outlaid!!

It’s taken a long time to get around to writing about this place. The memories will last. Another visit will probably be made, possibly tied in with a rugby match or the military tattoo or the festival and fringe…. watch this space. Edinburgh you entertained, and will again, I’ve no doubt.

Haggard Hereford

I am struggling to write down the words to describe my visit to Hereford and perhaps that is the biggest indication of how I feel about this place. Normally I am a lover of England’s smaller cities but this one didn’t get the juices flowing as in other city visits. Its apparent lack of history and architecture leaves me pained me to say that it left me feeling disappointed.

Arriving in the evening and capturing the cathedral reflections down by the river was the highlight, and what a highlight it was! As the sun warmed the stones of the cathedral, that heat appeared to reflect onto the River Wye, creating a perfect, picturesque, English view. What a pleasant way to enjoy the last of the “winter” sunshine. As the run fest in the Caribbean One Day International (cricket) unfolded on my phone in front of me, it was amazing to sit on an upper, roof top, level of a pub, in great company and enjoy perhaps the warmest day ever in February since records began. A backwards reflection on this experience must seriously raise the questions, as always, of global warming and the effects each and every one of us is having on this planet. A 20-minute walk along the river bank in the hope of catching the sunset in a better way was disturbed by the trees and hills blocking the view.

On waking up perhaps it was the rain that made for the impression of Hereford being a tad disappointing. The whistle stop tour took us back through the high street to the cathedral for our customary visit. How can these cathedrals that, as a general rule, give these cities their status not be visited? During our walk along the high street a comment made about there appearing to be an awful lot of ‘to let’ signs on display. As our ever-struggling high streets evolve, albeit in survival mode, Hereford’s seemed to be in need of catch up. There must be balance, however, between old and makeover.

There is a beautiful, glorious even, 17th century black and white building that appears to stand alone and almost unloved. The bull in front of this building is surely a token gesture to appeal to visitors. I think it reflects the city’s association with the Hereford Bull. Sadly, building works and reconstruction left the area ugly but this has to be done some time. My regret was that this was underway while we were there and added to my malcontent state.

It was with haste that strides were made back to the cathedral. A step inside was greeted by a couple of welcoming ladies who tried to sell the place its USP being the Mappa Mundi (map of the world with Hereford at its centre and Jerusalem prominent!!) and the chain library (one of only three left in the country). It was decided to pass on the opportunity, as so much time was spent exploring the rest of the cathedral. The cathedral itself was dark and mysterious, although I can’t say cold as some interesting devices were pumping heat out. This cathedral is not as glorious as previous ones visited, and clearly looks to be struggling to survive in this modern world where religion is forgotten. It left me slightly sad to think that this place hadn’t wowed me as much as other religious buildings visited.

Stepping back outside into the rain, it was customary to get the picture that seems to be over all the local websites/booklets – Edward Elgar, a famous classical English composer, looking at the cathedral from his bike. He apparently lived here for a few years of his life. A visit was made to his birthplace on the way, but it didn’t look very appealing so the route to Hereford was made. A wander back through town in the rain to pick up the car and make tracks into the Brecon Beacons where the next adventure awaited.

Wowed by Worcester

The trip north was made up the M5 leaving glorious Gloucester behind in search of Worcester. My only knowledge of this place was of its much talked about and charming cricket ground and its famous sauce. On arrival I wasn’t completely wowed, as traffic jams, a police raid and having to find the accommodation didn’t impress. An afternoon stroll and a new day of exploration in Worcester really did change those first impressions and left me wowed. Thank goodness that those people in council didn’t go ahead and destroy much of this wonderful city.

The city’s very existence can be attributed to its association with Britain’s longest river, the Severn. Its source is in the Welsh mountains and it connects to a large estuary. It passes through the beautiful countryside of Shropshire before it meanders around the edges of Worcester and moves on to Gloucester. As it flows through the city, it is overlooked by the imperious and magnificent red sandstone cathedral. Modernisation and the construction of ugly concrete buildings dominate our most historic cities these days and form an unattractive modern cityscape. How nice it was to be thrown back and wowed by parts of Worcester.

That first walk took us through the modern city centre and contributed to those first impressions. A quick stop at the tourist information centre pointed us in the right direction to find the charms of this place, and, oh boy, they didn’t disappoint.

I could have spent all day in this cathedral. Many photos were taken which should, hopefully, portray the magnificence and my fascination with and appreciation of this beautiful and dramatic building. It rises above the cityscape and rests proudly along the banks of the River Severn. From the one side, and at the time I was there the sun wasn’t, it is dark, gloomy and mysterious, but houses a couple of interesting monuments. Where the sun does shine, it helps magnify its splendour. The sun’s light and heat empower the colour of this wonderful building. Like the nearby cathedral in Gloucester this is also a royal graveyard. Centred in the middle of quire (ancient word for choir) is the grave of the notoriously ‘bad’ King John, perhaps famous for his signature on the Magna Carta. I like to remember him from my young days as the arch enemy of Robin Hood. This should also draw me to visit Nottingham and Runnymede on my discovery of England and revisit some of those childhood memories. I can well remember being taken to see ‘Tales of Robin Hood’ in Nottingham as a kid. There are several graves in the cathedral, but another one in the cathedral that has major relevance is that of the cousin of Elizabeth 1. Worcester cathedral is the final resting place of Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII who would have been king instead of Henry VIII. His early death, followed by Henry VIII marrying his widow, Catherine of Aragon, lead into surely the most fascinating part of English history. Apparently, Arthur’s body was carried from nearby Ludlow (30-35 miles away from Worcester and another place to visit) to rest here; imagine the ceremony and procession for this event. The ceiling in this place was mind blowing.

On that first walk into the city there is evidence of the city’s involvement during the civil war on a bridge and also a number of markings on my tourist map.  Maybe a visit to the Commandery museum may have shed some more light on this. I can see that I am developing a theme in that there is so much to see and learn about this country’s history and just never enough time. Perhaps more could have been made of the city’s relevance to the war. If only I had some more time. Isn’t it incredible that some of this nation’s biggest talking points keep cropping up in these visits.

The town had some absolute gems. Walking through the modern town one is immediately stunned by the beautiful guildhall. Dating back to 1721, it has a rich history and once housed a prison. Now it is home to an art collection, which, sadly, couldn’t be visited. Another gem is Friar street! Be captivated as you walk along it’s cobbled streets adorned on either side by Tudor housing, shops and pubs. Yes, modern shops and eateries have appeared, but they have retained the outside black and white facades that adorn the street. Walking along the street, you marvel at the crooked beams still standing 500 years on and wonder how they do so. The National Trust has restored one of them but how many were lost? A visit to the street must be a made to appreciate the buildings. Leaving this street, it was pointed out to us by a friendly landlord that we should visit another church. Rumour has it, this was the church in which William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway? A quick visit to see only showed a post in front of the church, perhaps this is something that needs to be explored on a further visit.

As you can tell this place has wowed me, I shall be returning to watch the cricket and getting to enjoy this place. Worcester!!! Till next time.

Glorious Gloucester

The next stop on my mission to blog about every English city took me to glorious Gloucester. Water, architecture and history merge together to form another favourite English city of mine.

Its Roman roots, awesome architecture, historic docklands, glorious cathedral have won me over and will surely be worth revisiting. Over 2000 years of history have shaped this place. Its strategic location doesn’t appear to me as obvious as say Bristol down the road, but it has clearly been an important location in this country’s historic past.

Ruins grace the park and school near the cathedral and show the turbulent past that abbeys and minster churches once knew. Even at first sight it’s hard to disagree with the description of the cathedral as one of the country’s finest medieval. It’s incredible to imagine how this grand and impressive building was ever constructed back in those days. Think of the troubles, the legislation, delays and spiralling cost we would surely have seen were it built today. Would we have the skill or devotion to do so? Inside the cathedral is the graveyard of royalty. Edward II is buried in the cathedral along with the son of William Conqueror. The stained glass does not let much sunlight in and walking around inside can make the place feel dark and gloomy. ambiance highlights At times picture taking is difficult as the light varies. Despite this, and probably because they had a lot of equipment to enhance the lighting, Warner Brothers were clearly impressed as they made it a location for not one but for two Harry Potter films. The cold chill around the cloisters meant for a quick photo and didn’t mean I searched for that famous instagram post. After visiting it might be bold of me to say that it is perhaps not one of my favourite cathedrals although free entry is always a bonus, and the stained-glass windows shouldn’t be ignored being perhaps some of the best I’ve seen.

Outside the cathedral and bathing in the heavenly winter sun are some blocks telling the tale of the city’s past. Just behind them as you leave the cathedral behind you and hidden down a side street adjacent to the cathedral is a fascinating museum! Although it has the appearance of a shop the museum is in memory to Beatrix Potter. Free entry again means it should be a must for anyone visiting the city. A step inside and we were greeted by a humble and dear old man who welcomed us with tales of the history of the shop and its links to Beatrix Potter’s ‘Tailor of Gloucester’. Her talents have probably been appreciated by us all, and clearly mean something to the passionate volunteers.

The streets of the city centre seemed ghost like first thing in the morning; by lunchtime a buzz and atmosphere was flowing around as I left the cathedral in search of docks. There were small scatterings of shops abandoned, the now common ‘to let’ sign in the window but didn’t seem as noticeable as in other cities. An intricate piece of art sat about a jeweller’s shop – a highlight and delight. Sadly, a number of the churches dotted around the city were inaccessible due to closures because of funding and safety issues yet another sign of the ever changing landscape of beliefs of the people in this country.

Part of Gloucester’s rich heritage was its waterways as the canal was built to link the city with the coast through the port of Sharpness. The warehouses around the harbour stand as proud beacons to Britain’s most inland port. Sitting on the harbour edge, the buildings provide near perfect reflections as the sun sets on another winter’s day. The warehouses probably don’t serve the purpose for which they were once built but thankfully they have remained and taken on a new identity. On the outside these warehouses still look the same, proudly displaying their names; on their inside pubs, restaurants and accommodation spring up to adorn what is now a modern ‘dockyard’. Small boats/barges replace the larger vessels that once were there to unload their cargo. The only memories are the odd railway crane and track. Oh, how times move at pace.

So as I drag myself away from this glorious city, and head further north to Worcester, I can reflect on the joy of a wonderful discovery, and look forward to returning here again in the future.