Characteristic 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.

Superb Sherborne

My latest meanderings take me less than 6 miles down the road to arguably one of the England’s finest towns, Sherborne. Located so close to my current home, it’s crazy to think that I haven’t blogged about this place sooner. Living so close, it has always been a destination that I am proud to show friends and family when they visit me. The town has everything.

Located in northwest Dorset, superb Sherborne is a beautiful market town with a combination of buildings that reflect its history, education, culture, shops, art, antiques and religion. The town is built around an abundance of brilliant medieval buildings. These are interspersed with more modern buildings around the town. The high street is a mixture of these old and new buildings. This main street is lined with charming cafes, attractive and independent shops, which make for, based on my limited knowledge of English towns, a uniquely thriving town centre. My friends and family members love the shops and the market when it is in town.  The pedestrianisation of the main high street (most of the time) also adds to this love affair. At the heart of the town, and perhaps the jewel in Sherborne’s crown, is the Abbey. A case could be made for this being even biggest jewel in the whole of the land. That of course is up for debate!

Initially built as a Saxon cathedral, the abbey has been standing for over 800 years. The magnificent medieval structure is a sight to behold. Sometimes referred to as ‘Dorset’s Cathedral’, its ochre-coloured hamstone makes for a vivid view as you stare in awe. As brilliant, or more so, on the inside as on the outside it reminds me of the saying ‘that true beauty is on the inside’. A step inside not only confirms that statement but adds evidence to that whole argument. A frequently heard word by all accounts, and one that was used as I entered. Recently is “WOW”!!!! Perhaps it’s the best way to react on sight of the fan vaulted ceiling. Everyone stands almost awe struck as they look up. Even upon entering for the umpteenth time, I still take a moment to appreciate the splendour of this remarkable architectural achievement. What was once a Saxon cathedral, then a Benedictine abbey and now is a parish church under the auspices of the Church of England, this place offers oodles of fascination and history with the changes throughout time and the associations adding a layer of intrigue. The current beauty and peace within perhaps do not reflect its historic, turbulent past. The fact that it has survived prompts the question why considering our country’s chequered past. Remember the majority of abbeys were destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII. Perhaps the main reason Sherborne’s Abbey is still standing in all its glory is because George Digby provided a lot of cash for the renovations of the 19th Century. A memorial to commemorate this is situated in front of the abbey.

A little further from the centre of town is some more of the previously mentioned medieval architecture that the town boasts. It doesn’t have just one castle but two! The old castle, a 12th century effort built by the former chancellor of England and bishop of Salisbury is now a romantic ruin. It made its way into the hands of Sir Walter Raleigh after he fell in love with the area on a trip from Plymouth to London. He tried to renovate the old castle but failed and instead he built a Tudor mansion for guests in 1594 which is now referred to as the New Castle and home of the Digby family since 1617. The old castle became ruins after two sieges during the 17th civil war.

Sherborne school is one the country’s great public schools. Its original name was King Edward VI boys’ School.  It was founded during the reign of Edward VI in 1550 and built on the remains of the abbey. Its proximity to the abbey this day is evident when exploring the abbey. We are lucky enough to have education for all in this country and that wasn’t always the case. Mr Kenelm Wingfield Digby, a resident of Sherborne Castle, decided that a girls’ school, similar to the long established boys’ public school was needed in the town in 1898. This second school was finally opened in 1899. Over 100 years on I was lucky enough to work with school for a number of years.

I hope that my next visit to Sherborne isn’t as tour guide to friends and family but is just down to the sheer love and fascination of this town. There is probably so much more to discover than what I have mentioned in the above……..until next time………

Delightful Dartmouth

A regular destination on my meanderings and one of my favourite spots in England is what I consider to be the unique and delightful maritime town of Dartmouth. It boasts history, castles, architecture, boats and an iconic college. A combination of nostalgia and the nautical make for a charming and atmospheric town. Its deep-water port made for its strategic importance and the town has been built up the steep banks of the River Dart. The Dart river flows from its source on Dartmoor and upstream is Totnes (see blog).

Dartmouth on the one bank of the river sits opposite the town of Kingswear. Kingswear is like the mirror image of Dartmouth, with both possessing a castle, streets adorned with quaint and colourful houses, and a church. It was only last week that a friend remarked that it’s like a scene from Balamory. For all their similarities, Kingswear boasts something that Dartmouth doesn’t – a railway line! It terminated at Kingswear after someone realised it wouldn’t be possible to get a bridge across the river!! Sounds a bit like Brexit planning. That didn’t stop Dartmouth, this side of the river estuary, building a railway station in anticipation of the line that never reached it!! The railway station building is a striking sight as you approach it from the river perhaps from a ferry crossing or on one of the superb boat tours. Rather than destroy the building due to the absence of a railway line meant that the building became a general ticketing office for a while, and these days, a charming café!!

This branch line on the other side is no longer part of the national rail services. Instead it has become part of the heritage scene with a steam train running the 7miles from Paignton. Each train that arrives or departs is laden with tourists/enthusiasts making the evocative, emotional and gorgeous journey. It has been a common way for me to arrive here from earliest days, and one that perhaps everyone should consider making. There is a poetic feel to arriving as people did in times gone by and surrounded by England’s green and pleasant lands en route. After disembarking and crossing the river (by ferry and not bridge!!), you can sit on the edge of the harbour and watch the steam train puff along the river edge back to where it came from.  This scene that is repeated throughout the day.

A visit to Dartmouth should be to enjoy the river. It is a hive of activity, but no vessel seems to bump in to another. Its strategic importance cannot be ignored as it was home to the Royal Navy since as far back as the reign of Edward III. A walk to the castle takes you past the Warfleet Creek where several boats were made as far back as the 12th Century. During the Spanish Armada, Dartmouth provided ships for the English fleet and a captured Spanish vessel was docked in the town. The town has been home to the Britannia Royal Naval College since 1863. The iconic college has been at the forefront of education and development of naval officers with the imperious building sitting proudly on the hill and overlooking the beautiful town and estuary. It was where her Majesty Queen Elizabeth met her husband. The river plays host to a famous regatta in summer months.

If crabbing off the quay isn’t what you are looking for, the charming Elizabethan streets provide some independent, fashionable outlets. The pubs allow you to spill out from inside and onto the edge of the river to enjoy your pint of choice. Recently I made the walk from the town to the castle having made it on boat previously. Not a member of the English Heritage, the entrance fee to the castle wasn’t paid but instead an exploration of St Petroc’s church along with a customary spend in the coffee shop for refreshments and cake took place. From this point you can pick up the South West coastal path and go off to explore Castle and Compass Coves. This is highly recommended though not in the mud and after a few wet and snowy days (a spectacular fall).

My love of history, fascination with boats of any shape and size, and sense of calm and pleasure that any expanse of water brings, shows why Dartmouth is one of my favourite places in England. Those who have visited with me endorse my approbation, and those who will join me in the future will, no doubt, agree that this town is an absolute delight.

Dreamy Dunster Didn’t Dim

Living in Somerset I cannot ignore the charms of Dreamy Dunster any longer. The charms of this medieval village with its castle which is to be found just inside the Exmoor National park were, for so long, wasted on me. It was here that I spent the penultimate night stay on my End to Enders cycle ride (I will be posting the blog of this experience on its 5th anniversary in April) and regularly the scene of drunken cricket tours. Sadly, its true beauty was never quite appreciated. I do recall walking between pubs on one tour and rather merrily remarking at a quintessential English garden.

Sadly, that tour and its fun no longer exists, so there are to be no more of those muddled memories. Last year I managed to visit the village twice. The first visit was made in beautiful autumn sunshine and the second time for Dunster by candlelight. The first visit was in great company and daylight and confirmed what a dreamy place this was.

There is no better place to start a visit to Dunster than in its aforementioned castle. After a short, steep, plod up its motte, this immaculate looking building doesn’t give the romantic notion of a battle hardened, historic castle. What was once a medieval stronghold was given to the National Trust after a family called it home for 600 years. It disappoints me slightly that it doesn’t resemble my imagination of a former bastion, but that disappointment doesn’t linger for long.

The visit inside had to be paused at regular intervals for photos, and I also had to break off proceedings to admire the steam train move adjacent to the coast as it left Dunster station. Such an image! Puffs of smoke disturb the view as the train moves slowly across the landscape – there is something rather poetic in its motion. Upon leaving the building and meandering over its hilly grounds, we found some solace at the bottom of a hill. I am blessed with photo opportunities, none more so than the river and a working mill. Through the odd gaps in the trees you get a glimmer of the charming village that sits in the shadow of this castle. After taking all the pictures I could, it was time for a quick ice cream and then off to visit the village.

Walking around you could easily be overwhelmed by the beauty of this place. This tiny village, an interwoven web of slate and thatch propped on wooden foundations would probably only need a single, lit match carelessly discarded to bring the place to ash. It is such a haven from modern, advanced, architecture it has so much more appeal than the jungle of a city like New York (see recent blog). A real sense of pride and ownership adorns the town throughout.

Wanting to take a picture of almost every building I was distracted and drawn in to a beautiful gallery. Almost every painting was of tall ships. I clearly share the same passion as the artist, and though not a massive fan of art I was incredibly appreciative of David Deacon’s work. Now a proud owner of a picture of his work it was worth daring inside to be amazed at his art rather than the normal ignorance on display at these places.

It’s here that I turn my mind back to the second of my visits, an occasion when Dunster didn’t dim. Sadly, this visit coincided with a time when I was having to prop myself up on crutches. I came for an event that was billed at being by candlelight. I was left a little bewildered by the amount of electricity being consumed in the town. Rather mistakenly I thought they turned off the power locally for this event and we were about step back in time, guided by candlelight alone as we walked those darkened and dim streets. Disappointingly there were only half a dozen candle lights there, perhaps as a token gesture as the bright lights of shops and pubs teased you to enter. Rumours are that the castle dimmed its power; if it did, I applaud it. Sadly, I was left slightly disappointed at what we witnessed, had health and safety prevented a step back in time or did the high street get greedy and try and feed on the good will of the people supporting a charitable event.

Not to be a hater of all things, the evening that promised so much will not diminish the happy meanderings of Dreamy Dunster. For on that wet evening, in great company, crutches and all,  Dunster itself didn’t dim.

Marvellous Mottisfont

After being let down yet again by today’s youth at my place of work, and rather than rush home to compile a report of the day’s failings, I took the opportunity to visit another National Trust property and seize the moment presented to me. Due to my location the choice was easy enough, although it meant a longer route home. The name of Mottisfont meant nothing to me, but it had cropped up on my recent visit to Romsey. Rather than study the A to Z road map, the post code was put into the sat nav and the easy 9-mile drive was made.

I left Southampton and drove past the charming Romsey which was the destination of another trip made in December which was also made to alleviate the stress caused by the same issue mentioned above. As this trip was completely unplanned, I didn’t let the fact I was only armed with the camera on my phone to deter me. I guess there is perhaps some positives to modern technology in that we are always able to capture any moment in one way or another rather just trying to memorise it.

After signing in and getting my map, I crossed a bridge at the end of which a sign said, ‘The first sign that spring is around the corner is…..’ Upon walking around said corner, I was distracted as the house dominates one’s view. Completely attracted by the house and river flowing by I began to search for the perfect spot for the obligatory reflection photo. Rather fortuitously I noticed the beautiful, white, drop bell-shaped flowers that are just starting to bloom and to which the sign referred. The snowdrops are in bloom. As the threatening clouds gathered, and the chilly wind seemed to sweep across the country, my mind thought on the never-ending talk of Brexit and my disappointment, distrust even, of politicians and the fiasco they have contrived to produce. It seems an ill wind that blows across these shores at the moment. All was forgotten, both physical and metaphorical, by the bright and wonderful distraction and attraction these flowers are. A stroll along the river Test follows the snowdrop trail.

Can it be believed that this was once a weekend family home? The size and location beggar belief. A step inside and one is immediately greeted by the family’s love affair with art. I am not yet a fan of art and I didn’t hold much hope of enjoying the visit inside, but with a cold winter wind and no sun it was a place of refuge. I enjoyed two rooms, the nostalgia of these studies, rooms full of books, old cameras, ancient sports equipment, board games, musical instruments, etc. The books always grab my attention – perhaps they are the biggest evidence of something that once was – but one in particular caught my eye. ‘Home Guard Manual 1941’ immediately reminded me of those sayings like, ‘we’re not proper soldiers’, ‘put that light out’ and ‘you stupid boy’ from the many episodes of the inimitable Dad’s Army shown over Christmas.

The former owners were clearly art fanatics. The house now being in the hands of the National Trust the tradition associated with the house has been continued. On the top floor was the first of 4 exhibitions to be held throughout the year. Surprisingly I made the walk up the large staircase to have a look. The view that greeted me was a bold green wall with 4 or 5 pony cartoons. The artist responsible for these spent the last quarter of a century of his life in Hampshire. Norman Thelwell lived in the Test Valley at Timsbury near Romsey. After looking at one I was immediately captivated by Thelwell’s depiction of these creatures and joined in with the laughing made out loud by the observers of his work. As the title of the exhibition was laughter and landscapes, I certainly had a few laughs at the brilliance of these comics. What therapy at the end of a trying day.

Apart from these adorable cartoons, Thelwell produced some gorgeous landscape paintings. Some of these scenes I recognised. One painting was of Salisbury cathedral which was the subject of another recent trip. As my route home took me through Salisbury, I thought what better than to try to find the view Thelwell used. So, as I sit and write this blog from the Old Mill at Harnham I wonder if I have found an artform or an artist that I appreciate. As work continues to bring me back this way, and there are 3 other exhibitions planned for the year, I expect to return to marvellous Mottisfont.