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.

Timeless Tyneham

Before 1943, Tyneham was a  simple working village with farming and fishing being the main industries/sources of livelihood. Then Churchill commandeered the village and land for a tank firing range ahead of D-Day the following year. 228 Residents were given one month’s notice to leave. One of the final members to leave attached a note to the church door saying, ‘Thank you for treating the village kindly’. 

 

They never returned.

 

The villagers were promised they could return after the war but, sadly, another war followed and as a result it remained as a firing range to this day.

 

This is another perspective of all those sacrifices made during the wars and particularly the Second World war. Think of your home. Then, imagine being told you had to give up your home…. many of the residents didn’t own these houses and as a result were only compensated for the vegetables in their gardens. It is true that the village was in decline (the school had already closed down due to lack of numbers) with the fishing and farming industry lost to modern advancements and bigger towns nearby. Perhaps it could be argued that Churchill put the village out of its misery, but it was still home to some people and who knows for how many generations.  

 

70 and more years on don’t be blinkered into thinking that this is a tourist hotspot – it is not. Visiting here is quite eerie. It’s like time has been frozen. Bylaws prevent the sale of any goods or development as an attraction (there are so many more places that could benefit from this type of law!!). Before reading the superb boards that tell of the history of Tyneham one might easily think that it resembles a bomb site and not a place deserted and almost lost to the ravages of time. The roofless buildings look like they were blown off by bombs rather than, perhaps, blown off after years of wild British weather. The frames of the houses still stand strongly, proudly giving a backward glimpse into the lives of the long-departed community. The only buildings still recognisable are the church and school for both have received some tender loving care. This is a true ghost town which stands as a memorial to the sacrifice made by a village to train personnel in order to accelerate the end of the war. A lonely red phone box stands in front of a cable less pylon, perhaps begging for a buyer – what an iconic symbol of modern times. 

 

Tyneham is located in a beautiful valley that is untouched and unspoilt by modernisation, rich in wildlife and provides access to Worbarrow Bay in Dorset. It is a long time since I made a brief visit here, but perhaps another, lengthier visit is in order. It is isolated close to the coast and it provides a tranquil haven from the well-trodden tourist path. 

 

As I leave, I appreciate my home and think of the sacrifices of many, and also consider whether to write about such a place for fear that this place no longer remains hidden from the masses!!! As I write it is a long way from the modern, instant internet/insta fame that destroys the beauty of many a historic spot. Thank God for bylaws and long may it stay that way.

 

New York, New York

Normally I take myself away at Christmas. This year, due to the financial climate and it being a tough year, I’m staying at home. The family is delighted. My intention is to use these unusual circumstances to catch up on some blog writing although I can be easily distracted. The first one on my ‘to do list’ was from a trip made two years ago to New York at Christmas time!!! Normally, I love to get away to the sun, but, due to an action packed 2016, I had left it too late to organise a trip to some exotic location. So, after some quick research, I got a good flight deal and booked an AirBnB and I was sorted.

Often referred to as the greatest city in the world, I had to see if there was any truth in this. After spending a week in between Christmas and New Year in this iconic destination, I left soul searching and reflecting at the failure, on some levels, of a failed Christmas getaway. A lover of all genres of music, sadly the one that sticks in my mind is Jay-Z’s rap ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’. To my mind there is no better way to describe the place. Its bright lights were wasted on me; the main island was devoid of any natural beauty and was a fitting illustration of the faceless, globalisation and destruction of the modern world. People and cars fight like animals for their ownership of the jungle; the famous yellow taxis swarm about like bees, advertisements crawl like weeds over the towering, tree like skyscrapers but shorn of any branches. As animals (and some humans) worry about their habit becoming extinct, perhaps the never-ending building works crystallises those concerns.

My arrival in America via New York was not at all friendly or very warm which, considering this is one of the most visited places on earth, was incredibly surprising. Are tourists so excited to be here that they are blinded and unable to see this unwelcoming sight? Police, guns, dogs etc.  – as cold and unwelcoming as the airport was (in particular the passport control) the complete opposite could have been said of my AirBnB hosts whose warm and friendly kindness will never be forgotten. They patiently waited for my arrival and duly welcomed me into their family home and made me a part of it as they celebrated Christmas. This is the one extremely positive side to my time in New York and must offset my lack of enthusiasm for the city itself. Maybe teenagers and wannabees can hack it, but I couldn’t.

It is sometimes described as the financial capital of the world and this is reflected in the lifestyle of the city’s inhabitants/commuters.  Comparisons could easily be made to parts of London but somehow, despite the similar, relentless, pursuit of money and the ‘benefits’ that it brings, there is a charm about London that doesn’t exist in NYC. The financial sector of any city seems a million miles from the reality of which I am accustomed. A city where money talks, everything seemed overpriced and so far-fetched. Stumbling upon the financial district after a long and beautiful stroll along the river, I had completely forgotten the tragic events that stopped, captivated and changed the world forever in 2001. Perhaps because it is relatively modern history it seems to attract more interest especially from the younger element. It was a tragic day – there is no denying that. I can recall that fateful day as an adolescent 15 year old, coming in from school and hearing the sad news beating over the radio. I was blissfully unaware at that time of the seriousness of that event; surprisingly, I found that I had little interest in the ‘ground zero’ memorial. The very title seems to demean the catastrophe. Perhaps all this is a selfish coping mechanism for the sad state of affairs that exists in this world and I care to forget about it to concentrate on the good things to enjoy.

The city is alive with hustle and bustle. This is not an attractive atmosphere as its over-crowded sidewalks is but one of its many problems. There are too many cars are on the roads and a failed pedestrian crossing system exacerbated the feeling that not enough care had been taken for those who wanted to get around the jungle by foot. The dirt and smell just adds rancour for a place that is too congested and far too big for itself.

I’m sure that people will rave about the Christmas decorations and, while I wouldn’t disagree that they were often spectacular, their appeal didn’t stretch as far as me and sadly are a confirming sign of the commercialisation and forgetting of yet another religious festival. Frankly, what have nutcracker figurines to do with Christmas?

My love for a pint is probably well known by all and the local brew is always sampled on my travels. As pubs seem to be closing at an alarming rate back home, it also seemed a real struggle to find a proper bar in NYC. Drinking on the other side of the ocean was a complete eye opener for me, waitressing/tipping etc. and one that I still can’t get my head around.

I think we can all agree that my passion for sport is second to none. I felt it was only right that I got to enjoy some of the sport the city has to offer. I was desperate to see a NFL game. I wanted to witness and work out what the fascination with this sport was. I mean they call it football but predominantly use their hands!! Instead I had to settle for a ticket to the famous Madison Square Gardens to watch the NY Rangers host an ice hockey game. Their opposition was the Ottawa Senators, the only hockey team I had really heard about, and I was a proud owner of their jersey. Sadly, my jersey stayed hidden in my bag as I was unsure whether opposing supporters mixed in.

There were 3 things that stuck out for me. Firstly the lack of atmosphere was sobering. Secondly, the need for a time out when there are 2 intervals seemed over the top and timewasting. Finally, the fact that the broadcaster could stop a game for an advert break beggared belief!!! Attending football matches back home I couldn’t understand how the NY experience lacked singing before/during/after the game and only a cheer when a goal was scored. Everything seemed flat. People were more worried about capturing the event on their phone and what little atmosphere there was had to be generated by a deafening music system, flashing lights and a DJ. It’s getting a bit like it over here now with the emphasis on money and money making. English football is going the same way as our increasing number of American owners influence our great game. Not understanding the rules of the sport I couldn’t work out why timeouts were/are needed full stop. When I was informed that the broadcasters had put a pause in play for adverts I was aghast. This confirmed my long-established opinion that, as great as TV coverage is, it has ruined sport. I left not really sure what I had witnessed but I am given to understand it was a 4-3 win for the Rangers.

Travelling has always provided the opportunity to meet new people and it was with great pleasure I could catch up with one here. My fellow traveling buddy suggested watching a show. How incredible and now I can tick this experience off the list. The choice of Broadway show was ‘The Colour of Purple’. It was a slight struggle to understand it but didn’t deter from an excellent spectacle played out by a superb cast giving a great performance. I was mesmerised as I had to concentrate so much on trying to understand the language/accent being used. Afterwards I was taken to Times Square – this gimmick may be for the modern fool, but I am not one. I obliged for the customary and mandatory photo and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I think that, looking back, my favourite part of New York City was pier 16! What was perhaps once the arrival dock for all boats was a fascinating take on the city’s past. New York was once the arrival destination for those who harboured thoughts of chasing the American dream and in their pursuit of this had arrived on these shores.

What was once perhaps the gateway to America, the place where all your dreams were to come true, your ship would have passed France’s gift to the New York landscape, the Statue of Liberty. Not that inspiring, but good views can be accessed from the Staten Island ferry if you don’t want to pay the fee to visit. And as for American dreams, do these even exist anymore?

So, my first visit to America didn’t make a good impression, I was very glad to leave, and let’s hope that the next time is a more positive experience.

Stunning Salisbury

If the name Salisbury doesn’t resonate with you, what bubble have you been hiding in this year? Sadly, you probably will have read/listened/watched the news about the Skripals, the policeman, the outrageous death, the consequent accusations and denials traded between London and Moscow. All this cast a dark cloud over the city and what a shame as the city is beautiful. Hopefully, those dark days are over and talk of Novichok, though it will be forever associated with Salisbury, should not deter anyone from visiting this small but stunning city. Having said that I disappoint myself in that I left it so long to revisit this beautiful, medieval, cathedral city.

I would put Salisbury in the category of small of English cities. Like neighbouring Winchester, it is easily accessible and best explored by foot. There is a mix between the ancient and modern and they live in harmony. The brilliant architecture seems to have survived and alongside it lies the modern British high street. I keep making this point but what is the high street going to look like in a couple of years or even a few months’ time. Salisbury is not immune from the problems that plague just about every town/city in the country as lots of for sale/rent signs are to be in the windows of empty shops.

Running next to the edge of the city centre is the charming river Avon. Parallel with this is a well-trodden pathway. There are various eating places providing ample opportunity to indulge in food and drink. Not hungry or thirsty then just try to keep up with the swans swimming along the river. Upon approaching the city centre the pathway takes you to Salisbury’s answer to Big Ben.

Before I reached the cathedral, I was fascinated by another church, St Thomas’s. Not a normal name for a church, it claims to have served the city for almost 800 years. It is believed that this edifice started as a wooden structure and was built for those who were building the cathedral in the city. A step inside and you are immediately drawn upwards to the chancel arch. The ‘Doom’ Painting, finished in 1593 at the end of the reformation and uncovered in 1881, it is the largest and most complete Doom painting surviving in the country.

How can you ignore the cathedral? Its spire, at 404 feet, is the tallest of any in the land. It has been the subject of wonderful paintings by artists like John Constable and prints of this work have adorned the walls of many a house in England. I judge that we as a nation are trying to find/define our identity, and perhaps we should look back to our powerful religious heritage for some inspiration. I pass a group of youngsters enjoying the gimmicky lights rather than the architectural masterpiece behind them as they work on their instagram/snap chat fame. They are more concerned about a few dangling lightbulbs than the magnificent façade of the cathedral rather than, to their considerable loss, making the effort to go inside to witness more splendour.

You will be amazed by the fact that it only took 38 years to build Salisbury Cathedral. 38 years!! I imagine that was about the expected life span of its builders. Imagine starting a job and not seeing the finished product? It wasn’t partly built then bits added throughout time. Not only is this medieval masterpiece home to Britain’s tallest spire but also its largest cloisters. Its total height is 123m, which makes getting a full picture rather challenging! Some mind-blowing facts – 60,000 tonnes of stone, 2,800 tons of oak and 420 tons of lead to build the cathedral. Inside there is a modern font with a constant stream of water that cascades over the sides. The surface is mirror like and provides unique reflections of the inside. I was slightly more taken with a map showing the diocese of Salisbury as it went as far south as Weymouth and interestingly near to my home, stopping at the impressive Sherborne Abbey. I was fascinated as my recent research is teaching me about the different types of building and hierarchy that administer the smooth running of the Church of England. My visit left me thinking about the differences between a church/abbey/cathedral and a priest/monk/dean/vicar/reverend/bishop. Then there are strange terms like suffrage bishop. I must research. The cathedral is also home to one of 4 original documents of the Magna Carta, but due to a failed robbery attempt, it, sadly, remains locked away out of sight.

I dragged myself away from Salisbury to a family outing in Winchester at the cathedral there. We attended a carol concert with 2000 others and thoughts were fresh in my mind and raised with those of the party who gave some answers. I left with some thoughts to add to my research. Forget the Novichok and the failed attempt at burglary and focus instead on the stunning delights of Salisbury.

 

Thanks, Bankes

On my way home from work today I was distracted by a near perfect rainbow. By the time I found somewhere to park up and get a picture of it, sadly, it had disappeared. The place where I stopped was by the river Stour just outside Wimborne. This place was new to me even though it is only an hour or so from my home. The river had clearly suffered from the recent wet weather. My lack of rainbow photo took me on a beautiful drive back to my home. That route home took me past Sturminster Newton which showed some serious flooding damage. The swollen river had already eaten up most of the local farm land and it was heart breaking to see the local area struggling.

Upon leaving Wimborne as the first stop my sat nav took me along a beautiful, tree lined road to the village/hamlet of Pamphill. I was immediately drawn to a perfect looking church at the end of this road. On parking up, I walked expectantly up the drive only to find out that I couldn’t gain access to it. The rest of the village was filled with quintessential thatched cottages. A couple of pictures taken quickly and I was on my way again.

On pulling out onto the main road I realised where I was. I was driving along the edge of Kingston Lacy. It seemed silly not to make the second visit there this year. The extensive estate is vast, and perhaps in a warmer season and along with the dog this may make for a day of good walking. The elegant house and formal gardens were home to the Bankes family for over 300 years. Loyal to their King they fought for him against the all-conquering Cromwell. Cromwell destroyed the family’s former home, Corfe Castle (blog on here to follow), during the Civil War, the defence of which was led by his wife, Lady Mary Bankes. Her husband was elsewhere serving the king. When the royal castle became uninhabitable and Sir John Bankes passed away, his son decided to build this mansion. Isn’t it funny how history seems to link with modern times, as our parliament seems to be heading to a modern civil war (of words at least)?

Imagine the uproar and cost of building a house this size in this modern world. The house, although it looks simple on the outside, gives off a sense of immense wealth. Every house that I visit in the National Trust is completely different, and that is what makes them so very fascinating. The inside of Kingston was at times dark and filled with lots of art collected by William John Bankes. It is one of the finest private collections in the country. It didn’t seem that the whole house was open and most of these places are on Christmas opening hours. There was one room in particular that caught my eye with what looked like a dining room lit up with a glorious chandelier and which had its own organ! I was amazed that this was here, perhaps thinking it looked so out of place and would have been better suited to a church.

The gardens, as always and expected, look better in the summer or autumn when they’re awash with colour. Sadly, on today’s visit everything in the gardens had been wrapped away for the winter. After strolling through the gardens, the love and appreciation wasn’t there so I trekked back to the car reminiscing over those glorious summer days, when, as always, pictures seem be easier to take in a different light. I shall certainly be back to this area of Dorset for I think that Wimborne is worthy of a blog.

 

Romsey Ramble

Located 7 miles northwest of Southampton and 11 miles southwest of Winchester and sitting on the banks of the River Test is the ancient and charming market town of Romsey. My latest adventure was a flying visit utilising the little daylight left at the end of the working part of the day and before the commute home. I try to maximise what I can do during these short and sharp winter days.

Although brief the visit was well worth it. I discovered something new to me. At the heart of the town is the ancient abbey which dates back to 907 AD. It was re-founded in 967 AD as a Benedictine Abbey of nuns. Just like the last abbey I visited, it managed to survive the monastic dissolution thanks to the faith and foresight of four ‘Guardians’ of the abbey who petitioned Henry VIII and brought the church for £100. Abbey revenues were, however, confiscated and to this day it relies on generous donations from visitors.

A step inside and I was greeted by an enthusiastic member of the church who was quick to pounce and explain the Abbey’s history!! Sadly, its unattractive outside appearance mirrored what was on the inside. The winter’s day and lack of sun didn’t add to its appeal. It was cold, dull and dreary, the wooden ceiling and stone work giving it an authentic appeal of dating back to the 10th and 16th centuries. Plain and simplistic in appearance it doesn’t show off splendour or wealth like other places of worship. The Abbey now plays host to several musical concerts, perhaps to help sustain its very existence, and is a confirmation of how these once wealthy establishments now try to find a way to survive in this ever-changing world. A revisit to enjoy one of these might be worth it both for myself and the good of the church.

I left the abbey as pupils from a local school steadily filed in for what was perhaps their Christmas concert. I retrace my steps back through the archway of another church. This was once the gateway to the abbey. Sadly, the church was locked up. Around part of this church/gateway runs a stream, which on further investigation may prove to be part of the river Test. A stroll around the medieval town, whilst dodging the silly sales people, is charming enough. It also highlights the current struggles of the British high street as there was a too common sight of the ‘to let’ sign in shop windows. The Abbey hotel looks to offer so much potential, but it stands unloved and abandoned.

As time on my car parking space was running out, I made my way back and this time noticed some slabs with writing engraved on them as I passed by. One such engraving caught my eye in particular, and I shall leave you with it. It is taken from the end of William Butler Yeats poem ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ –

‘…..But I, being poor, have only my dreams:
I have spread my dreams under your feet:
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’

Charming Cotehele

A flying visit after work didn’t do this place the justice it no doubt deserves – as a result a return to this charming place is on the cards. On a cold autumnal day and pressed for time, Cotehele delivered a warm and surprising welcome. Once again travel for work and membership of the National Trust combine to provide an excellent opportunity to visit another remarkable place around this fascinating country; this was no exception to this general rule.

Cotehele is a medieval mansion on a 1300-acre estate deep in the Tamar valley. A drive to the main car park takes you past some of the other charms of Cotehele – a working mill, a quay with a historic boat and a tea room with river views. A return will surely have to take place to visit the Victorian ‘Shamrock’, the former Tamar sailing barge. The former owners for over 600 years of the estate go by the name of Edgcumbe. This is not a name that stands out in British history as far as my knowledge goes but one that screams in my recent memory. Back in the summer I had stumbled upon mount Edgcumbe country park on the Rame peninsula – part of the great estate that the Edgcumbe once owned across Cornwall.

The medieval mansion is a beaut (better looking than the one that is located on the Rame peninsula). It sits on top of a hill providing views down to the river Tamar and the village of Calstock (a village of little importance but dominated by a towering viaduct). The house looks and feels medieval. My whistle stop tour at this time of the year allowed a visit to a small part of the house – the rest is shut down for the winter as it doesn’t possess any electricity. How fascinating to think of a home without electricity when houses these days can’t survive without it. The last Earl of Edgcumbe and owner of Cotehele lost his son in the First World War. He handed it over to the National Trust as a memorial to his son. I’m assuming that as there was no longer an heir to the estate provisions were made for it to pass to the National Trust. Apparently the National Trust has maintained the property in a time warp, and I look forward to seeing and exploring this on my next visit.

Cotehele’s other charm was its commemoration of World War One. The sheer effort in creating such a thing is to be admired and should not be ignored. I was grateful that it had remained up past the anniversary of that great event. A combination of the artist and volunteers helped to cut out 20,000 flowers/leaves to create this and they are entwined with memories from the war. It seems the 100th anniversary of World War One seems to have brought out an artistic effort right across the country and beyond the like of which that I can’t remember seeing before, not just here. I remember seeing all those ceramic poppies at the tower of London to commemorate the start of the war and this seems to have inspired a lot more places to have something done to remember the end of it. Every village, town and city around here appears to have delivered something unique and ambitious.

A rapid look at the upper and lower gardens (these possibly have other names but such was the brevity of the visit that I didn’t get them) gave me enough enjoyment to entice me to come back and see it in its summer glory. Today it looked almost unloved as the autumn had truly taken effect and weaved its web and deprived the flowers and trees of their photogenic beauty. The pond in the upper garden looks like providing a lovely opportunity for reflections of trees and the house.

It was with haste that I left to try and enjoy the last of the autumn sunshine. Cotehele you have certainly made an impression; I shall return as you have charmed me.

Boring Buckfast

The second abbey visit from my wanderings to Dartmoor. This is a complete and utter contrast to my meanderings around Buckland Abbey (you can read about that here). As I arrive can’t work out whether it sits in its own village or is part of the town of Buckfastleigh. The view as I drive in is dominated by the tower of the abbey from which, I imagine, the whole of Buckfastleigh may be seen.

As most abbeys lost their wealth and land because they were dissolved during the Reformation, it was surprising to learn that this was still an active and clearly wealthy monastery. Whereas Buckland Abbey had been sold to someone who converted it to their home, Buckfast was an active place of living and worship.

It has a long history dating back to 1018AD when there was a Benedictine abbey here. By 1150 it had become a Cistercian monastery. It remained so until the dissolution of monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign in 1539. After centuries of decay and rotting the Abbey was to be built again as some monks from France found their way to the site in 1882. The present church was consecrated in 1932 which is evident in that the church looks relatively new. Silly me, I thought I was on my way to see an 11th century building. The whole complex (living quarters for monks as well) is now part of an international organisation.

Upon inspection, the organised layout gave an aura of corporate and commercial management but that is not to say that a fee was demanded for entrance. I was immediately directed into a new looking information centre. Clearly there was some money being made somewhere and somehow. Has this got anything to do with the tonic wine that is produced here? Although I didn’t understand the need for this centre, much of the information gleaned there is quoted above. It also gave me a view of the monks who were, ostensibly, there to assist the tourist. Perhaps it is not the way I think of monasteries, but it was interesting to see two monks debating and trying to work out how to use a single mobile phone!! They were hardly millennials but were trying to embrace the technology.

Upon leaving the exhibition and getting the customary outside photos, I immediately headed into the abbey. Unlike some of the recent cathedrals and churches I have visited it had a rather dull and spartan looking interior. This is in no way meant to be offensive – it was just that it wasn’t that impressive. The only nice part of the ceiling was roped off and inaccessible. So, took a couple of shots and left without spending more than 10 minutes inside. Perhaps I discovered that not all abbeys are blessed with amazing architecture and craftsmanship as seen in many other buildings up and down the country.

So I left the abbey neither impressed nor inspired. The visit took place in October and this may explain why it has taken me so long to write this blog. It’s amazing to think how a little bit of commercialisation, professionalism and advertising can entice people to a place. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone making the effort to visit this place, but I believe on doing so you will be disappointed.