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.

 

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.

a Winchester Walk

I’m so glad I made the drive to Winchester. I had been before, but I couldn’t remember anything of this city. And oh, how I wished I had kept a blog as a kid (maybe a diary, blogging didn’t exist back then)! You could say I was spoilt as a kid; aren’t all kids these days? Not with the latest gadgets or fashionable label. I was spoilt by my parent’s passion to show me not only the world but the country which I call home. It’s with slight sadness of heart that I didn’t appreciate the efforts they made then as much as I would have now.

Winchester was once the capital of this land. This medieval, cathedral city has an abundance of incredible buildings and has history etched all over it. My visit wasn’t long enough, nor did it do it full justice. I did not see it all. Oh, how that disappointment of not seeing everything has already whetted my appetite for a return visit. The city is surely a must see for anyone who lives in England or wants to visit these shores. Not too far from central London or the southern coast, its development at this location can be understood. It became a Saxon capital and a powerful base for bishops. It also plays host to two of this country’s mystical characters – Alfred the great and Arthur and his knights of the round table.

On arrival, I quickly left my car and headed on foot in the direction of the cathedral. Why not, I thought, as I had done no planning or research. Why not just get lost and explore? Immediately I was captivated by the wonderful architecture that is spread all over the city. After capturing a charming pub with oak and white washed walls bathed in glorious autumn sunshine, I crossed the charming river Itchen. Rumour has this was the inspiration to John Keats ‘Ode to Autumn’. It was by chance I noticed a National Trust property on the bridge (a mill) and immediately marched in. It wasn’t my intention to visit a National Trust place today, so a quick peep before leaving in search of other sights was complete in no time.

Straight after leaving the river, the statue to Alfred the Great casts its watch over the city. A sword and not a wand is in his hand. He looks directly up the High Street, and what was described as the oldest high street of the land in a visit to a museum. His statue is as old as the building to his left. The guildhall attracts you to the brighter side of the street. A look in it its doorway distracts you for a little while. But wait! In search of more than a doorway, I stroll off in search of better things. Not much further up the street, a left turn was made through one of the 5 gateways in the walls that once guarded the city (not much left now) and towards the cathedral.

There it was, a 11th century masterpiece, one of Europe’s longest. To say I wasn’t impressed on first view is an understatement! Crowds, enticed to the local lawns for entertainment, were distracted from an interest in the building. Who could blame them, for on the outside it is unremarkable; not one of England’s finest. Taking an inquisitive step inside changes all of that and confirms that truthful saying that beauty is only skin deep. I stood in amazement first of all at the sheer size of this incredible building. I felt so small and lost in such a vast space. After picking up my jaw off the floor I spent my time taking those customary pictures. Every step seemed to discover a fresh, mind-blowing view. I feel that I could have spent all day in there.

I was sad to leave especially as the organist was enticing me to stay with the pleasant sounds he generated. Outside, the amazing autumn sunshine was waving its magical light all over the city. My meanderings took me off the beaten track – as they always do – in search of that amazing discovery. It led me to two things. Firstly, a church that had been converted to flats – an epitome of how religion is portrayed in this ever-dysfunctional modern era. The second discovery was, after getting lost around the converted barracks which have now been converted to flats, the Great Hall. References to King Arthur and knights of the round table were a thing of childhood imagination. There is a round table mounted high up on the wall of this 13th century building. Sadly, this was closed to me due to an event. My fascination with this myth will ensure that this is ticked off on my next visit.

A wander to the top of town seemed like a chore and nothing like the wonders below. A quick visit and a climb up into the Westgate museum, didn’t give the desired city views. So as the autumn chill set in and a need to leave, it was with haste that I left. A visit to “England’s oldest pub” was completed before departure. Can this be true, how will we ever know? It just seems that this statement is published to entice the people in.

Another walk in Winchester will be done. I cannot wait – castles and colleges await! Until then I shall try and remember those long-lost childhood visits.

Totnes Town

I’m very lucky. In order to do my work, I have to fetch myself to yet another delightful English town. This time my destination is located in the southern part of the charming county of Devon. I am headed for the delightful town of Totnes. It is spoilt with a wealth of charming architecture and fascinating history – how lucky am I.

As I start to put together some blogs about one of my favourite parts of England, I’m so happy to have discovered Totnes. I will admit that the first time that I arrived here as an adult that I wasn’t really interested in the town and happier to go about chasing the local steam train with my father while other members of the family hit the shops. How wrong was I to write the place off?

This fascinating market town sits on a hill, overlooking the breath-takingly beautiful Devon countryside and the River Dart. The view is slightly impeded these days as the town is built up. At the top of the hill sits Totnes Castle – it is easy to see why they built it here. The castle belongs to the English Heritage portfolio. Sadly, I’m not currently a member and pressed for time I had to forgo a visit here – perhaps next month.

Leaving the castle, one descends to the high street. The steep hill is full of charming buildings that have managed to keep their outside facades as the modern shops fill their insides. At the top of the town sits the Civic square, where the local markets are held on a Friday and Saturday. Nothing much happening here on this occasion, I followed the high street. Walking down the steep hill I am fascinated by the East Gate arch, which was once the gateway to the medieval town and has now been faithfully reconstructed after a devasting fire in 1990.

To the left of this archway as I wander down the hill there are a set of steps. Take these and follow the path as it meanders around St Mary’s Church. This 15th Century church is built in a glorious red stone – some research claims this is from Devon county. A step inside is worth it as always, although on this occasion I am rushing around so I take a couple of quick photos before departing on my exploration once more.

Directly adjacent to the Church grounds is the Guildhall. Founded in 1088 as an abbey, I believe, it was built in 1553 as the building it is today. For something that is tucked away and hidden, it is surprising that it once was the heartbeat of the town. It is now a museum to times gone by and a small fee of £1 – a suggested donation – gains one entrance. As time was an issue I had to save this visit for another day, perhaps when the cold and rain come. A quick peak inside reveals the names of the 600 mayors that have ruled the town and what looks like a royal standard on the wall.

I leave here and retrace my steps back to the high street where I follow it on down. Again, I admire all the lovely buildings either side of the street. I am drawn to a beautiful looking pub up the corner but as I’m working that pleasure has to be missed. It also distracts me from the ‘Brutus Stone’. According to local legend Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, stepped off his ship here and the stone marks the spot. It is claimed that he said, “Here I stand and here I rest. And this good town shall be called Totnes”.  It is not that I would know what or where it is. I shall look out for it next time in Fore Street and near to number 51. At the bottom of the hill a striking pink building captures my attention as its brilliantly lit up in the autumn sunshine.

Its perfectly located next to the bridge over which I cross for wonderful views of the River Dart. Bathing in glorious autumn sunshine late in the day, it’s so still and peaceful even though the tide had gone out! Some customary shots were taken of mirror like reflections. A quick dash to the car and then a slower, mundane drive along the A38 lie in wait. Totnes, I can’t wait to see you again.

Outstanding Oxford

I have a soft spot for Oxford. I had been taken there as a kid on a number of occasions. In 2014 a friend and I walked the Thames path in 9 days. The first few days were somewhat boring and then….. Oxford. The ‘dreaming spires’, the curious colleges, the stunning architecture, the plethora of push bikes, the pubs – surely this is a poet’s dream. Publishing brands of renown, well known industrial brands, history etched all over, museums, etc. Perhaps most tourists are drawn to its filming locations as used in the Harry Potter films or sit and muse over Morse, Lewis and now Endeavour episodes-so far, I haven’t been tempted in.

Oxford must surely be one of the jewels in the English crown, and along with Bath is one of my favourite places in this extraordinary country of my birth. I made it my intention to visit this place when I completed that Thames path odyssey, and ever since that time I’ve always thought why it was that I didn’t discover this place earlier.

My normal route to the city seems to be on a bus these days, although arriving by train and foot has been ticked off! To use the bus is very unlike me. Enjoying the view as I am carried along, the excitement builds as I travel up the Woodstock Road, past St Giles church and see through the tree lined St Giles Avenue the Martyrs memorial. The sight of this structure is the realisation that I have arrived at the heart of this wonderful city. Oxford delivers so much by way of diversity. It is apparent in that first glimpse as religion, pubs, museums, colleges all meet at that one site.

The Martyrs memorial requires some research. I find out that the 3 people commemorated on it were from Tudor times. Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were all burnt at the stake for their beliefs. This statue wasn’t raised until 300 years after their brutal deaths. It is claimed that the road level cross in the middle of Broad Street tarmac marks the actual spot rather than the site of the memorial.

Oxford captivates my curiosity; its prestigious pedigree as a leading educational institute has been built up over many a century.  One wonders why I’m so fascinated with this as I never had an interest in higher education. I’m not going to bore you in this blog with the individual beauty and splendour of these colleges, but challenge you to explore it for yourself, for it will truly blow your mind. This aspect is probably worthy of its own blog…. watch this space.

Oxford and its surrounding areas boast the most delightful pubs, full of charm and character, and deliver local brews. It’s not surprising to see why they have made it into so many episodes of Morse, Endeavour, etc. The Trout Inn, The Eagle and Child, Turf and Tavern, Lamb and Flag, and White Horse are among those that have been blessed with celebrity visits, used as TV sets or provided inspiration for writers. As pubs become a part of yesteryear, (they are closing at an alarming rate over here), one cannot beat an evening after work just pub crawling around the many quaint pubs. It could be argued that this is one of the best ways to explore Oxford.

Opposite the White Flag pub is perhaps one of my favourite areas of Oxford and includes the Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Library and Radcliffe camera sandwich. These iconic buildings are surrounded on all sides by a number of the university’s colleges. These beautiful buildings are one of my favourite views in this country.

Another fascinating part of Oxford is the number of museums it possesses. The Ashmolean is best described as Oxford’s answer to the British Museum and probably deserves its own blog. The River Pitts museum is madness. The building itself is tremendous was filled with excited children and perhaps they were slightly off putting as regards this curious and quirky collection. Granted I visited both museums on a wet and wild day in the school holidays. The calm and peace of the Ashmolean meant I was able to study and challenge my limited knowledge. The crazy Arthur Pitts was manic.

Perhaps Oxford’s best view is from above. It led the Victorian poet to describe it as ‘a city of dreaming spires’. I’m still trying to find my favourite to enjoy the view (perhaps Carfax Tower is a candidate) but one cannot argue with this description.

As I keep returning to this wonderful place I discover somewhere new and intriguing each time. This blog has only scratched the surface of this incredible place. Until next time Oxford – I cannot wait.

Built in Belfast

The first of my four ‘Capitals of the UK’ blog takes me on a short flight across the Irish Sea to brilliant Belfast (although I booked to go to the wrong airport. I flew into Aldergrove rather than Belfast City which would have been more convenient for my pick up!!

What was once one of the richest cities in the world has gone from the industrial years as producers of the finest linen and, at the other end of the manufacturing spectrum, large ships in the famous Belfast shipyards. Belfast became a lively import and export hub. The times after the great wars were clearly marred and scarred by the horrific and horrendous 30 years of troubles. It is now forging a ‘better Belfast’ where the locals open their arms and their mouths very fast talking – it is difficult to understand them sometimes; a combination of the rapid speech and the accent to provide you with warm hospitality. Belfast captivates and fascinates.

‘Built in Belfast’ refers to the ship building yards. It produced a mind-boggling amount of ships both pre and during the war. One of the world’s most famous ships, RMS Titanic, was built in Belfast (as they say, ‘It was fine when it left here!!’). It’s incredible to think of the numbers associated with the yards. In their heyday some 30,000 people were building including my host’s father. Imagine the noise this would have created as rivets were hit all day long. An interesting fact to back this up; 3 million rivets were used to build the Titanic alone. These slipways are vastly changed as flats, hotels are built on them at an alarming rate. Its other addition, and the one that gives this area its name, is the museum to that famous ship. Isn’t it amazing how one movie can create such a tourist attraction!!! As I’m led to believe this is now one of the busiest tourist attractions in Europe. I didn’t find it that appealing – its cost, and commercialisation of a terrible disaster that happened thousands of miles away wasn’t that interesting. Perhaps a museum to Belfast’s shipbuilding past, celebrating the design and engineering feats may have been more appealing for me, as it wasn’t just the Titanic that was built here. My host’s father (my dad’s uncle) helped to build the Canberra.

The port is now a regular cruise ship destination; a record 117 will have stopped here by October this year. 10 years ago there were none. It still has managed to keep Samson and Goliath – iconic, bright and yellow they dominate Belfast’s cityscape. They are not used these days for ship building but for building renewable energy items, like wind turbines. Thankfully they have maintained the H & W letters on them (Harland & Wollf) which alone are 6m in height!

When visiting Belfast you can’t ignore its recent history. Perhaps this is why it makes it the most fascinating of the 4 capitals in my opinion. This terrible part of history finished when I was just 10yrs old (I was also in Belfast for the Good Friday agreement of 1998). I can’t begin to understand any part of it, but after visiting, reading and listening to the tour guides talk about it on every trip, it clearly can’t be ignored and looks like it is going to play a part in its tourist future. The two routes of conflict are religion and being part of the union. Perhaps this also highlights/mirrors some of Britain’s current problems. Belfast provides some monumental landmarks that are worth visiting, eye opening, slightly emotional and incredibly powerful. The peace wall and the murals in particular captivated my attention.

The city centre itself is built around the impressive city hall. A free visit inside is well worth it (that sounds a bit Irish but you know what I mean), and you are greeted by an incredible stairway, walls and ceiling. Around from the city hall lies all the normal shops and restaurants that any city boasts, although the recent fire had burned down one particular store. Anyone who visits Ireland/Northern Ireland will be lured into the many pubs providing good beers and regular music and a unique and lively atmosphere. One of Belfast’s names is ‘heart attack city’. It’s hard to disagree with this after indulging in a number of traditional breakfasts; they really are a heart attack on a plate (thanks 1st cousins once removed).

As I bring my visit here to an end and prepare for my flight home my final walk round takes me to the botanic gardens. I went in search of the Ulster museum, but it didn’t appear to be open. So instead I had a fascinating walk around the gardens admiring the brilliant art work portraying the recycling the city offers and the lack of it in the world in which we live. I found this intriguing and fascinating, and just as powerful as the many murals around the city.

‘Cities are built and rebuilt by people who love what they stand for’. Belfast can never forget its past, but this city has moved on as it leaves behind its famous industrial heritage and terrible troubles. It is forging a new and successful era as visitors are welcomed, with easy access from far and wide. Oh, how the modern means of easy travel and tourism is changing the landscape of the world….

Brunel’s Bristol

Bristol has been a huge part of my life, and it saddens me that it has only taken me until now to fully explore it. Probably not best to be explored by foot as its sights are widespread and it is hilly as well, I did so anyway. Racking up the kilometres I managed to visit all of Brunel’s masterpieces.

 

Bristol’s location is a puzzle to me as it is a long way from the Bristol Channel. Surely a port at the edge of the land would have been an ideal location for ships and transportation links. Why bring all the ships up to the harbour in the city centre? This route is a glorious passage up through the Avon gorge, as it meanders its way from the Bristol channel to Bristol’s city centre. Presumably the river is deep and wide enough to allow the size of ships that obtained in the nineteenth century to float up to the city centre when Bristol saw much traffic. This could only be achieved by the lock system. The gorge towers up on either side, and when the tide goes out leaves nothing but a mucky mud view. One of Brunel’s engineering creations is the stunning suspension bridge that crosses high above the gorge with more modern advancements meaning that lower bridges and roads have been put in place. Upon crossing these it was fascinating to discover that Brunel had built a swivel bridge and wonder at how much of the docks he built.

The suspension bridge may be viewed from a number of surrounding locations. Certainly, the Clifton side is the best viewing spot. If you can manage to drag yourself away from this wonderful view, wander through this posh neighbourhood of Bristol. I did exactly that as I went in search of Cabot’s tower. Not so keen on Cabot’s tower (some bad memories and all that) I was tour guide for my dad the day we visited, so I felt it had to be included. On arriving and passing a number of elegant buildings I was surprised to find that one could walk up the tower for free! What a shock, when just about everything else touristy in this country has a charge associated with it. Well done Bristol!

Upon leaving the park, we were in front of the SS Great Britain. What was once the largest steamship ever to be built and the first to cross the Atlantic looks nothing compared to the ships that travel the oceans these days. Its amazing to think of the number of times that I have been in Bristol and have never visited this iconic ship. Another piece of work by Brunel, but perhaps I have not visited being put off by the price to visit this ship. The ship is moored in the floating harbour, a walk around here is well worth the views on a summer’s evening. At the western end of the harbour a few charming pubs exist alongside the locks; in the centre is the massive M Shed, guarded by 4 former ship cranes. This harbour lacks the volume of boats you would normally associate with most harbours probably due to its awkward entry and exit to the channel. Perhaps the larger ships use Avonmouth. During one weekend in the summer months this place turns into a harbour fest. The city, which I deem pleasant to visit at any time, becomes a hive of activity then and really buzzes.

A short walk from the harbour in either direction is the cathedral or city centre I am not one for shopping so I avoid the shops – just like the rest of the country seems to be doing but, no doubt, for other reasons! Instead I take a visit to the city’s cathedral. Amazingly this place is free to enter as well! Double bonus points, Bristol. So many of the English cathedrals seem to charge an exorbitant entrance fee. I believe this cathedral to be one of the larger in the country and a visit inside does little to contradict that. A visit to this wonderful piece of architecture is a must for anyone. One thing that surprised me was that the stained glass windows in most of the building weren’t the normal religious depictions that one would expect. This as a result of the bombings in the war which meant that most of the windows were blown out. The church decided to replace them with memories of those who helped Bristol during the war.

Drag myself away from here and across the college green and make a way up Park Street. Normally I make my way down it in a drunken state, but this time I was drawn to what I thought was another church on top of the hill. On closer inspection I was proved wrong. This is in fact a part of the university.

After finally looking at what Bristol has to offer, rather than what has always been for previous family visits or nights of drinking this place has blown my mind. If I had more time then I would like to look at one of Brunel’s great engineering feats, the railway. There are many other wonderful places yet to discover in this fascinating city.