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.

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.

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.

Spectacular South

Star jumping at Monkey Creek – Fiorland National Park

Kia Ora. This is my first blog on New Zealand. My whole year has been dedicated to this trip due to its cost, annual leave entitlements and seasonal conditions. My final itinerary for this trip, tried to cover everything that this country has to offer – its culture, cities, lifestyle and scenery.

The start of my journey began in charming Christchurch and has finished with the delightful ferry across to the North Island through the Marlborough Sounds. It also took in the unforgettable Stewart Island plus many more memorable stops along the way. This first half of my 5-week adventure has blown my mind and opened my eyes to some of the most spectacular scenery, met some of the proudest people and participated in many awesome activities. There were emotional post-earthquake scenes in Christchurch, the amazing Milford Sound, the spectacular Aoraki Mt Cook and the surprising Stewart Island are to list just a few of the highlights. Beauty comes in many forms (people, scenery, buildings, are just a few) and this country has delivered so many beautiful “post card moments” I’m sure if we all look at our own countries we could find such other amazing areas of beauty. But as one of the hostels I stayed in says, “Travel changes your perspective”. As a result I have set myself the challenge of finding that beauty back home, before I go off exploring on my next adventure.

The South Island is so diverse, full of myth and mystery, such different dynamics in every region. It’s so rich in everything it has to offer, I have been well and truly spoilt in the weather and everything I have seen. The east coast so dry and well populated (the two major cities are here), the west coast in complete contrast is wet and remote (feels like a million miles from anywhere). The north so pleasant and warm, in complete contrast to the south

where it’s generally cold and chilly. The middle of the island has been sculpted to leave some of the most panoramic lake and mountain views I have ever seen. My time here has been limited, due to my work commitments but I have tried my hardest to view as much of the country as physically possible in my time. If only I had longer?!

The South Island’s reliance on tourism is increasingly evident the more you travel around it. There is proof that the lay of the land has been reliant on agriculture, but not as much as I first expected. The native people realise this, they are proud of what they own and are only too glad to show it off to anyone who visits it. Maybe something we could learn from back home in the UK?! The NZ government also has a huge part to say in this and is ensuring that the legacy of this incredible country lives on.  The Kiwi people have an adorable charm about everything they do, which has been manifested in the time spent with them. It has also highlighted that time also seems to evaporate with them. Something about tourism here is so completely different to other parts of the world, comfort issues, the begging for tips, passion in every person, etc. are noticeable differences.

The main tourist activities of the TranzAlpine train ride, Milford sound, Queenstown and Kaikoura were wonderful in their own way, but were expensive and overcrowded. Take yourself off the normal tourist track and discover a true New Zealand. Find cascading waterfalls, many national park walks, visit the sound of silence and escape reality, and finally visit Stewart Island one of the highlights of my trip!

Some of the main tourist activities referred to above have generally been too commercial to appreciate fully, and this is reflected in my loving them less than the other places I have visited. Like back home, and the rest of world, the need to capitalise has overtaken the beauty there is to appreciate. Maybe I could have been a little braver and tried to find a way of doing these things on my way or terms. The days I’ve loved the most have taken me on a voyage of discovery, that has somehow taken me out of my comfort zone and has rewarded me in riches that will never ever translate into monetary value. The way I feel now is that I am the richest man alive.

Nature has created so many of the things that I have been able to appreciate on this exploration. It’s created and defined a lasting legacy, and is still trying to have an effect. The recent earthquakes have clearly destroyed parts of this land, but the people accept it as part of who they are. They live and deal with it. They don’t hide behind it; they accept it and move on. I found myself wanting to join them with a respect for it and doing my best to preserve it. Perhaps we should all look at our daily lives and think how we could reduce the impact we have on the environment? It was heart breaking that the one thing I wanted to complete on this trip was to see whales in their natural habitat, sadly that was deprived of me due to nature speaking itself in gale force winds. Hopefully I will be able to see that in the second half of the trip.

It’s with sadness in my heart that the first half of my trip has concluded. It’s been more than I expected, the stuff of dreams and fantasy, and has been achieved through desire, passion and hard work. I look forward to some rest and family time over Christmas before tackling the second half of my trip this time around the north island.

Where time stood still!

Street entertainment in Havana

In what is rapidly becoming a depressing era in which to live, how refreshing it was to visit Havana. This escape from my real world was so magical that I wish I’d stayed longer. There was history at every corner. I was able to enjoy the city’s famous rum and cigars, and its music and dance entertainment.

Havana stole my heart!

Of course I had images of what to expect, but I hope never to have these again on all future trips as they often leave you disappointed. Havana itself didn’t disappoint; it blew my mind and it is without doubt the best city I have visited so far on my travels. It had always been a dream of mine to get there; I had heard so much about it that I was intrigued to go to experience it and prove that dreams can come true.

After visiting this capital, it is my opinion that everyone should visit Havana at least once in their lifetime, and visit it as soon as possible. I’m torn as the place needs some TLC (probably more now after the recent hurricanes that affected the area), but a huge part of me hopes that modernisation doesn’t destroy the unique beauty of this place. Time has almost stopped on this city and as the rest of the world develops and loses it soul and identity, Havana has retained its own. The spirit of the city lives on. Unlike the rest of the world nothing is fake. It is real; it lives and breathes as you admire and experience this iconic city. Havana is Havana; it doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be something it is not and if there are other cities around the world like this then I want to see them.

As I continue to blog, you will learn that I like to walk. I experience everything that a place has to offer by foot. I reckon that I see so much more than one does on the open top bus tours. I get to experience the real city; I get lost; I stumble upon those unexpected views, unearth those gems, discover those fascinating people, plus the health and environmental benefits are incredible. The everyday hustle and bustle isn’t there, you can relax and enjoy yourself, the sound of music galvanises and entertains. The non-existence of iconic designer shops, coffee and food outlets that have proliferated so many cities around the world adds to Havana’s unique charm. Walking the streets of this famous city, I’m not having to fight with people for my piece of pavement; it is so refreshing to be ​​able to enjoy the city by foot, to look at people and see the twinkle in their eyes, the smiles on their faces as they enjoy life, everyone is polite and friendly, smiles greet you wherever you look, nobody is distracted, people mingle and enjoy each other’s company, there are no tears or sadness around.

One cannot ignore Cuba’s history or present situation, I did try to understand its fascinating history, but I feel I just scratched the surface. There is much to learn of its relationship with America and Western Europe, its revolution, the Castro family etc. The former presidential palace is now a museum (Museo de la Revolucion) and displays some evidence of Cuba’s intriguing past. It is constantly guarded by the nation’s soldiers and is worth the entrance fee. I cannot forget to mention its relationship with America – the rest of the world can’t seem to live without America – Cuba seems to have managed without one!! When I arrived the the Americans had just got their embassy, situated on the famous Malecon. I have never seen a building so well fortified, so much so that I felt a little scared as I wandered by.

The Malecon, the 8km road that stretches around the north of the city, is probably one of those ‘famous drives’. By day nothing is going on apart from some locals fishing off the sea wall’s edge as it is battered by the Atlantic. Stare out towards the sea and see nothing but ocean. The lack of boats and freight ships creates a unique sense of calm. Only one big ship making a delivery was seen in 3 days and a harbour doesn’t really exist apart from 1 or 2 boats moored in an inlet. The Malecon by night is the hub of activity as people flock to meet likeminded people in search of love and romance. What a contrast to the digital dating that now has changed our world. Sit here and enjoy some local rum and lookout almost into a black abyss.


Leave here and head towards some of its squares, each one a complete contrast to the other. Plaza de Armas, peaceful and quiet, is dominated by a local market or book sale. Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal, and the others, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Veija, are lively being filled with bars and restaurants. Everyone flocks to these places and enjoys companionship. One cannot ignore the Revolutionary square either though it is more than a little walk away. It is worth the visit – walk through Vedado district to get there. It is home to the Cuban government, and has various monuments to key revolutionaries with their images wired on the tall buildings almost signalling their importance to its history. I was hoping to be able to get to the top of Memorial Jose Marti but I was sadly rebuffed by soldiers.

My time here was all too brief. It should have been a longer visit, and hopefully I will return one day, or find another city that offers an escape from this so called digital world. For now, I will live in this farcical digital era, with accusations and confessions and wonder what on earth will happen next.