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September 2017   01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30

I’ve always been interested in history. But history on my own terms, about topics I can relate to, not necessarily what’s been taught in history lessons. I dropped out of University after a year because my degree course (‘Social and Economic History’) seemed to end up combining the worst attributes of two of the subjects at school I was relatively keyed in to (I mean, does anyone outside of University really care about the economic industrialisation of the USA in the 19th Century?!). My interests have always been more geared towards chaos – war, revolution, the collapse of empires and the creation of new states – and all that that brings (hence my near-obsession with dark history. Ancient fossil you say? Looks like a generic piece of stone to me. Oh cool, on this spot 20,000 people were put to death!). Where these interests come from is hard to say, but much of it I think comes from two board games I had in my Primary School days -> ‘Imperium Romanum II’ which played out the rise and fall of the Roman Empire over 500 years, and ‘Kingmaker’ which delved into great detail about what was later known as ‘The Wars Of The Roses’, the conflict in 15th Century England/Wales that produced four Shakespeare Plays (all incredibly biased, btw – Richard III was framed!) and is brought up whenever sporting sides from either side of the Pennines meet.


Conisbrough Castle Ruins, Yorkshire
Overview of Conisbrough Castle ruins.


One place on the Kingmaker map was Conisbrough Castle; in the game designated as being a home of the Clifford family, whereas in real life the Cliffords were very closely related to the Yorkist faction and thus during the war the castle was actually directly controlled/owned by King Edward IV. Its earlier history is actually more interesting – being used as a pawn in a domestic dispute (John de Warenne (A) v Thomas Earl of Lancaster (B) -> A: ‘you had sex with my wife so now I want to divorce her’; B: ‘the courts have denied you, hah’, A: ‘you bastard I’m going to kidnap your wife in revenge’, B: ‘suits me, I’ll just take over your castle in return’) … 14th Century Jeremy Kyle being much more interesting!


Conisbrough Castle Ruins, Yorkshire
The main tower at Conisbrough Castle.


There’s not much left of it today – apart from the main tower there’s a couple of walls enclosing what are now grassy mounds – but that’s no different from most ruins; the important thing is to walk in the steps of history. To be fair, what remains is very well explained and detailed – you have to use some imagination but the information boards and interactive/holographic displays are pretty in-depth, as well as being quite accessible. It’s been popular with visitors for a while – although ruinous since at the latest the mid-1600s, it was used as the setting for the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, and so has been the site of tourism since Victorian times


Conisbrough Castle Ruins, Yorkshire
View from the top of the main tower at Conisbrough Castle, overlooking the town.


The real meat of the war however, lie some distance either side of Conisbrough. Some way to the NW, just outside Wakefield, lie the ruins of Sandal Castle. Directly owned by the Dukes of York, this was the home base of Richard, father of later kings Edward IV and Richard III, but also immensely powerful in his own right. One of the inner circle of King Henry VI, it was his manoeuvring and subsequent falling out with the King in the late 1450s that started the whole conflict off.


Sandal Castle Ruins, Yorkshire
Ruins of Sandal Castle. This is all that remains of the Great Hall & Great Chamber.


There’s even less left of the this castle than Conisbrough – it is nothing more than a couple of columns of stone scattered around several circles of hill; so little left, in fact, that the site is open to the elements and free to enter and explore – but it’s still possible to get a feel for how suitable a location it is. Out to the West the land falls into a plain that still provides a clear view far into the distance, but while council-estate housing now fills the North vista towards Wakefield (“Duke of York Road” continues the sense of history here), this is where one of the most significant early battles was fought. The Battle of Wakefield in 1460 was an early victory for the Lancastrian side in the war, and may have given us the mnemonic “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” for the colours of the rainbow. In a nutshell, despite occupying the high ground of Sandal Castle, he launched an attack on a much larger force camped at the bottom of the hill. Which completely failed, obviously, and he was killed in the melee. Nobody knows exactly why he did this; theories abound about his miscalculation of his opponent’s forces, his belief that reinforcements would arrive, or that he was provoked into battle by goading from the Lancastrian forces; whatever the truth it was a decisive defeat for the Yorkist cause.


Richard Of York Memorial, Yorkshire
The memorial to Richard Of York, who allegedly died on this spot at the Battle of Wakefield.


Richard Of York Memorial, Yorkshire
Close-up view of the inscription on the memorial.


Despite this setback, the Yorkists proved ascendant for much of the period of the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, the main conflict ended after the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471, the former seeing the death of the main power-broker at the time (Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – the ‘Kingmaker’ after whom the boardgame was named after), and the latter 3 weeks later where the Lancastrian heir to the throne (Edward, Prince of Wales, son of King Henry VI) died, along with many leading supporters of the King (who himself was executed several days later). The leading Yorkist, King Edward IV, then ruled mostly in peace until his death in 1483. I am aware that this period of history seemed to exclusively contain men who had one of only about three names (Edward. Henry, Richard), but I guess people generally referred to them by title (Richard Neville was generally referred to as ‘Warwick’ for instance). Nicknames, such a ‘man’ thing.


After Edward IV’s death, things got a little ‘messy’. His brother Richard, Duke of York (obviously a different one) took the throne (as Richard III) in preference to Edward’s son (also called Edward), possibly as a protector role as Edward was only 12 at the time – for their own ‘protection’, the younger Edward and his brother (Richard!) were moved into the Tower of London (then a royal residence). And were never seen again; one of the most famous mysteries of the mediaeval age. While most historians and observers have blamed Richard III, his rival to the throne – the Lancastrian Henry (obviously) Beaufort – would have had more to lose while they lived. In truth, it’s most likely the two of them died of illness not long after they were moved.


This, however, coupled with Richard’s habit of falling out with influential nobles, meant that Henry’s challenge wasn’t a mere hope from exile in France. Two years after taking the throne, the two of them faced each other in battle in a field a couple of miles south of the small Leicestershire town of Market Bosworth.


Market Bosworth, Leicestershire
The market square of Market Bosworth. The crests on the wall commemorate the battle.


It was a sunny day towards the end of August (not long after my birthday); although dry and bright, between the two sets of troops was an area of boggy ground that would take a few centuries before it dried out. On one side, atop Ambion Hill, stood the army of Richard III. At the bottom, over the fields, stood the much smaller army of Henry Beaufort, made up in part of French mercenaries. With the higher ground and much larger army, there could only be one winner of this fight, right?

The joker in the pack (and not just because of his non-standard forename) was Thomas Stanley, ‘King of Mann’ and later Earl of Derby, traditionally one of the leading supporters of Richard III … and stepfather of Henry Beaufort. With divided loyalties (and one of his sons held as a hostage by Richard to ensure his support), his fairly substantial force was parked up on one side of the battlefield, watching, waiting.


Memorial of the Battle of Bosworth, near the visitor centre.
Memorial of the Battle of Bosworth. A crown on a lance is surrounded by stone seats representing each of the armies involved.


In the event, his force wasn’t needed. Innovative (Roman Army-esque) tactics from Henry’s force, coupled with worry about Stanley’s troupe, forced Richard’s hand and he stormed over the boggy ground straight into Henry’s bodyguard. His horse got stuck and he had to dismount, but still he kept fighting, wielding his sword like a possessed man on a mission. At one point he got close enough to kill Henry’s standard-bearer, but ultimately his battle was, like his dad’s, in vain – Henry’s troupe was too strong and soon overpowered and killed Richard.


King Richard III's memorial stone.
This stone commemorates the death of King Richard III, and used to stand on the site he’s believed to have fallen. These days it stands in the main yard of the Bosworth Battlefield visitor centre.


Ever since, there has been much dispute over where the battlefield was. On Ambion Hill, believed for a while to be where much of the battle took place, there is now a museum. Although reasonably small, it’s a good combination of accessible and in-depth – using interactive tales of several of the types of people involved in the battle (including a representation of Thomas Stanley himself), it goes over the background to the battle from both sides, a brief overview of the order of battle itself, and then goes into a bit of detail about the long-term aftermath.

The museum also has a small arena where, on special occasions, they hold mediaeval tourneys and have falconry displays. They also offer guided walks around the general battlefield site – although archaeological research has finally proven that the site of Richard III’s death now lies a mile or so away in a farmer’s private field. It’s only by going to sites like this that you get a scale of just how big a battlefield is – when looking on a plan it feels like it’s only a hundred or so metres between the armies but sometimes it can be much more than that.


Exhibit of weapons used at the Battle of Bosworth.
There’s a path from the visitor centre that tours part of the battlefield site. It’s lined with exhibits like this, demonstrating some of the weapons/armour used. This is cannon shot, nasty stuff.


The fields where King Richard III died.
Somewhere through there, about 3km in the distance, in a farmer’s private field, is the believed actual spot where King Richard died.


The battle may have changed the course of history. Henry Beaufort (then Henry VII) married Richard’s daughter, uniting the two sides of the war. His son, Henry VIII, had ‘a bit of a spat’ with the pope, founded a new religion, and took England’s first steps on the road to world domination. Richard was far more introspect and insular; had he won the Battle of Bosworth (and the difference could be measured in mere feet), he may have taken England down a far different, less dominating, path, and this blog post may have been written in provincial Spanish.


There is always beer...
Of course, there’s always beer…this was in the nearby town of Hinckley, from a Leicestershire brewery. However I don’t seem to have made any notes on it …


It’s weird how small moments are so pivotal.



Authorities visited: Wakefield (18 March 2017), Doncaster (11 June 2016), Leicestershire (7 May 2017).


jamie

More Than Coal - An Overview Of Southern Yorkshire

Posted on 2017.09.16 at 19:52
Tags: , , ,

See, South Yorkshire has a reputation. It’s not necessarily a *bad* reputation (we’re not dealing with a Luton here), just that most people seem to associate it with coal mines and not much else. It’s almost as if it’s still 1984 in the minds of the British public: the whole area filled with small mining towns, terraced housing, outdoor toilets, ‘local pubs for local people’, and a high incidence of poverty. Now of course some of that is true – it’s incredibly uneconomic to replenish an area’s entire housing stock just because the economic conditions have changed – but note Dore & Totley, suburbs in the SW of Sheffield, are one of the most affluent local government wards outside of London, so it’s not all brass bands and pints of bitter.


The main focus point in South Yorkshire is the city of Sheffield, which shall be the subject of a later specific post – suffice to say it’s the greatest city you’ve never heard of.


Doncaster Town Centre
One of the main streets in Doncaster, with seat designs reflecting its history. This is about as reminiscent as it gets.


The most historic town in the region is Doncaster, although now it’s more famous these days for its racecourse, its football club (on whom I once won £100 in one of my very rare visits to a bookmaker), and for being the home of the first woman I ever had a crush on (a penpal called Rachel, who I haven’t spoken to since 1994. She did the most silly thing and agreed to meet me. Amazing how often that puts people off!). Despite being an old Roman fort built by a bridge on Ermine Street (the road between London and York) over the river Don (hence its name – ‘Don’, incidentally, being a variation on the ancient Celtic goddess Danu), there’s not much left in the city relating to this period; Chester and York it is not.


Timeline, Doncaster Town Centre
The timeline on the street. Yes, I am wearing sandals. Bite me.


The nearest it gets to celebrating its history is a ‘timeline’ in the pavements along its streets, which documents all the things that happened in the area which have been long forgotten and no longer visible. While a pleasant enough town, having some good beer (!), it’s not a place likely to be on anyone’s tourist radar – even its low-cost airport (Doncaster-Sheffield Robin Hood Airport – its name probably more interesting than its location, and its dual-language signage suggesting it looks more towards Warsaw than London for business) is used purely as a departure/arrival point before heading on to more interesting places like Sheffield or Leeds.


Overview of Conisborough Town Centre
Looking out over Conisborough Town Centre from the castle.


Nearby Conisbrough (whose castle will also be part of a future blog post) is now a small industrial town in the borough of Doncaster, although at one point this was probably the most important place in what is now South Yorkshire. That the castle had been partly owned by kings since as far back as King ‘I seem to have something in my eye’ Harold is testament to the area’s importance, while the church here dates from the 700s and may well be one of the oldest buildings in the county. It’s likely this spot was so important due to a combination of the prominent hills and the proximity of the powerful River Don.


The church in Conisborough
The old church in Conisborough.


Just South of Conisbrough lies Rotherham, a much-maligned town in the shadow of Sheffield; despite having over 100,000 people it’s often seen as merely an ‘overspill’, and indeed not only lies closer to the Meadowhall shopping centre than Sheffield itself does, but the main railway line connecting the two is single-track for part of its length. It’s telling that, in the UK at least, Rotherham’s more noted these days for a child sex abuse scandal than for anything particular about the town itself.


The church in Rotherham
The church in Rotherham, complete with ‘heart’ sculpture in front, representing the ‘beating heart’ of Yorkshire. Or something.


In the South of Rotherham there are remains of an old Roman granary and a couple of other outbuildings, that lie in a large landscaped park, a rare link to the ancient history of the area – the town’s more notable past is much more recent.


The old Roman granary in Rotherham
All that remains of Roman Rotherham (indeed in much of South Yorkshire); a few stone foundations in a park.


The main tourist attraction here is the Magna Science Adventure Centre; a large interactive/educational museum built on the site of a large steel works that aims to display and educate about not only the industrial heritage of the region but also the science behind that industry. It was, naturally, built on the site of a vast industrial works, and is a fully interactive and child-friendly site divided into four segments, relating to the four traditional elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Each segment has different exhibits relating to science, showing for example how forges work, how tornadoes form, and the applications of the power of water. It’s a great site for budding engineers and scientists. Its centrepiece is ‘The Big Melt’ – a live demonstration of an authentic huge electric arc furnace that had been previously used for real in one of the steel-making factories that Sheffield was world-renowned for. Which I seem to have lost all the pictures of …


The church in Wath-Upon-Dearne, in the Dearne Valley
The church in Wath-Upon-Dearne, in the Dearne Valley. I do seem to be posting a lot of pictures of churches here…


To the north-west of Rotherham lies the Dearne Valley – historically a hotspot of coal, but now mainly devoted to identikit and soulless call centres (the new Working Classes) where people spend 8 hours a day either trying to sell mundane services or handling calls from dissatisfied customers who are unhappy with the mundane services that they’ve previously been sold. The firm I work for has one such call centre here, staffed with advisors who will happily switch allegiance to any of the other nearby companies based purely on salary & bonuses; the job’s pretty much the same, only the greeting differs.


Barnsley Town Hall
Barnsley Town Hall – a fine example of Art Deco, and quite an unusual place for it too.


At the end of the industrial section of the Dearne Valley is Barnsley, another one of those towns that exists primarily for locals rather than as a place for tourists. That said, the local council has tried to tap into the unrealised potential and has set up the ‘Barnsley Experience’ in the town hall – a hyper-local museum about the history of the area with a considerable number of interactive exhibits and information specifically local to the Barnsley area (including short films depicting stereotypical Barnsley residents across the centuries, and a temporary exhibit on one of the area’s most famous sons, the cricket umpire Dickie Bird).


Dickie Bird Exhibit, Barnsley Town Hall
The Dickie Bird exhibit in the Barnsley Experience, and an example of adulation towards one of their own.


It’s telling that on my visit, the vast majority of other visitors there, if not Barnsley resident, at least had a very strong connection to the area; essentially the museum was telling people about their own history – an important and often overlooked aspect of community.


One of the more unexpected attractions in the area, right on the border between what is now South and West Yorkshire, is the Yorkshire Sculpture park. Set in rolling countryside in the grounds of Bretton Hall (ex-manor house, ex-teacher training college, now apparently a hotel and spa), it was originally created at the behest of noted sculptor Henry Moore in 1977 – indeed sculptures by Moore are scattered throughout the site, although other artists are well represented. One of the quirks of the site is that art on display – either in the park itself or in one of the buildings scattered around – are regularly changed, so pretty much every time you visit you’ll get to see something new.


Henry Moore statue, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Three sculptures from Henry Moore – Upright Motives #1, Glenkiln Cross #2 and #7, created 1955-56 out of bronze.


The layout of the park is more of a country park with scattered sculptures in, rather than an art gallery in the open air. It’s a good place to walk around for a couple of hours (you’ll need at least two to get a good feel of everything) – it’s quite steep in parts so not ideal if you’re a bit late and need to run back to the entrance to catch a bus (not that I’m speaking from experience here or anything…), and the trails are paths over grass rather than being defined footpaths, but I find that makes it all the more ‘genuine’.


Lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Panoramic view over the main lake in Yorkshire Sculpture Park.


In the middle of the park is a large lake, surrounded by woodland, that’s noted for its flowers and wildlife, while on the edge is a chapel (St Bartholomew’s), which is used as a small gallery for temporary art – on my visit it was the venue for a sound exhibit. In the gardens of the chapel I could hear birdsong; nothing special there but in fact this was another ‘exhibit’ – recorded birdsong from out-of-place wildlife from tropical rainforests. For a non-twitcher like me, I wouldn’t have noticed. Apparently near the lake there are naturally-recorded calls from hyenas, which confuse people.


St Bartholomew's Chapel and Iron Tree, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
St Bartholomew’s Chapel. To the left is the ‘Iron Tree’, a sculpture made from 97 pieces of iron cast from branches of a variety of tree by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.


Also around the park are small galleries with other exhibitions in; these tend to be closed in Winter. The open-air sculptures though are legion and visible all year round – many sculptors are represented across space and time, including people like Anthony Gormley, Ai Weiwei, and Barbara Hepworth.


Anthony Gormley Iron Man statue, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
One of Anthony Gormley’s iron man statues, atop a plinth.


Wakefield Cathedral
Wakefield Cathedral, outer view.


The nearest place to the sculpture park is Wakefield. One of those ‘cathedral cities’ from way back (a surprisingly recent 1888 – the Victorians had a bit of an administrative tidy-up), the cathedral (Church of All Saints) still acts as the central point of the city; compared with more famous cities like Salisbury and Winchester it’s relatively small and less grandiose, but even as it is, it oozes power and passion. On my visit they were about to have a community celebration event, and even with half an hour to go it was quite crowded.


Wakefield Cathedral
Wakefield Cathedral, inside view.


It’s interesting to compare Wakefield and Barnsley; although a similar size, Wakefield ‘feels’ far bigger – there certainly seems to be more to the city centre, not just in terms of shops but also in ambience. Wakefield, administratively, now lies in West rather than South Yorkshire, making it more aligned with Leeds rather than Sheffield, but in truth it’s an unexpected worthwhile destination in its own right; a small but comfortable place from which it’s easy to get out to both the industrial heritage of Yorkshire and the wilds of the open country (Leeds is less than 20 minutes away, but so are the likes of Sowerby Bridge and the Calder Valley). It has a nice but functional compact shopping area and the most ‘hipster’ micropub I’ve ever been to, even down to the bearded barman!


Wakefield Walk Of Fame
Even somewhere like Wakefield promotes its famous sons & daughters – though being Rugby League territory, this seems the most appropriate to post.


See, anywhere can be interesting, if you’re prepared to put in the effort to find it out. Paris and London may have world-renowned art museums and thousands of years of occupation and generic history, but without places like Barnsley and Rotherham, they would never have achieved the greatness that they have – for instance Barnsley was a major regional centre for both glass manufacture and linen production, both raw materials used in creation of goods that would be traded and used in the capital.


So many places, in the UK and beyond, are mere names on a map, football teams that occasionally play clubs you’ve heard of, places that you see signs for on the way to somewhere with more fame. These are the places people live, where they’re born, work, die, places that are the lifeblood of a country; over 80% of the UK population lives outside London, in places like this. And these are the places I like to blog about.


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Wakefield Sculpture Park, Yorkshire, Anthony Gormley Statue in situ.



Authorities visited: Rotherham, Doncaster, Barnsley, Wakefield. Dates visited: 11 June 2016, and 4 & 18 March 2017, bar the pic of Wath Church taken 14 Jan 2009.


It’s funny – no matter where I am in the world, I always feel a bit ‘short-changed’ when climbing hills. Something always seems to go ‘wrong’, either in the climb itself, or a general sense of disappointment upon reaching the top. Climbing Winter Hill (the clue should have been in the name) was no exception.


But first, some background.

As you probably know, I grew up in the North West of England, firstly in Liverpool and then the nearby coastal resort of Southport. Our television signals came from the transmitter at ‘Winter Hill’ – in those days engineering work was advertised on TV and we were regularly informed when the signal would be affected, so we were all aware of what Winter Hill was. In my young head though, it meant it gained a mystical, almost mythical, property of being an important gateway to the rest of the universe. It was also far enough away for me to have never visited it; indeed I didn’t even know you could.


Winter Hill from a distance
The transmitters atop the hill. See, it looks nice and clear there!


A visit to my firm’s call centre just outside Bolton enabled me to once again return to incomplete childhood memories. And I seem to have been given a wonderful day to visit – sunny and warm, around 17°C with bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Apparently you can see as far as Blackpool Tower from the top. And when I passed Horwich Parkway station, the TV transmitter was as clear as you’d like.


Obviously it didn’t turn out like that …


Winter Hill (456m high) is actually quite noteworthy outwith the TV transmitter, although that, along with the mobile phone masts scattered across the top, does make the place feel not a little ‘alien’ in the fog as tall frames with bulky bottoms appear out of the mist – iron-wrought frames, cold, industrial, weird metal skeletal hulks rising upwards with no sense of humanity or warmth.


Mobile Transmitter atop the hill
One of the telecommunication antennae, looming in the gloom.


Towards the top of the summit are scattered some piles of stones; these are memorial ‘cairns’ and one is known as the ‘two lads’ cairn, supposedly constructed to commemorate the death of two young boys from ‘exposure’ while lost on the hill (I can definitely see how that could happen up here). There is a folk belief that they were the children of a Saxon King, but that feels unlikely somehow.


Cairn, with barefoot backpacker
The cairn, hidden from view by a frustrated backpacker.


Near the TV tower itself is a metal pillar known as ‘Scotsman’s Stump’. This commemorates a murder that took place here in 1838 of an itinerant Scottish merchant, travelling in the area and who was shot and killed by persons unknown (the only suspect was acquitted after two trials).


The Scotsman's Stump
Memorial to the murdered Scottish merchant. Seems a remote spot to be wandering through.


And, as if there hasn’t been enough death already on the hill, two plaques (one on the TV tower itself, one on a gatepost just beyond) record the crash in 1958 of a chartered plane to the Isle of Man, filled with notable members of the car sale industry on the island, in weather conditions presumably similar to that I experienced – it crashed within 200m of the transmitter but no-one working there noticed or even heard the plane come down. 35 people died (7 survived), and the crash is still remembered on the Island. The cause of the crash was determined to be probable navigation error – in the fog the pilots had picked up the wrong transmitting beacon and had misread their position by a few miles. There had been other crashes on the hill both before and since, but this was the most severe.


Air Crash Memorial
Memorial to the 1958 plane crash.


Allegedly the hill has also been the location for a few UFO sightings. In the conditions I was in at the top, I’d have been hard pressed to spot the mothership from Independence Day…


Hiking Barefoot up Winter Hill
Comfortable conditions for a barefoot hike, just a bit … cold!


The climb up (pretty constant once I left Horwich town centre) was quite steep, and despite leaving in bright sunshine, the weather closed in pretty quickly. By the time I reached the ‘two lads’ cairn, it felt like a cool Autumnal day (though still comfortable enough to bounce barefoot over the boggy, mossy, ground), and once I reached the TV tower itself I was unable to see more than the base of it, the cloud was so thick, covering the summit like the metaphorical blanket. I could see the mist blowing across the road from the moor in the sharpening wind – one of those clichés that when it happens makes you realise what it means – and at one point it even started raining – that misty drizzle that gets inside your clothes and makes you realise that humidity is even worse in cold weather than in warm.


Winter Hill Transmitter
The TV Transmitter itself, or at least all that was visible of it.


Suffice to say I didn’t get to see Blackpool Tower. I could barely see the towers on Winter Hill itself. Coming up I’d just about made out Rivington Pike, the next major landmark to the North-West, and could see lots of people climbing up there. That would probably have been a better option, with hindsight (but though I didn’t climb it, one of my blogger friends local to the area, Kira, has written about it here).


On the way down, close to the foot of the hill, I passed by a ‘memorial garden’. Except that this was no ordinary lawn with memorial plaques, nor even a standard graveyard. Rather, this is part of what’s known as the ‘life for a life’ scheme; a tree is planted on behalf of a deceased loved one, and their ashes are scattered in the roots. When the tree grows, it acts like a kind of ‘natural’ memorial, so rather than row upon row of stone markers, instead you have a living forest. It’s a pretty cool idea!


Memorial Garden in Horwich
Overview of the Memorial Garden in Horwich.


Tree in the Memorial Garden in Horwich
One of the trees in the memorial garden, dedicated to an 84-year-old who died in 2003.


Naturally, the end of my “mountain adventure” involved three of the pubs in Horwich in the Good Beer Guide. Maybe I felt I needed it …


Luxembourg isn’t a country I knew that much about, in all honesty, before I realised it was convenient as a short trip from Belgium. On first sight it doesn’t appear there’s terribly much to know – it’s the 179th largest country in the world (1,000 sq miles / 2,600 sq km – for the Brits this makes it marginally smaller than Oxfordshire and Derbyshire. For the Americans, this makes it 200 sq ml smaller than Rhode Island. For the Aussies, it’s slightly larger than the Australian Capital Territory. For the French, it’s the size of Luxembourg, Jeez!!), but as I’ve grown to make a blog niche of, there’s plenty there if you look deep enough.


In the North of Luxembourg are a number of small towns, including Ettelbruck, Diekirch, and Vianden. The train there from Liège runs roughly every 2-hours along a mainly single-track (!) line, and has the definite feel of a small rural line in the UK, one of those beautiful journeys only kept alive by the gratuitous use of subsidies and political pressure because it’s the only link to the outside world for a series of marginal constituencies. While Flanders is flat, farmed, and historic, Wallonia is rural, rugged, and forested – the line runs through the countryside with a river valley clearly visible in front of tree-covered hills and occasional quarries.


The Ardennes from the train
Snapshot from the train. These things always look better in real life though.


Vianden is famous for its castle on the hill; it’s one of those places that looks gloriously ‘romantic’, in that mediaeval way – something that wouldn’t be out of place as the setting for an 18th Century opera.


Vianden Castle
Vianden Castle, above the village.


One way to get there is to take the chairlift – exactly as it sounds; it’s a chair (or in fact more like a bench) attached to a wire that goes up and down the mountain. It’s very ‘open’, and it wiggles from side to side if you move. Safe as houses, obviously. It does give a fine view over the river valley and up towards the castle, but I’d imagine the views were better going ‘down’ as at least then you’re going in the right direction.


Vianden from above
The town as seen from the chairlift. As is common with me and high places, there is mist affecting the view.


The castle itself is pretty old – there’s been a building here since late Roman times, and it’s been expanded and developed quite significantly over the years. It used to be one of the homes owned by the House of Nassau, one head of whom was William of Orange – victor of the last successful ‘invasion’ of England. However, in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, Vianden Castle was kind of ‘forgotten about’, eventually being sold essentially for scrap, and it lay in a state of disrepair until the 1970s, when a campaign was launched to renovate it. These days the castle is a museum; inside, you get to see the history of the castle (including a cut-away of a cross-section of ground where you can see the imprint left by some of the older walls), as well as a few of the rooms which have been displayed as they would have been when it was used as a royal house. You actually get to see quite a lot of the inside of the place, and you certainly get the impression of the richness and size of the place.


Vianden is also home to a small museum dedicated to Victor Hugo; this, along with a statue (by Rodin, no less) of the man himself, brings to mind the words ‘dead horse’ and ‘flogging’; apparently he lived in Vianden for a *few months*. It’s not even as if the town needs any bigger draws than the castle. That said, it’s apparently popular in summer with bikers, in the same way that many small country towns are (cf Matlock Bath in the UK).


Vianden from street level
Street scene in Vianden. It really is quite a pretty little town.


Near Vianden is the town of Diekirch. The main draw here is the large military museum dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of WW2. This part of Europe was scene of great fighting over the Winter of 1944-45; the Germans believed they could break the back of the Allied forces by splitting and surrounding them, which would lead to a peace deal, leaving them to concentrate on fighting the Soviet Union. They failed, although partly through the terrain and the weather as well as through Allied resistance (it was very snowy), although certainly Allied bloodymindedness helped (“Nuts”, indeed). The majority of the action on the Allied side came from American forces, and it was also notable for being pretty much the first conflict where African-American soldiers fought alongside white soldiers.


A tank in Diekirch
A replica tank outside the Battle of the Bulge Museum.


The museum was pretty intricate and full of detail, from all sides of the conflict but predominantly promoting the American line. Outside the museum were replicas of several vehicles used in the conflict (including a tank), and inside one of the larger rooms was filled with all manner of vehicles and machinery of the battle, for example army jeeps, motorbikes, missile-launchers, etc.


Inside the museum in Diekirch
A replica of the ‘foxhole’ that the US soldiers would have been in during the battle.


Other rooms included a recreation of a German hideout, an overview on what had happened to the local population on the German’s original advance, and rooms with all manner of documentation and items from the period (adverts, newspaper clippings, personal effects, etc). Lots of detail, very thorough, but couldn’t help but feel I would get the best out of it if I were a generic patriotic American.


There’s quite a few other things in Northern Luxembourg, for example there’s a couple of castles near Larochette and Mersch, an old abbey at Echternach, and of course walking in the Luxembourg Ardennes forest and hills; alas I was only in the region for two days.


Luxembourg City Overview
An overview of Luxembourg City.


Luxembourg City is an hour or so by train south of Diekirch, and the journey in takes you on a viaduct providing great views over the city. Unofficially, one can divide the city into several ‘segments’; the area around the station is separate from the main city centre by a very steep river valley (the small Petrusse River), in which are parklands, walks, and some buildings. On the other side of the old ramparts to the East, heading down towards the valley, is an area of quiet cobbled streets and interesting cafés To the North-East, over the Alzette River, lie the main bulk of the banking offices and the other parts of the European Parliament. The Petrusse valley is very pretty indeed, as city centre river valleys go, and the remains of the fortifications provide some good views on the other side.


Luxembourg City Overview


Luxembourg City Overview


One stereotype of Luxembourg is true – it’s a very expensive country. Despite staying in a dodgy hotel in the red-light district close to the railway station (as they often are), it was one of the most expensive places I’ve stayed outside of the UK, and on average, food and drink are more costly compared with neighbouring Belgium. However the locals don’t notice; it’s one of the richest countries in the world (it also has amongst the lowest-priced petrol in Europe – the French, Belgians, and Germans often cross the border purely to fill up!). While these days Luxembourg’s affluence is built on the finance industries, its wealth was originally created by iron and steel, and the offices of the largest steel companies in the world are still in the city centre.


Luxembourg City backstreets
One of the pretty backstreets on the way down to the valley.


The city itself isn’t that big, although as it’s built overlooking the valley, it’s a little awkward to walk around due to topography. It’s one of the many ‘centres’ of the European Union, but even though the EU buildings are geographically close to the centre of the city, they feel quite a way outside, especially as you can see countryside in between. There’s a 45min hop-on/hop-off tour bus that goes around the city, past the EU buildings, and it’s probably a worthwhile investment.


Luxembourg's EU centre
Taken from the top of the moving bus, hence why the tops of the flags are cut off, this is part of the EU complex.


One of the main attractions in the city is the MHNA – the National Museum of History and Art. It’s a somewhat weird building built over a remarkable 10 floors, though each floor in itself isn’t terribly large. It’s a mixture of history and art; the floors below ground level all deal with the history of the local area from prehistory to the Middle Ages (each floor is a different historical period). One of the highlights is an incredibly large and very well-preserved Roman mosaic that you can either walk around on one floor, or go to the next floor above and look down at it from above. The upper floors are mainly about art (mostly religious European art from the post-Renaissance era, but with some Modern Art too); on my visit the very top floor was a special exhibition about archaeology, but while it told you about archaeological practices, much of the historical stuff they talked about (Roman towns in Northern Luxembourg) was a rehash of what was on the lower floors (where they had, for example, a model recreation of several pre-Roman houses and buildings in a ‘town’).


Inside the Bock
One of the passageways inside the ‘Bock’.


Elsewhere in the city are the old ramparts, and the ‘Bock’ – man-made caves under the rocks that the city is built on that have, over the years, been used for industry, storage, and, latterly, defence The fortifications were dismantled in 1867 as part of the peace treaty that led to Luxembourg being confirmed as an independent Duchy, but quite a lot of the caves were never filled in. Some of the passages inside the ‘Bock’ are quite wide, and cannons have been placed in the ends of cave passages that open out over the city, so you can look out and see what they would have fired at.


Entertainer sculptures
Part of a street sculpture of entertainers, musicians, and dancers in Place du Théâtre. I believe they represent old styles of entertainment, and is front of one of the old theatres in the city.


The city itself feels very ‘European’, with paved streets with cafe/bars, some street art (though not as much as Brussels!), and a fairly cosmopolitan vibe, but if I did feel ‘something’ there it was that it was quite a ‘busy’ city, not in terms of numbers but in terms of lifestyle; I got the impression it was a place people came to work, not to let their hair down and have fun. The bars lacked a little life, the streets a little atmosphere.


Shopping street in Luxembourg
One of the main streets in the centre of the city, good for shopping at least.


Overall I think I liked the city, and would revisit, but it may not be a place I’d hurry back to immediately …


Brussels is full of public art, and in fact walking around the city exploring it is one of the best free things to do in the city. There’s something pretty much around every corner, if you look hard enough, from paintings on the walls to sculptures on the street corners.


Belgium’s most famous ‘resident’ is the Manneken Pis, which is actually much smaller than you’d imagine. Seriously. Wikipedia says it’s 2′ tall, but as it’s in an alcove on a pedestal and not easy to get to, it’s hard to verify.


Manneken Pis
In most scenarios, a picture of a naked boy having a wee would be insta-banned. But art is a very strange thing…


There’s no polite way of putting this, so here we go. It is a statue of a boy having a piss, hence its name (literally ‘little man pissing’). There’s been a statue here since the late 14th Century; this particular chap was designed in the early 1600s. He’s stuck away behind railings because, as you might imagine for such a small, notable object, there’s a tradition of him keeping getting pinched. A second tradition has him being dressed up in seasonal/festival clothing – and since the Belgians love a good festival (seriously, whatever weekend you’re in the country, there’s a fair chance you’ll be able to see some local tradition!), this happens quite oft.

There’s a whole host of stories and legends that try to explain his existence, from the ‘defensive valor’ (child urinates on advancing armies/enemy bomb’s fuses) all the way to the ‘lost child’ (goes missing, search conducted, child found happily peeing on the side of the street, oblivious to it all). Personally I think it’s just an example of the quirkiness of the Belgians, as sort of ‘why not?’.


Jeanneke Pis
Jeanneke Pis. Just because.


If that’s not quirky enough, more recently he’s been joined in Brussels by two other similar statues. The ‘Jeanneke Pis’ (a girl squatting and urinating) was installed in 1987 pretty much as a ‘companion’ to the Manneken Pis, in an early example of equal opportunities. Contrary to popular belief, she was not modelled on the hordes of young British hen parties that have lit up Europe since the invention of the package holiday.


Het Zinneke
Het Zinneke – I’m sure it’s symbolic, but, still …


More recently still (1998), as if a boy and a girl were not enough, the Het Zinneke (and, importantly, not the Zinneke Pis) was created. This is a dog cocking his leg up on a bollard. Maybe Brussels felt that the boy and girl needed a pet, or maybe by this point the city council were past caring. Notably though, this particular sculpture is in the fashion district, so there’s a feeling that just maybe this was a damning indictment on the fashion industry. Or maybe it’s simply that the Belgians are urologically-obsessed? Incidentally, the term ‘Zinneke’ is a nickname for people from Brussels, and originates from the name given to the stray dogs that congregated around the River Zenne in the city, hence its name.


Crocodiles
Frolicking crocodiles. As you do.


There are other weird and wonderful sculptures scattered around Brussels too. Most notable are the Anspach fountain, complete with crocodiles that look like they’ve been captured in mid-dance, and the statue of commemoration to some of the brave but oft-forgotten soldiers of WW1 – Brussels has the only memorial I’ve ever seen to war pigeons.


War Pigeons
Statue commemorating the pigeons in WW1. Presumably including the one in the Blackadder Goes Forth episode…


It’s most famous ‘artwork’, however, is out in the distant suburb of Heysel. A symbol of Brussels almost as much as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris, is the rather odd Atomium – a series of interconnected metallic spheres that are supposed to accurately represent (although at several million times’ magnitude) the structure of an Iron atom. You can go up inside it and see good views over Brussels. It was around 10am on a very wet and grey Sunday morning, so I decided to forego that one …


The Atomium
The Atomium. Do you have balls of iron?


The Atomium is also famous from a blogging/photography point of view. It’s one of the most notable sites in public that’s copyrighted – not just the design itself but the actual finished object. This means it’s illegal for people to publish pictures of it in situ for profit without official written permission. I’m not making any money from this blog so #FightTheSystem. Or something.


Public art is not restricted to pissing statues and weird representations however. Brussels is one of those cities, like Stockholm and Moscow but unlike Berlin, whose metro system acts as an art gallery. Notable stations I came across (your mileage my vary) include:

* Houba-Brugmann, where both sides of the rail tunnel are painted with artwork laid out like a set of film slides or depth-of-field photos of a woman dancing. She starts off standing still and plain at one end of one of the platforms, but by the other end she’s dancing with a flourish. The opposite side of the platform has the same on the walls, but with more people and a much more obviously motion-blurred background.


Houba-Brugmann Metro Station
It’s not relevant that she’s barefoot. Not at all.


Houba-Brugmann Metro Station


* Sainte-Catherine, plain white walls laden with what have the effect of hand-drawn, large, flowers of various species – roses, daffodils, etc.


Sainte-Catherine Metro Station


* Maelbeek, where the artwork on the walls takes the form of simply-drawn outlined heads in a rather modernist, almost cartoonist, style. Apparently these are portraits by the Dutch artist Benoît van Innis. Nope, no clue.


Maelbeek Metro Station


Maelbeek Metro Station


Of course, the main public art draw in Brussels is on the street. Belgium has a history and culture of cartoons (to the extent they fully embrace it as the ‘Ninth Art’ – you can look up the other eight yourself!), so it’s probably not surprising that you can get a town plan of the city centre and find the designated murals listed on it – a self-guided street-art tour.


Note that while the map tells you where they are, it doesn’t give you a precise location (so some of them take some searching for – hint: look up), nor does it give you any background information about them. I find it fun to find out more about them in research afterwards, but again your mileage may vary!


Le Chat
Le Chat, a cartoon character by Philippe Geluck;

he’s a fat cat in a suit who is often found in absurd and surreal situations.


Some of these murals represent characters fundamental to Belgian culture – often drawn by the creators themselves. One such is a drawing around three storeys up on a blank wall, of what appears to be an anthropomorphic cat building a wall. This is “Le Chat”, a famous character in Belgium whose standard ‘shtick’ is to appear in one-panel cartoons with a somewhat surrealist bent.

Of course Tintin makes an appearance – although Hergé has been dead for some time, the characters he created are faithfully recreated on a wall, casually; without the map you might not even notice they were there.

Tintin
Looking for Tintin.


Many of the scenes drawn though don’t depict famous characters, but instead are bespoke to the environment they’re in. Some of them are humorous, such as one artwork that makes used of a tall thin wall that would otherwise have been blank or daubed in tagging graffiti – a boy at the top drops something out of a window that hits a man walking at ground level). Others are created to artistically set a particular scene, such as one drawn in a very 1920s American ‘film noir’ style, depicting a well-dressed man and woman leaving a bar at dusk. Still others are socio-political; gay rights, urban regeneration, etc.


Street Art in Brussels


Street Art in Brussels


Street Art in Brussels


The majority of them though merely appear random; just simply pretty works of art that brighten up otherwise blank walls. If only all cities did this 🙂


Street Art in Brussels


Street Art in Brussels


Art is thus everywhere in Brussels, even when/where/how you least expect it. Wandering back to my hotel I noticed a set of painted footprints on a stairway; I followed them backwards to where they came from and discovered that someone had painted the concept of someone emerging from a bin at the bottom! So quirky, so Belgium.


Street Art in Brussels




Visited May/June 2012</p>

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Street Art You Can See For Free In Brussels.



jamie

Brussels - Underrated but Fun :)

Posted on 2017.06.02 at 19:24
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Frites with mayo
The standard street food in Belgium – fries with mayo.


Belgium is a very odd, quirky, ‘off-the-wall’ country. The whole place has the feel of several completely disparate concepts stuck together with supermarket own-brand duct tape; it all fits together but I’m not entirely sure how. This is, after all, a country which holds the record for the longest period of time without a functioning government (541 days in the early 2010s, over twice as long as the previous holder, Iraq), primarily due to disagreements over language rights for a small area around Brussels.


There are two main areas in Belgium – Flanders in the North, which is Dutch (Flemish)-speaking, and Wallonia in the South which is French-Speaking. Brussels is in the middle, technically both (but majority French) despite being entirely surrounded by Flanders. Officially the country is ‘trilingual’ in that it has three main official languages (Dutch, French, and German, though the small number of German speakers in the East always get a bit left out of these discussions); that doesn’t mean everyone can speak three languages, only that they *could*. In practice, most people in Flanders speak two (Dutch and, er, English), whilst those in Wallonia speak pretty much only French.


Beer!
Let’s break up this monotonous historical context text with beer; I’m not quite sure which of the many beers I had this was, only that it probably wasn’t Westvleteren 12.


Due to its location and status as capital, Brussels feels like a distilled, concentrated example of this diversity. It merges the Dutch love of beer with the French love of cuisine; Dutch street vibes with French high fashion; Dutch quirky pastimes and museums with French fine arts. Walking the streets makes you feel like you’re in a slightly grittier, worn, suburb of Paris, yet you turn a corner and come face-to-face with something that could only have come out of the mind of a Northerner.


Chocolate!
Nope, I have no idea. I think it’s advertising a chocolate shop, but who knows.


Some of this weird dichotomy reveals itself in its museums. Belgium is a country very fond of its art; but for every visit to the fine arts museum, one can also visit something a bit more, shall we say, ‘earthy’.

The Musée des Beaux Arts is a large art museum in Brussels – even the building its situated in strongly strikes of privilege and historical wealth. It contains a varied selection of the usual European Art style paintings, but with a definite concentration on Belgian artists (oh yes, Breugel. And Rubens); this is the backbone of art galleries worldwide and why I tend to avoid them. That said, it does tip a hat to more modernist art. Now, I really love Modern and Contemporary art, especially the sort of displays that make you stop, stare, and shout internally ‘what the fuck, why?’. Here, this is best exemplified by the Franco-Polish “painter” Roman Opalka, who had a whole room dedicated to him (that he had died within the previous 12 months of my visit possibly helped). His Magnum Opus, part of which is displayed in the museum, is a work that involved him painting consecutive numbers in white paint onto paper, from 1 to, well, infinity, where the background of each new sheet was 1% lighter than the previous. His aim was to reach white-on-white by 7.7 million; he reached a clearly visible 5607249 on his death, at which point everyone mused ‘well, that was worth it,wasn’t it’ …


Art Museums
The two main art museums; the Magritte Museum is the one on the right


As a contrast – or maybe not, YMMV – connected to the Art Museum was the ‘Magritte Museum’. This, surprisingly, is a museum, which sounds like a weird thing to say, except that one of the pubs he used to frequent, and doodle on the tables while he drank, has the sign ‘this is not a museum’ on it. While this may be blindingly obvious, Magritte was a surrealist who liked to challenge perceptions and accepted norms, so sometimes you can never tell.

He’s one of the most famous and controversial artists that Belgium has produced, and the museum occupies several floors which take you through his the life and works in a very interesting and thorough manner. On the lift up, there is a kind of small window through which on every floor there is an image of a part of a naked woman (as if the woman is 5 storeys tall). Somewhat amusingly, when I was in the lift, we stopped on the third floor to let one of the staff members out. You might well be able to guess what the drawing was through the window. Remember, I said ‘naked’ … ! There was a small group of people in the lift who took the view the staff member had done this on purpose …


The other main art museum in Brussels is the Centre Belge de Bande Dessinée. This ‘museum’, built on several floors, displays extracts from all manner of cartoon strips, and has a very in-depth biographical section of many of the area’s most famous and influential cartoonists, complete with examples of their work and items from their studios (so you get to see, for example, the desk layout that Marc Sleen would have used). Many famous cartoon creations are present, including mini statues of creations like Lucky Luke, Tintin (of course!), and, although not mentioned anywhere within the centre itself, Asterix.


Outside the Cartoon Museum
Outside the Cartoon Museum. This is the statue of Gaston Lagaffe – a creation of artist André Franquin, the everyday office worker is one of the most famous and popular cartoon strips in Belgium.


Comics, also known as the Ninth Art (one wonders what the other Eight are!), has always been very big in Belgium – to be honest it’s big across Francophone Europe, although there is a strong Dutch contingent too in Belgium (including Sleen and Willy Vandersteen). “Comic” and “Cartoon” are sometimes seen a bit of loaded words in English, as they imply ‘drawings for kids, usually with comedic effect’. While many of these Belgian cartoonists do draw/write to create ‘laughs’ amongst the readership, they are often satirical, parodic, and with adult themes and jokes. It’s a serious art form, and indeed the phrase ‘ninth art’ can be seen to demonstrate the ‘artistic’ nature of them not just the content.


Wooden Elephants
“Jing” by Matthieu Michotte. “An object that carries a trace, an imprint, a message” apparently. A representation of the ‘urban jungle’ – a jungle mammal in an urban environment. Ah, modern art…


Art isn’t the only thing celebrated in museums in Brussels; indeed there are over 90 of them, covering everything from typical Belgian strengths such as beer and chocolate, to laying dead once and for all that stereotype about ‘name a famous Belgian’, to more unexpected things like clocks, lace, and musical instruments.


One of the more esoteric, and on first hearing possibly incredibly boring, is the National Bank Museum. However I thought it was worth a visit – it details in simple terms what money is (it’s not just the cash in your hand, but it’s pretty much anything that can be used for payment, including services, goods, and of course plastic cards in lieu), where it came from, and why it’s important. There’s displays on money throughout the ages and the world, but also simple explanations, and indeed audio-commentaries, on different aspects of money and monetary policy (eg what a Clearing Bank does, what Inflation actually means, and the like). The building it’s in is actually the Bank building, and the initial rooms were originally used for Bank meeting. While a subject that would leave many people ‘dry’, I found it to be a good and comprehensive overview, whilst still being easy to follow. Caveat: I have an ‘A’-level in Economics; I am quite boring, yes.


Euro statue
“Europe”: a statue by Belgian sculptor May Claerhout, of the Greek goddess Europa, carrying the Euro sign – a symbol of unity. Apparently. I’m British; I wouldn’t know these things!


Brussels is also, of course, the main home of the European Union – indeed one of the possible solutions to the fact the two halves of Belgium dislike each other but can’t agree what to do with Brussels is for Brussels itself to become an independent city-state defined as the ‘capital’ of the EU. The area of the city the EU buildings are in is … modernist. The European parliament itself is very ‘windows and fibreglass’, it’s not something I could imagine very easily people wanting to take home replica models of. Due to it being occupying both sides of a narrow road, and being quite tall, it’s also quite a hard thing to take a picture of. It backs onto a landscaped parkland area; in casual walking, you only really see the back of the many buildings. The park itself has other, unrelated, buildings that surround it (including a school and a museum).


The European Union area and park
The EU buildings as seen from the park.


The European Union area and park
One of the buildings in the EU complex.


On the pavement walking towards the buildings, the stars of the EU flag are painted in blue. Iconic branding, if maybe slightly dull. In addition, my visit to the area was on a Sunday late afternoon, so there wasn’t much going on.


Arch and fountain
The arch and a fountain. Not that the day needed any more water.


Nearby is the Cinquantenaire, an arch (similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Belgium. And it was indeed completed in time for the anniversary. The 75th anniversary … [how these guys hosted Euro 2000 I’ll never know]. The arch is surrounded by grand buildings that are mostly now museums, and opens out onto a large parkland area where they host events (they were setting up for one when I wandered through). At the Western end of the park is a monument to the Belgian adventure in the Congo River area, a part of Belgian history that these days they’re a bit embarrassed about …


The Congo Monument
The Congo Monument. Probably best to leave that there, with no further commentary.


But to sum up Brussels, I’m minded to return to one of the bars I visited for some decent local beer and nibbles. As I was eating, there was some music playing outside, from what I imagine to be a reasonably high-quality busker, and I noticed two tourists-with-small-rucksacks and umbrellas suddenly start dancing in the street outside to the music. How quirky, and terribly Bruxellois!


And that’s what I feel about Brussels. It’s a bit like Paris, but with less people, less focal points, and a more ‘laissez-faire’ charm. It’s a bit ‘grittier’, not as polished, but I think all the better for that. It has a style that’s understated and less ‘full-on’ than Paris, but it’s definitely a lovable place.




Visited May/June 2012</p>

Flanders. And no, nothing to do with Ned.

I’m sure you’ve all been subjected to the poem at school: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row” etc. Now obviously there’s more to this part of Belgium than just its WW1 history, however it’s one of the reasons I came to Belgium in the first place. The other main one was beer, yes …


Like the poem, Flanders is fairly flat. I’m sure there’s a quote in ‘Asterix in Belgium’ that “The only hills are called ‘oppidums’” (towns) – it’s more accurate to say the only hills are railway embankments. While this means the trains and buses super-speed through it, there isn’t really a lot to look at. Unless you like fields. Punctuated by small villages.


Zonnebeke is one such village, however one with a troubled past. Not only was it virtually wiped out during fighting in the war, the battles fought here were named after the nearby village of Passendale; as an aside, in modern times Passendale is famous itself for cheese-making, although even that industry is based also nearer Zonnebeke.


Graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery
Hundreds of rows of graves, glimmering in the sun.


Just outside Zonnebeke, in a field just off the main road, and up a “hill” (marginal slight incline!), is the Tyne Cot Cemetery. Some 12,000 white markers in (mostly) regimented lines standing stiff above the green grass, stark against the blue sky and firm against the slight breeze. Each one marking the last resting place of a young soldier who fell fighting at a time when the ground was brown and thick with mud, and the sky was punctuated with the incessant sound and sight of artillery flying overhead. From both sides.


Graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery
The wall that lists the names of the dead.


Just under 12,000 graves. And these are where the bodies could be found. Around the far side of the cemetery is a semi-circular wall that lists, by regiment, just under 35,000 names of people who died in action and whose bodies couldn’t be found. What makes this even more incredible is that these 35,000 names are actually the ‘leftovers’ – the ones that couldn’t fit on the Menin Gate in central Ypres (just under 55,000). So that’s 102,000 remembrances 102,000 soldiers who never came back. On walking towards the small visitor centre at the entrance, a clear female voice reads out simply the names and ages of those who lie here. Chilling.


Graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery
World War 1 did not discriminate; all fought, all died.


Now consider this: This is *only* the British and (some) Commonwealth troops. New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, etc have their own memorials to the fallen. Tyne Cot is not the only cemetery – a few miles North West (though I didn’t get there), in the village of Langemark, is the equivalent German cemetery, with over 40,000 bodies interred. And smaller cemeteries are dotted around all over the area; more than a handful are passed by the bus between Tyne Cot and Ypres alone. Some of them are quite small, some of them are reasonably large, but all of them are the same; reflective places on the strange things that humans will make other humans do in the name of a Greater Good .


Graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery
Some people couldn’t be identified. Unknown soldiers, still buried in line with everyone else.


[Historical note : fighting was so fierce here in World War I because of the strategic importance of the Ypres area. Close to a couple of important railway supply lines, and, because much of the rest of this part of Northern Europe is flat, contains some important higher ground. If the Germans could get through here, there’d be nothing stopping them reaching Calais. If the Allies break through, then they could easily march on Brussels and into Germany beyond. Neither side could and, following initial fighting in late 1914, the front line didn’t move more than a few hundred meters for most of the next four years.]


Saving Private Ryan
I came across this accidentally. I mean, I know it’s 27 years too early, but still…


In the town centre itself is the “Passchendaele 1917” Museum. It’s an interesting place; the main exhibits are a collection of items and lots of information (including newspaper cuttings from all countries involved) all about World War I in general and the battles around Ypres in particular. What’s most interesting was going down some steep stairs into a full recreation of life in a trench, including seeing the sleeping quarters, medical rooms, etc, all the time with a background soundtrack of shelling. The roof’s a bit low so someone like me would have had some trouble being there for any lengthy period of time.


Ypres Town Centre
The pretty market square in Ypres; definitely looks European. Maybe it’s the sun.


Ypres itself is a fair-sized market town, with a large main square that to my eyes looks like it just stepped out of a foreign language textbook; it looks like the sort of place you’d expect to read about the café and shopping adventures of Maarten and Ineke. Around much of the edge of the town centre are the remains of fortifications – some dating back to the 14th Century – and it’s possible to take a leisurely stroll around them.


The main entryway into the town from the East is the aforementioned Menin Gate. Not only does this mark the point where the road crosses the fortifications, it’s also the main war memorial, not just in Ypres but arguably in the whole of Europe. There’s been a gate here for pretty much the history of the town, however following the end of the war, it was decided to rebuild it as a mark of respect to those who died – this particular site was chosen because it was often the last place soldiers passed through before fighting.


Menin Gate
The Menin Gate, looking out from the town.


It’s quite a simple structure – a marble arch lined on virtually all sides with what feels like an endless list of names. These 55,000 people are all those Commonwealth soldiers who were believed to have died in battle around Ypres & Passendale, and whose bodies were never found. It’s quite chilling to know that the list is regularly updated – as building work takes place in the countryside, remains are regularly found, and if these remains can be positively identified, they’re given an official burial and the name is removed from the Menin Gate memorial.


Menin Gate
Underneath the main arch of the Menin Gate; all the names.


The gate is also the scene of a ceremony that has taken place at 8pm every day since the gate was inaugurated in July 1927 – during the time of German occupation in WW2 the ceremony took place in England but returned to Ypres the moment the gate itself was liberated, despite fighting still taking place elsewhere in the town. The road under the gate is closed off, and traffic waits. There is deathly silence, until broken by a band of buglers who play ‘The Last Post’. After this, invited people from over the world place memorial wreaths in a certain part of the arch (you can book this in advance – when I was there it seemed to be mainly some children from several British schools). Once laid, the buglers play the ‘Reveille’ before everyone departs and they re-open the road.


Menin Gate Ceremony
At the 8pm ceremony; people just having laid a wreath.


There’s often a big crowd to watch this, who are respectful throughout. The whole scene is very moving – I think a lot of people watch precisely because it’s a tourist attraction now rather than primarily to remember the dead, but it’s still very respectful nevertheless.


Menin Gate Ceremony
The crowd at the 8pm ceremony.


And you know, I never saw a poppy growing in any of the Flanders fields.




Visited May/June 2012</p>

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How I spent a day in the WW1 Battlefields of Flanders Fields


jamie

In Bruges - Trying to avoid the tourists

Posted on 2017.06.01 at 21:22
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The thing about Bruges is that it’s got a reputation for being one of those tourist-traps; somewhere that seems really beautiful and quaint, but when you get there you find it’s full of tourists, overpriced restaurants, and cheesy attractions.


Of course, that all depends on where and when you go …


carriages in the main square
Carriages in the main square, waiting to fill up for the next overpriced trip around the town.


The town *is* full of tourists. However they tend to stay very much in the centre – the Grote Markt and Burg squares are lined with street cafés and visited by horse-and-carriage trip vendors etc – so every few minutes you get passed by a group of foreigners looking out of an old-fashioned carriage, cameras in hand, whilst the drivers smile and look friendly, knowing they’re on to a winner. Walking behind them are endless processions of tour groups, that get in the way of sweeping panorama shots, then block up the narrow passageways between the squares – the ones that are lined with old stone buildings and give the place that picture-perfect look – then lurk on the canal bridges preventing you from seeing the boats full of tourists doing water cruises.


one of the alleyways in the old part of town
One of the alleyways in the old part of town.


If all this seems a bit off-putting, just remember: a few minutes’ wander away from the squares, venturing down these narrow alleys, and you can pretty soon be far away from anyone and still get the best of what the town has to offer. And it all feels very safe and comfortable; at no point did I ever feel that I was in danger of being mugged or anything like that.


the main canal in the centre of town
The main canal in the centre of town; it looks like it should be a really quiet and scenic spot to live.


One of the canals forms a kind of ‘ring’ around the town, and there is a very scenic path along it that runs through parkland, over small weirs, and past a couple of old towers and fortifications; indeed this path was my first impression of the town as it seemed the easiest way of getting from the railway station to my B&B. Apart from the occasional cyclist, and local walking their dog, I had the route all to myself – the tourists were headed straight into the town centre. Further along the canal, as it itself branches off into the centre, there is a small road lined with cobbled pavement and stone terraced housing that was equally as empty and chilled.


reflections in the canal at dusk
Reflections in the canal at dusk.


The other advantage of exploring the backstreets is you find the best refreshment. This, of course, is Belgium, and Belgium is (in my eyes at least) most noted for its beer. While bars and cafés are everywhere, to get a feel for authentic beer you have to seek out the ones less advertised, that only research beforehand lets you find out about. A bar called “de Garre” is hidden away down a pokey alleyway off the main street between the two squares; although in the centre of the city it is completely unadvertised, and very low-key. Finding it is worth the hassle though – the beer menu itself runs to 4 pages, and that’s not including the Trappists and the fruit beers! Beer is served with small pieces of cheese – presumably to ‘cleanse’ the palate between drinks.

The bar makes its own beer, in fact – a very rich, very hoppy, and quite flowery brew that’s quite similar to lager, but very much full-flavoured, rather than it being bland and metallic. Interestingly, maybe 90% of people in the pub were drinking it!

The other beer I tried in there was from a brewery called Struisse; a 10% dark beer called Pannepot. It claims to be made with ‘candy’ as well as spices. I’d say it’s rich, with a roasted chocolate aftertaste which hits after about 2-3 seconds. There is a little ‘spice’ taste, possibly turmeric.


Now, if I were to recommend you do one thing in Bruges, it would be to stay overnight. Remember how touristy I said it was? The vast, vast, majority of them seem to be daytrippers. My visit was in early June, so darkness didn’t fall until well after 9pm. And do you know what? Walking through the main squares after 8pm and it felt like a Sunday morning – apart from one or two waffle-vendors and a handful of locals, there was nobody else there. It’s a perfect time to amble around and take stock of the buildings, the location, the historic feel of the place.


the main square around 9pm
The main square around 9pm. Feels like a completely different world.


The B&B I was in (“Bed & Breakfast Marjan Degraeve”) is near the outer canal ring, a reasonable but pleasant stroll from the centre, along barefoot-friendly cobbled roads through quiet neighbourhoods. It’s … quirky; absolutely ideal for someone like me.


the room in my B&B
The far end of the room I was staying in at the B&B. It was just as odd all the way throughout.


It feels more like two rooms in someone’s three-storey town house, rather than a fully-fledged B&B; maybe predicting the rise of AirB&B by a couple of years? The rooms and hallways are decorated with … whatever they’ve found that people haven’t wanted, in an almost Womble-esque fashion. There’s magazines and sheet music on the walls, mannequin heads lined up underneath the sinks, religious sculptures on the stairs, and frankly quite odd miscellanea scattered around. To cap it all, in the bedroom I wasn’t in, there was a toilet whose light-switch was wired in to the radio, so if you went in and turned the light on, the radio came on …


bizarre toilet in the B&B
The interesting toilet in the second room. As if the decoration itself wasn’t notable enough.


In addition, they brew their own beer (which was fab) and wine (which I didn’t try because I don’t mix drinks!). For breakfast, at an agreed moment in time, Marjan comes upstairs and puts on top of the little fridge outside the room a covered tray with bread in it, making sure the fridge has things like soft cheese and jam. I’m then able to take as much or as little as I want for breakfast.


As to how she started in business in the first place, she said that 20 years ago she was working in a café, when one of her friends came up to her and asked if she knew anywhere she could stay the night. Marjan gave her the keys to her house, and she’s been in the hotel business ever since. As for their homebrew; she said that the queues to get hold of the mythical Trappist beer ‘Westvleteren 12’ from the abbey got so long that they thought they might as well start brewing their own.


beer and heads in my room
Still life of their homebrew beer, complete with disembodied mannequin heads. Because Belgium.


Much better than a chain hotel, or even a hostel!




Visited May/June 2012</p>

jamie

Stand on the Side of the House of Love

Posted on 2017.05.25 at 12:20
Tags: , ,

A street in Islington
A typical street in this part of North London – large terraced mansions and tree-lined streets. In the distance, by the way, is a for-sale sign from the famous estate agents of ‘Hotblack Desiatio’. Ridiculous name; sounds more like a sci-fi villan …


London Islington. I don’t know what image the phrase brings up, but in my head it’s a confused sort of place, where suburban ‘yummy mummies’ with designer prams and book deals for female contemporary romantic fiction clash headlong with rough inner city council estates made up of endless concrete blocks three floors high of flats, the kind regularly seen in gritty TV crime dramas. But I’d never been there, at least I thought I never had – it turns out that London St Pancras railway station is in it (the boundaries between Islington & Camden have never been entirely clear in my head).


St Pancras Station
The upper floor of St Pancras Station, roof in evidence.


It’s a grand building, a wonderful example of Victorian architecture, designed to specific measurements at the request of the Midland Railway so that barrels of beer could be rolled through the concourse with the minimum of fuss – several of the main shareholders were the breweries in Burton and they wanted access to London markets. The roof of the station is a vast single arch (the biggest of its kind when built) that was destined to be pulled down when the station was listed for closure in the 1960s, but it was saved through the passion of people like Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, whose statue now stands on the upper concourse. History proved him right; not only has the station been preserved, it has thrived and is now the terminus for international trains from Europe.


St Pancras Station
John Betjeman’s statue, looking roofwards, over two Eurostar trains.


Betjeman’s love of historic architecture in general (he’d previously failed in an attempt to have the nearby Euston Arch preserved) is well known, and is but one example of love that can be seen in these parts of Inner North London – even if it sometimes seems like parts of the area are definitely unloved.


Standing on the side of love, and crossing the border of Islington and Hackney lies Newington Green Unitarian Church. This is the one of the oldest Unitarian churches in the whole of England that’s still in regular use, having been originally founded in 1708.


Newington Green Unitarian Church
Newington Green Unitarian Church, complete with appropriate signage – if you’ll excuse the ‘All’ written over ‘Black Lives Matter’.


Now, (Universalist) Unitarians have long been at the radical end of Christianity (if loving your fellow human can be considered ‘radical’), and were themselves ostracised (even to the point of being executed as heretics in the middle ages) for centuries. Following a series of controversial Acts of Parliament in the 1600s, many moved to Newington Green (where their Dissenting theories were at least tolerated) and, eventually, built this church (now a listed building).


Mary Wollstonecraft
Stencil art on the wall of Newington Green Unitarian Church – this is a representation of Mary Wollstonecraft


Unitarianism in general has been at the forefront of liberal movements, from abolishing slavery to anti-fascism. This particular church has been especially notable; one of its early active members was author, philosopher, and equal rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft (who one could call the ‘godmother of feminism’), and since her time the church has been at the forefront of campaigns around domestic violence and human trafficking, whilst they are also notable in the forefront for LGBT rights; in 2008 they took a stance of refusing to conduct any weddings until gay couples were legally allowed to marry.


Hackney Empire Theatre
The Hackney Empire Theatre, in the suburb of Hackney Central. It’s also the name of the railway station, yes…


Hackney itself is another of those places I don’t really know; indeed I’d never been quite sure where it was, other than ‘in Inner London but not quite as far east as Brick Lane’. The only reason I’d ever heard of it really was because of the ‘Hackney Empire’ – a well-known theatre which I’d often heard of in the context of comedians performing there. The centre of Hackney (town) is a mishmash of railway lines and typical suburban streets lined with takeaways, pubs, and taxi companies – on first sight it’s not a ‘lovable’ place – however just outside the town is St John’s Church Gardens, which provide a bit of rest.


New St John-at-Hackney Church
The newer church at Hackney, set in quite nice grounds.


The church itself (St John-at-Hackney) is relatively new, built in 1792 to replace a previous church close by that was deemed to be too small for the growing population. Little remains of this old church, barring the tower (St Augustine’s Tower, originally the bell tower of the old church and preserved after its demolition because the new church didn’t yet have one, which is now a Grade I listed building and is seen as the iconic landmark in Hackney, although its location – hemmed in by other buildings and surrounded by trees – make it an awfully difficult building to take a picture of), and its old churchyard, which is the final resting place of, amongst others, Francis Beaufort. Although now largely deprecated, his claim to fame is creating the wind speed scale bearing his name that defined breezes/gales/hurricanes etc, and which is still used in many press releases and, of course, Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast. The gardens around the both the church and the tower are landscaped, with a number of larger family graves, as well as a memorial to the Czech town of Lidice, razed to the ground in WW2.


St Augustine&apos;s Tower
St Augustine’s Tower – all that remains of the old church. This photo required me lying flat on the floor pointing the camera upwards, much to the confusion of a passing jogger.


A little way North of Islington & Hackney lies Walthamstow, most notable for someone of my vintage for its postcode: E(ast) 17. I’d always imagined it as a lively but very working-class area; it’s famous for its old, iconic, greyhound stadium (used in publicity by not only the eponymous boyband but also indie-darlings Blur on their ‘Parklife’ Album), and to be honest it didn’t disappoint. Within 10 minutes of arriving in the town centre, I’d bought an absolutely fantastic spinach/feta bread from a Jewish bakery, browsed vibrant material at an Indian sari stall on Walthamstow market (at around a mile long, it’s one of the largest street markets in Europe), and walked passed a stereotypical ‘cockney geezer’ on his mobile phone talking about his need to be somewhere else very quickly to seal a deal. I’ve always found it hard to love London, because I’ve always found it too expensive, too crowded, and too ‘unfriendly’, but I think I could learn to love Walthamstow; it feels like a more ‘inclusive’ and genuine version of the area I grew up in.


Walthamstow Market
Walthamstow Market; it carries on like this for a long way. While not terribly aesthetic, it is incredibly ‘cultural’.


Walthamstow Stadium
Pretty much all that remains of Walthamstow Stadium – the iconic, and listed, frontispiece.


North of Walthamstow is Chingford; classic sitcom suburbia. But there is love here too; the Old Church at Chingford Mount has one of the largest and most spectacular graveyards I’ve ever been to, and nothing says ‘I love and remember’ like a gravestone.


Chingford Old Church
The ‘Old Church’ at Chingford – official name is ‘Chingford Mount All Saints’; there is another church in the parish but disappointingly it’s not called ‘Chingford New Church’.


See, most British churchyards are filled with row upon row of graves with similar dedications, the only difference being newer grave tend to be shiny marble rather than dull grey granite. But here … it feels more reminiscent of yards in Ukraine, in Timor-Leste, in Chile, than here in the UK. Each gravestone seems to have a personality; a unique style; and of course the surrounding décor says more about love than any dedication to the living. Some graves even have benches sat in front of them, so the ones left behind can sit and think about the loved ones they’ve lost. Maybe this is the modern way of remembrance in the UK; maybe I’m just used to going around mediaeval churchyards with inscriptions barely visible, worn down by centuries of bad weather and forgotten about by distant descendants.


Chingford Mount Cemetery


Chingford Mount Cemetery


The churchyard is huge – around the size of 140 rugby pitches, or approximately one third the size of the entire City of London area. It’s divided into numbered sections, apparently, though signage is quite limited. This is a shame as it means I never found the most famous graves there – those of the legendary East London gangsters the Kray Twins. However, it was a lovely way to spend the best part of an hour, just wandering around the rows, lost in quiet contemplation.


My journey through North London ended back where it started, in Islington, and a site related to both ‘love’ and ‘hate’ in my life. On the corner of Pentonville Road and Islington High Street is a Victorian building of note. It’s currently in use as a bank, somewhat ironically given its place in pop-culture history.


The Angel, Islington
Front of what used to the be Angel pub, in Islington. No, it’s not blue, despite also this being Pentonville Road; Euston Road – the one in the middle on the board – is what Pentonville Road becomes, about a mile to the left.


One of the standard board games beloved by families, especially at Christmas or on long Winter Sunday evenings, is Monopoly. It’s a weird choice for a family favourite, in the sense that its whole gameplay seems to be to cause as much harm to your competitors as possible – it’s a regular cause of arguments and fallings out, and very often the game ends not when someone wins as when someone loses so badly that they fling the board off the table, the small plastic houses and hotels being buried in the carpet until the next time someone walks barefoot to the television.

In case you haven’t been ‘lucky’ enough to play it, the board is divided into 40 squares, 22 of them represent areas, mainly streets, in London, and the idea is to buy properties on them so that your competitors run out of money. Cut-throat capitalism at its finest (the reason the game was made in the first place, incidentally). One of the cheaper squares, the third cheapest on the board, isn’t a street, but a place – on the board because the designers of the English version went there for lunch and liked it so much they decided to use it. Which is a very English way of creating a board game.


Islington High Street
The High Street in Islington – with pub and old hotel dominating the corner. At least the pub sign is the appropriate shade of blue.


This building was The Angel, Islington – originally itself a pub and hotel (meaning it’s the only place on the board map that is itself the point of the game), but by the time of the board game had become a Lyons Tea Café. Had Lyons kept hold of it it would probably have become a Wimpy – at least this way it’s had a better fate.

The Angel, Islington still exists though, in spirit. The nearby tube station took its name, and next door to the old building, occupying the stables of the 17th Century coach-house, is a Wetherspoons pub; this particular pub chain have a habit of calling their pubs names that reflect local history, so it’s no surprise to learn this one is called “The Angel”. Unfortunately it’s not one of the Wetherlodges so you can’t stay there …


Beer at the Angel, Islington
The beer was nice, but nothing special, but I felt I had to wander in and partake, just because of the iconic history of the place!


And I do love my beer!




Authorities visited: Islington, Hackney (1 May 2017), Waltham Forest (28 April 2017).</p>

jamie

Underground, Overground, Wombling Free …

Posted on 2017.05.25 at 12:20
Tags: , ,

As you may know, one of my ‘aims’ is to visit every county, unitary authority blah blah in the UK. Not just visit for the sake of visiting, mind – that would be nothing more than a tick-box exercise – no, I have to be be able to say that I’ve taken something out of the area; a memory, an interesting take.


I was in London for a travel blogging conference (Traverse17), so it made it the perfect time to explore some of the less-visited outer boroughs of the Greater London area (there are 32 of them, 33 if you include the City Of London, and for my purposes they all count!); on this day I headed “South of the River”, much to the chagrin of the stereotypical taxi driver.


So, firstly, “Underground”.

Now, you might be thinking “but the London Underground, that’s easy”, but in this case no. In fact I was headed to deepest Bromley borough and the small middle-class suburb of Chislehurst. Very close to the railway station, down what appears to be a very residential, tree-lined cul-de-sac, is a small building that would go unnoticed bar the small signs indicating ‘Chislehurst Caves’. Even the inside is fairly-low key; the small museum about its history, with titbits about its geology and its use over time (mainly around its war effort) is somewhat dwarfed by the on-side café…


The road to Chislehurst Caves
A quiet suburban cul-de-sac; a very unlikely place for a tourist attraction!


Chislehurst Caves
Even the entrance to the museum doesn’t give any inclination what’s inside …


Chislehurst Caves Entranceway
The museum and café at Chislehurts Caves. Has the feel of a school trip.


It would be more accurate to say ‘Chislehurst Mines’. This part of England has been noted since pre-Roman times for its flint, and up until the development of flint-less guns, the hills around Chislehurst had been mined for this resource; the passageways stretch out for several km in area. The caves themselves have been divided for convenience into three segments, reflecting the approximate period when they were dug. The earliest date from pre-Roman times, and some historians, as they are wont to do when they can’t work out exactly what they were used for, have assumed that they were the site of druidic ritual, including human sacrifice. The only suggestion of this is that a couple of the wider passageways in that part of the system end with a slightly raised alcove, and it’s believed that these were altars that sacrifices were led down to their fate. No evidence has ever been found of this, mind – no blood, no bones – so it’s probable this is just standard ‘religion-as-default’ belief. I swear if archaeologists of the future dig up our football stadia, without any other evidence they’ll come to the same conclusions. But then I suppose football is a religion to some.


Chislehurst Caves Map
A map of the caves, showing the different sections & how vast it is.


The caves were expanded during both the Roman and the Saxon periods, and were well used for over a millennia. Once the demand for flint had abated, however, the caves took on a number of other weird uses, from growing mushrooms to hosting rock concerts.

Mushrooms like a dark, dank, environment, and one enterprising chap had the idea of making use of these caves to grow a variety of experimental ‘shrooms as it was an almost perfect environment. No, not those kinds of ‘shrooms, though you never know what grows accidentally. Anyway, even though they stopped the industry in the 1930s, the caves are still technically owned by the company so they could well start again at some point.

As for the rock concerts; the acoustics are wonderful down there and during the 60s and 70s there was a growing passion for ‘intimate’ gigs (unadvertised concerts with a small but knowing audience);not just local bands either – the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin played here. The tradition continued into the 90s with the development of ‘rave’ culture – unfortunately although the caves themselves are (naturally) soundproofed, the road out is not, so the noise of ravers going home at 3am at the height of the ‘second summer of love’ was too much for ‘Middle England’ and the caves lost their license. Much to the chagrin of Led Zeppelin who wanted to do an anniversary concert down there in the 2000s but as a result couldn’t get insurance …


The main use of the caves however in recent times was during WW2. Now, the nearest city to my current hometown is Nottingham, and the caves under the city centre were used as an air-aid shelter. However, they were a mere bus-stop shelter compared to the ones here in Chislehurst. Due to its location and situation – an extensive arrangement of deep caves on the edge of London, close to the strategic targets in Kent, and capable of housing a large number of people – they became almost an unofficial town of scared citizens. At one point the population down here numbered upward of 15,000 people (more than half the current population of my home town!). In the caves were shops, a hospital, a barbers, a cinema … it pretty much functioned as a normal town, just underground and temporary. It was also quite an egalitarian setup – if you had lost your home during the bombing, you didn’t have to pay for anything, while those who were using it as a ‘shelter’ could pay for food, for lodging, etc, and the moneys raised were used to subsidise those who had lost everything. (Interestingly, after the war, all the unspent proceeds were given to the Dr Barnado’s charity, and while it’s not recorded how much was left over, it’s likely that it ran into the thousands of pounds).


Air-raid shelter rules & regulations
The rules & regulations of the air-raid shelter; they were added to over time as more people came.


People using the caves as semi-permanent shelter were housed in what amounted to dorm accommodation; whole ranks of bunks, three beds high, were laid along some of the caves. The bed you were in was assigned when you first ‘checked-in’, and remained yours for the duration of the war; if you’d been amongst the first, or could prove a need, you may even have been assigned a small alcove you could put a curtain across, otherwise regardless of income or status, you got what you were given.


It was pretty safe down here, and the shelters attracted people from across the South-East – indeed people chose to become ‘permanently resident’ rather than making the trip back home every day; staying here for upwards of two months was reasonably common. In all that time though, there was only one registered birth; although many people fell pregnant, usually they were taken to one of the nearby above-ground hospitals in the daytime. This particular baby however decided to appear during one of the air raids …


You can only enter the caves on one of the hourly ‘tours’ but don’t worry; the guides (mine was Darren G) are very informative and chatty, and the tour itself lasts between 45-60 minutes, depending on how much you keep the guide talking!


Now, “Overground”.

Although London now has a designated ‘London Overground’ railway network, I’m referring to a different form of transport. It may surprise you to know that for many years, you could fly into what these days would probably have been called ‘London Croydon Airport’. Although given our penchant for naming things after distinguished artsy locals, it may well have been named ‘London Peggy Ashcroft Airport’, or, even, shudder, ‘London Ralph McTell International Airport’.

This was the site of London’s first airport. First used as an airbase during WW1, the site was expanded and developed to take advantage of the new world of air travel. Although flights generally at first only went to European destinations (making it an early version of London Stansted), it was the first civilian airport to serve London as a whole.


Art-Deco building at Croydon Airport
The old airport site is full of art-deco buildings. This (Merlin House) is now used for generic offices (cardboard boxes for several decades, now an air-con contractor), but at the time it served as the National Aircraft Factory.


The airport’s buildings are ‘of its time’. By which I mean a plethora of Art Deco and associated styles. The airport hotel still serves as a hotel, whilst the main terminal building still exists and is now an office block. The airfield itself is a recreation ground, and just to the south of the terminal building is a monument to the Battle of Britain, as Croydon Airport was one of the main bases for the Spitfires and Hurricanes that fought the Germans in 1940.


Battle of Britain memorial
Croydon Airport was an important airbase during the Battle Of Britain in 1940, and was even quite heavily bombed itself one night. This memorial is dedicated to the few who did so much for so many, not just the pilots though but all those on the ground who contributed.


Art-Deco building at Croydon Airport
The old airport hotel – another art-deco building.


The last flight from Croydon was in 1959. It was closed because of its location – post-war development of London meant there was no more room for the airport to expand to be able to cope with more modern jet airliners. Traffic was rerouted to two airfields further out, that later became Heathrow and Gatwick. In fact, Gatwick Airport is only about 25km South of Croydon so it’s not much of a trek.


The terminal building and associated aeroplane at Croydon Airport
Another art-deco building; this is the old airport terminal building, now offices and a small museum (open rarely). The plane in front is a replica of the last commercial plane to fly from the airport in 1959.


Apart from the terminal building (now offices and a museum) and the hotel, the site of the airport is mainly occupied by a small commercial park and a large expanse of playing fields – though I didn’t venture too far into them it does appear that some of the old runway still exists as tarmacked segments in the park – one assumes they’re good for skateboarding and football. Interestingly, the local bus stop still refers to the ‘Croydon Airport’ history too.


Remains of Croydon Airport runway
The airport itself is mostly a playing field now; in the distance you can just make out what little remains of the tarmac runway and taxi route.


Between Chislehurst and Croydon, at least by public transport, is the large public park that once housed the Crystal Palace, originally built for the 1851 London Exhibition in Hyde Park and then moved to the delightfully-named suburb of Penge, seemingly at the whim of the local railway company to provide a reason for people to come here. Although the palace itself is long gone (victim of a fire in 1936 and then completely destroyed in the early days of WW2 lest it be used as a landmark for German bombers. Who obviously couldn’t read maps and didn’t know what the River Thames looked like), the site it stood in is now a large public park, complete with representations of mediaeval Italian architecture. And dinosaurs, apparently – one of the last links to its previous fame, but which, at the time of my visit, were being ‘renovated’. No, I don’t know how you can renovate a dinosaur either …


Crystal Palace park and TV transmitter
Unlike my last, misty, visit to a TV tower, this aerial is strikingly clear against the bright blue sky, standing proud above a verdant and chilled park.


These days, the Crystal Palace park is notable for a TV transmitter (which serves this part of Southern England, being one of the highest points in South London), and a small bushy maze. This maze commemorates the foundation of the Girl Guide movement – in a sense it was here that the Girl Guides were created; at a Boy Scout meeting in the Crystal Palace park in 1909, Baden-Powell noticed how many girls had turned up, and as a result decided to create a, literal, sister organisation. The maze itself is more of a labyrinth, in that there are only a small number of dead ends, while in the centre there’s a mural and memorial to the concept of Guiding.


Inside the Maze
Inside the maze. Baby Ian & Dave are trying to cheat by leaping the fence.


Girl Guide Memorial
Part of the memorial to celebrate 100 years of the Girl Guide movement. “Follow in the footsteps” it says…


In the past the Crystal Palace has been home to motor racing, the FA Cup Final, and many concerts and exhibitions. The only link to this past now is that the site of the old football stadium (which also lent its name to the current Crystal Palace football club, who played there in their early days) is now the “National Sports Centre”, home to training pitches, a competition-standard swimming pool, a non-league football club, and, somewhat obscurely, two American Football teams.


National Sports Centre
The National Sports Centre – site of the original stadium. Which probably looked more impressive.


Walking around the park is quite pleasant; for somewhere so close to the centre of London it’s a welcoming green space. But not quite as vast and strangely remote as my next port of call…


“Wombling Free”.

Wimbledon is famous the world over, mainly for sporting endeavour. Purists have three sports to choose from – Wimbledon Stadium being the major place in South London for greyhound racing, the 1988 football FA Cup being won by the local ‘Crazy Gang’ who, after a controversial and distinctly un-British move to the soulless Milton Keynes founded a new club (AFC Wimbledon), one of the very few fan-owned clubs in the UK Football League system and now ironically in the same league as the bastardised franchise club that the original club became, and of course it’s the home of British Tennis – the All-England Wimbledon Club being the home of one of the Majors on the Tennis Circuit and a representation of the sport in itself. But none of these concern me today. Rather, Wimbledon is the location of Wimbledon Common; home, to the whole of what may be categorised as “Generation X”, to the first eco-warriors, the Wombles.


Wimbledon Common
This was the first trail I found in the Common. Even after a few minutes’ walk, I realised this was much bigger, much more ‘open’, and more countryside-like, than I’d expected.


As a tourist and a ‘foreigner’, the biggest take-out from Wimbledon Common is just how big it is. It’s seriously impressive just how much land is still wild and open so close from the centre of London – in my head it was going to be a small park, but in reality it’s a huge expanse of scrubland, forest, and open countryside. I came in from Wimbledon Village, a quite pretty, preserved, part of London with old buildings and a certain style, and an hour and a half later (having seen virtually no-one aside from the occasional jogger and a few golfers – on the West side there’s a golf course, unfortunately, but it doesn’t take away from the remote beauty of the centre), I was in a council estate in Kingston borough (somewhat unexpectedly, on several counts!).


The Common itself is a protected ‘Biological Site of Special Scientific Interest’ (meaning it can’t be developed because the flora and fauna in the area are worth preserving), and covers an area of 460 hectares. I’m not very spatially aware, so I had to look up that this is similar in size to just under 460 rugby pitches, or 1½ times the size occupied by the ‘City of London’.


Wimbledon Common
It feels much more like a country park than a mere piece of common-land. It’s certainly vast enough for Baby Ian & Dave to play hide-and-seek in.


At its heart is Wimbledon Windmill. Built in 1816, it’s a pretty well-preserved example of its type, although long since out-of-use – it ceased operation in 1864 because the local landowner wanted to use the space for residential and commercial development, but there was such local opposition to it that the local council acquiesced and designated it as ‘common land’, preserving it in perpetuity – as in indirect result the windmill itself became a house. It’s now a museum, detailing windmills in general as well as this one in particular, and has detailed models of how the mill would have worked in its heyday. Unfortunately it’s only open on weekends and bank holidays; my visit was on a Thursday …


Wimbledon Windmill
The windmill, as seen from near the entrance (which appears to be around the back, judging by where the sails are).


Incidentally, the Windmill itself has a link to my previous stop; it was here that, in the early 1900s, Lord Baden-Powell wrote parts of his seminal work ‘Scouting For Boys’ (that launched the Boy Scout movement).


Wimbledon Windmill
In front of the windmill is this axle. It’s an old part of the windmill itself, and gives you a feel of just how big/powerful it is.


Elsewhere in the Common are the foundations of iron-age hillforts and the sites of possible Roman camps, although very little remains now save vague ramparts in the ground. Much of the Common is made up of a series of footpaths and horse-riding trails passing through scrubland and forest; apart from the occasional cottage in the middle of the trees, it does feel like you’re in the middle of the countryside rather than in the suburbs of one of the largest cities in the world; it’s definitely a good place for relaxation and exercise.


Wimbledon Common
I did not see any Wombles, unfortunately. Maybe they were camouflaged. Can you see two other ‘creatures’ that are in the woods though?!


Unfortunately I didn’t see a Womble. I guess they were scared off by my noisy presence!




Authorities visited: Bromley, Croydon, and Merton (27 April 2017).</p>


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