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Ripon: Cathedrals and Unicorns

Posted on 2017.11.09 at 22:00

Most tourists to the UK visit the same places; London, Oxford, Canterbury, the Lake District, and, for some reason I’ve never understood, Stonehenge (it’s a pile of stones that costs you £15 to look vaguely at from 20 metres away whilst getting blown away by the wind). Those people who stay longer will often venture to places like the Cotswolds – rolling hills and picture-perfect English country towns that ooze a stereotypical image of the UK of being a ‘quaint’, ‘pretty’ place with village greens, country churches with ringing bells, and beautiful stone cottages.

Workhouse Museum, Ripon.
Typical building in Ripon. This is now used as the Workhouse Museum, which isn’t open very often.

Ripon is a bit like this. Except Ripon is in Yorkshire, far outside the normal tourist trails, which makes it one of those ‘hidden gems’ that tourist brochures and travel bloggers rave about. Even its proximity to the historical city of York doesn’t make it amongst the country’s ‘must sees’ – even those ‘in the know’ prefer the nearby spa town of Harrogate anyway, and make Ripon merely a place to pass through, and give it a cursory glance.

To be fair, it’s not very big. It’s the third smallest city in England by population (about 17,000 people – only Wells and London are smaller), and the sixth smallest in the UK. Remember the UK has a particular definition of a ‘city’ – a town or borough granted a city charter by the monarch (and not that it has a cathedral – though the two were often granted at the same time in the past, giving rise to the myth).

Ripon Cathedral.
The outside view of Ripon Cathedral.

Having said which, Ripon *does* have a cathedral. There’s been a church on the site since maybe Roman times; the first stone building (primarily a monastery) being constructed in 672 by Bishop Wilfred, who was one of the leading bishops in the British Isles at the time, although this often brought him into conflict with the local political rulers. After death he was made into a saint anyway (amazing how many saints were also anti-authority), and buried inside this church which was then dedicated to him. The current building dates mainly from the early 1500s after much restoration work (the tower collapsed in the 1450s following, unusually, an earthquake!). It was finally established as a cathedral in the 1830s; the first dedication in England for 300 years.

Inside Ripon Cathedral.
The inside view of Ripon Cathedral.

One of the more notable things about the cathedral are the misericords (I love that word!). These are carvings underneath the wooden seats in churches that provide support (lit. ‘mercy’) for people when praying. Although some depict religious scenes, they’re often secular (depicting mythological creatures), and tend to be quite ‘over the top’ – in a way similar to gargoyles. What makes Ripon’s more notable than others is firstly that they’re amongst the few whose creators are known with any certainty (the Bromflet family workshop), and because that they were said to have inspired a later children’s fantasy author for their stories …

Ornamentation inside Ripon Cathedral.
Close-up view of the ornamentation inside the cathedral. These sculptures often acted as ‘signposts’ showing where certain local dignitaries sat.

Misericord inside Ripon Cathedral.
Close-up view of one of the misericords inside the cathedral, complete with fantasy-looking beasts!

These stories are themselves commemorated in the local branch of the Wetherspoons pub chain. In general, Wetherspoons often make use of local history or connections to locally-famous people, and this is no exception – this one being called ‘The Unicorn’.

Obviously, there have never been unicorns in Ripon. However, for 14 years in the second half of the 19th Century, the canon of Ripon cathedral (and Archdeacon of Richmond, an associated post) was a chap called Charles Dodgson, a scholar, author, and philanthropist whose main claim to fame these days is (possibly to his chagrin) being the father of the same-named author better known as Lewis Carroll. Carroll would have been in his 20s at the time and when visiting, often stayed at the building that has since become the Unicorn pub (in fact you can still stay here today – it’s now a Wetherspoons Lodge). It’s said that he took inspiration for some of the characters in his books from those cathedral misericords.

The Unicorn, inside the Unicorn Inn, Ripon.
The Unicorn, inside the Unicorn pub.

In the pub is a sculpture (created by George McGill and based on the original drawings by John Tenniel) of the eponymous ‘unicorn’. He’s one of the most iconic characters in the tale of Alice Through The Looking Glass, and is supposed to have been Carroll’s idea of satire – the battle between the Unicorn and the Lion in the book is allegedly a metaphor for the bickering between the two dominant politicians of the day; the Unicorn was the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli whilst the Lion was the Liberal William Gladstone (a similar style being in evident in more recent times with Spitting Image in the UK in the 80s/90s, and Les Guignols in France in the 90s/00s).

Aside from its ecclesiastical and literary history, Ripon is historically notable in its own right, although it never seems to have been that large. It was originally founded in the mid 600s AD, and there’s been a market here since the early 1100s.

Ripon's Market Square.
An attempt at a panoramic shot of Ripon’s Market Square.

In the market square is a large obelisk, with a horn on top. It’s around 27m tall & was erected in 1702. Surprisingly it’s not a war memorial; rather it’s something quite unique to Ripon. The ‘Ripon Hornblower’ is one of the quaint English historical rituals, whereby at 9pm a chap walks round the obelisk & blows his horn four times before announcing that all is well. The story behind this dates to King Alfred in the late 800s AD; he won a nearby battle against the Vikings, then allegedly came to the town bearing a horn. On presenting this to the townspeople, he implored them to be watchful in case the Vikings returned (one assumes the horn was designed to be blown as an ‘alert’ in case of trouble). A ‘wakeman’ was appointed whose job was to patrol & protect the city, one of whose roles was to blow the horn at the market cross & let people know they were being looked after. Despite no obvious threat from Vikings in the last few centuries (assuming no threat from IKEA or H&M), the ritual has continued daily to the present day – the cross being replaced by this obelisk to commemorate the ritual & the story.

The Obelisk in Ripon Market Square.
The obelisk, of Ripon Hornblower fame.

Also on the square is a small blue/white cabin, known as the “Cabman’s Shelter”. Installed in 1911, it’s was originally built to provide a place for taxi drivers (cabmen) to wait for fares. These days, of course, taxi drivers wait in their cars in a ‘taxi rank’ at the side of the road, but when it was built most cabs were open vehicles, and Yorkshire is wet and cold. After falling out of use & being left in pretty bad condition it was restored by the Ripon Civic Society & returned to the local council as a historical monument.

The Cabman's Shelter, Ripon Market Square.
Close view of the Cabman’s Shelter, in Ripon. Also note the telephone boxes.

The other claim to fame Ripon has is of being one of several towns in the area with a horseracing course (others nearby include Thirsk & Wetherby); horses seem to have been run near the town from the middle of the 17th Century & as early as 1723 Ripon hosted the first race purely for female jockies. It’s a flat-racing course of just over 1.5miles & the current course (dating from 1900) lies just outside the Eastern edge of the city.

So, while you might only pop by for a couple of hours, there’s certainly enough in Ripon to warrant more than a passing wave at the signposts.


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Ripon Cathedral.

Authorities visited: North Yorkshire. Dates Visited: 4 February 2017 and 14 August 2017


Confessions of a Travel Writer

Posted on 2017.11.02 at 19:50
Tags: , ,

I am not a travel blogger.

Now, that might sound like a strange thing to say, given that you’re reading a blog on the website of someone who travels around the world, and whose blog entries mostly concern either locations or aspects of travel. However, I’ve been musing over the last few blogs I’ve written (not necessarily yet posted), and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I write isn’t, in fact, a travel blog. And I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this.

Travel blogger, with map, backpack, notepad, and tablet.
Everything the travel blogger needs to survive!

Partly this revelation has been driven by Instagram. In case you don’t know, I use Instagram as a kind of micro-blog – some of it is ‘in the moment’ blogging, descriptions and feelings of places I’m in at the time of posting, or about topics that come to mind suddenly that don’t really have a place on my main blog site; other times I post short, timely versions of what will later become longer, more detailed, web-blog entries about a place. This in itself makes me unusual, compared with the myriad of bloggers whose IG feed is full of artistic selfies captioned with a pithy travel-related quote, or posts about a hotel they’re staying in, or travel item they’re promoting. Or cats. I see an awful lot of cats in my IG feed. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, they’re all perfectly valid ways of using the tool, it just makes me stand out as unusual.

The Barefoot Backpacker, not looking elegant.
Clothes by Primark. Shoes by Mother Nature. Neither really elegant.

The Barefoot Backpacker, not looking elegant.
Aaaaand this is why I’m not a fashion blogger!

The main difference though, and where I’ve really thought about where I veer away from the standard travel blogger shtick, is on my blog posts about a certain place. Let’s take my most recent post, about NE England, an area that probably not many people know much about.

When describing a new place to people, most bloggers would give useful tips like how to get there (trains into Newcastle, information about the local metro tram system etc), where to stay, how much things cost, if there are any decent ice-cream stalls (as an aside, there’s a great stall on Whitley Bay promenade but I forget what it’s called. This proves my point!) or restaurants that are worth visiting; useful information that people heading to a place for the first time would need to know. Further to that, they might post a specific blog about 13 Things To See In North & South Tyneside (CamelCase, natch) – again, telling their readers about what’s interesting to see/do, and, in effect, using their blog like a kind of tourist information leaflet.

I … don’t do this. Any of this. I mean yes I’ll obviously talk about interesting things to see in a place, but I do it in a much different way. That recent post about the NE mentioned a handful of small towns, and gave a little information about each one, but pretty much none of it would be of specific use to the casual traveller. Instead I talked ‘about’ the places, the history of Tynemouth for instance, my experiences of Whitley Bay beach, and a brief overview of Sunderland. If you read my post you’d still need to do a lot more research to find out where to eat, and specific details about what to see.

Sausage and chips on the beach at Cullercoats.
Sausage and chips on th ebeach at Cullercoats. A proper travel blogger would tell you which chippy, how much it cost, and whether it was worth revisiting. I … just eat.

What my post is useful for, and this is true about much of my writing, is to give context to a place. While most bloggers write about ‘what’, I try to write about ‘why’ and ‘how’. While less ‘useful’ to a fellow traveller on a basic level, someone who’s just passing through (although even here they can get excited by the pictures of the places I’ve been), there are a couple of markets I do cater for. One is long-term travellers, people who spend weeks rather than days in a place, people who want to get, to use a cliché, ‘under the skin’ of a place, will be attracted by knowing more about the history and culture of a town, and what makes the place ‘tick’. Another, surprisingly, are locals – I love finding out things about a place that those who’ve been living there for most of their lives didn’t really know; you often find that people don’t pay attention to where they live, because it’s so familiar.

Site of the first ever ATM / cashpoint, Enfield.
This is the sort of place I discover – the site of the world’s first ATM. Which few people seem to know, even locals.

I’m not saying I never would do Instagram posts that promote a certain product or place, but if I did they’d probably have to be things that fitted with my travel and writing style. I’d never actively promote a hotel, airline, or travel product, for instance (I may have preferences, but I’d feel very uncomfortable taking a hotel stay or flight for free on the proviso of waxing lyrical about it in a post). I would happily work with tourist boards though, but only for places I’d be likely to go anyway – the problem here is often some of the places I really like … don’t seem to have one. I sometimes think that *I’m* the biggest promoter of Benin on Twitter, for instance.

Moto-taxis in Cotonou, Benin.
A typical street scene in Cotonou, Benin.

In terms of my writing style too, I think I veer away from being the standard travel blogger. It’s been noted I’m very much less ‘personal’ than many other people – I am more likely to talk about what ‘can be done’, about ‘what happened’, rather than about what ‘I’ did in a place, and how ‘I’ felt about being there. In a sense, I write more like a history textbook than a travel guide. And of course we all love history textbooks (!).

This isn’t as dry as it sounds, however. I don’t know how many of you are aware of a comedian called ‘Mark Steel’. If politics were football, England wouldn’t have any problems on the left wing with him (despite his bloodyminded love of Crystal Palace), but he also writes books and hosts radio shows about history and local places. But not dry books; rather (being a comedian, first and foremost) he imparts his personality into them, and while he talks about big topics (eg the French Revolution), he makes them accessible to the lay audience, with humorous asides and an easygoing manner regarding explanations. I think this is how I write, or at least how I wish I wrote. He’s not a travel writer or broadcaster, but he definitely concentrates on places and events, like I do. Take a listen to any of his “Mark Steel … In Town” recordings and you’ll kind of get what I mean.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this post. I’m certainly not meaning it as a “I’m purer than you” post, because it absolutely isn’t – in a sense it’s harder for me because, with my upcoming redundancy from work in mind, I have to start thinking about alternative income streams, and it seems from the way I blog that blogging in and of itself won’t be one of them. Equally I don’t want people to feel sympathetic or ‘sorry’ for me because this is a path I’ve chosen to go down; it’s always been my choice to write like this! I think I’m more writing this post as a kind of ‘therapy’, and to let people learn more about the workings of my mind, about why I blog and post the way I do.

Beer at the Bath Arms, Sheffield.
#ad Drink Beer #spon


Geordie Shore

Posted on 2017.10.18 at 16:41

If you were asked to list the nicest beaches in Europe, you’d probably stick with the Med, the west coast of France, and the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.  It’s unlikely many beaches in the UK would make the list, and even if they did they’d be concentrated in places like Dorset.

Whitley Bay Beach, dull August Day.
The beach at Whitley Bay, on an August Bank Holiday. It should be full of people. It … isn’t!

It is a foolhardy adventurer who braves the sands of Northumberland; even in the height of Summer you’re not guaranteed, well, anything much. But they’re a hardy lot up here.  You may have seen fans of the football team Newcastle United, who are happy to stand watching a game with their shirts off, waving them around, even when playing away in Kiev. In November.  The beach stretches from Whitley Bay several kilometres South to Tynemouth, and on a warm sunny day it’s a nice walk, either on the sands & pebbles itself, or along the promenade.  Don’t forget to stop off at a chip shop along the way (Cullercoats, maybe) for a traditional English chippy lunch!

Whitley Bay Beach, barefoot on pebbles.
Another part of the beach at Whitley Bay, on a much sunnier day (May Day Bank Holiday). No, the pebbles weren’t painful …

Whitley Bay is a typical seaside resort; seafront views, amusement arcades, and ice-cream. Apart from a tradition of ice-hockey (were they one of the teams I used to watch on TV as a kid?), and some limited fishing (the bulk of the NE’s fishing industry is centred a bit further North in the Northumberland area, around Seahouses), it’s very much a place to go on a weekend and laze in the sunshine while children play with a ‘bucket and spade’.  Off-seafront there are some streets with large Victorian housing, and the old railway station (now part of the Newcastle Metro system) is quite an architectural marvel; it is a town very much of its time.

Whitley Bay Railway Station.
The architecture inside Whitley Bay metro station. It’s very Victorian in grandeur.

Tynemouth has a little more history to offer.  On a bleak but green cliffside at the edge of the town, overlooking where the River Tyne meets the North Sea, are the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the associated Castle, an old fortification and gun battery. The priory was founded first, probably in the early 600s, and dedicated to St Oswin, who was buried there. Due to its location on an exposed cliff on the East Coast it became a regular target for Viking raids, so it had been pretty much abandoned by the mid 1000s. It was refounded, along with the building of a small castle, in the early days of the Norman Conquest, and remained in use until the Reformation.

Tynemouth Abbey ruins.
Part of the remains of Tynemouth Abbey.

The castle developed over time and remained fortified and garrisoned until at least the 1600s; indeed part of it was in use as a barracks until World War II. Additionally, artillery was installed on the ramparts to protect the Tyne (& Newcastle) from potential Nazi attacks.

Tynemouth Abbey ruins, gun platform.
Gun platform outside Tynemouth Abbey, facing out towards the North Sea.

Near the ruins of the castle and priory is the town pier and lighthouse, designed as a kind of ‘breakwater’ to protect shipping in the mouth of the Tyne from the ravages of the sea. Overlooking it, on the hillside above the Tyne, is a monument dedicated to local naval hero Lord Collingwood, who succeeded Lord Nelson after the latter’s death towards the end of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He seems to have been well-regarded as a leader and commander (somewhat rare in the navy in those times, I’d warrant), and was noted for his quite progressive views. Around the monument are cannon taken directly from the ship under his command at Trafalgar (The Royal Sovereign).

Lord Collingwood memorial, Tynemouth.
The monument to Lord Collingwood, local naval hero of the Napoleonic War.

Nearby, a couple of miles inland, is the self-explanatory-named town of Wallsend. In days gone by it was the most significant settlement at the Eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall – the Roman frontier fortification and trading route that marked the Northern extent of Roman rule for much of their time in the distant province of Brittania. Although now merely a satellite town between Newcastle and the sea, it still plays up to this heritage; there’s a couple of Roman ruins in the area, plus the local metro station is one of the few in the world with dual signage in English and Latin …

Sign in Latin on Wallsend Metro Station.
An information and warning sign on Wallsend Metro Station platform.

Monument / art in North Shields.
Artistic representations in North Shields of buoys, reflecting the fishing & maritime heritage. They also serve as ‘signposts’ for a long-distance cycle path.

The River Tyne (origin of name unknown) is of course the iconic feature of this area; indeed the boroughs either side of the mouth of this great river are called ‘North Tyneside’ and ‘South Tyneside’. It’s around 120km long, and at the mouth it’s around 800m wide.

Ferry across the River Tyne
The ferry that sails across the Tyne, between North and South Shields.

There is a small but regular ferry service across it, linking the towns of North and South Shields. ‘Shields’ in this case refers to ‘temporary sheds’, probably used by fishermen, and certainly the area has had a strong seafaring past, but while North Shields, having been originally founded as the ‘port’ serving Tynemouth, is now nothing more than a residential overspill between Wallsend and Tynemouth, South Shields is a separate, buzzing, independent town. The comedian Sarah Millican insists that the world’s greatest fish-and-chips is sold here, although one suspects the residents of Whitley Bay would beg to differ on that point!

South Shields Town Centre
South Shields Town Centre.

The coastline South of South Shields, heading down to Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, are spectacular cliffs and small mining villages (Seaham, Easington, etc); stuck somewhere between the rural idyllic life and the deprivation of the post-industrial North, places with so much potential but seemingly very little ‘drive’; the closure of the coal mines in the 80s hit these places hard and despite their location and beauty, seem to have been passed by by the hordes of tourists heading North.

The Stadium Of Light, Sunderland
View across some derelict land from Sunderland Town Centre, towards the new football stadium (The Stadium Of Light, opened 1997).

The main town in the area is Sunderland.  Although very much in Newcastle’s shadow, it is a separate town with a very distinct history and culture – although with shared industries like shipbuilding and coalmining. It’s also not likely to be a town, sorry, city, on many tourist’s itineraries (it was given a city charter in 1992).

I wasn’t in the town terribly long (but long enough for a beer, natch!), as it was getting a bit late in the afternoon, so I missed out on the art gallery and the Winter Gardens.  I did pass by the main church – St Michaels & All Saints, also known as Sunderland Minster. There’s been a church on the site for around 1,000 years, but the current building dates from the early 1900s (due to mining subsidence).

St Michaels & All Saints Church, Sunderland
St Michaels & All Saints Church (Sunderland Minster).

While not a particularly bad city, it does feel a little like it’s at the ‘end of the line’ – it is overly-dominated by nearby Newcastle/Gateshead, and there’s not many significant settlements South of here until you reach Hartlepool and Wearside. Still, it was a suitable place to end my adventure. In a pub. Obviously …

Dun Cow pub and Empire Theatre, Sunderland
The Dun Cow pub and Sunderland Empire Theatre. The pub has a plaque commemorating Richie Cooney, “cad”, “philanderer”, and “the most grumpiest [sic] pub manager Sunderland, nay the North-East, has ever known”.


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Tynemouth Abbey Ruins.

Authorities visited: North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland. Dates Visited: 24 August 2012, 5 May 2013, and several other times too!

Leicester. One of those British cities (and I class Bristol in the same category) which to me … just ‘exist’. There’s nothing in my mind that makes them stand out, neither great nor damning, they just ‘are’ – places to pass through, to change trains at, maybe pop by for a quick drink somewhere more compelling. There’s nothing ‘bad’ about them, no reason to avoid them, just places that I’ve always found somewhere more interesting to visit instead. That Leicester is only just over an hour away from my house makes it all the more embarrassing that I’ve never really been there. These days it’s mostly famous for sport (leading clubs in both rugby union and football) and curries, but its legacy is much wider and older than that.

Sports monument, Leicester
Monument in the centre of Leicester, celebrating the football, rugby union, and cricket teams.

Leicester Town Hall
Leicester Town Hall.

It’s a very old city, possibly amongst the oldest in the country. A notable settlement in Roman times, one of the ‘folk etymologies’ of the city’s name is that it’s a Latinised form of ‘Leir’s Camp’ – ‘Leir’ or ‘Lear’ being one of those mythical kings in pre-Roman Britain (and, like the more recent king with a connection to Leicester, Richard III, one of those kings whose reputation was ruined by Shakespeare). And indeed, one of the more interesting spots in the city is what is believed to be the largest remaining non-military Roman wall in the UK. That alone makes it worth a stop and look. It’s from a large public baths, probably built around 125AD – specifically it’s believed to be the wall of the associated gymnasium. Built at ground level in Roman times, it’s clear on visiting just how deep the Roman era is in the ground, as the cliff behind that drops from the current ground level is taller than the wall’s remains.

The Jewry Wall, Leicester; 9th Century Church of St Nicholas behind it.
The Jewry Wall. Behind it stands the 9th Century Church of St Nicholas, constructed using some of the original Roman stonework from the baths.

The wall is known as the ‘Jewry Wall’. This isn’t anything to do with Jews (there was never a sizeable Jewish community in the city); rather the name is believed to either come from mediaeval judges (jurats) who met in the area, or from some corruption of the name of the Roman God Janus, a temple to whom the wall was originally thought to be part of.

Remains of the Roman bath house, Leicester
Remains of the Roman bath house, Leicester.

Unfortunately, despite being a town of relative significance, there’s surprisingly little that remains of Roman Leicester. The nearby museum has a couple of reasonably sized mosaic floor decorations, but apart from this wall, there’s pretty much nothing else in the wider city – as one of those cities that’s been continually ‘lived in’, old buildings have been abandoned and the stone reused, or simply renovated and replaced.

Leicester Cathedral.
Leicester Cathedral.

One of the older buildings still standing is of course the cathedral. Like many others in the UK, it was originally built in the period following the Norman Conquest, replacing an older, presumably wooden, Saxon church. That said, there’s not a lot left from that period – it was renovated quite considerably during the Victorian era and turned into the somewhat Gothic edifice that stands today. Although originally added in 1757, it was also the Victorians who developed and rebuilt the spire (the previous one having become unsafe). In my travels across the UK I’ve noticed they were particularly fetishistic about that sort of thing – evidently mediaeval buildings weren’t quite ‘idolatrous’ enough for them. Interestingly, it was only designated as a Cathedral as recently as 1927, suggesting that while they loved the idea of worshipping in over-ornate buildings, they didn’t really care what they were actually called …

Inside Leicester Cathedral.
Inside Leicester Cathedral.

Obviously as a Cathedral, it is full of notable graves and decorations – a whole piece devoted to WW1 for instance, and memorials to people like Sir John Whatton (Sheriff of Leicestershire in the 1640s). However the most famous person here is the recently-buried monarch King Richard III. Died 1485, buried 2015. Because we, er, ‘lost’ him.

Richard III statue, outside Leicester Cathedral.
The statue of King Richard III, which stands outside Leicester Cathedral and near the King Richard Visitor Centre, close to his burial site.

See, for centuries, the fate of poor King Richard had been unknown. The legend had been that following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field a few miles to the West, his naked, dead, body had been bound over the back of a horse and driven back to the city, where he’d been buried somewhere in the grounds of the Greyfriars Monastery that used to stand on the edge of the city centre. While a stone used to mark the site, later king Henry VIII, in his break with the Catholic Church, dissolved and effectively destroyed the monasteries of England, and the area was demolished, cleared, and redeveloped. The marking stone fell out of history, and his last resting place fell into the realm of myth and legend.

Memorial to King Richard III inside the cathedral, and replica of his crown.
Memorial to King Richard III and replica of his crown.

In 2012, a university archaeological group set about the task to try to find his burial site. If life were a movie, years of research and wasted money would result in his body being found in the last hour on the last day of looking. Life is not a movie, and they found him almost as soon as they started looking, in a council car park under an ironically-painted ‘R’ for ‘reserved parking space’. Cue much excitement and embarrassed coughs. It took longer to bury him than to find him mostly due to a spat with York Cathedral who felt he should be buried there, given that was his wish and that he was, you know, from the House of York. Eventually though they acquiesced and Leicester was home to a genuine royal grave.

New grave of King Richard III inside Leicester Cathedral.
The new grave of King Richard III, inside Leicester Cathedral. The penant and crest are those of his ‘family’ – the Plantagenets.

As a travel blogger, however, Leicester has one more trick up its sleeve. It’s a little surprising to walk out the railway station and immediately come face to face with a fellow traveller, albeit one who moved in very difference circles to me.

Statue of Thomas Cook, outside Leicester Railway Station.
Statue of Thomas Cook, outside Leicester Railway Station.

This is the Victorian entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Cook, who took advantage of the then up-and-coming railway network to arrange short trips for the local working population. Although not a Leicester native, he first had the idea to conduct tours after walking to Leicester from Market Harborough (about 15 miles – presumably he also walked back, though it’s not recorded if he did it on the same day) for a meeting. The first trip he organised was in 1841 from Leicester to Loughborough (11 miles) – it was so obviously a success that only 10 years later, he was organising over 150,000 people to visit London for the Great Exhibition, and by the 1870s, through his new business venture (Thomas Cook & Son) he was taking people on trips around the world.

He died in 1892, but his son took over the business, commissioning the Head Office building that not only contained offices, but also banking, exchange, and sale of travel accessories. The building was designed with carved panels depicting their history, including the 1841 train and an 1884 Nile steamer.

Thomas Cook Head Office.
The old Head office of Thomas Cook, in the centre of Leicester. The bottom floor is now a shoe shop.

Thomas Cook himself was motived by his religion: he was a fervent Baptist and Temperance campaigner, believing that encouraging travel was a way to ensure the workers kept religiously focussed as well as distracting them from the demon drink. One wonders how he’d feel about modern-day package tours under his name – while he’d surely approve of the concept of families from the industrial heartlands being able to take two luxurious weeks in the sun, I’m not sure he’d necessarily approve of the exact scope of the phrase ‘all-inclusive’ …

Leicester then. More interesting than it sounds. And I haven’t even mentioned the curry!!


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Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower, Leicester.

Authorities visited: City of Leicester. Date visited: 6 May 2017 (primarily).

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).


More Than Coal - An Overview Of Southern Yorkshire

Posted on 2017.09.16 at 19:52
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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.

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.

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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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.

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.

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>

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