FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Seven highlights of the Bagan Archaeological Zone

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

It is quite impossible to see all of the 2000+ temples in Bagan on a single visit, which means making some hard decisions about what you are going to make a beeline for. Even if you come up with a reasonable plan it is likely that you will still end up leaving out temples that would be major tourist attractions in their own right if they were located anywhere else.

A shady spot at Ananda Temple

I didn’t have a well defined plan, but it roughly worked out as half a day on the temples in/around Nyaung U, a day for the temples of Old Bagan, a day wandering the plain and a half day for the temples in/around Myinkaba Village. I would have liked to get out to Dhammayazika but that was a little too remote and didn’t easily fit with the general drift.

On a three day trip 20 temples seemed a reasonable target and we came pretty close. It was enough to feel satisfied that you have experienced a little of the place without becoming thoroughly templed out. I saw a good deal more on my wanders but I wouldn’t dare pin a number onto that. I started to count them one morning but after spotting 50 temples in the space of twenty minutes walking I decided that this was going to become a pretty irritating game to play…

Any list of temples in Bagan is going to be pretty subjective, but these are seven highlights and some of the quirkier sights that we saw along the way.

1. Ananda Temple

The sheer beauty of the Ananda Temple has drawn many comparisons with Westminster Abbey, which was constructed in the same year (1090). The temple was built by King Kyanzittha, ruler of the Pagan Empire from 1084 to 1112, in remembrance of Ananda, a disciple of Buddha. It’s a stunning sight, inside and out, which deserves plenty of time and attention to fully appreciate its exquisite detail.

The temple is the second largest in Bagan with a shimmering spire that rises 52 metres that draws the eye whenever you catch a glimpse of it (complete with niches containing statues of Buddha). However, the gilding is a relatively recent alteration – added in 1990 to commemorate its 900th anniversary. At ground level there are plenty more detailed artworks to admire, including a remarkable sequence of green-glazed terracotta tiles telling Jataka stories and stone chinthes guarding each corner. Stepping inside opens up a new degree of wonderment.

Ananda Temple (1090)

Upon entering the temple you find yourself walking towards one of four giant Buddhas that tower over everyone, two originals and two replacements added after a fire in the 17th century. The floor plan resembles a Greek cross with four entrances. From any of these you can follow the inner or outer corridors which are lined with over a thousand niches. Most, but not all, of these contain images of Buddha. The effect is extraordinary.

A stone chinthe at Ananda Temple

The Ananda Temple suffered considerable damage in the earthquake of 1975 which was then compounded by a ‘catastrophic’ restoration programme that saw its beautiful murals limewashed. In some ways it was a less damaging restoration than has been seen at other sites where liberal use of concrete and over enthusiastic re-construction to inauthentic designs appalled historians.

Thankfully, a six year programme of structural conservation and chemical preservation work by the Archaeological Survey of India (funded by the Indian Government at a cost of $3.2m) is reversing much of this damage. A quick glance at photographs taken before and after the chemical treatment started shows the difference this care and attention has already made to the external appearance, with all works expected to be complete by 2018.


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2. Mahabodhi Temple

The unusual design of the Mahabodhi Temple catches your eye from the first moment that you glimpse its pyramidal tower from the upper terrace of the Shwegugyi Temple and it is no less impressive seen close-up. The sight of hundreds of niches filled with small statues of a seated Buddha is quite unlike anything else in Bagan. The very modest prayer hall can’t live up to the exterior but there are some interesting brick ruins to one side of the temple.

Mahabodhi Temple

The temple here is a rather inexact copy of one of the most significant sites for pilgrims, the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar State, India, where Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The original temple in India dates to the 6th century whilst the copy was constructed by King Nantaungmya (also known as Htilominlo) in the 13th century. King Nantaungmya also built the Htilominlo Temple, one of the great temples of Bagan.

3. Thandawgya

The Thandawgya image (dating to 1284) is a real surprise, tucked in a modest looking temple under a couple of trees between Shwegugyi and Thatbyinnyu. Indeed, it is sufficiently low key that I didn’t see anyone step inside in the entire time that we were in the neighbourhood which is a pity. If I’m honest, I was drawn to the small brick walled compound by the two stone lions guarding the site rather than any thought of what might lay inside!

Thandawgya image

Stepping into the small brick temple you find yourself face to face with a six metre tall Buddha built with green sandstone blocks. It’s striking appearance is not how it would originally have been seen – it’s just that the plaster has long since worn away (an undated picture in my copy of the Pictorial Guide to Bagan shows a black and white photograph of the statue in the ruins of the small temple, effectively in the open). The Buddha was constructed by King Narathihapate, the last king of the Pagan empire, before he fled to Lower Burma in the wake of the Mongol invasion.

4. Dhammayangyi Temple

The Dhammayangyi Temple is a brute of a building, the largest on the plains of Bagan with six terraces. It follows the same plan as the Ananda Temple but here the inner ambulatory has been filled with rubble and bricked up, possibly to improve the stability of the structure.

Dhammayangyi Temple

I don’t think anyone could claim that this place is pretty, even if the masonry is said to be superb, but there is something rather fascinating about the gloomy interior and it’s not hard to see why so many believe that it is haunted. As we stepped inside the vast outer corridor we didn’t have long to wait before we could hear bats squeaking above us, occasionally swooping down for a flight along the length of the passage.

The story of its construction sounds pretty chilling. King Narathu is said to have hoped that it would help atone for the murder of his bride, brother and father. However, Narathu had a rather strange way of going about this act of contrition – chopping off the hands of any masons who failed to meet his high standards (it was curtains for any mason who spaced the bricks far enough apart to allow a needle to pass between them). In the end Narathu was to meet his end two years after taking the throne, supposedly killed by assassins sent by his bride’s family.

5. Shwegugyi Temple

Shwegugyi Temple was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140, little knowing that in 1163 it would be the spot that his
inpatient son (Narathu) would smother him to death to speed up his accession to the throne. It’s a rather lovely temple with ornate wooden doors and a large Buddha.

Shwegugyi Temple

This is also one of the only temples in Old Bagan where the upper terrace is still open, reached via a small staircase, affording a terrific view of the ancient library and temples that surround it.

6. Thatbyinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple was built in 1144 by King Alangsithu and is the tallest temple (61m) in Bagan. However, my reason for including this temple on my list of favourites is the very handsome guardian at the entrance!

Guardian of Thatbyinnyu Temple

The temple was one of the worst affected by the earthquake in August 2016 and is in a group of 36 religious buildings prioritised for repair. Restoration of the temple is expected to begin in 2018 following funding of US$1 million from the Chinese government.

7. Shwezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U feels much more like the temples I had seen in Yangon earlier in the year with a gilded stupa (encasing an earlier pagoda) surrounded by small shrines (from the convention to a revolving good luck cone). The earliest part of the temple was constructed by King Anawrahta, founder of the Pagan Empire, around the mid 11th century and the work was finished by his son, King Kyansittha, in 1102.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Other stops on our three day trip included Bulethi, Bupaya Pagoda, Gawdawpalin Temple, Gubyaukgyi Temple, Htilominlo, Kyanzittha Umin, Manuha Temple, Mingalazedi Pagoda, Nagayon Temple, Nathlaung Kyaung, Pahtothamya Temple, Pitakat Tait, Schwesandaw Pagoda and Sulamani Temple. Even then, I’m probably missing a few.

The pleasure of a trip to Bagan is all the small stupas, pagodas and temples that you come across along the way to the big sights. Even the occasional wrong turn gave us some splendid sights that we wpouldn’t otherwise have seen, such as a cluster of five stupas in a field near the lacquerware museum or a rather unusually named pagoda I hoped we wouldn’t need help from…

Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda

I don’t know what Bagan is like at the peak of high season but it never felt crowded at any spot we went, with the exception of my first attempt at a Bagan sunrise at Bulethi and the Shwezigon Pagoda. The visitor numbers may be rising but they still have quite a way to go before they match some of the world’s top tourist destinations.

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Three days in Bagan

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

On the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy river, spread across a 40 square mile site in the plains of Bagan, the astonishing remains of over 2,500 temples can be found. It is hard to comprehend that this dusty and largely rural spot was once the cosmopolitan capital of an empire or that at its peak, around the 11-13th centuries, you would have found around 14,000 stupas, temples and monasteries here.

A forest of temples

The reputation of Bagan as a city of learning attracted scholars from across Asia and its population grew to somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Marco Polo considered it to be ‘a very great and noble city’, marveling at gold and silver towers that shone most brilliantly when lit up by the sun. Not so long after Marco Polo’s visit the city was abandoned, around 1287, in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the Pagan empire. Over time the city was reduced to a modest village among the ruins, surviving until the demands of the tourist industry prompted the re-location of the population to New Bagan.

The infrastructure might not immediately suggest it but twenty first century Bagan is once again thriving with good hotels, restaurants and plenty of transport options to support a steady influx of tourists. More change is undoubtedly coming, with new international flight connections mooted to link Bagan to Siem Reap and work on a long-stalled new hotel zone underway again. Bagan was the most tourist-friendly place I have seen in Myanmar by a long chalk.

At the moment it is still relatively easy to get lost among the temples and find yourself alone but that will change if the visitors continue to grow at their incredible rates. In 2010 Myanmar was visited by just under 800,000 tourists but by 2015 that had grown to nearly 5 million. It’s not hard to see the appeal – my breath was taken away by my first sight of the forest of temples. I wondered why I had ever worried that the reality might prove a disappointment!

Myauk Guni Temple

Our three day stay in Bagan began with a mid-evening flight into Nyaung-U, arriving around 9pm. It wasn’t meant to start that way, but the flight we booked with Mann Yadanarpon was re-timed by three hours just one week before our trip. I think it is pretty safe to say that it was the last flight of the day as they switched off the lights and locked the doors behind us as we stepped out to the taxi rank!

We spent one night in Nyaung U (at the Hotel Zfreeti) and then transferred to Old Bagan for three nights (at the Bagan Thande Hotel). The location of the Bagan Thande proved hard to beat with the river on one side and the temples of Old Bagan just a few minutes walk away. In the evenings it was a delight to sit for a meal under the acacia trees of the Bagan Thande as the light faded, occasionally catching sight of an owl or two (let’s not dwell on the bugs that occasionally dropped onto the table or into our food!).

The location of our hotel made it easy to head out to the sights of Old Bagan on foot but for the sights further afield I eventually settled on cheap one way taxi rides. I would find a good starting point, such as Nagayon Temple, then slowly make my way back towards the hotel visiting pagodas along the way. I know that I could have opted for an e-bike but I preferred to take things at a slower pace and absolutely loved the freedom to wander unencumbered.

Typically, I would sit out the hottest hours in our air conditioned hotel room or take a dip in the pool. The break also really helped avoid temple overload!

Practical information

I spent quite a while researching the options before we made our trip and really appreciated the wealth of information shared by other visitors. I thought I would share our experiences in case it helps anyone else ruminating over the same questions that bogged us down for a while!

Stupas in Bagan

1. Which domestic airline? I thought it would be simple to book a domestic flight but it turned out that tickets aren’t usually sold as far in advance as international flights and even when they were theoretically available many of the websites didn’t work. I had intended to book with an airline with a good safety record and the largest fleet size (admittedly none of the airlines seemed to have huge fleets) but in the end the choice came down to the first airline flying the right route that I could actually book!

We flew to/from Bagan with Mann Yadanarpon, a small airline that began operations three years ago and which currently operates with a fleet of two ATR 72-600 aircraft. The whole operation seemed to be very efficient but far from the automated process we are most familiar with, starting with the wheeling away of our baggage from the check-in counters at Mandalay with handwritten tags attached! Everyone we encountered from the airline seemed friendly and helpful, which is not always a given.

At check-in domestic passengers are given stickers showing their destination – a terrific visual cue that allows staff to easily spot passengers queuing for the wrong flight or not getting off at the right airport (some flights make a number of hops before reaching their final destination).

Ultimately, I was happy with my choice or airline. The landings were a tad bumpy but we didn’t see anything that gave us particular cause for concern.

2. How reliable are flight times? The flight time between Mandalay and Nyaung-U is just half an hour, if it is a direct flight, so you are barely up before you are on your way back down. Our direct flights were roughly 15-20 minutes late departing in each direction.

I had booked my flights direct with the airline rather than through an agent. This worked out fine, but I would caution that our flights were re-timed in both directions and we only got notification of one set of changes. Our return flight was moved forward by half an hour without us knowing which could have been a tad problematic. Thankfully I’m super cautious. Although we were at the airport way too early for the expected departure time it turned out to be spot-on for our re-timed flight!

The view from Taung Guni

3. What cafes/shops are available at Nyaung U airport? The terminal building at Nyaung U is fairly basic but includes a cafe and a few gift shops. An enterprising stall holder at the entrance was selling postage stamps for a modest mark up. A counter here sells the obligatory Bagan Archaeological Zone passes (25,000 kyat per person for five days) and we were steered there as soon as we arrived. I was relieved to see that there was a small queue of taxis on the night we arrived.

Some things you take for granted elsewhere, like departure boards, were not in evidence here. Everything at the airport seems to follow a manual process – even entry to the airside waiting hall for our return flight involved finding our names on a list and crossing them off. This thoroughness is quite re-assuring too – in each direction handwritten baggage tags stapled to our ticket were checked against those attached to the cases.

4. Can you walk around Bagan? Getting around Bagan proved simple enough, on foot and by car. I arranged taxis through my hotel without difficulty and none of the drivers seemed phased to be asked to drop tourists off in the middle of nowhere before the sun had risen! I took a copy of the downloadable map from Design Printing Services with me for a rough approximation of where to find the temples on my list and some satellite images to help fill in the detail. It’s never too hard to navigate when you have giant temples on the horizon…

I have to say that most people I encountered in Bagan were riding around on eBikes, in larger coach parties or taking taxis. However, I liked the slower pace of a nice long walk and it definitely is possible. I wouldn’t have liked to be walking around for long in fading light though – the traffic coming off the plain is pretty relentless in the immediate aftermath of sunset. They even have traffic police directing the steady queue of bikes, cars and coaches off the dirt tracks back onto the main road.

5. Where’s best to stay? I was torn between the options of Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Each had its appeal but ultimately the ease of walking to/from Old Bagan and onto the plain swung the decision in favour of Old Bagan. There are a few good restaurant options within easy reach of Old Bagan but many more at Nyaung U.

None of the hotels are particularly cheap. Our stay at the Zfreeti cost us $85 for one night whilst a room with a river view at the Bagan Thande set us back $200 a night. I would have to say that it was worth stumping up for a hotel amongst the sights of Old Bagan – it made all the sightseeing so much easier. Having said that, boats chug up and down the river at all hours and not at all quietly (a sort of super-charged tractor sound). It might not have been the quiet haven that we imagined but we did get used to it quite quickly. The river is also a good deal further away, and lower, than in the promotional shots.

In the longer term the option of staying in Old Bagan is likely to disappear if the government commits to removing the Bagan Thande and some of the other hotel resorts from the Bagan Archaeological zone following the UNESCO recommendation.

6. Do you need anti-malarials? I found so much conflicting advice about whether anti-malarials were needed in Bagan. At the time we travelled the British National Health Service fit for travel website suggested that Bagan would be low risk for most travellers (with some exceptions relating to medical conditions etc) but highlighted the recent peak in dengue cases in Myanmar. Travelling in the dry season should have significantly reduced the level of risk, but to give ourselves the best chance of avoiding such perils we covered ourselves in insect repellent and wore clothing sprayed with permethrin. Ultimately, it’a decision that only you can make so don’t take my word for it. It’s much better to seek advice from the health professionals who know their stuff rather than rely on advice from travellers!

7. What essentials do you need for Bagan? The absolute essential for a trip to Bagan is a powerful torch. The interiors of some of the pagodas are pretty gloomy and it would have been quite impossible to see any of the murals without a decent torch (with the exception of Gubyaukgyi temple, where it looked as though you might have been able to hire a rather unwieldy lamp for a wander round). I also found it immensely helpful for navigating round the temples before sunrise. As there is no street lighting in Old Bagan a torch was also a necessity for even the shortest walk beyond the hotel grounds at night – as much to alert traffic to your presence as to see your way. I took a LED torch rated at 280 lumens with a reach of 220 metres and that was just perfect.

Sunrise in Bagan

8. Can you still climb the temples? I had read that climbing the temples was to be banned this season so didn’t really know what to expect, but it turned out that there were at least a handful that were open to climb and there were also some perfectly decent viewing mounds that offered quite lovely views in their own right.

My favourite temple was Taung Guni, which proved a good spot for sunrise and sunset with a viewing platform that could be reached by interior staircase (good torch required). I also tried Bulethi and its near neighbour at sunrise, with narrow terraces accessed from steep steps on the exterior, but these were a little too crowded for my liking. Officials checked the Bagan Archaeological Zone pass at both locations.

I kept an eye on the local press for developments, real time updates from Twitter and comments on Tripadvisor forums/reviews to see what was happening. It was still pretty confusing but it gave me a clearer idea of what was definitely closed and some ideas of what could be open.

9. Is it still worth taking a balloon flight over Bagan? I wasn’t sure whether the expense of a balloon flight would be worthwhile as many accounts suggested that the experience doesn’t compare to what used to be on offer. I don’t know about that, but I can say that a flight over the temples in a balloon was the undisputed highlight of the trip.

I was also really impressed by the safety standards in place at Balloons over Bagan and thought that it was as safe a balloon ride as you could hope for, accepting that there is always a degree of risk. I suffer terribly from a fear of heights but this didn’t kick in at all. It was a lovely experience from start to finish and the views are extraordinary – I’m guessing that they have been more spectacular still in the past, but I was perfectly happy with what I got to see.

One day in Abu Dhabi

Posted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates by folkestonejack on November 2, 2017

Our travels have brought us to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, for a one day stopover. It was not a destination I had ever planned to visit but proved to be an intriguing place to spend a little time.

The schedule gave us a full day to explore the city between an early morning arrival on an Etihad Airways A380 from London and a late night onward flight on to Bangkok, with a little sleep at a conveniently located airport hotel (Premier Inn). My challenge was to string together a selection of sights that would keep my heat-averse travelling companion satisfied and my sanity intact!

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

My normal instinct is to get around by public transport but after consulting the timetables I realised that our itinerary was only going to work by hopping from sight to sight by taxi. Thankfully, these are plentiful and inexpensive. The first of these took us from the airport to the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in plenty of time to join the first walk up tour of the day, before the worst of the heat.

Although you can wander around the mosque on your own, the tours organised by the mosque take you to areas off the main walking route and provide some fascinating facts about this modern marvel. Our tour guide, Aisha, helped us appreciate the astonishingly beautiful detail of the building and understand the reasoning behind aspects of the design that would otherwise have passed us by.

The mosque was completed just ten years ago but in a short space of time has become one of the most iconic images of the emirate. The first sight of the 82 domes and 4 minarets is enough to astound, yet that is nothing compared to the beauty of the interior. The first indication of this came on stepping inside the arcades with their 1096 columns, each inlaid with semi-precious stones. Beyond that, through some pretty cool sliding doors, we came to the foyer and prayer hall.

The largest chandelier to be found in a mosque

The main prayer hall is quite simply stunning from floor to ceiling with highlights being the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet and largest chandelier to be found in a mosque. The carpet, which used a considerable quantity of New Zealand wool, was heavier still – it weighed in at 40 tons before it was shaved to create prayer lines. In contrast, the chandelier seems relatively light at around 12 tons and even includes a hidden internal staircase for the cleaners!

Aside from the obvious cultural highlights of the mosque I was fascinated to discover that one of the minarets contains a library. Indeed, the only library to be housed in a minaret. The collection holds some 7,000 titles and uses Library of Congress classification and AACR2. Strange to find something so familiar in such an unexpected setting.

A view of the Emirates Palace from Observation Deck 300

After leaving the mosque we found it easy enough to pick up a taxi from the parking lot (a queue of taxis were ready and waiting). Twenty minutes later we arrived at the Etihad Towers complex for Observation Deck 300, a viewing platform on the 74th floor that offers superb views of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape, startlingly blue waters and surrounding islands. Sights visible from the 360 degree gallery included the Marina Mall (2001), Emirates Palace (2005) and UAE Presidential Palace (2016). Our 85 AED tickets included a 50 AED refreshments voucher which covered a couple of mocktails.

We didn’t have to stray too much further for our lunch, heading to the Rosewater restaurant on the second floor of the complex for a luxury buffet, a bit of a splurge at AED 192 per person when the service charge, municipality fee and tourism fee were added in. However, it was well worth the price – an impressive spread, wonderful flavours and superb quality.

After lunch we took a taxi across town to Qasr Al Hosn, a stone fortress constructed in 1761 that was formerly the royal palace. The historic site is currently undergoing restoration but next door you can visit a rather wonderful exhibition which tells the story of Abu Dhabi and its people. The video captures from the older generation were fascinating, especially the tale of how to treat Scorpion bites by cutting out the affected area and squeezing out the poison. Yikes!

A section from the intimidating gates that led into the fortress

It only took us around half an hour to walk through the museum but in that time we learnt so much. I was particularly taken by a series of photographs tracing the transformation of Abu Dhabi city over the decades, revealing just how recent the towering developments have been. In the 1980s the fortress was relatively un-overlooked whereas now skyscrapers look down from all sides. The final two rooms showcase some clever audio-visuals that bring the history up to date and reveal the plans for the future.

The final stop on our air-conditioned day of sightseeing brought us to Dalma Mall, thirty two minutes away by taxi, for a game of glow in the dark mini-golf which was a fun way to round off the day before heading back to the airport by taxi (easily picked up from the front of the mall).

It was great to get a little taste of the city, so different to anywhere else that I have been. Unfortunately, we were a week too early to see Jean Nouvel’s stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi but it’s good to have something to go back for…

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A day at the château – in Buckinghamshire!

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 14, 2017

One of the most surprising sights in Britain can be found in Buckinghamshire, a short drive from Aylesbury, where Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild built an exquisite turreted country home in the style of a French château between 1874 and 1883. It is one of only a handful of Rothschild family houses that survive today out of the forty that were once spread out across Europe.

Waddesdon Manor

The moment you step onto the drive it feels as though you have somehow been transported to the Loire valley and that first impression carries through into the extravagant interior, especially in the marble-clad dining room with its echoes of the grandest French palaces. Among the many extraordinary furnishings are pieces commissioned by Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Marie Antoinette for the Louvre and Versailles respectively. The mixture of 18th century decorative arts and English portraits from the same era works remarkably well – nothing feels out of place.

Marvels abound in every room and reward a slow soaking up of detail, such as the set of chairs with small carvings of birds assembling a nest or a golden cherub appearing to climb out of a set of drawers.

One highlight was a bronze elephant automaton dating to 1774 which stuns even in its static state. A video of of the automaton shows how much more astonishing it is in action. Other stunners included a musical box depicting Orpheus taming the animals (c. 1720) and a strikingly curvy-swirly silver gilt cup by Christian Van Vianen (1640) which is now paired with a contemporary painting showing a boy holding the cup. In truth, it is a house of highlights.

The house might seem like a historical anachronism to us now but in its heyday it was a showcase for cutting edge technologies, including central heating, electric lighting and one of the first lifts to be installed in an English country house. Queen Victoria was said to have been so impressed by the lights that she asked for them to be switched on and off repeatedly!

The original Otis lift (installed in 1898) is now on display in the Power House

The Rothschild family had great foresight in understanding that great collections such as this would naturally drift towards national art museums without taking special steps. James de Rothschild (1878-1957) ensured that the collection could be enjoyed in its family context by future generations by donating Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust backed by a suitably large endowment. It’s a pleasure to step inside and marvel at their legacy.

Practicalities

Our trip to Waddesdon Manor proved to be one of the most straightforward days out that we have enjoyed. An hour or so on the train from London Marylebone to Aylesbury Vale Parkway station followed by a short ride on the free shuttle bus to Waddesdon Manor.

At the time of writing the shuttle bus connects with the Chiltern Railways service that leaves London Marylebone at 9.57am so you end up reaching the property at around 11.15am. Return times vary. The bus only runs once a day in each direction, but that’s not really a problem as there’s plenty to see at Waddesdon. If you time your visit for Wednesday, Thursday or Friday you will also be able to see the rooms in the Bachelors’ Wing.

We spent around two hours inside the house but could easily have spent longer looking at the displays on the first and second floors. The rest of our time was divided between the aviary, grounds and stable block. Although the food on offer in the cafe in the stable block was perhaps a little on the pricey side there was no doubting the quality and super taste of everything we sampled. Last but not least, the fudge was sensationally good…

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Charlecote Park

Posted in England, Stratford-upon-Avon by folkestonejack on October 8, 2017

A weekend trip to Stratford upon Avon gave us an opportunity to take a Sunday morning outing to see Charlecote Park, a National Trust property that is a mere 14 minute bus ride away from the centre of town. From the moment you enter the estate and start your walk down the drive towards the sixteenth century turreted gatehouse you get a sense of how special this place is. More of the magic gets revealed as you make way through the archway and see the main house and as you explore the deer park beyond.

Through the gatehouse

The Lucy family has lived here since at least 1189 when Sir Walter de Cherlecote inherited the estate, though the current house dates back to 1558 and what we see today is very much how the Victorian owners wanted to present it. The site looked a little familiar to me without ever having visited which turned out to be because this historic site was a source of inspiration for the set designers of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won!

The Elizabethan exterior is magnificent but the interior is a nineteenth century vision, partly drawing upon a two year grand tour by the Lucy family that sounded like the ultimate in holidays from hell! The family set off in their carriages with their retinue but got stuck in heavy snow whilst crossing the alps, resulting in the death of their young son. Incredibly, another child was born while they were on the road! You can still see the carriage they used on their grand tour in the carriage house.

The material gathered during their grand tour was much more than a collection of artifacts, even extending to the red and white marble flooring in the Great Hall which was picked up in Venice.

The view from the west

Overall, a visit to the house and grounds kept us entertained for a leisurely two and a half hours – including some lovely moments watching deer running through the west park. Hard to imagine that a young William Shakespeare spent time in the same grounds here whilst poaching!

Practicalities

We were thoroughly confused by the information available on the bus route that passes the property. The information on the National Trust website and in the journey planner suggested that we needed to take the X18 bus, but on arriving at the bus stop at Bridge Street in Stratford-upon-Avon we discovered a notice stating that the X18 is now taking a more direct route to Warwick and would no longer stop at Charlecote. Instead, passengers are asked to take the X17, which only runs Mondays to Saturdays. Not much help for our Sunday outing…

Our disappointment turned to delight when the driver of the next X18 confirmed that he was going to Charlecote. At the other end we discovered a crucial piece of missing information – a notice at the Charlecote bus stop states that on Sundays the X17 runs as the X18! Talk about a convoluted change. So, in summary, X17 Mondays to Saturdays and X18 on Sundays/Bank Holidays. The notice states that not all X17 buses will serve Charlecote so it is worth checking carefully…

The bus route passes the Charlecote estate before reaching a bus stop outside the Pheasant Hotel. The visitor centre is an easy walk round the corner from here and the entrance to the estate is just over the road.

At the time of writing adult admission costs £12 (with Gift Aid) for the house, grounds and outbuildings but is free for National Trust members. You can get a discount for the restaurant or shop when arriving by public transport.

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Three highlights from Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 25, 2017

Our final day in Plovdiv gave us the opportunity to explore the many small museums, art galleries and churches to be found on a wander of the cobbled streets of the old quarter and just a little further beyond. It’s a lovely area to walk around with historic features such as the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate through the old fortress walls, amidst the former houses of the rich merchants’ class. I thought I would take a moment to share our top three sights in case it helps anyone else…

Hisar Kapia

House of Stepan Hindliyan

The symmetrical house of Stepan Hindliyan, built in 1834-35, is absolutely gorgeous with beautifully preserved original wooden ceilings, stunning wall paintings set into the alcoves (alafrangas) and a charming steam room. The owner was one of the four most distinguished Armenian families in the city and a merchant renowned for his trading connections with India. This house was just about the only property we visited where you could imagine the family life that must once have sounded within its walls.

As well as seeing the ornate family rooms we were able to take a look inside the service wing (notable for a mural of the main house above its entrance) to see a display of modern art at the time of our visit (with oddities like fish swimming in pink blancmange in an upturned umbrella and a security camera being attacked by an octopus!).

Hindliyan House

Zlatu Boyadzhiev Gallery

Since 1984 the former home of Dr Stoyan Chomakov in the old town has been home to a gallery of 70+ paintings by Zlatu Boyadzhiev (1903-1976), a Bulgarian artist that I was not at all familiar with but whose work I absolutely loved. Initially his work was neo-classical but a stroke in 1951 that paralysed the right side of his body prompted a change in style, adopting more grotesque imagery. I found much to like from both periods.

It is perhaps no surprise that I loved his painting ‘The Pernik Miners’ (1945) which brings to life a mine in a snow covered landscape, complete with black slag heaps and a mine train disappearing into a tunnel and a steaming loco in the distance ready to take loaded coal wagons away from the scene. It’s absolutely chock full of life from the line of workers climbing a snowy hill with pickaxes over their shoulders to a watchful worker leaning against a wagon. The closest I can get to describing it is a cross between Breugel and Lowry.

Klianti House

The Klianti House is one of the most stunning sights in Plovdiv, but as it only opened to the public at the end of June 2017 it is not yet featured in guide books and is currently languishing in 54th place out of 92 in the rankings of TripAdvisor. I didn’t know anything about it when we arrived in the city but was intrigued by the signs across the old town stating that the Klianti House was not included in the combined ticket. I assumed that meant it was rather special and decided to take a look!

It turns out that this two-storey house has been recognised as a building of national significance since 1949. It is said to be the oldest example of Bulgarian revival architecture in Plovdiv, dating to the mid-eighteenth century, and includes features that are not seen elsewhere. It was in particularly bad shape when the restoration efforts began 10 years ago and the works since then have cost 1.6 million lev. The results are stunning and amply demonstrate why this house is regarded as an architectural gem.

On the first floor of the property there are some incredibly ornate and surprisingly curvaceous decorative wooden ceilings with glass and gold elements. In addition to that, there are some beautiful painted alcoves (alfrangas), decorated wooden recesses (musandras) and two wonderful murals depicting Vienna and Constantinople in 1817. The decoration must surely be unrivaled in the city and it is one sight you do not want to miss…

It is well worth taking a moment to see the audio-visual presentation that shows how much effort went in to the restoration and just what a poor state the building was in, though I would suggest waiting until after you have seen the spectacular first floor rooms to avoid the spoilers. I have to confess that my pet hate is audio-visual presentations at attractions that show you everything before you get the chance to be wowed by seeing it for the first time!

One of Plovdiv’s 10,000 cats!

One other feature of our wander through the old town was the extraordinary number of cats that we encountered. You could barely walk a few paces down any street without coming across a cat tucked up asleep or a trio of playful kittens. It was a delight for us but a problem for the authorities who have 10,000 cats on their hands. One step they have taken is to fine anyone feeding the cats – no laughing matter when you consider that the fine for a second offence can exceed the minimum monthly wage in the country.

It was a pleasure to explore the old town even if the uneven cobbles did get a little more tiresome by the end of a long day of wandering! It often felt as though we were exploring a giant open air museum, particularly as most museums didn’t take that long to walk around.

Exterior decoration at Sveta Marina

I should end by saying that besides the museums, all of the churches in the old town were a delight to step into with their rich decoration. My favourite would have to be the mid-nineteenth church of Sveta Marina with its colourful decoration set against a striking blue backdrop. If you stop by don’t forget to take a look at the wooden bell tower hidden round the back!

Our old town wanderings completed our trip and we ended our day with a taxi-ride to the airport outside town for the late evening flight home to London very satisfied by the eclectic mix of sights that filled our weekend and the marvelous tastes of Bulgarian cooking that we sampled (at the restaurant at the Hotel Odeon and Hemingway respectively). Thank you for your hospitality Plovdiv!

Practicalities

The admission fees for the many museums of the old town are relatively modest, mostly 5 lev each, but the costs can soon rack up if you visit enough of them!

One way to manage the costs is to buy a combined ticket from one of the museums for 15 lev – this allows you to visit your choice of 5 of the eight sights included in this arrangement (Ancient Theatre, House of Luka Balabanov, House of Stepan Hindliyan, House of Nikola Nedkovich, Zlatu Boyadzhiev Gallery, Pharmacy Museum Hippocrates, House of Veren Stambolyan and the Early Christian Basilica). The tickets list all the sights you can choose from and a hole is punched each time you visit one.

The Klianti House is not included in the combined ticket but is well worth the 10 lev admission fee. I would go as far as to say that it is the most stunning of the small houses that you can visit.

Opening days for the buildings were a little different to those shown in our guide book so it’s worth double checking with the free guidebooks and maps on offer from the Tourist Information office in Plovdiv before planning a visit.

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The hillock of fraternity

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 25, 2017

The hillock of fraternity is probably not on the itinerary of most visitors to Plovdiv, but I have always found the sculptural legacy of the communist era strangely fascinating. This one is certainly unusual.

On an aerial image of the site it looks just as though someone has embedded a fan into the landscape. You might think that it would have more visual impact when approached from the long ceremonial avenue, given the usual desire to make a big statement, but here the monument barely breaks the surface. It’s as if a small eruption has broken through the concrete pavement and been left un-repaired.

The Bratska Mogila is most commonly translated as ‘Brotherly Mound’ or ‘Hillock of Fraternity’

The architects of the monument were Lubomir Shinkov and Vladimir Rangelov who were commissioned by the City People’s Council in 1968 after a series of failed architectural competitions. Work started in 1971 and the site was ready for opening on 9th September 1974, the thirtieth anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria.

The monument is supposed to echo the Thracian burial mounds of ancient history, hence it’s low profile. Inside the pantheon the remains of 126 partisans from the Second World War are buried. Looking through the locked gates you can see the poor state of the 19 sculptural compositions by Lyubomir Dalchev. Five years after the memorial opened the sculptor emigrated to the US and the name plate marking his work was removed from the site.

The eternal flame at its heart of the monument has long been extinguished, the bronze elements of the site have been plundered and the exterior is covered in graffiti.

Practicalities

If I’m honest it isn’t the most rewarding walk you can take from the city centre, which for me involved skirting round the Bunardzik Hill and following the pathway through the park that runs alongside bul. Svoboda. The walk is bordered by high rise apartment blocks but seemed safe enough when I visited. The site itself was fairly quiet, bar for a few local youths with their skateboards.

The gates are usually locked so it’s unlikely that you will get a chance to take a close look. However, the memorial is in such poor condition that it’s just nice to see it all – given that some memorials in Bulgaria have already fallen victim to the ravages of time!

It’s worth seeing in the mid-morning sun when the sun is high enough to illuminate the interior. I made my visit later in the day which was fine, but probably not the best light to have picked!

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Six sights from Roman Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 24, 2017

The roman city of Philippopolis, now Plovdiv, was an important urban centre in the province of Thracia and prospered for three centuries until the barbarians arrived.

A surprisingly rich array of Roman sights remains to this day, despite the repeated sacking of the city. A half day wander through the city is easily sufficient to cover most of these, though there are a few sites a little farther out (such as the aqueduct) that would take a little more time. You can follow an easy trail marked from the ‘On the roman path‘ leaflet provided by the local Tourist board.

1. The Bishop’s Basilica

The most fascinating of the Roman sites is the least accessible at present. The remains of the fifth century Bishop’s basilica, adjacent to the present day Catholic Cathedral of St Ludwig, were first discovered in the mid-1980s during work to construct an underpass but further exploration of the site only concluded a month or two back. The scale of the buiding can’t be overemphasised – this is the largest early Christian Basilica in Bulgaria and one of the largest in the entire Balkan region.

The mosaic floor at the Bishop’s Basilica

The ten month long archaeological dig to explore the northern apse came to a close this summer but during our visit it was possible to look down upon the site from the boundary fencing whilst the final clean-up and recording was taking place. You don’t often get to see such wondrous sites at this stage of their development so I relished the opportunity to observe.

The quality of the 2,000 square metres of mosaics was evident from a distance, including a stunning peacock medallion, whilst other discoveries included a fifth century stone baptismal vessel.

It is intended that a museum will be constructed over the site with the mosaics displayed in situ under a protective glass floor, presumably in a similar set-up to the nearby small basilica. I have seen reference to opening dates of 2018 and 2019 suggested in different articles. Once it is open I have no doubt that this will be a major attraction in the city.

2. The Small Basilica

In 1988 the foundations and mosaic floor of an early Christian church from the fifth century were discovered during work to build an apartment block. The finds were stunning, including mosaics of a stag and doves (or pigeons if you believe one of the labels) in the baptistery. Around half of the mosaics were put into storage but later returned to the site in 2013 after the construction of an archaeological museum over the site. Some of the mosaics are now visible under a glass floor and the rest are on open display behind barriers.

The Small Basilica

It’s probably easiest to approach the small basilica from the direction of the Post Office in the town centre rather than taking the back street route we followed from the Eastern Gate as the museum is entirely fenced in from this side (it took us a while to find a cut through onto the main road). We were the only visitors on the Sunday morning that we stopped by. Admission was relatively inexpensive at 5 lev.

A small note of caution – you might want to avoid the video presentation offered on the religious sites of Plovdiv if you are planning to visit these later and don’t want too many spoilers!

3. The Eirene Residence

The Eirene Residence, a roman villa with some marvelous mosaics, was discovered in 1983 during work to construct an underpass. The small museum, referred to on maps and signposts as ‘Trakart Mosaics’, presents 160 square metres of ancient Roman mosaic preserved in situ.

The mosaic floor at the Eirene Residence

The site takes its name from the centerpiece of the mosaic floor – a portrait of Eirene, goddess and daughter of Zeus. We came across this mosaic marvel twice – first at the Eirene Residence and later at the archaeological museum in Plovdiv (presumably the latter is the original?).

The museum is accessed from a pedestrian underpass that is interesting in its own right as it uses the exposed roman road as its floor. Admission was 5 lev.

4. Ancient theatre

The ancient Roman theatre (dating to around 108-117 AD) looks so impressive today that it is hard to imagine that this site was entirely hidden until its accidental discovery during construction work in 1968. Archaeological exploration was followed by reconstruction of the stage building (scaenae frons) from the elements that survived on site and it was re-opened to the public in 1981.

The Roman Theatre in Plovdiv from the 1st century AD

Our visit co-incided with a series of evening concerts at the venue giving us a different perspective of the site, not least the trickiness of clambering down the heavily worn steps (it’s a lovely opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the ancient citizens of Philippopolis but a health and safety nightmare too!). It’s an impressive venue for live music and the acoustics are all the more remarkable when you realise that a major road runs underneath this hill, entering a tunnel just before the site.

5. Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate was discovered in the 1970s and the foundations now lay exposed in the open, making it easy to get a good view over the entire complex. It’s one of those sites that has changed significantly over time, evolving from a triumphal arch into something a little more ordinary and then ending up a source of building material for the local population.

The road running through the Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate is easily reached from the old town and its close proximity to the delightful church of St Nedelya means that it can easily be incorporated into a walking tour of the city.

6. The Forum and Odeon of Philippopolis

The Forum and Odeon are two sites in close proximity to the modern day Post Office that give a glimpse into the heart of city life, including public buildings such as the hall in which the city council met. The pedestrian walkway here presents an easy view of the two open air sites, though it has to be said that the forum looked a rather sad sight when we visited.

The Odeon of Philippopolis

Other sights in the city centre include a section of the roman stadium and a stretch of aqueduct sandwiched between two busy roads.

In addition to all of this, you can visit a much older site at the hilltop of Nebet Tepe which has been fortified and re-fortified many times over the centuries, including during the Roman era. It is surprisingly easy to reach, just a short walk up from the heart of the old town and well worth visiting for the panoramic view as much as for the ruins themselves. It’s not hard to see why it is such a popular spot at sunset.

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Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges

Posted in Asenovgrad, Bachkovo, Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

The Bulgarian long weekend started in earnest with a day trip to see some of the most spectacular sights located a short drive away from the city – Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges.

The 13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God at Asen’s Fortress

Our first stop brought us to the ruins of Asen’s Fortress, a hilltop stronghold strategically located on a rocky crag overlooking the Chepelarska gorge. The winding road that climbs to the summit looked like quite a trek on foot and plenty were attempting that. I’m sure that has its own rewards, with time to soak up the stunning view across to the church of Sveta Bogoroditsa Petrichka, but I was glad that we were driving up with our guide.

The spectacular setting is matched by the interior of the church which includes some fragments of frescoes from the 14th century. Beyond the church you can walk up to the top of the fortress for incredibly scenic views and an even better shot of the church with the valley as a backdrop.

The refectory at Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery, the second largest monastery in the country, was our second stop and proved to be the highlight of the day. The monastery was originally founded in 1083 and bridges three cultures – Byzantine, Georgian and Bulgarian – and this rich history is helpfully recorded on its the walls through some fascinating murals.

Entering the first courtyard we immediately saw a long line of locals queueing to enter the main church of the complex, the seventeenth century Sveta Bogoroditsa, so they could pray at a 11th-12th century icon of St Mary reputed to have healing powers. We were able to enter through a rear entrance so as not to disturb the serious business of the day and spent most of our time with our necks craned upwards to admire the stunning decoration throughout the church and at the base of the bell tower.

On the day we visited the gates to the second courtyard were open so we were able to take a look at the porch of another church in the complex, Sveti Nikolai, with its striking frescoes of the last judgment. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see inside as the church doors were locked – it looked as though they were getting ready for a baptism later in the day.

The star attraction of the complex is the vaulted 17th century refectory that is entirely decorated with colourful frescoes depicting ancient philosophers and kings of Israel encircled by the holy vine, the akatis hymn of the Holy Virgin and domesday. The frescoes were restored in 1965-1971 and the monastery are justifiably proud of their unique attraction. Admission fee to the refectory cost us 6 lev each plus 6 lev for a photo permit.

Overall, I found our visit to Bachkovo Monastery much more satisfying than the trip to Rila Monastery last year. I would have to admit that the lack of tourists was a big factor in this – we only encountered one other tourist on our wanders round the site.

The Wonderful Bridges in the Rhodope Mountains

The final stop on our itinerary brought us up a long, somewhat pot-holed road, to the wonderful bridges (Chudnite Mostove). The effort was worth it as these two natural rock arches in the forests of the Rhodope Mountains are just immense whether viewed from up top or down below. Sadly, none of the photographs I have taken do them any justice – it’s one of those sights that you just have to see in person to properly appreciate.

Practicalities

The guide books indicated that it is possible to make a visit to Asen’s Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery by bus but the little information we could find online suggested that it would be easier with a guide, sparing us the steep walk up the 2.5km road to Asen’s Fortress and the hassles of finding a bus to take us back. To be honest, I appreciated the simplicity of not working all this out for myself!

Travelling with a tour guide also allowed us to visit the third site, the Wonderful Bridges, which can only be reached by car. Our guide helped to order food for us during our trip and smoothed out minor issues that might have been tricky without a smidgeon of Bulgarian – such as asking the guardian of the refectory at Bachkovo to switch the lights on so that we could see the wonderful murals!

Our day trip was booked by email through Plovdiv Trips and the tour delivered matched up to all the promises made on their website. I would certainly recommend them.

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Alyosha at 60

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

One of the most distinctive sights in Plovdiv is the 36-foot tall concrete Soviet soldier Alyosha that towers over the city from a position atop Bunarzhik Hill, looking out to the east with a Shpagin machine pistol in his hand. At the first opportunity I got I took the 15 minute walk to the top of the hill to take a closer look…

The Alyosha statue at sunrise. The base of the monument is decorated with a five-pointed star and an inscription that reads ‘Glory to the invincible Soviet Liberator Army.’

The statue, officially unveiled on 7th November 1957, was modeled on Aleksey Ivanovich Skurlatov (1922-2013), a veteran of the Great Patriotic War who fought on the Bulgarian front in 1944.

Accounts vary, but one version says that it was during his work as a signalman here (re-connecting the lines between Plovdiv and Sofia) that a picture was taken which sculptor Vasil Radoslavov later used as the basis for his monument. Aleksey returned to his home in Siberia in 1946 and only became aware of his granite doppelgänger in the 1980s, returning to a heroes welcome in 1982. He helped celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2007.

A small museum remembering the life of Aleksey Ivanovich Skurlatov can be found in Altai. Astonishingly, his mother received notification of his death twice during his military career!

The view of Alyosha from Sahat Tepe

The monument was commissioned in 1948 and the photograph of Aleksey was passed to Vasil Radoslavov by former Bulgarian resistance fighter Metodi Vitanov of Plovdiv. Construction started in 1954.

There are some historians who doubt the story, suggesting that Alyosha was actually modeled on factory worker Georgi Milenkov, whilst the daughter of the sculptor was told that a Russian actor posed for her father. It almost doesn’t matter because the sculpture has taken on a legend of its own and has somehow achieved an affection from the local population unlike any other communist era monument in Bulgaria.

One of the panels at the base of the monument

All of the photographs in this post were taken on two walks up Bunarzhik Hill (one at sunrise and the other just before sunset) and a walk up Sahat Tepe (at sunrise) for the view from the opposite hill.

Practicalities

I started my walk from the intersection of Ruski Blvd and Ulitsa Volga, roughly fifteen minutes on foot from the centre of Plovdiv.

Alyosha in the run up to sunset

From this point it is easy to get to the top of the hill and you probably won’t be alone – it is a popular place to walk dogs or take in the sunset. The easiest route up is along the gently curving road, which you can shortcut at points by taking the steeper staircases, but there are also a multitude of small paths and steps you can take around the hill which are not marked on any map that I have seen. All offer terrific views of the city along the way.

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Flight to Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 22, 2017

A long weekend in Plovdiv sounded like a lovely idea many months back but for the discovery that there is only one flight in and out, three days a week. Added to this, these flights are operated by Ryanair, an airline I generally avoid unless it is the only option. On this occasion I caved in and booked a (not at all cheap) ticket and began to plot a lovely break…

Plovdiv Together: European Capital of Culture 2019

The announcement that Ryanair was to cancel 40-50 flights per day for six weeks just a week before our trip came as a nasty surprise, particularly listening to reports of the short notice that many passengers were given. Thankfully, the airline eventually published lists of all the flights they intended to cancel but for a while my stress levels really ratcheted up.

Whilst I applaud the way that Ryanair has opened up new tourist markets and connected cities that would have been a pain to reach by other this experience has been a startling reminder of the uncertainty of booking with budget airlines. I like my holidays to be an antidote to stress, not increase it!

Our near-full flight was around half an hour late out of Stansted but everything worked out pretty smoothly once we reached Plovdiv. The airport is relatively compact with just three gates but had more services than we expected given the infrequency of flights (if anyone is wondering there are cafe counters landside and airside, plus a small duty free store in airside departures).

The pick-up we arranged was waiting for us as soon as we stepped landside and delivered us to a friendly welcome at the delightful Expo Hotel. A good night’s sleep in our rather splendid room was much needed to prepare us for the full day of sightseeing that lay ahead.

A peek inside Crossrail Liverpool Street

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 21, 2017

The last stop on our Open House London schedule for 2017 brought to the Crossrail site at Liverpool Street Station, just around the corner from my workplace. I was quite intrigued to see what was going on behind the hoardings that I regularly pass during my working week.

The entrance to the Eastern Ticket Hall (Broadgate) will be through a five metre tall glazed canopy in a newly pedestrianised plaza

I think we all knew that it is a massive undertaking to build this new railway line but I still had not appreciated the degree of complexity involved in weaving this new line through the heavily built up city and finding a place to fit the infrastructure needed to support it. This even includes the need to avoid the disused stretch of the mailrail that passes through here.

The other fascinating insight was how innovative technology is being used to improve the efficiency of the build, from drones used to inspect the tunnels to VR hard hats allowing easy access to plans and drawings whilst working with both hands. The future industrial application of this technology sounds so optimistic that it makes you wonder why so much of the initial focus was on the leisure market!

Our visit allowed us to take a look inside the construction site at what will be the Eastern ticket hall of a new station that will stretch all the way across to Moorgate which has a rather striking ceiling design that looks like someone has been making origami in concrete.

The view down from the Eastern Ticket Hall to the lower levels of the concourse

From here we could also see the space where escalators and an incline lift will take passengers down to the lower levels. It’s hard to believe that in just over a year this space will be bustling with passengers. As it will almost halve the time from the City to Heathrow I am sure it won’t be long before I am amongst the throng.

Exploring Alexandra Palace’s hidden history

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 20, 2017

Our first stop on this year’s Open House London weekend took us to Alexandra Palace, a pleasure palace built for the people in the late nineteenth century. In act, it was built twice over – the first palace burnt down in 1873 sixteen days after its grand opening so the building we see today is a complete re-build which opened on 1st May 1875.

Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace is probably most famous as the birthplace of television with the first BBC broadcast transmitted from here to 200 television sets on 2nd November 1936. However, our visit focused on the basement and some remnants of earlier chapters in its remarkable story.

After donning hi-vis jackets and hard hats we headed through the doors of the curiously named ‘Traitor’s Gate’ below the south terrace and into the surprisingly extensive south basement where the layers of history are still visible. In contrast the north basement, which was completely rebuilt after the terrible fire of 1980, is of little interest.

Entering the basement through Traitor’s Gate

At first it was hard to imagine that this derelict and dusty space was once a thriving underworld filled with offices, kitchens, cellars, store rooms, larders, ice wells, plate stores and a dining hall for servants. However, as our guide pointed out the surviving features, including storerooms with shelf markings still visible and bread ovens, the space started to come alive a little.

The industrial scale of the dining experience here looks pretty grand in the pictures that survive but it was said that the food was often cold by the time it reached the table after making the long journey from the kitchen!

Bread ovens

Move forward a decade or two and the picture is entirely different. Alexandra Palace became home to Belgian refugees in 1914 and then an internment camp for German, Austrian and Hungarian ‘enemy aliens’ between 1915 and 1922. Over the span of the war 17,000 aliens spent time at Alexandra Park, divided into three battalions reflecting their social class. The working classes found themselves crammed into the great hall whilst the upper class inhabitants had a more comfortable living space in the towers. The divisions didn’t end there – working class men were allowed weekly visits of just 15 minutes whilst the upper classes were allowed 2 hours.

The basement space was a part of this re-purposing of the palace. Our guide pointed out a prison cell with barred windows that survives in the basement (apparently many internees tried to get themselves sent here to escape the noise of the overcrowded hall) and some of the discarded heavy machine tools from the workshops used by the internees. Amongst other things, the internees made model boats that they sailed on the boating lake behind the palace. Other aspects of the camp have long since vanished, such as the 400 allotments that once surrounded the site.

Abandoned workshop tools

After making our way back into the main building we had an opportunity to see a marvelous short film that gave us a little bit more of the story of the internment camp, drawing on letters and drawings from the individuals detained here. The last internees left in 1922 but the effects were longer lasting, whether from mental illness brought on by the confinement (‘barbed wire disease’) or through harrowing deportations that separated the men from their english families (only a minority of 4000 were allowed to remain).

Alexandra Palace has so much history to share and I hope that the plans for restoration will allow the spotlight to be thrown on all these layers.

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Open House London 2017

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 16, 2017

Open House London celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with another bumper crop of new buildings added to the list of old favourites. It is testament to the riches of London that there is never any shortage of places to visit every year from stunning livery halls to astonishing industrial sites. This year was no exception – with two palaces offering some fascinating and very different glimpses of the past.

Lambeth Palace

Our day took us back and forth across London with visits to Alexandra Palace, Lambeth Palace, Watermark Place, The Walbrook and Crossrail Liverpool Street. Along the way we enjoyed a side-visit to the incredibly surprising St Mary Abchurch which we just happened to see was open whilst walking between sites.

The highlight of the day was a ‘taster’ tour of Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury for over 800 years. The sense of history is overwhelming, such as when you step inside the Guard Room to find yourself being watched by two centuries worth of Archbishops of Canterbury and learn that this was where the fate of Sir Thomas More was sealed.

Other interesting sights on our tour included the beautiful stained glass and blitz marked floors of the chapel, the vaulted crypt and the charming State Drawing Room.

The enthralling nature of our tour of Lambeth Palace was as much a testament to the story-telling skill of our wonderful guide as the building itself, weaving in historical events, tales of chance encounters with past archbishops and some unusual discoveries (such as the green man in the Guard Room). Absolutely wonderful.

The roof gardens at Watermark Place

The biggest surprises of the day came at Watermark Place, where we enjoyed a stunning rooftop view and met the hawk that keeps the skies above clear of pigeons two days a week, and at St Mary Abchurch, where we discovered that the conventional looking square red-brick exterior hides an astonishing painted dome (one of Wren’s experiments in preparation for St Paul’s Cathedral).

From the outset Open House London has been an incredible event and to my mind it is by far the best weekend of the year in the city, though it is considerably more popular than when I first participated as a university student in the 1990s! Thank you to Victoria Thornton, the Open House London team and the many volunteers for twenty five years of wonderful insights into the architectural gems of this city.

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THV Galatea visits London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 11, 2017

The Trinity House Vessel Galatea, a Multi-Function Tender, arrived in London in the early hours of this morning after making the journey round the coast from her home port of Harwich. The visit has been organised in conjunction with the biennial London International Shipping Week (11-15 September 2017).

THV Galatea arrived in London in the early hours of this morning

The Galatea is just a month shy of the tenth anniversary of her naming by the Queen at this very spot on 17th October 2007. The vessel was constructed at the Remontowa shipyard in Gdansk and launched on 26th July 2006. She is normally based at her home port of Harwich.

The near ten year old tender was designed as a state of the art vessel to support Trinity House’s role as the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. This includes buoy handling, wreck marking and hydrographic surveying. Quite a striking change from the cruise ship visitors more familiar through the summer, especially with her distinctive 30 tonne lift crane!

THV Galatea and HMS Belfast with Tower Bridge in the background

The evening rush hour got a rather impressive view of the ship with black skies, brilliant sunshine and a rainbow which are probably circulating on social media right at this minute. I was a little too slow making it to the bridge for that shot, timing my arrival for the last few rays of sun and the arrival of a deluge! After sheltering for a moment or two I was lucky enough to have a chance to redeem myself.

THV Galatea will be moored alongside HMS Belfast until the evening of Thursday 14th September.

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Seven highlights from the Folkestone Triennial 2017

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 3, 2017

The Folkestone Triennial has once again served up an interesting mix of work from 20 artists which have been spread across the breadth of the town from the Leas to the East cliff. Highlights include a couple of figures from Anthony Gormley, gilded replicas of Folkestone’s fishing fleet by Jonathan Wright and an audio installation by Emily Peasgood in the Baptist Burial Ground.

I usually pop down some time after the event has got into its stride, but on this occasion I took a look on its opening weekend and discovered that not everything was quite ready. One of the artworks, Bill Woodrow’s The Ledge, won’t be installed until later in September so all you can do now is admire an empty black plinth!

1. Fleet on Foot – Jonathan Wright

The moment I stepped into Tontine Street my eye was immediately drawn to Jonathan Wright’s distinctive gilded replicas of boats from Folkestone’s current fishing fleet which stand atop poles at various points along the street, leading you down to harbour square. The location is rather appropriate as the street sits atop the Pent stream, a mostly hidden water channel that runs along a culvert and into the harbour (though I discovered the hard way, in August 1996, that it causes havoc when it floods!).

A 3D printed replica of fishing boat FE75 “Rowena” (built Rye, 1989) in Tontine Street

I’m no art connoisseur but I liked the crossover between the artworks and the familiar everyday sights of Folkestone Harbour. It was fun comparing these to the real thing a little later in the day on a wander along the Stade.

2. Halfway to Heaven – Emily Peasgood

The Bradstone Road Burial Ground is a Folkestone oddity – a graveyard that has sat 20 feet above street level since the mid-nineteenth century. The burial ground was originally on the hillside, in the grounds of the local miller’s house, but when the railways arrived the land was needed to allow the town to expand. No-one wanted to disturb the dead so the burial ground was left untouched as the rest of the hillside was cut away. The graveyard was surrounded by retaining walls that have kept this last piece of the hillside intact right up to the present day.

Bradstone Road Burial Ground

The sound installations at the Baptist Burial Ground were quite hauntingly beautiful. The artist, Emily Peasgood, had researched the individuals buried here and this was used to create sound pieces that triggered as you wandered amongst the graves. It was perhaps at its most amazing when a handful of people were wandering around, triggering the sound pieces at the same time.

I was really pleased that we got the chance to go up the stairs to the burial ground and look around. It really is very odd to find a graveyard up a set of steepish stairs with the street on one side and a garage at the back. My father was fascinated too – his best man’s house overlooked the burial ground from across the street but he had never been up until this weekend. It’s a fascinating curiosity of history.

3. Holiday Home – Richard Woods

It is pretty much impossible to miss Richard Wood’s contribution to the Folkestone Triennial – six one-third size ‘holiday homes’ that draw attention to the growth in second homes at a time when many cannot afford a house at all. The six homes are deliberately placed in unlikely places to show that ‘no site is too small, too unlikely, or too inconvenient for its neighbours, for a holiday home’.

One of the holiday homes on the shingle in front of Marine Crescent

The printed maps we picked up show a different location for one of the houses (marked on the map as 6e) to that shown in the map available to download from the website. This house is sited on the shingle in front of Marine Crescent not part-way up the zig zag path.

4. Another Time XVIII and XXI – Antony Gormley

Two of Anthony Gormleys now very familiar cast-iron figures are on loan to the Folkestone Triennial and were a big draw on the opening weekend. One is placed at the far end of the Parade, nearest to the east cliff, whilst the other has been installed in a loading bay on the Folkestone Harbour arm.

Another Time XVIII 2013 at the Loading Bay, Folkestone Harbour Arm

The figure on the harbour arm was sufficiently popular that queues had formed at one point on the first day of the Triennial. A short set of steps takes you down to a viewpoint over the loading bay but you can’t get up too close. You also need the tide to be in your favour – when I returned on the sunday the floor of the loading bay and viewpoint was completely covered with water!

By contrast, the figure in the parade was somewhat easier to access, albeit down a rather slippery set of steps. I probably haven’t wandered around the arches here since I was a child, so it was good fun looking at the different angles that were possible for a photograph.

Another Time XVIII 2013 at high tide (photographed through the grill)

I’ve seen these figures in a few locations now, but nothing quite compares to the effect of seeing so many spread along Crosby beach. Nevertheless, it was great to see them in Folkestone.

5. Siren – Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od

The piece from Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od really appealed to me as it draws on the ‘listening ears’ along this stretch of coast which I just happened to have visited a little over a month back.

Siren at sunrise

Siren is marvelously positioned near the East Cliff Pavilion, with a great view over the Sands and Folkestone Harbour. It was proving a popular spot on the first day, though most folk seemed more interested in hearing their own voices impressively amplified than listening to the waves to get the sea-shell effect.

6. Lamp Post (as remembered) – David Shrigley

The idea behind David Shrigley’s piece was to reflect Folkestone’s creative-led move away from its long history serving the traditional tourist market. To that end he invited an artist to spend 40 seconds memorising the decorative lamp posts on the Leas and then re-create this from memory, thus turning heritage into an artwork befitting of the new Folkestone.

Lamp Post (as remembered)

It’s an interesting concept and one that plays out nicely as you stroll along the Leas wondering if you will spot the interloper immediately. In fact, it is easy to do so because it is much shorter and then as you get closer you notice the differences in design. Quite apart from anything else it made me look closer at the existing lamp posts which I have too easily ignored in the past!

7. Minaret – HoyCheong Wong

One of the things I love most about the triennial is the chance to see Folkestone afresh, whether that is surfacing a bit of forgotten history or providing a new viewpoint on a familiar sight. I have to confess that I had absolutely no idea of the existence of the Islamic Cultural Centre, which has operated as a Mosque in Foord Street for 28 years. I must have walked past it plenty of times on my way to my Nan’s house without noticing.

The Islamic Cultural Centre illuminated at night

You certainly can’t miss it now. For the duration of the triennial HoyCheong Wong has added a delightful temporary facade with minarets which is illuminated at night. It proved a popular spot to visit on our evening stroll, turning the usually quiet side street into a magnet for art-hunters. I’m not sure what the occasional motorist made of the folk lined against the wall that borders one side of the road in an attempt to get that perfect shot!

Practicalities

The fourth incarnation of the Folkestone Triennial runs every day from 2nd September to 5th November 2017. A map and app are available through the Folkestone Triennial website.

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Re-imagining Folkestone

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 3, 2017

A weekend trip to see the Folkestone Triennial provided a welcome opportunity to see what has been going on around the town in the three years since I last made it down.

A view of Folkestone Harbour from the newly opened walkway towards the True Briton

The transformation of the town was already well under way last time I visited, but I was really struck by the health and vitality of Tontine Street, a far cry from the run down state of the street in the 1990s. The restoration of the Brewery Tap as an exhibition space for the University for the Creative Arts is rather wonderful (we popped in to see the current installation and my father reminisced about his last visit in the 1960s, a time when it still had a sawdust floor).

The Old High Street looked reassuringly busy with only a handful of shop units lying empty – astonishing when you consider how many high streets are struggling right now. It is also encouraging to see the side-effects of regeneration spreading across town and the much needed refurbishment of hotels that have long seemed stuck in the past.

In various spots around town you can see that the work continues. The demolition of the Old Bingo Hall and Co-op buildings has left quite a noticeable gap at the junction of Dover Road and Tontine Street which will be filled by a world class six storey Urban Sports Park when construction is completed in 2018. It looks like a really exciting development and one that shows that this wave of transformation is not solely for the benefit of incomers (as some have suggested).

The new pedestrian walkway across the old Folkestone Harbour Viaduct on the morning of 3rd September 2017

However, it is around Folkestone Harbour and the coastal park that the most dramatic changes have taken place. On 2nd September 2017 a new pedestrian walkway across Folkestone Harbour opened using the railway viaduct and swing bridge. It seemed to be an instant success with everyone and offers a lovely perspective on the harbour (I especially like the way that they have adapted the well-built brick support for the sidings into a viewing platform looking across the outer harbour). Access is currently via temporary steps in harbour square – a staircase and lift will come later.

The new walkway will eventually continue through the railway station, providing a connection with the harbour arm and the newly established boardwalk across the shingle towards the Leas Lift. At the moment work is continuing on the station but what you can see already looks pretty impressive with the replacement of the canopies and restoration of the station walls. When this is finished visitors will have the option to walk at platform level or on the track bed path. It may not be the preserved railway line that I once hoped for but it is a wonderfully sympathetic restoration that does a terrific job of preserving the history of the site.

Restoration of the canopies and installation of the new trackbed paths continues at Folkestone Harbour Station

An indication of how well this has been done can be seen in the beautiful revival of the last surviving part of the old Customs House, with the addition of some lovely wooden doors, which currently houses an exhibition in connection with the triennial. The restoration and adaptation of the buildings on the harbour arm and the re-establishment of the platform break (where the line to West Beach Carriage Sidings used to cut through) show a similar respect for the history of this site. The latter connects with a boardwalk across a freshly re-shingled beach that hides the footprint of the old Rotunda site.

If I have any quibbles about the development they are mostly around the scale of a few of the taller buildings that will be built in the last stage of the project on the south quay – it looked as though they rather dwarfed elements like the Old Customs House in the model and illustrations on display in the visitor centre (located at the entrance to the harbour arm from the car park overlooking the sands). However, it’s not as though the buildings that were on this spot until recently were pleasing to the eye and surely nothing can be any worse than the architectural monstrosity that is the Burstin!

The first stage of the Folkestone Harbour walkway is a striking addition to the geography of the town and puts it on the map with other innovative adaptations of old railway lines such as the Promenade Plantée in Paris and the High line in New York. Not bad company to be keeping!

The sympathetic restoration of the station platforms is rather special

The creative-industry led regeneration in Folkestone continues to be rather wonderful and unusual, saving the town from the downward trajectory seen in many a coastal town where traditional industries and/or tourist markets have been in steady decline. Sadly most of the deprived coastal communities around the country do not have a benefactor like De Haan to inject such sustained and much needed investment.

Folkestone’s fascinating story of re-invention from the fashionable resort of the Victorian era to a new life as a hub of artistic creativity is remarkable, but it is worth remembering that the regeneration is not a panacea for all the problems that the town faces, particularly when there are still wards around the harbour that are among the 10% of most deprived in the country.

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A little bank holiday sun at Chartwell

Posted in England by folkestonejack on August 28, 2017

After the coldest start to the summer holidays since 1982 a little heat over the august bank holiday weekend has been a pleasant surprise to those of us missing the sun. In an attempt to make the most of the good weather we took a little trip on the 246 bus to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s family home in Westerham, Kent.

Winston Churchill’s country retreat at Chartwell

As others have noted before, it is a delightful bus ride in its own right taking you through Keston, Leaves Green, Biggin Hill (with views of the airport, memorial church and the boarded up married quarters from the former RAF station) and Westerham. The route includes the southernmost bus stop in London and also the highest above sea level. It is easy to forget that you are on a London bus as you pass along one narrow country lane after another.

Once you have entered the grounds it is quickly apparent why Winston Churchill made his uncharacteristic decision to buy the house in September 1922. Standing on the terrace in front of the homely red brick Victorian mansion you are faced with splendid views of undulating green countryside. The house is surrounded by other green delights too, including a colourful butterfly-filled garden and a croquet lawn.

I have been to Chartwell once before, as a teenager in 1986, so it was good to come back to better appreciate the house and grounds. One thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years is the slow procession through the house – it is inevitably too cosy for the 230,000 plus who visit each year despite the careful arrangements to allow entry via timed slots. At least it allows you time to soak up the detail.

The exhibition in the house offered up a few surprises, not least the discovery that it was Winston’s own efforts at bricklaying to create a beautiful walled garden that we had been admiring before our tour. I rather liked a picture of Churchill building a snowman at Chartwell too!

Summer colour at Chartwell

After wandering through the house we made a quick stop off at Churchill’s painting filled studio before heading home in the midday sun. Our only regret was that we didn’t get to see Jock VI, the latest marmalade cat in residence!

Practicalities

The 246 only heads to Chartwell on a handful of Mondays each year (it only runs on Sundays and Bank Holidays) and conveniently stops right outside the entrance to the grounds. The first bus of the day arrives at 10.12 and we picked it up from Hayes.

Admission to the house and grounds is free to National Trust members or £15 (including gift aid) per adult at current prices. Entry to the house is by timed ticket at 10 minute intervals and on summer sundays and bank holidays these often sell out fairly early in the day.

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Biggin Hill – Festival of Flight 2017

Posted in Biggin Hill, England by folkestonejack on August 19, 2017

It is all too easy to overlook the sights and attractions that lay closest to home. Unfathomably, I never attended the Biggin Hill International Air Fair, the largest privately organised air show in Europe in its day, even though it was more or less on my doorstep. I only appreciated my mistake when time was called on the event in 2010 after a 43 year run. The closest I got was looking up at military jets in transit whilst mowing the lawn!

The Saab JAS39C Gripen from the Czech Air Force

In 2014 a smaller event, the Festival of Flight, was launched at Biggin Hill and this year’s show was extended to two days to celebrate the centenary of the airport. The airport has come along way from the airfield used by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the First World War and is today mostly used by business jets.

I finally made it out to the air show by bus (regular local buses from Hayes on the first day and the special bus from Croydon on the second) and spent two enjoyable days taking photographs with the terrific backdrop of some of the older buildings of the West Camp.

Mil Mi-24 Hind and Mil Mi-171 Hip

The highlight for me had to be the Mil Mi-24 Hind and Mil Mi-171 Hip from the Czech Air Force but there was a lovely variety to the air show, in part from the regular and irregular traffic interspersed with the displays that included civilian flights and military jets departing for air displays in other parts of the country.

Other aircraft at Biggin Hill included the Belgian F-16 Fighting Falcon, the B-17 Flying Fortress, Typhoon, Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, JAS39C Gripen, EADS CASA C-295 and Boeing CH-37 Chinook.

The Red Arrows taxiing in at Biggin Hill

As always the Red Arrows put on an excellent display (on this occasion the flat display as the full display is impossible here due to the restricted airspace overhead) but the biggest surprise of the show had to be the display from G-Force aerobatics which features the unusual double act of an Extra 300s with a 40% scale radio-controlled model Extra. The precision of the acrobatics these two planes performed was simply astonishing and it was easy to forget that you were looking at a model at times.

It may not be the slickest of air shows but the Biggin Hill Festival of Flight has a lovely atmosphere, a great setting and doesn’t feel too overcrowded. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back!

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Goddards House and the Terry’s chocolate story

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 13, 2017

On our travels we have come across many surprising twists and turns in history that have been long forgotten. A late afternoon visit to Goddards House at the edge of York Racecourse, home of the Terry family, revealed another of these: if the original plans of the Terry’s chocolate company had worked out we might all now associate the name of Terry’s with the chocolate apple (1924-1954) instead of the chocolate orange (1926-present).

Goddards House

This year sees the 250th anniversary of the Terry’s business, which started life in 1767 as a chemist shop near Bootham’s Bar in the centre of York. The story of the family and their chocolate business is told in the wonderful arts and crafts home that Noel Terry commissioned to overlook their new factory in 1927.

Goddards House is a lovely property in its own right but must have been all the more special in its time as a family home as Noel Terry was an avid collector of mid-18th century English furniture. Today this collection can be seen at Fairfax House and the house is rather more sparsely furnished with pieces befitting of a house of this era.

In the upstairs rooms the story of the Terry’s chocolate business is illustrated with wonderful photographs, a model of the factory complex and examples of their packaging. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the ingenious designs from the early 20th century and a bit of nostalgia for later product ranges that I had long forgotten about.

The guides explained that the creativeness of the business in developing innovative products led to it having too many product lines, many with runs too small to be economic. The business was sold on to United Biscuits in 1975 and then on to Kraft in 1993 with the new owners immediately slashing the product range from over a hundred to just three.

250 years of Terry’s

The factory closed in 2005 and production was switched to plants in Europe, such as the massive ‘line of the future’ at Skarbimierz, Poland. The factory site has since been redeveloped for luxury flats and the original office complex has been sympathetically restored as the hub of a rather impressive care village (including a Terry’s chocolate shop).

It’s well worth making the trip out to Goddards House (just a short trip by bus from York Railway Station) in this double anniversary year. Adult admission currently costs £7 per person though for us this was covered by our National Trust membership.

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Fountains Hall and Abbey

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 13, 2017

A Sunday outing to the National Trust site at Fountains Abbey proved to be a great way to enjoy a sunnier day in Yorkshire, but the initial draw for us was not the abbey ruins but the somewhat overlooked Elizabethan prodigy house. Arguably, you could say that we were still coming to see the abbey as Fountains Hall was built using stone from the ruins (the hall even includes a complete spiral staircase taken from the abbey).

Fountains Hall

In any other location Fountains Hall would be a major attraction, but on this site it is dwarfed by the majestic ruins of Fountains Abbey and the extensive 18th century pleasure gardens of Studley Royal. Construction of the hall began in 1598, almost 60 years on from the dissolution of the abbey and the subsequent wrecking to make it unfit for religious use. The abbey has been a ruin for the entire lifespan of the hall.

The exterior of the hall reflects the influence of Robert Smythson but is not in the league of grander houses from the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean age such as Hardwick Hall or Burghley House. Nevertheless, Fountains Hall has the wow factor that you expect from a prodigy house even if the three rooms open to visitors can’t hope to live up to that first impression. Through much of its history the hall has been in a state of decay as the home of estate workers and tenant farmers. The rooms not open to visitors include holiday and staff flats.

The later history of the hall turns out to be as fascinating as its beginning. In 1923 the hall was purchased by the Vyner family and their extensive restoration efforts saved the building at a pivotal moment in its history. It is intriguing to note that Clare and Doris Vyner were great friends of the then Duke and Duchess of York and had history turned out differently Fountains Hall may have become a royal country retreat. Instead the abdication of Edward VIII set the couple on a different course.

I gather there are plans to open up and make more of the hall, including the re-opening of the chapel room. I hope this comes to pass as this house deserves to be appreciated for the architectural marvel it is.

Fountains Abbey

A short walk from the hall brought us to the west range of Fountains Abbey, which was first established on the site in December 1132. The views of the surviving buildings as you wander through are magnificent and make it pretty clear that this was an impressive complex by the time of its surrender in November 1539. Some elements, such as Huby’s Tower, were barely 40 years old by this point.

The pleasure gardens present an altogether different collection of delights with temples, towers and statues within a watery setting. Although these stand on their own today they were originally the grounds of Studley Royal House which burnt down in 1946. I particularly liked the gothic Octagon Tower which you reach by taking an artificial uphill tunnel (known as the Serpentine Tunnel).

Our day visiting the estate was a delight and it is wonderful to see a site where so many layers of history are so accessible, from the earliest abbey buildings to the carefully engineered water gardens of the eighteenth century and on to the second world war memorial established by the Vyner family inside Fountains Hall in memory of their two eldest children. It is well worth a day of exploration and discovery!

Practicalities

We caught the first 822 ‘Fountains Flyer’ bus of the day from the stop at York Theatre Royal to Fountains Abbey at a cost of £10 for an adult return. This bus only runs on Summer Sundays and Bank Holidays, taking 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Fountains Abbey via Ripon. The seating on the bus was filled up by the time we reached the halfway point, though many switched to another bus at Ripon. We picked up the return bus at 2pm, but there is a later bus at 4.55pm and I suspect that most of the passengers we encountered in the morning opted for the latter.

Our stay was sufficient to take in the abbey, water gardens and the hall but we skipped the mill and the exhibition in the Porters Lodge. We also didn’t stray far beyond the National Trust grounds. If you want to take the time to walk out to the Deer Park and St Mary’s Church you would probably need the later bus.

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Castle Howard and the Treasurer’s House

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 12, 2017

A short stay in Yorkshire gave us the opportunity to spend our Saturday visiting two very different historic sites – Castle Howard and the Treasurer’s House – each with their own fascinating preservation stories.

Castle Howard

The three hundred year old Castle Howard is a remarkable survivor. In November 1940 the house was ravaged by a terrible fire that destroyed 20 of the finest rooms, its iconic dome and many of its artistic treasures. A third of the building was left open to the skies. It could easily have started the building on a spiral of decline but instead the family opened the house to the public and set course on a steady programme of restoration that has allowed this stately home to reclaim its place among the treasure houses of England.

Early successes included the restoration of the Temple of the Four Winds in 1955, the reconstruction of the dome in 1961 and the recreation of Pellegrini’s Fall of Phaeton on the underside of the dome in 1962. The list of works needed to keep this place in good shape must be daunting, including many elements far from the house that many visitors will have missed such as the Monument to the 7th Earl of Carlisle and the castellated walls half-way up the stray (we only half-glimpsed these from the bus taking us back to York).

One of the most intriguing elements of the house today are the derelict interiors left over from the fire of the 1940s. The film company shooting the most recent Brideshead film saw an opportunity to create film sets in these spaces to ‘restore’ the garden hall and the high saloon. The guides in the rooms were keen to stress that everything was not as it seemed the moment we stepped inside, pointing out the most illusory elements and techniques used to achieve the effect of aging. It was certainly effective and gave us a stronger sense of what has been lost here.

The continuing appeal of the restored house and grounds can be judged in the massive increase in visitor numbers over the past decade or so, with 270,680 visitors in 2016, up from 171,601 in 2004 (according to the figures published by Association of Leading Visitor Attractions). Let’s hope this stays on its upward track, helping to contribute to the funds needed to keep up the ongoing restoration of the estate.

The Treasurer’s House

Our second stop, on our return to York, was the Treasurer’s House. This building has the distinction of being the first property gifted to the National Trust, albeit with the stipulation that it should be presented exactly as its owner specified.

You might not think this a problem but that owner, wealthy industrialist Frank Green, had an interesting perspective on historical accuracy which saw him conduct substantial architectural re-arrangement and inauthentic decoration to achieve his vision of how he thought the house must have been. This included the movement of fireplaces, re-positioning walls and the complete removal of one floor! The exacting degree to which this presentation was specified can be seen in the metal studs used to mark out the exact positions of furniture on the floor.

Through the mid-twentieth century the house was presented with more historically accurate interior decoration, but in the late 1990s the National Trust decided that the honourable course of action would be to return the house to the way Frank Green intended it to be seen. In a funny way this makes it all the more fascinating as you enter each room and discover how it had been altered to fit Frank Green’s vision for the house (assisted by the very knowledgeable guides and photographs showing the rooms before and after alteration).

The property has seen more royal visits than you might expect – Edward VII, his wife Alexandra and daughter Victoria stayed here and the rooms given names to permanently record this. However, the rooms were not preserved exactly as they has been arranged for their stay with much grander beds and furniture added afterwards. You can’t take anything at face value in this place!

We arrived fairly late in the day so we didn’t get the opportunity to try the hard-hat tours of the basement (where the famous sighting of an entire legion of ghostly roman soldiers occurred) or the rooftop walks. Maybe next time…

Practicalities

We took the direct 181 bus from York (leaving from stop RM in Station Avenue, a short walk down the road from York Station) to Castle Howard. Admission to the house and gardens came to £18.95 (we were able to take advantage of a 2 for 1 voucher from Treasure Houses of England given to us at Hatfield House.

The 181 bus route is operated by Stephensons of Easingwold and at the time of our trip a return ticket came to £10 per adult for the hour long journey. It’s only a single decker bus (presumably because it has to pass under a low arch on its way down the ceremonial southern approach, known as ‘The Stray’) but just about everyone got a seat on a busy summer Saturday, suggesting that they’ve got this just about right. Three buses run out and back each day between Monday and Friday, with a fourth added on Saturdays. Separate services are available on Sundays and Bank Holidays between 14th April and 24th September 2017.

The Treasurer’s House is located in the centre of York, just around the corner from York Minster. The garden is free to enter whenever the house is open (it’s a lovely space in its own right). Admission to the house currently costs £8.50 for an adult (including gift aid) but our entry was covered by membership of the National Trust.

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A tale of two taxis

Posted in England, Stratford-upon-Avon by folkestonejack on August 6, 2017

The idea of a relaxing and stress free weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon with the opportunity to visit two fascinating National Trust sites sounded great in principle, yet proved to be anything but. Instead, it became memorable for two hours waiting for rail replacement taxis instead!

Baddesley Clinton – one of two NT properties we visited this weekend

It used to be relatively easy to catch a through train from London Marylebone to Stratford-upon-Avon at the weekend, but since the new route to Oxford Parkway started in October 2015 most of these have been reduced to connect with local services. At present this requires a switch to a London Midland service at Dorridge with a 6 minute connection.

Our train reached Dorridge at precisely the same time as our connecting train was due to leave. It stayed on the platform just long enough for the fastest among us to race over the footbridge, only setting off the moment they reached the doors! The thirty or so passengers left behind trooped in to the ticket office to discover that Chiltern Railways would be laying on replacement taxis. Our relief was short lived. The slowly unfolding saga of the taxi arrivals ensured that we were still waiting when the next train appeared – one hour later!

Incredibly, the next day delivered yet more rail replacement taxis after our train to Hatton (for Lapworth) was cancelled. In a ludicrous sequence of events our taxi took us as far as the outskirts of Stratford upon Avon before we discovered that the taxi firm would only allow our driver to take us in the wrong direction to a connection for London that we didn’t want or need! This madness was only resolved after our taxi returned to our starting point and the incredibly helpful station master intervened.

To say that we were relieved when we finally reached Packwood House, would be a massive understatement. Thankfully, the calming beauty of the gardens was the perfect antidote to the stresses of the morning.

Our first stop in Lapworth – Packwood House

Packwood House is an interesting beast – a Tudor manor house remodelled by Graham Baron Ash in the 1920s-30s to create a much grander country house, financed by a family business in the galvanised steel industry. It’s such an effective transformation that it is not always immediately apparent when you step into new territory – such as with the Great Hall converted from a barn in 1927 and the long gallery from 1932 that connects this to the main house. Much of the furniture, fittings and tapestries that look so at home here were actually rescued from country houses facing destruction or financial ruin (including many from a sale at Baddesley Clinton in the 1930s).

The house is presented as it was left by Baron Ash in 1941, reflecting the way he wanted it to be seen rather than how it had appeared during his time living in the house. Nevertheless, it still comes across as an eminently comfortable country house unlike many that I have visited. Queen Mary must have had the same opinion on a visit in 1927, remarking on the comforts of this bachelor pad. This extends to the rather delightful gardens that surround the property, including a rather extraordinary Yew garden that dates back 350 years (supposedly symbolising the Sermon on the Mount!).

The moated manor house at Baddesley Clinton

The second National Trust property we visited was the picturesque moated manor house at Baddesley Clinton. This building is a wonderful blend of styles that reflects its construction in phases during the 15th and 16th centuries followed by major remodelling in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was the home of the Ferrers, a family of Catholic recusants, for thirteen generations – an impressive feat in the turbulent history of this island.

There is plenty to take in on a wander through the house and plenty of wonderful stories to bring it to life, from tales of fishing in the moat from bedroom windows to the long-lasting stain of blood in the library supposedly from the murder of a priest in the late 15th century (which it transpires was actually animal blood, topped up by a member of the family to keep up the story!). The elaborate decoration in the great hall and in Henry Ferrers’ bedroom were highlights of the free flow tour, but the room I found the most satisfying was the library – it managed to blend the old with a livable quality and looked to have been left much as its last owner left it.

One of the most interesting elements of the house is a chamber below the house used to hide Catholic priests from the priest hunters of the late 16th century – a brave move at a time when this action would have brought a charge of treason. This ‘priest hole’ was accessed through the shaft running from the privy on the upper floor and was large enough to have hidden nine priests during a four hour long search in October 1591. In more recent times a view of the hole was cut-through the kitchen floor for the benefit of visitors.

It was a lovely day out, despite the slight rocky start, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit to both properties. If I had to choose just one I think the rich history of Baddesley Clinton would win out for me.

Practicalities

The plan for our weekend was simple enough – an afternoon and evening show at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stratford upon Avon base on the Saturday followed by a sightseeing trip to Lapworth on the Sunday.

The execution of this plan showed up its weaknesses! Under the current timetable there are only two trains that you can realistically catch from Stratford upon Avon on a Sunday to reach Lapworth with a reasonable journey time. In both cases this involves a change of trains at Hatton. The first of these options, at 9.38 gets you to Lapworth at 10.06 and the second at 12.19 gets you to Lapworth at 12.49. The only alternatives to these involve 1.5 to 2 hour trips. If you want to see both National Trust properties at Lapworth on a Sunday outing from Stratford upon Avon the 9.38 train is your only option.

Summer colours at Packwood

The walk from Lapworth station to Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton takes around half an hour apiece, whilst our walk between the two properties took us around 1 hour and 15 minutes with one hobbling walker! I’m not sure if we took the quickest route between the two properties but it was certainly a pleasant walk that was mostly covered by public footpaths (including a stretch along the Grand Union Canal between Rising Lane and the Old Warwick Road). The footpaths were reassuringly well marked and maintained, though you do need to keep an eye out for the small square markers and ideally have an OS map to hand. If you feel up to it, there is a longer seven mile circular walk connecting the two properties.

Our admission fees were covered by our National Trust membership but at each property you are allocated a slot to visit the house. If you visit on a busy day, as we seemed to have done, you may find yourself with a bit of a wait before you can enter the houses. We were lucky here – our entrance slot was perfect to give us enough time for a visit before we had to head back to the station to get our train home. If we had arrived any later we may well have had to admire the building without being able to go in!

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Thoughts about Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on August 3, 2017

I made a trip to the IMAX theatre at the Science Museum (an impressive 16.8m tall screen that is the height of four double-decker buses) last week to see Christopher Nolan’s new film about Dunkirk and have been reflecting on it a little since then.

First up, I have to say that watching the 15/70mm film format version on such a gigantic screen places you in the action in a way that I have never experienced at a cinema before. This ‘immersive’ experience is undoubtedly assisted by the absence of back stories and somewhat spartan dialogue which focuses your attention all the more on the individual battle to survive. The story of the evacuation that follows is never less than riveting, from the terror of the opening moments to the beautiful cinematography of the final spitfire sequence. The evocation of the green and pleasant land that the survivors return to in early Summer 1940 is quite wonderfully realised.

The film has picked up criticism from some quarters as an assault on the senses and for various historical inaccuracies, some of which were acknowledged up front as necessary adjustments to help the audience. I think I managed to suspend disbelief for the most part, though I was pulled up rather sharply by the 1970s refurbished carriage interiors that haven’t long disappeared from today’s railways! Overall, I thought it was an astonishing creation and if it gives us a fraction of the sense of what that experience was like then it is massive achievement.

I have very little idea what my grandfathers, Alf and Pete, went through at Dunkirk so anything that helps me get a feel for that I greatly appreciate. I’ve been through the war diaries, regimental histories and a fair few books over the years but I still can’t begin to imagine how traumatised the men were by the time they reached Dunkirk, let alone what they experienced on the beaches and in the water. The little I know makes me wish I had a better understanding of the sacrifices made by my grandparents whilst they were alive.

In reality no film could match up to horrors so great that men could not bring themselves to speak of for the rest of their lives. The same holds true of the 1958 film. My grandfather, Alf, was worried that the 1958 film would show the terrible sights that he had seen and would not let anyone see it until he had been to the cinema to check it out. In the end he was quite relieved that it didn’t come anywhere close.

It’s definitely worth catching at the cinema as it won’t be anywhere near as effective on the small screen. If you can find it at an IMAX screen so much the better.

Soaked on the Solent

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on August 1, 2017

The news that the US Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft carrier George H W Bush was due to arrive in Portsmouth at the end of the week generated a ripple of excitement in the local and online communities. Although warships are a familiar sight here it’s not that often that the opportunity arises to see one of the world’s largest aircraft carriers around these shores.

I thought I would come down for a daytrip and see if I could improve on the photo I took of the same ship on a rather grey day on the Isle of Wight in 2011. Tickets for the two hour cruises offered by the Gosport Ferry company to see the carrier, moored in Stokes Bay, sold out very quickly.

USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) moored at Stokes Bay, as seen during a short-lived break from the rain in late afternoon

The slot I picked had just about the worst weather of the weekend with heavy rain for most of the time and only occasional breaks. We must have looked like a sightseeing boat destined for the Niagara Falls rather than Stokes Bay with everyone wrapped up in plastic and waterproof layers (still knowing that this would be insuffient, as the soggy remains of my rucksack all too sadly prove!).

Needless to say, my photographs were pretty terrible (far worse than last time) but it was still good to see around the warship from close up (at least, as near as you could get with a strictly enforced exclusion zone). From the water it looked like a floating car park with so many of its fixed wing jets and helicopters on deck. Such a pity the forecast was so accurate this time!

The ferry trip may not have been the success that I had hoped for but I did have a good day, catching the arrival of the destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) and getting to visit the submarine museum at Gosport.

USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) enters Portsmouth Harbour in mid-morning

I did not know anything about the attractions at the submarine museum and was quite simply astonished to see and be able to go inside the first submarine commissioned by the Royal Navy (HMS Holland 1 – commissioned in 1900, lost in 1913 and raised in 1982). The other exhibits (including HMS X24 and HMS Alliance) and display galleries were pretty terrific too. It’s a pretty marvelous museum all round and well worth visiting.

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Push-Pull to New Romney

Posted in Dungeness, England, New Romney by folkestonejack on July 15, 2017

A conversation with my father about the small bridge used by the Southern Railway line to cross over the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch narrow gauge War Department branch line (as mentioned in my recent post ‘A trio of sound mirrors‘) prompted a few memories of the operation of the standard gauge line. I thought it was an interesting follow up to my last blog post. It’s probably no great revelation to any knowledgeable railway enthusiast but I was fascinated to hear how the line operated!

My father used to work as a fireman on steam hauled freight (the Lydd Goods) and passenger trains down to New Romney around 1957, some twenty years after the line opened. The motive power would usually be a H class tank for the passenger trains and a C class or 01 for the goods. The line was single worked with a staff picked up and handed over to the signalman at New Romney.

At New Romney the standard gauge station stood on one side of the level crossing whilst the narrow gauge line sat on the other, though the standard gauge track actually continued over the level crossing a short way and was used whenever they had deliveries for the RHDR (the Kent Rail website has a helpful map illustrating this). The standard gauge station had two platforms but by this time the second of these was already grassed over. They would also do a bit of shunting here for the local coal merchant. At Lydd they would sometimes work into a siding and pick up beach stone from the quarry there.

The operation was worked on a push-pull basis – pushing into New Romney and pulling out of New Romney. On a two carriage passenger train the loco would sit at the back, tender facing the coach, whilst it pushed the train into New Romney. The fireman would be in the loco (usually getting all the smoke blowing back) whilst the driver would drive from the coaches where he had controls that allowed him to operate the regulator. At least that was the theory! In practice, they never used this and the pipe was usually left uncoupled. Instead, the driver would ring a bell and the fireman would shut the regulator.

My father recalls one occasion approaching Ham Street where he thought the driver was leaving it rather late, not realising that a bit of coal had fallen and broken the bell cord!

As for the starting point of our conversation – the narrow gauge line had been lifted by the point my father was working trains through here so there couldn’t have been much to see, though he did recall a bump on the way into New Romney which might well have been this small bridge.

A trio of sound mirrors

Posted in Dungeness, England by folkestonejack on July 15, 2017

The other worldly landscape at Dungeness holds many surprises, having been the home to many an experiment in new wireless, radar and navigational technologies. The most curious of these is a trio of ‘sound mirrors’ dating to 1928-30 which were at the cutting edge of advances in the detection of aircraft by sound long before they became apparent to the unassisted human ear.

Although the technology was proven it would never see full operation, having been rendered obsolete by developments in the use of radio waves that would go on to become radar. In some ways this short-lived field of military technology is all the more fascinating for its unfamiliarity, whether that be these monstrous fixed concrete listening ears or the even more extra-ordinary mobile sound locators.

The three sound mirrors are on an island that can only be reached by a narrow swing bridge used for open days and guided walks

The 20ft, 30ft and 200ft sound mirrors that survive at this site are now surrounded by the deep-waters of the Greatstone Lakes, formerly the Lade Pits, which are man-made quarries that have steadily been reclaimed by nature since the end of sand and gravel extraction. Today, the site forms part of the RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve.

The three sound mirrors present a perfect demonstration of the development of the technology. The earliest of these, the 20 foot sound mirror, was completed in July 1928 and would have been operated using a swing-able collecting trumpet connected to the listener by a tube and stethoscope.

The 30 foot mirror, constructed between February and April 1930, afforded its operators a little more shelter with a listening chamber enclosed with glass windows. This sound mirror also used a swing-able collecting trumpet and this mechanism is surprisingly intact (with the exception of the trumpet that sat at the very end). A look at period photographs shows that the ground level has dropped by at least 3-4 feet here, exposing concrete that would have sat well below the single at the time of its use.

The decision to go ahead with the construction of the largest of the sound mirrors, a 200 foot long curving concrete wall with a height of 26 feet, took place in late 1928 and work was complete by the summer of 1930. This strip mirror was intended to pick up the low frequency sound waves from approaching aircraft at three times the range of the unaided ear (if not more) and could be used to identify the bearing and distinguish aircraft (so long as they were separated by more than 10 degrees).

This giant introduced a number of advancements, making the move from a swinging trumpet-shaped sound collector to a series of 20 microphones, placed five foot apart on the concrete forecourt. At first the monitoring was carried out from a hut beside the wall, but in 1933 a control room was added behind the mirror with a window was cut into the concrete to give the operator a clear view of the entire forecourt.

The 200 foot strip mirror was built to endure the strongest winds, with steel-re-inforcement bars inside the wall and buttresses at the rear every 10 feet. This was also sufficient to ensure that attempts to demolish it in 1940 proved trickier than expected, leading to the abandonment of the attempt (the initial focus of the demolition was on the buttresses and the damage caused by this was subsequently rectified during a restoration programme in 2003). Instead, the mirrors were abandoned and left to crumble in their own time.

The 20 and 30 foot sound mirrors at Greatstone

I was interested to read that the experimental establishment had problems with inappropriate access as early as 1930, with staff having to turn away day trippers. This necessitated the replacement of boundary stones with a barbed wire fence. It is testament to the continued curiosity factor and appeal of the sound mirrors that this has remained a problem all of their life.

The shifting and sinking shingle continued to expose the foundations of the sound mirrors, leaving them in a perilous condition. The future might have seemed bleak but it was at this point that English Heritage stepped in with a restoration project partly funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. The marvelous sight of the trio, now stabilised and in a much improved condition, is testament to the success of that work.

Practicalities

The Sound Mirrors are usually only available to see close-up on a handful of occasions each year, for open days or guided walks. If you haven’t managed to time your visit for one of these you can still get a pretty decent view of the mirrors from the pathway alongside the Greatstone Lakes. It’s worth keeping an eye out on the event listings of the RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve and the Romney Marsh website.

Footpath across the shingle

To get to the site of the sound mirrors I caught a train down to Ashford, Kent, and then picked up a number 11 bus towards Lydd-on-Sea, getting off at the bus stop at Coast Drive/The Parade nearest to Derville Road (alternative stops at Taylor Road and Seaview Road would work equally well) after a ride of just over an hour. Another option would be the 102 from Folkestone. There are three entrances to the nature reserve at Lade Pits – I took the option that I thought involved the least trudging across shingle, walking up Derville Road, taking a right into Leonard road and then up a pathway between the houses to a gate into the reserve (I’m not sure if this was opened specially for the open day – the public footpath from Taylor Road, which I used on my way back, could be a safer bet if you are walking to get the view of the sound mirrors from across the lake).

At the immediate left-hand side of the gate are the remains of a small bridge that took the Southern Railway’s re-aligned standard-gauge line over the top of the narrow gauge War Department branch line of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway and on to New Romney. The standard gauge line originally ran behind the sound mirrors but was re-aligned to serve the holiday camps established on the coast. It only lasted thirty years, from 4th June 1937 until 6th March 1967.

The short narrow gauge War Department branch line was equally short-lived, lasting from 1929 until 1951. It had played a crucial role in the story of the sound mirrors, carrying a great deal of the material needed for its construction, before ending its life serving freight traffic from the quarry.

Turning right after the gate you follow a footpath along the perimeter of the lake, on what was once the trackbed of the now dismantled Southern railway line, until you come to a loose shingle pathway on your left after a short walk. Taking this turning leads you towards the centre of the lake and to the very narrow bridge across to the island (where the original causeway was cut to create a barrier to deter trespassers). Most of the year this is locked out of use, preventing access to the island, but on open days you can walk across one foot at a time (when they say narrow, they really mean it!). The effort is well worth it – the sound mirrors really are stunning close-up and this view really allows you to appreciate details invisible from a distance.

It is well worth picking up a copy of the excellent book ‘Echoes from the Sky‘ by Richard Scarth (now available in a revised and expanded new edition, published by Independent Books in 2017). This meticulously researched work presents the fullest account of the development of the sound mirrors, drawing on original sources and private papers. Along with the wonderful photographs of the sound mirrors under construction and in operation that are included in the book this account really helps you understand what you are looking at. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Dungeness

Posted in Dungeness, England by folkestonejack on July 15, 2017

The landscape at Dungeness is one of the most distinctive in the country and a magnet for photographers. The bleakness of the setting and the remains of its fishing past (winches, tanning coppers and near skeletal boats) is a key part of its appeal to many, though to others the combination of the nuclear power station, seemingly endless shingle and sparse vegetation makes it a hard place to love on a first look. However, that first impression belies the rich catalogue of wildlife to be found here.

Dungeness is actually home to a third of all plants found in this country (an astonishing 600 plant species) and is a key staging post for migratory birds and insects.

A little on the bleak side

Ramshackle carriage homes have gradually given way to holiday cottages and now more upmarket residences are replacing some of the existing structures (partly prompted by planning restrictions that prevent the construction of new homes on undeveloped land but which allow the replacement of existing structures). The local conservation and preservation policies for Dungeness are intended to prevent the character of the place being altered too much, but a degree of change seems inevitable.

The strange shingle landscape of Dungeness may not be the United Kingdom’s only desert, as some have claimed, but it still has a character unlike anywhere else that I have seen in my travels around the country. However, it’s not a landscape preserved in aspic – the railway carriages adapted as beach homes by Southern Railway workers are hardly recognisable as such any more (though look carefully and you can see the tell tale origins of many of these homes).

I enjoyed my visit to Dungeness, even if the conditions were not suited to great photography. I took a walk up to the top of the Old Lighthouse for the stunning views over the loop at the end of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (currently celebrating their 90th anniversary), took a look at the historic survivors from a century of innovation and took a pleasant wander along the boardwalk. A few hours here was quite long enough, but I’m sure it must be all the more stunning to see the sun rise here in relative solitude and without the constant flow of day-trippers like me!

In the golden age of domestic vacations the area drew in a considerably greater volume of holiday makers with camps at a couple of locations, including Maddiesons at Greatstone. My mother recalls a summer fortnight spent at a cosy bungalow in Greatstone in the 1950s, somewhere to the east of the camp in a largely residential area. My grandmother took the bus and picked up the keys from a local estate agent. Meanwhile my mum and her sister cycled up from their home in Folkestone, ready to spend a fortnight on the beach. It might not seem terribly far flung now but I’m sure it was a great place to escape to (especially as it was much less built-up than today).

The shed at Dungeness used by Marconi for wireless tests during the 1890s and which later became a radar research station. A planning notice indicates that a request for permission to re-build has been applied for this year.

As much as I admired the photographic potential I can’t imagine it being the most hospitable place to spend a wet winter’s day, but with the wind howling and a spot of unexpected rain it was hardly the nicest summer’s day to have picked either. Needless to say this wasn’t quite what the weather forecasters had promised!

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Riding the Mail Rail

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 8, 2017

One of the more extraordinary feats of engineering in Great Britain has to be the Post Office Railway, a six and a half mile long line on which driver-less mail trains ran beneath the feet of unsuspecting Londoners for 76 years. In its heyday it carried an average of 12 million letters and parcels a day, though this had reduced to four million towards the end of its active life due to the relocation of sorting offices away from the line. It was officially renamed the ‘Mail Rail’ in 1987 to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

One of the narrow tunnels on the Post Office Railway, now re-used for the Mail Rail experience

Standing in front of the electric units used on the line at a MailRail themed open day at the BPMA Museum Store at Debden, Essex in April 2012 I lamented the demise of such a remarkable system and wished I could have seen it in operation. The tantalising glimpses of the system offered by urban explorers showed that the line, mothballed in 2003, was still in reasonably good condition and only increased that desire to see more.

I could never have imagined that five years on the MailRail would be back up and running, this time as London’s newest and most exciting tourist attraction. At that time any possibility of reviving the system seemed complete fantasy, so hats off to the believers who kept pushing the idea. When the news about the plans first broke in 2013 I was delighted and only too happy to make a small contribution to its revival by sponsoring a sleeper when the opportunity arose. I still hardly dared believe that it would really happen.

Today, I got a chance to take a sneak-peak at the MailRail experience as workmen continued to apply the finishing touches to the new museum buildings. Our day included a ride on the Mail Rail in specially designed new passenger viewing coaches, a look at the new Postal Museum and a walk along the tracks to see the sleepers we had sponsored.

Walking the tunnels – hard hats were a must for the low tunnels on parts of the route

The Mail Rail ride experience takes in a relatively short stretch of line underneath the Mount Pleasant sorting depot. The ride begins in what was the depot and then takes you through two platforms that have apparently been left largely untouched since the last mail train ran on the system (although emptied of the mail trolleys that would once have filled them). Along the way some pretty clever projections bring the history of the Postal Railway to life. It might only take a quarter of an hour before you loop back round to the beginning but they are very satisfying minutes!

It’s worth noting that it could all have been very different. There were a number of commercial proposals on the table around the time of the closure, including the transportation of wine, document exchange and the delivery of high value small goods to retail stores on Oxford Street. I’m thankful that it was the museum curators who won that battle.

The new miniature passenger vehicles, specially commissioned for the museum, are a little bit of an awkward squeeze but then again the system was never intended for the transportation of human beings. That’s not to say that the system is utterly without human touches – rather wonderfully a dartboard still hangs on one of the Mount Pleasant platforms with scores chalked up from the last game.

Looking ahead at the entrance to the tunnel system with one of the two new passenger vehicles in the station

Our walk along the tracks later in the day gave us a bit more space to appreciate the route and just how narrow the tunnels are. It was rather lovely to see the sleeper we sponsored, complete with a plaque, which should have a lifespan of 25 years before it needs replacing. The walk allowed us to get a better look at the stalactites hanging down from the tunnel roof, the graveyard of wagons part-way through and the dummy vehicle used to test the dimensions of the new passenger vehicles in the tunnels.

The final element of our visit was a chance to look around the half-finished Mail Rail exhibition space which shows off the surviving locomotives on the tracks they were built for, rather than languishing in the museum warehouse out of context. It’s a superb historical walk through but it took a locker preserved just as it was left on the last day of operation (complete with 2003 vintage shower gels) to remind me that this is a story of the 21st century as much as of the ingenuity of the first engineers.

A deconstructed engine from the 1930s

The Postal Museum itself is one of the best presented I have seen anywhere, telling the five hundred year long story of the postal system with real verve. It also manages to achieve the near impossible balance of serving up sufficiently engaging stuff to entertain children and plenty of fascinating exhibits/information for adults. Star exhibits included Machin’s ‘Diadem Head’ plaster cast and trial stamps (essays), a display about Edward VIII stamps and an array of rather wonderful postboxes. The pneumatic postal tubes looked fun too.

My absolute favourite had to be the hand-illustrated envelopes that Frederick Tolhurst sent to his children when his marriage ended in 1915. Every one is a marvel, incorporating the address into the design in ever more ingenious ways such as on the side of a barrage-balloon over a search-lit London skyline. You can see some of the wonderful designs on a blogpost from the BPMA at The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelope: Case Closed.

I learned plenty too – I had no idea that the first postboxes were installed in the Channel Islands, that you could post game with nothing but a neck label in the 1930s (as long as they didn’t leak) or that at one time you could send postcards for a cheaper rate if you only wrote five words!

One of the displays in the Postal Museum

It is safe to say that the combination of the MailRail and the Postal Museum is fabulous – it really deserves to become one of the top attractions in London. The Postal Museum is opening to the public on 28th July 2017 but the Mail Rail exhibitions and ride don’t start until 4th September 2017. Full details are available from the Postal Museum website.

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Splendours of Syon House

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on June 26, 2017

On a recent flight into London I took a glance out of the window and found myself looking down on the marvelous sight of Syon House, a former royal palace, set in 200 acres of parkland on the Thames riverside. I resolved to take a closer look from the ground and on stepping inside discovered wonderful palatial interiors far beyond my expectations.

An aerial view of Syon House and Park, as seen from a recent flight into Heathrow

Syon House has been the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland since their grand house on the Strand was earmarked for demolition in the 1860s. Although it might not attract the volume of tourists that travel to the palace at nearby Hampton Court it is just as steeped in the bloody history of the country, notably with Lady Jane Grey’s acceptance of the crown in 1553 which would ultimately lead her to execution at Tower Hill a year later.

The walk from Syon lane station to the house offers a tantalising preview of Robert Adam’s re-modelling with a grand lion-topped entrance on London Road with porters lodges standing astride the driveway to the house. Not much farther beyond this is a rather splendid crenelated gateway that leads pedestrians towards the former royal palace, cunningly hidden behind a garden centre car park! Mind you, nothing is that ordinary here – the garden centre is based in a 16th century stable block.

The entrance to the footpath from London Road

As the house doesn’t open until 11am we took the opportunity to take a wander round the gardens first and admire the marvelously photogenic grand conservatory with Mercury posed in a pool in the foreground. It is a little hard to appreciate today just how ambitious this building was when Charles Fowler came up with the design in the 1820s. It also marks a fascinating point in the transition between the orangeries of the 18th century and the Victorian conservatory. Structures like Kew’s vast Palm House were still a couple of decades away when this place was unveiled.

The conservatory also has greater significance, as it was the shipment of 36 vine cuttings from Syon House to Sydney in 1832 that helped found the Australian wine industry.

The Great Conservatory (1826-1827)

I hope that it is not too rude to say that the sober exterior, whilst grand, is not the most thrilling that I have seen, but step inside and you are immediately transported into Robert Adam’s vision of a Roman basilica, watched over by four classical sculptures. However, your eye is immediately drawn to the far end of the hall and a striking copy of the Dying Gaul (the original sits in the Capitoline Museum, Rome). It’s quite an entrance!

The great hall is immediately followed by a succession of astonishing rooms – from an intensely colourful ante-room with gilded statues to a stunning long gallery decorated with medallions showing past members of the Percy family (including the most famous Percy of all, Hotspur). It is testament to the talents of Robert Adams and the craftsmen that he employed that the re-modeled interior still delivers such a wow factor today. It’s a pity that Robert Adams never got to add the giant rotunda that he planned for the inner courtyard but what he was able to deliver is nothing short of astonishing.

The house is filled with incredible artworks and treasures, including many royal portraits. I think my favourites would have to be the pair of paintings from the Flemish School in the Oak Passage that show King Henry VII with his three sons and Elizabeth of York, Queen of England, with her four daughters.

Syon House

Syon House itself has plenty of royal connections of its own which place it at the heart of British history and not just through the nine day queen. These connections include Charles I, who visited his children at Syon House during his imprisonment at Hampton Court, and Princess Victoria who stayed frequently at Syon House before succeeding to the throne.

The most gruesome royal connection is perhaps Henry VIII, whose coffin lay at Syon in 1547 whilst en route from Westminster to Windsor. The coffin seeped blood from the bloated corpse which a dog was seen to lick up – an act that many saw as just retribution for Henry’s suppression of the Bridgettine abbey that preceded Syon House. Although the abbey is long gone, it is still remembered in an exhibition space in the house which showcases the finds and architectural discoveries from Time Team and other archaeological digs on the site.

Practicalities

It is well worth a visit to Syon House to admire the marvels of Robert Adam’s interiors and the treasures of the Percy family. We took the train to Syon Lane and it took us around 15-20 minutes to make the walk to the entrance to the house, next to the garden centre. The garden centre has a restaurant but a freezer-failure saw us head to a delicious alternative at the Coach and Horses, Isleworth which more than satisfied us.

The gardens at Syon Park are usually open all week during the season but the house only opens three days a week. Full details of opening hours and ticket prices are available on the Syon Park website.