FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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.

Fake history

Posted in England by folkestonejack on June 25, 2017

A little outing for a Saturday afternoon brought us to Nymans, the country gardens and home of the Messel family at Handcross, Sussex. The formal gardens attached to the house cover 33 acres and include many rare species brought back by plant hunters from expeditions as far flung as Chile and Tasmania. However, for me it was the house that was the most intriguing element.

The house at Nymans gives the appearance of a long ruined late Gothic/Tudor style stone manor house but this turns out to be way off beam. The house was actually built in the 1920s by Leonard Messel and the deception was enhanced by the purchase of old oak furniture and tapestries that gave the place a medieval feel. It must have been a pretty good illusion as the late Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) once said that it was not until he was 16 that he realised the house was a ‘complete fake’.

Nymans House

The lifespan of the house was sadly far shorter than you would ever imagine upon first sight – just twenty years. A devastating fire in 1947 left very little of it untouched. Today, you can admire the ruins of the house from the gardens and take a look at the handful of small rooms on the ground floor that survived the fire. The surprisingly cosy and comfortable rooms have something of a feel of a country cottage about them and this is largely how they were left by their last occupant, Anne Parsons (née Messel), Countess of Rosse, when she lived here from 1979 until 1992. The library looked an especially lovely space to settle down and read a good book.

Practicalities

To get to Nymans we took a train to Crawley and connected to the 271/273 bus for the short run to Handcross. The timings of the return buses proved to be a little awkward, giving us a choice between too little time or too much (we opted for the latter). Admission was covered by our National Trust membership.

Farewell to Finland

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 11, 2017

The end to our week away in Stockholm and Helsinki came with a horribly early wake up call and check out that saw us heading out of our hotel at 4.30am and into the bright morning light (at this time of year sunrise hovers around 4am). It was also remarkably busy on the streets around Eliel Square with lots of young folk heading home after a good night out. A smooth ride on the Finnair bus delivered us to Termninal 2 at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport within the half hour.

Our plane for the flight home – Finnair A350-XWB (OH-LWF)

A quirk of the timetable means that the early morning Finnair flight from Helsinki to London Heathrow is operated by an A350-XWB, a plane normally reserved for long haul flights. In our case, it was to be OH-LWF, the exact same plane we had seen in the airshow a couple of days ago. Since we saw it display the plane has been to Hong Kong and back again. It is scheduled to head out to Beijing on its return to Helsinki.

A fair few years of saving air miles allowed us to sample the experience of business class travel on a long-haul plane, even if we would never be able to afford to do that on a genuine long haul flight. It was strange turning left at the plane door and quite something else to take up one of the spacious seating booths on these ultra-modern planes. The service on board was as wonderful as you might expect with the added novelty of real cutlery and drinks in iittala glassware. It was a lovely way to round off an excellent adventure.

The weather for our flight back was also as perfect as you could hope for, offering superb views of the Finnish archipelago over Porkala as we headed away from the Finnish capital. I had no idea of the vastness of the archipelago in 1984 but up here now it was really striking to see.

Thirty three years ago my family enjoyed a rather marvelous day out here at the summer house of a friend – exploring the forest, taking a motor-boat out to a small island and enjoying a traditional Finnish sauna. We caught up with the same family friend on this trip and she told us that you got to know the timetable of flights over the archipelago well enough to know when the London, Paris or Zurich flights were passing overhead!

The beautifully curved A350-XWB sharklet over the Finnish archipelago beyond Porkala

Closer to home, we got equally beautifully sunlit views of the Olympic Park, Hyde Park, Kew and Syon Park as we came in to land at 9am. The on-time arrival was much appreciated, but it still amuses me that it took longer to navigate our way home across London than to fly from Helsinki to London (the cross London trip took some 3 hours door-to-door). Anyway, the important thing was that we made it back in time for a home-cooked Sunday roast!

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Architectural treats in Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

The architectural delights of Helsinki are many, with something to appeal to everyone from wonderful art nouveau apartments to modernist public buildings. One of the pleasures of a wander through the city was the frequency with which you could stumble across surprising architectural features, whether that be a stone owl (at the Finnish National Theatre) or a tree full of bears (at the Pohjola Insurance building).

One of the most delightful artistic flourishes I came across was a quintet of eagles guarding the doorway at the ‘Navigator’ building at Unioninkatu 12. The building was the work of Harald Leonard Neovius (1863-1930) an architect from Orel, Russia, who studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Helsinki. It was originally constructed in 1903-1905 and renovated in 1999.

Side view of one of the eagles incorporated into the design of the building at Unioninkatu 12

Front on view of one of the eagles guarding the doorway at Unioninkatu 12

There are many more to be seen across the city with over 600 buildings from the short lived era of art nouveau. It’s worth picking up the free art-nouveau map-guide from the Helsinki Tourist Office to help pin-point the best examples in the city. A trip to the Museum of Architecture also helped us to get an overview of the nordic architectural movements in Finland that give the city such a distinctive look.

It turned out to be a good time to be in Helsinki with a free exhibition ‘Helsinki has become a metropolis!‘ celebrating the life and works of Eliel Saarinen at Laituri, the Helsinki City Planning Department’s information and exhibition space on Narinkka Square. The exhibition runs from 1st June 2017 to 16th September 2017 and explores his legacy in Helsinki.

I can’t think of many buildings that capture Helsinki more than the central railway station, but the exhibition at Laituri was a great way to discover more of his creations and the designs that were to remain unrealised. The City Planning Department have also produced a rather splendid map-guide to help trace his work across Helsinki and we managed to tick off a few of these (including the Pohjola Insurance building and the National Museum).

Our wanders also took us inside the Academic Bookshop at Pohjoisesplanadi 39 which was the creation of Finland’s most famous architect, Alvar Aalto. It’s simply one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world.

Allas Sea Pool

As tempting as it is to focus on the past creations, there are some terrific new buildings going up around the city that deserve as much admiration. One of the most striking new additions is the Allas Sea Pool in the South Harbour which you really can’t miss on a wander down to the Market Square. I half regret not going for a swim there.

Helsinki is a city that rewards the eagle-eyed wanderer, ever alert for wonderful artistic details in the most surprising places. Nevertheless, I am sure that I still missed plenty and will have to come back to have a better go at this (in particular I need to get a look at the buildings around Katajanokka which I didn’t get a chance to wander on this occasion).

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Harbouring in Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

I may never have escaped my childhood delight in a harbour full of ships and Helsinki didn’t disappoint on this trip. The sight of a couple of Viking Line ships on one side of the harbour and a Silja line ship on the other is still as wonderful now as it was back then. However, there were a couple of more interesting visitors this week – a minelayer from the Finnish Navy and an offshore patrol vessel of the Finnish Border Guard.

The Uusimaa, one of two vessels in the Hämeenmaa class of minelayers

Viking XPRS passes the Uusimaa on her way in to Helsinki

The Uusimaa, one of two vessels in the Hämeenmaa class, was commissioned on 2nd December 1992 and subsequently modernized in 2007. She has been involved in a number of international exercises that have brought her into British waters, such as Exercise Joint Warrior 16-2 and Exercise Noble Mariner, though this was the first time I had seen her.

The OPV Turva is a relatively new addition to the waters of the Baltic, having started her border security duties in earnest on 24th June 2014. She is the first patrol vessel in Finland to be powered by liquid natural gas (LNG) and replaces three smaller ships from the fleet. I have to say that she looked rather wonderful sitting in the harbour painted up in the colours of the Finnish flag.

The Finnish offshore patrol vessel Turva

At the end of the day though it was the super-ferries that I loved the most, aided by a fair degree of nostalgia. The years might have flown by but you can still walk down to the South Harbour and see a Viking Line ship on one side and a Silja line ship on the other. On many occasions there were two Viking Line vessels as the ships on the Tallinn run also dock at Katajanokka (Viking XPRS and Viking FSTR).

I haven’t tired of seeing these giants of the ferry world come and go just yet. Something tells me that I will be back to try another Viking Line ferry ride long before another 33 years elapses!

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The green paradise of Vallisaari

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

The connected islands of Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari are two of the newest attractions in Helsinki, easily accessed with a 20 minute long ride on a JT-Line water-bus from Market Square.

Until recently the islands housed an arms depot and training grounds for the Finnish military and were closed to the public, but a new initiative saw the islands opened to visitors in May 2016. The opportunity to take a peek at what has been happening here was one of the reasons that persuaded me that now was the time to come back to Finland.

The beautiful combination of nature and history is everywhere you walk on Vallisaari

Although Vallasaari is only separated from Suomenlinna by a narrow channel the two destinations are strikingly different. Nature has been allowed to reclaim the islands following the departure of the last inhabitants in the mid 1990s and this saw the transformation from an open landscape to a forest. The Russian fortifications on the island gradually disappeared beneath the green tide and would have remained hidden had it not been for works in 2015 that have helped make these more visible. I like the fact that they won’t alter this, as I think it is part of what makes this place special.

The 113 hectares of territory on the two islands have some of the highest levels of bio-diversity in the Helsinki region, including 450 vascular plant species including some that have been designated as vulnerable. Around 60 bird species have been found, including many threatened and near threatened species such as the red-backed shrike, and a pair of protected Eurasian eagle-owls has chosen the island for their nest. Nearly 700 different species of butterfly have been spotted and this again includes many that are under threat. It’s a green paradise.

All of this, combined with the fortifications, reminds me a little of places like Somes Island in New Zealand – although this doesn’t have the stringent environmental protections for visitor-arrivals and there are more facilities. There are dry-toilets located at various spots on the circular walks around the islands and there are some delightful cafes. We stopped off at Paja, a cafe located 100m south of Torpedolahti, which serves wonderful ice cream and coffee roasted on Lauttasaari. Everywhere on the island had a friendly and welcoming vibe.

A view of Suomenlinna from the shore of Vallisaari

It seems strange now to think that the architects of the Swedish military fortress of Sveaborg (Suomenlinna) did not appreciate that leaving Vallasaari virtually undefended (save for a small redoubt) left a pretty significant weak link in the defensive line. In 1808 this weakness was brutally exposed when the Russian forces brought in their artillery and proceeded to bombard Sveaborg from Vallasaari. The fortress was surrendered on 3rd May 1808 after a siege lasting two months.

The Russians began to fortify the island, now renamed Aleksanterinsaari in honour of Tsar Alexander I, to fill the gap in the defence of Sveaborg (and, by extension, St Petersburg). The development of the fortifications continued over the course of the century, notably with the construction of the Alexander Battery (now a key attraction on the island, augmented by a viewing platform) which Tsar Alexander II named after his son. None of this stopped Sveaborg from being bombarded from the islands once again when the forces on the island unsuccessfully mutinied in 1906.

The view from the walkway at the top of the Alexander Battery

The beauty of the islands today masks an often tragic history, not least with a massive explosion in 1937 that claimed 12 lives and destroyed 16 buildings. The place where the tragic accident occurred is now known as the valley of death. One of the display boards here shows a dramatic photograph of the tall column of smoke from the explosion seen from the Market Square.

I loved every minute of our time on Vallasaari and over the causeway to Kuninkaansaari. The display boards (In Finnish, Swedish, Russian and English) around the islands are terrific at serving up the potted history, photographs and maps that help make sense of what is front of you (we would have loved a guided tour in English but these were not running during our stay).

Thank you all the volunteers whose work has gone into making a walk around Vallasaari and Kuninkaansaari such an enjoyable experience. It has been the sightseeing highlight of our trip to Helsinki.

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The Kaivopuisto Air Show

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 9, 2017

Throughout the year Finland has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of independence and we were lucky enough that our visit coincided with one of the highlights – the Kaivopuisto Air Show.

Air shows have been held in central Helsinki sporadically through the twentieth century, many of which took place over the waters of Katajanokka and Kaivopuisto. The location is more appropriate than it might seem at first. The first Finnish airlines operated from the islands off Helsinki and Finnair can trace its origins, through its original name of Aero Ltd, to Katajanokka Seaplane Harbour in 1924. The air force founded a factory in Suomenlinna in 1920 which is still visible to this day.

The Finnish Air Force F/A-18 Hornet lights up the skies above Helsinki

The idea of reviving a free air show over the shoreline of Helsinki was inspired, particularly as the display line from Katajanokka to Pihlajasaari ensured that the largest possible number could enjoy the spectacle. The lead performers were to be the Red Arrows, who were the last foreign display team to have performed a full show at Kaivopuisto (in 1970).

It was a little hard to imagine that the conditions would be fit for flying as a combination of heavy rain, low cloud and sea fog had lingered in Helsinki for the entirety of yesterday. Although the evening had been set aside for rehearsals the most we had seen was a single helicopter so it was a relief when the roar of jets above us this morning signalled a re-arranged session. The weather was quite superb with clear blue skies and sun dominating (ignoring the short-lived threat of some sea mist that rolled in over the islands in mid-morning).

Finnair A350 XWB OH-LWF flies over Suomenlinna during its display

We could see that the spots with the best photographic vistas were already starting to disappear fairly early on, so made the decision to take up a couple of spots on the wall alongside the road at Kaivopuisto, not too far away from display centre. The view was gorgeous – immediately in front of us we had the islands of Uunisaari, Harakka and Särkkä with the more distant backdrop of the Naval Academy and church on Suomenlinna.

I could happily have stayed at our chosen spot for hours watching the world sail by, with everything from the smallest sailing boat to gigantic superferries in our line of vision, so a couple of hours passed easily as we waited for the airshow to start. Some of the movement on the water was clearly connected to the air display, such as the warship and coastguard vessels that appeared to be guarding the display exclusion zone. Unfortunately I hadn’t come prepared for the sun, but fortune smiled on us by supplying some free caps.

Finnair A350-XWB (OH-LWF) flies over Kaivopuisto

The air show was a delight from start to finish, with a rather different feel to any that I have been to before – a combination of the unusual setting, exotic planes and a terrific crowd vibe. There was so much to like – from the ingenious display of hangliders, flyboarders and seaplanes that opened the show, through to the local stars (such as the Finnish Douglas DC3, Finnish Fouga CM170 Magister pairing, Finnish Air Force Hornet, Finnish Border Guard Air Patrol and Finland’s Midnight Hawks display team).

Another highlight was a low flight over Kaivopuisto by one of Finnair’s ten strong fleet of Airbus A350-900s on the appropriately numbered flight AY350. The plane taking part in the show, OH-LWF, as delivered almost exactly one year ago. It looked rather splendid as it passed overhead at the culmination of its 26 minute long circular flightpath. After taking part in the display this plane is scheduled to depart for Hong Kong just before midnight.

The Red Arrows perform the detonator during the Kaivopuisto air show

The display helped me see the Red Arrow display from a fresh perspective, despite my relative familiarity with their display routine. It was lovely knowing the familiar pattern of the display, such as the arrival from behind the crowd or the big set pieces (especially the breaks, rolls and the smoke-drawn heart) and enjoying the incredible crowd reaction. The audible sound of hundreds of thousands of spectators gasping in surprise or delight was quite something else! The crowds gave the RAF team an enthusiastic round of applause which grew even louder when the Red Arrows returned for one final pass trailing blue and white smoke in honour of Finland’s 100th anniversary.

The crowds gradually thinned following the Red Arrow display, but the numbers walking back towards the Market Square at the end of the show were still pretty huge. At its peak it was pretty impressive and felt as though most of Helsinki was at the waterfront. In a little bonus we were delighted to see the take-off of the sea planes midway through our walk back to the centre, even if it did delay our hunt for food a little (the show officially finished at 9pm but with the walk back it was not until 10.30pm that we managed to find a table in a restaurant).

The Midnight Hawks provide a fitting finale to close the Kaivopuisto airshow

After the event we heard that the air show had attracted a crowd of at least 130,000 spectators to Kaivopuisto alone, let alone any of the other viewing spots. This figure was sufficient to make this the largest public event in Finnish history! It was certainly one of the most enjoyable air shows that I have ever attended and the memories of the day will stay with me a long while.

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Sea-fortress Suomenlinna

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 9, 2017

The splendid approach that the Viking Line ferries take through the narrow passage between Suomenlinna and Vallisaari had already given us a wonderful view of the fortress (it’s worth standing on deck as you come in as the height of the ferries allows you to look down on the fortifications with something akin to an aerial view). However, now it was time to get re-acquainted with the sea-fortress on foot.

Suomenlinna

The journey across to Suomenlinna is remarkably easy – car and foot passenger ferries operated by the Helsinki Region Transport Authority (HSL) make the 15 minute crossing from the eastern side of the Market Square to the island around three times an hour in the middle of the day. The frequency suits both tourists, of which there were many, and local residents (the islands include 350 apartments and around 800 people live in Suomenlinna). We were stepping out at the ferry port at Suomenlinna barely an hour after arriving in Helsinki!

Suomenlinna, often referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of the North’, was built on six islands (five of which are connected by bridges or sandbars) with works commencing in 1748. The original builders, Sweden, gave way to the Russians in 1808. It was only in 1918 that the islands were handed over to the newly independent nation of Finland. In a reflection of its complex history the fortress has many names – it’s original Swedish name was Sveaborg but it was known as Viapori in Finnish. The current name of Suomenlinna (‘Castle of Finland’) was only adopted in 1918.

The islands are a lovely blend of community and heritage – besides the cafes, restaurants and tourist attractions there is a church, library and supermarket on the island. One of the most surprising elements is a low-key open prison, which many a tourist has accidentally wandered into. On a day as gloriously sunny as we were experiencing it was no surprise to see locals making the most of the opportunity to have a picnic or spend time on the beaches around the islands. If the label of ‘sea fortress’ sounds grim the reality was anything but!

The view towards the Market Square from Vaster Svarto

We started our visit with an hour-long guided tour which was perhaps a little too dry for my liking, but it gave us a good sense of our bearings and we were able to spend plenty of time wandering happily afterwards. Most of the major attractions are centred on just two of the islands (Susisaari and Kustaanmiekka) but we also took the time to walk out to the farthest island, Vaster Svarto, to check out the Russian fortifications here and the monument to Helsinki’s air defence in 1939-44.

On our time on the island we visited four of the six museums (Suomenlinna Museum, Ehrensvärd Museum, the submarine Vesikko and Military Museum’s Manege) and took a look at a temporary exhibition in the barracks on Susisaari (B28). I was quite ignorant about the circumstances of Finland’s independence and had no idea that it began with a bloody four month long civil war until I saw the displays in the barracks. The island held 8000 red prisoners in the aftermath of this and saw its fair share of horror.

The submarine Vesikko

I was particularly pleased to be able to go board the submarine Vesikko, just as I did 33 years ago, though it felt a good deal more claustrophobic as an adult! Back then I hadn’t appreciated what a hellish contraption. However, the full horror of life on board was wonderfully captured in a handful of sentences on a display board inside:

“When the diesel engines were running, the engine room was boiling hot and the noise was ear-piercing. The members of the crew had to firmly grip the rails with one hand whilst constantly pouring lubricating oil into the engines with the other hand. The rocking of the boat was heaviest in the stern and it was difficult not to fall down on the oily floor.”

Historic sights we covered included the King’s Gate, the symbolic gateway to Finland; Artillery Bay; Jetty Barracks; the dry-dock; Ehrensvärd’s tomb; and the many tunnels around the site (thankfully we had remembered the instruction to bring torches). You can easily spend an entire day here, though its wise to pack some warmer clothes as we experienced a surprising dip in temperatures at one point as the seas mists rolled in and out.

Suomenlinna is a really lovely place to spend some time and we certainly allowed plenty of time to do it justice. More than anything though, I was just pleased that the place lived up to my childhood wonderment. I stood, I wandered and I marveled once more!

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Night crossing to Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 7, 2017

The thought of nearly 17 hours on a ferry to get from Stockholm to Helsinki might not be everyone’s idea of a good way to spend time on holiday but I knew from the outset that it would be one of the highlights for me, just as it had been 33 years ago.

The debate about whether the Viking Line or Silja line is the better option for the crossing has been going for years and has found a new lease of life online. I ploughed my way through pages and pages of opinion but the thrust seemed to be that there is very little difference these days, though I gleaned that perhaps the Silja Line ships were better for regular travelers who value the on-board shopping experience and that the Viking Line ships are possibly better for tourists who want to admire the changing scenery. No matter, the choice of shipping line was never in doubt as far as I was concerned – my brand loyalty had been won at the age of 12!

The Viking Line super-ferry M/S Gabriella

Our ship, the M/S Gabriella (1991) for the crossing, is not the largest operating the route but at 35,492 tons was still substantially larger than the ship we boarded in 1984 (the 15,179 ton M/S Viking Saga). The Silja Line ships that ply the route come in at 58,377 tons by comparison.

The Viking Line adventure began in the city centre, checking in at Cityterminalen to get our bus transfer tickets, cabin keys and meal cards. It seemed hard to comprehend how the bus transfer could take as long as 20 minutes, given that we could easily see the terminal from our walks around the old city. However, we soon discovered that the bus looped back and forth in all directions before depositing its passengers at the Stadsgården ferry terminal. I suspect the extensive roadworks around Slussen have some part in this strange routing.

Boarding was a relatively leisurely affair and soon enough we were up on the ninth deck (we opted for the extra space and views offered by a LYX Seaside Premium cabin, one of the mid-priced options available). If you didn’t know that you were on board a ship you could easily have mistaken our smart cabin for a hotel room, complete with complimentary mini bar and television.

It was lucky that we had such a beautiful afternoon for our departure as the route offers wonderful views of Stockholm, Djurgården and the archipelago of 30,000+ islands that stretches along the eastern coast for many miles. There were plenty of viewing spots on this ship, ranging from the vast open deck at the top of the ship to the balcony at the prow, all offering a great view of the Swedish coastline.

One of many tall ships seen in the early stages of our voyage

I had a vague memory of a continuous landscape of green forests from thirty-three years ago, but probably hadn’t appreciated the variety of striking sights lurking amongst that.

Early sights on our voyage included two stunning residences designed by the Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg – the Italian Embassy, originally built in 1910 as a palace for Prince Wilhelm and the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, and the mansion of Waldemarsudde built for Prince Eugen, now the rather beautiful setting for an art museum. Next to Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde is a rare 18th century oil mill dating to 1784. Other sights included the Skansen; the distinctive Danvikshem retirement home and the Kaknäs Tower.

Later, the fortresses of Oskar-Fredriksborg and Fredriksborg on either side of the channel proved fascinating. The fortresses were intended to defend the approach to Stockholm from the Russians at different stages in Swedish history, though never in tandem. Fredriksborg was constructed in 1735, but was superseded by an upgraded Vaxholm Fort in the early 19th century. Oskar-Fredriksborg was constructed in the 1870s and looks strikingly different, built into the rock and today blending rather well with the natural landscape.

The Viking Line ship M/S Amorella (1987) passes Fredriksborg fortress around 5.45pm on the final leg of her journey from Turku to Stockholm

Between all of these sights we got glimpses of the many small communities that lie on the archipelago, inter-linked by ferries. All the while a seemingly endless supply of pleasure-boats headed to and from the small islands that surrounded us. It probably helped that it was a national holiday – everyone seemed to be out on the water or basking in the sun.

We gave up on our sightseeing at 8pm, heading inside to the curiously titled ‘No name restaurant’ for a nine course tasting dinner. The setting was superb, at a table with a stunning view of the changing coastline, but the 9 dishes of Finnish flavours were quite something else.

The next two hours saw us taste asparagus with dried egg yolk; salsify served in many ways; marinated herring with pickled cucumber; a stunning garlic millet porridge with snails; pike perch with vegetables; duck parfait with rhubarb and pickled red onion; a beautifully cooked lamb medallion, served with a lamb’s tongue croquette and charred turnip; sorrel sorbet and diced apple; carrot cake and butter ice cream on a hazelnut crumb; and last, but not least, a rhubarb and meringue tartlet with an exquisite elder-flower sorbet.

The expense of eating out in Sweden and Finland might have limited our culinary ambitions for the trip but the tasting menu proved to be a pretty amazing experience from start to finish and very reasonably priced. The bottle of Black Cottage Sauvignon Blanc that accompanied it was lovely too. I was more than a little relieved that it proved to be a terrific distraction for my ship-phobic prone better half, rather than a calamitous prelude to a night of seasickness!

As the light faded our ship made it into the open waters east of Kapellskär, crossing the Baltic sea to Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands (where we found another Viking Line ship, the M/S Rosella). Our ship only made a very short stop here, around 10.45pm (Swedish Time), with time enough only for foot passengers to embark or disembark. The night ferries used to sail from Stockholm to Helsinki without interruption but a stop at Mariehamn was added in 1999 to use a loophole that allowed the lines to continue offering tax free sales on board.

Once our ship vacated the berth at Mariehamn our fellow tax dodger, the M/S Silja Serenade, prepared to take it over. This ship had followed us out of Stockholm from a point just beyond Fjäderholmarna island (where the Silja line and Viking Line routes converge) but was scheduled to overtake us during the early hours and arrive in Helsinki first.

The Viking Line ship M/S Rosella (1985) in her berth at Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands

After our ship left the Åland Islands behind we decided it was time to turn our clocks forward an hour to Finnish time (British Summer Time + 2 hours) and hit the sack. Strange as it seemed, we knew that it wouldn’t be that long before the sun started to rise.

Sure enough, the light was streaming through the gap in the curtains before long and it was time to grab a buffet breakfast and prepare ourselves for the morning ahead. As arrivals go, it’s hard to imagine that anything could beat the approach to Helsinki with the passage between the fortress islands of Suomenlinna and Vallisaari or the view of the market square straight ahead.

The crossing had been incredibly smooth and tucked up in our cabin there was little to give away the fact that we were moving (assuming you hadn’t tuned in to the live TV feed from the prow of the ship available through the television!).

M/S Gabriella at her berth in Helsinki

Our arrival, at 10.10am, was perfectly on schedule. It didn’t take long for us to disembark and make the relatively short walk through the compact city centre to our hotel. Refreshed and ready for some sightseeing, where better to begin than with another ferry…

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Stockholm in 36 hours

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 6, 2017

Our schedule gave us around 36 hours to see Stockholm before we had to make our way to Stadsgården to board the ferry to Helsinki. It might not seem like much time to do justice to such a great city, but it is surprising how much you can pack in with the assistance of the Vasa Museum’s early morning summer opening (8.30am between 1st June and 31st August).

A view of Stockholm from the gangway to the out-of-use Katarina Hissen

As our time was relatively limited we focused on three top sights – tackling the Skansen Open-Air Museum and Drottningholm Palace on the first day and the Vasa Museum the following morning. However, as our last half day happened to be the National Day of Sweden we were also able to take advantage of a special ‘Open Palace’ event to visit the Royal Chapel, Royal Apartments, Armoury and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities free of charge in our last few hours.

Other delights of Stockholm included the intriguing art in the underground stations, the wonderful views from the Katarina Hissen and the simple pleasure of the hop on-hop off Djurgården ferry.

1. The Vasa Museum

The story of the Vasa is nothing short of astonishing. A magnificent but top-heavy warship that sank 1,300 metres into her maiden voyage on 10th August 1628. An epic fail in her time, but our good fortune today because the black sludge at the bottom of Stockholm Harbour preserved her beautifully (it was also a great help that the Baltic sea is not salty enough for the shipworm that eats away at shipwrecks in other parts of the world).

The position of the Vasa was re-established in 1956 and the ship was raised five years later. The conservation phase that followed would see the ship housed in a temporary building at the Vasa shipyard (Wasavarvet) whilst she was sprayed with a chemical solution (1962–1979) and then allowed to dry (1979-1988).

The Vasa Museum

My first visit to the Vasa fell in the drying phase and looking back on my pictures it’s clear that it was hard work to appreciate the ship, even if the footbridges just above the upper deck made it possible to feel as though you were walking across the hull. I much prefer the presentation in the ‘new’ building of 1990 which delivers maximum visual impact from the moment you step inside and allows you to admire the ship from every angle.

The artistic decoration of the ship is quite unbelievable. I had no idea just how incredible until we stepped into the hall and soaked up that first ‘wow’ moment, standing underneath the three metre long sculpture of a lion which appears to be leaping from the prow. More ‘wow’ moments follow as you work your way round to the incredibly intricate stern and up onto the balconies to get a closer look at the many other sculptures, such as the 20 Roman Emperors sculpted as decorations for the beak-head.

It is quite impossible to explain how exquisite the carving and decoration is on this ship – has it ever had a rival on the seas? I’m just glad that the design was so flawed, after all if she had been fit for service she would never have survived to the present day. The museum itself stresses that she won’t last forever – who knows how long we will be lucky enough to be able to admire her.

The decorative stern of the ill-fated Vasa (1628)

It has to be said that the brilliance of this museum is not just down to a star exhibit. The presentation of the entire story is among the best I have seen anywhere – feeding lots of information to you in small chunks and in a variety of formats (including scale models, a recreation of the gun deck that you can walk across, cross-sections, a terrific scene-setting film, replica elements painted in their original colours, a great model of the shipyard and a splendid sequence of models showing how she was lifted). The innovative presentation, perfectly executed, kept us fully engaged and enthused throughout our visit.

The reconstruction and extension of the museum a few years back gives it a capacity of 2,000 visitors at a time and you can see exactly why that is necessary. In 2016 the museum received 1,341,676 visitors, roughly 40% higher than the visitor numbers seen a decade earlier. All of this makes it a must to get there at 8.30am, when the doors open, to have the space to enjoy the Vasa and the exhibits that surround it. The crowds were enormous by the time we left after two and a half hours of wonderment and moving around the museum was already quite tricky by this point.

2. Skansen

The delightful Skansen at Djurgården, established 1891, holds the title of the world’s oldest open air museum and is the most visited museum in the country. It’s not hard to see the appeal as you take a wander round the grounds to seek out a selection of the 150 buildings re-located here from all over Sweden. It offers that wonderful combination of space to relax, fascinating interiors and unexpected pleasures (such as the delicious freshly baked treats in the town quarter). On top of all that it contains a modest zoo.

A charming model of the Skansen stands at the main entrance

The highlights of our visit included a very active young brown bear, some wonderfully decorated wall paintings in the Delsbo farmstead and the Hällestad Belfry (one of the tallest belfries in Sweden). We were also fortunate to stumble across the Royal Swedish Army Band rehearsing on the Solliden Stage ahead of Sweden’s national day (the founder of Skansen, Artur Hazelius, came up with the idea of the national day and it has been celebrated here since 1893). Tomorrow the royal family will join a procession to the Skansen for a concert in the early evening.

3. Drottingholm Palace

A little way out of the city, by an easy combination of T-Bana and bus, you can find the royal palace of Drottingholm. I had heard some say that it was not worth visiting as it can’t compete with Versailles and the palaces of the Russian Tsars, but if that is the benchmark then your sightseeing list will be very short indeed. Personally, I thought Drottingholm was rather marvelous and offered up plenty of delights.

Drottingholm Palace

We soon began to appreciate just how much detail there was to take in, from the depiction of perpetual enemy Denmark as a medusa in one painting to the unusually angry Buddha atop a rather confused faux Chinese stove which mixed up Chinese and Japanese elements horribly. We would have been blissfully unaware of so much history without a guide to point the details and bring the place to life with a story or two.

My personal highlight was Queen Hedwig Eleonora’s State Bedroom, one of the rare survivals from the lavish baroque period, most of which was lost during later phases of redecoration. The room itself is splendid enough but look up and you can see a rather striking ceiling painting which depicts the all-seeing eye of god being held up on a gold rod.

Drottingholm is another of those sights where it pays to arrive early. We turned up for the opening time of 10am and were surprised to find that we were the only visitors on the english tour that started in the near empty rooms shortly afterwards. On our return to the starting point the crowds had really built up and it was quite a bit more difficult to revisit the rooms when we sought out details we wanted to get another look at.

Art on the T-Bana

I will undoubtedly need to come back to Stockholm to see the many sights we missed in the city and in the neighbouring territory. Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Hallwylska Museet, Rosendal Palace, Vaxholm fortress and Millesgården are just a few of the sights on the wishlist for my next visit. Maybe next year!?

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Steam to Taxinge-Näsby

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 4, 2017

After a good wander around Gripsholm Castle we made the short walk up to the delightful Mariefred station to take a journey on the 6.8 mile long narrow gauge railway to Taxinge-Näsby and back again.

The Östra Södermanlands Järnväg (ÖSlJ) can justly lay claim to the title of the first preserved steam railway effort in Sweden having started life in 1959 at a brickworks line at Södertälje. The ÖSlJ set out to collect, preserve and restore the rolling stock from Sweden’s seven 600mm gauge passenger railways and the many industrial lines that existed across the country.

No. 2 Vira at Taxinge-Näsby

The focus of the operation moved west to Mariefred after the Swedish State Railway made the decision to close the standard gauge branch line between Läggesta and Mariefred. The ÖSlJ rebuilt the line to 600mm gauge and began to operate steam traffic on the line in 1966, with an official opening following in 1968.

In the late 1990s the closure of the line between Läggesta nedre and Taxinge-Näsby presented an opportunity to extend the railway. At first services over the extension were operated with a standard gauge railcar but the line was subsequently rebuilt to 600mm gauge with EU funding, re-opening in May 2011.

Taxinge-Näsby station (1895)

It’s not the easiest of lines to photograph at the best of times but I was persuaded to ride the train rather than photograph it following a forecast of afternoon rain. We opted to take a return trip to Taxinge-Näsby, taking up a seat in a charming carriage built by Decauville in 1898 (HRRJ CFo7) for the 12:43 departure.

The only small downside to taking this trip was that we missed the arrival of the steam ship in Mariefred and the only train to run along the harbourside to meet the boat from Stockholm. I suspect that is the most photogenic opportunity on the line, but probably not so great under such murky conditions!

Our train, hauled by steam locomotive No. 2 ‘Vira’ (a 2-4-2 well and side tank engine built in 1901 by Motala Verkstad for Stavsjö Railway) made the 14 minute run down to Läggesta nedre tender-first. The loco ran around here and then hauled the train chimney first to Taxinge-Näsby. It’s a pleasant route through woodland with occasional glimpses of Gripsholm Castle and Mariefred from across the lake.

We reached the striking red brick station at Taxinge-Näsby on schedule at 13:31 where most of the passengers left the train here (the loco was uncoupled and ran a little further on, past some bright yellow rape fields, to a small turntable where it was turned ready for the return).

If I had done my homework I might have discovered that you could take a two hour stop here and then return to Mariefred by boat at 15:55 but there’s usually something on holiday that you would have done better with the benefit of a little local knowledge. It was probably a lucky escape as I’m not sure that we would have made it out alive if we had discovered northern Europe’s largest cake buffet at Taxinge Castle with over 60 varieties of cake to sample! Instead, we headed back to Mariefred on the 13:45 service, arriving at 14:32.

It was a delightful journey, made all the more special by the enthusiasm of the volunteers who clearly wanted their passengers to get the most out of their trip.

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Mariefred and Gripsholm Castle

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 4, 2017

It may seem a little strange, but for our first full day in Stockholm we immediately made our way to the central station and headed out by train to the beautiful town of Mariefred on the shore of Lake Mälaren.

The town is charming in its own right, but the main attraction here is the distinctively red Gripsholm Castle which was built here in 1537 by King Gustav Vasa. If that wasn’t enough, a short walk from the entrance you can also find the Östra Södermanlands Järnväg, a 6.8 mile long narrow gauge railway.

Morning reflections

The exterior of the castle looked impressive from a distance, reflecting beautifully in the still waters of the lake, but I was still a little nervous going in. I’ve been to many a castle that looks wonderful on the outside but has little to offer inside and I had come across some mixed reviews on a certain well-used travel website. I should have known better – the interior was stunning and incredibly extensive with 65 rooms to view!

Before you step inside there is much to admire on a wander around the grounds, including two marvellous bronze cannons captured from the Russians in 1581 and 1621. These pieces have been a point of interest here since 1623 with delightful touches, such as the shot in the mouth of the wolf at one end (although they have apparently been known as ‘The Boar’ and ‘The Sow’ throughout their time in Swedish hands).

A captured bronze cannon from Russia

A tour of the interior immediately takes you into a sequence of richly decorated, wood panelled, sixteenth century-ish rooms that have a real wow factor. I was amused to learn later that this is largely a confection of the fairly liberal 1890s restoration of the palace, drawing on surviving material from across the country. In fact, nothing had survived here apart from the ceilings and fireplaces! I’m not sure it matters as it still looks stunning, but it is a helpful indication of the degree to which the castle has been altered (the guide book is invaluable in this respect).

The highlight of our visit was the unexpected discovery of a wonderfully intimate neo-classical theatre built into one of the towers dating to 1781. The use of space is quite ingenious – the semi-circular auditorium could hold an audience of sixty over three levels (comprised of raked stalls, a royal box/circle and an upper circle). It would probably feel quite claustrophobic were it not for the illusion of space created by mirrors around the auditorium.

It’s not hard to see why an earlier design (from 1772-73) built entirely within the footprint of the tower was unsuccessful. The auditorium we see today takes up most of the space bounded by the tower’s walls and the stage only overlaps slightly with the footprint of the tower, sitting mostly in the Queen’s wing. You can pass through the under-stage at the back to see the stage machinery. It’s well worth worth seeking out the model in the exhibition space next to the shop to get a better idea of the way this all fits together as its a little hard to visualise when you are standing inside.

Gripsholm Castle

We spent a couple of hours in the castle enjoying the incredibly variety of styles, decoration and artworks on display in the 65 rooms but you could easily spend much longer, absorbing the history and paying more attention to the royal portraits (including many paintings from beyond Swedish shores, such as Charles I, George III and even Cromwell).

There are some intriguing curiosities in the castle that it is worth looking out for, in particular ‘The chicken picture’ (1747), which shows Crown Princess Lovisa Ulrika’s ladies of court as hens, and the ‘Gripsholm lion‘, which must win the prize for the least threatening lion in history (apparently the taxidermist had never seen a live lion and had very little material to work with). I’m not the first blogger to have noticed these – the lion in particular is something of a celebrity these days!

If I took away nothing else it was instrumental in teaching me how pivotal 1809 was in Swedish history. It was really illuminating to read about the story of Gustav IV, a king who refused to bow to the inevitable and instead planned to wage an all-consuming war against the enemies surrounding Sweden on three fronts. Faced with the terrible consequences of such an insane decision the army staged a coup d’etat, imprisoned the king at Gripsholm and forced him to abdicate. In this moment, the nation we know today was forged.

Practicalities

We made our visit on a Sunday to take advantage of the combination of the castle and the railway (which only runs at weekends and on public holidays during June).

Our regional train back to Stockholm was topped and tailed by Rc6 electric locomotives 1356 and 1361

To get to Mariefred we took SJ Regional Train 919 at 8.51am which reaches Läggesta at 9.30am, connecting with bus 304 towards Mariefred at 9.37am. It’s an easy transfer to make with the bus stopping at the railway station and the display inside the buses helpfully shows the stops coming up. You can buy combined rail and bus tickets that save on hassle (we bought ours online ahead of the journey).

It takes under 10 minutes to reach Mariefred depending on which stop you get off at – the closest stop to the castle and railway is Gripsholms Slott but we missed this and got off at the next stop. Not really a problem though, as this just leaves you with a short and pleasant walk through the centre of the town.

If you time it right there is an alternative – you can take a pathway from one end of the platform at Läggesta which takes you down to the narrow gauge railway station at Läggesta nedre.

The castle opens from 10am until 4pm during the summer season and admission cost us 130 Swedish Krona each (plus another 30 Krona for a guidebook). I thought that was a very fair price given the incredible amount that there is to see inside – I’ve certainly paid far more to see far less in other places!

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Thirty-three years later…

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 3, 2017

In 1984 I spent a blissful holiday in Helsinki that was one of the highlights of my childhood, sparking a lifelong love of travel that has taken me places that I didn’t know existed at the time. On my return I immediately set about compiling a three volume trip diary that I still have to this day, plastered with receipts and souvenirs, whilst many a school project took a Finnish theme. In time, I moved on but deep down I knew I would always be a finnophile!

1984: The thrill of international travel

It is strange to think that in the thirty three years since that 12 year boy stepped ashore at Katajanokka I have somehow never quite got around to making a return – until now. I don’t know if it is a mistake to tread in these childhood footsteps but it will be fascinating to see how much I remember.

I have already recounted the tale of my adventures from London to Helsinki in the first trip. On that occasion we made the entire journey by train, but so much of that is no longer possible (the station at Hoek van Holland Haven was downgraded to a tram stop in early 2017, the train ferry from Helsingborg to Helsingør closed in 2000 and sleeper services have largely become a thing of the past in Europe). However, it has been reassuring to see that the Viking Line still operates ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki.

British Airways B767-300ER G-BNWX

The plan is to stay in Stockholm for three days and then travel on the Viking Line ship M/S Gabriella to Helsinki for a four day stay. Book-ending the trip will be flights on an aging British Airways 767 and a youthful Finnair A350-XWB. I will be steering clear of computers on this trip (I spend too much time behind a PC in my working life as it is!) so any posts about our travels will appear once we return…

The Carshalton Water Tower

Posted in Carshalton, England by folkestonejack on May 21, 2017

In all my wanderings around the British Isles and beyond in search of incredible sights it is easy to overlook the delights that stand on your own doorstep. With this in mind, we made a beeline for the Carshalton Water Tower, a local-ish historical curiosity that I have long intended to visit but somehow have never quite gotten around to. A poor effort on my part, given that only needed me to hop aboard a number 157 bus on a Sunday afternoon!

Carshalton Water Tower

I’m glad we finally made the effort. The Carshalton Water Tower and the historic gardens that surround it have a fascinating story to tell. It says alot that this kept us hooked for almost two hours, much to our surprise. I think that is a bargain for just £3 per person.

Our visit began with a tour of what would once have been the grounds of Carshalton House, a grand house built for tobacco merchant Edward Carlton but with a tortuous history of ownership that led to its purchase by a religious order from Liege, the Daughters of the Cross, in 1893. The daughters established a roman catholic school on the site that still operates to this day.

The water tower and the house were separated by a lake, created in the late 18th century when the fashion for more formal arrangements was being swept away in favour of landscape gardens. It’s a dry-ish affair today, though we didn’t want to test whether any of the recent rainfall remained and crossed by a causeway (a twentieth century addition). Partway across we paused to admire the Sham Bridge, another folly, which is a dam in reality (no water can flow underneath, though painting its underside black with pitch must have helped maintain the illusion in its heyday).

Once we had made our way across to the other side we navigated our way round to the hermitage. Today’s pathway, trampled through the long grass, is probably quite far removed from the circuit that the gentry might once have taken on their perambulations!

Carshalton House still stands at the heart of today’s school complex, albeit somewhat altered from its original appearance

The hermitage is a splendid stone-built folly built into the hillside that dates back to the early eighteenth century and must have been a gorgeous spot to stop and admire the views of the pleasure gardens, lake and the nearby springhead. It has suffered a little over the years from the weathering of the soft reigate stone but recent repairs are already starting to blend in nicely. There’s some pretty neat historic graffiti too.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story was the way that the nuns re-interpreted the landscape. They created an outdoor trail of the stations of the cross and converted the hermitage into a grotto for their pieta – until the weight of the thing threatened to destabilise the structure!

After threading our way back through the long grass we had a chance to see an ancient yew tree that is as good an example as you can see of the way this species self propogates when left to its own devices, by driving its branches down into the ground.

The hermitage

Saving the best to the end, we returned to the water tower to see what makes it unique. The tower was constructed in the early 18th century for Sir John Fellowes and housed a reservoir that was used to supply water to the house. However, it was a pleasure house in its own right with a saloon, orangery and a beautiful bagnio lined with blue and white delft tiles. It’s both a wonderful piece of social history and a fascinating piece of engineering. Indeed, you can still see the water wheel which powered the pumps that lifted the water up to the cistern.

We have to thank the nuns for adding a staircase that provides access to the roof, affording a much better view of the upper structure and a better appreciation of how the alignment of West Street was altered to create the grounds we had just walked.

If you want to visit, the Water Tower is usually open on Sunday Afternoons from 2.30pm to 5pm from the first Sunday after Easter to the end of September. However, if you want to go on a tour of the hermitage as well you need to time your visit for the first and third Sunday of each month. For further information about visiting and any changes to the schedule you should check out the website of the Carshalton Water Tower and Historic Garden Trust.

The view from the rooftop

Our visit to the Carshalton Water Tower was a superb way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Thank you to the wonderful guides who brought the story to life for us.

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Treasure in the library at Hatfield House

Posted in England, Hatfield by folkestonejack on May 13, 2017

One of the great treasure houses of England sits just 21 miles north of London in leafy Hatfield, an easy 23 minute train journey from King’s Cross. The 42 acre site is home to two palatial residences – the Old Palace, the childhood home of Elizabeth I, and Hatfield House, a Jacobean prodigy house built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to James I.

Hatfield House

Hatfield House delivers wonderment from the moment that you enter the ornately decorated marble hall until you step back outside. The walls hold so many familiar royal portraits, none more so than the famous Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (even if it looks more like she is holding a garden hose rather than a rainbow these days!). The extravagance doesn’t let up as you explore the rest of the state rooms, though the gold ceiling of the long gallery has perhaps the largest wow factor. It’s not a statement that you can easily ignore…

However, for me the real treasure lay in the library. I’ve visited a fair number of stately homes in my time and you often see glass cabinets full of moderately interesting letters and other exhibits. Not here. The cabinets at Hatfield House hold astonishing historical artifacts such as Lord Burghley’s rough draft of the warrant ordering the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Another fascinating letter on display in the library warns the Earl of Murray not to support rebels fleeing over the border into Scotland in 1569. It is all the more striking because it is written almost entirely in cipher, barring for the signature of Elizabeth I at the end!

The fountain in the West Garden

We are lucky that Hatfield House survives to be visited as it suffered from a terrible fire in 1835 that destroyed the West Wing of the house and might have threatened more had a fortuitous spell of torrential rain not intervened. The chapel had a particularly lucky escape after the heat of the fire melted the lead water tanks in the attic, dousing the flames. I certainly appreciated the opulent interiors and wonderful artworks throughout the building – it would have been a terrible loss had this not endured.

Hatfield House is understandably popular as a wedding venue so we didn’t get the opportunity to take a look inside the surviving parts of the Old Palace but our tickets are valid for the rest of the season so maybe we’ll get the chance to pop back on and remedy that later this year.

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The last inhabitants of the Bourbon Tower

Posted in Buckingham, England by folkestonejack on May 10, 2017

Our visit to Stowe gave me the opportunity to seek out a rather unusual building in the parkland that surrounds the landscape gardens – the Bourbon Tower. This unusual building was once home to my great-great-great grandfather, George Griffin, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Bourbon Tower

The tower was built in 1741 as a house for the gamekeeper, with sweeping views over a deer park that was all too susceptible to poaching. Originally known as the gothic tower, it was given the name of the Bourbon Tower in 1808 to honour the exiled King of France, Louis XVIII, who spent many days at Stowe when he first arrived in England. Louis and other members of the French royal family planted the oaks that still surround it.

In its original form the tower was 65 foot in height, 110 foot in circumference, with a narrow winding stone staircase to the summit. Later re-modelling saw the conical roof replaced with a flat roof topped by a 24 foot tall octagonal turret. The interior holds more rooms than you might think, with five rooms at the time of the 1911 census – a kitchen on the ground floor, bedrooms on the first/second floor and a large room on the third floor. Looking at the solid walls I can’t imagine that much in the way of natural light penetrated inside, but the top floor apparently had skylights to let some sunlight in.

In the nineteenth century the Bourbon Tower was perhaps more strongly associated with the yeomanry and became home to many a sergeant major. Typical of these residents was Crimean veteran Edward Collier who lived in the tower with his family for thirteen years (1872-1885). It was not such a complete break with tradition as it might seem – in addition to his responsibilities to the yeomanry Edward acted as park ranger for the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

The length of each occupancy of the Bourbon Tower varied but was typically just above or below a decade. Samuel Poole, a drill instructor in the Yeomanry, lived in the tower with his family around 1885-1893 (press reports refer to their presence from 1887 to 1891). The next occupant, Sergeant Major Rogers, moved into the tower in March 1893 and press reports show that he was still there in early 1895.

Family connections

My family connection with the Bourbon Tower begins somewhere between 1895 and 1901, when George Griffin moved in with two of his grown up children (Clement and Eleanor Alice). By this time George was a retired gamekeeper, whilst his son was a woodsman on the estate.

George Griffin had been a gamekeeper all his life, as had his father before him. An account from the Bucks Herald of a poaching incident in August 1884, when the family were living at Squirrel Copse, Lillingstone Dayrell, shows his sons now joining the profession and just how physical it could be:

From the evidence of the keepers, George Griffin, sen., Clement Griffin, and Geo. Griffin, jun., P.C. Warman, of Silverstone, and P.S. Lait, it appeared that shortly after midnight on the 22nd August last the keepers were in a field called Squirrel Copse, near Tile House Wood. They came upon two nets, one of which was pegged out, and immediately after they saw three men near at hand who dared them to “come on.” Griffin, the elder, went at one man, who struck him on the head with a long heavy stick which broke his hat. The keeper returned the blow and felled his opponent, who tried to get up again, but the keeper gave him another blow on the head and then stood over him. Clement Griffin, in the meantime, had received a blow with a stick from a man whom he recognised as James Chapman; but Clement eventually overcame him, and went to his father’s assistance. The father called for a light, whereupon Whitlock and Chapman made off. A match was lighted and put to the face of Wilcox, and they could plainly see it was him. Then they let him get up and go home. When it became light the keepers found two caps (produced), sticks, two nets and a rabbit.

The Bourbon Tower must have been an incredible place to live if the newspaper accounts are anything to go by. The Buckinghamshire Yeomanry regularly used the parkland at Stowe for their field days and their are some wonderful accounts of the entire regiment charging towards their target, the Bourbon Tower. In the years before the Griffins moved in the tower provided much needed shelter for the soldiers when the heavens opened.

On 22nd February 1902 George Griffin (75) died from chronic bronchitis and exhaustion at the Bourbon Tower (he was probably a few years older as he was baptised at Ludgershall, Bucks, in 1825). George’s son Clement and daughter Eleanor Alice continued to live in the tower after his death and they were the sole occupants at the time of the 1911 census.

Unhappy endings

It’s not a tale with the happiest of endings. The first inkling of trouble can be seen in a snippet of news from The Bucks Herald of 30th November 1912 which states that the Buckinghamshire Rural District Council had been alerted to the presence of eleven cats and a number of hens and chickens inside the tower, which was said to be in a filthy condition.

A horrific report of an RSPCA visit in 1913 paints a far grimmer picture and gives an account of a conversation with Eleanor that suggests the occupants were not mentally well (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 7th June 1913). Following on from this, the local sanitary authority got involved.

Finally, an application to eject Clement Griffin from the Bourbon Tower was submitted to the Buckingham Divisional Petty Sessions on 29th May 1915 on behalf of the Rev. the Hon. Chandos Morgan-Grenville (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 5th June 1915). The application for eviction was approved with an order for possession in 21 days.

Clement and Eleanor Alice left Stowe Park behind and headed south to join their relations in Folkestone for a short spell, before ending their days in Kent County Lunatic Asylum in Chartham. Eleanor died on 12th July 1917 and Clement died on 15th December 1917.

Stowe House was put up for sale in 1921 and various smaller lots of land surrounding the gardens came onto the market. Deerbarn Farm, of 244 acres, with its residence, and the Bourbon Tower were sold for £4000 (Bucks Herald, 9th July 1921).

The local newspapers make no further references to anyone moving into the Bourbon Tower after the departure of the Griffins but it was apparently later used as the home of the Stowe School clay pigeon club. It was derelict by the time that the National Trust took on Stowe and plans to restore it have not yet reached fruition. Hopefully someday it will reverberate to happier sounds than in its last period of occupancy.

Thank you to the National Trust team at Stowe for the map of the parkland at Stowe and the helpful directions to the tower.

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Stowe in the sun

Posted in Buckingham, England by folkestonejack on May 10, 2017

The corporate away day can be a thing of nightmares, but this year’s departmental sustainability away day turned out to be the complete reverse, taking us to the stunning landscape gardens at Stowe near Buckingham. Not only did we get the chance to work on a satisfying project as a team in incredible surroundings, we were were also blessed with a miraculous burst of blue skies and sun out of nowhere.

The Temple of Ancient Virtue

The gardens at Stowe have attracted visitors for centuries but it was really surprising to discover that it has only been in the hands of the National Trust since 1989, whilst the house is looked after separately by the Stowe House Preservation Trust. The story of how the site reached that point is a fascinating lesson in the horrific cost of keeping our great houses in good shape.

The whole site had been in steady decline since the nineteenth century and the previous owners, Stowe School, had lacked the resources to maintain either the grounds or house adequately, despite their best efforts and the financial assistance provided through various grants. The scale of the problem becomes clear when you hear that a survey in 2002 estimated the cost of restoration for the house alone as £40 million! Today, the grounds and the many remarkable garden buildings look so well maintained that it is really hard to appreciate just how poor a state everything was in when they took over. The house too has received substantial restoration.

A quick scan of the before and after photographs on the National Trust website show how much progress has been made following the £10 million restoration masterplan – the shots of the beautifully restored Temple of Concord and Victory today and the same building bricked up in the early 1990s are quite astonishing (a transformation that cost £1.3 million alone). A shot of tennis courts next to the Palladian bridge shows how the views that this landscape garden excels at were quite obscured during this era, but visiting today you would have no idea that anything had changed over the centuries.

Our base for the day, the New Inn, was another example. It was originally constructed in 1717 to provide accommodation for early visitors to the garden but had been in a derelict state for many years before the National Trust bought the property in 2003. The National Trust re-opened it in 2012, thereby restoring the traditional entrance and approach to the property (up to this point National Trust visitors entered via a point at the north of the gardens and house) and what an approach it is…

As our coach turned onto Stowe Avenue we got our first glimpse of the Corinthian Arch, beautifully illuminated at the end of an impressively straight long drive, and began to appreciate the grand scale of the gardens we were heading towards. Once we had made our way into the gardens themselves, passing through the Bell Gate, we were treated to the most gorgeous view of Stowe House across the Octagon Lake.

A very relaxed and enjoyable half-day followed, with three teams tackling different projects. The team I joined re-painted a bridge that needed freshening up some 5-6 years since its last coat. It was a fairly straightforward task to paint the inside, but the sides facing the river had to be painted from a boat. The end result was more impressive than I could have imagined – we had struggled to pick out the bridge when we first entered the gardens but now the gleaming white bridge stood out a mile. My home gardening is never quite this rewarding!

A freshly re-painted White Bridge in the grounds at Stowe

Later in the day we had an opportunity to take a wander around the grounds and appreciate the full splendour of the landscaping and just why this was considered to be the most magnificent in the British Isles. Every penny of restoration was thoroughly deserved to recreate these incredible vistas for the nation.

Time ran out all too quickly, so I’ll have to make an effort to return and make a fuller exploration of the gardens and take a look inside the house. I quite fancy the idea of renting the Gothic Temple which has been wonderfully restored by the Landmark Trust as a holiday cottage. How amazing must it be to wake up and look out on a landscape like this?

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Exploring Knole

Posted in England, Sevenoaks by folkestonejack on May 2, 2017

The attractions of the showrooms at Knole House have been drawing visitors for hundreds of years, long before the National Trust took over ownership. Stepping inside its not hard to see why. However, time your visit for a Tuesday in April-September and you get the added bonus of a chance to look inside the 26 acre walled private gardens of Lord Sackville.

The west front of Knole House

The house began its life as an archbishop’s palace in 1456, but was ‘voluntarily’ passed to Henry VIII by Thomas Cranmer in 1538. It was already grand but the money lavished on it at this time substantially enlarged its footprint with the addition of a new gatehouse and the buildings of the Green Court. After a bit of swapping back and forth the house eventually ended up in the ownership of Thomas Sackville, Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I.

Under Thomas Sackville the house underwent the most significent transformation, turning it into a show house that would hold up well in comparison with the great houses established by the other Lord Treasurers of the age (such as Burghley House, Audley End and Hatfield House). The stamp of his ownership is proclaimed everywhere you look, from the stone leopards that stand atop the roof to the ornamentation on the lead drain pipes in the courtyard.

An early National trust notice for Knole House

Impressive as it is, you can imagine what a burden it must be to inherit such a sprawling house and to feel the need to maintain it to a level to satisfy your illustrious ancestors. Faced with these challenges Charlie Sackville-West agreed to transfer Knole House to the National Trust in 1946, after a decade or so of discussion. The decision safeguarded the future of the house and also the gardens, which had seemed impossible to keep up.

The massive building, conservation and restoration project Knole is currently undergoing is testament to the wisdom of that decision. The £19.8 million project, the largest in the history of the National Trust, has seen the stabilisation of the property and the re-opening of the most astonishing showrooms, though others will remain closed until Spring 2019 as the restoration work continues. It has to be said that thet refurbished Ballroom and King’s Room are absolutely stunning.

Some of the colourful sights in the 26 acre gardens

The National Trust have done such a good job here. Not just with the telling of the big story, but also picking up on the story of the estate (with a lovely recreation of the estate office) and the life of a somewhat reluctant later inheritor, Edward Sackville-West, who lived an unconvential life in a private residence in the Gatehouse Tower. There are so many interesting tales to absorb on a visit.

Knole House is quite some country house, even if the story about it having a room for each day of the year is not exactly accurate (and let’s not get started on the question of 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards!). The gardens are pretty delightful too, with wonderful fields of bluebells in the ‘wilderness’ and the longest wisteria outside China. Well worth a look around – on a Tuesday!

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Stepping between heaven and hell

Posted in England, Peterborough by folkestonejack on May 1, 2017

Our visit to Hardwick Hall last year has set us on a mission to visit the surviving prodigy or wonder houses in England, eager to see just how daring the courtiers of the Tudor and Jacobean age could be in building their showstopping palatial residences. The next on our list, Burghley House, proved to the perfect choice for a Bank Holiday weekend and amply demonstrated why it deserves its label as one of the treasure houses of England.

Burghley House

Burghley House was the creation of William Cecil, principal Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I. The construction took place in stages between 1555 and 1587, though the palace has been re-shaped by many significant alterations since then. It certainly cuts a striking shape as you approach it from across the park but this is nothing compared to the astonishing decoration inside.

A walk through the state rooms leaves you in no doubt of the intention to impress, but it is the rooms commissioned by the fifth Earl of Exeter in the 17th century that deliver the knockout punch. The Earl’s choice of artist, Antonio Verrio, spent a decade at Burghley House decorating six rooms (and quarrelling with just about everyone in that time). Each has its own wow factor but the most extravagant of these, the heaven room, goes much further.

On stepping into the heaven room you are immediately transported inside a temple open to the skies, filled with figures from mythology in a re-telling of the story of Mars and Venus. Such is the power of the illusion that it feels as though you are in a busy room even when you are standing alone admiring the detail, whether your focus be Vulcan’s forge or the self-portrait that Verrio cleverly included. Once you have absorbed this, the next doorway takes you into the darkness and despair of the hell staircase. Quite extraordinary.

The walls include a fair number visual representations of the household. You clearly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Verrio or risk being immortalised unfavourably! The cook found this out to her cost, ending up as a six-breasted woman in one room, whilst the priest is shown as a drunkard in two rooms. You can get a better impression of these astonishing sights through the superb set of 360 degree views of the staterooms which are available on the Burghley House website.

After leaving the house we enjoyed a pleasant wander through the gardens, admiring a selection of modern sculptures, before heading home in late afternoon. As you might have guessed, we thorough enjoyed our visit and would highly recommend a trip to Burghley House.

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Deltic delight at Stamford

Posted in England, Peterborough by folkestonejack on May 1, 2017

On my travels there have been a few occasions where I have timed our journeys to co-incide perfectly with a passing steam special or the like, with a degree of eye-rolling when I protest that it was pure chance to my by now very clued up better half. However, there are occasions when I am completely surprised and it takes some convincing that I genuinely didn’t know about whatever has appeared.

Just such a situation occurred on our Bank Holiday outing to Burghley House. It was pretty clear that something was expected by the number of photographers standing ready in the fields and in country lanes as we made our way by train to Stamford. On arriving I joined a small gathering of photographers and waited. I probably should have asked what it was we were waiting for, but thought I would enjoy the surprise…

55018 ‘Ballymoss’ passes through Stamford

After a twenty minute wait we were treated to the superb sight of class 55 Deltic locomotive 55022 ‘Royal Scots Grey’ (in the temporary guise of 55018 ‘Ballymoss’) storming through the station at the head of a three locomotive convoy. I like surprises like this, even if it does take me a devilishly long time to convince anyone that I hadn’t planned our chance encounter!

I later discovered that this was the movement (running as 0Z55) of the deltic from the Nene Valley Railway at Wansford to the Severn Valley Railway at Kidderminster, with 31271 and 45041 ‘Royal Tank Regiment’ in tow. All three locomotives will be appearing at the Spring Diesel Festival at the Severn Valley Railway on May 18th, 19th & 20th.

Tilbury B and the changing Thames riverside

Posted in England, Gravesend, London, Tilbury by folkestonejack on April 26, 2017

On a stroll along the shoreline at Gravesend you can’t fail to miss the twin chimneys of Tilbury B Power Station, a structure that has dominated this stretch of the Thames since its construction started in 1961. Like so many other industrial landmarks of the twentieth century it is a sight that won’t be with us for much longer – it is set to share the fate of its sister power station, Tilbury A, and will be completely demolished by the end of 2018.

SB Hydrogen sails past Tilbury B Power Station

Work on the destruction of the site began in January 2016, three years after its closure, but the majority of the explosive demolition jobs are scheduled for this year. The first of these will see half of the Turbine Hall demolished at 10am tomorrow, followed by the chimneys, boiler house and bunker house later in the year.

So many colossal industrial structures have disappeared from London and kent, such as the gasholders at Battersea and Kings Cross and the 244m chimney of Grain Power Station, but I had not entirely appreciated just how much change was taking place on the Thames.

The Royal Wharf development at Silvertown

The Greenwich Peninsula development

The degree of change is particularly striking on the stretch of the river at West Silvertown (between The Thames Barrier and Trinity Buoy Wharf) and around the Greenwich Peninsula where a low height industrial landscape is being replaced by high-rise residential developments. In the not too distant future it will be as hard to imagine the industry that the Thames supported here as it is to imagine that a forest of cranes and warehouses once surrounded Tower Bridge!

My trip up the Thames between Gravesend and Greenwich over the Easter weekend gave me plenty of opportunities to see the vanishing industrial landscape, as well as the occasional survivor such as the Victorian marvel of Crossness Pumping Station (somewhere I must get around to visiting). It was a fascinating trip – I wonder how different it will all look in a decade or two and how much further the de-instrustrialisation of the Thames will have extended.

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Sailing beyond the storm

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

The splendid sight of the parade of sail for the Tall Ships Festivals 2017 certainly drew the crowds to Greenwich and Woolwich. It looked as though the initial forecasts of around 600,000 visitors could easily have been met over the course of the four days that the event spanned. Indeed, some 11,000 visitors were reported to have got on board one of the tall ships moored at the two sites over the first three days of the festival alone.

Once the tall ships began their procession it was striking to see that just about every spot lining the Thames to Woolwich has been filled, despite the miserable weather. In some places, such as around the Trafalgar Tavern, the crowds looked to be six-deep, though one chap on the water had the best view of all!

Artemis heads towards the towers of New Providence Wharf

As a spectacle, I think the Parade of Sail in 2014 has the edge, if only because there were a few more sails on display and the significantly better weather, but it was still a treat to be able to admire such a great line up of beautiful ships on our doorstep. I hope it is not so long before we see such a gathering again.

It has taken a while to go through the thousand or so pictures that I took during the parade, but I think the selection below gives a reasonable flavour of the event. I was a little lucky to be on a sightseeing boat for the event as it gave us a chance to outrun the gathering storm and try and catch the ships in the better conditions to the east. Nevertheless, I can’t help but like the drama that the dark skies add to some of the pictures.

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