FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Above, below and inside Clifton Suspension Bridge

Posted in Bristol, England by folkestonejack on June 8, 2019

The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century that has gone on to become one of the most recognisable symbols of the city. It was a daring project at its conception and yet despite the passage of time has still managed to surprise and impress us all over again in the 21st century, as we discovered on a visit today…

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

The idea of bridging the Avon Gorge had been cherished for nearly a century, encouraged by a bequest from a Bristol merchant by the name of William Vick in 1753. The will specified that when the interest on the initial bequest had reached £10,000 it should be used to build a stone bridge across the 91 metre tall Avon Gorge from Clifton Downs to Leigh Woods. It was not to prove a straightforward exercise.

A competition held in 1829 to design a viable stone bridge failed to produced a design that everyone was satisfied with on the grounds of cost, appearance or feasibility. Among the entries were four ambitious designs from a 23 year old engineering apprentice looking to make his mark on the world – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the end the highly respected competition judge, Thomas Telford, produced his own design for a suspension bridge and the committee sought approval to change the terms of Vick’s bequest to allow it to be built.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not to be deterred, proposing an alternative to Telford’s design which picked up much public support. The ensuing arguments and debate prompted a change of plan, leading to the announcement of a second competition in October 1830. The winner on this occasion was a design by Smith and Hawkes of the Eagle Foundry in Birmingham, but Brunel somehow managed to persuade the lead judge to change his mind at a private meeting.

The foundation stone was laid in 1836 but progress with the construction was exceedingly slow. The two abutments were completed by 1840 followed soon after by the towers. Although most of the ironwork had been manufactured, the money to finish the job had run out. A decade of proposals and alternative thinking could not find a way to complete the bridge. Some wanted to see the abutments demolished to remove the stigma of failure, but in time the Clifton abutment took on a new life as a viewing platform.

Brunel died in 1859 without seeing his ‘first love’ completed. However, the death of the great engineer galvanised his peers and led to a renewed effort to complete the bridge as a fitting monument. The money was raised in a surprisingly short time and the bridge eventually opened on 8th December 1864. It is now hard to imagine Bristol without the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has taken on a life way beyond the hopes of its initiator, William Vicks.

The bridge is indeed a great monument to Brunel and to the foresight of Vicks (wonderfully remembered in the playful latin inscription on the bridge ‘Suspensa Vix Via Fit’).

Looking down into the Avon Gorge

Our reason for visiting the bridge today was to take a look at one of the most surprising discoveries from its more recent history. It had been long assumed that the Leigh Woods abutment was solid but as the plans from the early phases of construction had not survived no one could say that with any certainty. In 2002 a worker replacing the paving slabs above the Clifton abutment discovered a small void and repeated the exercise on the Leigh Woods side out of curiosity, discovering a much deeper void.

The experts lowered in by rope discovered an amazing double-deck arrangement of 12 vaults connected by small tunnels. The surprises didn’t end there. The vaults were surprisingly well finished for a space that no-one would ever have been expected to see again and despite traces of the construction scaffolding it was pretty clear that everything must have been removed through the access shafts at the end of the job. No mean feat in itself.

In the last few years the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust has opened up two of the larger chambers (vaults 4 and 5) to members of the public on hour long hard hat tours and we eagerly snapped up a couple of tickets at the second time of trying (it’s well worth subscribing to their updates by email to get notification of the next batch of tours on offer).

After a quick orientation exercise on the bridge we made our way down, descending a caged vertical ladder to a new entrance that has been bored into the side of the abutment. No matter how many photos I had seen of the newly discovered space I found stepping into the first vault to be a real wow moment, exceeded only by passing into the larger cathedral-like vault.

The dimensions take some believing – the walls are two metres wide at their thinnest and the height of the chamber we had entered was equivalent to three double decker buses. It is a little hard to comprehend that an equally tall chamber lies underneath your feet, accessible by ladder. Quite extraordinary.

Inside the first vault

An hour passed incredibly quickly as we absorbed the fascinating story and the sights of the chambers on our wonderful volunteer led tour. It also has to be said that the trust have done a terrific job in telling the history of the bridge in the permanent exhibition on display in their visitor centre. It was fascinating to see the alternative designs for the bridge and consider what might have been.

We combined our visit to the bridge with a visit to the Clifton Observatory which offers an unusual perspective on the bridge through the 360 degree camera obscura installed in the roof of the tower. The museum in the tower is also well worth a look, particularly the displays that explain the early adoption of photography here. The historic Clifton Rocks Railway site is also located nearby, though this is currently only open a few days a year.

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Cream of Chantilly

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 27, 2019

One of the most extraordinary collections of art and rare books in France can be found at the Château de Chantilly, around 25 miles north of Paris, in a beautiful palace surrounded by forests. The collection of old masters is the second largest in the country. You might think that this would attract the long queues and crowding that the Louvre often sees, but not a bit of it.

This place is relatively lightly visited and you can often find yourself alone in a room filled with gorgeous paintings that include works by Raphael, Delacroix and Poussin among others. It has to be one of the best kept secrets among day trips from Paris, which is appropriate as I first learnt about the place through the marvelous Secrets of Paris blog many years ago!

Château de Chantilly

The magnificent Château de Chantilly and the art galleries that we can wander around today were the creation of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, son of the last King of France, Louis Philippe I. The Duke was one of the great collectors of his age and built up an astonishing collection of artworks and rare books over his lifetime. It’s a striking echo of the past activities of the Bourbon-Condés, the owners of Chantilly from 1643 to 1830, whose collections were confiscated during the revolution and transferred to the Central Museum of Arts (later to become the Louvre).

The Château is the work of the architect Honoré Daumet who was commissioned by the Duke to rebuild the Grand Château after the destruction that took place during the revolution. The new building was constructed on the foundations of the medieval towers and designed to integrate with the Petit Château, a renaissance survivor that somehow made it through the revolution intact. From the outset the new building, constructed from 1875 to 1885, was designed with the needs of the Duke’s collection in mind. This is most obvious in the large picture gallery which is illuminated by natural light coming through massive overhead windows.

The Duke was predeceased by his children and bequeathed the Château to the Institut de France in 1886 with the stipulation that it be opened to the public as a museum and that the artworks be presented just as they were in his lifetime. It is strange to walk around the galleries knowing that nothing has changed in over a century and that you are standing exactly where others have gazed in decades past. Equally, it is a pleasure to see a gallery presented quite differently to how it would be arranged today – a little like stepping back into the 19th century.

The Cabinet des Clouet

The astonishing nature of the art collection is perhaps best encapsulated by a small room known as the Cabinet des Clouet which displays the portraits of 90 French Kings from the 16th century – more than you would find at the Louvre!

On a wander round there are many delightful stories to discover. One of the most curious was the tale of The Madonna of Loreto which can be found in the Rotunda. The painting was originally considered to be a copy of a lost work by Raphael from 1509 until restoration in 1976 revealed the number 133 in a corner of the painting. This matched the inventory number marked on the original when it was part of the Borghese collection in Rome. The discovery saw the work rightly recognised as an original work by Raphael.

The collection of rare books is equally impressive, even if this is a little less obvious to the visitor. The Cabinet des Livres is the largest library in the country outside of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Inside the Cabinet des Livres

A short walk away from the Château you can discover the Great Stables (Grandes Écuries), now home to the living museum of the horse, adjacent to the famous racecourse with its gorgeous nineteenth century grandstands. The impressive stables were commissioned by Louis-Henri, Duke of Bourbon (1692-1740) and may, in part, be down to his belief that he would be re-incarnated as a horse. Whatever the reason, this is one of the masterpieces of 18th century architecture and a delight for us to enjoy today.

The area is the centre of the horseracing industry in France with over 2500 horses undergoing training in around a hundred stables. The first thing that strikes you as enter the great stables is just how much the space lives up to its name. These stables are the largest in Europe, built to hold up to 240 horses and five hundred hounds.

These are no ordinary stables. A better description would be the cathedral of the horse, a description amply illustrated by the three horses thundering out of the stonework above the doorway and a vast 14 metre high stone roof above the stables. The stables are still in use today, so this is no historic relic, with visitors able to take a wander along the stables inside before taking a right turn into the museum. The museum does an equally wonderful job of capturing the magic of the horse kingdom, from historic horse carts to merry-go-round horses presented in a compelling display.

The impressive roof of the stables

On our way out of the stables we had a moment to see one of the horse in training. If you have the time, there are regular shows and demonstrations beneath the 28 metre high dome of the Great Stables, a space which can accommodate 600 people.

In short, a day trip to Chantilly is a wonderful opportunity to be wowed by artworks, a beautiful restored historic palace and artistry of the equine kind. All without the crowds of most Parisien attractions. What’s not to like!?

Practicalities

We kept things simple and purchased a Pack TER Domaine de Chantilly from the green ticket machines located around platforms 15-17 on the ground level of the Gare du Nord (not downstairs where most of the other ticket machines are located). The machines were very clearly laid out and had options in five languages. You use a dial to select your preferred option and the Chantilly tickets are pretty easily located through the menus. The machines only accept credit cards and didn’t seem to have the option to buy more than one Pack TER at a time. The price is a very reasonable 25 euros per adult (a saving of around 10 euros).

The journey out to Chantilly takes just 22 minutes. The timetable is a bit quirky, so it’s worth taking the time to check in advance of your trip. The gates to the chateau don’t open until 10 so we opted to take the 8h49 from Paris Gare du Nord in the direction of Compiègne with the 9h07 in the direction of Amiens as a back-up. After this, there was over an hour’s wait for the next train (10h37). A similar pattern emerges in the afternoon – the timetable showed trains running at intervals of 30-45 minutes for a few hours and then a surprising gap of 75 minutes between trains in mid-afternoon.

Gare de Chantilly-Gouvieux

On our arrival at Chantilly-Gouvieux we headed out by foot on the well sign-posted route to the Chateau. Some of the promotional material we had seen suggested this was a 15 minute walk but we took a good 30 minutes and while we were not racing, we were hardly slouches either! The walk was quite lovely with views of the race course, the exterior of the great stables and the chateau surrounded by water.

When we reached the chateau we had a little wait for the 10 o’clock opening. There are two ticket buildings – one with automatic ticket machines (right) and one with staffed counters (left). We had to use the latter to exchange our Pack TER tickets for Domaine tickets. All fairly painless, but with only one counter open it took a little time with a few groups to process ahead of us.

As our visit took place on a week day we thought it would be quiet, but hadn’t counted on four school parties and a pensioners coach outing. However, once inside we didn’t really encounter any crowding at all and only stumbled upon the occasional room of children listening intently to an explanation of the treasures on display. Once the initial crowd gathered at the gates had been let in at 10am we never saw any queues to get in. For most of the time we were there the area around the gates was incredibly quiet. I suspect that weekday afternoons are rather quiet!

The ticket office is located in the small building to the right

The official website states that tours of the Duke and Duchess of Aumale’s private suites were available in English at 11.30 every day but on our visit we were told that only tours in French were available. This was a disappointment at first, but as we made our way around the chateau we soon realised that we had underestimated the time needed to appreciate the historic rooms and galleries properly. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In total, we spent three hours visiting the chateau and taking in the great stables at a canter but felt we could have done with longer to explore the grounds and enjoy the museum of the living horse.

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Coulée verte

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 26, 2019

One of the most extraordinary green spaces in Paris, the Coulée verte René-Dumont, can be found high above the streets of the twelfth arrondissement on the trackbed of the long closed railway line from Bastille to Vincennes. This linear park, also known as the Promenade Plantée, was the pioneering creation of landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Philippe Mathieux in 1988.

The elevated park was officially inaugurated in 1993 and its ground breaking re-use of an abandoned line has gone on to inspire similar projects around the world, such as New York’s High Line, The 606 in Chicago and Philadelphia’s Rail Park. A campaign to develop something similar in the UK, the Peckham Coal Line, has already captured the imagination of the local community.

One of the routes up to the Coulée verte

Our visit to the walkway fell on a Sunday afternoon. We soon discovered just how popular the park was as we joined the relatively slow procession on the – at times – relatively narrow pathway. Everyone seemed to be up there and who could blame them? It was a lovely day and this was clearly the perfect spot to sit and read, walk the dogs or take a wander with the family. The large green space at the Reuilly Garden was busy with families, couples and optimistic sun-worshipers.

There was also another good reason for all the activity on the Coulée verte that I had overlooked – the European elections were taking place and the old station building at Reuilly had been transformed into a polling station for the 12eme arrondissement. It would have to be the most impressive place to vote that I can recall.

The station building at Reuilly was opened, along with the line, in 1859 and remained in use until goods traffic on the line ceased in 1985. Historic photos from 1900 show a beautifully maintained station with well tended green borders. The contrast with the overgrown and unloved station of 1985 couldn’t be greater, so it is lovely to see it so beautifully restored and now very much at the heart of the community.

The ancien gare de Reuilly

Our walk took us from the Viaduc des Arts to a point near Rue du Sahel (helpfully marked up on the official map) before we headed up to street level and hopped on the metro at Bel Air.

The Coulée verte turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped with wonderful views of the neighbourhoods it passes through, lovingly well kept gardens and delightful artistic additions. At times it can be really hard to remember that this was ever a railway, particularly when standing in front of a feature like the long duck ponds.

Among the surprises along the way are an office block occupied by the local police, a relatively modern creation from the 1990s, which is topped by a sequence of statues copied from Michelangelo’s dying slave and a cheeky sequence of painted bollards in the tunnels nearish the Rue du Sahel. However, the real highlight was the walk itself. It’s so easy to let city life fall away and just relax in to a leisurely walk. Highly recommended.

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Palace of the Salamander King

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 26, 2019

Our long weekend in Paris gave us a perfect opportunity to get out from the city and see the ‘true abode of Kings and the Palace of the ages’ at Fontainebleau which has a history going back to 1137. My grasp of French history is pretty limited, so I had no idea that one of the key players in its restoration was Napoleon who refurbished the palace in a manner worthy of the ancien régime after its sacking in the revolution.

A view of the Palace from the Grand Parterre

The magnificence of the rooms in the palace can’t be overstated. There are so many rooms that simply take your breath away as you enter with their ornate decoration and craftsmanship. The rooms of the Napoleon Museum are equally compelling, albeit in a different way. It is quite something to see Napoleon’s cloak and hat, along with his travel kit and some of the imperial regalia used in his coronations in Paris and Milan.

One of the things you can’t help but notice as you explore the palace are the symbols that its occupants stamped upon the place. King Francis I (1515-1547) used the salamander as his personal emblem, accompanied by the motto Nutrisco et extinguo (I nourish and I extinguish). The symbolism of the salamander, able to walk through flames unharmed and extinguish them, was meant to show the triumph of virtue over the evils of the world.

The salamander is especially evident all the way down the beautifully decorated renaissance marvel that is the Francis I Gallery. Salamanders can be seen on the stucco decoration, carved onto the walnut wainscoting and on the chairs that line the space. From the moment we learnt about it, salamander spotting became quite a feature of our exploration of the palace. You never had to wait too long before encountering another!

A salamander on the Golden Gate

In contrast, Napoleon sought to draw a parallel with the mighty Roman empire and adopted the eagle (for its association with military power) and the bee (for its association with long life and hard work). These symbols can be seen in some of the restored rooms of the Imperial residence and in the museum, though the royals were understandably eager to remove these when they returned to Fontainebleau after the restoration of the monarchy.

Now that we’ve seen Fontainebleau, I think I will have to add the Château Royal de Blois and the Château de Chambord to my wish list for a future adventure (and more salamanders!).

Practicalities

We took a double deck TER train from the Gare de Lyon in the direction of Montargis, using a 1-5 zone Mobilis ticket costing 17.80 euros per person (following everyone else and compositing it using the square looking machines at the end of the platform before boarding). The journey takes about 40 minutes. On arrival at Fontainebleau-Avon station we took the ‘Ligne 1’ bus destined for Les Lilas, getting off at the ‘Château’ stop right outside the gardens. All incredibly easy.

The official English language website advertises a ‘Discover the Palace’ guided tour in English which includes rooms such as the Francis I Gallery, the Ballroom and the Stags Gallery, stating that some of these are otherwise closed to the public. However, on arrival at the Palace the ticket office said that there were no such tours in English – only the audio guide. It was hard to establish what you miss by exploring on your own, other than to say that you can currently see the Francis I Gallery and Ballroom on your own, but not the Stags Gallery.

We had thought that we would participate in one of the French language tours to see the the Impérial Théâtre but the timings turned out to be a bit strange with only two tours offered each day at 16h15 and 17h15. As this would have meant many hours of hanging around after our morning exploring the chateau we decided to pass up on this occasion. Nevertheless, as first time visitors we easily filled three hours with our steady progress through the rooms and would have been slower still had we used the audio guide exhaustively in every room.

The ticket prices are incredibly reasonable at 12 euros for an adult plus 4 euros for an audio guide. The nearest equivalents in the UK would easily be at least double that price.

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Le weekend

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 25, 2019

The disruption to the railways that accompanies most bank holiday weekends is usually enough to dissuade us from travelling too far from home, but for some reason we overlooked that a while back and booked a trip to Paris. The plan for our 48 hour stay was simple enough – visit a couple of palaces, take in the Tutankhamun exhibition at La Villette and finally get round to walking along the Promenade Plantée.

Bear with wings outside the Gare du Nord

It is hard to believe that the channel tunnel has been open for 25 years. It is easy to take for granted now, but I remember only too well the time and expense of a trip to Paris in 1993. The awkward combination of a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle and a coach into the city centre makes quite a contrast to the smoothness of the journey by train from London St Pancras to Gare du Nord.

The journey between cities was as smooth as it could possibly be and before we had time to adjust we were in the French capital, standing under the wings of the ‘Angel Bear’ installed at the time of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015. The presence of this 7 metre tall polar bear, painted in red for danger, is intended to remind us of the fragility of the environment.

Our hotel on this occasion is the slightly eccentric 25 hours hotel opposite the entrance to Gare du Nord which has rooms with some pretty quirk decor, an elaborate system of light switches and balconies overlooking the entrance to the station. It’s a convenient place to stay when much of our itinerary revolves around travel to/from Gare du Nord. I quite like it, but I can see that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Farewell to HSTs in the west

Posted in England by folkestonejack on May 18, 2019

There are some iconic British designs that have taken on a life way beyond their original purpose and remain much loved as they slip out of everyday use. In time, some may well be forgotten while others cement their place in the history books. Today sees one of those design icons, the InterCity 125 High Speed Train (HST), reach its end in the west of the country.

The last long-distance HST passenger services on the Great Western Railway network today brings to an end a 43 year run. This is rather fitting, given their current designation as class 43 locomotives. The story of the last day has been captured rather wonderfully on twitter under the hashtag of #LastoftheHSTs but I couldn’t let the moment pass without adding my own farewell.

HST on the Teignmouth Sea Wall in 2014

HSTs have been a familiar sight on the western railway network since their introduction in 1976, running from Paddington to the South West and Wales. Some of my earliest childhood memories are associated with the wonder of seeing HSTs, which have been with us for virtually all of my life. It’s hard to imagine taking a walk along the Teignmouth and Dawlish sea wall without seeing a HST come whizzing past.

Thankfully it’s not quite the end of the HSTs altogether – you’ll still be able to see them for a while yet in Scotland, the East Midlands and on the East Coast Main Line.

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Chilling out in Dubai

Posted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by folkestonejack on April 21, 2019

The penultimate stage of our homeward journey saw us land in Dubai at 5.25am after a 14.5 hour flight from Sydney, stagger through the long queues at passport control, collect our baggage and then take a cheap taxi to a hotel in the city. Our choice of hotel had a lot to do with the availability of an early check-in rate that allowed us to crash out in our room at 7am. It was good to escape the heat – it was already hot and forecast to hit 37 degrees in the afternoon.

The other benefit of our hotel was a rather splendid rooftop terrace with a stunning view of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. The Burj Khalifa was inaugurated in 2010 and has a recorded height of 828m (2,717ft) and more than 160 stories. The record might not last that much longer as the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia is expected to reach a height of 1km (3,281ft) when construction is completed in 2021.

The view of the Burj Khalifa from our hotel

Early in the planning process I imagined that we would check out the Etihad Museum, the historical district and the Burj Khalifa. As the trip drew closer we pared this back, balking at the cost of the high level views from the Burj Khalifa, then wrote off almost everything after discovering that our energy and engagement levels had been zapped. It seemed that holiday mode had been well and truly switched off, so we just took it easy from that point on.

The wind-down included one of the most enjoyable meals that I can remember – a ‘Fifty flavours of Vietnam’ brunch at Hoi An, a Vietnamese restaurant located in the Shangri-La. The combination of superb food, a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and exceptional service from every waitress made for a perfect couple of hours. Just what we needed at this point of the trip.

On being seated we were presented with a menu and at first expected that we would need to choose. Instead, waitresses brought out small dishes of every starter from the menu, followed by a traditional noodle soup with chicken, then small dishes with every main (including an exquisite and incredibly tasty portion of sea-bass marinated in onion and ginger) served with a large bowl of fried rice and finally a couple of desserts. I guess you could say that it was a bit like a Vietnamese tapas or an 18 course banquet.

The Dubai Metro

Although we didn’t go to the top of the Burj Khalifa we certainly got a terrific view of the building from the rooftop terrace of our hotel as the sun set and the lights of the city switched on. It was ever so slightly terrifying looking over the edge and down to the Dubai Metro line crossing the spaghetti like tangle of the motorway!

Our time in Dubai might not have been as packed as we expected, but this proved to be the perfect chill out ahead of our final leg – an eight hour flight to London.

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Cockatoo Island

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

The highlight of our day trip to Australia was a visit to Cockatoo Island, a remarkable island in Sydney Harbour packed with a fascinating history that has seen it used as a prison, naval dockyard, industrial school and film set. The dockyard closed in 1991 but was opened to the public in 2007 following remediation work by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Today, it is one of Sydney’s newer sights and clearly still one of its best kept secrets if its relatively low position in the Tripadvisor rankings is anything to go by.

Administrative Building ‘Brindabella’ (1930) forms the entrance to Cockatoo Island for arrivals by ferry

The island is just 21 minutes by ferry from the crowds and bustle of Circular Quay, yet we hardly saw a soul for most of our three hour long wander around the island. There is no charge for admission and maps are freely provided in the visitor centre, though you can rent an audio guide for a fuller experience. It’s a very photogenic place so a camera is a must, especially to capture the dark and brooding silhouettes of the restored cranes that you can find around the island.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to Cockatoo Island is that it has been left in a state of apparent industrial abandonment since its last use as a commercial dockyard. Although there has been plenty of demolition (around 50 buildings disappeared between 1991 and 2010), mass disposal of industrial machinery and site clean up you can still get some sense of the past life of the island as you wander the vast industrial turbine hall, machine shops and workshops thanks to the informative panels located throughout.

If my sense of imagination failed anywhere, it was at the slipways as I simply couldn’t fathom the scale of the ships that were being launched here until I saw some pictures in the excellent museum in Biloela House. Some of the largest vessels built in the world (in their time) were launched here, such as the 12,037 ton Empress of Australia and the 18,221 ton oiler HMAS Success. To be fair, my impressions might have been affected by the relatively small wooden vessel currently sitting on the slipway.

The mess hall in the convict precinct (c. 1847-51)

The upper level of the site holds the historic convict precinct. The first convicts, who arrived in 1839, were set to work constructing their own prison from sandstone quarried on the island. As galling as this may have seemed, it was preferable to the wooden boxes the convicts were locked in each night until the work was complete. The prison was soon home to the worst of the worst, a combination of hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

There are so many fascinating stories to be uncovered on the island, but my favourite would have to be about how the sheep on the island had come to learn that the four o’clock end of shift siren was the signal for the workers to go home. Apparently, the sheep would make their way down the steep steps from the top to raid the bins for goodies!

Today, Cockatoo Island offers a wonderful slice through the history of Sydney and Australia. It’s also an interesting place to stay (options include luxury camping and heritage houses) and an occasional film set (recent films shot here include Wolverine and Unbroken). I loved every minute of my time on the island and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in Sydney.

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Twenty four hours in Australia

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

It is quite possible that I will only spend 24 hours in Australia in my entire life, so I figured that I would have to make the day count. Unfortunately, almost every museum and attraction was closed as we were visiting on Good Friday. At first I thought this was a disaster, but in fact it was the making of the trip as it forced me to look a little harder at the options.

I found three sights that made for a pretty splendid day in Sydney – a morning on Cockatoo Island, a walk through the Rocks to the Pylon lookout at midday and an afternoon walk around the coastal perimeter of the botanic gardens. The forecast was for a full day of cloud, but this luckily proved far too pessimistic.

The classic view of the Opera House from the Pylon Lookout

On our arrival by train from the airport last night we had seen the magnificent sight of the Harbour Bridge lit up. Up close in daylight it looked a little less romantic, mainly on account of the curved mesh fences, barbed wire and fumes from the passing traffic. However, as a feat of engineering it was indisputably impressive. I wouldn’t like to have been one of the workers on the bridge during its construction – the description of showers of molten metal that shredded overalls sounded quite terrifying.

The south east pylon of the bridge has been a tourist attraction since 1934, a couple of years after the bridge opened. It’s not hard to see the appeal when you step out onto the terrace at the top and take in the wonderful 360 degree view of the harbour, the bridge and the railway line that crosses it. In the past there were other attractions to draw visitors to this spot, including a roof top cattery that was home to a pair of white cats owned by the manager of the souvenir shop!

Our walk back through the mass of people gathered at Circular Quay and on to the Opera House looked like a bad move at first, but the crowds soon thinned as we entered the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Our walk was broken up by the little visual treats of the gardens, like a fallen Dracaena draco tree and a nineteenth century replica of a Greek monument. It was quite lovely, especially with the bonus of sun. Plenty of folk were out sunbathing in the grounds.

On the whole it was quite relaxed – although a long queue had formed to get a photo in Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a seat carved from sandstone in 1811 by convicts for the then governor’s wife. It looked like a popular coach tour stop and a tick-box photo. No-one really seemed to be looking at, or appreciating, what they being photographed against!

HMAS Hobart (DDG 39)

On turning the corner a superb view of the naval base at Potts Point opened up, including two Royal Australian Navy destroyers HMAS Hobart (DDG 39) and HMAS Brisbane (DDG 41) plus the Canberra-class landing helicopter dock HMAS Adelaide (L01). There was another warship beyond, but I figured that I had already stretched my luck with a walk through the blazing sun to see this much!

The return walk took us back through the gardens with a brief stop off at an exhibition about Plants with bite in the Calyx. I squeamishly passed up on the opportunity to pay 5 dollars to feed a live cricket to one of the plants, but enjoyed the atmospheric display. Finally, our walk took us past Government House (usually open to visitors on Fridays, but not on Good Friday) and back towards Circular Quay.

Our 24 hours in Australia had come to an end. My travelling companion reckoned that was more than enough time to spend in the country, but if I never make it back this way I have at least seen a tiny bit of what the country has to offer and just how different it feels to New Zealand.

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Farewell to Auckland (again)

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 18, 2019

Our time in the city of sails has come to an end once again. The last few days in the city gave us a chance to check out exhibitions at the Auckland Art Museum and OrexArt, watch the beginnings of the field of crosses in the domain ahead of Anzac day, play a couple of rounds of mini-golf, meet some lovely horses, eat a final ice cream at Giapo and say an extended farewell to family. The last day is always a little strange, but a relaxed morning at the Pah Homestead was a good way to finish up.

One last sunset at Orakei Wharf

As ever, the end of one trip also means a bit of homework for the next. In the last day or two I visited the tourist information office near the ferry terminal and came out armed with a collection of DOC leaflets that have already helped shape the outline of a possible adventure for our return. I always find that when one trip closes you have the freshest sense of how to make improvements for next time. Our return flight routing definitely falls into that category!

I had come up with a clever plan to counter the jet-lag that usually floors me by flying to Dubai via Sydney, thereby getting in at midnight for a decent night of sleep. This strategy fell apart when the original flight was cancelled, due to the closure of a runway for maintenance. All the advantages of flying indirectly disappeared with that schedule change, but the airline showed little interest in a sensible adjustment. This left us with the best part of a day in Sydney.

It was perhaps a little cruel to see the Emirates A380 that had brought us to Auckland three weeks ago sitting on the apron as we boarded our Qantas A330 bound for Sydney. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the best of our new schedule, especially as it is unlikely that I will ever spend much time in Australia. Time to begin our slow four day homeward trek.

The Qantas A330 waiting to take us to Sydney

Our flight (QF146) took off on time, flying over the Manukau Heads with a superb view of the impressive line of cliffs we had been admiring from Whatipu just a few days earlier. The flight was relatively short, which was perhaps just as well with a malfunctioning in flight entertainment system and one of the blandest airline meals I have ever sampled. The sun was already setting over Sydney as we landed.

The day finally drew to a conclusion with a lovely meal at a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House in perfect time to see a short firework display. Maybe it was always meant to work out this way.

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The desolate beauty of Whatipu

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 15, 2019

Our last adventure on this trip brought us to the spectacular and desolate wilderness of Whatipu, a black sand beach on Auckland’s rugged west coast. The drive out to the beach from central Auckland takes about an hour, with the final stretch from Little Huia on a particularly windy gravel road. It’s pretty remote so there was not much in the way of traffic, though it was something of a surprise to find temporary traffic lights (sensor operated) in the middle of nowhere after the road had been narrowed by some washouts.

Whatipu Beach and Paratütai Island

It is hard to imagine many people coming here at the best of times, but there are likely to be even less at the moment as many of the tracks in the area are closed due to the threat of Kauri die-back disease (entrances to the tracks are sealed off and signage blanked out). Thankfully, the beach and the track to the caves were still open (though not the camping ground near the caves). There were about five cars parked up when we arrived and that number stayed pretty constant throughout our 3 hour visit.

The reward for our slightly awkward drive was a wander through the scientific reserve with its beautiful combination of black sands, volcanic rock, wetland, dunes and wild sea almost undisturbed by other humans. It’s a popular spot for visitors of the flying kind too. As we explored we came across plenty of birds, including fantails, a spur-winged plover, black oystercatchers, paradise shelduck, pūkeko and some juvenile black-backed gulls.

Bluebottle at Whatipu

The black sands looked at their most desolate against driftwood that had been twisted into strange positions, including one that looked a bit like a crocodile waiting to pounce. There was a real threat here, albeit somewhat less deadly, in the form of stinging bluebottle jellyfish (otherwise known as the Portuguese man-of-war) that had been washed up onto the beach where they lay half buried in the sand ready for any unwary souls walking barefoot.

The waters here at Whatipu are pretty treacherous for all. The strong rips and currents mean that swimming is inadvisable and the threat to shipping from the constantly shifting sand is signalled by a lightbeacon (one of seventy five around New Zealand) situated atop nine pin rock. It is also worth being a little cautious around the land-locked cutter rock which half collapsed in 2007.

New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster occurred here with the sinking of the Royal Navy corvette HMS Orpheus on 7th February 1863. The corvette had ignored the signals issued by the Paratutai Signal Station and took an ill-fated course that saw her break up on the Manukau Bar with the loss of 189 souls. After further incidents the Royal Navy withdrew permission for their ships to enter the Manukau Harbour.

Driftwood at Whatipu

After exploring the beach we headed back inland and along the volcanic rock cliff face to the Whatipu caves. Hard as it is to believe, the largest of the caves (Te Ana Ru cave) once reverberated to the sound of music as revellers danced the night away on a kauri ballroom dance floor now buried underneath the sand.

There is more information about the history of Whatipu in the Whatipu Heritage Walk booklet provided by Auckland Council along with a map showing which tracks in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park are still open.

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Takahē on Tiritiri

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 13, 2019

Our visit to Tiritiri Matangi island coincided with Takahē awareness month. The critically endangered takahē, are flightless birds with a large red beak and feathers in a beautiful combination of blue, green and turquoise. It is astonishing that they have survived given that how easy prey they are for predators, particularly stoats which began to decimate the bird population in New Zealand not long after their introduction in the 1880s.

Takahē on Tiritiri

The Takahē were thought to be extinct until a small population of the birds was discovered clinging to life in the remote Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948 by Dr Geoffrey Orbell. The difficulty of the terrain, not ideal for a bird that would be more at home in flat wetlands, played a key part in their survival. The predators which had wiped out most of the species had been deterred by the harsh mountains and unforgiving climate.

The Murchison Mountains were closed to the public in the wake of the discovery and a conservation programme initiated to help save the species. Predator free island nature reserves like Tiritiri Matangi play an important part in this process as safe places for breeding and also act as a safeguard for the species if something catastrophic should occur to the wild population in Fiordland.

The very real threat to the species was illustrated by a near catastrophic loss when stoats breached the natural and man-made barriers in the Murchison Mountains in 2007, resulting in a loss of nearly half of the Takahē population within a few months. The official takahē population count for 2017 recorded a total of 347 birds across the country, including 100 breeding pairs.

Tiritiri Matangi is currently home to eight takahē. On our visit to the island we were able to see the family that tends to stick around the Lighthouse compound, a place they associate with safety. It was an absolute privilege to see these beautiful creatures at such close proximity and appreciate just how lucky we are that they have survived.

The beautiful colours of the Takahē in the midday sun

Throughout April the Department of Conservation rangers are feeding the takahē at approximately 1:30pm each day, but they were easily seen long before this offering plenty of photographic opportunities (all taken at a respectful distance using a zoom lens). I took a fair few photographs and then put my camera down to watch these charming creatures, seemingly wandering with barely a care in the world. A joy to behold.

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Bird paradise at Tiritiri Matangi

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 13, 2019

The predator-free wildlife sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi island in the Hauraki Gulf is one of the conservation success stories in New Zealand, as well as a really rewarding day trip from Auckland by ferry. The promise of some beautiful autumnal weather persuaded us that it was time to find out what the fuss was about.

Trinity Wharf on Tiritiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi was originally a forested island but a couple of centuries of farming resulted in the loss of 94% of the native bush and with it much of the original wildlife. In the late 1960s Tiritiri Matangi Island was designated as a reserve but it was the bold plan of a couple of young academics that really put this place on the map. Their plan, to recreate a forest, saw thousands of volunteers plant 280,000 trees over a ten year period from 1984.

The successful establishment of a replacement ecosystem has been followed by the re-introduction of some of New Zealand’s rarer native birds, such as the takahē. Today, the island is a much loved open wildlife sanctuary with a dedicated volunteer base.

On boarding the ferry it was pretty clear that we were in the company of some pretty dedicated bird spotters, whereas I would struggle to name more than a handful of bird species. I can tell the difference between a parrot and a pigeon, but don’t ask me to tell you what a swallow or a finch looks like. Luckily, you can book a guided tour with one of the volunteers when you buy your ferry ticket.

Once we arrived on the island it turned out that almost everyone was going on a guided walk. Two options were offered, one through the oldest bush on the Kawerau Track and the other through the re-planted and much younger bush of the Wattle Track. We were among a relatively small number choosing the latter, a shorter walk, which we thought would make a good introduction to the island.

In our small group of around eight, we set off at a deliberately slow pace. It was a delight to see birds flying all around us as soon as we left the main road, onto the Wattle Track. Frequent pauses on our walk allowed us to take in the sight of Tiritiri’s native birds, especially around the feeders. Our guide helped us to identify the birds that we could see and hear around us, while explaining the current state of growth of the bush and the stage ahead.

Tūī

It was all surprisingly addictive, as well as wonderfully calming. We had many moments on our own in the afternoon, standing still and absolutely silent on the Kawerau Track as the birds ignored us and flew around our heads. Over the course of the day we managed to see saddlebacks, bellbirds, stichbirds, takahē, pūkeko, whiteheads, north island robins, kererū, tūī and fantails. There was also a kōkako flapping its wings high in the canopy above us, though I didn’t manage to catch sight of the bird itself.

As if the birdlife wasn’t enough, Tiritiri Matangi is also home to New Zealand’s oldest operating lighthouse, first illuminated on 1st January 1865. The lighthouse was the first to be built by the New Zealand Government and only the third constructed in the entire country. The prefabricated cast iron tower was manufactured by Simpson & Co in England, whose name can still be seen on either side of the doorway, and hauled up to the construction site by twelve bullocks.

The lighthouse at Tiritiri Matangi

Although you can’t go inside the lighthouse you can wander around the outside. The lighthouse, neighbouring signal station and the surrounding homestead are very photogenic. Hopefully, plans to open a Lighthouse Museum in the old workshop will come to fruition. In the meantime, a wonderful booklet to celebrate the 150th anniversary shares a little of its history and the life of the lighthouse families.

Our visit came to an end all too soon, finishing with a lovely walk along the Hobbs Beach Track to Trinity Wharf in perfect time to make the only ferry back to Auckland. The ferry schedule gives you just over five hours on the island which seems like alot until you start wandering!

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The Karangahake Gorge and Waihi

Posted in New Zealand, Waihi by folkestonejack on April 10, 2019

On our leisurely return to Auckland we spent a couple of days around Waihi, a location which offers a splendid array of quite different sights – the natural beauty of the Karangahake Gorge and the Owharoa Falls; preserved industrial remains at the Victoria Battery; the gold mines of Waihi and the surf of Waihi Beach.

The concrete base that supported the cyanide tanks at Victoria Battery

The Karangahake Gorge is a popular spot for day hikes, rich in natural beauty, but turn the clock back a century and you would have found a rather different spectacle. The area would have been dominated by cyanide tanks and large stamper batteries constructed to process and extract gold from the ore being mined in the area. The foundations of many of these still remain and can be seen along the many walking circuits, but it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of industrial activity now that nature has reclaimed the land.

A little further down the road, at Victoria Battery, you get a little more of the picture. The Victoria Battery was constructed to process ore from the Martha Mine in Waihi. Today, the Victoria Battery is a peaceful site with industrial remains nestled in a green landscape, but in its heyday this would have been a hellish place to witness with 200 steel crushers hammering way constantly and kilns burning non-stop. The crushed ore was mixed with potassium cyanide and the sludge generated by the process discharged into the rivers.

The discovery of gold re-shaped the landscape in other ways, with the construction of a hydro-electric dam on the Waikato River and the construction of the Paeroa-Waihi railway line. The latter is no longer in everyday use but you can ride a part of it on the heritage Goldfields Railway and walk another stretch on the Karangahake Gorge: Rail Tunnel Loop short walk.

The gold industry is far from finished. The open cast Martha Mine still sits at the heart of Waihi and remains open to this day, albeit a little quiet right now while measures to address a major slip are put into place. Once this is in place modern processes can extract gold that would have been impossible a century ago. A minibus tour from the Gold Discovery Centre gave us an opportunity to get a closer look at the mine and the plant where the ore is crushed and processed.

Martha Mine

One of the landmarks on the perimeter of the mine and its rim walkway is the Cornish Pumphouse, a relic from the mine dating back to 1904, which was moved by 300 metres at a cost of 4 million NZ dollars in 2006 when monitoring revealed that the historic building was tilting and that the land underneath was continuing to move. It’s one of a number of community projects that are going on in the town to give something back.

Our time in the area was limited but we saw as much of this fascinating story as we could and still found time to sample a few of the pies and slices that are sadly absent from the other side of the world!

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Sunset over Whakatāne

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

After returning from White Island there was still plenty of daylight left, so we took a drive over to Ohope Beach, voted NZs most loved beach in a poll a few years back. It’s a gorgeous stretch of coast line and a popular holiday destination. On a quiet weekday it was more or less deserted. The beaches in New Zealand always seem to have a little surprise up their sleeves. In this case, the sea had perfected the most beautiful natural artworks on the beach.

Sunset over Whakatane

In the late afternoon I took another walk, along the waterfront, to the point where the Whakatāne river meets the sea and waited for the sunset. One of the landmarks at this point is the Wairaka statue, situated on a rock, which was given to the town on 27th November 1965 by Sir William Sullivan. It’s a landmark with a story.

Wairaka was the daughter of Toroa, Captain of the Mataatua waka (canoe). The men had gone ashore, leaving the women and children on the waka. While they were away the boat began to drift back out to sea. In Maori culture women were not allowed to touch the paddles, but knowing that they would be doomed if she did not act Wairaka picked them up and cried out “kia tū whakatāne au i ahau” to give her the authority to take the place of the men. Wairaka’s actions saved her people and gave the town it’s name.

The statue also turns out to be a popular pigeon perch as I discovered at sunset!

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Wanders around an active marine volcano

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

A spot of good fortune saw the best weather of our trip coincide with our long awaited trip to White Island, an active marine volcano in the Bay of Plenty that was given its name by Captain Cook on 1st November 1769. It is believed to be around 150,000 to 200,000 years old and is the northernmost volcano in the Taupo volcanic zone.

White Island (Whakaari)

The 49km journey out to the privately owned island (on the Peejay IV) took around one hour and twenty minutes on a wonderfully calm sea, albeit with choppier waters for the final 10 minutes of our approach towards the island. Once we were moored offshore groups of eight were transferred to the island in an inflatable wearing life jackets, hard hats and gas masks.

On reaching the island we had to step up from the inflatable onto metal ladders set into the landing stage and then make our way across the boulders to the beach. The tour party was split into two groups of around 25 to take a walk around the inner crater.

First up, the safety briefing. Our tour guides stressed the importance of sticking to the path they had taken and not wandering off. To illustrate this point, they highlighted a relatively benign looking mound with a grey crust. These innocent looking sights are best described as egg shells as there is no way of telling how thick these crusts are from looking at them. Their hollow interiors could easily hide a boiling pool of water, mud or something far nastier.

Exploring White Island

Volcanoes can be unpredictable beasts so we were also given a run through of the evacuation plan in the event of an eruption. If the volcano starting spewing out rocks, the advice was to shelter behind even bigger rocks! Thankfully, this was reckoned to be quite unlikely. Volcanic activity is measured on a scale of 1 to 5, with White Island currently on 1 for ‘minor volcanic unrest’. In the past it has spent 90 seconds at 5 for ‘major volcanic eruption’.

The first groups to return to the island three days after the eruption of 2000 had no idea of the conditions they would find. They discovered that the ladders were encrusted with volcanic material which had not entirely set, giving it the consistency of chewing gum. Apparently, one of the tour guides picked up a large rock to show his group but dropped it as it was still hot. On reaching the ground it broke in half, revealing a still molten core!

In 2003 monitoring equipment was put in place, including 24 hour cameras that allow remote observation of activity in the crater. These have helped pick up recent developments, including clear indications that the crater lake is starting to reform.

Steaming sulphur chimneys

Our walk took us around the sights in the inner crater, starting with the strikingly yellow sulphur chimneys which were belching out steam. The potency of the steam was soon demonstrated when the wind changed direction and blew the steam towards us. We had all been issued with gas masks that we could use whenever we felt the need and boiled sweets to help generate more saliva (this was very effective at counteracting the effects of the environment on my throat) but on this occasion it was just enough to turn our backs to the steam.

The next stop was the crater lake, getting near enough to get a good view but not close enough to test how crumbly the cliff edge might be! From here, we headed on to a couple of streams with water coming from different sources on the island and got to dip our fingers in for a taste. The first had a flavour a bit like blood, showing the presence of iron, while the second had a tangy lemon flavour.

Finally, we reached the remains of the last sulphur mining operation on the island which finished in the 1930s. It was a pretty inhospitable and dangerous place to work, evidenced by the loss of all 10 workers from the operation of 1913-14 after a collapse of the crater rim caused a landslide. The remains of the factory amply demonstrate the corrosive nature of the environment.

The remains of the sulphur factory

The only survivor of the 1914 disaster was one of the camp cats, nicknamed Peter the Great, who was discovered by a re-supply vessel three weeks later. Peter was later re-settled in Opotiki and his long and happy life led to a long line of cats. Peter was supposed to have sired over 500 kittens and it is said that most of the cats in the area can trace a connection back to him!

Once our exploration of the rusting factory was complete we returned to the wharf, ready to make our way back to our ship by inflatable. There was time enough for a packed lunch (provided by the tour company) and a circumnavigation of the island before we headed back to Whakatane, accompanied for part of the way by a school of dolphins who happily played alongside the ship.

As well as taking boat trips to White Island you can also fly in by helicopter and mid-way through our tour we saw a couple of Volcanic Air helicopters arrive, swooping around the curve of the crater impressively and then dropping down onto the wooden landing pads. The view of the island from the air must be impressive, but I think I prefer the more relaxed views of our boat trip.

Our transport to and from the island – the Peejay IV

I was incredibly impressed with the efficient operation of the trip by White Island Tours, the smooth boat transfers to the island and the knowledgeable explanations provided by our tour guides. It has undoubtedly been the highlight of my trip to New Zealand and I would thoroughly recommend the experience. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to set foot on an active volcano?

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A hike around the Mt Tarawera crater rim

Posted in New Zealand, Rotorua by folkestonejack on April 8, 2019

Twenty one years ago I came to Rotorua in the depths of winter and booked a four wheel drive trip to see the crater at Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano. Unfortunately, the day served up thick fog and I could barely see a metre in front of me. The tour still ran, but it was pretty pointless as the closest I got to a view was looking at the scoria at my feet. I thought I would never get the chance to go back and see the view again, however fate has led me back here to rectify that.

The stunning colours and dramatic scenery at the crater rim

Things have changed a little since my first visit. Public access to Mount Tarawera was withdrawn in 2002 so the only way to go up to the summit is through a tour with the licenced operator, Kaitiaki Adventures. Also, one of the three domes of the dormant volcano (Wahanga) is completely closed as it is considered tapu (sacred) having been used as a burial site by the Maori tribe that owns the site, Ngāti Rangitihi.

Our trip with Kaitiaki Adventures took us by road for thirty minutes, then up an increasingly bumpy unsealed road and finally on foot to the top. Once we got up there we could stand by the crater edge and see the challenge that faced us on our crater rim walk. The steep scree slope we would need to descend to get to the crater floor looked particularly daunting from our starting point. However, under the guidance of our guides nothing was impossible.

Our slightly daunting path to the crater floor!

Our walk around the top was pretty straightforward, barring for a bit of wind and the angle of the scree slope, while still sleep, was somewhat less daunting once you got up close. The trick of making a descent was to dig your heels into the scoria and lean back a little, rather than letting your toes lead the way, pulling you forward into a probable tumble. It also needed a little pace – the slower you went the more difficult the descent would be. Everyone made it down safely and enjoyed a little breather before the climb back out on the other side.

The walk around the crater rim was exhilarating with incredible views in all directions, stretching from Taupo in the south to White Island in the north. Up at the top you got a really clear view of the 17km long rift that opened when Mount Tarawera erupted on 10th June 1886. It was striking to think that the landscape in front of us was created in just one night of deadly and destructive explosive force.

The view from the top of Mount Tarawera

Although the access restrictions are understandably not popular with everyone it has allowed the landscape to recover, particularly with the removal of invasive plant species, and it looks gorgeous in its raw natural state.

I was grateful for a bit of luck that was lacking twenty one years ago. Our walk was carried out in near perfect conditions, but the next scheduled walk was cancelled due to the bad weather that was expected to hit mid-way through the afternoon slot. Thanks to our excellent guide and driver, Ben and Steve, for a terrific morning.

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Waimangu Valley and Wai-o-Tapu

Posted in New Zealand, Rotorua by folkestonejack on April 7, 2019

The geothermal delights of Rotorua have long been attracting visitors to the central plateau, but the sights on offer today are quite different to those experienced by the more determined tourists of the Victorian age. The reward for travelling to Lake Rotomahana by steamer, horse drawn coach, canoe and by foot would have been the extraordinary pink and white terraces.

The salmon pink siliceous sinter terraces at Lake Rotomahana were regarded as one of the natural wonders of the world. The spectacle had first attracted European visitors in the 1830s but the numbers really picked up by the 1870s after an increase in publicity ensured their existence reached a wider audience. All of that changed on 10 June 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

The eruption created the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the youngest geothermal valley in New Zealand, while destroying the pink and white terraces. It was assumed that no trace of the terraces remained, but a small piece was discovered at a depth of 60 metres in 2011. Today, visitors can take a walk through this young geothermal wonder and take a cruise on the lake. Sights include a steaming acidic crater lake, steaming cliffs, a multi-coloured terrace, geysers and an assortment of steam vents (fumaroles).

On our visit we had a couple of hours to wander along the set route through the valley, followed by a cruise around the lake and a bus ride back up to the entrance. In the afternoon we continued on to another geothermal wonder, Wai-o-Tapu, with some equally delightful spectacles, including extensive sinter terraces and a bright orange edged ‘champagne pool’ that was drawing gasps of wonderment from everyone as they got their first look.

The geothermal delights of Rotorua are astonishing to explore, but deserve a bit of time to see properly. I first visited both sites on a minibus tour in 1998 that only allotted a few hours to the two sites in total, whereas on this trip we were able to devote an entire day. It is perhaps no surprise that my main recollection of that trip were of running down the gravel tracks to try and see everything, rather than the spectacle I was supposed to be enjoying!

Champagne Pool at Wai-o-Tapu

I really appreciated the time on this trip to understand the events that led up to the creation of the natural wonders we can see today and the price paid by some of the unlucky tourists in the late 19th and early 20th century whose visits coincided with the most significant changes in geothermal activity. The most recent of these events took place in 1917 when the hydrothermal eruption of Echo Crater created Frying Pan Lake.

I think this is one of those places that you have to see for yourself, as no pictures can really do the place justice, but I’ve picked out a few shots to give a little flavour of the place.

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Geothermal delights at Orakei Korako

Posted in New Zealand, Taupo by folkestonejack on April 6, 2019

Our travels have brought us to Orakei Korako, a spectacular geothermal site between Taupo and Rotorua. The site is an interesting one, located across the waters of the Ohakuri Dam and only reachable by boat. It’s a little bit off the main tourist path so it doesn’t tend to get as busy as the geothermal sites in Rotorua but has been gaining more attention since Lonely Planet declared it as ‘arguably the best thermal area left in New Zealand’.

Across the water to Orakei Korako

The history of the site is a long one, beginning with the settlement of the area by the Maori tribe Ngati Tahu-Ngati Whaoa who used the natural geothermal resources in their daily lives. The spectacular formations have attracted visitors since the early twentieth century, though the waka that were initially used to ferry tourists across the water to the site have long since been replaced by more modern ships.

The colourful silica terrace that greets you when your ferry gets closer to the other side is simply spectacular and amply explains why tourists have made such an effort to come here over the past 100 years. At one time there were silica terraces of even greater repute at other nearby locations, though these have long gone. The Emerald Terrace is now the largest of its kind in New Zealand and what you see on the surface is only part of the story.

In 1961 the completion of the earthen Ohakuri Dam saw the water level rise 160 feet above the original water level of the river, submerging two thirds of the geothermal area. Today, the silica terraces continue for 35 metres under the lake hidden from human gaze. It is stunning now, so it is hard to comprehend how much more amazing it must have been in its original state.

The colourful sights of Orakei Korako

As we explored the site over the next hour or so we discovered more wonders, such as the ‘Golden Fleece’ terrace (a fault scarp formed in 131 AD); the Rainbow and Cascade Terrace; the ‘Kohua Poharu’ mud pools and the Soda Fountain.

The site also features one of only two known geothermally located caves in the world (the other is located in Sicily) possibly created by a massive geothermal eruption. Known as the sacred cave it holds a poignant plaque in memory of Atama (Adam) Mikaere who was killed in the Far Libyan desert, aged 22, in 1941. The inscription reads ‘His spirit hovers in this lovely cave where as a lad he guided and delighted visitors with his manly bearing’.

Who doesn’t like the sights and sounds of a bubbling mud pool?

Over the next couple of days we should get to see a few more geothermal sights and see the results of some of the volcanic eruptions of the past as we explore the area around Rotorua, but this was the perfect way to start.

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The Taranaki Falls and a little of Taupo

Posted in New Zealand, Taupo, Tongariro by folkestonejack on April 5, 2019

How do you follow an exhausting walk like the Tongariro crossing? According to the genius itinerary planning completed in the comfort of a desk in South London the answer seemed to be another hike! Hmmm…

The view at sunrise over Lake Taupo from our apartment at Oreti Village Resort

I had doubts about the plan as I headed to bed last night, but awoke feeling surprisingly fresh and ready to get walking again. A hike it was then. We drive south to the Tongariro National Park, parking up at Whakapapa Village near the incongruous hulk of Chateau Tongariro (a grand hotel built in 1929 to encourage tourists to visit the area).

The hike for today would be the two hour loop to the Taranaki Falls, choosing to start from the more exposed upper track as I think this is the easier way round and offers a succession of watery treats for the return leg.

After an hour of walking through alpine grasslands, red tussock, eroded volcanic soil and a forest of mountain toatoa we descended 100 steps to the satisfying sight of the falls. The weather was pretty grey, so I had plenty of time to muse upon my good fortune in doing the Tongariro Crossing in the considerably better conditions of yesterday.

My breath was taken away by the sight of the water tumbling 20 metres over lava flow which spewed from Ruapehu in an eruption 15,000 years ago. The way back offers further sight of the water flowing away from the falls, passing through a narrow gorge and over the Cascade Falls down to the Wairere Stream. There are a multitude of smaller delights, such as a small section of path completely covered in exposed tree roots. I have rarely seen a walk quite so varied. I was completely charmed by this.

The Huka Falls in Taupo

After a spot of lunch we drove around Lake Taupo to the Craters of the Moon, an hour long walk on a thermally warmed boardwalk around some smoking craters; the spectacular Huka Falls and a brief stop to admire the small wooden church at Mission Bay. A relatively relaxed afternoon which my tired feet certainly appreciated!

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Taking on the Tongariro Crossing

Posted in New Zealand, Tongariro by folkestonejack on April 4, 2019

I have been wanting to tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for 21 years so when the opportunity to add it to our itinerary for this trip came up I grabbed it. The 19.4km crossing takes you across the volcanic terrain between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, climbing 800m in altitude from Mangatepopo car park to the summit of red crater (1886m) before descending 1000m to the finish point at Ketetahi car park.

The sunrise over the Tongariro Crossing

Our accommodation at Oreti Village on the shore of Lake Taupo was a fair drive from the national park, requiring a drive through the darkness to reach the start point as the sun rose. The outlook for the day was good and thankfully the thick fog we encountered on the drive was nowhere to be seen as I started my walk. The advice given by the Department of Conservation is to begin before 8am, allowing plenty of time to complete the walk in daylight with plentiful stops to take in the scenery.

Although I was hiking on my own, I was far from alone. When I first read about the hike in the 1990s the Tongariro Crossing received around 20,000 visitors in a year but by 2015 that had risen to 109,000. I didn’t get the sense that this was one of the busiest days on the crossing and everyone was fairly well strung out after not too long. A key indicator of this was that the toilets placed strategically across the route never had more than 1 or 2 people queuing at most. Perhaps this is no surprise, this is the shoulder season and I was taking to the crossing after a string of fine days (hikers often funnel into the first fine day after bad weather).

A view across the south crater to Mt Ngauruhoe

I was glad to have worn layers of clothing to cope with the cold at the top and the sun-warmed slopes of the latter stages, having seen plenty of folk ill-prepared for the conditions that awaited them on the walk. It was a problem recognised about ten years ago, when the word ‘alpine’ was added to the name of the hike to stress the strenuous nature of the route. The weather forecasts suggest that a few days after my attempt the crossing will see the first snow of the season and temperatures at the tope are predicted to drop to -6.

The Department of Conservation provides a handy checklist of essentials for the hike. I was carrying the recommended amount of fluid (1.5 litres), plenty of food and scroggin to give me an energy boost when I needed it. I probably could have done without the bulky photographic equipment, but ditching that was never an option! One thing I really valued was a pair of tough, fingerless gloves that I could use on some of the rockier sections.

Incredible views abound in every direction

Before I started my walk I wondered how I would cope with the devil’s staircase, where you ascend from 1400m to 1600m to reach the south crater. It was an exhausting effort for sure, but for me the trickiest part would be the steep descent from the red crater on the loose scree. I stayed upright through my descent but could understand entirely those who had chosen to slide down on their backsides.

The scenery throughout the walk is marvellous and surprisingly varied. The view from the south crater to Mt Ngauruhoe was the first treat, especially with the low cloud hanging below the peak. The black summit is a brooding presence in the dramatic landscape and you could see why this was picked as Mount Doom for the Lord of the Rings films. That’s not to discount Mt Tongariro itself, which was thankfully well behaved on my walk. It last erupted in 2012, sending hikers scurrying down as fast as they could manage (it’s well worth reading the sign along the way telling you what to do in the event of an eruption just in case!).

First view of the emerald lakes

The biggest smile that crept across my face during the walk was on the first glimpse of the emerald lakes glistening in the autumnal sun. It felt like a terrific reward for all that initial effort, though it was a little sobering to realise that this was just the half-way point. I took the chance to sit down and eat my lunch by one of the lakes, watching as some Danish lads demonstrated their impressive skill at stone skimming after carefully selecting the best stones on offer.

The last three kilometres seemed like some of the longest of my life, so I was glad to have some music to help me through the final stages (a little bit of Strangeland by Keane and the most recent album by White Lies). I was very glad to see some familiar faces at the exit from the crossing. A car park has never looked so beautiful or been anticipated quite so eagerly!

Nearing the end

I took 7.5 hours to complete the hike, but that did include a 45 minute wait at one spot for the crowds and clouds to clear to get the perfect shot. I’m glad I wasn’t attempting this in high season or that might have been a complete impossibility.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would highly recommend it. It is, without doubt, the most amazing hike that I have ever completed in my life and absolutely worth waiting 21 years for.

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A three cave day

Posted in New Zealand, Waitomo by folkestonejack on April 3, 2019

Our overnight stay in Waitomo allowed us to make an early start on three of the cave experiences available in the neighbourhood.

The caves have been receiving visitors since 1889, when the main glowworm cave was opened to tourists by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau. The sight is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand with coaches arriving through the day from Auckland and Rotorua. Most tourists only see the one cave on their tightly scheduled coach itineraries, which is a shame as the Ruakuri and Aranui caves are even more spectacular in my opinion.

First on our list was the Ruakuri cave, discovered some 400-500 years ago after a Maori hunter was attacked by two wild dogs (kuri) just outside the cave. The cave was discovered to be the den (rua) of the wild dogs. Once the wild dogs were dispatched the area around the caves became home to the local Maori population and the cave entrance was used as a burial ground.

Inside the Ruakuri cave system

The Ruakuri caves were opened to visitors by the Holden family in 1904. The NZ government claimed ownership and operated the caves until 1988 when the Holden family were able to re-claim ownership. However, with the dry access point through the burial ground out of bounds a new entrance had to be constructed. Many millions were spent digging a new and spectacular spiral entry point and the caves re-opened to the public in 2005.

The caves are now entered through a temperature controlled air-lock that makes it feel as though you are about to enter the lare of a Bond villain. Instead, what awaits is a wonderful walk through the caves on a series of walkways and bridges. The sights were a delight but as much as anything, it was the ability gto get up close to the glowworms that was realkly fascinating. We could see the glowworms moving about the rockface and all the threads they had dropped to catch insects.

Next up on our itinerary was the glowworm cave, which is the one most tourists see. It is a spectacular, if short, experience as you take a short boat trip in absolute silence looking up through the darkness to the thousand of glowworm tails that light up the ceiling. It was the most touristy of the three caves we entered but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment.

I was particularly impressed to learn that since the cave was returned to the ownership of the descendants of Chief Tane in 1989 the majority of the staff working on the site are descendants of the chief and his wife Huti.

Inside the Aranui cave system

Finally, we visited the Aranui cave which was approached through a short walk through the forest accompanied by a couple of friendly fantails who hopped about and showed off us as we walked. Our wonderful tour guide Missy explained some of the useful plants we were passing and the Maori way of being guided by nature, eating the leaves that the insects have nibbled.

Once inside, we were once again treated to some incredible formations and a highly decorated ceiling, though I didn’t like the large wetas at the cave entrance or the information from our guide that they can leap a metre and cling on tightly! We all agreed that this was our favourite of the day. Across all the caves we were invited to spot the various shapes formed by the stalactites and stalagmites, which had included bungie jumping kiwis, a statue of the madonna and an elephant. The Aranui added an entrance guarding dragon to the list!

The three caves are very different and each has a special magic that makes it worth seeing. In short, it is well worth doing the triple cave combination.

The road to Marokopa

Posted in New Zealand, Waitomo by folkestonejack on April 2, 2019

Our trip to the central plateau began with the relatively uninspiring drive south on the motorway, escaping the humidity of the Auckland basin. At first the sights were pleasant but unspectacular, though I had to admire the people of Huntly for creating a lookout with a view of a power station. As someone with a love of industrial scenery that is something that really speaks to me!

Industrial scenery in Huntly

It was fascinating to see the snapshots of NZ life along the way, as well as more unusual activities such as tree felling (all road traffic was stopped in both directions for five minutes while a couple of trees in the adjacent forest were brought down) and a field of crosses being prepared in Ngaruawahia for Anzac day. We got more of a taste for local life in café stops along the way, sampling the baked treats and pies on offer.

The most surprising sight would have to be Hamilton’s oldest surviving church, St Paul’s Methodist church (1906), sitting in a green field site at Te Kowhai. The church was moved in January 2019 by Uplifting Homes in a remarkable 10 hour effort from Hamilton to its new location 15km to the south, ready to begin a new life as a cafe.

In the early afternoon we reached our accommodation for the night, the Top 10 Holiday Park in Waitomo, where we have a lovely two bedroom cabin with a fully fitted kitchen and shower. Once our tightly packed car boot was emptied (a masterpiece of jigsaw like arrangement) we headed back on the road with a lighter load to see the sights on the road from Waitomo to Marokopa.

The main attraction in Waitomo are the glowworm caves but the road to Marokopa offers some other treats that get overlooked by the majority of visitors – the Marokopa Falls, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and the black sands of the beach at Marokopa itself.

First on the road is the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. An easy twenty minute loop takes you on a boardwalk through a limestone gorge and underneath a 17 metre high natural arch which is all that is left of an ancient cave system.

Marokopa Falls with a rainbow

Next up were the 35 metre tall Marokopa Falls, looking especially spectacular after a full day of rain yesterday with a heavy torrent of water tumbling over the undercut greywacke basement rock to a pool below. It’s not hard to see why these are described as the most beautiful in the country and to top it off the conditions had generated a rainbow over the river this flows into. This was an easy sight to see too, with a 10 minute walk from the road down to the viewing platform.

Last, but not least were the near deserted black sands of Marokopa beach. Starting from the small car park by the albatross anchor (a relic from a ship that foundered here in 1916 and remained on the beach for many years) we headed on to the sands for a walk into the wind.

The black sands of Marokopa

The views of the west coast from Marokopa are simply stunning and we pretty much hard to ourselves, barring a couple wandering arm in arm. It was hard to know where to look as there were wonders in every direction – the views along the beach and out to sea were beautiful, but the closer you got to the sandstone cliffs you could see the remarkable geology of the area and the rich fossil legacy. So much to absorb. Personally, I loved the striking mix of colours – black sand, white driftwood and orange cliffs. It was the unexpected highlight of the day.

Our day ended back at Waitomo, where we settled in to the cabin for the evening for a tasty meal accompanied by the first of many bottles from a box of Gibbston Valley Wines that we had brought with us!

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Familiar sights

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 30, 2019

Our base for the next three weeks will be the family home in St Heliers, a seaside suburb of Auckland sitting at the eastern end of Tamaki Drive. It has been three years since my last visit but was pleased to see that I could find my way around from memory. A little wander down to the sea front provided plenty of re-assuring sights and the temptations of Village Co-op Ice Cream Shop, though I resisted the latter for now!

The canopy of the Moreton Bay figs covers Tamaki Drive

One thing I had somehow quite forgotten were the two massive Moreton Bay fig trees that sit on Vellenoweth Green. The two trees are not too far short of 100 years and in that time have grown to a considerable size, completely covering the road with their canopy. Their aggressive roots have ripped up the pavement and no doubt disrupted any pipes that lay under the surface. It is not hard to see why they are not thought to be a good idea for roadside planting.

Over the next few days we plan to catch up with family, recover from our jet lag and relax a little before re-packing our bags for a trip to the central plateau.

A little luck in Dubai

Posted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by folkestonejack on March 30, 2019

Our travels had brought us to Dubai Terminal 3 at the mid-way point on a journey to New Zealand to visit family and see a little more of the country. The first leg, from London Gatwick to Dubai, saw us arrive perfectly on time and in a suitably exhausted state for a night’s recovery in the airside Dubai International Hotel. However, opening the curtains the following morning brought the unwelcome sight of thick fog and the news that many flights had been severely delayed or even cancelled.

Our Emirates A380 for the journey from Dubai to Auckland

The Emirates flights covering the 8,823 miles to and from Auckland are among the longest commercial flights in the world. The outbound leg from Dubai tends to be a little shorter, clocking in at just over 16 hours, compared to 17 hours for the return. If you travel to and from New Zealand you will probably flown plenty of long flights, but somehow the extra couple of hours on this routing pushes me through a psychological barrier. In short, I have been dreading this leg of our travels for some time!

The in-bound flight from Auckland (EK449) this morning had been diverted to Dubai World Central International Airport due to the fog, followed by a 22 minute flight between the Dubai airports that effectively saw it arrive at the right airport three and a half hours late. Taking that into account, along with the many other delayed flights on the boards, we felt extremely lucky to be boarding more or less on time. Although our flight (EK448) left around 90 minutes late, most of that time was recovered and we landed just 20 minutes behind schedule.

Landing in Auckland

The flight was made considerably less painful by a late upgrade that gave us a little more space and the novelty of drinking cocktails in the bar on the upper deck mid-flight. As a once-in-a-lifetime experience it was pretty neat and ensured that we were a little fresher than usual when we stepped off the plane and into the welcoming arms of family in the terminal. Time to chill out and relax!

Inescapable Brexit

Posted in England by folkestonejack on March 29, 2019

I have travelled to the other side of the world and still can’t escape Brexit. It’s everywhere. On the rolling ticker of news updates on the in-plane entertainment screens, on local television and in the papers.

The perspective to be gained as you travel away from the UK is interesting, which I think can best be summed up as bafflement at how a country can voluntarily choose to tear itself apart like this. One question running through through some of the recent international coverage is how such a close 52-48 result came to be interpreted in some quarters as a mandate for the hard Brexit that Parliament is now rejecting. Mostly, it seems to have become a spectacle for all the wrong reasons and I think can only be destroying the credibility of Britain on the international stage.

Banksy mural in Dover

I am no political activist, shying away from political matters. However, I supported the recent ‘Put it to the People’ march and signed the petition. Not because I want to see democracy thwarted, but because I wanted to see the close result respected. It was a small way to get my voice heard and was pleased to hear this reflected in the words of Donald Tusk in his stirring speech to the European Parliament.

I don’t know what will unfold in the coming days, but I hope that the Brexit that is finally delivered takes a much softer form.

London’s newest rooftop viewpoint

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 24, 2019

I have been known to grumble, every now and again, about the monstrous skyscrapers that have been filling the skyline of the City of London over the past couple of decades. However, I have to confess that I rather like the rooftop spaces that they have created for the public to enjoy. The newest addition to the list is The Garden at 120 at 120 Fenchurch Street.

The view from the Gardens at 120 across to the Walkie Talkie

A week after the public opening I took a look for myself. It’s not on most tourist itineraries yet, so there were just ten of us queuing for the morning opening (10 o’clock) while a much larger queue was in evidence just a short walk away at the Walkie Talkie. There might not have been many of us, but I was still impressed by the speed that the staff got everyone through the security checks and into the lift to enjoy the tranquility of the gardens fifteen storeys up. Over the next hour a steady trickle of visitors arrived to join us but nowhere enough to trouble the limits.

It was a glorious morning to go up top with the morning fog giving way to clear blue skies and full sun. Needless to say, the views of the surroundings were superb. The walkway around the gardens offered sight lines to St Pauls, the Walkie Talkie, Lloyd’s Building and the Gherkin. In particular, I liked the fact that you are looking across the rooftops of these mid-height buildings, rather than looking down from a great height with little chance of admiring the detail.

The garden aspect of the rooftop is still in its infancy but once the wisteria reaches maturity this will be a lovely spot. There are plenty of benches spread around the spacious rooftop and a handful of visitors were taking advantage of the opportunity to bask in a little of the unseasonably warm weather on offer today and admire the bravery of the cleaners washing the windows of the Scalpel next door.

If the planners at the City of London have anything to do with it we will see more accessible and free to enter roof terraces and spaces. The draft City Plan 2036 would require the provision of ‘free to enter, publicly accessible areas’ as part of all tall building developments to help deliver their vision of a more inclusive city.

Views of St Pauls and the Lloyd’s Building from the rooftop gardens

In the space of a week there have been quite a few reports from the rooftop, including IanVisits and Diamond Geezer. The Guardian also published an interesting architectural review of the development, describing it as a candy-striped miracle in the central London skies.

Information on opening hours and a live footfall counter is available on the official 120 Fenchurch Street website. In the rush to get up top don’t forget to admire the wonderful giant video screens (with accompanying sound installation) on the ceiling of the entrance.

Photography is permitted but a little tricky, on account of a sloping see through barrier that runs around the 360 degree perimeter of the roof garden. Not that it stopped anyone from trying today!

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A flying visit to Belfast

Posted in Belfast, Northern Ireland by folkestonejack on January 6, 2019

Our visit to Belfast for the gig was a short one, arriving just before 1pm on the Saturday and leaving just before 12pm on the Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever flown into a city and stayed less than 23 hours before, but I’ve seen enough to know that I will have to come back to do justice to the city and the surrounding countryside. Even from the windows of the airportlink bus I could see sights that I wanted to come back to take a closer look at, such as the striking celtic cross on the facade of St Anne’s Cathedral. I was mentally compiling a list for the next visit before we had even made it to the city centre for our first…

As the gig we had come for was taking place at the Belfast Empire Music Hall we had booked a hotel in the Queen’s Quarter. The friendly and welcoming IBIS proved to be the perfect choice, just a short walk away from the venue and
the terrific family-run restaurant Scalini on Botanic Avenue. It is no exaggeration to say that Scalini served up some of the best Italian food I have eaten anywhere and easily rivaled the best meals of the past twelve months. No wonder they were queue outside the door to get a table when we left!

The extent of our sightseeing would be a couple of hours exploring the Ulster museum and the neighbouring botanic gardens, about five minutes walk south from the hotel. The museum offered far more than we expected and there would have been still more to see had we not reached saturation point.

One of the willow dragons created by Bob Johnston, basket maker at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

Highlights of our visit to the Ulster Museum included the last weekend for the 137th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy which had plenty of brilliant exhibits to admire (including the memorable and amusing tale revealed on the back of the exhibit What my cat ate today) and the willow dragons that hang from the rafters.

The Ulster Museum had an incredible amount of history to reveal, much of it unfamiliar to me, such as the tale of the ships from the Spanish Armada that foundered off the Ulster coast as they attempted to escape around Scotland and back to Spain via the North Atlantic. The treasures (including a golden salamander) from one of these ships, The Girona, help bring the story to life in a fascinating display.

More recent history is tackled in The Troubles And Beyond exhibition which was opened in March 2018 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The exhibition places a strong emphasis on the human cost of the conflict. This is really brought home with one of the most ordinary exhibits, an otherwise unremarkable lined notebook that was used as the visitors’ guestbook at the Ulster American Folk Park, signed by a 12 year old schoolboy who died hours later in the Omagh bombing without having the chance to grow up. Other artifacts on display range from a bomb disposal robot to a remembrance wreath not laid at Enniskillen. Plenty to reflect on as we left the museum behind.

Adventures in Belfast

Posted in Belfast, Northern Ireland by folkestonejack on January 6, 2019

The most heavily played album of my teenage years was The Sea of Love by The Adventures, a terrific rock band from Northern Ireland formed in the early 1980s. I hadn’t heard of them until their breakthrough song, Broken Land, hit the UK charts in 1988 but I was instantly hooked. That track made it to number 20 in the UK singles chart and should have opened the doors to greater commercial success but somehow that was never meant to be. Nevertheless, there was plenty for the fan to feast on with four terrific albums.

The Adventures

It has taken me some 30 years or so from that initial hook to get my act together and see them play live at what was billed as their final shows as a band at the Belfast Empire. It doesn’t sound as though that is quite the case now, with the lead singer Terry Sharpe saying in recent television and newspaper interviews that you never close the door. Anyway, it did the trick – it got me on a plane to go and discover for myself just what a terrific band they are playing live. Better late to the party than never!

The Belfast Empire Music Hall, based in a converted Victorian church, has character in abundance and proved the perfect venue for the sold out gig. There were clearly plenty of long time fans and friends in the audience, adding to the feel of an intimate gathering. As well as a core of support from Belfast there were fans that had travelled from Denmark, Germany and the Phillipines. The atmosphere built up nicely in anticipation of the 10.45pm appearance of The Adventures on the stage.

The night really got going with the opener of Love in chains, followed by a set-list spread across all four albums that served as a good reminder (as if it were needed) of the strength of their back catalogue. Marvelous songs like Send my heart, Feel the raindrops, Hold me now, Your greatest shade of blue and Washington deceased. The live performance of Broken Land was as thrilling a moment as you could hope for. There was also the surprise of a new song that they have only played live a couple of times before and the wonderful choice of Two rivers that they had been persuaded to play for the last song of the night.

If that was the end, then it was a great way to finish, but I am taking encouragement from Terry’s ‘See you next time!’. If there is a next time, I think it will be impossible to resist.

The Belfast Empire

One of the quirkiest facts about Broken Land was that it ended up being the most played track on BBC Radio One in 1988. You might think it unlikely that a song that only made it midway up the top 40 could have achieved this, but it was released early in the year and had something of a slow burn. I guess the promoters were working very hard to make it a success too, though that’s harder to quantify.

The track spent 12 weeks in the charts, slowly but steadily progressing upwards in a relatively unusual pattern for the time. It finally peaked at 20 on 21st May 1988 a week or so after their appearance on Top of the Pops. I recall it being pushed on the radio and tv fairly heavily, so presumably someone at the BBC was a big fan. I certainly didn’t tire of hearing it!

The success of Broken Land didn’t follow through to the second single from the The Sea of Love, probably because this was released after the album. The album made it to number 30 in the album charts. I picked up a copy on cassette tape and it got plenty of my play in my room that summer, especially as a welcome distraction from my exam revision!

The albums The Sea of Love (1988) and Theodore and Friends (1985) have been re-issued in expanded form by Cherry Red Records with a rather splendid set of sleeve notes about the history of the band and the recording of the albums.

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Farewell to 2018

Posted in England by folkestonejack on December 31, 2018

I am glad that I am not one of those journalists having to round up a year filled with as much madness as 2018 has seen and can just focus on a much narrower field. It has been a great year for travelling and I am particularly glad to have finally made it to Eritrea some six years after abandoning plans for a trip there. I really thought my chance had passed so I was absolutely made up that it was possible again. It exceeded every expectation.

The year in numbers…

15,800 holiday photos taken
450 hours spent commuting
67 blog posts written
58 hours endured in the air
49 plays watched
36 museums visited
33 roast dinners consumed
16 steam locomotives seen in action
13 castles/forts explored
5 rounds of minigolf played
3 art exhibitions wandered
1 wedding attended

The year has brought about some stunning surprises, many of which did not make it to the blog. One of those that I did not really know how to describe at the time was the Good Friday service at Westminster Abbey. I got absolutely drenched waiting to go in with Jo but the strange yet beautifully sung Solemn Liturgy of the Passion and Death of Our Lord (Tomás Luis de Victoria) was quite unlike anything I have heard or ever expected to hear. I still don’t know how to describe it!

Although I rarely talk about theatre much in this blog, there have been some absolute crackers this year. The standout for me was a heartbreaking performance of Peter Gill’s play The York Realist at the Donmar. Honourable mentions should go to a few more: Seawall at the Old Vic; Julius Caesar at the Bridge; The Inheritance at the Young Vic; the Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward; the gutsily staged Troilus and Cressida at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and the wonderfully bonkers Tell-Tale Heart at the National.

There were plenty of TV highlights in the year including the big dramas of Bodyguard and Killing Eve. One of the unexpected delights for me was ‘A Passage to Britain’, a fascinating documentary series that set about tracing what happened to the individuals recorded on ship’s passenger lists who were emigrating in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Some fascinating and relatively little known nuggets of history were recalled during that – I certainly had no idea there was a Polish settlement in India in the 1940s.

Plenty of good food was on offer during the year, but the best meals got served up at The Medina Restaurant in Mdina, Malta (the background music and sound of cannons firing to celebrate a saints day added to an already excellent meal); Rubino in Valletta, Malta; 4 Stagioni in Gibraltar (especially if your better half is too ill to eat a second dessert and you have to bravely step in…); Tides in St Aubin, Jersey; and rather surprisingly, the tasting menu at Belle Epoque at Heathrow of all places!

It has also been a year of family re-unions. Two events, my parents golden wedding anniversary and my brother’s wedding, brought together family members that I haven’t seen in years and some that I had never met. I thought that was all quite wonderful. Sadly, my brother didn’t get any luck with the weather – heavy rain on his big day was a bit of a downer.

In the equivalent post last year I wrote about the long established businesses closing down in my local high street. Since then, the last bank has finally closed but aside from this the degree of change has been less dramatic. That is likely to change in the years ahead as there are plans to build a 17 storey tower block (8 storeys higher than the existing buildings) behind the Victorian high street that sits in the South Norwood Conservation Area. Not quite sure how that squares up, but what do I know!?

I had a little chuckle when I read the suggestions in the planning documents that the design of the new tower block would be an elegant addition, echoing the historic buildings of South Norwood, and that it would ‘fix’ the aesthetically unpleasing ‘broken tooth’ skyline that we have already.

An unexpected sight at the end of the year – a festive slug at Tate Britain this Christmas

I suspect that 2019 will be a challenging year on many fronts, not least the sad denouement of the Brexit saga, but if it gets anywhere close to the highs of 2018 I will be very happy indeed.