We Roll up to the Falkirk Wheel

On the final day of our Edinburgh long weekend we took a trip out to Falkirk. Falkirk is located about midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and it takes about half an hour to get there by train from Edinburgh Waverley.

Falkirk’s most modern attraction is the Falkirk Wheel,

The Falkirk Wheel

a boat lift that reconnects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. The canals were originally linked by a series of eight locks, but with the decline of canal traffic in the 1900s they fell into disuse and were filled in during the 1930s. The Wheel, one of the Millenium projects, was completed in 2002 and the gondolas in the wheel’s eyes can move 600 tonnes of narrow boat and water the 34 metres between the two canals.

Rear view of the gondola at the Falkirk Wheel

Unfortunately the visitor centre is closed for much of the winter so we were unable to take one of the boat trips that allow you to ride the wheel. Still it was a lovely, if chilly morning so we set off to explore the countryside and visit the remains of the Antonine Wall that formed to northernmost frontier of Roman Britain.

Earthworks of the Antonine Wall

Not anywhere like as famous as Hadrian’s Wall to the south, the wall built for the Emperor Antoninus Pius stretched from Old Kirkpatrick to the Firth of Clyde. Construction began around AD 142 and took about twelve years to complete. Principally built of turf, what you can see today are the earthworks and ditches. The wall was only fortified for about twenty years before the Romans retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall, had they stayed a bit longer they might have built some more permanent structures. Having had a look around we decided to retreat ourselves and set out back towards the Wheel.

Just as the wheel was coming into sight I noticed it was on the move, so I legged it to a break in the tree cover to get some shots,

Gondola swinging into place on the Falkirk Wheel

as the wheel completed its action.

Almost back in place

Having seen at least part of the action of this engineering marvel, I didn’t feel quite so cheated about not getting a boat ride!

Next stop on our trip was Callendar House, the family seat of the Livingston family since 1345.

Callendar House

the present building’s facade is mostly 19th century,  the central core is a 14th Century Tower house. Over the years it has had some pretty important visitors including Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Today it is home to a very interesting local historical timeline display a working 19th century kitchen, temporary art galleries and the local archives. The grounds also have a stretch of the Antonine Wall.

One of the local industries that features prominently in the timeline is the Carron Ironworks, who used to cast the short stubby Royal Navy cannon known as carronades or ‘smashers’. Nelson had two 68 pound Carronades mounted on the Victory‘s forecastle, that cleared the gun-deck of the French Bucentaur with a single salvo through her stern windows. Carrons later went on to make far less deadly pillar boxes for Royal Mail.

With a bit of time to spare before our train we walked back into Falkirk. From what we saw it wasn’t much different from any number of small towns in the UK with branches of chains like Greggs and Phones 4 You and an abandoned bandstand full of furtively smoking hoodies. The only difference I did note was the large number of Turkish barber shops and tattoo parlours. We did find a friendly pub called the Toll Booth for a welcome pint though.

We got a group save return ticket for four, from Edinburgh Waverley to Falkirk High for £23.90 (about half price), by travelling on the 9.15 train. Admission to all sites was free.

Kelmscott Manor – Pre-Raphaelite Scandal and Romance

One of the aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain that I really enjoyed was the room devoted to the furnishings, stained glass, wallpaper and fabric designs produced by Morris and Co. In particular the four-poster bed with its elaborately embroidered coverlet and hangings reminded me of our visit to Kelmscott Manor, the Morris family summer home in the Gloucestershire countryside. Whether that was from the point of view of the design work or the complicated love lives of those involved I can not be certain.

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott was built around 1570 with an additional wing tacked on in the 17th century. In 1871 William Morris and his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti took out the lease on Kelmscott. The Tudor manor house appealed to Morris’ aesthetic principles, it also took his wife Jane’s affair with Rossetti out of London’s public eye. Rossetti wasn’t Jane’s only lover at Kelmscott. The poet and radical Wilfred Scawen Blunt took up with Jane after the painter’s death in 1882. Whether Morris knew about his wife’s affair we will never know for sure, but Blunt recorded in his diary that Jane would leave a pansy in his bedroom as a signal when she wanted him to tiptoe along to her bedroom.

The man himself

Kelmscott is packed to the rafters with objects created by Morris and his friends, including the afore-mentioned bed with its coverlet embroidered by Jane, furniture, ceramics and books produced by Morris’ other business The Kelmscott Press. (for some reason we have no photography of the interior, it may not have been allowed at the time of our visit).

Mangle, laundry room Kelmscott Manor

The gardens with the outhoused laundry room, bakehouse and privy are also worth a visit, as is the nearby St George’s Church.

St George’s Church, Kelmscott

Dating from the 12th century the Church has some interesting medieval wall paintings,

Medieval wall paintings St George’s Church Kelmscott

while in the churchyard you will find the final resting place of Morris, Jane and their daughters, Jenny and May. The memorial was designed by Morris’ friend and colleague Philip Webb.

The Morris family tomb

Being able to see the rooms where Morris, Jane and Rossetti worked, relaxed and romanced really brought everything that I had read about their complicated relationships to life. Naturally it was also a treat to see so much of their creative work, and that of Morris’ other colleagues too.

Kelmscott Manor is close to the village of Lechlade in Gloucestershire and the easiest way to get there is to drive. The nearest railway stations are Oxford or Swindon, but they are quite far away and you will need to continue your journey by bus and a taxi. The house is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays between April and October. tickets for the house and garden cost £9.

All Aboard the Jumbo Express – Whipsnade Zoo

I can’t think of a better way to explore Whipsnade Zoo‘s wide open animal paddocks than this.

The Jumbo Express steams up

This is Whipsnade’s own little railway. It has two steam locomotives, Excelsior and Superior, and a couple of diesels.

Excelsior, built in 1908

The railway was built in 1970 to view the white rhino herd that Whipsnade were captive breeding at the time. The two steam locomotives came from Bowater’s Papermill Light Railway near Sittingbourne in Kent, which was the last narrow gauge steam operated railway in the UK.

There is something almost quite organic about a steam locomotive as it gets up the power to lurch out of the station and the billowing steam and smell of coal smoke just transports me back to a time when the process of travel was more of an adventure than an ordeal.

The Diesels are quite cool too

As Excelsior pulled out of the station our first animal encounter was with a Bennet’s wallaby who sensibly hopped it out of the way.

Bennet’s wallaby

Next up were the jumbos themselves, Whipsnade’s are Indian elephants.

Mum and baby

The Indian one-horned rhinos are a real success story and captive breeding at places like Whipsnade have helped to restock the recovering wild population.

Indian one-horned rhino

We also got to see the herds of Bactrian camels from central Asia,

Two humps please

Pere David and fallow deer and yaks.

Yak, yak.yak

To top that I also got to see a wild hare and a lapwing in the enclosures though sadly wasn’t quick enough with the camera to catch them. (Mab says that next time we go anywhere, she’s leaving me in Sainsburys car park to photograph the herring gulls as they scavenge in the recycling, as I’d be just as happy doing that!)

The Jumbo Express is run by enthusiastic volunteers and the fare is £4.50 for grown up travellers on top of the normal zoo admission price . I think that is pretty good value to keep such great little engines on the tracks.

Pre-Raphaelites, Spies and Vin Diesel – Saturday in London

On Saturday we took a trip into London to visit the Pre-Rhaphealites Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition at the Tate Britain. I find the Pre-Raphaelites a very interesting group of artists, who have to my mind been somewhat sidelined by art historians in favour of what was going on over the channel in France during the 19th century. What the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) did was to reject the view that Raphael represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement, they looked back to the bright colours and truth to nature of the Italian art that preceeded him. Mind you the colourful personal lives of Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Lizzie Siddall, William and Janey Morris were in many ways just as interesting as the PRB’s subversion of the Victorian art establishment.

Having studied the Pre-Raphaelites  for my undergraduate degree I really enjoyed seeing so many of their paintings together. I particularly liked William Holman-Hunt’s The Shadow of Death. This was the first time I had seen this work in person and I was surprised its sheer scale. I suppose being more familiar with Hunt’s smaller paintings like The Awakening conscience or The Light of the World I was expecting something a bit smaller. Yet the thing that struck me most forcefully in this study of Christ in his fathers’ carpentry shop was the detail of the wood shavings on the floor. I was also pleased to see that the decorative arts produced by Morris and Co. got a good showing alongside the paintings. I highly recommend this exhibition.

Having arrived in Pimlico (nearest tube to the Tate) about an hour before our show slot we decided to have a wee drink at the Morpeth Arms first.

The Morpeth Arms

This is a nice traditional boozer selling Young’s Ales right on the Thames riverbank. We carried our drinks upstairs to the Spying Room. I don’t know whether Kim Philby or Anthony Blunt used the Morpeth, (there are pictures of famous spies in the stairwell, including Mata Hari who I know didn’t sink pints of Young’s Special here) but from the upstairs window you do get a great view of the MI5 headquarters on the the opposite side of the Thames.

James Bond’s office London

After leaving the Tate we headed up the Thames embankment for Westminster tube only to discover a whole mess of overturned trucks, smoke and fire engines on Lambeth Bridge,

Mayhem on Lambeth Bridge

‘What all this?’ I wondered, it turned out to be a film set for Fast and Furious 6, not a sign of Vin (the unthinking man’s Jason Statham)  Diesel though.

‘Where’s Vin Diesel?’

Moving on we took a walk through Victoria Tower Gardens where we came upon this rather lovely piece of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.

Buxton Memorial Fountain, Palace of Westminster in the background

This is the Buxton Memorial Fountain. It was commissioned in 1865 by the MP Charles Buxton to commemorate his father Thomas Fowell Buxton who, along with William Wilberforce and Thomas Babington Macaulay was instrumental in the emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire in 1834. The fountain was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon. I’d never seen the fountain before, it’s finding this sort of unexpected thing when you wander around this great city that makes living in it so interesting.

As Big Ben struck five,

Boing (five times)

We descended into the tube station. Our destination was Butler’s Wharf (nearest tube Tower Hill) on the Southbank where we had a table booked at Brown’s. Our good fortune held and we got a table outside overlooking the river as the day drew to a close. I plumped for the Brown’s Burger (about £12) which came with chips and a small dish with gherkins, fried onions and ketchup accompanied by a proper Vespa Martini made with Lillet vermouth and a twist of lime (£7.25). It was the perfect way to end the day as the Sun set over the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf after dak

As we walked back to Tower Gateway Station and beheld Tower Bridge lit up in all its glory, I could not help but reflect on what a fantastic city London is. Despite living here for 50 odd years I am constantly discovering new things about the place.

Tower Bridge

Rhodes: The Valley of the Butterflies and the Island of Halki

Close to the village of Theologos on the western side of Rhodes is The Valley of the Butterflies.

Jersey Tiger

The butterflies are actually moths which in the UK are known as Jersey Tigers. The Jersey Tiger is quite widespread throughout Europe, but was until recently confined to the Channel Islands in the UK. Now there is even a breeding colony in South London. I suppose that’s global warming for you. In Rhodes the Tigers congregate in this particular river valley, where the humidity is just right for breeding.

Entrance to the Valley of the Butterflies

The moths are absolutely everywhere, covering the surfaces of trees and walkways.

Jersey Tigers everywhere

During this part of their life cycle they are dependant upon stored energy reserves from their time as a caterpillar as the adults have no digestive organs. As a consequence it is expressly forbidden to startle the moths into the air with hand claps or whistles as they need all the energy for breeding. Anyone caught doing that gets a €50 fine from the National Parks Service.

We visited the Valley of the Butterflies as part of a day trip that also took in the nearby island of Halki. Taking the ferry from the nearby port of Kamiros it’s about an hour from Rhodes. Halki (also called Chalki) is the smallest of the Dodecanese Islands with a population of just over 300. It used to be a centre of sponge fishing before the days of synthetic materials, but tourism is now the major earner.

Halki from the ferry

As you approach the island the influence of the Venetians and Genoese who ruled the island before the Ottoman Turks arrived in 1523 is immediately apparent in the architecture of the houses and church in the port of Emporio which is the only large settlement on the island. We had lunch at Maria’s, a dockside taverna where the baked aubergine (€6) was delicious, before heading into town to explore.

To be totally honest there isn’t really that much to see aside from The Traditional House of Chalki, which an enterprising widow set up after the death of her husband.

The Traditional House of Chalki

Within the house an eclectic collection of items is on display ranging from traditional furniture, ceramics and lace to an old car radio.

From the wind up gramophone to the knackered old car radio, just some of the eclectic items inside the Traditional House

In the beautifully tended garden there is a fine display of peppers, pomegranates and limes along with a vending machine that dispenses beer, chocolate and condoms, everything you could wish for a good night out!

I spent some time chatting with our knowledgable tour guide, John on the return journey. He’s an ex-pat Brit with a part Greek wife. Aside from the guiding he has written some books on Rhodes and has a blog called Ramblings from Rhodes. You will find a link to the blog on the right, go pay him a visit to find out some more about the island.

Back on the mainland we arrived back in Lindos just in time for a quick shower before dinner. That night we ate at the Kalypso, a delightful rooftop restaurant.

View from the rooftop at the Kalypso restaurant

I started with the Feta Sagnaki, Feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry basted with honey, followed by a lamb kebab in Feta and tomato sauce on pita which was exceptionally good. Our youngest travelling companion had the Greek burger which was so good that her father and I forced down every leftover scrap. With wine, water and coffee the bill came to only €90 for the four of us. Kalypso was the only restaurant we ate in twice during our stay (not counting beachside tavernas) on the island so it’s highly recommended.

The trip to the Valley of the Butterflies and Halki was booked through the Thomson Holidays website, cost £37.99.

Up the Rhodes to the Acropolis

On Wednesday morning we got up really early to climb the 300 steps up through Lindos to the Crusader Castle and the ancient Acropolis. there were two good reasons for this; avoiding the heat and the crowds of day visitors from other resorts and the cruise liners. Fortunately the acropolis opens at 8.30, so we had breakfast and were soon passing the alarm clocks on the way into town.

The alarm clocks of Rhodes

Even early in the morning it was a bit of a slog up the hill, but there was the odd place to take a photo of the view while taking a breather.

View of Bay of Lindos

The Castle was built by the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem around 1317 on the base of an earlier Byzantine fortification.

Entrance to the castle

Of course the Byzantine fortress was built over previous Greek and Roman buildings. At the top of the fortress is the partially restored Temple of Athena.

Temple of Athena

This Doric temple dates to around 300BC.  A monumental staircase leads down from the temple to the remains of a Stoa (colonnaded covered walkway)

The Stoa at Lindos

that originally consisted of 42 columns. It was probably a covered market and dates back to 200BC.

Close to the stoa are the remains of the Greek Orthodox Church of St John. These are 13th century, but built over the remains of an earlier Byzantine church.

Greek Orthodox Church, Lindos

Not all of the visitors had paid the €6 to get in

It was starting to get really hot by 10.oo, but by then we had seen just about all there was to see and the day trippers were begining to arrive all hot and bothered by the coach load.

Our gateway to the outside world

Old ladies had pitched stalls selling textiles on the rocks by the path on the way down. We bought a table-cloth from one and told the next one that: ‘her friend had already had our money’

‘She’s not my friend’ she replied.

Gotta love Greek old ladies.




Sunrise over the Acropolis and Sunset in Rhodes Town

It wasn’t so much the donkeys and roosters who woke us up on the morning of our fourth day in Lindos, but the howling of the wind. Overnight the familiar whirring of cicadas had been replaced by something that would not have sounded amiss on the soundtrack of a Hammer Horror movie. Rather than curling up and going back to sleep we got up and watched the Sun come up over the Acropolis.

Sunrise over the Acropolis Lindos

If I’m going to be absolutely truthful we did nip back to bed for a crafty snooze, before hitting the pool for a couple of hours. Always keen to learn something from our fellow guests as I waggled my toes in the water, I discovered how to disable the security tags in branches of George by folding them in half, it’s not a piece of knowledge that I intend to apply I hasten to add.

That afternoon we had a trip booked for the island’s capital Rhodes Town.

Medieval City Walls, Rhodes Town

It took about an hour to get to Rhodes Town. We assembled outside the city walls that date back to the time of the Knights Hospitaller. The warrior monks of the order conquered the island from the Byzantine Empire in 1309. They wanted their own place to hang out when their stay in Cyprus didn’t work out following the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291. Much of the present Old Town including the city walls dates from the time of the Knights who were eventually kicked out by the Ottoman Turks in 1522.  The city walls were one of the first in Europe to be designed to withstand those new-fangled cannon and had an extensive moat to trap any invaders in a killing ground where they could be cut to pieces. There are still Ottoman cannon balls littering the moat today.

Ottoman cannon ball

The Italians who took Rhodes off the Turks in 1912 used the moat as a prison for Greek dissidents and there is a moving sculptural tribute to those that died there just outside the city walls.

Memorial to Greek prisoners held within the Old Town moat

In 1943 the Italians found the tables turned when many Greek families hid their former colonist’s soldiers from the Nazis when Italy changed sides in World War II.

Entering by the main gate we passed through the narrow medieval streets towards the town centre.

the Medieval streets of Rhodes Old Town

To survive the regular earth tremors in the area, local buildings are pretty solid and often buttressed against one another as the photo above shows. Towards the centre of town we found one of the few remaining practicing mosques. After the Ottoman conquest only Moslems were allowed to live within the city walls, so the Greek Orthodox churches became mosques. When most of the Turks left only a few remained mosques to serve the island’s small Moslem community.

Mosque Rhodes Old town

By far the most impressive building in the Old Town is the palace of the Grand Master Of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

Grand Master’s Palace

The palace was originally built-in the fourteenth century. During the Ottoman occupation it was used as a prison and ammunition magazine. In 1856 a lightning strike caused the magazine to blow up and destroyed much of the palace. What you see today is an Italian reconstruction built as a palace for King Victor Emmanuel III and Mussolini and now a museum.

The Knights were a pretty international bunch. By far the largest contingent came from France, but there were also knights from England, Scotland, Spain, Italy and the German states all of whom have left mementoes in the buildings on the Street of the Knights.

Coats of Arms of the English Knights of the Order of St John

After taking dinner at a delightful little taverna called Romio’s (included in the trip), we went for a drink in the Piazza where entertainment was provided by a massive barney, complete with shouting and pushing, between the staff of the Palazzo and Archipelago restaurants over poaching each others customers.

Piazza Rhodes

The final part of our trip took us out of the old town into the Mandraki area and down past the rather imposing Italian Fascist architecture of the port for a moonlit cruise around the harbour. To be honest it wasn’t exactly a cruise ship, more a ferry complete with car deck below, but the harbour was beautiful lit up after dark and the brief moment out to sea allowed the stars to be seen away from the light pollution of the resort areas.

Rhodes by Night

We booked the trip online through the Thomson holidays website, cost £50.99 including dinner. You could probably find a similar excursion cheaper in resort.

Hats Off to Soho’s Backstreets

Sorry about the pun, unable to resist using it in conjunction with this picture that I snapped in Soho’s Hollen Street, just around the back of Oxford Street.

Hat Factory

The building dates back to 1887, but Henry Heath had been making posh hats in the area since the Regency. Of course it’s not a hat factory anymore, but home to various creative industry offices, where no doubt they appreciate the rather lovely lettering on the exterior.

Anyhow if you take a walk around the corner into Oxford Street you see this ornate pile above the Officer’s Club shop.

This is where Heath’s hat shop was. It was designed by the architects Christopher and White and if you look way up you can just about see three stone beavers. These photos were taken with ny old Sony compact which does not have the Nikon’s magnificatuion.

Cute you may think, until you investigate the beaver’s role in the Victorian hat industry!

If you want to find this building its opposite the 100 Club close to Tottenham Court Road tube station..

Francisco de Miranda and Fitzrovia

One of the things I used to enjoy about working in London’s West End was the opportunity to wander around and explore the local sights at lunchtime. Just north of Oxford Street is the area known as Fitzrovia.

Let’s start with a pint.

Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street W1

This is the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, from whence Fitzrovia is said to derive its name. The pub’s name comes from Fitzroy the family name of the Dukes of Grafton who used to own much of what is now Fitzrovia. The first Duke of Grafton was an illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress Barbara Villiers, I love a bit of Restoration Royal scandal.

This boozer has a great literary heritage, Dylan Thomas and George Orwell drank there together with the artist Augustus John, comedian Michael Bentine and even the Great Beast himself Aleistair Crowley. Sadly its been taken over by Samuel Smiths who despite doing a great job in preserving the interior only sell their own keg beers. The best bet is the Imperial Stout as the rest of their offering is pretty putrid in my opinion.

Carrying on up Charlotte Street you come to the neo-classical splendour of Fitzroy Square.

Robert Adam designed Fitzroy Square

It’s quite lovely, having being designed by the great Scottish architect Robert Adam in 1792 and completed by his brothers James and William in 1798. Fitzroy Square has been home to the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Maddox Brown and the author Ian McEwan, while George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf both lived at no.29 though not at the same time. You can see Woolf’s blue plaque at no 29 below.

29 Fitzroy Square, home of Virginia Woolf

On the corner of the Square is this statue. I had often passed it before and wondered who he was, so I googled him.

Francisco de Miranda

Turns out he is Francisco de Miranda, a liberator of Venezuela. After supporting the French Revolution and traveling round Europe, Miranda lived in London for a number of years before heading back to Venezuela, overthrowing the Spanish governor, then surrendering to Spanish forces after a catastrophic earthquake hit Caracas. He ended his days in a Spanish jail after Simon Bolivar decided he had been a traitor to surrender and handed him over to the Spaniards.

However while he was in London he lived here with his housekeeper and their children between 1803 and 1810 at Grafton Street just off Fitzroy Square, where amongst others he received Simon Bolivar and Andres Bello who persuaded him to head back to Venezuela.

Venezuelan Embassy, Grafton Street W1

Appropriately today it’s now the Venezuelan Embassy.

London’s Little Italy

Yesterday I passed through Little Italy. No not the one in New York, but the one in central London close to Farringdon underground station.

London’s own Little Italy, Clerkenwell

Back in the 19th Century the area started to attract people from Italy who were fleeing poverty and political unrest. In 1863 the Italian community opened its own church in Clerkenwell Road, St Peter’s seen here next to the Italian food shop. There are naturally plenty of Italian restaurants and cappuccino bars, together with Italian food shops and even an Italian driving school in the area. The blue plaque on the building in the corner is for Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the Maxim gun.

Like of lot of central London the area has had its ups and downs. Until fairly recently it was the centre of the city’s print trade and I remember when I started working in PR (back in the days before every desk had a computer) frequently running artwork to the various printers and typesetters in the area, Whole buildings like the ones below,

would be occupied by different printing companies and none of the buildings ever seemed to have lifts! However new technology and a general decline in the print trade has since freed up plenty of quite funky premises for conversion into loft dwellings, architectural practice offices and design studios.

There are still some curious little shops like International Magic here at 89 Clerkenwell Road,

International Magic

It was founded around 50 years ago by the magician Ron MacMilan and is still run by his son Martin.

St Peter’s Church was designed by the Irish architect Sir John Miller-Bryson and based upon the basilica of San Crisogono in Rome. Unfortunately it was closed when I visited so I could not see the rather splendid interior and had to make do with the mosaic frieze from over the door.

Frieze above the door of st Peter’s

Within the portico are two memorials, one to the local fallen Italian soldiers from World War One and just above it is this one,

Memorial to the Italian internees lost on the Arandora Star

which has a very sad history. When Mussolini declared war on Britain in 1940 Churchill had all Italian men in the UK rounded up and interned, even those who had fled Italy to get away from the fascists. One of the government’s bright ideas was to pack some of them off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only a German U-boat torpedoed the liner and about 700 of the Italian internees drowned.