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Silly ways to use the London Cycle Hire scheme

The London Cycle Hire scheme, supported by a well-known bank, is almost upon us.As it needs a nom de plume, how about Velondon?

The purpose of the scheme, to replace short taxi and tube rides with jaunts on bicycles that are heavy and ugly enough to be undesirable to thieves, is laudable in the extreme and it is to be hoped that eventually the scheme can echo the knock-on effects of Paris’ Velib – of creating an unbreakable case for better cycling infrastructure, separated lanes and world peace between those on two wheels and four. We can dream.

That’s all well and good, but what silly things could you do with the idea of picking up a bike in one part of London and dropping it off in another? Here are a few ideas for Cycle Hire-related japes that – hopefully – won’t get you into trouble with the rozzers.

1. See how far you can ride on in half an hour before returning it to the same place. The first thirty minutes are free. Can you make it outside Zone 2 and back again without incurring a fee?

2. Take a mate in the magazine rack on the front. This looks better if rider and passenger have got a hood on and are riding the wrong way up City Road in rush hour swaying from side to side. If they get stuck, you simply dock the bike and leave them there and hope the next punter doesn’t mind too much.

3. Leave random notes in the spokes of bikes for users to find. It could be a way of setting up a blind date or, through the gradual accumulation of answers to geography questions, identify the London Cycle Hire scheme capital cities quiz king.

4. Organise a flash mob style ride, where as many of the bikes as possible are undocked simultaneously and ridden around Regent’s Park, creating a kind of endless circle of riders.

5. Take one to Paris. Undock early in the morning, take on Eurostar and spend the day confusing the French by asking for directions to London landmarks. Take a photo for Boris.

6. (this one is quite a good idea I think) – create a way of logging the journeys each bike makes and invite riders to contribute stories of the adventures they had on them. To paraphrase Suede, after a few weeks all the love and poison of London will be worn into the grooves of these two-wheeled iron horses.

Anyone got any others?

Total Eclipse in Australia, November 2012

Anyone who saw the footage of eclipse hunters on Easter Island on 11 July may be wondering where they can catch a piece of daytime darkness for themselves. Locals on Easter Island will be glad to be left to get on with fixing up their Moai for the next plane-load of Polynesian pilgrims.

The bad news is that there’s a bit of a wait until the next blast of totality. The good news is that seeing it offers a chance to get into a seriously wild part of Australia. On 13 November 2012, the skies above Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and Queensland’s Cape York peninsula will darken, before the path of totality whizzes south-east past the uninhabited Kermadec Islands (who knew where they were?) and across the international date line into 14 November.

Back a bit, Bush Tucker

Those familiar with Les Hiddins, better known as the immortal Bush Tucker Man will know all about Arnhem Land’s spectacular nature and vibrant Aboriginal culture. Bush Tucker Man, who bought the Top End of Australia’s culture and nature to millions worldwide  is very much alive, despite years of rumours of his untimely demise which seemed to emanate from the Australian community in London. After a few beers Les Hiddins was alleged by antipodean friends to have been eaten by crocodiles,  to have disappeared into Arnhem Land never to be seen again or (my favourite) to have toppled off an escarpment in the Macdonnell Ranges at the behest of a particularly zealous Director demanding that he should move back for a wide-angled shot. Les is happily still with us and enjoying his doutbless very unusual retirement.

Arnhem Land

Access is limited to many parts of Arnhem Land making visiting a challenge. Cape York is more accessible, being much beloved by 4×4 enthusiasts aiming for mainland Australia’s northernmost point. It should mean the tourist equivalent of a lottery win for the steamy country backwater of Cooktown and remote mining town of Weipa. This account of an overland trip to through Far North Queensland should whet your appetite. Bear in mind though that mi-November is the start of the wet season, and getting too far into the wild may be a challenge.

Cape York Peninsula in red

One cautionary note: us Londoners got massively excited by the 2000 Eclipse, only for a cloudy day to dull the spectacle. I watched from Parliament Hill in north London, where the disappointed crowd jeered the cloud cover. At least if you head for Cape York you’ll have something else to show for your efforts.

The long way round – London to Oslo overland

This article appears in a translated form in the May 2010 edition of ZINE magazine.

It isn’t just due to Iceland’s newest and noisiest volcano that we’re doing more overland travel. More and more of us are choosing to make the journey part of the holiday, or take a road, rail or sea trip to see more along the way.

Can you stop wafting that smoke in my direction please?

My own experience is that while the idea is very nice you should be prepared for a few adventures along the way. A few years ago I was asked to speak at a conference in Oslo. I was pleased about this as at the time I hadn’t been to Norway, and thought this was a good chance to see somewhere new. I walked into the office of my boss and asked him what he thought. ‘You can go…’ he said. I paused, knowing something else was coming ‘but you’re not allowed to fly. I want you to get there without flying and write an article about your experiences’.

I breathed in, both excited and slightly worried. The conference was a week away and I realised I had little idea how I was going to get there. I quickly worked out a route. The ferry was too slow and too expensive – this being the last days of the Newcastle to Bergen boat service – but trains, it seemed, would work just fine. I made bookings where I could and packed my bags for a big adventure.

The route was far from simple and I had planned some tight connections. Nine minutes in Brussels, an hour in Hamburg, half that in Copenhagen and half that again in Gothenburg. The railways of mainland Europe have a formidable reputation in Britain compared to our own frequently late and overcrowded trains, so I figured if I could somehow arrive on time heading from London to Brussels that everything else would go like clockwork.

Eurostars at St Pancras

The Eurostar pulled in a few minutes ahead of schedule and I sprinted to the platform for my sleeper service to be greeted with a sign saying the sleeper to Hamburg was four hours late. There was no explanation and no-one to speak to. I had no choice but to join the small band of night-train refugees huddled together for protection from the perils of Brussels-Zuid station at night. In an instant, I had missed every connection on my journey and had no idea what time I would get to Oslo. I lay down on a bench and cursed my boss in his comfy bed, oblivious to the chaos he had indirectly caused.

Handsome Hamburg

On boarding the sleeper I found another obstacle in my path. My travelling companion, a French businessman, had locked the door of my compartment and would not let me in. I knocked, rattled and shouted and eventually gave up. There was no guard in sight. I lay down in the corridor and tried to sleep before being woken two hours late by the same man heading to the toilet, then by the guard who threw me off the train at Dortmund aiming for a faster connection to Cologne. It appeared to be a smoking-only service. Things admittedly got better from there on in: trains improved in standard in Germany and Denmark, the ferry journey between the two was a marvellous journey where the train drove on and off the boat, and I even made a three-minute connection in the Danish capital. I added Hamburg to my list of great underrated European cities after a brief wander around town between trains. Crossing the Oresundsbron ticked another travel ambition off the list.

Øresundsbron

It was eleven o’clock at night before I arrived in Gothenburg, where I checked into the kind of small and depressing business hotel that becomes the refuge of the desperate and sleep-deprived and lay down for a few hours. The only train that would get me to Oslo in time was a 6am departure. I reached journeys end unwashed, exhausted and more than a little wired after such a long and strange journey. It had taken just over 40 hours from door-to-door.

Olso's new opera house

At the conference, which funnily enough was about ecotourism, I became something of a celebrity. I was ‘the guy who came by train’ and, rather than finding the hardships of the trip grimly fascinating  found everyone I spoke to was jealous. Many told me they would gladly have swapped another flight in a metal tube for seeing some new places and having an adventure. There were limits though and not many volunteers for dozing on a Brussels train station bench.

While this trip doesn’t compare with Amundsen or Heyerdahl’s adventures, it does suggest that ditching the plane sometimes can lead to something different, meeting new people and picking up a story or two. Maybe that’s why we all delight in tales of unusual journeys whether caused by a volcano or a mildly sadistic boss. With just a small but different decision, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.

I took the plane home, in case you’re wondering.

Logistics

I booked my tickets through a combination of sources, arranging Eurostar direct, then using Deutsche Bahn‘s helpful UK booking office to get to Copenhagen. From there I could have booked as I went, but I made advance reservations through Trainseurope. The journey was a couple of years ago but cost in the region of £300 total. I flew back for considerably less than that with British Airways.

Five delights of Dartmouth, Devon

Looking up the River Dart with Dartmouth to left of picture (photo: Ed Pickard)

Dartmouth in Devon is a little slice of heaven. It may have moved me to poetry but the place compels others to sell up their urban existences and decamp here, buying a boat and an expensive piece of real estate in the process. The town may be safe haven for yachties and well-off retirees, but it still has plenty of salt and sand to make it a wonderful place to visit. There’s a Naval College here looming over the town and the Dartmouth Regatta is one of Britain’s best-known. Here are five suggestions for how to spend a few days in and around Dartmouth.

1. Arrive in style

You don’t need a car to get here but most people have one. In fact, taking a train to Totnes and then a bus or even a boat is straightforward. If you do have your own wheels though there’s a better route than simply driving in a straight(ish) line from Totnes. Instead follow signs to Paignton, then Brixham, then Kingswear. This collection of grand houses and cottages hanging to the north bank of the Dart Estuary is connected to Dartmouth by two passenger boats: the Higher and Lower ferries. Both will take your car, but the lower ferry is cheaper and more frequent, plus has wonderful views of the town. Look for the ancient sign at the dock on the Kingswear side measuring distance in M, F and P. That Miles, Furlongs and Poles to you and me.

2. Tour the town

It won’t take long to explore Dartmouth itself. Apart from being an atmospheric place to stroll there’s only a few real sights. The remains of the quayside castle, the brooding St Saviour’s Church and a handful of old pubs are chief among them. If it’s a fine day and school out you should see some urchins lying face down by the harbour walls. In other towns they’d be drunken teenagers, but here they’re doing nothing more innocent than trying to catch a crab or two. Dartmouth is famed for it’s edible crustaceans: this is one town to forego the pasty and instead scoff some crab sandwiches.

3. Walk the coast path

The epic South-West Coast Path runs right through Dartmouth, and a superb day out is to start with a hearty breakfast at Al Fresco’s Cafe in town, then strike out for Dartmouth Castle, located at the entrance to the harbour.  From here you can hug the coast or higher cliffs to Little Dartmouth, with fantastic views and all the fresh air you could possibly want. If you’re keen the paths goes on for hundreds of miles, but more logical places to pause are the village of Stoke Fleming, where the Green Dragon pub will serve you a pint and a bar meal, or Blackpool Sands (see below). You can bus back or return on foot, earning yourself a cream tea in the process which, unsurprisingly, Dartmouth does very well.

4. Take the train

Spend any time in Dartmouth between Easter and October and the splendid sight and noise of a 4-6-0 steam locomotive thundering along the opposite bank of the Dart will doubtless grab your attention. The Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway is a great way to see a bit more of the coast, and coming from Dartmouth trains tend to be emptier as most visitors come from Paignton. Once you get here you’ll probably realise why. bring a picnic, a bucket and spade and some change for the reassuringly retro seaside attractions here.

Kingswear from Dartmouth (photo: Ed Pickard)

5. Blackpool, illuminating

The loveliest beach near Dartmouth is Blackpool Sands. Reached by the walk detailed above – though the last section is along the road and not as pleasant as the Little Dartmouth walk – or by car, it’s the perfect destination for a summers day. There’s a fee to park your car here.  Several great things about Blackpool Sands: the cafe is good and just the place for a Sunday morning fry-up and newspaper session and the beach is wide with golden sands, though it isn’t sandcastle material. As well as swimming there are kayaks for hire and you can try other watersports here too. any remaining cobwebs will admit defeat as soon as you arrive.

A night in the giant colon

It’s not every day you get the chance to spend the night in a giant digestive system, but last week I did just that. At the Verbeke Foundation, midway between Antwerp and Ghent in Flanders, Belgium lurks CasAnus, the creation of Dutch designer Joep Van Lieshout.

Getting to the Verbeke Foundation by public transport was not easy. You’re made to work for your art. First, a train to St Niklaas, and unremarkable Flemish town on the Ghent to Antwerp line. Then a bus, packed with schoolchildren. Armed with instructions of where to disembark and then a map of what to do then, it was somewhat inevitable that I would first miss the bus stop and then take a couple of wrong turns before reaching the distinctly unusual entranceway that marks the entry to the foundation. It would be easier to approach the Verbeke Foundation by car. Once home to the freight forwarding business of Geert Verbeke, it is now one of western Europe’s edgiest art venues.

Here you’ll find artists in residents living on-site and working on ambitious projects, and a few unusual ways of paying the bills. And this is why I found myself sitting in a giant greenhouse at 6.30pm with an 8m long helium-filled fuselage of a plane to my left and various futuristic installations outside surrounding a man-made lake. Mr & Mrs Verbeke fund and operate the foundation themselves and were on hand during my visit. they seem both devoted to their work and immensely welcoming. Over dinner, I learnt more about their hard work to open and operate this astonishing place so far from Europe’s artistic heartland. It requires vision, dedication and not a little funding and huge amounts of hard work. It was impossible not to be impressed. Perhaps the remote location frees their hand to be truly innovative.

What brought me here in the first place is on an island in the lake. CasAnus is, as the name suggests, a huge human colon. It was  made into a dwelling which, for a mere €120 a night – barely a three-star hotel in business-account Brussels – visitors can spend the night in. Before anyone reading this recoils in horror, staying here was a genuine pleasure, The small staff who work here, including Geert and CarlaVerbeke, are passionate about their foundation and the art being made and displayed here. On first arrival, a stroll around the grounds and through the large and important collection of collage works by artists from around the world sets the scene. There’s also the chance to have a drink in the bar-cum-cafe area with the resident artists and owners, who will happily fill you in on what’s new.

Then there’s the matter of getting your head around sleeping in CasAnus. You stroll through works of art including a huge white pod and a clutch of chickens (also a piece of living art, as it turned out) until crossing a small bridge to reach the intestines themselves. Once inside, the bed is comfy, there’s a shower and toilet and towels and bedding is provided. It is utterly silent and pitch black at night, so bring a torch if you want to creep around at night. It is as normal as sleeping in a slug-like space can be. I woke in the night wondering where on earth I was. Then I realised. It took me some time to get back to sleep as I digested the information.

Since opening, CasAnus has attracted everyone from curious hacks to overnighting artists to paying customers from many European countries. I asked how people take to the experience – apparently it is universally positive. If the novelty of staying in a giant polyester intestine wears off then there’s always the thrill of spending the night quite alone in an artwork. Not an everyday occurence.

The next morning you have breakfast in the large greenhouse and reverse the trip. for €120 a night you and a friend could enjoy a visit to what must be Europe’s oddest place to stay, surrounded by cutting-edge art in the most unlikely of locations.

Here’s a video of my visit to CasAnus.

Easter Island and the 2010 solar eclipse

This article first appeared, translated into Norwegian, in the March 2010 issue of Zine, hence Norwegian references.

Holidays are usually about chasing the sun. There may be the odd occasion when you choose to leave a beautiful country like Norway for somewhere wet and cold, but most of the time the quest takes us somewhere we can get a blast of tropical heat and a vitamin D overdose. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that eclipse chasing is, well, hot.

Earlier this year an annular eclipse – where the moon partially obscures the sun – provided a spectacular ring of fire visible from the Maldives, southern India, Sri Lanka and China. Many snowbirds who had flown south for the winter found themselves in the right place at the right time. The Eclipse lasted in parts for eleven minutes – the longest not only this century but also this millennia.

It’s not surprising then that Easter Island is proving quite a draw for eclipse chasers on July 11, when a total eclipse will pass over the heads of the islands famous statues for four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. The combination of somewhere utterly fascinating – and with a special pull for Norwegians brought up on stories of Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific adventures – and an eclipse sounds almost too good to be true.

Hold on before you rush to book. Let’s consider what will await those who pay the inflated costs of getting to one of the world’s hardest-to-reach islands at eclipse time? I was lucky enough to visit Easter Island a few years ago, travelling from Santiago in Chile to Tahiti on the only international flight to pause and refuel here. In fact, the plane carries enough fuel to render the landing unnecessary, to counter the risk of there being no fuel available on arrival and the flight being stranded. There are also several domestic flights each week from the Chilean mainland to Easter Island.

I found the land of the moai a very special place, with an almost unbelievable history and sense of separation from the rest of the world. Visitors tour the island on horseback, on foot and by best of all by bike, and at night the main town of Hanga Roa rocks to a gentle yet inviting island ryhtmn. Like all remote islands it can have a lonely feel, and though I treasure having visited I was relieved when my flight came in. Now I’d return here before going anywhere else.

Tukuturi: aka the kneeling moai - and the only statue on the island with legs

Easter Island has only got more popular since then and flights haven’t got any less busy. Eclipse time will be the busiest of peak times. The islanders themselves are increasingly unhappy with the volume of tourists who visit – 70,000 came last year to a place with a permanent population of 2,500 – and it likely that every room on the island and then some will be filled up when with Eclipse chasers. This means big costs for those who do come. It may be the holiday of a lifetime, but be aware that it might take you that long for your wallet to recover. At least the enigmatic moai will be standing impassive and not asking visitors to pay a premium for a photo.

There’s one other risk worth considering. July is bang in the middle of the wet season and while blue skies are entirely possible, a cloudy day would not be unusual. The Total Eclipse which passed over the UK in 1999 did so through a blanket of cloud. I watched from the top of Parliament Hill in London, one of the city’s best vantage points, and the effect was a little like a series of progressively greyer clouds rolling over your head. Thousands of excited eclipse-watchers hooted and booed at the cloudy skies which seemed ridiculous at the time. We tramped back to the Lonely Planet office more than a little disappointed.

Viewing a solar eclipse may not be worth all the hype. There are certainly better times to come to Easter Island. But both are worth seeing and should have a space on every traveller’s must-see list. You could wait a year and see Easter Island at a quieter time, and make sure you’re closer to home on June 1 2011, when a partial eclipse will be visible over northern Norway. All this obeys one unwritten rule of travel: while you’ll want to go when everybody else does, it’s usually better to plan your trip for when the crowds are elsewhere.

Notes from Northern Ireland: pubs, murals and an airport named after a footballer

As you might expect from a city at the northern tip of an island in the Atlantic Ocean, Belfast is not always a dry place at the end of February. It poured down from the moment I stepped off the plane at George Best Airport until I took off again.

An artful long pass from the city centre

George Best Belfast City Airport is the only one in the world named after a footballer. Unless Buenos Aires or Três Corações get around to renaming their air terminals after hometown boys Diego Maradona or Pele there will be no airborne association with a more gifted player. Best is everywhere in Belfast and a true unifying figure in a city which still has visible divisions, even if today’s Belfast is very much looking forward to a shared future.

King of pubs

I was only in town for one night but dropped in on the Crown Liquor Saloon. This pub is a Victorian folly that somehow made it as a boozer, complete with ornate woodcarvings, neo-Gothic decor and huge private booths that hide you from the outside world. I congratulated myself on snagging one, only to realise you’re totally left alone once inside and that it was more fun chatting at the bar. Strolling the city in the evening drizzle I happened upon bands setting up to play gigs in the bars tucked away in the cobbled Cathedral Quarter and hotels like the Fitzwilliam offering upscale drinking and dining that was too trendy for a soggy corduroy-clad hack like me.

Belfast Wheel by night

The next morning I had a chance to look around. City Hall, the visible expression of the nineteenth century prosperity, the end result of Belfast’s status as one of the world’s manufacturing and shipbuilding powerhouse has excellent exhibitions and a great guided tour. It’ easy to find, next to the Belfast Wheel which is the best place from which to see the changing skyline. If big ships are your thing – and the giant Harland & Woolf cranes which are visible from all over the city prove that it was Belfast’s thing for generations – then don’t miss the fascinating Titanic Trail and accompanying boat tour. Both take in sights associated with the ill-fated ocean liner which left here – working perfectly, as locals will point out with tongue firmly in cheek – a hundred years ago next year. You’ll also find an art trail hugging the banks of the Lagan River, including this fishy fellow below.

A visit to West Belfast, still home to large working class Catholic and Protestant communities, is the best way to get a handle on the Sectarian divide which shaped the twentieth century history of the Northern Irish capital. Many come on excellent and informative Black Taxi Tours. I opted to go on foot, and suspect I was the only person to walk down both the Shankill and Falls Roads that day. Both areas are aware of their attraction to visitors and the both local communities and the city council have signs and maps to direct casual visitors around and make you feel welcome.

Martin Luther in the hood

It is hard to avoid the sense that these murals belong to the last century, not this one. The first mural you come to walking west along the Shankill Road no longer homages the loyalist cause but makes a proud claim on the area being the earliest of Belfast’s settlements. Yes, you’ll still find militaristic and political murals, and other monuments while exploring both sides of West Belfast, but the more recent renewals are more benign and hopeful and in many places offer outlets for imaginative local artists. My favourite, found elsewhere in the city, is this one devoted to one of Science’s most philosophical questions. I passed it while out running so was camera-less.

Interesting place, Belfast. It has centuries of history, a few cracking hotels and anyone who grew up with Northern Ireland looming large in the news would do well to go and see it for themselves. The city sits in the shadow of some towering mountains and is close to some lovely coast, meaning with a few extra days you could see a lot of what Northern Ireland has to offer. Bring an umbrella.