Monthly Archives: September 2009

Lundoniae maxime sanctus*

St Erkenwald, Bishop of London (d. 693) was quite a chap. His Wikipedia entry has the usual bumph: brother of Ethelburga, founder of Barking and Chertsey Abbeys, that kind of thing. For the real goodies though look to Peter Ackroyd’s indispensible London: The Biography.

Erkenwald's shrine in old St Paul's (from Old St Paul's Cathedral by William Benham)

Erkenwald's shrine in old St Paul's (from Old St Paul's Cathedral by William Benham)

Erkenwald was Bishop of London for eighteen years and, enfeebled in his later years, he would ride around the streets of London in a litter (a wooden cart) which itself was credited with curative powers. Splinters and fragments of the cart were part of the medieval trade in saintly relics and icons. Together with Erkenwald, the cart was interred at St Paul’s Cathedral and he was the subject of a cult which ran as late as the sixteenth century. Ackroyd notes that ‘successful lawyers of London…on nomination as serjeants of law, would walk in procession to St Paul’s in order to venerate the physical presence of the saint.’ Most remarkably, when St Paul’s burnt in 1087 Erk’s shrine and silken covering remained intact.

Not much survives of Erkenwald. His shrine was swept away in Wren’s site-clearances before building the cathedral you see today. Eagle-eyes can find his name on the roll of Bishops of London in St Paul’s, an imaginatively-named Essex League Basketball team and this street in East Acton.

It’s high time for a London icon to resurface, 1300 years on.

*’the most holy figure in London

Two quick tube trip tips

Anti (or maybe pro) tube staff graffiti at Alexandra Palace

Anti (or maybe pro) tube staff graffiti at Alexandra Palace

A recent and surprisingly pleasant move from the long-loved trails of grot and canals of Camden Town to 020 8 land has prompted me, after several blissful years of bike-only commutes, to get on the tube now and again.

Our local tube station – in, gasp, zone 4- resembles a pre-Beeching branch line halt, freshly tended flowerbeds and all, but more on that later.

What has become immediately apparent is that everyone continues to be useless at travelling on the tube. London’s underground railway is the world’s oldest. Our Victorian forebears should have provided a user’s manual to go with their mighty achievement. It may, however, make the pocket map more of a dossier of handy tips. Two suggestions to include in the appendix:

There are signs requesting riders to stand on the right of escalators. They are polite. If one person ignores this then the whole thing grinds to a halt. Londoners then get to do what they do best: tut. It’s time polite signs were replaced with barking dogs, trained to attack those persisting with the ‘continental method’ of standing.

When I last lived in the burbs I was, for some of my time there, a small boy. Riding the Piccadilly Line into central London for football matches and other fun days out my father compelled my brother and I to surrender our seat to ladies and the old. This seldom happens now, yet little else makes you feel like a decent human being in a harsh world of savages more than hopping up at Finsbury Park to let someone else sit. Perhaps London Transport would consider a give up your seat day. Or just get those dogs in again, aimed at men in suits who refuse to embrace the swinging dongles.

This short rant is a cathartic exercise needed after a mere week of non rush-hour journeys. Heaven knows how commuters put up with it every day. Perhaps, to paraphrase Morrissey, we endure, because we must. You can however get a bike for less than 200 which will give you a smashing alternative.

Q&A with Shanghai newspaper

I was asked by the guys in Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office to answer a few questions for a Chinese newspaper. Some of them are slightly unusual questions, and as it’s not going to be published in English I thought I’d post a transcript of some of them here. Alternative answers are more than welcome.

If you won a $5000 air ticket, where would you go and what’s your itinerary?

If money was no object I’d start by filling in some blanks on my map of the Middle East  – Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. Then it’s Africa, first to Dakar in Senegal for nightclubbing, then on to Libreville in Gabon to see the surfing hippos of the Loango National Park. Then on to Namibia, somewhere I visited and long to return to for the desert scenery and wildlife. Things get simpler from there – to Hong Kong (probably via Dubai) to visit friends, then New Zealand’s South Island, to be specific trekking and sea kayaking in the Marlborough Sounds. I’d insist on coming home via Easter Island – which means a visit to French Polynesia to change planes, so let’s have a few days on Bora Bora while we’re there – Santiago in Chile, and New York City, because New York is the whole world in a small package.

If you could choose anyone on the earth to be your travel companion, who would it be?

I love reading about Marco Polo and his journeys, so he would be first choice. If it has to be someone living I would choose Mark Beaumont, who holds the world record for fastest journey around the world by bicycle. If I could keep up with him I think we’d have a lot of fun.

Medieval Irish trailblazer Marc O'Polo

Medieval Irish trailblazer Marc O'Polo

If there were no trains, buses, airplanes, cars how would you prefer to travel (besides travel); camel, donkey, horse, spaceship, flying blanket or anything else?

It remains a source of disappointment that no-one tries to invent a flying carpet anymore. This proves society is going backwards. I also like the idea of seeing the world from a hovercraft which can go over land or sea.

Suppose you have a door which can lead you to anywhere you wish, which country would the door open to?

The door would open at dawn in Lalibela in the highlands of Ethiopia, where there some astonishing rock-carved churches. They’re unlike anywhere else on earth and I wish every day that I was there exploring them with only hermits and pilgrims for company.

What’s your favourite destination and why?

Paris, France is my favourite place. It is only two hours from my home by train and I am lucky to go there often, but I always find something new and beautiful to see. Often that beautiful thing is something I’m eating, which makes me even happier.

If you had an eight day vacation in October what would you do and where would you go?

I would go first to the English Lake District for some mountain climbing, then cycle north to visit the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland, then take the sleeper train back home to London.

New blog post on Lonely Planet

What’s the best travel-themed music video?

Belgium’s brilliant coast

There is, not far from home, a North Sea coast that you never knew existed. Flanders’ narrow strip of beaches, dunes and villages is less than three hours from London and twelve minutes from the beaten paths of Bruges . And if you take the train, getting here won’t cost you a penny: simply hop on a train in Brussels , flash your Eurostar ticket and watch the easy-on-the-eye Flemish farmlands whizz by.

Belgium ’s coast runs for close to 45 miles, separating France in the south-west from the Netherlands to the north-east. This stretch of seaside, beloved by locals, is served by an almost unique mode of transport. The Kusttram (Coast Tram) is one of the world’s few inter-urban tram services, boldly going where other trams don’t even try.

Belgium's unique coastal tram

Belgium's unique coastal tram

On its two hour journey the tram threads its way through every town and village on the coast, at times separated from the sea only by a thin strip of dunes, unlocking the secrets of the coast as it goes. Want to visit the worlds’ only remaining Napoleonic Fort or some mighty World War II gun emplacements and bunkers? Seeking out cycle paths, yacht havens or even (well-signed) nudist beaches? With a €5 day ticket securing unlimited travel, and with trams every fifteen minutes you can explore at will. Note however that clothes are not optional on the tram itself. And with the three main coastal towns – De Panne to the south, Ostend in the middle and Knokke in the north – all connected to Bruges , Ghent and Brussels by regular trains, getting here is a doddle.

Oostende Station

Ostend Station

Ostend still feels like the seaside grandee and wears it well. The curvaceous art nouveau railway station was clearly designed as a great gateway to the continent and its position right next to the ferry terminal will delight those who remember the days when Calais Maritime was the launchpad for summers of European adventuring.   Ostend was for many years Belgium’s premier seaside resort – the beachfront Hotel Thermae Spa dates from this period and this palatial residence even has its own tram stop – and for many Briton’s was the gateway to northern Europe. And the town has bequeathed great art to the world – influential anglo-Belgian artist James Ensor lived here for over 30 years and his preserved house is one of several draws for art buffs in the town.

If you find yourself feeling amorous while you’re here, you’re not alone. It was while on an extended, head-clearing visit to Ostend in 1981 that Marvin Gaye composed Sexual Healing. Watching internet videos of him strolling the Albert I Promenade and belting out soul classics is a surreal and beautiful way to see some of Ostend from a generation ago.

Did Marvin say 'What's Going On?' to passers by on Oostende's seafront promenade?

Did Marvin say 'What's Going On?' to passers by on Ostend's seafront promenade?

A stroll along the lively Promenade is a good place to start exploring, pausing at the quayside Fish Market for a fresh and fast plate of whatever’s come out of the sea that morning. But venture into town, too: the uninspiring apartments lining much of the seafront hide a lively town centre. Here you’ll find boutiques, bars and an artisan chocolatier selling hand-crafted chocolate whales, complete with smaller fish-shaped sweets trapped in its jaws. This being Belgium , it tastes better than it sounds. Though Ostend has few old buildings compared to inland Flemish cities, the unmissable Hotel du Parc has a sweeping art deco staircase leading to funky modern rooms. The attached bar, also harking back to roaring days, is the perfect place to while away a rainy day sampling the extensive beer menu.

But it’s the beaches here that will really grab you. Indeed, if you’re in any doubt that this would be a fun place to bring your family, a word about the sand you find on Ostend ’s town beaches and all along the Flanders ’ coast. This isn’t softie, pebbly stuff. This is real sand. Sand that sits shouts ‘make me into a sandcastle!’ as you walk past. Beach buffs take note: the spades on sale here wouldn’t look out of place on an allotment.

After this big and bold resort, De Haan comes as something of a shock, especially as I got off the tram too early and stumbled close to the Nudist Beach. Two stops on from naked Europeans, another, smaller art nouveau tram station welcomed me to what on first glance is Hampstead Garden Suburb-on-sea. Though Albert Einstein’s visit here in 1933 (he was heading to Germany but changed plans when Hitler came to power) is the town’s main claim to fame, its seaside, lined with upmarket cafes, timeless beach huts and golden sands suggests it may be the perfect summer holiday diversion. To top it off, there are boutique ice-cream parlours and a wonderful old-school toy shop.

The joy of the Belgian coast is that if – and I can’t see why you wouldn’t – Ostend and De Haan don’t grab you there’s plenty of other spots to try (see boxed text), all easy and cheap to get to. The Belgians love it, and with beer to drink and chocolate to eat, you will too. Just don’t be surprised if while digging a sandcastle or two you hear Marvin Gaye in your head.

~ Tom Hall

Tourism Flanders – Brussels (020 7307 7738; ) is the best place to plan a visit to the Belgian coast. Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £59. Tickets are available from or 08705 186 186 and are valid for travel to any Belgian station. See for route and fare details for the Coast Tram.

Five other Belgian coastal classics

Knokke-Heist – Belgium ’s swankiest seaside resort  is   a playground for the country’s jet-set during summer

Paul Delvaux Museum – This gallery is dedicated to one of Europe ’s greatest surrealist painters. It’s in St Idesbald – Koksijde, 40 minutes by tram from Ostend

– Horse-riding local shrimpers go about their business in the traditional manner – the only place in the world where this still happens.

De Panne – the end of the tram line and a mecca for sand-sailing and windsurfing

Bredene – two and half miles of unspoilt sandy beaches and mighty dunes

Rambling through Oxfordshire

Saturday brought a family party in a quiet Oxfordshire village and a chance to explore just a little of this underrated county.

West of Oxford the villages are honey-coloured and the views come with the Cotswolds stamp of unmistakable Englishness. We tarried a while before home heading first to Swinbrook, every inch the perfect village, with a fine, understated church and a green with (what else) a game of cricket taking place. Bowlers spun lazy overs as the first leaves of Autumn swirled around the outfield.

Leaving the village we crossed the Windrush, a gently flowing tributary of the Thames and parked up in the hamlet of Widford. Widford barely exists, what village there was here was probably abandoned after the plague and never resettled, but at the end of a grassy track remained one thing very much worth seeing. St Oswald’s Church is the kind of treat you only find if you carry Simon Jenkins’ ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ in your glove compartment. This book has guided me to countless curiosities and works of architectural genius, the humbling work of unnamed ancestors hands.

St Oswald's, Widford from the banks of the Windrush

St Oswald’s is reached by strolling along a bridleway, with the Windrush below you. It sits in a field, walled off from a few cows and is a simple, sweet medieval church. With a satisfying clunk of the bolt we passed inside and sat for a while in box pews which have room for what would have been a few local families. During services they wouldn’t have been able to see each other.  There is a Roman mosaic beneath the floor here, evidence of far more ancient settlement, but a note pinned to the noticeboard tells you that previous visitors have helped themselves to too much of it and it has been covered up. In case you’re wondering, St Oswald was a seventh-century King of Northumbria.

St Oswald's churchyard

The afternoon was giving way to a cloudy late-summer’s evening and we padded back to the car, aimed for London and put Let’s Wrestle on at full volume.

Recent Lonely Planet blog posts

Beyond the City – unmissable trips out of town, originally published September 2

Alcoholiday, about Brits drinking abroad, orginally published August 25

– Tom