Monthly Archives: January 2010

Classic Travel: A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts is everything a travel book should be: brilliantly written, educational, inspiring and full of memorable anecdotes that, once read, appear like ghosts in the reader’s own journeys.

It begins with a simple decision. It is December 1933. 18 year old Patrick Leigh Fermor can’t decide what to do with this life, so he decides to go for a walk. Full of the vim of youth, he decides that Constantinople is his destination. Resolved to this gently eccentric trip, Leigh Fermor proceeds to carry it off, armed with a stick, a few possessions and occasional pickups of money from home.

As the story progresses his naive charm works a magic spell, turning a trip that promised months of freezing nights in hedgerows into being put up in castles and fine apartments. Leigh Fermor never loses his edge though, and once back on the road returns to the traveller’s life with endless enthusiasm.

Two features of A Time of Gifts jump out and linger long in the memory. The first is Leigh Fermor’s prose which is rich and lively. He deserves the title of the greatest living British travel writer. While in part the lucid nature of the writing is due to the author writing – in 1978 – as an older man looking back on an adventure rather than scribbling in the moment, and therefore being able to weave in the astonishing knowledge he possesses, it is also the obvious thrill of discovery and the simple delights of an utterly free life that makes the book special.

Once read, I’d defy anyone to not recall the noise of the ice skiff charging along frozen Dutch canals or share the joy of rummaging around a ruined castle on the banks of the Danube, when considering a journey to the areas visited today. The Europe the book describes disappeared forever in 1939, and the lands travelled through in A Time of Gifts feel foreign and distant. That said, it remains a richly rewarding companion on a journey to the continent.

There is a sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which takes the journey from the Hungarian Border to the Danube gorge known as the Iron Gate in what was Yugoslavia. Leigh Fermor did make it to Constantinople fourteen months after leaving Tower Bridge, but that was not the end of the adventure. The author went on to fall in love with Greece and a Romanian noblewoman with whom he lived with in Athens and Moldavia, and serve in the Irish Guards during the Second World War. Later adventures in Greece and the Caribbean, marriage and a life divided between England and Greece followed.

There has not yet been a third volume. Patrick Leigh Fermor will celebrate his 95th birthday on 11 February.

Suggestions for your favourite travel reads are welcome. With what’s left of winter, warm yourself up with A Time of Gifts.

Photos of Bath just after dawn

A few pictures from a visit to Bath, England’s most completely beautiful city. These were taken by the Victoria Bridge, also known as Dredge’s Patent Bridge across the Avon, west of the city centre.

The Avon in early morning sunshine

The Avon is most often glimpsed from visitors gawking from around the Pulteney Bridge. Downstream it flows fast through rolling fields, even close to the centre of Bath.

Bristol & Bath Railway Path

The Bristol and Bath Railway Path is a lovely place for a stroll, run or bike ride. As the name suggests, it links the two cities via a disused trackbed. In a style that will be familiar to anyone who has ridden the C2C, you’ll find unusual art along the route.

Norfolk Crescent, Bath

Bath has so many gorgeous honey-covered crescents that after a while you stop noticing them. Norfolk Crescent faces a handsome green which fronts on to the river path.

Secret London: Happy Birthday, Herbert Chapman

Big Herb

On 19 January 1878 Herbert Chapman was born. 132 years later, he still has a convincing claim to be the greatest of all football managers. Best known for turning Arsenal from a middling First Division side into the great powerhouse of the pre-war game, he just as remarkably delivered an FA Cup and two league championships to Huddersfield Town, as well as establishing the momentum for their third. Chapman was a great innovator, modernising football formations and presenting compelling cases for numbered shirts, artificial pitches European club competition and floodlit matches.

Herbert Chapman's grave in St Mary's, Hendon

Chapman died on January 6 1934, mid-way through Arsenal’s hat-trick of titles, as a giant of the game. He is buried in St Mary’s Parish churchyard in Hendon, north-west London with his wife, Annie Bennett Chapman. Annie lived to see Arsenal win four more titles, passing away in 1958.

I paid a visit here with my youngest son, still too young to argue with such a silly outing, on Sunday. The churchyard is quiet, with a rural feeling harking back to Hendon’s pre-suburbia village life. It’s a pleasant, peaceful place to visit, though the wind gets up a bit on a Saturday afternoon if Arsenal are losing. And if you’re not in the area, there’s the Herbert Chapman pub on Holloway Road, bustling on matchdays, and the old East Stand at Highbury which his achievements made possible. Happy Birthday, Mr Chapman.

A blast (of cold air) from the past: classic winter football

Chaos as referee loses contact lens, Highbury, January 1926

The unusually long, cold snap we’re enjoying has put paid to football fan’s fun all over Britain. But it wasn’t always this way. The picture above harks back to a different age, from the referee’s jacket and collar to the spirit of getting on with the game and to hell with the cold. I thought it might be of interest to find out a little more about the game captured here.

It turns out it was a cracker. The game was played between Arsenal (in red in the picture above) and Manchester United (in the funky red chevron shirt on the left, which inspires this year’s effort)  on January 16, 1926 before a palindromic crowd of 25, 252. Arsenal won 3-2 (have that, Mancs) with goals by Jimmy Brain (2) and legendary centre-forward Charlie Buchan. Buchan was in the first of three seasons at Highbury, having been signed that August by Herbert Chapman from Sunderland. His 21 goals that season, scored at the age of 34, propelled Arsenal to second place, then their best-ever finish.

Also playing that day was Jock Rutherford, who had just re-signed for Arsenal for the third time aged 41. He went on until March 1926 and, via a spell at Clapton Orient, ended up opening a newsagent’s in Neasden. He is still the club’s oldest-ever player. As for United, they finished the season in ninth place. Huddersfield Town, Chapman’s former charges, won the league for the third successive season.

The Times report from January 18, 1926 notes:

‘The ground presented a remarkable sight when play begun, for the only snow had been cleared had been on either side of the touch and goal lines and in front of the two goals. Around this enormous sheet of pure white was packed a dense crowd of spectators’

The quality of play, however, was debatable, the Times notes:

…the ground was slow of course and the ball hardly bounced all afternoon’

It must have made for chilly viewing for those standing on the terraces. Highbury then was largely as it had been on opening in 1913. As the picture below shows, the ground had opening terracing on the north, west and south sides. Only the east side had seats, this in a classic Archibald Leitch stand with a gabled roof carrying the letters of ‘Arsenal’.

Highbury in the 1920s, looking towards the East Stand from the North Bank

The classic East and West Stands, designed by Claude Waterlow Ferier and William Binnie, the roof on the North Bank and the famous clock – now on the outside of the new Arsenal Stadium – came with the club’s success in the 1930s. Don’t feel too sorry for the fans in the ground, though, they could drink beer while watching and paid just a few pence to get in.

Arsenal’s team that day would have lined up in a 2-3-5 formation favoured at the time. The team was Harper (GK), Mackie, John, Baker, Butler, Blyth, Rutherford, Buchan, Brain, Neil, Haden. If any United fans have information about the chap in the picture, their scorers or team that day then drop me an email.

Thanks to Ian Kirk at Arsenal Football Club for his help with some of the details of this article.

– Tom Hall

Cycling in Denmark: Aalborg to Skagen

Cyclists this way (Wikimedia Commons)

This is from a trip to Jutland in 2008, and rescued from the vaults.

Denmark is flat. It must be flat, because everyone says so. It is with some surprise then that I find myself hissing ‘It’s supposed to be flat here’ as I sweat my way up another short, sharp hill on a bicycle that while sturdy and upright, is clearly built for cruising round the heavenly cycle lanes of the country’s northern cities.

This is not the only surprise that greets me while cycling 75 miles – plus detours – across north Jutland, from Aalborg to Skagen by bike. Danes, it appears, do not cycle like I do. Like many commuter cyclists, I like wearing as much unflattering cycling gear as possible and charging off at breakneck speed. Danes glide along in everyday clothes, seemingly incapable of sweating or indeed getting even slightly steamed up. Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the Danish cycling website Copenhagen Cycle Chic explains why. Cycling, he says is ‘a social activity for people first and a sport second.’ Colville-Andersen takes this philosophy to heart, and his website is light on practical tips and heavy on pictures of pretty girls on bikes. An emotional approach to cycling also explains why everyone in Denmark appears to be riding granny bikes. ‘Danes will go for colour and style – and it’s definitely style over speed’

Resplendent in Kraftwerk-esque black lycra cycling gear with angry bumblebee pannier bags, style was never going to be a problem. Speed, however, was leaving much to be desired. This was only partly down to my grey granny bike which would have had London commuters sniggering at me at the lights. Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city and the starting point for my journey was home to enough great-looking cafes for a dozen breakfast carbo-loading sessions. It was tempting to linger. By the time I’d detoured via Lindholm Høje, Denmark’s largest – and very cool – Viking gravesite, my vision of idly pedalling along for eighty or so wind-assisted miles in a day seemed somewhat foolish. Not that doing something foolish is a problem. Having got used to the head-shaking reaction of friends and family at many dubious travel plans over the years, the English eccentric on holiday label sits comfortably on my shoulders. It was no more than a pleasant surprise that the good people in the Aalborg tourist office said I was ‘crazy’ when I told them my route plans. It was a sure sign of a good trip in prospect.

Undaunted, I hit national route 3 and put my foot down. The path largely follows the Old Military Road up the spine of Jutland, the peninsula that makes up the largest part of Denmark. Copenhagen, the usual destination for the 700,000 Brits (this figure is growing) who visit every year, is a few hundred miles away on the island of Zealand. Soldiers, merchants and pilgrims have passed this way for centuries, travelling from other parts of Scandinavia to central and southern Europe. They avoided soggy feet by following the contours of the land rather than blazing a trail across rivers and streams. The path remains rural and beautiful: it passes stone circles, visits medieval castles and crosses forests full of wildlife before hitting the coast and joining route 1, which leads north and east to Skagen.

Tilsandede Kirke near Skagen (Wikimedia Commons)

Route signing, as you might expect, is immaculate. The Danes are proud of their cycle paths. ‘Denmark was the first country in the world to develop a national bike route system and there are over 10,000km of signed bike routes.’ explains Colville-Andersen. ‘From the nineteenth century, Cycling Unions were well-organised and politically active and cyclists’ voices were heard.’ The result is a served as the blueprint for our own National Cycle Network – and is a boon for holidaymakers.  It only goes wrong when you ignore it and attempt to build your own route visiting nearby places with silly-sounding names like Pajhede Skov and Uggerby. I learnt this to my cost mid-morning, when  pondering that the bloke I was passing on my left hitting golf balls looked just like the bloke I’d passed twenty minutes ago on my right. He was the same chap. Lesson learnt: stick to the signed route.

Chastened, I returned to route 3 and, turning back into a London cyclist, started chasing the only other riders I saw all day. They seemed to be wearing their Sunday best and riding bikes straight out of Last of the Summer Wine. I expected to catch them quickly. They disappeared over the next hill and I didn’t see them again. Mikael Colville-Andersen later told me that these bikes are standard issue in Denmark. In fact, Danes insist on them: “Each year about 500,000 new bikes are sold in Denmark. Bikes are an important accessory for Danes and it’s an ever-changing market, even if the bikes are, as a rule, granny bikes. Even companies like Raleigh and Batavus have models only available in Denmark for the Danish market.”

Despite the occasional hiccup, there were enough wow moments to ensure I felt pretty smug all day. Being a bike commuter the quiet roads and respect for cyclists were remarkably refreshing. The morning’s sunlit fields of head-high corn and long grass gave way to forest trails and, as afternoon rolled on to sandy heathland. As the afternoon sunshine began to redden the bits of my body not covered in lycra I got my first whiff of the sea. Suddenly I was on holiday, surrounded by Danish families on bikes, pedalling out to the dunes and into small towns from their holiday homes. I joined a crowd paying a respectful visit to Dens Tilsandede Kirke, a medieval church lost to the sands in the eighteenth century. A reminder of the centuries-long battle against encroaching sand in this part of the world, it’s used as a navigation aid and a rest-stop for knackered cyclists starting to think the people at Aalborg’s tourist board might have a point.

Granny bike or not, I made it to Skagen, with lengthening late afternoon shadows and a strong breeze hastening my progress through dense beech forest and past the towering dunes of Rabjerg Mile. It seemed I had arrived in the Danish Cape Cod, complete with clapperboard houses and an unmistakable air of fishy gentility. My hotel owner greeted my explanation of how far I’d come with a friendly incredulity, which made me feel even better. The scene in Skagen revolved inevitably around the harbour. Yachties from Norway, Sweden and Germany scoffed freshly caught £5 fish and chip suppers – and they said Denmark was expensive – and swapped stories long into the night. Another surprise came as the temperature dipped: a triumph of function over Scandinavian style. Rather than retreat inside, outdoor drinkers wrapped themselves up in thick, beer-branded blankets and continued grogging.

Skagen has a lot going for it, especially in summer. The Danes know this and do their best not to tell anyone. Everyone in town is especially proud of the light in Skagen. It is, apparently, famed throughout the country for its ethereal qualities and every local I spoke to wanted to know what I thought of it. It was an interesting question, especially as the main thing I was thinking about was how my buttocks were feeling after yesterday’s exertions. But as light goes, it had a certain something, especially from under my nice warm blanket with a cold, cold beer.

The Skagen light has inspired painters for years, and while the town’s excellent art museum concedes that actually it’s the same light as everywhere else. If something special is going on it’s probably all the sand making everything seem brighter. The museum is celebrating its centenary this year with a superb exhibition of Skagen art, including works by PS Krøyer and Michael and Anna Ancher. The museum also provides another insight into the Danish cycling psyche. A timeline of local and world events exclaims in big bold type that in 1861, Ernest Michaux invented the modern bicycle. The publishing of Darwin’s The Origin of Species two years earlier is a footnote in small type. The visitor is in no doubt which event is of greater importance.

The cycling, however, did not stop there. Skagen is best explored by bicycle, especially as the town’s big draws are a little spread out. Over a million Danes each year visit Grenen, the sandy tip of both Skagen and Denmark. They all, it seems, have the same idea as me: shoes and socks off, trousers rolled up, digital camera out. This means that the natural beauty of Grenen gets a little lost in an orgy of camera-swapping and sprints into the frigid surf. If you prefer a more sheltered setting to appreciate the light, Skagen Odde, the Jørn Utzon-designed nature centre a mile or so across the sands from the town is a temple to natural light and elements. As well as displays on the local ecosystem has an impressive collection of 1960s and 70s Olivetti computers and serves excellent coffee. It still asks happily museum-like questions: one display invites the visitor to ponder whether vikings did indeed ‘bring a new type of mussel from America?’ Answer: probably.

Europe's end: Grenen

Reluctantly, the next day I took the train back to Aalborg, and after another fantastic lunch at an outdoor cafe moved on to Århus, another Jutland gem and Denmark’s second largest city. It’s also another cyclists paradise, with row upon row of bikes stacked around the magnificently frescoed cathedral, a short pedal from the Latin Quarters coffee houses and music shops. The city’s other big draw, the Bronze Age Moesgård Man is a more taxing excursion six miles south of the city.  Judging by how full my Ryanair flight home (£4 including taxes – again, who said Denmark was expensive), word may be getting out about this part of Denmark. Explore it on two wheels to see it at its best.


Tom Hall returned from Århus with Ryanair – a wide range of fares are available. He stayed in Aalborg at the Radisson SAS, doubles start at £53 per person including breakfast. In Aalborg, bikes can be hired from Munk’s Efterfølger. For more information about north Jutland, start at Visit Nordjylland and Visit Denmark (020 7259 5955 ).