Monthly Archives: February 2010

Ask Tom: now online at Guardian Travel

Some of you have been swinging by here looking for the page I until recently contributed to the Observer newspaper in the UK.

Sadly the last Escape has now been published and travel’s taking a back seat in the newly revamped Observer which makes its début on Sunday – and very sexy it promises to be too. The first Ask Tom appeared in the Observer on 22 April 2001 so it’s been a long run and has been the source of a lot of challenges and fun, especially when dealing with readers queries. Rachel Suddart and Fiona Buchan (nee Christie) also contributed to the page in its early stages.

Notable among letters received have been those from an angst-ridden couple venturing on a camping holiday wondering what to wear in bed (pyjamas), a memorably grumpy gent driven to distraction by texts, emails and phone calls whenever he goes somewhere interesting asking him what he ‘s doing (try trekking in west Papua where phone and email don’t go) and not one but three letters from prisoners enquiring about where they can flee to that would not deport them back to the UK (I have no idea, try a lawyer).

Happily this isn’t the end of my own work with the Guardian & the Observer. Ask Tom is moving to a new home online at Guardian Unlimited, and as well as the usual q&a on any travel subject under the sun I’ll be doing a monthly live chat and hopefully some audio and video. The first of these pieces is now live. There’s an archive of previous answers here.

The email address for questions is the same as the one on this site, so drop me a line, it would be great to hear from you.

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Helsinki in February

Visiting the capital of Finland in February isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun time. It is cold, very cold, -12c during the day. There are huge piles of snow everywhere. The noise of cars skidding on roads is a constant backdrop. This is how I’m completing the set of Nordic capitals and it’s thrilling.

So, how just how snowy is Helsinki in February?

(Still shots from a Flip, excuse the quality)

Snowy statues at magnificent Helsinki Central Station

Near-criminal negligence

Hover-ferry arriving into frozen harbour

Mighty Tuomiokirkko

Unexpected cycle rides from London: St Pancras to Southend

St Albans is a good place to aim for if you’re a central London based cyclist in a hurry. Start from St Pancras International, with a ride on the railway line which connects two ancient Christian martyrs.

St Pancras Station

St Pancras, who gave the area, which in turn gave your departure station its name, was a Roman teenager martyred in 304 for converting to Christianity. His legend accompanied Roman soldiers to the camp located in nearby Somers Town. He was quite a hero figure for early Christian in Britain and there are many churches and sites dedicated to him. St Alban was the first British Christian martyr, who met his end at some point in the third century AD.  He was according to the Venerable Bede executed in Verulamium, the Roman settlement which is today St Albans. If you seek his memorial you’ll find it in St Albans Abbey. It is not a ludicrous suggestion that Alban should replace Palestinian lizard-stabber George as England’s patron saint.

St Albans Abbey

You can ride out but I’d rather swap twenty minutes on the train for an hour fighting traffic through Kilburn and following the ugly-lovely Edgware branch of the Northern Line. The exception is the climb up Brockley Hill, a worthy test which gives you time to puff and ponder that the Northern Line would once have come this far en route to Bushey Heath.

It is a 20 minute train ride from St Pancras (less from Kentish Town and West Hampstead) by fast and frequent service and you’re straight out of the station and away. Left turn, right up the High Street, fork right up the hill to where there’s a glimpse of the abbey and off into the Hertfordshire countryside. Pretty villages like Wheathampstead, Ayot St Peter and Codicote come quick as you ride through the lanes of classic cycling country.

Less obvious is to then edge 100 miles east to Southend-on-Sea. But this is a fine ride. It’s rural and quiet and, unless you decide to do it on a snowy day like I did, you can weave through quiet roads and pop into larger towns as needed for sustenance.  Route finding requires a map: Collins 30 Miles Around London worked for me. The OS 1:250,000 South East England. I like the Polaris Maptrap for keeping your map in view.

The route snakes its way east across Hertfordshire and into Essex south of Bishop’s Stortford. The B1256, predecessor of the A120 is your friend to and through the cockneys-made-good town of Great Dunmow. As pleasant and rural as the name suggests, I thawed out with a brownie and a coffee in a fab cafe here. I then skirted south of Braintree and past the epic and ancient Cressing Temple Barns. Villages in this part of England has Germanic crests at their parish frontiers and still feel like small fiefdoms. It’s only in larger towns like Witham that I came too next that you feel the modern world has made inroads.

Cressing Temple Barns: 300 years older than America

By now the rolling hills of north and west Essex were giving way to flat, marshy stuff and inclines were at a premium. I missed the turning for my planned lunch stop at Maldon and bashed south to the muddy River Crouch at South Woodham Ferrers. It is not as glamorous as it sounds. But is is more glam than Southend-on-Sea. Reached by cutting, illogically, west then turning finally south-east through Rayleigh – via a giant hill which probably wasn’t necessary – it is not a place worth riding almost a hundred miles to get to. But the seaside town has its charms and journeys end is always nice. Hit the seafront, breathe deeply then retreat to the genuinely lovely Westcliff and Leigh-on-Sea for a well-earned fix of whelks and mussels.

Southend from the Pier

Trains back to Fenchurch Street are every few minutes, with a few steps to negotiate at the end and a gentle weave through London’s traffic to home.

Undertake this route and you may just be the second person to follow it. Do let me know how you get on if you attempt it!

Distance: 86 miles
Time: 6-9 hours
Elevation:  6/10