Monthly Archives: May 2010

The London We Love

Dartmouth in Devon has a bookshop called Compass Books. While browsing here while on a recent visit I found a stash of books about London from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The prices and condition were good, and I snaffled the lot. Most were disappointing but one has proved a delight. The London We Love by G E Eades was published in 1946 and provides an overview of the city and its history.

Eades himself is an endearing guide. He introduces himself in the preface:

I am a London schoolmaster. I was born and educated in London; I have spent more than forty years teaching London boys and girls, and for the last twenty years I have been teaching grown-up people too, many of them my old scholars, about London and its story. I have been reading that story and wandering about in London studying its people and buildings ever since I was a London schoolboy; I have come to love London and I want you to love it too.

It sounds like Eades lived his life well and to the full.

Most delightful of all are the illustrations, which capture some of the personality of the city. Here are a few which capture the essence of London as it was, and sometimes still is.

The soldier above appears to be telling the mother of the boy that she should be standing on the right. Quite right too, but so much for chivalry! Apologies if this is slightly to the right, I blame my scanner.

Anyone who has played football at Market Road, near Caledonian Road tube will recognise the clock-tower in the above picture, and will instantly understand what the name refers to.

The header on my site also comes from the book. I’ve posted these pictures here to try and raise them from obscurity. If anyone likes them I shall post some more.

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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.

A Whirl-Blast from behind the hill

A Whirl-Blast from behind the hill
Rushed o’er the wood with startling sound;
Then–all at once the air was still,
And showers of hailstones pattered round.
Where leafless oaks towered high above,
I sat within an undergrove
Of tallest hollies, tall and green;
A fairer bower was never seen.
From year to year the spacious floor
With withered leaves is covered o’er,
And all the year the bower is green.
But see! where’er the hailstones drop
The withered leaves all skip and hop;
There’s not a breeze–no breath of air–
Yet here, and there, and everywhere
Along the floor, beneath the shade
By those embowering hollies made,
The leaves in myriads jump and spring,
As if with pipes and music rare
Some Robin Good-fellow were there,
And all those leaves, in festive glee,
Were dancing to the minstrelsy.

William Wordsworth

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.

New LP blog post: Travel News from the Lonely Planet Magazine

I write a news and tip-offs page in the award-winning Lonely Planet Magazine each month called Travel Pundit.

Greetings to the new government

And here are five travel-related pearlers to get your gnashers into:

Volcanic ash
The new government may have come into existence with UK airspace open but today some UK travellers are suffering from disrupted journeys. The major disruption of last month was only fixed when it got everyone’s attention after a slow start with attention elsewhere: let’s hope concentration and precedent is enough to ensure everyone’s getting it as right as possible.

British Airways
Britain’s flag carrier remains beset by the threat of industrial action. BA are a great airline and all this is doing them no favours. There may be a conciliatory role to be played by a new Business Secretary.

Air Passenger Duty
The travel industry would love a reduction – or outright removal – of APD, the ‘environmental tax’ designed to curb our enthusiasm for hopping on planes everywhere. They might just get their way as one early policy suggests a per-plane tax should replace a per-passenger one. It’s not clear what this means yet, but it is similarly unlikely to result in a reduction in the number of people flying, or the number of planes in the sky. Might it result in airlines packing in more passengers? Some airlines might. others are less likely.

Heathrow Expansion
The third runway will not go ahead. Therefore, alternatives must be considered. Is the solution to the south-east’s congested skies to be found in the Thames Estuary, Madrid or in serious attempts to wean us off flying? Or do we just muddle along making do while Schiphol and Frankfurt grab passengers with better facilities, more comfort and fewer delays?

High-speed rail
Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis was a champion of high-speed rail and his enthusiasm for steel wheels will be much-missed under a new regime. The fate of High Speed 2 – a fast rail link from London to Birmingham and beyond – is unclear. Is the journey between first and second city so sluggish that a few extra minutes shaved off makes all the difference? Or would the money be better invested, as some commentators have suggested in track, train and station upgrades nationwide?

Bryon swam the Hellespont 200 years ago today

Byron

Lord Byron took a swim across the Hellespont 200 years ago today in honour of Leander, the classical hero who took a dip to reach his lover, Hero. The Hellespont, or the Dardanelles, refers to the strait separating the Turkish Asia Minor from the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace.

This isn’t the only great classical event to have taken place here. According to Herodotus, the Persian King Xerxes I gave the waters of the Hellespont a sound thrashing for washing away his bridges and beheaded those who had built them.

Xerxes' boys lash the sea

Hats off to his Lordship then for taking on such an epic swim, though if this poem’s bathetic ending is to be believed the feat gave him a bit of a chill:

If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!

If, when the wintry tempest roared,
He sped to Hero, nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current poured,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!

For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat today.

But since he crossed the rapid tide,
According to the doubtful story,
To woo -and -Lord knows what beside,
And swam for Love, as I for Glory;

‘Twere hard to say who fared the best:
Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest;
For he was drowned, and I’ve the ague.