Tag Archives: architecture

Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

Valentine Grey

 

The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

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Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

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Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com

 

Pézanas, where Molière Played

A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.

It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days.  It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater.  This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.

During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit.  Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière,  frequently made Pézanas his base.

Moliere statue in Pezanas
Homage to Molière in the centre of the town

The famous playwright toured with a  troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son.  In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.

At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends.  Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.

As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th  century.  It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem.  Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl.  (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).

Artisan's toy shop
A shop full of handmade wooden toys

Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving.  New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.

The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.

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The Tourist Office

The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners.  You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building.   Details herewith.

Scenovision Moliere

The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break.  Adults €6: children €4:  families €15

Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc

http://www.scenovcisionmoliere.com

If cruising the canals of France, it is easy to arrange a visit to Pezanas.

 

Oldest Door in Town
In a town of old doors, this is the oldest
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Artisan chocolates – luscious

 

DOORWAYS: London, Tokyo, France

Writing is at standstill at the moment as I have an eye problem that prevents me from working on the computer (or it takes so long that I can’t do it anyway), so as doorways seems a popular feature of blogs, I thought I’d dig out a few of my favourites.  The featured image is of a street of blue doors in East London, the others follow:

Lots of Interesting doorways in Honfleur, France
Lots of  old doors in Honfleur, France
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Can’t resist including my favourite pub in Belfast
Doorway of Restaurant in Kyoto
Not exactly a doorway, but a delightful entrance to a restaurant in Tokyo
The Strand, London
The Strand, London

 

Oldest Door in Town
Pezanas, France (Oldest Doorway)

 

 

Very iold door, Noyes, France
A Very Old Door in Noyes, France

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk on the Ramparts of Ypres

I didn’t imagine it would be so difficult to write about my walk on the Ypres Salient in Belgium, as I followed the course of the World War l battle of 1917 but it’s impossible to write about the horrors of the 3rd Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) without including great chunks of history to explain just why we were walking there, and a blog is no place for a history essay.   That being the case, I have to forget my idea of doing a Monday walk for Jo and just add a few photos with connecting text. A few historical notes will be appended at the end of the blog for those who want to read them.

Menin Gate at night
The Menin Gate just before the ceremony of The Last Post

First though, a few details.

During the course of the war, Ypres was all but obliterated by artillery fire.  At the end of what we now call The Great War, it lay in ruins, only a handful of buildings left standing.  First-time visitors to Ypres find it hard to believe that this magnificent town with its enormous square surrounded by medieval and Renaissance buildings was completely flattened by 1918.   Virtually the whole of the town you see today was reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, brick by brick during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Rubble that could be incorporated into the buildings was collected, cleaned and re-used and the planners, by referring to the medieval sketches and diagrams that had survived, were able to painstakingly rebuild the squares, streets and beautiful buildings of this ancient Flemish town.

Throughout the town, you will see bronze plaques bearing the outline of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin Gate at street corners.  These are the signposts for the 5.5km  provincial Heritage Footpath,  the most complete footpath in the Ypres inner city.

Ypres Panorama (sort of)
Panoramic View of Ypres centre with the famous Cloth Hall on the left – © Mari Nicholson
Ypres by night
Ypres at Night with famous Cloth Hall on left –  © Mari Nicholson

Ypres had been fortified since about the 10th century and the Ypres ramparts are the best preserved in the country.  The town originated on the banks of the Ieperlee and some ten centuries ago it was contained within little more than an earth wall and some moats, parts of which, dating from 1385, still survive.  Later, stone walls and towers were added and later still, under occupation by the Habsburgs and then the French in the 17th and 18th centuries, the walls were strengthened, and bastions, advanced redoubts and more moats were added.  The Lille Gate is the only city gate left out of the many that existed in the past.

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On the Ramparts at Ypres – © Mari Nicholson
Ramparts Walk
Ypres Ramparts

The Ypres Ramparts are wide: strolling them in autumn is delightful as the falling leaves cushion the feet of the walker.  The signposted route is 2.6 km long and meanders past lakes and ponds (the remains of the moat), interesting statuary, and through the Lille Gate into a small W.W.l military cemetery filled with the upright white headstones erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a sight all too familiar to visitors to France and Belgium.  The municipal museum is located not far from the gate.  Along the route, 23 panels provide information on the various points of Vauban’s ramparts.

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A peaceful spot in the Lille Cemetery on Ypres’ Ramparts – © Mari Nicholson

There are 198 soldiers buried here, among them the graves of six New Zealand troops who were killed simultaneously by the same shell:  their graves are now symbolically grouped together.

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Six New Zealand soldiers buried here together as they were killed by the same shell – © Mari

There follows some photographs I took on this walk which ended at the back of the Menin Gate, in some ways more beautiful than the gate whose picture we are familiar with at which buglers from the local Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8 p.m. This custom has continued since 1928 when it was first inaugurated, save for 4 years during World War ll when the German occupation prevented it.  This year being an Anniversary Year it attracts a few hundred people every night but sometimes there are just a few onlookers, yet the volunteer buglers nightly continue their tribute to the fallen.

Menin Gate (back of)
The Menin Gate from the Ramparts side

 

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Notes:

A.  Engraved on The Menin Gate Memorial are the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave.  Tyne Cot has 35,000 names and there are  75,000 engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.

B.  Menin Gate Last Post:  At 7.30pm the police arrive and all traffic is stopped from    driving through the Menin Gate until 8.30pm.  For one hour the noise of traffic ceases.  A   stillness descends and the crowd is hushed.

7.55pm: Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade arrive and stand ready at the eastern entrance of the Menin Gate Memorial.  They then step into the roadway under the Memorial arch facing towards the town.  The Last Post is played.

 C.   Of the battles, the largest and most costly in terms of human suffering was the Third   Battle of Ypres (31 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele),   in which the British, Canadian, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele  Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives.   It had been a battle across muddy,  swampy fields taken and lost, then lost and taken again.  After months of fighting only a few miles of ground had been won by the Allied forces at a cost of nearly half a million casualties on all sides.

D.  The defence of Ypres was essential for the Allied forces as the town was a strategic point blocking the route of the Imperial German Army to the Belgian and French coastal ports (the ‘race to the sea’).   Thousands of Allied troops died in the rubble of its buildings, the shattered farmland around it and in the fields and meadows that had been deliberately flooded by the Belgian King to try and prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold.   Both sides fought ferocious battles and lived in inhuman conditions to maintain possession.  The Allied losses were horrendous but thousands of German lives were also lost on the battlefields around Ypres during their four years of offensive and defensive battles.

 

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Strasbourg – Cross Roads of Europe

With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.

A-Strasbourg-Square

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This delightful city, full of medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty.   Which is a shame, because it is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe.  At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business.  People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.

Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit alongside elegant French-style mansions.  In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.

It is an easy place for visitors to discover, as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares.  Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.

GRAND ILE ISLAND

This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.

The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where Petite France, is located.  A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter.  The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.

Flags-of-all-Nations

If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war.  It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.

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They even grow grass between the tramlines in the street

Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance, is an equally attractive method of seeing the main sights.  This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.

PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)

The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, the historic part of town, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal.  These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town.  If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.

NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm

Cathedral-from-the-canal

The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city.  It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year.  Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.

Try to arrive at the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock.  The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality.   Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.

The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral is the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night.  Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mime artists and clowns.

Oldest-House-in-Strasbourg
This is the oldest house in Strasbourg

And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing.  After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.

But Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe.  If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.

Facade-of-the-Oldest-House-in-Strasbourg

A few recommended eating places:  Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.

First up though, is wine.  Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).

Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.

Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.

Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourg institution.  Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.

Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it.  A modest but excellent wine list available.  Average €32 for three courses.

The Batorama Tour departs from the Quai outside Palais Rohan, adults €12.50.

A ticket with unlimited tram and bus trips valid for 24 hours is available for €4.30. Also, you can rent bikes (vélhop) for $5 per day.

Tourist Office, 17 Place de la Cathédrale

Honfleur, Beautiful Even in Winter

Frost=covered trees near Honfleur3
Frost Laden Trees Along the Seine

I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer.  I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.

Frost-covered trees near Honfleur
So White it Looks Like Snow

On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.

In-the-midst-of-the-frosty-trees,-a-lone-mansion.
In the Midst of the Frosted Trees Appears a Mansion

I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.

Honfleur is not far from Rouen so it seemed a

The Great Clock, Rouen
Rouen, the Great Clock

good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter.  But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors.  As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.

Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares.  It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.

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One Side of the Marina
Vieix Bassin, Honfleur
St. Catherine’s Quao

The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.

Honfleur staple
A Nomandy Staple

Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone.  The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.

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A Street in Honfleur

Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.

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Honfleur Street

The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur.  The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.

Vieix Bassin, Honfleur
The Beautiful Vieux Bassin, present-day yacht Marina, of Honfleur

An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street.  Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.

Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.

Honfleur Wooden Church
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This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France.  The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull.  Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work.  The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.

Honfleur old Belfry Tower
Wooden Bell Tower

Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations.  Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light.  Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area.  The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.

Carvings inside Wooden Church
Carvings in Wooden Church

 

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world.  Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing.  Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.

Calvados House, Honfleur
Calvados House, Honfleur

It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost.  However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September.  If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.

Honfleur Tourist Board.

Winter scene in Vieux Bassin - Polar Bear on Ice
It Really is Winter – Polar Bear on Ice in Vieux Bassin – December 31st 2016!
Frosted trees above towpath houses on Seine
Town along the Seine with Frosted Trees above
Rome: View of the Forum at Night

Rome and the Tiber

Castel-Sant'Angelo-from-across-the-Tiber

Castell Sant’Angelo across the Tiber – Photo Mari Nicholson

The Tiber has been the soul of Rome since the city’s inception, and it could be said that Rome owes its very existence to this strategically important river on whose banks the first settlements were built.  The two sides of the river are joined by more than thirty bridges, creating a fascinating setting for the archeology and history of the eternal city.

View_of_the_Tiber_Looking_Towards_the_Castel_Sant'Angelo,_with_Saint_Peter's_in_the_Distance
Old View of the Tiber, possibly 18th century

Several of the old Roman bridges no longer exist, in Papal Rome and in the modern city seven were built in the 19th century and ten in the 20th century.

Bridge on the Tiber leading to Castell Sant'Angelo
Ponte Sant’Angelo with statues

The Tiber (named after Tiberius who drowned in the river) is unlike rivers like The Danube, The Seine or The Thames as there is little activity on the water.  In the summer, various boats convey tourists along the stretch of the river, but in general, it seems underused. However, along the Lungotevere, the boulevards that run alongside it, human traffic always seems to flow.

Flooding was a regular occurrence before the high embankments were built in the 19th century when there were houses located along the banks of this navigable river which was used for fishing and bathing.  Over time, however, silting and Photography 101: Connectsediment build-up meant that the river became unsuitable for navigation.

Looking downriver towards the Cavour bridge

Looking down to Cavour Bridge, Rome

As in other cities such as Bangkok, Seville, London and Paris, tour boats were introduced along the river to give locals and tourists a unique opportunity to view the city.  This is a great way to take in the panorama, and immerse yourself in one of the most evocative cities in the world.

A stroll along the Boulevard is also a favourite pastime and a visit to Castell Sant’Angelo and the Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, which are both situated along the Tiber can be combined in a “Tiber walk”.  There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars down by the river  so sustenance is not a problem: these are very noticeable at night when the warm lights from their windows illuminate the Boulevards.

The Tiber

The Tiber, Rome – Mari Nicholson

Whether you opt for a dinner cruise, a daytime hop-on-hop-off cruise, or a private jaunt, along the way you can admire the great Palace of Justice, designed by William Calderoni;  Sant’Angelo Castle, one of the oldest monuments of Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica, Tiberina Island, a picturesque island linked by one of the most famous bridges in the city, and the innumerable bridges that span the Tiber.

Ponte Sant'Angelo with statues

Ponte Sant’Angelo Looking towards the Castle – Mari Nicholson

When the surface of the Tiber is calm and the monuments that span the river are reflected in the still waters, they increase one’s delight in the vista they offer across Rome.  Ponte Sant’Angelo (by the castle of the same name), Ponte Fabricio, Ponte Rotto, Ponte Garibaldi, they all offer a sense of the history of the city.

Angel-on-Ponte-Sant'Angelo-near-Castle
Angel on Pone Sant’Angelo – Mari Nicholson
Angel on the Ponte Sant'Angelo
Angel on Ponte Sant’Angelo

 

The first named, Ponte Sant’Angela is the most spectacular, being embellished with angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s passion, and was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose fountain in Piazza Navona is one of the most photographed in Rome.

The Ponte Sant’Angelo was erected to ease the movement between the Vatican (which was also connected to the Castell Sant’Angelo) and the commercial area across the river.

Ponte Sant'Angelo

The Vatican City is the only zone controlled by the papacy today, but in earlier centuries papal dominion was exercised over the entire city, hence the need for easy connection with the commercial area of the settlement.   Three energetic popes, Urban VIII (1623–44), Innocent X (1644–55), and Alexander VII (1655–67), harnessed the versatile talents of the great artists nd sculptors of the day to build monuments and beautify areas all over Rome but especially in the Vatican area.

View from the Vatican Dome
View from the Vatican to Ponte Sant’Angelo – Photo Solange Hando

A walk along the Tiber, and then up the imposing obelisk and olive-tree-lined road to the Vatican is an exercise in itself and you can be forgiven if you decide to postpone visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum until another day.  It can take a long time to do justice to them both.   A trip to the top of St. Peter’s is a worthwhile exercise but be warned, there are many steps to the top.  A lift goes part way only.

Part of Bernini's Magnificent 4-Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona, Rome

Part of Bernini’s Magnificent 4-Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona – Photo Mari Nicholson

How to get there:  Ponte Sant’Angelo:  Metro Line A, Lepanto stop. Boats leave from nearby.        Buses 23, 34, 40, 49, 62, 280, 492, and 990.        Tram 19.

Photography 101: Connect

Connections between rooms in castles are well documented, less well known is the connection between the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome and the Vatican City.

The Castel of Sant’Angelo, the massive fortress-like building on the right-hand side of the Tiber, was originally built by the Emperor Hadrian (117-13 AD), as a monumental tomb for himself and his successors, not far from the Mausoleum of Augustus near the edge of the Vatican fields.

Castell Sant'Angelo, Rome
Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Hadrian’s Mausoleum

By the 5th Century, the Mausoleum had been included in the defensive system of the city walls, and from the 10th century onwards it had become a fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo, its purpose being to defend the Vatican, to which it was linked by a special passageway (the Connect).  Originally the Mausoleum was surmounted by a gilt bronze statue of the emperor in a chariot.

Below is a photograph taken from the cupola of St.Peter’s at the Vatican and the Castell is quite some way from it, on the left-hand side just beyond the patch of dark green trees that can be seen.

Looking Down from the Cupula of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, towards the Castel S Angelo.  Photograph Copyright Solange Hando.

 The Mausoleum was incomplete when Hadrian died but he was buried there one year later in 139 AD.  The bridge connecting both sides of the Tiber had been built by Hadrian to facilitate direct access to the tomb, a more elaborate bridge than any other Roman bridge at that time: it survived until the end of the last century by which time it had become known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo. The two end spans were rebuilt at the end of the last century and only the three central arches are originals from the period 130-134.

Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome:  Photograph copyright Mari Nicholson

 

 

 

London’s Hidden Gems (1)

Postman’s Park in London contains a simple but evocative Memorial to unsung heroes of the 19th and early 20th century, in the form of a collection of glazed Doulton plaques on a wall protected from the elements by a loggia.  Each of these plaques commemorates someone who, in tragic circumstances, died a hero, trying to save the lives of others.

What and where is Postman’s Park in the City of London?

First the name:  the park acquired the Postman’s Park name because during it’s heyday in the 19th century and before it became the site of the Memorial, it was popular as a lunchtime retreat with workers from the General Post Office in nearby Clerkenwell, long since demolished.

Situated between King Edward Street, Little Britain and Angel Street and just round the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral whose steps are normally crowded with tourists hugging backpacks and guitars and where the streets are full of bankers and financiers bursting with self-importance, it contains a gallery of tiled memorials to extraordinary people who were, nonetheless, just ordinary citizens.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral – Mari Nicholson

The brainchild of the Victorian painter and philanthropist, G.F. Watts (1817-1904), a radical socialist who felt deeply about the dreadful conditions of the London poor, and who had twice refused a Baronetcy, it is now regarded as a Memorial to Watts who made no attempt to hide his dislike of the greed of the upper classes of the time.

About the Tiled Memorials

London Child Hero -
Plaque to one of the child heroes on the Memorial of Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, London –   Photo Mari Nicholson

A long, high wall covered with Royal Doulton ceramic plaques, decorated in burnt orange and blue, names, ages, occupations and means of death engraved on the tiles – this is a wall before which people have been known to stand with tears in their eyes.  Tragedy after tragedy told in a few simple phrases, bring to life drownings, raging fires, train disasters, and runaway horse accidents, in which these workers and children had saved someone’s life by giving their own.

There is seating under the plaques and the garden area of the park is a restful place with bright flower beds and a gently trickling fountain, interesting shrubs and flowering plants. Of special interest are the large banana tree, musa basjoo, which flowers in late summer, and the dove tree, davidia involucrata.  In fact, Postman’s Park is a perfect place for a lunchtime picnic.

In 1887, Watts wrote to The Times to suggest the creation of a park to commemorate ‘heroic men and women’ who had given their lives attempting to save others.  This, he said, would be a worthy way to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.

His letter to The Times did not stimulate any interest, however, but in 1898, St Botolph’s Church at Aldersgate purchased land that had previously been owned by the City Parochial Foundation, and they approached him regarding the Memorial.   So, on the site of the former churchyard of St. Bolophs, there was erected a 50ft long open gallery along the wall of which he planned to place glazed Doulton tablets commemorating acts of bravery, each one detailing a heroic act.

One of Britain’s leading tile designers at that time, William de Morgan, agreed to work with Watts.  Their collaboration, first unveiled in 1900, is what you see on the early plaques when you visit Postman’s Park. 

About the Tiles and Plaques

London Hero = 60 yer old William Goodrum
Plaque to William Goodrum, a 60-year-old Hero, honoured on the Memorial wall in Postman’s Park – Photo Mari Nicholson

The plaques could easily be overlooked in the somewhat hidden corner of the park, but these beautiful hand-lettered tiles hand-painted at the Royal Doulton factory, when once you see them, live with you forever.  Each one tells the story of a boy or girl, man or woman, who died trying to save another at the expense of his own.   Told in a few poignant words, they nevertheless manage to paint a picture of a life unfulfilled that ended in tragedy.  Take, for instance,

  • the young Alice “daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life”.   Or
  • William “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”.

The stories seem almost Dickensian until the very real tragedies these plaques represent hit home and one realises that this was real life, not fiction.  Life was harsh for those who didn’t own land or property of some sort in those days: violence and disease were everyday events.  Prostitution and child abuse were rife in late-Victorian London, and these children who died, many of them orphans or ‘indentured workers’, each and every one of them would have been working at some poorly paid job.

Reading the tiles one is struck by the occupations that don’t exist any more and the causes of death that remind one of nothing so much as a Victorian engraving – a runaway carriage of four with a child trampled beneath the horses, a boy in the Thames (probably a mudlark) attempting to swim to land with his friend in his arms.

Harry Sisley - London Child Hero
London’s Child Heroes, 10-year-old Harry Sisley, honoured here in a Doulton plaque on the Memorial in Postman’s Park, London – Photo Mari Nicholson

G.F. Watts and his Reasons for Erecting the Memorial

GF Watts wanted to use his art as a force for social change and his intention was to build a memorial that honoured ordinary people, people who would not have had a burial tomb at Highgate, Brompton or even St. Pancras & Islington Cemetery.

Watts had for many years collected newspaper reports of heroic actions and the plaques were based on these cuttings.

London Worker Hero
Royal Doulton Plaque for one of London’s Worker Heroes, showing the placement of the plaques side by side and on the row above.  ©  Mari Nicholson

It was planned to have one hundred and twenty tiles in place for the opening, but sadly, it was only possible to erect four.  By this time Watts was too ill to attend the unveiling and only nine more were added during his lifetime.  His wife Mary, took over the work and added what she could before her death.  Then, 78 years later, in 2009, the Diocese of London added a new tablet to commemorate one Leigh Pitt who rescued a nine-year-old boy from drowning in a canal.  The plaque reads:

  • Leigh Pitt, Reprographic operator, aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself.  June 7, 2007.

Today you can see rows of blank spaces, although no doubt there were unsung heroes in the intervening years who were never commemorated.

This wall of tiled plaques to these forgotten Londoners is one of the city’s most moving Memorials and in 1972, along with other key elements in the park, it was Listed as a Grade ll site.

Postman’s Park in Recent Film

The BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning film Closer which stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen (based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber) references Postman’s Park in that the character Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) fabricates her identity based on Ayers’ tablet on the Memorial which the film character had read.

How to get there:

Tube –  Central St Paul’s

Buses:  4, 8, 25, 56, 141, 100, 172, 521, 242

 

 

 

Winchester, Ancient Capital of Wessex

Winchester Cathedral

It seems a shame that King Alfred, the man who defeated the Danes and united the English, has gone down in popular history merely as the man who burnt the cakes.  But the city he made his capital does the man proud and it is impossible to stroll through the ancient streets of Winchester and not be aware of how “the Great” came to be added to Alfred’s name.

An unspoilt city and England’s ancient capital (the Court was mobile during the Anglo-Saxon period but the city was considered the capital of Wessex and England at the time), the cobblestones, buildings and monuments of Winchester, just an hour from London, ring with history.  If you like big bangs and all things military, it is also home to a host of museums dedicated to all things warlike.  Surrounded by water meadows and rolling downland, it offers the best of city life – modern shopping, quirky open air events, and great entertainment and it can be covered in a day (although a couple of days will show more of what is on offer and allow trips into the surrounding villages).

Fulling Mill Cottage and River Arle

To get a panoramic view of the streets and buildings laid out according to the original Saxon plan, a good starting point is St. Giles’ Hill (a great spot for a picnic), from where you can  pick out Hamo Thorneycroft’s famous statue of King Alfred.  Then follow in the King’s footsteps from the walls erected to keep out the Danes to what is the largest medieval cathedral in the world.   Famous for its treasures, from the sumptuously illustrated 12th century Bible to medieval paintings and a 16-metre stained-glass window 66% of which dates from medieval times, Winchester Cathedral is that much-overused word, awesome.

One of the Anthony Gormley Statues in the Crypt of Winchester Cathedral
One of the Gormley statues in the Crypt of Winchester Cathedral
The-Crypt,-Winchester-Cathe
The Crypt, Winchester Cathedral

The newest acquisition is Sound ll, the Antony Gormley sculpture now permanently installed in the cathedral’s crypt where it looks particularly striking when the crypt floods which it frequently does.  Even if you don’t make a habit of visiting cathedrals, do make an exception to view this magnificent Gormley work.

Cloisters-of-Winchester-Cat
The Cloisters, Winchester Cathedral

Fans of The Da Vinci Code will be interested to know that the cathedral’s North transept doubles as the Vatican in the film of the book, but those of a more classical bent will head for the tomb of Jane Austen which can be found in the  nave where there is also a stained glass window to her memory.

Jane Austen Plaque in Winchester Cathedral

The novelist died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral.  While in this part of the cathedral, take note of the black font which depicts St. Nicholas of Smyrna giving an old man three bags of gold for his three daughters, said to be the forerunner of the pawnbrokers sign of three golden balls.

Continuing in the footsteps of King Alfred you could then head up the High Street to the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester castle, and which for 700 years has housed the legendary Round Table.   Old it certainly is, and round, but it hangs on a wall where with its red, black and white colouring it resembles an enormous dartboard.  According to myth, the original was created by the wizard Merlin, but carbon dating in 1976 proved that this particular table was not made in the Arthurian 6th century but in the 13th, and this use of HyperPhysics sadly put paid to the legend.

The Round Table

The Round Table, High up on the Wall

Just outside the south door of the Great Hall, is Eleanor’s Garden, a re-creation of a medieval herbarium with turf seats and a camomile lawn, named after Eleanor, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor, wife of Edward I.  All the plants you see would have been grown in the 13th century, when floral symbols had priority over design.  The rose, lily, iris and strawberry plants represent aspects of religion while the greens – the grass, ivy, bay and holly represent faithfulness.

The oldest continuously running school in the country, 14th century Winchester College which became a model for Eton and for King’s College, Cambridge is nearby.  You can join a guided tour for an intriguing glimpse into the medieval heart of the college, the 14th century Gothic chapel with its early example of a wooden vaulted roof, the cloisters (where graffiti carved into the stones during the 16th and 17th centuries is still visible) and the original scholars’ dining-room.  As a complete contrast, you could later check out medieval Westgate, a fortified gateway which served as a debtors’ prison for 150 years and where prisoners graffiti is also still intact, albeit rather different from that of the scholars! 

The West Gate, Winchester
Westgate

One expects to find ghosts in most ancient cities and Winchester is no exception.   The most famous haunted Inn is The Eclipse in The Square, where the spectre of Alicia Lisle haunts the corridors.  Seventy-one years old when she was found guilty of harbouring rebel cavaliers and sentenced to death by Hanging Judge Jeffreys, she spent her last night here in 1685 listening to the scaffold being erected for her hanging.

Old Prison Gate
Old Prison Gate

At the Theatre Royal in Jewry Street, a wandering apparition haunts the dress-circle and gallery looking for her long lost lover while in the 18th century High Street offices formerly occupied by the county newspaper, the rattling chains of a woman dressed in grey has been known to rattle the staff on more than one occasion.

Streams and waterways punctuate the streets of the city giving it a homely atmosphere – especially when you see someone hauling a fine trout out of the river – and the Bikeabout Scheme means that you can tour around for most of the day for the small registration fee of £10.   Reflective jackets and helmets are also available.

Half-timbered hous in Winchester
Half-timbered hous in Winchester

You don’t need to cycle of course: there is a good transport system from Winchester to the picturesque villages of the Itchen and Meon Valleys,  handsome Georgian colour-washed Alresford (pronounced Allsford) for instance, home of the famous Watercress Steam Railway where you can make a childhood dream come true by riding on the footplate.   Later, stroll down the town’s elegant streets with their antique shops, and discreet fashion boutiques or along the riverside where the thatched timber-framed Fulling Mill straddles the River Arle.  Alresford is the home of watercress farming in the UK, so expect to sample gourmet dishes made of the green stuff – watercress pudding, watercress quiche and even watercress scones with afternoon tea – in smart bistros, tea rooms and old-fashioned pubs like the Wykeham Arms with its award-winning menu.

 

Main shopping area in Alresford

If there are children in the party, then don’t miss Marwell Zoo.   Home to over 200 species of animals and birds, from meerkats to sand cats, and some of the world’s rarest big cats including the Amur leopard and the snow leopard.  There are volunteer guides around the park to help visitors and to explain and illustrate the efforts the zoo is making to rehabilitate endangered animals back in their habitat.

And after all that history and ancient stones, Winchester can still surprise you with its pedestrian-friendly streets, colourful markets and exquisite boutiques nestling beside large-scale stores.  The High Street – once the Roman’s east-west route through the city – is home to stylish shops with Regency and Elizabethan bow-fronted windows, while The Square offers quaint pubs and restaurants after your exertions, and everywhere you’ll find bronze and stone carvings, many by famous sculptors.    It lies just one hour by train from London, 40 minutes from Portsmouth Ferry Terminal, and 15 minutes from Southampton Airport.

 

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Very Old Barn, NB date of erection in grey bricks at bottom of building.

Winchester’s a winner, and whether you taste runs to real ale or English wines, pub grub or gourmet dining, Goth outfits to designer chic, you’ll find it all here amidst the quiet stones that hold history’s secrets.

Interior Winchester Cathedral

Interior, Winchester Cathedral