Our side of London

Dear travellers,

One year ago, we were just coming back from New Zealand and for me it was finally the chance to show my London to Mr Wander. There were a few places that I loved and a few from where I used to chat to him while relaxing on a stroll. Little by little, we managed to tick the list and we want to share our favourite spots with you. London is so big and full of offers for things to do to suit everyone, and you can find countless lists. If you are visiting for the first time, you may still want to do the usual things and I am not going to tell you not to, although in all my years here I still haven’t been to some of the not to miss places and I don’t feel like I am missing anything.

Museums

The main museums in London are free and you can spend hours in them. The temporary exhibitions are separate and you have to buy the tickets. The Natural History Museum is my favourite because of all the animals and natural things to learn. The building itself is nice and, when at full capacity, the main entrance is mind-blowing, with the giant skeleton of the diplodocus welcoming visitors before they meet Darwin on the main staircase. Dippy, as it is called, went on tour for a while and the building is undergoing some refurbishment, so at the moment the visit may be slightly disappointing. Also, there were talkings of replacing Dippy with the skeleton of the blue whale that is currently in one of the rooms. The plan is to sensibilise visitors on the species that are in current danger of extinction. Maybe, this will be what will greet you when the refurbishment is over. The section with stuffed animals is interesting although slightly disturbing. Due to the change of laws since taxidermy started, most of the specimens on display are fairly old and faded because of the long years on display under strong lights. One of the most recent is the panda near the cafeteria, a famous guest of the London Zoo, Chi Chi, that was stuffed when she passed away in 1972. 

If you happen to be in London on the last Friday of the month, do not miss their Lates. After regular closing time, part of the museum opens again at 6 p.m. and you can enjoy a drink while walking around the rooms in a dim light and have a slightly quieter experience. Another chance to see the museum under a different light is Behind the scenes tour. This visit will take you through the Darwin Centre and you can see some of the specimens not on display, such as the giant squid and specimens collected by Darwin. You need to book for this visit but it is definitely worth to do it.

The NHM is in South Kensington together with two other major museums, the Science Museum and the V&A. I am not a science geek, therefore I have never enjoyed the Science Museum too much, but I would still dedicate it a bit of time if I were you, most of the people I know love it and totally recommend it. The V&A is a difference story. I have not visited for the first three years, I was not curious at at all, and when I finally did, I regretted my previous decision. The museum is incredible, with splendid artwork from Asia that will totally seduce you. I had the chance to be invited to a talk after closing hours and those ceramics and silverware in dim light are incredibly beautiful, and so is the building itself.

I am not a big fan of the British Museum and I know that it is a debatable opinion, but I can’t think otherwise. The building is beautiful from outside, but once inside it feels completely different, too open, modern, and too similar to a warehouse. The collections are impressive, that is not the problem, but something is not right, those high ceilings give an idea of openness and space that is not actually reflected on ground level, the museum is too crowded, constantly, and feels oppressive. The Rosetta Stone is not to miss but easily missed. The symbol of translators, it is always surrounded by so many arms with phones trying to focus from every angle that it is almost impossible to see the stone. The same is said for the Egyptian section, it is hard to walk through and it feels as we were about to knock some precious artefact on the floor. They are basically all behind glass but the feeling is there nonetheless. If you have seen the Egyptian Museum in Turin you won’t miss too much.

The National Gallery is probably the most accessible because it is in Trafalgar Square. It is absolutely worth the visit. It covers some of the main artistic currents and it is a pleasure to walk in, both for the building and for the art exposed. Some paintings are the most famous and are always surrounded by many people with smart phones again, but most of my favourites are not among the most wanted, so I am lucky. One of my favourite paintings of all time is Leonardo’s Virgin of the rocks and for that there is no chance, cornered as it is in a small room, it is luckily big enough to overlook smartphones and reaching arms. The same can be said for Van Gogh’s section. I have often claimed Raphael as my ancestor, a bit joking but not with a bit of hope that the common surname and region of origin may mean something. Well, uncle’s paintings are often surrounded by enough quiet for me to always enjoy at least Pope Julius II’s portrait. As I love Caravaggio’s work and it is too dark and gloomy, I usually don’t have to fight too much so pop in to enjoy his masterpieces and say hi to Saint Jerome in the same room. You know, he is the patron saint of translators, I feel a visit is the least I can do when I am there. 

On the actual square, there are a few permanent things to see and a few that change, like the sculpture on the fourth plinth. For a long while, I remember a ship in a bottle, then a blue rooster. Currently, it shows a sculpture called Really Good by David Shrigley.

Walks

Embankment is my favourite spot, for a long time I went back there in the evenings to walk along the Thames and relax. It was a sort of therapy to reconcile with the city because, no matter how hard the day had been, the immense beauty of the landscape could soothe me and would remind me of why I loved the city. Start at Westminster station or Charing Cross and walk along the river on the north side, seeing the London Eye on the other shore. Reach the boundary dragons and then walk back a little to then walk up to Strand and pop in to the Twinings shop in 216 Strand, a narrow shop that has been there since the XVIII century and offers a wide selection of teas and coffees, tasting and recipe ideas, and some classes to be booked in advance. You can buy single bags of many varieties and find some exclusive ones that are not available in shops. You won’t regret it!

As I said, I love walking along the river, and the other shore is equally good, just more crowded. If you prefer, instead of starting at Westminster Bridge, walk a bit along Embankment before and cross on the following bridge to avoid the crowds around the aquarium and the London Eye. You should arrive just in front of some of the restaurants and, if you keep walking, you arrive at Waterloo station. There are so many things to see and beautiful spots to capture in your photographs along this side. You can walk up to Tower Bridge and get a few good shots of all the landmarks around there: HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge itself, and the Tower of London. At the moment, you also have some open bars near the bridge and if the weather is good you can enjoy a drink there. You will always also find a soft ice cream van and the little kiosks that sell caramelised peanuts, my favourite treat during the long London walks. 

IMG_5674

I have to admit I walk a lot, so maybe you don’t have to follow all my suggestions if you get tired very easily. If you are an explorer, instead, remember that it is said that you can walk around all London just hopping from one park to the other. Well, I have done a fair bit of that starting in Hyde Park, from Marble Arch or Wellington Arch, and ending up either in Hammersmith on one direction or in Vauxhall on the other. If you want more ideas, check out this article with some great walks. I have done most of the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Walk and I love it.

Walking or not, there are two things I would tell you to visit in Earl’s Court if you are a fan:

Doctor Who’s Tardis is just outside the station, behind a kiosk. It is not open to visit (you would get lost), but you can take a picture before the Doctor leaves again;

– Freddie Mercury’s house in Logan Place. You cannot visit it, you can just see the wall with the love messages and the flowers. I cannot explain why, you just need to have grown up with Queen and will understand. I have been there several times and met nice people and bitter neighbours, but I love going back. As last time with Mr Wander we didn’t take a picture, here is a shot from 2015.

Tower of London and Ceremony of the Keys

The visit to the Tower of London is definitely worth it despite the high price of the ticket, but it takes a long time. If you decide to go, give it priority because it will take up most of the day. I am not a fan of jewels at all, and all those displayed there, all at once, are quite disturbing, but there are so many more sections of the tower that have so much story behind them, that it makes up for it. An alternative visit you can do is the Ceremony of the Keys. You can do both, as they are pretty different from one another, but you really need to plan the second one a lot better and in advance. The first time I went, it was not that known and the waiting list was three months, but last time I checked it was over a year!

It is something that stayed as it has been for hundreds of years, which means that photography is not allowed but that you can enjoy it fully. The Tower used to be a castle, then a prison, and is now a museum with incredibly valuable items to be preserved. Every night, the tower is locked by the guards and a small group of people is allowed to watch from a small distance and escorted by one of the Yeoman Warders. The protocol hasn’t changed apart from the monarch’s name and it is humbling to witness it. Before and after, the guide will explain a bit about the history of the tower and of the main (free or forced) visitors. That part is the same that you also have for the day tour, but the rest is nothing similar to it or any other tours. 

Check availability and save your confirmation because you will lose it if you have to wait one year before you use it! The ticket is free and there is just a small booking fee to pay online.

Food and drink

Don’t worry, this section won’t be an all Italian list, not only I am not a big fan of Italian cuisine over the rest, but I am able to cook fairly decently myself, therefore I prefer to have Italian food at home or in Italy and to enjoy other flavours when in the big city. If you follow my Instagram, you will know that I am a big fan of British pubs and their food, therefore I will give you my top three places in London.

It is no surprise that my favourite pub is along the Thames and near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the views are among the most beautiful you can have (and London is not short of them), the food has always been good, and they even accept bookings for groups. I never had problems when I tried to celebrate something there. Oh, wait, I haven’t given you the name yet! I am talking of the Founders Arms. On the side of the Tate Modern and a short walk from St Paul’s through the Millennium Bridge, the pub has an interesting menu that has changed a few times since the first time I went, and a good choice of beers; you won’t find my favourite, but their stout is not bad either. If you book, the table will be inside, but if you find available tables outside just go for them, few things beat relaxing with a pint looking at the beautiful skyline. Even I willingly sat outside for dinner in winter, that says it all!

If you are in the centre and fancy a bit of Irish atmosphere, my second favourite pub is your place: Waxy O’Connor’s. Just next to Piccadilly Circus, this pub is a huge wooden maze with several levels, countless steps, and furniture that recalls a gothic cathedral (including a confessional!). I booked there a few times as well, and it takes a while to find your table when you arrive, both because no one has any idea and whomever is sitting there usually takes the signs away hoping to be able to keep the table. The pub usually gets pretty busy and you will struggle to enjoy your drinks if you don’t have a table. The prices are what you can expect in central London and the food is average, I just love the actual ambiance and decor of the place, especially the huge tree climbing several levels along the staircase.

If you are going for a more elegant night, the Madison is the place for you. It is the sort of place where you won’t be allowed in if you are wearing trainers, so plan your outfit accordingly if you are thinking of going there. The prices are not scary as you can imagine for a rooftop bar overlooking St Paul’s. You have the main bar and restaurant with sofas in front of floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, the terrace with the incredible views, and another bar with no seats inside mainly to serve the terrace.

Now a few tips before leaving you:

– Register your Oyster card (or your contactless card if you pay with that instead) on the TfL website or you are likely to be charged extra. I have used my Oyster all the years I have been living in London, but now I only go once every 6-7 weeks and I use my contactless card. Before registering, Mr Wander and I got charged different amounts a few times, but the refunds were immediate when we finally remembered to register.

– Walk or use the bus when you can. At peak times, some stations are so crowded that it takes ages to even reach the train, let alone getting on it. Also, some stations are so huge that you may end up walking for almost ten minutes inside the station itself, so you may as well do it outside.

– It may seem obvious but few people seem to keep these two things in mind: use bags that you can close and remember to fasten them against rain and pickpockets, and stand on the right and walk on the left in escalators.

Looking forward to our next trip to London to discover more places, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

When we were originally planning our return to the UK, it seemed like the obvious choice that we would return where Ms Lust had been living previously, London. As it turned out, this wasn’t to be the case, and we ended up living in Cambridgeshire instead, but we still travel down to London regularly to see friends. I’d never been a fan of London, it has always seemed too crowded for me, but I have to say that I have enjoyed it a lot more having Ms Lust to show me around her favourite spots. So, here are some of our favourite places that we have visited in the past year in London, in no particular order.

20160829_142202

National Gallery

This was the most recent of our visits, and was only decided upon in the spur of the moment, on the tube on the way there to be precise! We were travelling to London for some chores and to meet friends, but we had a few hours spare in between to fill. As we were going to be near Trafalgar Square anyway, the National Gallery seemed like a good choice. I’m not much of an art aficionado and I honestly didn’t think I would enjoy it that much, however I was very mistaken and the two hours we spent there just flew by. I’m glad I had Ms Lust with me to act as my guide as the place is like a maze, I would definitely have been lost in there for days if I had been on my own!

I’m not going to try and describe the works that are there, as I would only end up embarrassing myself and it’s probably better if you look it up or, even better, go and see it for yourselves. Anyhow, I’m sure Ms Lust will provide a brief commentary on the main masterpieces. To begin with, it seemed to be just portrait paintings, mainly of a religious vein, which were not too dissimilar to those that we had seen in the Vatican City and not really my taste in art. I’m more of a landscape art fan and happily these types of paintings began to feature more and more as we worked our way through the museum. The museum is set up so that if you follow the suggested route, you will be working your way through history and the associated periods and styles of artwork. We missed the first section and possibly a chunk in the middle, but we still managed to see at least two-thirds of the museum in the couple of hours that we spent there. I was also quite glad that it wasn’t too busy, despite it being a rainy Saturday during the school summer holidays, and there was only a few crowds of people near the most popular artworks, such as the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. Elsewhere there was plenty of visitors, but it was quiet enough that you could still make your way around the museum in comfort. If you’re looking for something to do for a couple of hours, whether on a rainy day or just to fill some time, I’d definitely recommend giving the National Gallery a go. Who knows, you may even surprise yourself like I did!

Natural History Museum lates

20170224_204149

The Natural History Museum has always been on my wish list of places to visit in London, and when I found out about their late night openings I was even more determined to go. Occurring on the last Friday of every month, the museum stays open beyond its usual closing time and the doors aren’t shut until 10pm. I’m still yet to have visited the museum during the daytime so I cannot make any comparisons between the two, all I can say is that it was a lot more relaxed and quieter than I would expect it to be during the day. Drinks and snacks are available for the evening session, which adds to the relaxed atmosphere as people stroll around the exhibits whilst enjoying a glass of red.

Our visit was just a little too late to be able to see Dippy the Diplodocus before he embarked on his nationwide tour, and his temporary replacement, Hope the Blue Whale, had not yet been given her new home. Nevertheless there was still plenty to see and do and we ended up spending a good couple of hours exploring the museum, and we now have a perfect excuse for a follow-up visit! It isn’t quite Night At The Museum, but it’s close, and it’s a fantastic way to meet with friends for a drink or two and hopefully learning a few things along the way.

Ceremony of the Keys

20160808_155443

Until only recently, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where in the city you would find the Tower of London, so I certainly had never visited before. Almost as soon as we had decided that we would be leaving New Zealand and returning to the UK, Ms Lust jumped on the internet and started looking into booking tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys. This ceremony is an ancient tradition that has taken place here since the 14th century, in which the keys of the Tower of London are brought out for the gates to be locked for the night. Nowadays it is possible for members of the public to witness the ceremony taking place, and a limited number of tickets are made available each day. The tickets are free (with just a small booking charge applicable) however it is necessary to book well in advance, especially if you are planning to include it as part of a holiday to London. We booked in July 2016 and the earliest tickets we could get were for February 2017, the website currently advises that the ceremony is fully booked for almost a year!

The ceremony is not particularly long, the entire event takes just over 30 minutes and includes some storytelling about the tradition, and it takes place entirely outside, so it is necessary to wrap up warm and to be prepared for rain (this is the UK after all!). I won’t go into describing the ceremony itself too much, photography is not permitted in order to preserve its heritage and uniqueness so I think describing it in detail would be just as damaging, all I will say is that it is a wonderful experience and a taste of true ‘Britishness’. Reputedly one of the oldest surviving ceremonies of its kind, having been enacted every night for over 700 years, you won’t find many more chances to witness history like this.

20170207_221525

As we had booked tickets for a weekday and had to come to London after work, we only had time to arrive in time for the ceremony itself. Due to the nature of the ceremony, all the guests are subsequently escorted out of the Tower of London via a side gate at the end so I still need to come back one day to visit properly!

Hyde Park

We’ve been here together a number of times now, for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason for mentioning Hyde Park comes before any of those. It was a photo that Ms Lust took in Hyde Park, while enjoying a day off work, that really ignited our existing friendship and led us to where we are now. I was still living in New Zealand at this point and it was from this photo that we started chatting a lot more and I eventually convinced her to come and join me. The rest of this story has already been told, you can find it here if you need to fill in the gaps!

Ever since my first trip to London with my family when I was young, Hyde Park has always been my favourite of London’s parks. I’m not sure if it’s the size that impressed me, the variety of landscapes, or both, but whatever it was has stayed with me and, if anything, is stronger now than it has ever been. The park is vast and provides an excellent area for walking, running, cycling etc., while the kiosks beside The Serpentine are great places to grab a quick lunch to enjoy by the water. There really is something for everyone here, it’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for an hour or two.

Battersea

Battersea always conjures up two images in my head, the power station that became a national icon after the campaign to save it from demolition, and Battersea Dog’s Home which found fame as one of reality TV’s early stars. Despite this, I had never been to Battersea or even seen the power station from across the river, so when Ms Lust asked me to choose where we should go in London one day, Battersea sprung to mind. After a bit more research we discovered that Battersea Park is also well-renowned, so we added that to the list as well.

After getting off of the tube at Vauxhall, and taking a few clandestine photos of James Bond’s London office, we opted to walk along the river to Battersea. This turned out to be a mistake, as the power station is currently being redeveloped and a lot of the walkway has been closed due to the associated construction work. Forced to walk through back-streets and housing estates instead, I have to say that I was very disappointed with the power station. Swathed in scaffolding and construction site fences, while the famous chimneys battle with cranes for air superiority, it’s certainly no longer the symbol of industry that it once was. Destined to become expensive apartments and a swanky new shopping complex, a small part of me wishes Fred Dibnah had had his way all those years ago. In my mind this wonderful building should have been turned into a museum, preserving its dignity and honouring its past, not degraded into becoming a showpiece for the privileged few.

We continued on to Battersea Park, however after our long walk to get that far we weren’t in the mood for exploring too much more. So we sat for a little while by the lake and had a bite to eat before catching a bus back across the river. The park was pleasant and seemed to be a popular place to visit, but Battersea had already been ruined for me and I won’t be hurrying back there any time soon.

Waxy O’Connors

We’ve been to a number of pubs in London but this is the one that has really stuck in my mind. An Irish bar located in Soho, this place is truly unique. The inside is a maze of bars, rooms, and staircases, all appearing as if they had been carved out inside a tree. I would not have been at all surprised to have seen a few Hobbits or Goblins enjoying a drink, it really did give the impression that it is straight out of a movie. I’m again thankful for having had Ms Lust as my official guide, it is possible I could have been lost here for days as well! We only stopped for a quick afternoon drink, however I would love to come back here for St Patrick’s Day, the atmosphere must be incredible.

Tardis

DSCF1823

For all the Doctor Who fans out there, London is home to a must-see. Amongst all of London’s quirky police paraphernalia, such as Britain’s smallest police station on Trafalgar Square, remains one of the last few surviving police call-boxes. That’s right, if you want to see a real-life Tardis all you have to do is pop over to Earl’s Court, and take a short walk out of the tube station. I was expecting it to be more popular than it seemed, anticipating a small queue of fans waiting for a photoshoot, but we were the only ones there that seemed to be even vaguely interested in it. Definitely worth a quick stop or a detour if you are in the area.

That’s all for now, but with more trips to come there’ll be additions to the list in the near future.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

Advertisements

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Dear readers,

It has been almost a year now since we returned to the UK from New Zealand, and in this time we have spent many wonderful weekends and holidays exploring the island that we now call home. The bank holiday weekends are a perfect opportunity to venture a little further away from home without having to take any extra days off from work, and this post is all about our trip to Portsmouth and Winchester during the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in May. It was only about a week before the actual bank holiday that we realised that we hadn’t yet booked anything, and I quickly went about searching for places we could visit. Originally we set our sights on Durham, I had found available accommodation and knew that it is a beautiful city to explore. However, on the very next day, the news headlines were full of stories claiming that the bank holiday weekend was set to see some excellent sunny weather, and the weather forecasts were all similarly upbeat. So that was all it took, the plans were quickly changed, and we found and booked accommodation in Portsmouth instead, ready for our first British seaside weekend. Unfortunately, with about two days to go, the outlook changed and it seemed that the prospect of an early start to summer had been a little optimistic. The weather forecasts, as they invariably do, had made some swift u-turns and were now predicting a very wet weekend. Still, it was now too late to change our plans again, so we prepared for the worst and devised some plans for making the most of the weekend.

20170528_185644

A final check of the weather report before we left home showed that the wet weather wasn’t due to hit the south coast until mid-afternoon, so we had a brief window to try and fit in as much “seasideness” as possible! A trip to the British seaside could never be complete without tucking into some fish and chips on the beach, ideally without being washed away! As we would be arriving around lunchtime, that looked like the perfect way to start the weekend. After much research, a suitable fish and chip shop had been found and we made a beeline straight there after having checked in at our accommodation. Only a short walk to the seafront, it gave us plenty of time to arrive at the beach before the storm, which was now visibly approaching on the horizon. Although I’ll never turn down the opportunity to have fish and chips anywhere, it always seems so much better at the seaside. I’m not even sure that the quality of the fish is any different, it is the smell and sounds of the sea that just makes it seem like a more authentic experience. Juggling the tasks of eating and guarding your food from greedy seagulls, accompanied by the soundtrack of screams from individuals brave/stupid enough to go into the sea, brings back so many memories from my childhood, and I was extremely happy to be able to now share this experience with Ms Lust. We managed to finish our lunch on the beach without any sudden downpours or unwanted attention from the local seabird population, but it was now very clear that the rain wasn’t far away.

South Parade Pier was just a couple of hundred metres further along the beach so we decided to head there for another British seaside tradition, the amusement arcades. Happily we are both suckers for the two-penny machines and we were content to spend an hour or so playing with these while the weather battered the coast. Once we had become bored of the amusements, we ventured back outside to find the rain still coming down heavily. As there was an ice cream shop conveniently located next door, and under the same canopy so there was no need to go out into the rain, we popped in here for an ice cream, we were determined to stick to seaside traditions even if the weather wasn’t! It was clear by the time that we had finished our ice creams that the rain wasn’t likely to stop any time soon, so we donned our waterproofs (another British tradition, never leave home without them!) and walked back to where we were staying. Both tired from the day spent travelling and a heavy lunch, we ended up falling asleep for a few hours and were delighted to find the sky a lot less foreboding when we woke up.

Up until this point, having spent all of our time in the suburb of Southsea, Portsmouth hadn’t felt any different to me than just another generic British seaside town with nothing to really set it apart from anywhere else. However, as we walked along the seafront to Portsmouth harbour, and its plethora of bars and restaurants, it was clear to see that I had been wrong. The first glint of hope had come as we walked past Southsea Castle, a coastal fort dating back to the 16th century. We didn’t have time to visit the castle but the walk past was pleasant enough for it to stick in my memory, the surrounding parkland provides an excellent distraction from the nearby reminders of the tackier side of the British seaside. The real treat was still yet to come, and as Portsmouth’s harbour came into view I immediately realised I had been too quick to judge. The area has clearly been recently modernised and redeveloped, into a vibrant waterside complex. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, but not in any way overwhelming, and the most impressive of these is the Spinnaker Tower, which must have incredible views from the viewing decks and restaurant at the top. We also weren’t able to enjoy this ourselves as we had a dinner reservation to get to, and the weather still wasn’t great and would have limited the view, but it is definitely something I would like to do if we went back to the area. As I said, we had reservations, at the Loch Fyne restaurant. Being a national chain and fairly well known, I won’t go into too much detail about it, all I will say is that we had a fantastic meal and would definitely eat at Loch Fyne again whenever we get the chance.

After dinner, we went for a bit more of a stroll around the harbour before deciding on a suitable place for an after dinner drink. Although we weren’t too sure whether it was a pub or a brewery from its outside appearance, we decided on The Old Customs House and we couldn’t have made a better choice. The exterior was fairly plain and unimpressive, hence our confusion, yet the interior felt more like something that should be found in a stately home. A large double staircase greeted us as we entered and we made our way through to the bar. The bar area is separated into a number of rooms, each resembling a library or a drawing room. The room we chose had only four tables in it, with armchairs and stools dotted around, which made it feel very cosy and homely, and it was the perfect place for a relaxing, after-dinner drink. As we left, we had to decide whether to walk back to our accommodation and brave the weather, or to see if we could figure out where and when to get a bus back. In the interests of simplicity we decided to walk, and fortunately it only rained lightly during the half hour or so that it took. We took a more direct route back, through Portsmouth’s university area, which gave an interesting insight into the nightlife of Portsmouth. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but it actually seemed like a really cool place to go for a night out, and there didn’t appear to be much trouble or fighting going on. Certainly not what I had anticipated from a naval town such as this!

The following day, we decided that we had probably seen the best of Portsmouth already and that, as it still wasn’t ideal beach weather, we would head to Winchester after having had breakfast. We looked up where would be best for breakfast in Portsmouth, and on arrival to The Parade Tea Rooms the queue suggested that it had a well-earned reputation. Unfortunately, the food didn’t live up to the hype and I can only really judge it as satisfactory, certainly not anything to write home about. This wasn’t helped by being seated directly under the air conditioning and next to a very loud, large group, and we were quite happy to be leaving once we had finished eating. Refuelled, we then hit the road again and made the 50 minute journey to Winchester, of course taking the more scenic route through the South Downs National Park.

DSC00275

On arriving in Winchester, we found somewhere to park and set about exploring the city. There are a number of suggested self-guided walking tours of the city and we initially began with one of those. The first stop was the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, which houses the equally magnificent Winchester Bible. Believed to have been commissioned in 1160, it is considered to be the greatest Bible ever made in England. Each page features vivid, detailed illustrations and historiated initials, although the illustrations were never completely finished. At the time of our visit, the area of the cathedral where the Bible is usually housed was undergoing restoration, and a temporary home for it had been provided. It was still possible to see the Bible behind its glass casing, and some of the most colourful and impressive illustrations had been recreated on wall banners around the room. Its new home, when completed, will provide visitors with even more information about the Bible and a better viewing platform for it, while the Bible itself is also undergoing restoration and rebinding.

The cathedral’s other claim to fame is that it is the final resting place of Jane Austen, she passed away in July 1817 after travelling to Winchester to seek medical help. At the time of her death, she was mostly unknown as a writer and many of her novels were still yet to be published. Because of this her funeral was a very low-key affair with only four attendees, and her original gravestone makes no mention of her writings. This has now been resolved with a brass plaque on the wall opposite her grave, paid for by her nephew in 1870 from the proceeds of his memorial to his aunt. Above this, a stained glass window was also erected in her memory in 1900, which was paid for by public donations.

The one feature of the cathedral that has really stuck in my mind is the crypt, one of the earliest sections of the cathedral which would have been built in the late 11th century. The crypt itself isn’t open to visitors, but there is a small viewing platform which can be reached via a few stone steps. You are then presented with an eerie scene, as a sculpture of a man looking into his hands has been placed in the middle of the crypt. Due to the cathedral having been built on land which is very prone to waterlogging, the crypt often floods during rainy periods and the water can reach as far up as the waist of the sculpture. Fortunately it was dry when we visited and it was possible to see the full extent of the crypt, despite the rain that had scuppered our beach plans! In the early 1900’s, the cathedral was in danger of being completely destroyed due to it’s waterlogged foundations, and is only standing today due to the immense efforts of a diver named William Walker. Brought in to help with work to underpin the cathedral’s foundations after large cracks started to form throughout the cathedral, he spent six years working underwater to excavate the existing foundations and to place concrete sacks to strengthen and seal them. Only once he had completed this task could the water be pumped out and further work completed to safeguard the cathedral from subsidence and subsequent collapse. In honour of his efforts, there is a statue of William Walker in the cathedral along with his diving helmet.

DSC00283

On leaving the cathedral, we had a quick walk around the Dean Garnier Garden. Situated just beside the cathedral, it was a pleasant distraction for about fifteen minutes but as neither of us are particularly horticulturally-minded we didn’t linger for too long. We continued our stroll and then came across Wolvesey Castle, also known as the Old Bishop’s Palace. Built for one of the old Bishops of Winchester, it has now been reduced to ruins and is in the care of English Heritage. Entry is free and there are some information panels dotted about to help understand the functions of each room. There isn’t too much to see here, but it’s definitely worth spending an hour to visit.

Following this we felt that we had managed to see the major attractions in Winchester, so we continued our walk along the river until it brought us back into the city centre. All that walking had given us an appetite, so it was definitely now time for lunch! We found a nice pub for lunch, which was then followed by a final walk through the rest of the city centre to bring us back to where we had parked the car.

DSC00299

So that basically brings us to the end of our trip to the British seaside. Unfortunately it wasn’t as ‘seasidey’ as we would have liked, but I think we’ve both been in the UK long enough now to not rely on the weather too much. We still managed to have a great weekend despite the rain, and I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this part of the country again at some point, hopefully with the sun shining!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

A very famous Italian song says something like “winter at the beach is an concept that the mind cannot conceive”. I find my strength in water, but I have never understood the beauty of visiting the seaside in winter and I have always quoted this song to those that claim that the beach in winter is extremely romantic. If you go to the beach, you need to be able to dive, snorkel, pretend you know how to do synchronised swimming, and all those things of the same style that tell everyone that you are an adult only according to your passport.

With this introduction, please feel free to ask what on earth I had in mind when I suggested to go to the seaside for May bank holiday when I knew it was going to rain. The answer will be that I have no idea. The previous week was incredibly hot and that, in a Sardinian brain, equals going to the beach, and so we did. We packed our flip flops and sandals, our strapless tops and dresses (or whatever Mr Wander’s version of that is), and we drove down to Portsmouth for the weekend to have a full British seaside experience. Of course, that also includes torrential rain. Anyway, let’s not go that far yet.

As usual, Mr Wander took care of the booking and found one of the best places we have been in so far. According to AirBnb, it was a lucky find as it is usually booked. The room was huge, with a very tall but comfy bed and all one can wish for, namely a dresser with mirror and a majestic bow window. The bathroom was tiny, more reminiscent of the ones that you find in a boat than of anything else, but it was brand new and with a decent size shower enclosure, so no problem at all. There was also a small separate kitchen with all the essentials and, in hindsight, we should definitely have had breakfast there, as the place we choose was disappointing to say the least.

As we arrived just before check-in time, we just left the car there and left for exploring. Lunch was sorted, if we want to say so, as we were planning on having fish and chips on the beach just before the storm. We headed to the Southsea roundabout where our research said we could find one of the best fish and chip places in town. Well, all I can say is that:

IMG_9103

While waiting for the food, just in front of the shop is a mural with the map of the city. it is an interesting project that was unveiled in 2012 and uses the technique of the trompe l’œil (literally, trick the eye). From a balcony at the top, a few people unroll a map of the city with some of the business listed. Around the map, more characters that are famous for the city (the founder and other renowned people), pop in from the windows or the street. Some important British people, such as most recently Henry VIII and Robin Hood, are painted in the likeness of Portsmouth residents. I say most recently because the peculiarity of this mural is that it is an ongoing work of art, with characters and places added every year.

We got our lunch and we headed to the sea, as the sky seemed to be holding off for the moment. We had time to enjoy our fish and chips while trying to understand what the huge platforms were that we could see offshore, but we had to leave soon after as it was starting to rain. We went to the arcade, the seaside quintessential attraction. We tried to win a cuddly toy, we played at the 2p machines for a while, and we left with some tokens in our pockets that were not even enough for a Chupa Chups. At this point, it was raining without mercy and we just walked next door to have a handmade ice cream at the Ice Cream Emporium. We chose it because we didn’t want to get wet but we didn’t regret it. The place is tiny, with a decent choice of flavours. All in white and aquamarine tones, it is decorated with ropes and boat-like gizmos that make it quite happy. At the back there are a few tables in perfect 1970’s American diner style. We could have probably stayed there for a while longer but the rain was not showing any sign of wanting to end soon, so we gathered all our courage and left anyway. We were less than 10 minutes walk from the accommodation and we tried to be as fast as we could. We were a bit tired after the trip and the undesired shower and we just fell asleep for the whole afternoon. We may have not explored too much, but we woke up to a sort of clear sky.

We decided to try our luck again and we walk to the harbour for dinner, also because we wanted to see a bit of this island city. Oh, yes, do you know that Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city? We hadn’t planned any cultural visit, we are not ashamed of admitting it, but now we feel we should go again for a bit of visiting rather than just relaxing. We just went for a walk along the coast and had a glimpse of the castle while walking to Gunwharf Quays. We had booked a table at Loch Fyne and we had plenty of time. The Quays are pretty distinctive, as they are modern and crammed with restaurants and pubs, but the most surprising feature is the Spinnaker Tower that makes you feel like you are in Dubai for a moment. Almost in front, is a huge figurehead from the HMS Marlborough. This figurehead represents the Duke of Marlborough and was used on the ship built in the second half of the XIX century. After being the flagship of the fleet for many years, the ship passed to be used for training engineers and then for the Torpedo School. When the ship was broken up in 1924, the figurehead was placed in its current position and, with the Spinnaker Tower on its side, it provides a perfect shot in perspective.

I have to admit that I often avoid restaurant chains and I usually prefer to go to local pubs. Probably because I have worked in a few places of this kind and I know that quality doesn’t come automatically with the name of a chain, I’d rather try small businesses and independent restaurants. For this reason, I had never been to any Loch Fyne in all my years in the UK. I am glad I trusted Mr Wander this time, because we had a really nice dinner. As it had stopped raining and it was not supposed to start again before 10 p.m., we wanted to sit outside, but we had to go inside anyway for dinner, and that was the only downside of the night, I would say. Before actually ordering for dinner, we had a Spritz outside enjoying the nice quiet between storms.

The dinner was good in general, but I have to say that my happiness arrived with dessert. By rule, you know, I don’t trust pubs that don’t offer sticky toffee pudding, but I am more flexible with restaurants, they can offer Eton Mess instead. Well, they did and I loved it, the cream was simply scrumptious! Mr Wander opted for whisky instead, in preparation for our tour of Scotland.

After dinner, hoping for a longer truce from the weather, we went for another drink at the Old Customs House, a pub just in front of the restaurant with a huge terrace and also plenty of space inside, definitely our choice as it was starting to become quite chilly. The building was used as the administrative headquarters of HMS Vernon until the late 1980s and dates back to 200 years earlier. When it was acquired by Fullers, it was not refurbished until 2012, when it went through a massive renovation in record time. As it is now, the place shines without having lost any of the old style fashion. With a huge double staircase to go to the toilets and a few small rooms with comfy sofas and armchairs apart from the main rooms with the bars, the pub makes you think of one of those gentlemen clubs that you imagine when reading Sherlock Holmes adventures. The atmosphere, together with their selection of beers, made us immediately agree that we made the right choice, judge for yourselves:

IMG_9847

The walk home was not bad, even if it started raining, as it was not much. Despite the cultural offer, we were not keen on staying in Portsmouth the following day after breakfast, and we decided to go to Winchester. Before leaving, we stopped for breakfast at The Parade Tea Room and we regretted it quite a lot. The place was full with a queue at the door but, as everyone was waiting for big tables, we could sit down immediately because they had one for two people. After all my work in restaurants I should have known better: If a place is full, don’t stay, the service and food will be bad. I didn’t listen to my experience and we ended up with a horrible breakfast. The room does not receive enough fresh air, therefore the air conditioning was trying to compensate by blowing cold air in the corner. The result was that the quality of the air was still bad and we had to eat with our jackets on. The wait was as we were told but the food was far below average. I had the vegetarian breakfast and the sausage was dry and tasteless, probably reheated a few times, definitely not fresh. The toasts came already buttered, which is a horrible habit. I understand you don’t want to waste your butter by putting some on each plate, but I don’t want butter on my toast, so I should be informed and given the choice. The egg was dry and overcooked. The cutlery was dirty, with old food stuck all over it, and after changing two knives and a teaspoon from the self-service desk, we gave up. To complete the picture, the need for tables was so bad that they were obviously trying to take stuff away as soon as possible to make people leave. Overall, definitely a thumbs down and I place I would never suggest!

We drove to Winchester without really knowing too much because, as I said, we didn’t really plan to go there. The place was a great surprise, I loved it very much and I was quite relaxed at lunchtime when we chose a pub that seemed not too bad but, as the rest, seemed to have suffered from a shortage of staff during the bank holiday. The main feature of the city is the Cathedral without any doubt, and a visit to it won’t disappoint you in the least. The cathedral is undergoing some major refurbishment but even with some parts being closed, it still takes your breath away. Pure Gothic style, the building dates back to XI century and is the longest Gothic Cathedral in Europe. The stone vault is more recent as it replaced the wooden ceiling in XIV century and it creates an incredible perspective that goes from the main nave to the choir, a beautifully chiselled wooden structure that, at the time of our visit, was used by the Danish choir for practice for the evening concert. We sat for a while, listening to them, before resuming our visit. Several famous people are buried in the cathedral, but no one deserved in my eyes more interest than Jane Austen. The author moved to the city hoping to find a solution for her condition but passed away soon after and was buried there. Her nephew, later, dedicated a plaque to her recognising her talent and her work.

One of the most important features of the cathedral is the Winchester Bible, a precious copy of the Bible in four volumes that dates back to XII century. Written by a single scribe, it was decorated by several artists with illuminations, which are decorations made with gold and silver leaves, and precious stones. For the fact of being the largest and best preserved example, the specimen is extremely precious and it is kept in special display cases that keep constant temperature and light. To protect the volume on display, photography is not permitted, but you can find out more about it and the rest of the cathedral on their website. The Bible is usually on display on the right side of the transept but that area is currently closed for refurbishment and the book now has its installation on the left, near the crypt. Here, a modern exhibition features a life-size statue of a man looking at the water in his hands. The crypt gets submerged during rainy months and offers a peculiar mirror effect.

Next to the cathedral and offering a beautiful view of it, there was a monastery and what was the monks’ dormitory is now the Dean Garnier Garden, a walled garden maintained by volunteers and open to the public. A short walk away from the cathedral is Wolvesey Castle, also known as Old Bishop’s Palace, a medieval castle that was the residence of the Bishop of Winchester for a few centuries up to the English Civil War. The building doesn’t exist anymore and the ruins of the ground floor are now an English Heritage site that can be visited for free. As the ruins are near the river, a short walk along the water will take you to the city centre again and took us to our late lunch at about 4 p.m.

That was all for our first trip of the year to the glorious British seaside and we are still waiting to repeat the experience. I am actually longing for some sea water on my feet but the weather doesn’t seem keen to cooperate. Will we be able to repeat before we go to Cornwall? Stay tuned to our profiles to find out!

Ms Lust

Stately homes and castles – part 1

Dear travellers,

We were planning this post for a while, but we were not sure how to shape it. As we have several visits still planned and we didn’t want to cramp too much information all in one post, we decided to split it into a series and to post as we go so to say.

I guess you have already seen our general post with the links to all the openings. I have to admit that we didn’t go to any of the first openings as these usually are very crowded, and also we have been busy on other trips for most of the spring, so we are now trying to fit in as much as we can before some of the homes close for winter. But let’s go back to our main subject and start with our first visit, for this post we will have little paragraphs divided as usual in two points of view. Please, follow us in our tour!

Kimbolton Castle

DSCF1837

We’ll start with the closest to home, which for us is Buckden Towers, located in Buckden, Cambridgeshire. Replacing a previous wooden structure from the 12th century, the current brick building dates from as far back as 1475 although some parts have been added more recently. Looking like a cross somewhere between a castle and a stately home, it must have been a formidable fortress when it still had its original moat.

There have been many notable visitors to this site, many monarchs included, and this area has a lot of connections with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. This is where she was first held during their famous divorce before being moved to nearby Kimbolton Castle, which we will get to shortly. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public, however the grounds are open every day during daylight hours and it is free to enter. The coaching inn next door, The Lion Inn, dates from a similar period and it is entirely possible that King Henry VIII may have stopped here for a drink during one of his stays at Buckden Towers! Still providing accommodation and refreshment to travellers and locals alike, I would highly recommend The Lion Inn for lunch, dinner, or just a drink if you are in the area.

Kimbolton Castle, Catherine of Aragon’s next and final home, is unfortunately not as accessible. Currently owned and used by Kimbolton School, the building is only open to the public on two open days held during the year, usually one in March and the other in November. As it spends the vast majority of the year as a school, the interior of the building is understandably lacking in the fine art and treasures that you would normally expect to find in an English stately home. However that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit, as the volunteers that organise the open days provide some very interesting insights into the history of the house, both through guided mini-tours and informative displays. Some of the rooms of the house also warrant a visit even without any artefacts to bolster their appeal, most notably the chapel, the courtyard, and the Headmaster’s Office (originally the room that Catherine of Aragon was kept in). Unfortunately the weather wasn’t being too kind when we visited, and we weren’t able to fully explore the grounds without risking an unexpected shower. I’m sure we’ll be back for another one of their open days to finish off the tour!

***

This stately home, as many of them do, has an interesting history. It was originally built as a Norman castle but nothing of that remains today. The actual town of Kimbolton was built as a marketplace for the castle and still thrives. The Tudor castle that was built afterwards had some famous guests, Catherine of Aragon being probably the most known. The current building partly saved the building the queen lived in but has mainly been rebuilt and is now a school. It usually opens a couple of times a year and the volunteers are eager to tell you everything about the history and the ghosts!

On the left of the entrance, where is now the Headmaster’s office, were Catherine of Aragon’s chambers. The Queen, who was married to Henry VIII for 24 years, never accepted to be called “Dowager Princess of Wales”, the only title that the King would accept for her as his brother’s widow. Before being confined to Kimbolton, she stayed a few months in another building very near to us, Buckden Towers.

Going back to Kimbolton, as I said, the building is quite modern and keeps evolving with the times in order to provide an adequate environment for the students, and several of the rooms have been modified. The old servants area still presents some of the old features, including some old windows, although some that were external are now part of the internal walls due to the extensions added to the building. In the internal court, some of the hooks for the buckets used to extinguish fires are still visible but are now just part of the decorations.

Do not miss one of the next opening days:

Sunday 5 November 2017, 1-4pm

Sunday 4 March 2018, 1-4pm

Burghley House

DSCF2003

The first true stately home that we visited, Burghley House is a grand mansion just north of Peterborough. Built during the Elizabethan period of the 16th century, it is a very good example of the large homes of this period. The house is still lived in today by the Cecil family, so not all of it is open to the public however there is still a large number of rooms that can be viewed. The tour of the house starts in the kitchen, which has been recreated into a scene of life in Tudor times. From here you are taken upstairs and through the main body of the house. The rooms that are open to the public are mainly state rooms used by guests, most notably the rooms that Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria used on their visits to the estate. As would be expected, the rooms are furnished beautifully and filled with many fine artworks and artefacts, although it has a more functional atmosphere than more extravagant places such as Waddesdon Manor.

The tour of the house didn’t take as long as expected, as not all of it is accessible, and we then went to explore the grounds. Originally designed by Capability Brown, a famous landscape designer of the time, the grounds are extremely vast and impressive. The highlight for me was the river and bridge at the rear of the grounds, a very pleasant setting which would have been perfect for a picnic. We didn’t explore the grounds as much as we would have liked, so we’re already planning a return visit! Fortunately a ticket for here is valid for the calendar year, so it gives plenty of opportunities for visits.

***

One of the most incredible examples of an Elizabethan house is definitely Burghley House. Built in the XVI century, it still conserves its original exterior. The family who built it, the Cecils, still live in the house but a big part of it is accessible for the visit. While you walk through the rooms, called by their colours, you can learn about the famous visitors who stayed in them, including Queen Victoria, both when still a princess and after her coronation, and Queen Elizabeth I.

The works of art in the house are incredible: Hundreds of paintings by great European masters such as Caravaggio just to name one, frescos that cover entire rooms floor to ceiling, ornaments, furniture, everything has an inestimable value. What I can say, and you can understand by looking at the pictures, is that it feels quite cramped, as if the room were to fall on the visitor. Of course, I had that impression especially in the kitchen, which is full of copper tins everywhere and, after living in my Sardinian home, I am immediately disturbed by these objects. The fact that there was a real-size copper turtle as well definitely didn’t help.

One thing that I definitely loved was to see all the bells for the servants. As a big fan of Downton Abbey (we will come back to that soon), I can’t help but remember the opening every time I see the panels with all the wires and bells. They are not just in Burghley House, of course, but they were in such a peculiar position in this case that they stay in my memory as iconic. Walking out of the kitchen, we are soon in a small, dark room that then leads upstairs; the walls are covered with wood panels, and the bells run all around the walls just over the wood. Standing under there makes you feel amazed and trapped at once, as if they could start ringing and you were forced to start your day of work. A few flights of stairs, the first one still covered with wooden panels and then more elegant, all stone and with round arches, take you to the chapel and then all the main rooms.

As one who doesn’t like gardens, I have to admit that Burghley House’s gardens are beautiful. Not just walking along them to see the beauty of the building from outside, but the gardens themselves. there is a river along them and they are immense. They were originally built by Capability Brown, an eminence of the time, and now include also the Garden of Surprises with fountains, sculptures, water shows, and a little maze. They are something not to miss.

The ticket gives you access to the House for the whole year and a 50% discount on some other listed buildings, which is not bad. The Christmas market is very famous, so we are looking forward to go back again a few times before the end of the year!

Hedingham Castle

20170409_135658

This one is slightly different to the places above, as the purpose of our visit was not for exploring. My cousin had her wedding here in the spring, and in my mind she couldn’t have chosen a better, or more interesting venue. The most well-preserved Norman keep in England, it is the embodiment of all those castles we used to draw when we were kids. Four square walls with some battlements on top, this is a true castle that was built for function rather than show. Still a formidable fortress to this day, it’s easy to see how it has managed to survive for so long.

As I said, the exterior is fairly plain. The few windows it has are small and give little insight into the goings-on inside, and the only real feature is the steps up to the entrance. Once inside however, it is a completely different story. Obviously it has been dressed up a bit for the wedding, yet I could see how it would have been impressive nonetheless. With the exception of a few modern amenities such as flushing toilets and a bar, it still feels like a Norman castle inside as well. There are three floors that are still accessible to the public, each containing a large, singular room. We would be using all three during the course of the day, much to our delight! The first room you enter is the reception room, which is the middle room of the three. This is where we found the modern creature comforts, the other two floors are purely medieval. A large room with chandeliers and a few artefacts here and there, it is a good introduction for what is to come. For the ceremony we went upstairs to the Great Hall, which is like something out of a movie. A huge fireplace, a balcony at the rear (from which the ring-bearing barn owls came from), and ancient weaponry on the walls, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Robin Hood himself had gatecrashed proceedings! It really is a beautiful setting for a wedding ceremony, but my favourite room was yet to come.

After the ceremony, we made our way down to the bottom floor which is home to the banqueting room. This room is everything you would expect a medieval banqueting room to be, right down to the metal goblets provided for our drinks. There was none of the usual round tables dotted around a room found at most weddings, here there are three long tables stretching the length of the room. As such there is no head table either, and it was a really nice touch for my cousin and the rest of the wedding party to be seated in the very centre of the room. The darkness caused by the small, high windows only added to the atmosphere, and I’m glad that the artificial lighting was also kept low. Again, I couldn’t think of a better place for a wedding, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first medieval banquet (of many I hope!!).

The castle isn’t just used for weddings, and it is possible to visit when there isn’t a function being held here. I would thoroughly recommend it, especially when one of their many medieval-themed events are taking place.

***

A bit of a different experience has been our time in Hedingham Castle, as we were invited there for a wedding. The difference in this experience is not just due to my personal opinion on wedding ceremonies, although it is part of it. This castle is a private property that is owned by the heirs of the family that bought it in the XVIII century. The family lives in the country house also in the grounds and the keep is the only surviving part of the castle that was built in the XII century. Visits are limited, on their website it seems like they open on Wednesday and Sundays or, as in our case, you have access when the building is hired for events. These help financing the building maintenance, which is not supported by any institutions and it is paid for by the owners.

Going back to the building, it is surrounded by wonderful gardens and a lake. The tower has four levels:

– The lower level, where the banqueting hall was installed in this case. This part has access from one side of the tower through a huge portal which made it easy for the catering to install the marquee and reach us at the tables. In the case of the wedding, all the table was dressed in style, with metal goblets and Venetian style masks, which was a detail that completed the picture.

– The two levels above were probably the Guardroom and the Great Hall. An external staircase grants you access to the Guardroom, where seats and the bar were installed. From here, access to both the lower and the upper levels is granted by my nemesis, the spiral staircase, which is even less loved when wearing a tight dress and 10 cm high heels. I guess I am glad I didn’t drink too much!

The Great Hall is dominated by a majestic chimney. Although all the rooms follow the same plan, the fireplace in the Great Hall, with a cuirass and two axes over it, is quite a sight. A balcony runs along the sides of the rooms at another level granting a privileged position to those looking down at the Hall. In our case, the ceremony was officiated in this room and we had the plus of a bird of prey diving into the hall to entrust the rings to the best man. It was a perfect fit to the surrounding and an incredible surprise.

The location is impressive, definitely worth a visit, and we wish we had more time and more comfortable shoes in order to wander around the gardens, but the ceremony added some details that made the visit quite exquisite, definitely not what I was expecting by a wedding. Due to the restrictions on visiting days, plan your visit wisely but definitely give it a shot!

Lyveden

DSC00492

Ah, the stately home that could have been! The dream of Sir Thomas Tresham, Lyveden New Bield was designed as a summerhouse for entertaining his guests. Unfortunately the construction was hindered by his poor financial credentials, and the fact that he spent a lot of time in prison due to this. However construction continued until Sir Thomas’s death when, realising that they would now never be paid, the workers downed tools and the estate has been left in this unfinished state ever since. This makes this building rather unique in that in original inspection it would appear to be ruins, however it doesn’t take long to realise that the building is actually in very good condition despite never being completed. This was the first National Trust home that we visited, and I have to say that they have done an incredible job preserving this site. Every single thing about the house and the grounds is in such good condition, it feels like the workers stopped work only a few days prior to your visit. It really is incredible that this building has remained so intact despite not even having a roof or floors, and that it has stood for so long without damage. Most complete stately homes and castles of this age aren’t in such good condition!

As I mentioned, the construction was halted before walls had been completed, and the roof and floors had yet to be started. From the outside it is easy to see how the house would have looked if it had been completed, but it is a different story once you head inside. Entering through what would have been the servants’ entrance (the main entrance required steps which hadn’t been built yet), it is hard to imagine where you are and what each room was designed for. The house was designed in a cross shape which means that a lot of the rooms are very similar to each other, and their lack of furniture or other adornments means their functions are not obvious (with the exception of the kitchen where the fireplace and larder were obvious features). This is why I would highly recommend the audio tour that the National Trust provide as part of the entrance fee. Highly informative, it gives a fantastic insight into the history of the house and explains what each room was intended for. This makes it a whole lot easier to imagine how it would have looked if completed, and Sir Thomas’s dream starts to come alive.

After exploring the house, it was time for a walk around the grounds. Again these have been preserved to the exact state that the workmen would have left them in. Seemingly closer to completion than the house, yet there are still obvious signs that it was abandoned. The most obvious of these is the moat. Three sides of the moat had been finished, which then ends abruptly where the fourth side should have been. Strolling through the grounds, with the help of the audio guide, really gives an insight into the mentality of Sir Thomas Tresham and the motives behind his dream. As with all stately homes, it was driven by ego and showmanship. The summerhouse was to be his masterpiece, and every aspect of the grounds had been designed to showcase the house for his guests’ admiration.

I really enjoyed exploring Lyveden New Bield, as it gives you the chance to admire the building rather than being overwhelmed with all the treasures inside. It was really interesting to find out the story behind it as well, and to be able to see Sir Thomas’s vision. If you do visit here, make sure to bring your imagination with you! Oh, and also leave some time for a cream tea at the National Trust café on-site, you won’t regret it!

***

The start of our National Trust membership in June was celebrated with a hike in the Peak District and a visit to Lyveden New Bield. This building is unfinished and yet the visit is extremely interesting. Not too far from us in Northamptonshire, the estate was the dream and ruin of the Tresham family. Ruined by the taxes requested from the followers of the Catholic faith and by the participation of some members of the family to the Gunpowder plot, the Treshams never finished the construction of this home.

Although inside it was never completed, the external walls are still perfectly standing as they workers left them when they abandoned the project after hearing of their employer’s death and understanding that they were never going to be paid for the job. The audio guide takes you through the rooms and makes you imagine what is missing and how the house, once completed, would have hosted guests and parties.

The walk through the grounds is both interesting and pleasing, with the guide explaining the projects of the original owner through the messages to his workers. The National Trust has recreated what was in the original design, planting the same fruit trees and keeping alive the decorations that were thought for the amusement of the guests. We went on an extremely hot afternoon and some comfortable shoes and insect repellent are a good idea, but even with ballerinas you can enjoy the visit without struggling.

Two highlights of the visit: The red kite flying over us during our visit and the National Trust café. They seem two bizarre things to list together, but it was a sweet sight to see the bird of prey cutting through the perfectly blue sky while we were enjoying our cream tea in the garden surrounded by little finches that were trying to make the most of all the crumbs left on the tables by the scrumptious scones. After this visit, we already thought that our membership had paid off, and we still are on the same page!

Waddesdon Manor

DSC00003

The most recent of our visits was to the National Trust owned Waddesdon Manor, a Rothschild family home which is truly unique. Commissioned and built in the late 19th century, it was purposefully designed to be reminiscent of a French château. Perched on top of a hill in the Buckinghamshire countryside, it manages to look completely out of place yet perfectly presented all at once. This really sets it apart from all the other stately homes in the UK, most likely the reason why it is one of the most visited National Trust properties. It is recommended that you book in advance as tickets are numbered, and each is allocated a specific entrance time to the house. We only booked a day or two in advance and there was plenty of time slots left to choose from, but I would suggest booking as far in advance as you can to avoid disappointment.

The house is on top of a fairly steep hill, with the visitor car park situated at the bottom. There is the option to take a free shuttle bus up to the house, or to take a walk along one of the many walking tracks through the grounds. We opted for the sensible option, and decided to take the bus up and then to take the downhill walk back! The shuttle bus drops visitors off at the North Fountain, with an incredible view of the house through the grounds. We had arrived a little early to enter the house, so we took a short walk around the grounds and discovered the aviary. This building is more reminiscent of the period in which it was built, a very Victorian style structure housing many species of birds that I had never heard of before. The most famous of these is the Rothschild’s Mynah, named after Lord Rothschild. Most of the species here are critically endangered and some are even extinct in the wild, and although it isn’t ideal for them to be in captivity it is reassuring to know that the birds here are being used in breeding programmes to help reintroduce them to the wild.

After our short walk it was time to enter the house, and it doesn’t take long for the decadence of this place to be apparent. Starting in the Oval Hall, there are three options for which route to take. There are volunteers to help lost visitors and to keep everyone heading in the same direction, and fortunately we had an audio guide to direct us as well. The audio guide can be purchased with the tickets, or it can be downloaded for free onto a smartphone (although it would seem that it does need to be smarter than my phone!). Every single room is chocked full of treasures in the form of artwork, fine furniture, pottery, and many other very expensive artefacts. Most of the furniture and collections are from the French Renaissance period while the artwork is mostly of English origin, combining in what has become known as the Rothschild style. As the house is no longer lived in, the vast majority of the rooms are open to the public. There are many drawing rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms, all filled with precious items. This was a place built solely for entertaining and as a showcase of their wealth, and this is evident everywhere you look. The house is so extravagant that Queen Victoria actually requested to stay here on numerous occasions. She was also taken by the fact that Waddesdon Manor was quick to install an electricity supply, and she was fascinated by the electric lighting in the house.

After exploring the rooms, including those favoured by Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and other notable guests, it was time to head back outside to continue exploring. There are a couple of other buildings that are open to the public and included in the entry ticket, the stables and the powerhouse. The stables feature a courtyard with a cafe and ice cream stall, and at the time of our visit part of the stables were open for an art exhibition. The powerhouse was originally used to control the electricity supply of the house, and the original equipment is still in place along with the small electric elevator that had also been installed in the house. Now the building is also used to show short videos explaining the background of the property, worth ten minutes or so to view them if you have time. After this our explorations were finished and it was time to head back to the car park. As we had walked quite a long way around the house and through the grounds, our original plan was abandoned and we opted to take the bus back to the car park. They are very frequent, and just too convenient!

On the way to Waddesdon Manor we had noticed signs for a number of other National Trust properties nearby, so we decided to try and fit one more in while we were in the area. The perfect choice seemed to be Ascott House, a Tudor building that had also been a Rothschild family home. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it in time to enter the house, but we were able to view it from the outside and to explore the grounds. Certainly not as grand as Waddesdon Manor, Ascott House has a more homely feel to it. Reminiscent of all those houses we imagine from Shakespearean plays, it is also very well-preserved. The grounds are large, yet not grand with only a few sculptures and fountains located in hidden gardens around the periphery. The main area of the grounds is a large open space more familiar to parklands rather than stately homes. I would love to be able to tell you more about it, but you’ll just have to wait until we can go for a more timely visit, or visit for yourself!

Well, that’s all the visits we’ve managed so far, but you can be assured they will be plenty more in the best future. So stay tuned for part two!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Another beauty in the list of the National Trust, Waddesdon Manor has a completely different story. This building was created from scratch at the end of the XIX century by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who wanted his own French château in the middle of the British countryside. Thought to be a showcase for his art collection, the manor grew with the times, both with additions to his original plan and with improvements to adapt with modern times, being one of the first places to install electricity (for great amusement of Queen Victoria when she visited) and to have a lift. The collection keeps growing with more additions in the present time, and Waddesdon Manor goes through deep cleaning every winter when closed, a cleaning that follows the rules established by the Baron’s sister.

The tours follows a very organised path and is easy to follow, and when you buy your tickets online you are suggested to download the app with the audio guide. We followed the suggestion and it is a great idea, you can choose what you listen to and see the images and videos on your phone in a very handy app with lots of extras. The furniture is incredible, with real art pieces in every room. The care for the objects is extreme and many pieces of furniture and fabrics in general are covered with fine nets to preserve them from further deterioration. The paintings and the clocks, in particular the big musical clock in the conservatory and the elephant clock, are definitely the most beautiful objects in the collection for my taste, but you can find many fine porcelain objects and full sets of plates that will astonish you as well.

The gardens around the manor are definitely reminiscent of the ones in Versailles, often cited as an example. In the grounds you also have a few interesting diversions. First of all, the Aviary, with cages with different birds, all set in a semi-circle with a fountain in the middle. Another interesting part is the Power House, a small building with a screen with information about the activities such as the wine nights and the foundation activities, the old power units and the original lift. About the wine nights, the manor produces some fine wines and organises dinners and wine tastings for all tastes and prices, have a look at their website for the dates scheduled up to the end of the year. Further away in the grounds are the Stables. You know my issue with horses, but this place is not used as stables anymore, it is instead partly a café and partly a small exhibition centre for modern art. I fell in love with these dresses showcased there!

DSCF4355

The carpark is located at a certain distance from the manor but shuttle buses run every 7-8 minutes to take you to two stops, the actual building and the stables. You can also choose to walk back, but you will have a fair share of walking in the actual house and in between places through the woods if you want. That’s what we did and we were glad for the bus there and back.

Near Waddesdon there is another National Trust place, Ascott House, a Tudor house with extensive artistic grounds. Unfortunately, we arrived late for the last entry (or on time to be more precise) and we didn’t get in, but we had a walk around the grounds to enjoy the views and the fountains. I guess we should plan a wine and cheese escape to Waddesdon Manor soon and combine it with this visit.

There are so many other splendid buildings in the UK, symbols of luxury and squanders of the old times, but many of them are living a second golden age thanks to foundations and trusts and are actually working in different ways for the community. This second half of the summer should be pretty busy again and we can’t wait to tell you more about our next visits, we have some special ones already booked, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

WPC – Bridge

Dear readers,

It’s time once again for the weekly photo challenge, and this week’s topic is ‘Bridge‘. Having just come back from our trip to the Isle of Skye for Ms Lust’s birthday (which you can read all about here), it seemed too much of a coincidence not to include a photo of one of the many beautiful old bridges that are to be found on the island.

PSX_20170706_123129

However, it’s unlikely that anyone will be going to Skye just to see the bridges, as the landscapes themselves are the main draw and the bridges simply add to the aesthetics. 

That’s not quite the case for my next subject, which is also my favourite bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridge may not be the main attraction in Sydney Harbour, as it is next to the famous Sydney Opera House, but it certainly was for me. 

PSX_20170706_122908

This is the first photo (of many!) that I ever took of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, after having walked through the city in order to see the Sydney Opera House. I hadn’t even given the bridge a moment’s thought, but as soon as I saw it dominating the views of the harbour I was instantly awestruck. Ever since then, this has become my favourite place in Sydney and I always try to visit no matter how short my stay in Australia is. 

PSX_20170706_122045

This photo was taken during Vivid Sydney, a light festival which sees many of the city’s famous sites being lit up at night. At this time of the year, the bridge really does live in the shadow of the opera house, which is lit up with colourful artwork projected onto the famous sails. However, the bridge does get a light show of its own and it is still a part of the festivities. The bridge’s time to shine comes at New Year’s Eve when it becomes the showpiece of Sydney’s New Year’s firework display, and then it really does get a light show to be jealous of!

PSX_20170706_121608

I couldn’t find any good quality photos of the bridge during the firework display, so I chose this one of the last sunset of 2012 forming a beautiful backdrop for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I never get tired of this wonderful view, and I can’t wait for our next visit to Australian shores and to this fantastic piece of engineering.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

As a translator, the concept of the bridge is something important. For those of you who don’t know, the etymology of the word “translation” is the latin for “bearing across”, and a bridge is the perfect image of what a translation does, because it bears the meaning of a text from one language to the other. It is not surprising then that, when I needed to clear my thoughts while living in London, I would go walking from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and just make sense of things, or at least try to.

1

Tower Bridge is impressive both from a distance and from up close. If you are lucky enough to be walking on it when a tall boat is passing, you can see it opening in front of your eyes. You can also visit it and walk through the history of its construction. I enjoyed the visit a lot and I even managed to look like I am not regretting standing on the glass floor on top of the road!

         IMG_4832     IMG_4835

 

In our post about Rome, you may have noticed not only my love for the city, but also how strongly I feel the internal contrasts of this capital. There could be many examples of this, but just think of how the metropolis, capital of the Italian State, contains in itself another capital city, actually a city-state, the Vatican City. Many bridges are famous and impressive in the Eternal City, but the sunset starting to paint Saint Peter in pink behind Ponte Sisto makes this spot and this bridge one of my favourite sights of our trip.

IMG_7601

Thank you for travelling with us, see you soon!

Ms Lust

 

 

WPC – Focus

Dear readers,

Unfortunately we’ve had a lack of ‘focus’ this week, and as such we have cut it really fine to get this post out before the weekly deadline. This was mainly due to the usual rush before publishing our fortnightly post (this particular one is about our trip to Australia’s Red Centre), which itself has lent a flavour to this week’s photo challenge.

DSCF3627

As soon as we saw this week’s topic, and with Uluṟu already on our minds, this image sprung straight into the forefront. The focus of this photo is very hard to miss, not only is it one of the most famous landmarks in the world but even the environment has lent a hand to ensure it isn’t missed. Everything seems to have aligned perfectly to showcase this wonderful monolith, and Mr Wander even managed to take a photo that isn’t wonky for a change!! If you’d like to read more about Uluṟu and our tour of the Red Centre, where we first met, you can find our blog post here.

For our second photo, we’re looking at focus in a more photographic sense. Mr Wander loves taking photos of animals, which usually requires a long zoom to ensure that the subject isn’t frightened off. This also creates a wonderful effect with the focus of the photo, due to the much smaller depth of field.

PSX_20170618_231747

This basically means that the size of the area in focus is reduced, making anything in the foreground or background appear blurry. This really makes the subject of the photo stand out due to being the only part in focus, similar to fading effects seen on apps such as Instagram. If you follow our blog regularly, you can be sure there will be many photographs like this one in our future posts!

Mr Wander and Ms Lust

The Rock Tour

G’day readers!

I really hope you enjoyed our post When Wander met Lust, however we have to be honest and say that this wasn’t the first time we met. This was the first time we met intentionally and started travelling and living together, however the very first time we met was almost four years earlier in the remote outback of Central Australia. In fact it was almost five years ago to this day in June 2012, hence the reason for posting this now. We had both been living in Australia for a number of months already, just not in the same place. I had spent the previous four months living with my sister in Newcastle and my travels so far had mainly been limited to New South Wales, in particular the Newcastle, Central Coast, and Sydney areas. But I hadn’t come all the way to Australia just to spend two years working in Newcastle, there was a whole continent-sized country out there waiting for me to explore. So in an effort to avoid anything resembling wintry weather, and as the six month limit on my job was approaching, I decided to book a trip through Central Australia from Adelaide to Darwin. On the way I would be stopping at Alice Springs in order to take a tour to Uluṟu and the Red Centre, and this is where the story begins.

DSCF3627

I’d booked the tour before leaving Newcastle, and would be taking a three-day camping trip with The Rock Tour. A couple of days after arriving in Alice Springs, and already having exhausted most of the sightseeing opportunities, it was time for the early morning pick-up from my hostel. Patiently waiting with the small group of other backpackers that were also congregated outside the front of the hostel, it was soon my turn to leave as the bus pulled up. I was one of the first to be picked up for this tour, so after the introductions with our tour guide, Myles, we were soon on our way to collect the rest of our travel companions for the next few days. I’d like to take the opportunity now to say how awesome Myles was as our guide. It was obvious that he really enjoyed his work and that he had a true passion for the area and its culture, and this made it so much more enjoyable as a whole. The stories he would tell, not only on the long journeys between stops but also at the sites themselves, were entertaining as well as interesting and informative, and I really did learn a lot from him in those three days. Not only about Uluṟu and the other places we would visit, but also about their importance to the indigenous people, the issues caused by tourism on these sites, the local flora and fauna, and much more. I believe he is still in Alice Springs working as a tour guide, so if you’re planning to visit this wonderful place I’d definitely recommend booking a tour with him as your guide.

After a quick tour around the hostels of Alice Springs, we were soon all loaded up and ready to begin our journey. I’m sure many of you will have already guessed this by now, and yes, Ms Lust was one of my travel companions for this tour. But please don’t expect this to be a deeply romantic post about our first enchanted meeting, as you will be sorely disappointed! There was nothing too extraordinary about it, sure she had grabbed my attention, but she was travelling with her boyfriend at the time and there was nothing more to our interactions than friendly chit-chat. In saying that, she must have made a good impression on me as nearly four years later she was still on my mind and it was then that it started to become romantic!

So there we were, 14 eager backpackers on a bus embarking on our journey across the outback and into the heart of Australia. I had always thought that Uluṟu was reasonably close to Alice Springs, and it is true that Alice Springs is the nearest town. The term nearest tends to take on a different meaning in Australia however, particularly in the outback, and this translated into a six-hour journey, covering over 450 kilometres (280 miles), to get to our first destination, not so close after all! After having spent over 24 hours travelling across the outback by train just to get to Alice Springs, the prospect of another six hours in a bus was less than exciting. The Australian outback, like most deserts, is incredibly barren and there really isn’t very much to see. But I have to say that the bus trip was a lot more interesting than the train had been a couple of days prior, and I was pleasantly surprised. We made a couple of stops along the way, at a service station to stock up on fuel and other necessities (mainly beer!), and at a place called Mount Conner. Often referred to as ‘Fooluṟu’, you can see how easy it would be to confuse the two landmarks. It is believed to be part of the same geological formations that include Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa, and it is almost as tall as its more famous relation. Mount Conner is visible from the lookout just off of the highway, however there are private tours available organised by the landowners of the cattle station it is located on (that’s right, farms in Australia are large enough to have their own mountains!).

After a brief stop to unload supplies and set up camp, our next destination was the one that we had all been waiting for, Uluṟu. Nothing can quite prepare you for the wonderful moment that you first see Uluṟu with your own eyes. Being one of the most famous landmarks in the world, there is no shortage of images out there showing its magnificence and beauty. But none of these manage to capture its remoteness, something that you only truly appreciate after a six-hour journey across the outback with very little else to disrupt the emptiness, natural or man-made. If Uluṟu had formed in the Amazon Rainforest or in England’s Lake District for example, it would barely have raised an eyebrow. And that’s because it isn’t just Uluṟu’s size, colour, or shape that makes it so extraordinary. It is the location that it finds itself in that makes Uluṟu so unique, something that can only be fully appreciated by physically being there. Seeing such a huge, natural landmark erupting out of such a barren and infertile environment forces you to accept that nature really is in charge here. After this, Uluṟu takes on an even greater sense of significance and it becomes incredibly obvious why it is sacred to the aboriginal people of the area, the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu. I think visiting Uluṟu affects everyone differently, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could come to this special place and not feel moved by it in some way.

DSCF3628

There were still plenty of daylight hours left in the day, so the iconic moment of seeing Uluṟu at sunset would have to wait. In the meantime we drove right up alongside the great monolith, and set off for a walk around a section of the perimeter. This was where we had the opportunity to see Uluṟu for more than just a rock in the desert, and to explore some of its smaller details. There are some unique areas of Uluṟu which showcase how the area has been able to support the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu for so long. There are numerous waterholes around the base of Uluṟu, although these were mostly empty as our visit was during the dry season. These have been formed by rainfall draining off the rock during the wet season and forming gullies, waterfalls and pools. As there was very little water in these pools at the time, this gave a perfect opportunity to see the results of the erosion that the water has caused. Cascades where the water would flow are easily identifiable, even more so due to the black algae deposits that have been left on the rock face by the flows such as here at Mutitjulu waterhole. Other rock formations have been created by further erosion, such as an area known as Wave Cave (pictured above) which has been created by wind erosion. This was also the moment when I had been hoping to see some of Australia’s desert animals as we made our way around the perimeter. Unfortunately although it was still reasonably warm for us during the day, it was obviously too cold for any reptiles to be out and about and the only animals I saw during our walk were a rabbit and a cat! Luckily we had seen a few camels and plenty of eagles on the bus journey so I wasn’t completely disappointed.

We finished our walk at the area where the Uluṟu climb starts, which I’m glad to say our tour did not allow us to do. I’ve never seen the point in climbing Uluṟu, it really is in the middle of nowhere and I struggle to fathom out what it is that people are hoping to see from up there. There is very little to obstruct views of the horizon even from ground level, so anything that can be seen from the top of Uluṟu can probably be seen from the ground anyway. After having been there, I now feel even more strongly about not climbing. Not to mention the dangers of climbing (the rock is like sandpaper and will shred the skin of anyone that slips), this is a sacred place for the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu so what right do we have as tourists to desecrate it by walking all over it? You wouldn’t try to climb onto the roof of the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel, and I don’t see how this is any different. There are many reasons why I believe the climb should be banned, but fundamentally none of my opinions really matter. I read an article that summed it up perfectly, which stated ‘The way I see it I am on someone else’s land and therefore respect the owner’s wishes’. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I don’t think there was a single person on our tour that was disappointed that we couldn’t climb. I really hope the wishes of the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu are honoured soon and the climb is closed for good.

DSCF3572

With our walk completed, it was time to drive over to the sunset viewing area for the main event. The viewing area was a lot less crowded than I had anticipated, and it was easy to get a good view of Uluṟu as we waited for the Sun to descend. The way that Uluṟu changes colour as the Sun becomes more and more intense really is a treat for the eyes. It looks incredible in photographs, yet it is a hundred times better to see it with your own eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photographs of a rock in the desert, and I doubt I ever will again, but I couldn’t stop in an effort to capture it at its best. It truly is an amazing experience and one that you simply have to see for yourself to fully appreciate it.

After the excitement of sunset had subsided, and dinner had been digested, it was time to head back to our campsite for the night. This was the first real chance we had in the group to bond and get to know each other properly, and it was great to hear everyone’s stories. I went on quite a few similar tours during my stay in Australia and I have to say that this group was definitely the best of them all, even more so now that it brought Ms Lust and myself together. Most groups have become a bit blurry in my memory except this one, and I can still remember every single person on this trip. There was also a fantastic mix of personalities and nationalities, which made it much more interesting than the usual mix of solely English and German backpackers (no offence intended, but it’s nice to mix it up now and again!).  Everyone got on really well together as well, which gave me the added bonus of having people to meet up with on the days I had left in Alice Springs after the tour.

Eventually it was time to get some rest, and we all prepared for our first night under the stars in the freezing desert. We each had a sleeping bag and a swag, which is a thick canvas outer sleeping bag. After building up the fire as much as possible, and placing our backpacks to use as pillows, we all turned in and hoped we’d drunk enough beers to get a decent sleep! I still remember waking in the morning to find my bag covered in frost, but luckily the beers had done their job and I was ready for our second day of exploring.

We had woken up early to catch sunrise, and it was just as incredible as the sunset had been the day before. Although the colour of Uluṟu didn’t change too much, the sky put on an equally impressive light show of its own. After breakfast, we then went back to the base of Uluṟu to complete another section of the base walk. This section included Kantju Gorge, where the rock sides are almost vertical and have created a natural gorge. Eager now to head to the second stop on our tour, we all made our way back to the bus for the journey to Kata Tjuṯa.

DSCF3678

Kata Tjuṯa and Uluṟu are part of the same national park, and the journey between the two was a lot shorter than getting to Uluṟu from Alice Springs. I hadn’t heard of Kata Tjuṯa before booking the tour, so I wasn’t too sure of what to expect. It had been visible in the distance from Uluṟu, yet it wasn’t until we got close that I was able to see how beautiful it is. Part of the same geological formation as Uluṟu, yet formed by different processes, Kata Tjuṯa looks like a grouping of domes of which some almost look like ancient houses. We only had half a day to spend here, as we had to drive to our second campsite near Kings Canyon before nightfall, which gave us enough time to complete the Valley of the Winds walk. This walk took us through one of the gaps between the domes to reach the other side of Kata Tjuṯa. It was fairly hard work but also good fun to be able to be so close to this magnificent place without feeling like we were trespassing. This is still a sacred place however, which is why we haven’t included any photos from here in keeping with the requests of the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu.

The walk is one-way, so after retracing our steps we boarded the bus for a short trip to a viewing area. Situated to the side of Kata Tjuṯa, this gave us the opportunity to see it from a different angle which was a complete contrast to the usual views of this wonderful place. Unfortunately that is all I can really recall of the time we spent here, it seems very short but as I said the walk was quite long and tiring. So we were soon back on the bus again, and on our way to Kings Canyon.

After a long journey we arrived at our second campsite, on a camel farm near Kings Canyon. We would have to wait until the following day to see the canyon itself, so the rest of the evening was spent setting up camp and preparing dinner. I had been allocated the job of Fire Marshall for the second night, so it was the responsibility of myself and two others to light the fire and keep it burning. We decided to take this honour quite seriously and nearly stayed up the entire night, although at one point we decided to wander off into the distance a little way for some stargazing. It was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but there was something incredibly peaceful about laying in the grass, staring at the stars, and listening to the dingoes howling in the distance. Again the beers may have had a little part to play in that, and their effect soon led us into a few hours sleep. Ms Lust told me that she found the second night a lot warmer and had slept a lot better, so I’m glad that out efforts were not in vain!

DSCF3694

Kings Canyon was our last stop before heading back to Alice Springs, and I’m sorry to say that this is where my memory starts to get more and more patchy. Kings Canyon is part of Watarrka National Park, and has walls approximately 100 metres high which have been formed by Kings Creek. There are three walks that can be done here, and we were to complete the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. This is a three- to four-hour walk which combines paths along the top of the canyon walls with some leading into the canyon itself. The first part of the walk has been aptly named Heartbreak Hill (or Heart Attack Hill, depending on the source), a steep climb up to the top of the canyon wall. From here we walked along the canyon wall, being careful of the sheer drop into the canyon just metres away. The views from the top were spectacular, with some very interesting stopping points along the way. My personal favourite was Pride Rock, reminiscent of its namesake in The Lion King. Myles had even brought Simba along with us, so we took turns having our photos taken recreating the famous scene!

Further along, the path dropped back down to the bottom of the canyon, and an area called the Garden of Eden. It is easy to see how it got the name, it really is an oasis in an otherwise barren environment. Again it becomes clear why places such as this are so sacred to the local aboriginal people, not just for their beauty but also for the life-giving resources they provide. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and for us that was true just in reverse. So we made our way back up to the top of the canyon wall to complete the rest of the walk.

Weary and tired, we all clambered back into the bus for the final leg of our trip back to Alice Springs. After the long journey back it was nice to arrive at the hostel, but also sad to say goodbye to the friends I had made over the last few days. Luckily our tour also included meeting for dinner at a local pub, so we all met up once again before going our individual ways. We had a great evening sharing the plans for where our next travels would take us, but at the end of the night it really was time to say goodbye. As I said before, I still had another four days in Alice Springs and it was very nice to now have some people to spend that time with. Most of our tour companions were leaving almost immediately however, and it wasn’t too long before I was the last one left in town. But then my turn to leave also came, and I was honestly very doubtful that I would see any of my new found friends again. Fortunately I was wrong, and four years later I would be picking Ms Lust up from Christchurch Airport, another wonderful day that I will never forget (Sorry, I couldn’t finish without being soppy at least once!).

So that’s pretty much it, my story of an incredible three days in the remote outback of Australia which gave me the greatest gift ever. Before I sign off, I just want to say hello and a massive thank you to everyone I met on this tour, it really wouldn’t have been the same without you all. Special thanks also to Myles for being such a great guide, and most importantly to Ms Lust for putting her faith in the skinny English guy she met all that time ago in this magical place.

Happy travels 🙂

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

I have already told you that there are some places that have been in my dream holiday list since I was a kid, and more and more are added almost on a daily basis. In fact, I would like to visit every single place on the planet, so what makes some places more special than others? There are many reasons, it may be a book that made me dream of a city or a site, it can be a movie, sometimes a song, and even a comic book. In this case, it all started in 1992, with a story in Topolino, the Italian comic strip about Disney characters. In one of the episodes, Uncle Scrooge rents Uluṟu to win a competition with his rival John D. Rockerduck.

Comic

This is the reason why, in 2011, when the plan to visit Australia started getting some shape, two things were listed as unmissable: Swimming with dolphins in the wild and visiting The Red Centre. If you are wondering why it is called The Red Centre, here you can see why. Australia is a country that has seen an extremely fast development and, as a consequence, a terribly fast deterioration of its natural resources. In response to this, in recent years, a lot has been done to repair as much as possible, and the companies that offer tours and activities are often very respectful of the environment and the well-being of the animals. But let’s go back to 2012, ten years after the reading that triggered the desire to visit Uluṟu. Soon after arriving in Adelaide in March, I found a job, but as I already had a return ticket to Europe for July, I decided not to extend my stay. I was going to leave this beautiful country after only six months there. I still had three months to make the most of it and I started planning the final tours. Adelaide is one of the most common starting points for those who go to The Red Centre, so it was not difficult to find something interesting. My eye was immediately caught by The Rock Tour, which seemed to offer everything I was looking for at a great price:

– Bus journey. I had already travelled by plane (Sydney-Melbourne) and by train (Melbourne-Adelaide), and I was only missing a bus journey with Greyhound to call it a full experience.

– Things that scare me. I am acrophobic and mysophobic, but I try overcoming these fears every time I can. Mountains, hiking, two nights camping in the desert. It was going to be the perfect test.

– All details covered. One booking for everything, the bus, the hostel before and after the tour, the swag, the sleeping bag, the food, all included and planned for me.

Check it out, you have several options for starting and finishing locations and you can also add a night in the underground mining town of Coober Pedy. I opted for a direct trip without stopping in the opal town and I am glad as I ended up with a horrible fever two days before leaving and fortunately I arrived in Alice Spring without any delays. I guess fate helped in this case and made me end up in the right place at the right moment to meet Mr Wander. I have to admit that the twenty hours in the bus helped me sleep off the fever and I arrived feeling a lot better. The hostel was quite nice, also because after that trip a nice shower and a clean bed are the best things in life.

The tours start early, at 5:30 a.m., and there are actually two groups that follow two opposite itineraries, either seeing Uluṟu first and then Kata Tjuṯa (that was mine) or vice versa. As I said, the bus picked us up quite early and was ready for everything. Myles, our guide, was the best we could hope for. Of all the good things, what I admired the most was his incredible respect for the place and the local people. As for the group, we were a colourful bunch of guys from a good mix of countries and we started immediately getting to know each other through a few games. Well, immediately… let’s say as soon as we started really waking up. Our first stop was in the last outpost before getting completely lost in the desert. We filled up and bought beers for the whole trip. Back then, I would not drink much, so it seemed easy to decide how many beers to buy for the next three days, but it was not. In that case, it is like going on a weekend trip: You still over pack just in case! Anyway, in perfect Australian vernacular, here are the toilets we found on our way, for sheilas and blokes.

The Rock Tour

A few tips to be shared that I learnt while on tour:

  • As we said, we went in June, which is the beginning of winter in Australia. It was a great choice because, although it is cold at night (it was 0⁰ C for us), during the day it is a pleasant 25⁰ and allows you to explore without suffering too much from the heat. Some hikes are tougher than others and require you to be fit, such as Heart Attack Hill in Kings Canyon. We climbed it at around 9 a.m. and the temperature was already reaching 20⁰.
  • Again, the nights are pretty cold, and you will be sleeping under the stars so some things are worth keeping in mind. You will have a swag, the Australian symbol of camping, a sleeping unit made of a mattress and canvas. The sleeping bag goes inside. Apparently, the secret is to sleep naked in the sleeping bag because the thermal material keeps the temperature released by your body, while clothes prevent this from happening. As I rented the sleeping bag for the tour, I preferred not to do that and I ended up freezing the first night, when the fire was 50 cm high and, therefore, far away from us. The second night was a lot better because the fire was on ground level and the earth underneath our swags was also warm.
  • It may seem obvious, but pack wisely: sunscreen and insect repellent, hat and sunglasses, wet wipes and wound wash, layers of clothes from t-shirts to fleece hoodies and a wind-breaker, trekking shoes. Bring a small bag for your belongings for the whole tour and a small backpack to carry water and essentials on the walks.
  • If you just bought them, use your trekking shoes before the tour, let them shape around your feet and let your feet get used to the sturdy material, you won’t want blisters.
  • Make sure you have enough charge on your devices and possibly a spare battery, you won’t have too much access to electricity but plenty of pictures to take.

There could be so many things to say about this tour and The Red Centre, but let’s see what I can show you through my eyes. Having lived in Adelaide for almost three months, I had time to get in touch with aboriginal culture before arriving to Uluṟu, but I investigated further just before taking the trip. The landowners of Uluṟu and the surrounding land are Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, or Aṉangu, and they ask visitors to respect their land and traditions. This means that they also ask visitors not to climb the rock. Uluṟu is their sacred mountain and they ask everyone to respect the cultural importance of the monolith. Climbing is not forbidden, but this must be seen from the point of view of Aṉangu to be understood. The lack of ban apparently comes from a lack of use of negative sentences in their language and culture; this does not mean that they are pleased with people doing it, just that they won’t directly say don’t do it. Respecting the local culture should be reason enough to make people stop climbing, but there is more. The climb is extremely challenging, we are talking about a rock that is steep, over 300 m high, and beaten by strong winds; the temperature can easily go over 40 degrees and the climb is dangerous. As Aṉangu people mourn and feel responsible for everything that happens on their land, accidents and fatalities are a heavy burden for them. Moreover, there are no facilities at the top, which means that some climbers have no respect and do their necessities when they arrive, then the rain washes it all down. It is disrespecting the site twice. Due to the extreme conditions, the climb can often be closed when it is too dangerous but the day we went it was open and I was really glad to see that we were surrounded by like-minded people and none of us wanted to climb anyway.

The walk around the base of Uluṟu is 9.4 km long and includes water holes, incredible geological formations, and caves with ancient graffiti. Some parts of the rock are not to be photographed because they are dedicated to gender-related rituals, so the opposite sex is not allowed to see them. As you can imagine, photographs would violate this taboo. In the same way, people’s name are not to be written because aboriginal people do not name someone who has passed away, but writing the name would invalidate this point as the name would be pronounced every time it were read.

The first night we watched the sunset over Uluṟu, and there are no words that can fully describe the sight. The monolith changes colour so many times until the sky actually becomes dark and it is a breathtaking view, only compared to sunrise the day after. We collected some firewood, prepared our dinner, and stayed around the fire for as long as we could before going to sleep. The second morning was another early rise as we had to catch Uluṟu before sunrise, another experience that has to be lived because it cannot be explained.

The Rock Tour (60)

This place is sacred to the owners of the land, but visitors can feel the magic and power as well. It may be special to me now because there I found my soul companion, but it has always been special, with an inexplicable feeling of divinity that simply comes from the earth and that permeates everything. During those three days the concept of time was a bit relative and it is hard to recall exactly what we visited before and after.

After leaving Uluṟu, we went to Kata Tjuṯa, the other rock formation that is part of the national park. We are not talking about a monolith as in the previous case, but of domes. The era in which both were formed is the same but the materials are different. The materials created by the erosion of mountain ranges ended up underwater and being compressed. In the case of Uluṟu, it was sand and that is why now we see a solid rock; Kata Tjuṯa, on the other side, was originally gravel and that is why it is now a conglomerate that just looks like a gigantic group of pebbles.

Mother Nature is usually a genius but she seems to have worked her best in Australia. The landscape is mind-blowing, the animals are unique, and the plants are able to survive impossible conditions. I had already learnt how some trees grow branches and leaves all over their trunks to use all their surface to breathe when they have been attacked by fire, but climbing to the Valley of the Winds we found a tree that had a black branch that seemed burnt and I learnt something even more incredible: In the desert, when a tree senses that there is not enough water to provide for its whole body, it just cuts a branch out from the supply in order to have enough for the rest. This part is not dead, the tree can resuscitate it when there is more water available. Animals are also amazing. We all know about marsupials, but reptiles are also perfect machines. Some of the Australian lizards are quite big in size but pretty slow, which makes them easy prey for any predator. Some of them, like the blue-tongued skink, drop their tail to fool the predator while they keep fleeing. The tail of the blue-tongued skink will grow back until they reach a certain age, but it is not nice when they lose it, which is why at reptile centres they ask you to handle them carefully and not to touch the tail.

Talking about reptile centres, plan your tour wisely. Alice Springs is not that big, as Mr Wander must have told you already, but there are a few interesting things to see. I was glad I had my plane to Cairns in the evening on the day after coming back from the tour, as it gave me time to visit the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, a place dedicated to indigenous reptiles and that also works as an educational centre and as a snake call centre for those who may need to remove snakes from their houses. There I had a chance to see many wonderful specimens, including the thorny dragon (see below). I first heard of this animal on the tour, as it was our guide’s favourite. This creature is able to drink from any part of its body so, if it needs to drink, it just needs to step into a puddle of water or drop its tail in it. Isn’t that amazing?

Alice Springs (4)

A part of the tour that is blurry in my memory is Kings Canyon, I guess because it involved a lot of heights and precipices. Nonetheless, it was worth it, the views are stunning and some spots are pure heaven. Well, actually, one of them is called the Garden of Eden, so I am not exaggerating. None of us swam in this beautiful place, as it was the beginning of winter and the water was freezing, but we all took our pictures down at the lake and up the rock with the little lion cuddly toy in pure Lion King style. Even I did it, but standing far enough from the edge and unable to bend my knees even a tiny bit!

On our way back, we stopped to find witchetty grubs, a type of larvae that used to be part of the diet of Aboriginal people. I think we only found one that half of the group shared. We then headed to the camel farm, where we rode racing camels, and that is not a good idea, read more about that in comparison to my Egyptian experience in our previous post about the Red Sea.

Once back in Alice Springs, we separated for a while to get ready and then meet again in the pub for our farewell dinner. I was heading to the Great Barrier Reef the next day and Mr Wander was going to stay in Alice Springs a while longer. No worries, as you may guess, after lots of chatting we met again and we have many more trips to talk about in our future posts.

Ms Lust

 

WPC – Order

Dear readers,

As our regular readers will be aware, we like to include some of our own photography in our blog posts. So when I came across a weekly photo competition by The Daily Post, it seemed like a great opportunity to exhibit more of our shots.

This week’s topic is ‘Order’, very relevant during a general election week but we’ll leave the politics to the newspapers. In keeping with the spirit of our blog, all of the photos that we post for the competitions will have been taken on one of our trips together, whether locally or further afield.

As soon as I saw the topic for our first week, the image that immediately spring to mind was the columns at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. There are 142 columns on each side, which were placed in such a way so that they all appear to be perfectly aligned when viewed from a particular spot in the square. You can check out our post about our trip to Rome here for more details.

IMG_7731

After a little more thought, and with the current events in the UK playing on our minds, we then remembered a photo taken of the EU’s Berlaymont building in Brussels on our trip there in October last year (more details to come later in the year!). The façade of the building is a very utilitarian affair, constructed of a mass of identical looking offices made up of nothing but straight lines. Outside there are 28 flagpoles flying the EU flag to represent each member state, orderly standing evenly spaced in a row. We couldn’t think of anything that would represent ‘Order’ better than this, especially when considering the purpose of the building as well!

We hope you have enjoyed our first entry for the weekly photo competition, as there will be plenty more to come!

Mr Wander and Ms Lust