Bangkok, a city of savage beauty

Dirty. Smelly. Crowded. Polluted. Chaotic. All words that apply equally to Bangkok, yet this is a wonderful, mesmerising city. There is more life lived amongst these pulsating city streets in one day than in most other places in a year. All humanity – its best and worst qualities – is openly on display in one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities. Counterintuitive it may be, but it is possible to feel attraction and revulsion simultaneously as you walk through the streets of Bangkok.

Boats on the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok, Thailand

Boats on the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok, Thailand

Food being cooked at a street stall, Bangkok, Thailand

Food being cooked at a street stall, Bangkok, Thailand

Massive Buddha, Bangkok, Thailand

Massive Buddha, Bangkok, Thailand

It was a short work trip, but I can’t describe the joy at leaving the frozen European winter behind for a few days. That was until I stepped off the plane into 34ºC of heat. When I left Schiphol Airport the temperature in the Netherlands was a balmy 2ºC; the heat, humidity and jet lag hit me like a brick wall for the next 48 hours.

A street bar in the Khao San area, Bangkok, Thailand

A street bar in the Khao San area, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Bangkok, Thailand

A vibrant mix of old and new, and despite a persistent (and deserved) reputation for the sex trade, Bangkok is a cultural paradise of palaces and temples. More than anything else though, the city that sits on the Gulf of Thailand is a giant market. There are markets all over the city, selling just about every commodity known to humankind, but a stroll down any street brings you face to face with people selling things. Food stalls are everywhere.

Modern advertising, Bangkok, Thailand

Modern advertising, Bangkok, Thailand

Typical houses by a canal, Bangkok, Thailand

Typical houses by a canal, Bangkok, Thailand

Street stall in China Town, Bangkok, Thailand

Street stall in China Town, Bangkok, Thailand

Food is perhaps the defining thing about a visit to this city and Bangkok street food is reason enough to get on the plane. Thai food is delicious – salty, spicy and crammed full of fresh herbs and spices. This might explain why Thais never seem to stop eating. Walk down any street and there will be several street stalls selling food – some of which it would take a braver soul than I to sample.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist prayer tree, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist prayer tree, Bangkok, Thailand

I’ve been to Bangkok once before, in the early-1990s, and have fond memories of wandering the streets and absorbing the larger than life atmosphere. This time I was in Bangkok for work and spent most of my time in air conditioned rooms of one sort or another; for a whole week I only got glimpses of the city from the back of a car or out of a window.

Shoe repairs, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoe repairs, Bangkok, Thailand

That is no way to experience this city. There is life on every corner and the streets demand to be explored on foot to absorb the sights, sounds and smells…fair warning, the smells can be pretty disturbing. Luckily I had three days free at the end of the work trip to do some exploration. Donning my flip flops and a spirit of culinary adventure I headed out…

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

The problem with three days in Bangkok is deciding what to see and which areas to visit. There are so many possibilities and I wanted to explore them all. By the time I got back to my hotel each night I was exhausted. That is Bangkok, exhilarating but exhausting. After all, I defy anyone not to fall in love with a city that has a giant elephant sculpture as a traffic island.

Elephant roundabout, Bangkok, Thailand

Elephant roundabout, Bangkok, Thailand

A walk through ancient Petra

Standing in front of the Khazneh el Faroun, the Treasury of Petra, is to stand in the ruins of a majestic ancient civilisation. The giant Greco-Roman columns stretching towards the deep blue of the sky are a magnificent reminder of the extraordinary civilisation which left all this behind. A civilisation that not only carved out a flourishing empire amongst these mountains, but literally carved a city out of and into the red sandstone.

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Bedouin boy outside Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Bedouin boy outside Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Our guide said many people only came for the Treasury; having seen this iconic building they return up the equally iconic Siq canyon and leave the rest of Petra unexplored. We only had half a day, but that is more than enough to venture further afield, although it would take days, if not weeks, to explore the whole of Petra. Only 15 per cent of the city has been uncovered by archaeologists, leaving multiple mysteries yet to be discovered.

Sandstone colours, Petra, Jordan

Sandstone colours, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tombs, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tombs, Petra, Jordan

The declaration giving Petra UNESCO World Heritage status states that, the city “bears a unique testimony of a disappeared civilisation in which ancient Eastern traditions blended with Hellenistic architecture.” Wandering the ruins of this once cosmopolitan crossroads between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, which has witnessed waves of history washing over it, is enough to send a shiver down the spine.

Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

Nabataean tomb, Petra, Jordan

The history of Petra is the stuff of legend, fitting for such a remote and mysterious remnant of an ancient culture. Founded in the 6th Century BC by Nabataean Arabs, it became the centre of a vast Nabataean Kingdom built on trade across the Middle East and extending to East Africa. In 106 AD the Kingdom was annexed by Roman Emperor Trajan; under Rome it continued to flourish as a trading centre but became a political backwater.

Bedouin and camels, Petra, Jordan

Bedouin and camels, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tombs and camels, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tombs and camels, Petra, Jordan

In 636 AD a series of devastating earthquakes severely damaged the city and the city’s sophisticated water system leading to a serious decline. The city fell to Arab invaders capitalising on the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, then 12th Century Crusaders built three castles in the area and the city was again on the political map. Saladin’s conquest of the region in 1189 saw the city spiral into terminal decline. It remained home to Bedouin until its ‘rediscovery’ in 1812.

Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan

Donkey, Petra, Jordan

Donkey, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was a Swiss orientalist, geographer and adventurer who risked his life to explore the Middle East. In Syria he heard of the fabled city of Petra and set off in pursuit of this illusive goal. He disguised himself as an Arab scholar and reached the city in 1812. He described Petra as “a rose-red city half as old as time”.

Burckhardt went on to visit Mecca and Medina disguised as a Muslim. He would have been killed if discovered, but his Arabic was so fluent and his knowledge of Islamic religious texts so great that he easily passed as an Arab.

Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan

Entrance to Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Entrance to Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Tourist stall, Petra, Jordan

Tourist stall, Petra, Jordan

Burckhardt wasn’t the only adventurer to visit Petra. A century later T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) raised an army of Arab and Bedouin fighters here to attack the Turkish Ottaman Empire during World War I. The Ottoman forces were destroyed, but the British and French ultimately reneged on their agreement to grant independence to the Arab World. You can pretty much draw a direct line from that deceit to the mess we find ourselves in today.

Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Stairway with 'silver' camels, Petra, Jordan

Stairway with ‘silver’ camels, Petra, Jordan

The terrible history of this region was on my mind as I strolled north from the Treasury towards the massif of Jebel Khubtha and the Royal Tombs. As you leave the closed confines of the Siq canyon it’s possible to appreciate the full scale of what the Nabataean civilisation achieved. It’s truly magnificent.

Unfortunately, the Jordanian sun sets early in winter and we could only explore a small portion of the city. The rest, including the ‘Monastry’ building, will have to wait until next time.

Entrance to Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Entrance to Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Royal Tomb, Petra, Jordan

Sign of the times, Petra, Jordan

Sign of the times, Petra, Jordan

The Rose-Red city of Petra

Lost for hundreds of years to the outside world, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra is an extraordinary place to behold. The former capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, which stretched across modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan and a chunk of Saudi Arabia and Syria, is literally carved out of multi-coloured sandstone cliffs that glow with intense colour as the sun rises and sets.

Snow in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Petra, Jordan

Snow in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Petra, Jordan

Snow in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Petra, Jordan

Snow in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Petra, Jordan

The city is enormous – perhaps home to over 30,000 people at its pinnacle in the 1st Century AD – its construction a monumental effort. A major trading centre, huge camel trains would stop en route between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Seeing it today, it isn’t too much of a leap of imagination to visualise a thriving and cosmopolitan metropolis with trade routes extending to the Indian Ocean and East Africa.

When the Nabataean Kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire it lost its former importance. A long slow decline set in, leading to the abandonment of Petra. Trade dwindled, people left, and by 700 AD the city was a shadow of its former self, at least according to archaeologists – written records are limited.

Djinn (a type of spirit) blocks, Petra, Jordan

Djinn (a type of spirit) blocks, Petra, Jordan

Tomb of a wealthy family, Petra, Jordan

Tomb of a wealthy family, Petra, Jordan

Bedouin girl in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Bedouin girl in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Petra is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Everyone has seen photos of the iconic facade of the Treasury, or Khazneh el Faroun, viewed from the extraordinary slot canyon known as the Siq. This is where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery galloped off into the sunset at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is so familiar that I had a genuine fear of being underwhelmed.

The Siq canyon with horse and cart, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon with horse and cart, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

I needn’t have worried, even with the occasional tour group marching past and persistent camel ride offers, this is a sublime place full of atmosphere and the shadows of history. Petra was visited by nearly a million people in 2010. Since then violent chaos in Iraq, the Arab Spring and collapse of Syria into vicious conflict have seen a dramatic fall in numbers. In 2013 there were nearly 400,000 fewer visitors, I’d guess the figure will be even lower for 2014.

Tomb in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Tomb in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Sophisticated water system in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Sophisticated water system in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

We were told that the previous week had seen only 50 visitors per day. There were more than that when we were there, but not by much. This has positives and negatives: fewer people means a more relaxed environment to explore the site; it also means you’re much more likely to be targeted for camel and donkey rides, as well as unpromising looking tourist tat sold by Bedouin children.

January is cold in Jordan and we’d been greeted at the airport by rain which turned to snow when we drove over the hills towards the Dead Sea. The drive to Petra took us into the high mountains in which Petra sits, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves passing through ancient villages dating from the Ottoman Empire surrounded by snow – snow in the Middle East!

Shrine in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Shrine in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Phallic fertility symbol in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Phallic fertility symbol in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Arriving in Petra we walked through the Siq canyon between towering walls of sandstone towards the Treasury. It is perhaps the most extraordinary entrance to a city, ancient or otherwise, anywhere on the planet. We hired a guide for a couple of hours, without whom we’d have missed a lot of detail in the Siq, including a boulder that looks like a fish before transforming into an elephant.

Nemo found in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Nemo found in the Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Part of a carving of a camel train, Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

Part of a carving of a camel train, Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The first sight of the Treasury facade, glimpsed from within the canyon, is startling. Entering the large space in front of the Treasury is nothing short of magical, although the smell of camels takes the edge off it a little. The whole building is a tremendous mixture of Nabataean and Greco-Roman architectural styles, highlighting the ‘global’ position of this city over the centuries.

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Siq canyon, Petra, Jordan

The facade is pockmarked with holes; not the result of the wind and rain which carved this landscape, but of bullets from Bedouin guns. A destructive belief that a carved urn on the facade contained treasure was the cause. The Bedouin who have inhabited this region for centuries tried to break it open by shooting it, not realising it was solid stone. Any actual treasure was stolen long ago by tomb raiders.

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

The Treasury or Khazneh el Faroun, Petra, Jordan

If there is a downside to Petra, it is that the management of the whole place feels chaotic. There are ugly looking shacks selling tourist souvenirs; Bedouin gallop past wildly on horses, camels and donkeys, many of which look like they aren’t well treated; and, in truth, it feels a little run down. It wasn’t what I expected of one of the most famous places on the planet and Jordan’s premiere tourist attraction.

A Dead Sea stroll

I arrived in Amman late, my flight delayed for six hours by high winds over the Netherlands and missed connections in Germany. Already tired and feeling a bit grumpy after arriving 19 hours after setting off, my mood wasn’t improved by the freezing cold temperatures and pouring rain that greeted me as I walked out of the airport.

This changed to a sense of wonderment when, en route to Jordan’s Dead Sea coast, the rain turned first to snow and then to a blizzard. The car headlights cut through the darkness to illuminate snow lying thickly between groves of olive trees, and our speed dropped to a crawl as conditions deteriorated further. I finally arrived at my hotel at 2am. It was raining.

Swimming pool over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Swimming pool over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Swimming pool over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Swimming pool over the Dead Sea, Jordan

The next day I went to have a peek at the Dead Sea, the Earth’s lowest point on land. No snow here and the rain had given way to blue skies. A haze, caused by the evaporation of water due to a clash between the cold atmosphere and hot sun (according to one of the hotel staff), obscured much of the view from the hotel. I could see Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, but only just.

Dead Sea, Jordan

Dead Sea, Jordan

A sign told me that I was 415.75 metres below sea level, but the Dead Sea was some way below the sign. The surface of the Dead Sea is approximately 429 metres below sea level. Water levels have been dropping for years thanks to diminishing water flow into the Dead Sea, particularly from the Jordan River, and water extraction from it for industrial use in both Jordan and Israel. The lowest point on earth keeps getting lower.

Below sea level, Dead Sea, Jordan

Below sea level, Dead Sea, Jordan

The unique feature of the Dead Sea, really a lake at the end of the Jordan River, is that all the rivers in this region discharge their water into it but no river exits it. Water only leaves by evaporation, which accounts for the unusually high concentration of salts and minerals, and the haze over the water. Ocean salinity is around 6 per cent, the Dead Sea is over 30 per cent.

Salty deposites in the Dead Sea, Jordan

Salty deposites in the Dead Sea, Jordan

Early morning on the shores of the Dead Sea, Jordan, Middle East

Early morning on the shores of the Dead Sea, Jordan, Middle East

This hyper-saline lake, famous for photos of people floating while reading a paper and mud-based beauty treatments, sits in the centre of the Holy Land and there are reminders of that everywhere. I was in Jordan for work so had little opportunity to take a float in the salty water or to explore the areas’ historical associations – home to more Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites than you can shake a stick at.

None the less, standing by one of the world’s most iconic stretches of water is a stimulating experience, and I did manage to catch a spectacular sunset.

Sunset over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Sunset over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Sunset over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Sunset over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Sunset over the Dead Sea, Jordan

Sunset over the Dead Sea, Jordan

A town twinned with Cape Horn

The lovely town of Hoorn became wealthy and famous thanks to its position on the former Zuider Zee, an arm of the North Sea that gave ships access to the Baltic in the 15th Century. By the 17th Century Hoorn was a centre of global trade as one of the major ports of the Dutch East India Company. It was during the Dutch golden Age that the town gave its name to Cape Horn, the most southerly tip of the Americas.

It might be hard to guess at today, but for a small place Hoorn has an extraordinary history.

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

When the Zuider Zee silted up in the 18th Century Hoorn’s importance faded and its port, which in former times saw ships arrive from the furthest corners of the globe, became a backwater.

Everything about the town points to the water and many sailing boats still sit at anchor in the multiple harbours. The boats still have access to the old Zuider Zee but today most of them are used for sailing the landlocked IJsselmeer lake. The lake was created by the building of the Afsluitdijk to seal off the Zuider Zee from the open ocean.

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The towns former wealth is obvious as you wander streets lined with historic houses, centuries-old churches and reminders of the former sea trade. On a canal near the port the road name gave a hint of the former trade in this part of town. Hoorn is located close to the German border, Bierkade is where German-made larger beers were offloaded into warehouses.

Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Former warehouse on Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Former warehouse on Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

I came across a pink house with three hedgehogs high above the door. This, it turned out, was the former home of a wealthy merchant family and the three hedgehogs their official coat of arms. Hedgehogs seem quite normal when you consider that the official coat of arms of Hoorn is a red horse with a golden horn (which I suppose makes it a red unicorn).

Three hedgehog coat of arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Three hedgehog coat of arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Coat of Arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Coat of Arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn’s decline as a sea port saw it turn its attention inland and become a centre for agricultural trade, but it never regained its former glory. Today tourism adds significantly to the economic mix of the town, including many people from Amsterdam coming to sail boats and swap the city for the sea breezes coming off the former Zuider Zee.

Sunset, Hoorn, Netherlands

Sunset, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Visiting in winter, the sun descended early and a biting cold followed in its wake. Luckily, Hoorn has a host of pleasant restaurants and lively bars that welcome you off the street with a warming glass or two.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

After I’d warmed my bones I took another stroll around the harbour and then meandered back to the train station. As if by magic, ships in the harbour had been transformed with nightfall; many of the boats had seasonal lights illuminating their masts and strung around their hulls. It made the town even more atmospheric.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, the ‘trumpet’ of the Zuider Zee

Back in the Netherlands following the holidays, the weather cleared up just enough to make a trip further north to the ancient town of Hoorn. One of the old Zuider Zee ports, Hoorn was once one of the most important and wealthiest towns in the Netherlands. Today the town still reflects the great wealth that was generated by global trade, and is an inviting place to stroll.

Settled around the 8th Century and granted city status in 1357, the horn-shaped harbour (which gives Hoorn its distinctive name) was perfectly located on the Zuider Zee (a branch of the North Sea) for the Baltic Sea Trade, particularly the trade in herring. In the 15th Century herring made Hoorn rich.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

Already rich, Hoorn became fabulously wealthy thanks to the discovery of trade routes to the Far East. Dutch East India Company founder, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, came from Hoorn and the town was one of the company’s most important bases. Ships departed to return laden with spices from Batvia (Jakarta, Indonesia). This made the Netherlands a powerful trading nation and led to the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age.

It was Coen’s vision that led the Dutch to build an empire in what is modern-day Indonesia, an empire which lasted until 1949 when Indonesia won independence following World War II. Coen has a large statue in the central square, the Rode Steen.

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Cabin Boys of Bontekoe, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Cabin Boys of Bontekoe, Hoorn, Netherlands

It was from Hoorn that Willem Corneliszoon Schouten departed in 1615 in search of an alternative, western route to the spice islands of Indonesia. This he did by sailing into the Pacific Ocean after rounding the tip of South America which, naturally, he named Cape Horn (Kaap Hoorn) after his home town.

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn’s fame led the 17th Century Dutch poet, Joost van den Vondel, to refer to it as the “trumpet” of the Zuider Zee. It looked like Hoorn’s position as one of the preeminent Dutch trading ports would go unchallenged, but the good times came to an end in the early 18th Century. The disaster that sealed Hoorn’s fate was the silting up of the Zuider Zee and Hoorn’s own port. Ships were no longer able to reach the Baltic.

Westfries Museum, Hoorn, Netherlands

Westfries Museum, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Without Zuider Zee access, the trade in exotic spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and mace, which had created vast profits and seen Hoorn flourish, ended abruptly. Hoorn sunk into relative obscurity.

To understand the Zuider Zee, and what happened after it had silted up, you really need to look at a map. A modern map won’t reference the Zuider Zee, because once it had silted up the Dutch realised that if they built dykes and sealed this inland sea it could be drained and turned into farm land. This was proposed in the 17th Century but only became reality with the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1920.

The harbour and dyke, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and dyke, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Rode Steen, central square, Hoorn, Netherlands

Rode Steen, central square, Hoorn, Netherlands

Today the Zuider Zee is a lake split into two parts: the IJsselmeer and Markermeer. Hoorn remains an important port for leisure craft and the harbour is full of sailing boats, crewed on weekends by people from Amsterdam. Approaching from the train station and not the water gives a false impression of Hoorn, despite having a lovely central square, the town’s true heart is the harbour.

Rode Steen, central square, Hoorn, Netherlands

Rode Steen, central square, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, Hoorn, Netherlands

I made my way to the harbour and started my exploration of this charming town. One thing about the herring and spices that were traded through this port, they have bequeathed the town some wonderful buildings. One of the oldest, dating from 1632, now houses the fascinating Westfries Museum – a good place to start if you want to get your bearings on the town’s history.

A Devil of a time at Swinside Stone Circle

Small but perfectly formed, dramatically located with spectacular views, would be an estate agent’s description of Swinside Stone Circle. They’d probably skip over the tale about how the stones were actually being used to construct a church when the Devil pulled the building down and sunk the stones into the ground. No one wants to know their favourite stone circle has an association with the Devil.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

This local superstition, an invention of the 15th or 16th Century, gave Swinside Stone Circle the alternative name of Sunkenkirk Circle but ignores the long history of stone circle building in the English Lake District. This northern region may be something of backwater these days, but 5000 years ago this was the epicentre of Neolithic civilisation in the British Isles. There is a high concentration of stone circles in and around the area.

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I’d set off in the late morning, the southern Lake District was bathed in bright winter sunlight and there were some beautiful views of snow-capped hills and red-golden bracken on the hillsides. The sort of day when the English Lake District is breathtakingly beautiful.

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

This was he first time I’d visited Swinside, but after my visits to Castlerigg Stone Circle and Long Meg and Her Daughters I was keen to see Swinside Stone Circle as well. If you want to visit this off-the-beaten-track stone circle be aware that there are no road signs to help you in the adventure. I drove past the track I wanted twice before working out where I needed to be.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I parked the car on a roadside near the tiny village of Broadgate and walked for 30 minutes or so to reach Swinside, climbing up a steep hill before the track flattened out across the fell side offering views for miles to the north. A few desolate-looking sheep munched on grass and I knew how they felt as the sun disappeared to be replaced by dark clouds and intermittent freezing rain.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

The stone circle sits on a remote plateau in the middle of the fell which you might think is natural, but excavations have shown that this area was created by Neolithic peoples several thousand years ago. The fifty-five stones, hauled here from some distance, are held upright in holes filled with small pebbles.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I’ll say this of the builders, they had an eye for a beautiful and atmospheric location and weren’t too concerned about the effort it took to construct these monuments. To the north are the mountains of the Lake District, importantly though, a short distance south hidden by the fells is the Irish Sea coast and the port of Millom. Presumably this was an auspicious site for trade and fishing.

A family forlorn, Long Meg and Her Daughters

The fifty-nine granite stones (The Daughters) that make up the circle and the huge sandstone monolith (Long Meg), that comprise the wondrous Long Meg and Her Daughters Neolithic stone circle, are an extraordinary sight to behold.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

I can’t describe the feeling of being in the presence of this ancient monument better than William Wordsworth, the great Lake District poet, who penned the following lines after a visit in 1833:

A weight of awe, not easy to be borne
Fell Suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that sisterhood forlorn -
And Her, whose strength and stature seemed to scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
When, how and wherefore, rose on British ground
That wondrous Monument, whose mystic round
Forth shadows, some have deemed, to mortal sight
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

This is no ordinary ancient monument. At over 100m in width this is the third largest stone circle in Britain and the sixth largest in the world. So grand is the scale of Long Meg and Her Daughters that the only way to appreciate the magnitude of what you’re seeing is to view it from the air. Luckily, Visit Cumbria has an arial photo on its website. Viewed from the air or not, this is a magnificent place.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

There were perhaps seventy-seven stones in the circle, eighteen having vanished over the centuries. Still, we should be grateful that any stones are standing at all. In the 18th Century the landowner, Colonel Lacy, decided to have the stones removed so he could plough the field (some say he thought there was buried treasure). As the work began a terrifying thunderstorm erupted, taken as an omen that the stones should be left alone.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

This story adds to the local superstition that the stones are a witches coven turned to stone. It’s said that if any unsuspecting visitor manages to count the stones twice and gets the same number both times, the spell will be broken and the witches brought back to life. Given the size of the stones, the heaviest is estimated to be thirty tonnes, these were some big witches.

Long Meg is the most impressive of all the stones. Quarried from red sandstone on the banks of the River Eden over two miles away, one side of Long Meg is decorated with carvings. These enigmatic spiral, ‘cup and ball’ and concentric circle designs are still visible today. As is some more modern graffiti.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

The stone is associated with many legends. It is said to be the petrified remains of a local witch, Meg of Meldon, who apparently existed in the 17th Century; another superstition states that if you walk around the circle then press your ear to Long Meg you can hear her talk. This terrifying prospect hasn’t stopped people from making offerings at the base of Long Meg and in the trees within the circle.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

None of this explains why this protected national monument has a farm track running through the middle of it, or why the entire area seems to be a toilet for local cows. Is this really how we treat one of our most important ancient structures? Does the local farmer hate people visiting so much that standing in cow shit comes as standard? Perhaps the witches should be brought back to life…

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

A little distance away from Long Meg and Her Daughters is more evidence of the thriving Neolithic civilisation that existed in this area. Just outside the town of Penrith lies Mayburgh Henge, one of three nearby Neolithic henges that acted as meeting places for pre-historic communities. The giant stone in the centre of the huge earth bank that surrounds the site is the only remaining stone of four originals.

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge is fascinating. It’s a huge structure, the surrounding bank is made with approximately 20,000 tonnes of stone brought from the nearby River Eden. There is a gap in the bank forming an east facing entrance and framing the one remaining standing stone as you enter the henge. It is a shame that the M6 motorway runs close by and peaceful enjoyment of this place is impossible.

A Pagan Christmas, exploring Castlerigg Stone Circle

Perched on a hilltop plateau dramatically located in a natural amphitheatre created by the mountains of the northern Lake District, the Castlerigg Stone Circle must be one of the most atmospheric sites for a neolithic stone circle anywhere in Britain. Stonehenge may be bigger, but it can’t rival the intense sense of place you feel when you stand in the centre of Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Constructed over 5000 years ago, sometime around 3200 BC, Castlerigg is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and Europe. The people who built it knew what they were doing. The 360º panoramic views offer spectacular vistas of some of the grandest Lake District mountains, including the towering Blencathra, Skiddaw to the north, Helvellyn, Catbells and Great How to the south.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

It is a magical place to visit at any time of year, although I prefer it when it is freezing cold and the rain is accompanied by driving winds that chill you to the core. Luck would have it that on my recent visit these were the exact weather conditions I encountered. Even the local sheep looked fed up and they’re used to this weather.

One of numerous neolithic sites in the northern English county of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park, Castlerigg probably has forty large stones. I say ‘probably’ because local folklore has it that it is impossible to count the real number of stones, and the ‘official’ number has fluctuated over the years.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Depending upon who you ask the stones number either thirty-eight, forty or forty-two. Although on the information board at the entrance they show forty-seven stones. I counted sixty-five, although I was seeing double thanks to the gale force wind making my eyes water.

The tallest stones are around 2.5 metres high, including two large stones which mark the northern entrance into the circle. On the eastern side of the circle is a rectangle of stones that jut into the circle and probably had a ceremonial function – no artefacts have been unearthed to prove this claim although the solar alignment indicates a religious role.

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Visiting this place at Christmas started me thinking about the origins of the Christian festival, and the pagan traditions it displaced when Roman Emperor, Constantine, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380 AD. Attempting to displace the traditional cult of sun worship, the new religion absorbed much of the old for its own ends. Christmas merged seamlessly with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Similarly the pagan Celtic tradition of Yule, celebrated by northern European tribes, was also absorbed into Christianity, which came late to northern parts of the Roman Empire. Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is a traditional Celtic ‘Fire Festival’ celebrating the end to the darkest days of the year; it still influences our modern rituals around Christmas. Castlerigg Stone Circle, aligned to celebrate the solstice, was part of this tradition.

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Yule logs, Christmas trees, holly wreaths and mistletoe owe their origins to numerous pre-Christian beliefs and traditions that survived the onset of the Christianisation of northern Europe. Even Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is pagan in origin, although I’m pretty sure he was invented by the marketing team at Coca Cola.

All this paganism goes some way to explaining why those religious zealots, the Puritans, outlawed the celebration of Christmas when Oliver Cromwell was running England in the 1640s. What Cromwell and his regicidal compatriots would make of our commercialised Christmas we can only guess at, although I have a feeling Christmas would be cancelled once again.

Walking in a winter wonderland on High Street

It started so promisingly. Blue skies, sunshine illuminating the golden hills surrounding Haweswater and a crisp early morning that normally means a glorious day and wonderful views. Then again…you can never take anything for granted when walking in the English Lake District. As I was trudging up Kidsty Pike on my way to High Street the weather turned, the clouds descended and the snow began to fall, obscuring the valley below.

Haweswater near High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater near High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

This corner of the Lake District National Park feels remoter than its more illustrious counterparts in the central and western Lakes, but it offers fabulous walks and views to rival any in the region. The plan was straightforward, from Mardale Head on Haweswater I’d skirt the shoreline and go up Kidsty Pike to High Street; pausing to take the views before descending over Mardale Ill Bell and past Small Water Tarn.

My start point, Haweswater, was a natural lake until 1935 when the valley was dammed and flooded to provide water for Manchester. The decision caused an outcry, not only was this a beautiful valley but construction of the reservoir meant that two communities would be submerged.

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

The villages of Measand and Mardale Green were lost forever under the water but occasionally the water level drops enough to reveal the old buildings. When I was a child during the drought of 1976 my parents took me there, the water so low it was once again possible to walk through the streets of Mardale Green. The reservoir contains 18 billion gallons, providing North West England with around 25 percent of its water.

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

There is more than mountains and drowned villages to this walk though. The name High Street, at 828 metres the highest point of my walk, originates 2000 years ago when this was the most elevated Roman road in Britain. Linking settlements at Brougham and Ambleside, it was part of Roman supply routes to Hadrian’s Wall, the border between Scottish barbarians (a Roman term, not mine) and the Roman Empire.

Climbing steadily upwards towards the summit, there is something wonderful in the knowledge that you’re walking in the footsteps of ancient history. The tops of this range of hills are broad and ‘flat’, perfect for road building so Roman armies and supplies could avoid ambush in the wooded valleys below.

Snow en route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Snow en route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Trig Point on High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Trig Point on High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

These characteristics also lent themselves to the hosting of summer fairs in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Local farming communities would gather on the summit to exchange lost sheep, buy and sell animals, and take part in traditional games such as Cumberland Wrestling and horse racing. Some locals still refer to High Street as Racecourse Hill, making it one of the more unusual racecourses in the country.

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

On a good day the views across the Lake District from High Street are nothing less than spectacular. Today the weather was determined to deny me the full 360º panorama, but views aren’t everything. There is something profoundly moving about standing alone on a hill top, all noise muffled by a blanket of snow, hearing only the sound of the wind.

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

The walk along the ridge was accompanied by gusting snow; by the time I reached the trig point on High Street’s summit it was pretty much a blizzard. I set off for Mardale Ill Bell but the cloud persisted for much of my descent until, suddenly, the sun burst through and illuminated the landscape around me. It was quite magical. Finally, below the cloud, I got good views over Small Water Tarn and Haweswater before returning to Mardale Head.

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Just in case anyone was thinking of taking a cooling dip in the reservoir after their exertions, this warning sign should give them pause for thought…although it would need to be a warmer day than the one I spent on High Street to persuade me to take the plunge.