Art Nouveau glories at the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy

Nancy is famous for may things but, perhaps above all else, it was a renowned centre for the art nouveau movement. Art nouveau flourished here after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by a newly unified Germany. An event little short of a national tragedy, French citizens in German occupied Alsace-Lorraine were given a terrible choice: become German or become refugees. Tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and migrate across the new border.

"France!! Ou l’Alsace et la Lorraine désespérées" by Jean-Joseph Weerts, Nancy, France

“France!! Ou l’Alsace et la Lorraine désespérées” by Jean-Joseph Weerts, Nancy, France

Nancy was the destination of choice for many writers, artists, designers, architects and entrepreneurs fleeing the occupation. This sparked a remarkable artistic and cultural flourishing, and its effect is seen throughout the town. There are art nouveau buildings all over the centre, shop and restaurant interiors are gracefully decorated in the art nouveau style, including furniture, parks are also laid out in the style. Art nouveau was both a movement of “Art in All” and “Art for All”, and Nancy is a true expression of this philosophy.

You can walk the streets as if Nancy is an open air museum, but the heart and soul of art nouveau in Nancy is the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Once the private house of Eugène Corbin, one of the movement’s most important patrons and collectors, today it houses a museum that tells the story of this region’s love affair with art nouveau. The house was completely designed in the art nouveau style, including the gardens, and is the perfect backdrop for the museum.

The house is in an upmarket suburb – the movement may have been “Art for All” but it gets its finest expression in the homes of the wealthy – and the walk there took us past a number of other art nouveau buildings. The sky was blue and the sun was shining as we entered the gardens of the museum. We strolled around before plunging into the extraordinary interior of the house. It is filled with art nouveau stained-glass, furniture, ceramics, glassware, textiles and sculpture. It’s overwhelming, totally impractical to the modern eye, and utterly mesmerising.

While inside the epicentre of Nancy’s art nouveau movement, blue skies had become bruised with rain clouds and, as we headed back into town, it started to rain. Our plan to walk the town’s art nouveau trails was going to have to wait. Luckily, it was early afternoon and we had a back up plan for a long lunch at Nancy’s fabulous art nouveau Excelsior Brasserie. The exterior is obviously art nouveau, but it gives only a hint of the artistic splendour that awaits inside this Nancy institution.

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau stairway, Musée de Beaux Arts, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau stairway, Musée de Beaux Arts, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

The service might be a little ‘brusque’, to put it mildly, but the traditional Loraine food and excellent wine is accompanied by a ceiling that looks like a whipped meringue, and the furniture is designed by Louis Majorelle, one of the leading designers of France’s art nouveau movement. It was the Easter weekend, and the atmosphere was electric with a holiday crowd. We started chatting to our neighbours on the next table, one of whom was an English teacher from a nearby town.

Her husband was a wine connoisseur, and we shared a glass of the Chablis premier cru we’d ordered under the influence of our indulgent art nouveau surroundings. He took a sip and was horrified. This fine wine from Burgundy was too cold. He called the waiter over, admonishing him for allowing such a tragedy to happen. This started an animated discussion amongst several nearby tables about how awful this was. People actually apologised to us for the waiter’s indiscretion. It felt like we’d wandered into a Jacques Tati movie.

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau building, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau building, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

You might say, “it was just a glass of wine”, but that misses the point. The warmth and friendliness of our fellow diners, their obvious pride in their cuisine, and in wanting us to experience it at its very best, encapsulates something about France that is rare in the rest of the world. It’s a lunch that will stay long in the memory as a result.

Nancy, France’s eighteenth century masterpiece

Despite the decidedly un-French name, Nancy’s central Place Stanislas is one of the most exquisite city squares in France. It’s named after a former Polish King, Stanislas Leszczynski, who fleetingly sat on the throne of Poland between 1704 – 1709, before being deposed and fleeing to the Lorraine region of France. A man of vast wealth, not only did his daughter become Queen of France through marriage to King Louis XV, he held the title of Duke of Loraine for 30 years.

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Stanislas Leszczynski street art, Nancy, France

Stanislas Leszczynski street art, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

It is Stanislas who’s responsible for the town’s 18th century architectural centrepiece, and I would defy anyone not to feel a sense of amazement upon seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site for the first time. It’s a masterpiece of urban design, intended to unite Nancy’s old medieval quarter with the ‘modern’ 18th century city. Originally the seat of government for the Duchy of Lorraine, the square is surrounded by magnificent buildings. This includes the City Hall, Opera House, the truly excellent Musée de Beaux Arts, and several restaurants.

We’d arrived late the previous evening after a long drive from the Netherlands, but were keen to explore so skipped breakfast in the hotel. We strolled along a pleasant canal in the early morning sun before heading into Place Stanislas. The town was quiet with only a few people on the streets – it was Easter weekend and everything felt a little sleepy. For the first time in a long time, it was warm enough to sit outside one of the square’s restaurants for breakfast. We relaxed and admired our surroundings.

Afterwards, we strolled around the square before walking underneath the Arc Héré, a mini-Arc de Triumphe, into the grand Place Carriere, at the end of which sits the Palais du Gouvernement and the former palace of the Dukes of Lorraine, now a museum. We made a quick visit to the museum as most of it was closed for renovation, but the lovely Parc de la Pépinière is next door and we walked through it back to Place Stanislas. The sun had disappeared and it started to rain, luckily the Musée de Beaux Arts is a fine indoor alternative to exploring the town.

Inside the magnificent 18th century building, the museum houses a superb collection of Baroque and Rococo art, as well as a more modern collection on the ground floor. In the basement, excavated around the foundations of the town’s medieval fortifications, is a wondrous collection of Daum glassware. One of France’s most prestigious glass makers, Daum was founded in 1878 and was central to the art nouveau movement for which Nancy is renowned. The museum has over 600 items on display, all hand made.

The weather was hit-and-miss throughout our stay, but the rain had stopped by the time we re-emerged. We walked through interesting streets past the cathedral, a vast but plainly decorated building, until we reached the covered market. It was a busy day in the market and we had a lot of fun ‘window shopping’ around the food stalls. Across the Place Charles III outside the market, and backed by some of the ugliest high-rises ever imagined by an architect, sits the 16th century church of Saint-Sébastien, worth a visit for its lovely interior.

Nancy is known as “little Paris” and, while that might be a stretch of the imagination, it is certainly an attractive place. Night was falling as we found a small cosy bar to try a selection of regional beers (a big deal in Nancy) and some regional foods, including the most famous of all, Pâté Lorrain (a delicious savoury pie). We wandered back into the Place Stanislas, which was now beautifully illuminated, before returning along the quiet canal to our hotel.

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Back in the big cheese, exploring Gouda

The last time I visited Gouda I’d been living in the Netherlands for less than six weeks. It’s taken nearly four years to revisit this picturesque town, but it was worth making the short trip – it’s a 20 minute journey from The Hague – if for no other reason than to visit the glorious interior of the medieval Gothic church, Sint Janskerk, world famous for its truly extraordinary stained glass windows. The seventy-two luminescent 16th century windows are the reason Sint Janskerk is an UNESCO World Heritage site, but it also claims the title of ‘longest church in the Netherlands’.

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

When I was last here in 2014 the building was closed, this time Sint Janskerk was not only open, but the winter sun was illuminating the stained glass and the vast interior space of the church. Some of the windows are 20 metres high and represent distinct phases in Dutch history, between Spanish rule and Dutch independence, and between the pre- and post-Reformation Catholic and Protestant churches. In some windows you can see Philip II of Spain, in others William of Orange. Both using the windows for their own propaganda purposes.

There is a fantastic self-guided audio tour of the church – if you visit definitely take the audio tour – which recounts both the history behind the windows and the meaning of the stained glass. Anticipating the beginning of the Second World War, the windows were removed and placed into storage in 1939. Not all of the originals have managed to make it to the 21st century and there are some modern windows, including one celebrating the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945.

We went for a wander around Gouda’s historic streets. It’s a pretty place with plenty of old buildings, including the very ornate town hall, the old cheese weighing building and numerous canals lined with merchant houses. It was Saturday and there was a market in the main square, which was a little disappointing but did at least have several cheese stalls. On a bitterly cold day, we mooched around for a couple of hours through narrow streets and along the town’s canals, until we came across the De Roode Leeuw, the Red Lion windmill, which still produces its own flour.

Ringed by an outer canal, which began life as the town’s defensive moat, the historic part of town isn’t very big and, even with a visit to the town museum, half a day pretty much covers Gouda. We made our way back to the town centre for lunch in one of the restaurants surrounding the main square. Almost every Dutch town has a square like this, and almost every square has a collection of restaurants serving up traditional Dutch fare. In Gouda that included a dish I’d never eaten before, cheese soup. Tasty and warming on a winter’s day.

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Afterwards we popped into the historic Kaaswaag, the cheese weighing building, now the tourist information office and a cheese shop that offer a variety of cheese tastings. We passed up the opportunity to sample yet more Dutch cheese, instead we found another cheese shop, ‘t Kaaswinkeltje, which was serving some weird and wonderful cheeses, including a blue cheese and a black cheese. Call it heresy in this most Dutch of cheese towns, but we left with three different French cheeses.

The oldest tree in the Netherlands, Doorwerth Castle

It’s said that, while looking at a painting during a visit to Kasteel Doorwerth, a woman suddenly felt “cold and very scared”. This terrifying ordeal is now claimed to have been an encounter with the supernatural, and it’s not the only time ghostly activities have been experienced within the walls of this castle on the banks of the Rhine, in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Such is the paralysis-inducing fear people have been subjected to, a British paranormal psychologist (whatever that is) came to the Netherlands to investigate. He’s said to have witnessed the horrifying sight of two “vapour-like mists”.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

People seem to love a ghost story and, even on the freezing cold day I visited, the castle was busy with visitors. Given Kasteel Doorwerth’s dramatic location close to the Rhine and backed by woodlands, and a violent history stretching back to the 13th century, it hardly seems worthwhile trying to add the extra drama of supernatural goings-on. As I cycled along the banks of the Rhine I could see the castle in the distance. It looked very peaceful sat in the Gelderland landscape, but looks can be deceiving. This castle has seen a lot of action.

During Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem in September 1944, the castle was heavily bombed. Medieval building techniques were no match for modern warfare, and it was reduced to a tragic pile of rubble. It took 37 years, but the castle was fully restored to its former glory and reopened to the public in 1983. This wasn’t the first time the castle had been destroyed though. The first recorded mention of it comes in 1260, when it was besieged by the Bishop of Utrecht, who ordered it to be burnt to the ground.

At that time it was mainly a wooden building, when it was rebuilt they took the sensible precaution of using bricks. A huge defensive tower was added, as was the moat that still surrounds the castle today. I walked across the drawbridge over the moat into the lovely courtyard, in the centre of which is an ancient tree said by many to be the oldest in the Netherlands. It struck me that the tree might have been the inspiration for the  white tree of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings.

The tree, an acacia, was planted in the late 16th or early 17th century, and has a very impressive circumference of around seven meters. It’s clearly famous as people were taking selfies in front of it. After enduring sub-zero temperatures on the way to the castle, the courtyard was sheltered from the freezing wind and bathed in winter sun. I sat on a bench and warmed up a little before going inside. Oddly for the Netherlands, there was only information in Dutch, but some rooms had people in period costumes explaining things.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

The castle’s not large and I was back in the courtyard in less than an hour. I got back on the bike and headed to Arnhem. It was only afterwards, sat in a cafe eating a warming bowl of erwtensoep, that I discovered a bizarre link between Doorwerth Castle and Kirkby Lonsdale, the small market town where I went to school in northern England. I was part of Bentinck House at school, named after Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, a large landowner in the area.

Originally from Germany, Bentinck’s were Counts of the Holy Roman Empire. Through marriage they inherited lands in the Netherlands, including Kasteel Doorwerth. The family also had an English branch, started by Captain John Albert Bentinck in the 18th century. Despite his Dutch and German parentage, his grandfather was the British Earl of Portland and he inherited lands in England. The Cavendish-Bentinck after which my school house was named, was a halfbrother of the Duke of Portland. The connected history of Europe’s aristocracy never ceases to amaze.

A bridge too far, remembering the Battle for Arnhem

The history of Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem during September 1944, is something every British person of a certain age knows. The epic film, A Bridge Too Far, recounts the story and features a stellar cast. So visiting the sites of the battle, and cycling over Arnhem’s all important road bridge, held a lot of meaning for me. The road bridge, and the nearby railway bridge, were deemed so critical to Allied plans for the invasion of Germany that 35,000 Allied troops were committed to the operation.

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Had it succeeded the war might have been shortened by a year. After the successful D-Day invasion and rapid success in France and Belgium, the Allies had run out of steam. The plan was to flank German defences and attack from the Netherlands. The British chose to ignore intelligence reports that two German tank divisions were stationed near Arnhem. Airborne troops were ill equipped to fight tanks and support from ground troops took too long to arrive. Hoped for victory turned to tragic defeat.

I started the day with a visit to the excellent Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, a small village outside Arnhem where much of the fighting was concentrated, and where British troops would form a defensive pocket before being overrun by German forces. The museum is based at the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was used as the British HQ. The top floors recount the backdrop of the battle, including original film footage and photographs, as well as recorded testimonies from civilians and soldiers, from all sides. It’s well done and incredibly poignant.

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

On the lower floors, the museum has recreated realistic battle scenes from the streets of Arnhem and the trenches around Oosterbeek. After the museum I visited the Allied cemetery where many of those who died were buried after the war. It’s a tranquil spot. I cycled through the village to Oosterbeek’s old church, which was the scene of intense fighting. The church suffered significant damage, as did many of the village’s buildings. It’s a sleepy, prosperous looking place today, the events of 1944 were devastating.

My route along the banks of the Rhine took me away from Arnhem before crossing over a modern road bridge and returning me along the other bank of the river back towards the legendary Arnhem bridge. This involved cycling 20km into a headwind in sub-zero temperatures. By the time I crossed it my feet were little more than blocks of ice, the side of my face most exposed to the vicious wind was numb, my nose ran and my eyes streamed. In the town are more reminders and memorials to the battle that took place here.

The offensive that might have ended the war a year earlier, ended in failure. Allied troops would be pushed back, the Germans would launch their counter-offensive in the Ardenne, and the people of the Netherlands would be forced to endure a brutal occupation for another eight months. The consequences of defeat would be severe. Swathes of Arnhem were destroyed and hundreds of Dutch families were refugees in their own country.

Dutch civilians, under German occupation for four years, had greeted the paratroopers ecstatically, believing this was the start of their liberation. The reality afterwards was extremely bitter. The German command extracted reprisals against the Dutch with impunity and, during a harsh and unforgiving winter, Germany blocked food shipments to the occupied parts of the Netherlands. Dutch civilians were deliberately starved.

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

This became known as the Hongerwinter, the “Hunger winter” or the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Starvation and malnutrition were widespread, with an estimated 22,000 people dying before the country was liberated in May 1945. Many of the soldiers who took part in Operation Market Garden blamed themselves for inflicting these horrors on the people of the Netherlands. The memorial outside the Airborne Museum pays testimony not only to this, but to the fact that the Dutch never held them responsible:

50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us. This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.

Frozen landscapes and majestic views on Crinkle Crags

Formed by billions of tons of ice during successive Ice Ages, the valleys of the English Lake District are some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll find in the British Isles. There are plenty of people who would disagree, but to me the most beautiful of all is Great Langdale, a picture-postcard perfect slice of Lakeland scenery. The valley runs from near to the village of Ambleside, through the hamlets of Elterwater and Chapel Stile, before ending in the massive bulk of Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, which rise like an impassable wall at the ‘head’ of the valley.

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Great Langdale Valley from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Great Langdale Valley from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

The narrow valley floor is home to several farms, human habitation just about possible in the bottom of the valley provided you’re comfortable with isolation. On three sides the valley is overshadowed by some of the Lake District’s most impressive and popular hills: the Langdale Pikes, Pike o’ Blisco, Bow Fell and the Crinkle Crags. These hulking lumps of rock make you feel like you’re standing inside a vast amphitheatre. On a cold, crisp and clear winter’s day, it’s simply spectacular.

All down the valley, traces of centuries of human history are obvious. Slate mining has been a key economic activity in Great Langdale, and you can see the workings hewn out of the flanks of the mountains. This mining history goes back further to neolithic times, when 5,000 – 7,000 years ago a great neolithic culture thrived in Cumbria. The mountains around Great Langdale provided access to greenstone, ideal for making axe heads. Langdale axes were highly prized and have been found across Europe.

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Langdale Pikes and Helvellyn range from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Langdale Pikes and Helvellyn range from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

I’d dragged myself out of bed long before sunrise after a few days of Xmas festivities. Unsure whether this was a wise thing to be doing, I parked as the sun was tentatively illuminating the top of the Langdale Pikes, but the valley remained frozen and freezing as a brisk wind whipped along it and up towards my destination. The Crinkle Crags get their name from their unusual physical appearance, five large rocky undulations, or ‘crinkles’, and it’s my favourite part of the Lake District.

I wandered down the valley and alongside Oxendale Beck, crossing over the footbridge before starting the steep ascent towards Red Tarn. I trudged onwards towards the first crinkle. Here, on top of the southern tip of the crags the true majesty of this walk is revealed. To the east are panoramas over the Langdale Pikes to Fairfield and Helvellyn; north the views extend to Skiddaw and Blencathra, to the west, the entire Scafell range and sweeping vistas over the Eskdale Valley to the Irish Sea. It’s ridiculously beautiful. To be in the mountains on a day as glorious as this is simply euphoric.

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Bow Fell and Scafell Pike from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Bow Fell and Scafell Pike from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

The second crinkle, Long Top, is the highest point on the walk and contains a surprise, the Bad Step. Approaching the Bad Step, the trail disappears into bare rock. On closer examination it’s clear that you can climb through or over the fallen boulders that have formed it. Years ago, when I walked here regularly, there was a gap in the Bad Step that it was possible to squeeze through. Either the hole has become smaller or I’ve become larger. It was obvious I wouldn’t be squeezing through it today. The climb over was too icy to attempt, so I looped around the back.

As I walked further, I reflected on Alfred Wainwright’s wise words about the Crinkle Crags: “the traverse of the ridge being amongst the grandest mountain walks in Lakeland and strenuous effort will be recompensed by superlative views. Timid walkers will be less happy and may find the mountain hostile but should attempt it: other mountains are climbed and forgotten but Crinkle Crags will always be remembered”.

Three Tarns between Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell, Cumbria, England

Three Tarns between Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

I vividly recalled the day when I found myself here in very hostile conditions. The day started clear and bright, by the time I reached the third crinkle strong winds, plunging temperatures, lashing rain and thick low cloud had turned this into a battle for survival. I became disoriented and, foolishly without a compass, found myself descending out of the cloud into the wrong valley. I had to go back into the ‘weather’ and try again. This is a mountain I’ll always remember, good and bad.

Eventually, I reached the Three Tarns (all frozen) where the route either continues over Bow Fell or descends The Band to Stool End Farm. I opted for descent and to celebrate a fantastic winter walk with a pint of winter beer in the legendary Old Dungeon Ghyll.

The musical Santas of Dordrecht Xmas Market

It wouldn’t be the festive season without at least one trip to an Xmas market. Normally these are disappointing experiences, overly commercial and lacking atmosphere, only made bearable by the consumption of glühwein, or bisschopswijn as it’s known in the Netherlands. I didn’t hold out much hope for the Dordrecht Xmas Market, but life is full of surprises, and a collection of musical Santa Claus’s and a nativity with real animals made it an entertaining day. I don’t recall there being a llama and a load of goats in the stable in Bethlehem, but what do I know, I wasn’t there.

Dordrecht is a lovely town, with a wealth of history and historic buildings that make a visit worthwhile regardless of whether there’s an Xmas Market or not. The city itself, particularly the picturesque area around the old harbour and Grote Kerk, formed an impressive backdrop for the festivities. As we walked down from the railway station, a small throng of people were headed in the same direction. Before too long the first market stalls made an appearance and the smell of glühwein was enticingly wafting through the air.

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Stilt walker at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Stilt walker at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

The Xmas markets I’ve visited in the Netherlands over the last four years all merge with each other in my mind. With the exception of Deventer’s exceptional Dicken’s Festival, none of them really stand out from the crowd. Dordrecht promised much though, its website even claimed that for an ‘authentic’ experience you no longer needed to visit Cologne or Dusseldorf. I wouldn’t go that far, but the roaming musical Santa’s make it one to remember.

It was a chilly day, and we stopped in the Stadhuisplein for a glass of glühwein. A Santa band was warming up on the stage. A crowd gathered and they launched into a series of upbeat seasonal songs in which assorted reindeer featured heavily. I was hoping for some traditional Dutch tunes but the set was entirely in English. Our spirits raised, and ‘Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer’ firmly lodged in our heads, we set off to see what the market had to offer. There were a large number of stalls selling pork-based products.

I’d like to say that this is a Dutch tradition but, honestly, there are processed pork products available everywhere, at all times of the year. Putting some holly around a few sausages isn’t going to make them any more festive. A little disappointed, we set off again and wandered into the Grotekerkstuin, where there was the promise of a ‘living’ Nativity scene. I wasn’t sure if we’d be forced to watch an unfortunate person giving birth in the square (this is the Netherlands, anything can happen), but whatever was going on had drawn a large crowd of excited onlookers. We made our way over.

Safely behind a fence (probably for the animal’s welfare rather than ours) a couple of disconsolate looking shepherds were taking care of a bizarre menagerie of creatures. These included the aforementioned llama, some donkeys, geese, chickens, sheep, goats and, the undoubted star of the show, a camel. I’m pretty sure it was the wrong type of camel for Palestine, even two thousand years ago, but when there’s a South American llama wandering around it seems churlish to quibble over the variety of camel they’d managed to acquire.

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

We managed another glass of glühwein before heading off again through the streets. Occasionally, there was a band playing and there were more stalls, but it was pretty busy and we were quite glad when we finally emerged at the end of the walking route. Ignoring the urge to have yet another glass of warm wine, we made our way back to the station, pondering as we went whether singing Santa’s, a camel and a misplaced llama could really rival the festive markets of Germany?

Winter landscapes on the Old Man of Coniston

It’s been a long time since I visited the Old Man of Coniston. Probably more than ten years have passed since I was last in this picturesque Lakeland village on the shores of Coniston Water. Not much seemed to have changed as I parked the car and walked toward the trail head that would take me to Walna Scar, and then along a well worn route to the summit of this iconic Lake District hill. Snow capped the hills behind the village creating the perfect winter landscape. Although the weather was cloudy, the forecast was for sun later in the day and I set off in good spirits.

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Just as the climb starts to get steep, the route passes through the decaying remains of an old mining operation. Dotted all around are spoil heaps, rusting iron cables lie along the path, bits of old machinery lay abandoned on the mountainside, and a metal tower from an aerial tramway lays toppled on its side. It’s an atmospheric, slightly haunted, place, a reminder that the Lake District has an industrial heritage and isn’t just Beatrix Potter and daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”.

This area was famed for its copper deposits and mining of ore probably dates from pre-Roman times. A big boost came when Elizabeth I brought German miners to the region to extract the copper. Production remained on a small scale until the 19th century, when the mines were enlarged making them the largest copper mines in the north of England. Remarkable really, given that it’s half way up a mountain. The mines closed in the late 19th century, but the remains of this history make for interesting exploration.

I carried on along the snow-covered trail past the small tarn of Low Water, which was partially frozen. It was then that the sun seemed to part the clouds and illuminate the mountains and the valley below. It was a magnificent sight, but the snow along the trail was getting deeper and the wind was beginning to blow hard. I made a small detour to the side of the trail to get a better view over the valley below, the wind made standing upright a real challenge.

I could see the final ascent to the summit and a small group of hardy souls were making their way through the snow fields. I set off after them, but the last bit of the climb was made very difficult by the increasingly ferocious wind. As I reached the summit the sun disappeared and low cloud swept across, obscuring the entire landscape around me. I trudged onwards and finally arrived at the cain which marks the summit. There, I found four people huddled behind it protecting themselves from the wind.

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

On a good day, arriving at the cairn brings with it the reward of wonderful views over the surrounding fells and over Coniston Water. When I got there, visibility was around 100 metres and a vicious wind was blasting ice crystals across the the mountain and into my face. The top of the mountain had become an icy wasteland, and the wind was so strong that just trying to stand up was difficult. What had started as a pleasant walk had turned into a hostile environment.

I’d intended to continue on along the ridge to the north, and complete a circuit back to where I’d started. The wind was so strong, the visibility so bad, and conditions quickly becoming dangerous, that I decided to turn around and retrace my steps down the mountain. This wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, the wind was howling up the mountain directly into me as I walked down. The cold was piercing and the shards of ice almost lacerating … and yes this is considered a fun pastime.

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Lake District from Old Man of Coniston, Cumbria, England

Lake District from Old Man of Coniston, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Finally, down the mountain, the sun reappeared and the clouds that had covered the summit seemed to have vanished. This happens a lot in the Lake District, where the weather can change remarkably quickly. I cursed my luck but was glad to be walking back in warming sunlight.

Lost in the mists of time, Roman history along Hadrian’s Wall

On a frozen Cumbrian morning in December it’s entirely possible to be lost in the mists of time while also being lost in the mist. Here, skirting the modern-day border between England and Scotland, lies what remains of Hadrian’s Wall. This was the northern-most frontier of the Roman Empire, an isolated outpost on the fringe of the ‘civilised’ world. Running for 73 miles between the Irish Sea and the North Sea, the wall passes through spectacular and rugged north country landscapes. At least when you can see them.

Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

The Emperor Hadrian came to power as Rome reached its greatest geographical size. In AD 117, Rome’s authority extended around the Mediterranean, from Portugal in the west of Europe to Germany in the east, and from the Red Sea through the Middle East to the Black Sea. The frontiers of the greatest empire the world had known snaked for thousands of kilometres, and were regularly besieged by barbarian hordes, or non-Romans as they were also known. Nowhere more so than in the north of Britannia.

Emperor Hadrian decided to build a wall to better control this troublesome region. It took six years to build and was in use for nearly 300 years. Despite much of the stone having been reused to build farms, houses and churches, there are sections of the wall that are in a remarkably good state of preservation. Defensive ditches and foundations of fortified towns can clearly be seen as well. It’s a monumental achievement, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t actually see most of it.

As I walked along the line of the wall just east of the Northern English town of Carlisle, the mist hung heavy in the valleys and obscured the hilltops. It wasn’t hard to imagine the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ that the Roman troops who built and garrisoned this region must have felt. I’d planned to spend the day visiting various sections of the wall and walking some of the best preserved segments, but the notoriously bad Cumbrian weather ensured that my plans wouldn’t exactly go to plan.

Arriving at the wall and milecastle in a place called Banks, the mist seemed to be lifting and the sun to be making an effort, albeit a fairly weak one, to make an appearance. I stopped to admire what little I could see of the valley below before heading to the extensive remains of Birdoswald Fort. I’d planned to visit but the mist obscured the entire site. Instead I decided I’d head further east, into Northumberland, and visit the Roman Army Museum. This was at least indoors, and I figured that the weather might have improved by the time I finished in the museum.

Hadrian's Wall at Willowford, Northumberland, England

Hadrian’s Wall at Willowford, Northumberland, England

Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

Sheep protecting Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Sheep protecting Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

Roman Fort at Poltross Burn, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Fort at Poltross Burn, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Although I grew up about fifty miles south of Hadrian’s Wall I’ve only visited parts of it a handful of times in my life. This then, was something of a voyage of discovery. The museum promised an award winning film detailing the history of the wall. The 3D Edge of Empire film was worth the entry fee alone, in twenty minutes the extraordinary lives of the Roman soldiers who were garrisoned along the wall were brought dramatically to life. The rest of the small museum was interesting, interactive and entertaining.

Outside in the real world, things had gone from bad to worse and the mist was now so thick that I could barely see more than a hundred metres in any direction. I’d intended to visit the former Roman town of Vindolanda, a few miles east of the museum, but it seemed pointless to even try in this weather. Instead, I visited a few smaller sections of the wall on my way back towards Carlisle, and made myself a promise to come back in better weather to walk the wall properly.

Bergen: mountains, history and beautiful views

Bergen’s history can be traced back over a thousand years to the early part of the last millennium, when it was founded as a trading post ideally positioned on a wide fjord sheltered from the North Sea by several islands. Viewed from the top of Blåmanen, one of the seven mountains that dramatically surround Bergen, it is an awe inspiring sight. This location made the city an important European hub for trade and commerce – in the 13th century Bergen became part of the Hanseatic League, the powerful federation of guilds and cities that dominated European commerce for 400 years.

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

From humble origins Bergen grew, and grew wealthy. At one time even becoming the capital of Norway until that title passed to Oslo. Even after it became Norway’s second city, Bergen continued to grow in importance and wealth. The trade in fish, particularly dried cod, was its major export, and fish from Bergen was sold all over Europe. The legacy this trading history has left behind, is best seen in the atmospheric jumble of brightly painted wooden buildings that today make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bryggen.

Blue skies and sun greeted us as we left our apartment in Bergen’s Skuteviken district. We were headed to Bryggen but took some time to wander around this historic area, which dates from the 16th century. Skuteviken is more residential than Bryggen, and offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of people away from the tourist centre of the town. In the cold morning air we walked through cobbled streets past wooden houses to the waterfront, where beautiful wooden warehouses sit on stilts above the water. A stroll through the grounds of Bergenhus Fortress brought us to Bryggen.

Bryggen is the historic old port and warehouse district of the city, and it’s little short of a miracle that it even exists. Ever since the first buildings were constructed here it has been repeatedly burnt to the ground by fires. One fire, in 1702, reduced the entire area to little more than ash. After each fire the good citizens of Bergen rebuilt the district, although no one seems to have considered using something less flammable than wood as a building material. Today, numerous buildings from different periods of history remain to be explored.

Most of them are shops, cafes and restaurants. The area is pretty commercialised, but still retains a lot of charm. We wandered through its attractive alleyways on wooden walkways getting a sense of the cramped living and working conditions of the district. It was still bitterly cold despite the sun, so we stopped for a reviving coffee at one of the many cafes before visiting the Bryggens Museum. The museum is built over the remains of the earliest 12 century settlement at Bryggen, the excavations beneath the museum are fascinating.

Bryggen, Bergen, Norway

Bryggen, Bergen, Norway

Bryggen, Bergen, Norway

Bryggen, Bergen, Norway

Bryggen, Bergen, Norway

Bryggen, Bergen, Norway

Skuteviken, Bergen, Norway

Skuteviken, Bergen, Norway

Skuteviken, Bergen, Norway

Skuteviken, Bergen, Norway

Skuteviken, Bergen, Norway

Skuteviken, Bergen, Norway

Afterwards, we headed to the Fløibanen, a marvellous funicular that takes you out of the city centre to a viewing platform on the mountain of Fløyen. It’s a fun way to get brilliant views over the city without having to hike one of Bergen’s many steep hills. As the funicular train chugs up the hill vast panoramas of Bergen and its surrounding hills and fjords reveal themselves. It’s fantastic. Several walking routes start at Fløyen and, since the weather was bright and sunny, we decided to hike up Blåmanen.

Climbing upwards, there was more and more snow, and the air temperature dropped considerably. At the top of the mountain it was a little like standing on top of the world; if the top of the world has been dusted by snow.. The views across the mountain ranges to the east were magnificent; westwards, the views to Bergen and across the fjords were nothing less than spectacular. As we made our way back down the mountain, the sun started to set, illuminating the fjords as red, pink and orange light streaked the sky. It was achingly beautiful.

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway

Blåmanen, Bergen, Norway