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

Bergen, a Norwegian winter wonderland

Winter arrived with a vengeance this week in northern Europe. Heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures have swept across the region causing disruption bordering on chaos for the last few days in the Netherlands. I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to return from a month-long trip to Argentina and Uruguay, where temperatures of 30ºC and deep blue skies were daily companions. The weather put me in mind of a previous trip to Bergen in Norway in the depths of winter.

On our first day in Bergen we were greeted by fierce winds and horizontal rain, the town seemed nothing but grey, cold and miserable. We popped into a local bar to take shelter from the weather and cheer our gloomy spirits, only to realise that Norwegian alcohol taxes don’t allow for gloomy spirits to be cheered. At least not by much. The frenzied buying of duty free alcohol by people getting off our plane at Bergen airport suddenly made a lot of sense.

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Bergen is a pretty town situated in a fantastically picturesque area of western Norway, it’s also notorious for being one of the wettest places in the country. As we ventured back into the streets we were battered by more rain and wind, but made our way to the tourist office to discover what indoor activities were available in case it rained for the entire weekend. The tourist office staff were clearly used to damp tourists showing up looking for hope, and they cheerily told us the weather would improve. We booked a trip to nearby fjords for the next day.

The Norse Gods smiled on us and, as we headed to the train station for the first leg of our trip, the weather was bitterly cold but dry. There were even occasional spots of blue sky. The Norway in a Nutshell trip is less a tour and more a well connected set of public transport. It takes you on a train to the town of Voss, a bus then drops you at a harbour at Gudvangen. We boarded the M/S Gudvangen for a two-hour cruise along Nærøyfjord, an UNESCO World Heritage protected landscape that is outstandingly beautiful, until we finally arrived at the tiny town of Flåm.

The journey through the fjord was little short of spectacular. The Nærøyfjord is famed as one of the narrowest and most beautiful fjords in Norway. It’s towered over by vast mountains, their massive bulk reflected in the dark waters of the fjord. Dotted along the banks of the fjord are a number of tiny villages with brightly painted houses that, especially in winter, seem like the most isolated communities on earth. The landscapes were truly amazing, and I’d have spent more time outside taking photos but for the fear of freezing to death. It was incredibly cold.

The penultimate part of the trip is a 20km train ride connecting the village of Flåm and the railway junction at Myrdal. This is one of the steepest and most famous train routes in the world. We had a short time to regain our land legs before getting on the train and starting the zigzag ascent up the mountain. The train makes a short stop at Kjosfossen waterfall, which probably looks more dramatic when there’s less ice, before depositing you at Myrdal. We had a short wait on the snowy platform before a train arrived to take us on the two hour trip back to Bergen.

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell trip through the fjords, Bergen, Norway

This being Norway in winter, it was already dark before we got on the final train of the day. Bergen is known as the gateway to the fjords, but in winter most of the trips that you can do aren’t available, all except the Norway in a Nutshell trip. The trip takes most of the day – you start in darkness and end in darkness – and despite the cold, it’s a great introduction to this beautiful and extraordinary region. It certainly made me want to return in warmer weather and take a few more trips through Norway’s fjords.

Kamp Vught, revisiting Europe’s darkest days

Visiting the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught is a sobering and surreal experience. The former Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch camp, operated by the occupying Nazi forces between January 1943 – September 1944, is located in pretty woodlands. To reach the camp, I’d cycled through picturesque countryside and along a tranquil canal passing dog walkers and other cyclists. It’s almost unimaginable to think of the multiple horrors that were carried out in these peaceful surroundings, but Kamp Vught was the scene of barbarity that is difficult to grasp.

This was the only SS concentration camp outside of Nazi Germany and, in the eighteen months of its operations, more than 32,000 men, women and children were sent to the camp. Approximately 12,000 of these people were Jews, sent here before being sent to the death camps in Eastern Europe. The rest of Kamp Vught’s inmates were resistance fighters, political prisoners, Roma, criminals, and a variety of others whom the Nazis deemed unacceptable. As with other camps, prisoners were forced to wear coloured triangles on their prison clothes to identify their category of ‘crime’.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Conditions at the camp were horrifying. Unlike other camps outside Germany, Kamp Vught was run exclusively by SS troops, who seemed to take pleasure in extreme punishments. The camp had three different SS commanders over its lifespan, including the notorious SS-Untersturmführer Karl Chmielewski, who came with a reputation for sadism gained at Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in Austria. During his time prisoners could expect overcrowded and unsanitary living quarters, appalling working conditions and severe beatings. Food was rarely more than watery soup.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of people died of starvation and disease. Others were executed by firing squad at a location deep in the surrounding woods. There is a small museum that tells the story of Kamp Vught, and there’s an excellent audio guide that explains the workings of the camp and its buildings. It also provides personal stories from some of the survivors. It’s a very moving and emotional experience, and it doesn’t pull any punches when describing the inhumanity and suffering witnessed here.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, NetherlandsNationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Of the many incidents of barbarity, one stands out. The ‘bunker tragedy’ came about when a female inmate was sent to the camp prison (the ‘bunker’), provoking a protest by other women. Camp commander Grünewald, retaliated by forcing 74 women into cell number 115. It was tiny, with little ventilation. The screams of the women could be heard around the camp. When the cell was opened on January 16, 1944, ten women were dead. The tragedy became propaganda for the Allies, the embarrassment to the German authorities saw Grünewald sentenced to prison. A punishment later revoked by Himmler.

Equally notorious were the two ‘kinder transports’, when camp authorities transported Jewish children to death camps in the East. One of the transports left on the 5th and 6th June, 1943. The parents were told that the children were being sent to a special children’s camp. Instead, at least 1,269 Jewish children were sent to the Westerbork transit camp, also in the Netherlands. Afterwards they were deported to Sobibor in Poland, where the majority were sent to the gas chambers almost immediately upon arrival.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

As I walked around the camp, I had to remind myself that I was still in the Netherlands. The German’s recruited local labourers to build the camp, they thought that this was simply an army barracks. It wasn’t long before trains started arriving at the nearby town of Vught though, their tragic human cargo marched through the town towards the camp. It’s impossible to imagine how the knowledge of what was happening at the camp impacted the local community, but people learned to keep their windows closed on days when the wind blew the crematorium smoke in their direction.

A surprise for me was that part of Kamp Vught was used for specialised work, including salvaging parts from crashed planes and making radios for the German war effort. The radios were made using the slave labour of former workers from the Philips factories in Eindhoven. Many of these skilled specialists were Jewish. Philips negotiated improved conditions for the prisoners who worked in the radio factory, but for Jews who worked here it was only a temporary reprieve. As the Allies got closer to liberating the camp, Jewish workers were summarily despatched to the death camps.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

This act was committed by SS-Untersturmführer, Hans Hüttig, who was responsible for evacuating the camp before the Allies reached it. As the Allied invasion gained pace so too did the murders at Kamp Vught. Hüttig executed well over three hundred people between July and September of 1944. Days before the camp was liberated, over 3,400 jewish inmates were sent to Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen death camps. One final act of barbarity that brought this period of the camp’s history to a close.

When Allied forces finally arrived, there were only a few of people left to bare witness to what had happened in this peaceful corner of the Netherlands. It is the ordinariness of the setting that Kamp Vught occupies that is most shocking; the knowledge that this could, did, happen in the most ordinary of places. This, perhaps, is the most compelling reason why a visit to Kamp Vught today is important. We must remind ourselves of the need for constant vigilance to prevent these horrors from happening again.

Heusden, a perfectly preserved medieval star fort

It’s not that Heusden is an uninviting place, it’s just that the massive fortifications of its star-shaped defences are so well preserved that you feel like you’re entering a military zone. One false step and you might be repelled by the town’s defenders. The defences of this charming little town are hugely impressive, and have seen so much history that it’s hard to stop your imagination running wild with thoughts of conquering armies and valiant townsfolk fighting to protect their homes and lives. Seen for the first time it is an incredible sight.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

It’s a truly beautiful place, and it’s popularity probably justifies the huge reconstruction and restoration work that was carried out in the 1960s to return it to its former 17th century glory. The full fortifications and around 400 buildings were restored, in what really was a monumental undertaking that lasted over a decade. If anything, Heusden is a little too well-preserved. Its one hundred and thirty-four national monuments, pristine streets and manicured earth defences ringed by two moats and backed by the River Meuse, make it feel a like you’re walking in an open-air museum.

Located on the strategically important Meuse, at the boundary of three historic Dutch counties, there has been a fortification of some sort here from before the 9th century, which was when some Vikings made the journey up the river to burn the town down. The town played an important role in the War of Dutch Independence, not as a Dutch stronghold but as a supporter of the Spanish Empire that ruled over the Netherlands. The town’s leaders eventually saw which way the wind was blowing and switched sides to support the Prince of Orange.

In 1680, tragedy struck Heusden. Lightening hit the castle and ignited sixty thousand pounds of gunpowder, destroying it and many other buildings. The castle was never rebuilt, but some foundations are still visible. There was additional tragedy during the German occupation in the Second World War. The bridge over the River Meuse made Heusden strategically important after the Allied invasion of Europe. Following the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, Canadian and British armies launched Operation Pheasant in October. Heusden lay directly in their path.

In November, Scottish troops approached the town and the German troops prepared to retreat. Fatefully, 170 of Heusden’s citizens sought shelter from artillery fire in the cellars of the town hall, where the German army had a command centre and hospital. As the German’s prepared to pull out, they mined the town hall’s 40 metre high tower, placing the charges deliberately so that it would fall on the town hall. Some 134 people were killed, of whom 74 were children. Many people consider this event to be a war crime.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

I’d arrived in Heusden on a sunny Sunday and the town, which attracts several hundred thousand tourists every year, was buzzing with life. The main square was filled with people eating outside several restaurants, and the town’s harbour was busy with boats coming and going. I parked my bike in the town centre and went for a leisurely wander. There’s a pleasant walk along the old defences that takes you past several windmills that still sit on the walls of the town, and give you fabulous views over the town and the surrounding countryside.

It doesn’t take long to explore the walls, streets and small alleyways of Heusden, and after an hour or so I plonked myself in the main square – the former Fish Market – and had lunch. This is quite an extraordinary town, made all the more so by the banning of advertising, which gives you a different impression of a place. Lunch over, it was back on the bike and a big loop that would take me to the site of another Second World War tragedy, the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Gelderland’s glorious Kasteel Ammersoyen

Thanks to the film, A Knight’s Tale, I actually thought the Dutch Province of Gelderland was fictitious. It turns out that not only is it a real place, but it has a variety of medieval castles worthy of the film itself. I’d ventured into this eastern Dutch province for a day of cycling – Gelderland is the largest, least populated of all Dutch provinces, and makes for good cycling. First on my list of stops was the magnificent Kasteel Ammersoyen, a classic medieval moated Dutch castle that, after extensive renovations in the late 20th century, is now considered one of the best preserved castles in the Netherlands.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

This itself is somewhat miraculous. The castle was built in the 1350s and has managed to survive over 700 years of turbulent European history. At different time the castle was fought over by Burgundian forces in the Hundred Years’ War, Spanish armies during the Dutch struggle for independence, and Napoleon’s troops laid siege to it as well. The castle was severely damaged by fire in the 16th century, but Allied bombing raids during the Second World War – a war in which it was ill-equipped to participate – did far more damage.

Today, it sits peacefully on the edge of the small village of Ammerzoden, close to the River Meuse. The river has been a major trade route for centuries, and explains the castle’s existence.  Surrounded by water, the castle has four round defensive towers, and a central courtyard. From the outside it seems pretty compact, this is deceptive as the interior is remarkably spacious, despite all the small narrow staircases you have to navigate to access parts of the building.

I’d arrived early, too early for the castle to be open, but luckily for me there was other entertainment on offer. The somewhat odd sight of a couple of dozen people dressed in medieval clothing and playing period instruments. This, it turned out, was a troupe of performers who do medieval recreations around the country, and who’d be practicing various crafts, musical recitals and combat techniques during the day. First though the troupe was warming up with a group photo in front of the castle. They stay in character during the visit, so I think I can forgive them the pre-opening use of a camera.

It was an entertaining visit, especially when I was co-opted into trying out replicas of a medieval mace and sword. I spent some time listening to some traditional music in the kitchens, before exploring the rest of the castle. A tour which I assume took me into a room in one of the towers that is reputedly haunted by a Lady in Blue. Several people have made claims that they have seen or ‘felt’ her presence, including a couple of the castle’s staff. One person has described feeling ‘uncomfortable’ in the room where the ghost is supposed to live.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Who am I to doubt the claims of someone who felt  uncomfortable in a room, but this paranormal activity seems based on little historical evidence. No one I asked knew who the Lady in Blue was, I put the sightings down to wild imaginings of fanciful minds. Still, after this close encounter with the spirit world, I hopped back on my bike and set off for my next destination, the lovely medieval town of Heusden. There was a ferry across the River Meuse, which turned out to be free, as I crossed the midway point in the river I left Gelderland and entered North Brabant. Soon I’d arrived at the fortified outskirts of Heusden…

Unearthing The Hague’s secrets, Open House Weekend

This post could equally be titled “The Secret Life of Hofjes”. These reclusive courtyard communities of former almshouses date back to medieval Europe, and were an early form of privately funded social housing, often for the old or for women. There are still a lot of Hofjes in the Netherlands, and several in The Hague, but they are rarely open to the public and you’d have to know a resident to get a glimpse of life behind their walls. The one exception to this is during Open House Weekend when several Hofjes are open for visits.

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofjes were founded by wealthy citizens who were trying to secure their eternal place in Heaven. In medieval Europe, Christian beliefs and practices were influenced by the need to redeem your soul through works of mercy. There were seven works of mercy, including feeding the hungry, sheltering travellers and comforting the sick. It’s not a surprise that many Hofjes were founded as hospitals. Often they were reserved for the poor, or for single women, but also came with restrictions such as religious affiliation, or a minimum qualifying age of 50 years.

Many old Hofjes still have these restrictions in place, but modern Hofjes are being built without such medieval restrictions. I can understand why there is a modern revival of the Hofjes, they are picturesque places, calm and serene. Walking through the gateway into one is a little like entering a different world, like opening the doors of a wardrobe and ending up in Narnia. One of the most pleasant things about Hofjes is that they are centred around a community garden, often for growing vegetables and herbs. Some of them retain this feature and even sell chutney and honey to visitors.

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

We visited three Hofjes, all with a very distinctive feel to them, and very picturesque. First on the list was De Hof van Wouw, founded in 1647 by Cornelia van Wouw with the purpose of housing single women. Rules he set out in his will still govern who is able to live there. It’s a beautiful place, with red painted window shutters and lovely garden, and larger than I’d expected. Nearby is the ‘t Hooftshofje, founded by Angenis Hooft in 1755. She stipulated in her will that only ‘elderly women or widows who profess the Reformed religion’ were allowed to live there.

‘t Hooftshofje, has eight houses and you’d never guess from the street that there was a double courtyard lying behind the facade. It is much more enclosed that De Hof van Wouw, but no less attractive. Our final visit was to the hidden away Hofje “Rusthof”, next to Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk Catholic church. Founded in 1841 by Elisabeth Groen van Prinsterer for women over 55 years of age, who have Protestant Christian religious convictions, the same age rules still apply today. Something I discovered when asking one of the residents if it would be possible for me to live there.

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

In what would become something of an unintentional religiously themed day, we went back into town, popping into someone’s house to have a look around (all part of Open House), before discovering the Brothers of St. John monastery on Oude Molstraat was open to the public as well. I knew about the Brothers because they make (and sell) a couple of very good beers that can be bought locally. We wandered in and were guided up a flight of stairs to the most extraordinary little chapel on the top floor.

It felt like the chapel was a secret, hidden away from public sight, which explains why there is absolutely no indication of its existence from street level. The monastery is part of a new movement of monastic life begun in 1975 in  France, and has spread to many corners of the world. It has gone out of its way to appeal to young people and to try to attract them to the ‘modern’ monastic life. There have been some accusations that they operate like a cult. All of which I’d still be unaware of but for Open House Weekend.

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands