Avebury Stone Circle

Unusually, the advent of the New Year in 2014 coincided with the new moon. What better time to go and visit a Neolithic stone circle, and not only just any Neolithic stone circle, but the largest one in the world.  Avebury is not too far from Stonehenge, but I think it a more pleasant place to visit, mostly because there are way less people visiting, and also because, unlike Stonehenge, you can still interact with the stones. I don’t mean in a druidic kind of way, but just being able to walk around the stones, touch them, and see them from all angles allows one to have a better understanding of the way this World Heritage landscape was created and manipulated by the people of the past, and the highly skilled engineering techniques they would have needed to have had.  Silbury Hill is also part of this landscape, and is a massive man made mound – the largest of its kind in the world too. The purpose of constructing this hill remains a mystery to this day, even though the hill has been subject to archaeological excavations, firstly by a Duke of Northumberland in  1777, then in more recent times, by a team from English Heritage.   The West Kennet Long Barrow is another component of this landscape, but unfortunately the walking path leading there was temporarily but insurmountably flooded due to the stormy weather we have been having lately.  Avebury itself is a tiny but charming village, with a cosy (but reputedly haunted) pub, the Red Lion, which is a nice place to end the day.

2013 synopsis

2013 was an interesting year in terms of travel. We started the year off in Edinburgh at a torchlit Viking Parade, and ended the year in Bristol, a city we have become very fond of.  In between that, we have spent more time than usual travelling in the UK, visiting new places in Wales and England, such as Pembrokeshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, and Yorkshire; as well as fitting in another trip to Placencia, Belize for Lobsterfest, and taking a short trip to a previously un-visited country: Honduras – which is a place I would be keen to go back to and spend some more time in.  As well as seeing new places, we have visited some lovely restaurants this year, with a New Year (2013) meal at the Witchery in Edinburgh, and a Christmas meal at Story Restaurant in London. As well as our almost weekly visits to Wong Kei.

Carew Castle

Carew Castle is a short drive from Tenby, a delightful ancient town on the stunning Pembrokeshire coast.  The castle has a history spanning 2,000 years – originally a Norman stronghold, when it was the home of the famous princess Nest  – and the grounds also incorporate a tidal mill and an 11th century Celtic Cross.  The castle has been modified at various times over the years, with extensive remodelling in the Tudor period.  The tidal mill is one of only four in Britain and the only one in Wales.

A walk along a disused railway: Robin Hood’s Bay to Ravenscar

The 21 mile long coastal railway line from Whitby to Scarborough ran from 1885 until 1965 when it fell victim to the Beeching Axe. During its life time, the railway carried both goods and passengers up and down the Yorkshire coast.  The railway line is now a walking/cycling path that takes in some of the most beautiful views in the country.  Because the ballast for the railway track was made from cinders as opposed to crushed stone, the path is now know as the Cinder Track.  We walked a short part of it, from Robin Hood’s Bay to Ravenscar, whilst on a camping trip to the area. Although we only walked a fraction of this path, we were able to get a good flavour for the local history of the area; the walk takes you past the old Alum Works, now a National Trust concern, where bricks were also manufactured; there are still wooden tracks laid in places; and there are still many viaducts to pass under.  We ended our walk at the Raven Hall Hotel, where we enjoyed a much appreciated G&T, before walking back to Robin Hood’s Bay via the coastal path.



Didcot Railway Centre

On what felt like the coldest, wettest day so far of 2013, we took a trip to Didcot Railway Centre. This place is amazing, and luckily for us it was a running day, which meant we got to ride steam trains up and down short lines, sampling first class, second class and third class carriages.  The decor inside of the carriages is beautiful – the cloth designs on the seats somehow transport you in your mind back into the days of Poirot when train travel was glamorous, and were also reminiscent of the carriages that make up the Hogwarts Express. As well as riding steam trains, you are also able to clamber all over their extensive collection of stationary trains that are lovingly cared for and housed in large sheds.  There is also an interesting second world war air raid shelter that was used by railway folk back in The Blitz, as well as a small museum. Luckily for us, the wet weather seemed to have deterred the crowds, but I can imagine on running days in the summer, the place would be packed.

Norfolk Broads

A month or two ago, we went on a short boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads. Our trip was from Acle to Norwich and back  again over about 6 days. As we went off season, the Broads were not too crowded, the only downside to going off season it that is it freezing at night. We moored most nights outside a pub, and had supper in the pubs. Pretty decent food, and very friendly atmospheres in each place we stopped. Spent a night and a day in Norwich, I was very pleasantly surprised by the town. Highlights included a trip to the cathedral, a visit to Dormouse Book Shop, dinner at Thai on the River, and poking around in antique shops. We saw some beautiful pieces of antique furniture for the fraction of the price they would be in London.

Boating on the Broads is a great way to spend a few days, it is lovely just watching the world go by. Some of the places we passed looked pretty desolate, and I was reminded more than once that this is the part of the world where The Woman in Black takes place..

Walking Haunted London

Having a browse in Waterstone’s on Gower Street, I came across an interesting looking book: Walking Haunted London: 25 Original Walks Exploring London’s Ghostly Past by Richard Jones. Although I am sceptical on the existence of ghosts, as the book was on sale for very little, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to learn more about the history of the city I have lived in for the past 16 years.  Living in central London means living in a place that has been continuously occupied for at least two millenia, yet there is so much I don’t know about the streets and places that are part of the everyday background to my life.  The book itself is very good – clear maps and descriptions which give a bit of background to the places which the tours encompass.

We decided to start with the walk closest to home – ‘Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Bloomsbury’ It was a beautiful sunny spring Sunday when we set out so the presence of ghostly goings on were very unlikely.. The walk starts at Holborn Tube Station. From here it heads down Gate Street, a small pedestrian thoroughfare containing mainly restaurants and cafes, most of which seemed geared towards local office workers, as the majority of them were shut on Sunday.  On Gate Street is the first point of interest, The Ship Tavern.  Now normally this is the kind of place I wouldn’t necessarily frequent, purely because I try to avoid pubs with television screens – a personal preference, not in any way judging those that enjoy them. The Ship Tavern looks like it’s still an independent pub, but as a general point, with the proliferation of ownership and management of most pubs nowadays by the big breweries, it’s easy to forget that often pubs have a far greater and longer history than is immediately obvious, and I am glad to be reminded of that by reading this book.

The Ship Tavern dates to 1549 and during the reign of Henry VIII, according to Jones’ text and the pub’s website, the pub was used by the local community and their outlawed priests to hold illicit Masses. A watchman would stand guard and warn the congregation by the use of a agreed signal, and so giving them time to pick up their tankards and give the illusion of being just regular pub goers, and the priests time to hide in one of the pub’s several hidey-holes, were they would wait, praying not to be discovered until the danger had passed.

Next point of note is the house of Spencer Perceval (1762 – 1812) who has the unfortunate fame of being the only English Prime Minister to be assassinated. This assassination was carried out by a disgruntled green-grocer who blamed him for the failure of his business.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a lovely leafy square which was full of happy Londoners soaking up the sun, however apparently it has a rather gruesome past, with some gory executions taking place here 1586 (see page 38)

After a pleasant stroll amongst the trees in the square, we then headed towards Red Lion Street, to have a look at the Dolphin Tavern.  This pub was reduced to rubble at 10.30pm on 9th September 1915 by a Zeppelin bomb, killing and injuring many customers.  From the wreckage of the pub, the pub’s clock was rescued, with its hands frozen at the time of the attack. It now is displayed on the left hand side of the rebuilt pub as a reminder and memorial to the original pub and its customers.  The pub is closed on Sundays, however we were able to take a photograph of the clock through the half open shutter.

The next stop on the walk was Red Lion Square, which is reportedly haunted by Oliver Crowell and two of his compatriots. All we noticed though was the dingy state of the square, which was covered with litter and pigeon droppings. The walk then continues to the British Museum to see two Egyptian mummies that housed unquiet spirits until their exorcism in 1921, and ends at the Atlantis Bookshop, which is said to be visited by the ghost of its former owner.

This was a very interesting and educational walk through some familiar streets, and as we are due to move out of Central London in mid May, we will be sure to do many of the other walks described in this book, while we are still within easy reach.

A Walk Along a Disused Railway Line: Highgate to Finsbury Park

The Northern Heights Parkland Walk: A walk along a disused railway line

Since 1984, this abandoned railway line has been open to the public as a nature reserve. It runs for roughly four miles and begins in Highgate, and ends near a footbridge close to Finsbury Park station (or vice versa). The nature reserve is apparently London’s longest one. We started the walk in Highgate, in one direction is the walk, but in another is a spooky tunnel that has been closed off.

The line was constructed between 1867 and 1863, and was never electrified. There were plans to electrify this line, but the advent of the Second World War meant that this never happened, and once the war was over, the plans were never taken up again, I guess this wasn’t a priority – rebuilding London was. The line continued to be served by passenger steam trains until 1954, and the tracks were removed sometime between then and when the track was reopened as a nature reserve in the 1980’s

There is an amazing amount of different tree species along the walk, including Oak, Rowan, Yew and Hawthorn, and apparently sometimes tiny deer called Muntjac can be seen. Interesting points to note along this walk include the remnants of Crouch End Station, where the platforms still remain, a wide variety of graffiti, and a sculpture of a Spriggan with looks like it is climbing out of the wall. Although I’m not sure what it thinks it is doing outside of Cornwall.

The walk took around an hour or so. According to local legends, a steam train can sometimes be heard close to Highgate late at night. All in all this was a very pleasant walk with lots of railway related points of interest, as well as being an wildlife sanctuary, and beautiful haven of trees and wildflowers in the midst of the city. I would suggest starting this walk at the Finsbury Park end, and combining this with a meander around Highgate Woods, then a stroll up to Highgate Village to visit The Flask.

Aldwych Underground Station

In December, we were lucky enough to get tickets to tour a disused underground station.  The tour was run by the wonderful London Transport Museum and opportunities like this are few and far between.  The last time this station was open for public tours was in 2010 during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Blitz.

Aldwych station was originally called Strand when it was opened in 1907, as part of the newly formed Piccadilly line. It was renamed Aldwych in 1915 when the nearby station that is now Charing Cross was also named Strand.  It had two platforms, however one was hardly used, and so was disused from 1912.

In the WW1 years, this disused platform was used as an emergency store for valuable paintings from the National Gallery, and although not official shelters during WW1,  when German bombing raids were at their heaviest in 1917, thousands of Londoners sought shelter in the deeper stations of the tube network.  During WW2, services were suspended to and from the station and during these years, the station provided official government-approved shelter for Londoners, and Aldwych housed treasures from the British Museum, including the Elgin Marbles.  As an air raid shelter, Aldywch was able to accommodate 1500 people.  Aldwych remained a safe haven during the Blitz, which unfortunately was not the case at other underground station shelters at Balham (October 1940), Bounds Green (also October 1940) and Bank (January 1941,), where many fatalities occurred.

The station was eventually shut for good in 1994, when the original lifts (from 1907) required urgent replacement.  As the station’s passenger numbers were minimal, the cost of refurbishment could not be justified, and so the decision to close this station became final.

Since its closure the station has not lain abandoned.  It has been used for various TV and film productions, and is used as a training facility for the London Transport’s Emergency Response Unit.  Due to the lack of lift access, and health and safety concerns, there is no regular public access to the lower levels of this station, so this was a fascinating glimpse into the world of abandoned tube stations.

Restaurants of 2011. Part Three. October to December.

The last part of my restaurants of 2011 posts.

The Criterion, London. As part of my Dad’s bday present we took him to see Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest. We stopped in at the Criterion for an early dinner before hand. The restaurant is as opulent as one could imagine, with friendly service. Some of us had the 2 course set menu for £18, which was quite expensive for what was on offer, however, the food was nice and the setting was beautiful, so a good place to come for a special occasion now and again.

The Criterion - Interior

Gloucester Old Spot Pork Loin and Belly, Pea Puree, Crackling (from a la carte menu). The Criterion. 26th October 2011

Minute Steak and Fries. The Criterion. 26th October 2011

Sole, Fennel, Rocket Salad, Sauce Vierge. The Criterion. 26th October 2011

Chocolate and Pistacio Pudding, Compote, Vanilla Ice-Cream. The Criterion. 26th October 2011

Apple Crumble and Ice-Cream. The Criterion. 26th October 2011

The Magdalen Arms, Oxford: We have wanted to try this pub for a while after reading some good reviews. So when we went to Oxford to visit a friend, we took the opportunity. And snuck in a quick visit to the Pitt-Rivers Museum. We couldn’t book a table as they we already full, but when we arrived, although the pub was busy, we found a free table very quickly. A delay with our order was compensated by a free round of drinks. We really enjoyed lunch here, the food was great (if a little pricey) and the atmosphere was cosy and welcoming. If we lived closer to Oxford, I’m sure we would become regular visitors here.

Skeleton Noah's Ark at the Pitt Rivers. 20th November 2011

Roast Cod, Puntarella and Aioli. The Magdalen Arms. 20th November 2011

Wild Rabbit, Chorizo, Fennel, Aioli. The Magdalen Arms. 20th November 2011

Confit of Duck, Jugallo Nero and Puy Lentil Vinaigrette. The Magdalen Arms. 20th November 2011

Roast Potatoes. The Magdalen Arms. 20th November 2011The Magdalen Arms. 20th November 2011