Heathrow Hinterland

Friday, December 13, 2013

I went recently on another Royal Geographical Society Discovering Britain walk.

This walk explored what it's like to live in the shadow of Heathrow airport.

Beforehand, I had expected to walk to take me through rather bland, boring mid 20th-century housing estates and lots of them.

Instead the walk went through two historic villages and lots of park and woodland.

Some things stood out...

There was a near constant smell of autumnal smog, like lots of log fires burning.

It was quite confusing and disconcerting. Was I actually smelling domestic woodfires (which, though polluting, have a comforting quality) or is the smell from the constantly soaring planes, the roaring traffic and the area's industry?

The planes are loud, but in some places the constant whirr from M4 motorway traffic is even louder.

The walk took in the previously proposed site of Heathrow's third runway, now a large field. I had rather glibly not paid very much attention to this debate at the time, but being there seeing the site put everything in perspective.

The walk was fascinating, an exploration of an area which I'd never considered before. I'll definitely be looking more closely out of the window the next time I fly from Heathrow.

Antwerp Centraal

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Definitely one of my favourite parts of Antwerp was its train station.

Antwerp Centraal is a cross between a cavern and cathedral for trains. The front of the station is built with a traditional-looking but eclectic, elegant style.

Coming out of a large initial waiting room / entrance space, stairs leading up to the main space of the station. Inside there, the station's real amazing quality shows.

The trains are on four levels, seeming like they are all stacked on top of one another. Escalators and stairs connect all the levels, giving the whole station a vast, futuristic quality. There seems to be lots of space, even though there are trains arriving every minute or so.

And just when you think you've got the measure of the station, you discover a whole lot more to it. My words can't really describe how astounding Antwerp Centraal is; hopefully these pictures will.

Antwerp, port city

Saturday, December 07, 2013

MAS, a museum in Antwerp, explores the idea that Antwerp, as a port city for several hundred years, has seen cultures meet mix and exchange in many different ways.

This idea was in my mind as I wandered around. One evening I passed somewhere with the words Seamen's Club above the door. Intrigued, I looked in and found a social club for people (though mainly men) who work on ships. 

Inside, I found a large room with a bar at the end. It had simple beige tiles on floor, the walls were painted an insipid yellow - except for one in a bright, gaudy orange. Tables and chairs were laid out, each with plastic roses in beer glasses filled with  blue coloured sand.

When I walked in, the room was in a disconcerting hush. Everyone was watching a man playing card and coin tricks.

Those that weren't watching the trickster were glued to their phones, ipads or laptops - seemingly taking a precious opportunity to contact home. The men often crowded around others to see... their latest family pics, the weather in their next destination, or Miley Cyrus's new video? It could be any or all of the above. 

A door led out to a chapel in an adjoining room. Nearby that door, a bookshelf had printed news digests from India, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, Romania, Philippines, Poland, China and Burma. Novels by Jackie Collins, Barbara Vine, Cecilia Ahern amd Sheila O' Flanagan were sitting on the bookshelves.

A guestbook in a little shop at the back of the bar showed  that some guys had spent last New Year's Eve there, celebrating the start of 2013.

I didn't speak to anyone there, except to order two beers. It didn't seem right somehow.

After an hour or so everyone left, piling on to a free bus which took them back to the port.

A few days later I decided to walk out to the port. While there was a running and cycling track along the way, this isn't really an area in which to stroll. Truck drivers glared at me.

On the way, I passed through old industrial areas now regenerating (with museums, a nightclub and a bar called Stockholm). The port seemed distant - a constant hub of barely perceptible activity.

I never really made it to the port - it is a good few miles out. I certainly didn't see close-up any of the mega-liners on which the men at the Seamen's Club doubtless work.

But, along the way, I did see...

Unexpected connections - a boat called Mozart moored next to  Siberia Bridge; Lithuania Streets next to Lefebvre Bridge.

Buildings so big it's hard to imagine how they were filled

And an unexpected splash of pink among all the grey industrial concrete.

What's in 'S-Hertogenbosch

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

While in Belgium, I took a day detour to a city in the Netherlands called 'S-Hertogenbosch.

I went there on a curious whim; I love the name (which can be shortened to Den Bosch) and wanted to see what was there (just like my trips to Andorra, Gibraltar, Monaco and San Marino).

So what did I see there?

A huge cathedral, towering outside and in. The interior was particularly light, impressive and I felt it was unique.

Some delightful old shop fronts have been saved and re-purposed.

As it's in the Netherlands, there are lots of lovely canals. Some of the canals in 'S-Hertogenbosch go underground - it's possible to take tours of these (just not in November!).

A Golden Dragon

There are lots of brick buildings in Den Bosch, including the oldest brick building in the Netherlands.

Perhaps the city's greatest claim to fame is as the home of 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch.

An art centre in the town shows copies of his many paintings: filled with chaotic, overwhelmingly detailed scenes from the Bible, and full of surreal, weird, wonderful and fantastical characters. Though I quite like the idea that Hieronymus the man was very plain, kind of dull - but when he painted, his imagination went wild.

His paintings are a joy to pore over. I took my favourites and put them in a collage.

Pretty Ostend

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ostend (or Ostende or Oostende) is a seaside town in the north of Belgium, a north-facing resort.

All the guidebooks I read made a point of how grey and depressing Ostend can be, with concrete façades and bulky buildings along the seafront.

However with a bit of searching it is possible to find the remnants of a different, prettier Ostend.

Slow train in Belgium

Monday, November 25, 2013

On a public holiday, I took a very slow train between Bruges and Ghent.

The train slowly glided through a seemingly flat, featureless landscape. 

But as it went along, its slow pace and quiet carriages allowed me to enjoy the following sights and sounds. 

  • The only noise being the chug of the train, the heating turning on and off and faint digital device buzzes and blips.
  • The conductor moving through the carriages and saying "schcifft!" to every passenger.
  • A single bright green row of lettuces in a field of purple cabbages.
  • Cylindrical silage bales wrapped in black and white plastic like bullseye humbugs.
  • Huge flocks of white birds scattering as the train trundled past.
  • A convoy of trucks with the company name Lekkerland (Tasty land) emblazoned on them.

High Up in the Low Lands

Monday, November 18, 2013

I've recently paid a visit to three cities in Belgium (as well as a day-trip to the Netherlands).

My first instinct when arriving in a new town or city is to try to see it from above.

So in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and 's-Hertogenbosch, I ascended the combined 274 metres in two bell towers, one cathedral turned to an art centre and a museum to see these pretty towns laid out before me.

Bruges from the Belfry

Ghent from the Belfry

Antwerp from Museum Aan de Stroom

's-Hertogenbosch from the Hieronymus Bosch Art Centre


Sunday, October 27, 2013

I went to Nottingham the weekend before last. The weather was awful while I was there, rain rain and more rain.

As a result, my memories of there are mainly grey, so I made a virtue of that for this picture.

Because it was raining, I spent most of my time dashing between shops where I overheard these gems. This first one reminds me so much of this Victoria Wood sketch.

Two elderly women and a middle-aged man are chatting in a charity shop, at the counter.

Woman 1:
"It'll be one of the lads from the priory. There's always young men at the priory."
The man confirms it is one of these lads.
Woman 1: "Is it Mark? Or Rob?"
Man: "...eh...it's got a K....eh, Karl?"
Woman 1: "Cole?! Kyle?! Oh Karl... oh yes, he's a nice lad. Doesn't say much... well, I suppose he does to you..."
Then, the first woman abruptly changes the subject and says to the second woman: "Now she said she didn't like it strapless!"

Meanwhile, it was anything but a quiet day out. I saw:
  • A fist-and-kicking fight break out on the tube (at 7am on a Saturday morning!). Dramatic.
  • A French guy in tears, slumped on floor of St Pancras Station.
  • A young woman on the train momentarily losing her tickets and bursting into tears
  • A woman chastising her child in a shopping centre, telling her, "You're a wicked little girl!"
  • A man crouched in the foetal position in a Nottingham phone box.

Discovering Britain

Monday, October 21, 2013

For the past few months, instead of going on a foreign summer holiday, I have been taking short breaks and day trips around the UK.

These trips have been inspired by the Discovering Britain website which has lots of guided audio walks to download.

I've done four walks: on Harwich, Durham, Newcastle and Portsmouth. On top of this I went to: Yorkshire, Cambridge and Nottingham.

The Discovering Britain walks are great, like having a knowledgeable local walking along with you, telling you about the landscape's geography and history. (I tested a walk in the Essex Estuary for them last year.)

Along the way, I've seen lots of interesting places, buildings and sights, including the following.

The smallest Marks & Spencers

The UK's first combined road and rail bridge

Durham Cathedral: the largest example of Norman style architecture in England

First modern warship in Portsmouth

The second-oldest university in the English-speaking world

The oldest inn in England: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham

Amongst Tourists

Monday, October 14, 2013

I recently entered a Guardian Witness Been There photo competition - its subject was street life.

I don't often take photographs of people, so my street life is more likely to be a nice building or architecture feature.

One picture did come to mind though: a photograph I took of tourists in Prague's Old Town.

In it, throngs of tourists await their chance to photograph the moment that figures appear on the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town City Hall. During summer, thousands of tourists and tour groups fill the Old Town Square.

Though I'm a tourist myself, I get great enjoyment listening and overhearing the observations of other tourists - such as:

  • "Switzerland is SICK!!!" a woman exclaimed to her friend.
  • "I'm going to have some serious CzechSlovak meat tonight!" said an Australian man on a train to Prague to his travelling companion.
  • "Oh, I really like it here, it's so quaint!" said a young American woman wandering into a square in Budapest.
  • "What's in Bratislava?" asked a Canadian man to his wife.
    "Well... there's a beautiful cathedral," she replied.
    "What? Another one?! There's a surprise..." said he wearily
  • "Well, now, look at all this art!" said a woman as she wandered into the Prado Museum in Madrid.
  • "I want to go where we belong!" said a woman arguing with her boyfriend in Prague's Wenceslas Square.

Elephant and Castle Subway Murals

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

I went on a tour of the subways in Elephant and Castle last weekend, part of excellent Elefest - a festival celebrating a part of London that many usually don't celebrate.

The tour was led by David Bratby, the artist who painted the murals in the subways.

I've long loved the colourful tiles in the subways.

But I - shamefully - had never really paid attention to the murals. I should have!

They show scenes from global celebrations, like carnival in Rio de Janeiro, a Malaysian festival and from local events like a fete in Kennington Park.

Other murals show imagined scenes from local history, like an elephant being delivered to Surrey Docks, scenes from Shakespeare and scenes featuring Charlie Chaplin.

David said that he wanted the murals to be positive, to be bright and colourful in the dark underpasses. They certainty are, and in their own way, celebrate the area and its people and show it off to great effect.