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.