Monday, June 23, 2008

Nuffield Place - 22 June 2008

Nuffield PlaceNuffield Place was the home of Lord and Lady Nuffield, formerly Mrs & Mrs William Morris. Not the William Morris of interior design but the man behind the Morris motorcar. Ultimately it was not only Morris but Riley, Wolseley, M.G. and Austin that entered the Morris fold.

Lilac poppiesIn his lifetime Morris gave away over £30 million (the equivalent of several billion today) and, as he had no children, intended to divest himself of his entire fortune. He eschewed pretension and the house is comfortably but not ostentatiously furnished for the home of one of the richest men of his generation.

William Morris's bedroom workshopAn interesting insight into his lifestyle is a workshop built into a cupboard in William’s bedroom: a place where he would repair his own shoes or tinker with other mechanical bits and pieces.

The future of Nuffield Place is under a cloud as the college that Morris gave it to has decided to sell the property. Absolutely no idea, it was just there in a fieldThis would be a great shame as the house is a unique example of a complete furnished 1930s home of a great industrialist and philanthropist.

Taplow CourtWe had started the day with a walk along the Thames near the village of Goring and ended the day overlooking the Thames from the gardens around Taplow Court. Once the site of a monastery, it is now a Buddhist centre.

It was a dark and stormy day - 21 June 2008

Knebworth HouseFor the past 6 years we have driven up the A1 past the signs to Knebworth House so we decided that it really was time that we took Exit 7 to see what was there. As with many of the stately homes in England, it has been passed down through a range of descendants, unusually mostly female members, but is still in the ‘same’ family after 500 years.

Knebworth House gardensPossibly the most famous owner, Edward Bulwer Lytton, penned the oft quoted words, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Perversely, he was also the first to start a novel (Paul Clifford) with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The dinosaursThe beautiful formal gardens at Knebworth House are complimented by a more wilderness area that is home to just under 70 life-size dinosaurs, many familiar species and a few not so familiar. It is most interesting to walk amongst these imposing models.

Shaw’s CornerNot far away is Shaw’s Corner, the home of the author GB Shaw. Because of another evening event the house closed early and we missed the chance to visit again so contented ourselves with a walk through the garden past his writing shed mounted on a turntable to allow Shaw to catch the maximum daylight.

Palladian churchThe ‘new’ (1778) local village church was built as a ‘garden ornament’ by the Lord of the Manor to provide a classical, Palladian, view from the big house.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Home of the Morgans - 15 June 2008

Our weekend accommodation was near Bridgend which, The Bridgend Bridgesadly, features in the news on a regular basis due to the, statistically disproportionately, high number of local young people who commit suicide. At the top of the town is another impressive castle ruin, with a very deep but now dry moat; all that remains of Coity Castle. We also checked out the cute hump-backed bridge, after which the town is named. Pilgrims used to pass over this bridge on the way to St David's church further west in Wales.

LLantwit MajorLlantwit Major is a picturesque town; with a number of interesting buildings and from there we toured nearer to the coast, and drove through Barry for a look at their “island” seaside resort. In true British fashion it is wall-to-wall arcade and fast food: we did not bother to get out of the car. Far nicer was Penarth; this Victorian seaside town has a colourful pier, and did appeal to us.
Penarth pier
Tredegar House was the main focus of the day. Newport Council now runs this, the former estate of the Morgan family. Tredegar HouseThey have done an excellent job in restoring the huge mansion, and we went on a conducted tour, made interesting and amusing by our excellent guide. The house has many beautifully decorated rooms; the best would have to be the oak room. Completely panelled in intricately carved oak, and with wide oak floorboards, the longest of which is 14m long. Although built in 1670’s, it still looks very beautiful today, a room anyone would love to spend time in.

Gate decorationThe gardens are also pleasant to walk around. They have very successfully recreated a parterre, using shells, coloured sand, grass and coal chips. Coal gave a very different look, and was appropriate, as the family made their fortune from coal mining.

Vale of Glamorgan - 14 June 2008

Dyffryn GardenThe crescent shaped area west of Cardiff, goes by the enticing name of the Vale of Glamorgan. Although we have visited Wales several times we had not been to A Rose by any other name ... would be confusingthis area so we finally made a weekend trip to explore the Vale. It's only a little over 2 hours from London, providing you get a good run on the M4.

Dyffryn Garden is a Grade 1 listed garden, and this was our first stop. To be honest, it wouldn't rate as the best English garden we've seen, but nevertheless, was very pleasant to stroll around in the sunshine.

Tinkinswood Burial ChamberJust up the road from the gardens is the Tinkinswood Burial Chamber. Built around 4000BC it has the largest capstone of any such burial chamber in Britain, estimated at weighing 40 tons, it was pretty impressive. The logistics of early civilizations moving and placing this slab are incredible.

Cliffs on the Galmorgan Heritage CoastThe road through the centre of the Vale was pretty uneventful, but the fascinating thing about Wales is old abbeys and castles dotted regularly around the countryside. We felt obliged to check out the Heritage sign to Ewenny Priory; marvellous walls left behind in the middle of nowhere.

Then it was time for our walk of the day: combining one from the Country Walking magazine, with one in a Fossil imprint in the rockWalking Wales publication, we ended up with a very picturesque 8.5 mile ramble starting from Dunraven Bay. Wonderful stacked cliff faces line the beach along the coast here. At the start there was the remnants of a castle on the headland, and half way round the walk were the ruins of Ogmore Castle; set on the banks of a river with a fun set of stepping-stones.

Stepping-stones in front of Ogmore Castle ruins
The final leg of the walk took in a few miles of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast trail, a very pleasant way to end a lovely sunny June day.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Heritage and History - 8 June 2008

Two bears driving their Model T around the showThe Luton Festival of Transport bills itself as one of the largest collections of historic vehicles in the area so we thought we should pay it a visit and take the MG.

It was one of the best days of summer so far and really far too good to “waste” on a car show. One of the attractions offered was a visit to the nearby Hatfield House gardenVauxhall Heritage Centre but transport failures meant that this side trip was not readily available so we skipped out early and went to nearby Hatfield House instead.

Hatfield HouseThis is a grand Elizabethan mansion that remains much as it was when built. It is a most impressive stately home and well worth a visit. It is amazing that we have taken so long to visit as it is so close to London.

And the band played onAs we wandered through the small, publicly accessible section of the amazing garden we were serenaded by the Welwyn Garden City Brass Band, making it both an aural and visual treat.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Aya Sofya - 31 May 2008

There was one main attraction that we had yet to visit: Aya Sofya, so it was the focus of our tourist-beating early start this morning. Aya SofyaBuilt in the 6th century by, possibly, 10,000 men it was, for over 1000 years, the largest enclosed space in the world. The dome spans 30m and rises to nearly 57m above the floor, approximately equivalent to a 17-storey building, a truly amazing feat of design and engineering for the time.

Aya SofyaLike the Blue Mosque, the main dome rests on semi-domes but the significant difference is that the Blue Mosque has four huge pillars supporting the dome whereas the Aya Sofya appears to have none.

Built as the greatest church in Christendom, it was converted to a mosque when the Turks took the city in 1453 then deconsecrated and classified as a museum by Ataturk in 1934.

Mosaic of ChristAlthough it has suffered a chequered history some magnificent mosaic works remain.

The remaining ‘must-do’ was a Bosphorus Cruise so we headed back down to the waterfront. The first boat we came across had a man intercepting likely punters and offering a 2-hour cruise to the second bridge, with a half-hour stop for YTL30; we pressed on. The next boat salesman offered the same deal for YTL20, but we pressed on as we had done our research the day before and knew that just past the bridge was a boat offering a 1½-hour cruise for YTL7.50

Rumeli FortressSo we paid our fare and enjoyed the ride out of the Golden Horn, across the Bosphorus to the Asian side, up under the two huge suspension bridges and back again. I would not class it as unmissable if you were short of time in Istanbul but it was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Antique tramSince we were at the bridge that crossed the Golden Horn, we walked across to the far side, the Beyoglu area, then caught a tram and funicular to Taksim Square and wandered back downhill to the bridge with a detour to the Galata Tower.

Galata TowerThere has been a tower on this site since 528, the current one being constructed in 1348 and repaired and restored a few times since. The views from the top are worth the YTL10 charge.

Up until this point we had managed to avoid the entreaties of the carpet salesmen and on the walk back to the hotel wandered through the Cifte Hamam (Double Bath) that sits by the square between the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque.

Yeni MosqueIt is home to a government run display of carpets from the various regions of Turkey and, unlike the carpet shops in the city, the carpets are all displayed for you to wander through and inspect. From what we can work out, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has scoured the museums of Turkey and the world for the best examples of Turkish carpets and kilms and then commissioned copies of these culturally important works. Fatal mistake! Istanbul, the overviewOne of the carpets leapt off the rack and said, “Buy me.” The next day before we left Istanbul, we went back for another look, only to find all the racks bare and to hear that they were packing up and leaving. So we pointed to the empty space the carpet had occupied and said that we wanted that one. A few seconds later it appeared from a pile and we had done the proper tourist thing, visited Turkey and purchased a Turkish carpet.

Topkapi Palace - 30 May 2008

Topkapi Palace GatesAll the advice we had read said that the Topkapi Palace and especially the Harem suffered from long queues unless you were up with the chickens. So we were, and were standing at the ticket office when the booths opened a few minutes before 9 a.m.

As is so often the way in the Middle East, the ATMs dish out ‘big money’ (YTL50) but no one has change and everyone wants ‘small money’. HaremHowever, this was a government run museum and I was first customer of the day so the cash-drawer would be flush with change, or so I thought as I tendered my YTL50 for an entrance fee of YTL20. “Small money, small money” was the only response from the other side of the glass. Reluctantly using my last 20 I paid up.

Again, the advice was to go straight to the Harem to beat the queues but there was no one there so we wandered around the display of carriages and through the old kitchens. Topkapi PalaceEmerging back into the Second Court we saw that the Harem booth was open and the few people that had been queuing were on their way into the Harem. Once again I flashed my 50 only to hear the dreaded “small money” cry. However, since I knew that he had already served some others, he must have had some 20s at least so I offered a 10 as well as the 50 to get two 20s in change. What a ridiculous situation, the major tourist attraction in the largest city in Turkey and they cannot give change for a YTL50 note.

HaremStill, we had our ticket and it was time to enjoy the delights of the Harem. In the Sultan’s time it was a feast for his eyes in a totally different sense from that which the tourists enjoy today. Perhaps he, too, was admiring the walls and the tile work and gilded surfaces and not the occupants – who knows?

By the time we had emerged from the far end of the Harem back into the main squares of the Palace, the place was indeed over-run with tourists. We finished off the other areas in the Palace then headed off for another wander around the city.

HaremWe followed the tramlines up the main street as far as the University, followed the walls around and down to the Bazaar area and down towards the waterfront to find the Spice Bazaar, a delight to the nose as well as the eyes.

Istanbul - 29 May 2008

The Obelisk in the HippodromeWe arrived at the main bus station, some distance from the historic area of Istanbul and I set out to buy an Akbil, the Istanbul equivalent of the London Oyster Card. Finding the Akbil booth was no problem, finding out why he would not, or could not sell me one was a major problem. Even with the assistance of another Akbil customer who knew a few English words, the solution defeated us.

Instead, we purchased tokens to ride the Metro to the end of the line then walked a while to connect with a crowded commuter tram that The Blue Mosqueterminated a few stops before we wanted to, declined to fight our way into the next over-crowded tram and then finally made it to our destination stop. Another short walk and we were finally at our hotel having decided it would probably have been easier and quicker to have put our lives in the hands of a local taxi driver. On the other hand, half the fun is conquering foreign systems, even if you do have to pay for the Metro and the Tram when the Akbil would have allowed a free transfer.

The hotel kindly let us check in earlier than we had anticipated and it was great to freshen up before we set off to explore historic Istanbul.

The Bascilica CisternFirst stop was the Bascilica Cistern, an amazing underground reservoir built in the 6th century and then ‘lost’ until re-discovered in 1545. The roof is supported by 336 columns which were purloined from various ruins and thus have an array of different capitals and two have bases formed from blocks with Medusa heads carved in them. Clearly it was not intended that anyone ever saw these things under 80,000 cu m of water, but now the tourists (us included) flock to wander through and take photos of Medusa.

Inside the Blue MosqueOne of the most iconic images of Istanbul has to be the Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets. It is dome upon dome upon semi-dome and a visual treat from the outside. Inside is where the name comes from, as much of the tile work is blue.

It was time to eat so we sat down to lunch at a street-side restaurant. The Grand BazaarAfter ordering we were presented with what looked like a huge pita bread that had been inflated. It is called Lavas bread, served piping hot with yoghurt based dip and is absolutely scrummy.

It is a pleasant stroll from the Blue Mosque through the Hippodrome to the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world, with over 4000 shops, miles of streets and alleys, a mini-city within the city. Beyazit MosqueAs one would expect in any such souk in the Middle East there is plenty of hard-sell to be had from the traders attempting to sell you their wares.

We emerged unscathed and unencumbered and returned to our hotel for another early night to catch up on our sleep.

Pamukkale 28 May 2008

Beauty of different sorts

The ancient city bathsThe reason for the early start this morning was that our next stop, Pamukkale was 3-hour’s drive west of Selcuk. Pamukkale; literally “Cotton Castle” is the name given to the calcium terraces formed as the geothermally heated, calcium rich waters flow down a hillside above the town.

The waters have been a ‘health spa’ for centuries drawing the Tombs in the Necropolistourists and the ailing to this spot. In ancient times the settlement was called Hierapolis and because so many sick went there and not all recovered, the cemetery just outside the old city is one of the largest in the world (over a square kilometre), far bigger than would be expected for the size of the city. These two features are the reasons that this area is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The 'new' theatreThe problem with the site is that it is very prone to earthquakes and, if you stand at a certain position, the location of the first theatre, built into the hillside and completely destroyed by an earthquake can be clearly seen to the left; while, to the right, the new theatre dominates the view.

Naturally, the current tourist trade provides a steady business for the pool, which charges YTL20 for a 2-hour dip.Cleopatra's Pool The pool is a shady oasis in the hot and dusty surroundings and was bustling even though it was not the peak of the tourist season. The ambience was somewhat spoiled by bodies in bikinis that should, more appropriately be hidden in kaftans. Why someone would wear a bikini when the belly rolls almost obscured the bikini bottom is beyond me; for the sake of delicacy I have spared you a photo.

The calcium terracesNew Zealand lost its famous Pink & White Terraces in the Tarawera eruption of 1886 and so it was great to get an appreciation of what used to be there.

The signs are very confusing; it is not clear whether you are allowed to walk on the terraces or not as they show a boot crossed out and say “Slippery floor”. Enjoying a free dipHowever there is one place where it is clear that you are allowed to wander as there is a path that leads down past some artificially created pools to the village below, and that was the path we took to catch the local bus that would take us to Denizli where our next (and thankfully, last) overnight intercity bus trip departed: a mere 12 hours to Istanbul.