Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stelvio Tour, Day 4 - 28 July 2009

Stelvio Pass, northern ascent (thanks to redlineblog.com)Today, the fun began: Matrei am Brenner is at the foot of the Brenner Pass thus our alpine passes day began immediately. We took the B182 to enjoy the drive, while alongside or above was the motorway with all the heavy trucks grinding slowly up the incline. Pass 1 was completed at 4495ft 1370m and we crossed into Italy, dropping down to Vipiteno and then on the S44 over the Passo do Monte Giovo (Pass 2: 6870ft, 2094m) and down to Merano.

Laurence leads us up the StelvioFrom Merano we headed for Sponding where the Stelvio Pass begins. Fortunately Laurence in his TR5 and I had a fairly clear run without slow traffic in front and so enjoyed a wonderful romp up the hairpin switchbacks, a truly fantastic drive. (Pass 3: 9045ft, 2757m)

Looking down the other side of the StelvioThe Stelvio Pass is the second highest paved road in the European Alps and as you go over the top you skirt a corner Switzerland. The 60 hairpin bends on this pass make it one of the most challenging roads in the world.

Down the other side to Livigno before heading off over Passo di Foscagno (Pass 4: 7516ft, 2291m), Forcola di Livigno (Pass 5: 7595ft, 2315m) which took us into Switzerland; and finally over Passo del Bernina (Pass 6: 7801ft, 2378m) where we saw the Bernina Express coming down the mountain, the train we had ridden nearly 8 years ago.
Alpine viewAlpine view
The Bernina Express heads down the valleyAnd so we arrived at St Moritz, at the end of a fabulous day's driving and enjoyed a walk around the lake that we last walked on, in the middle of winter.

Yesterday the weather was wonderful but as we relived the day over dinner the thunder pealed and the heavens opened making us wonder what our alpine pass day was going to deliver. St MoritzBeing woken during the night with more thunder and heavy rain, we were quite apprehensive about our chances of seeing the Alps. However the scattered low clouds present when we awoke cleared quickly and we were privileged to see the Alps and drive the passes in glorious sunshine all day.

Stelvio Tour, Day 3 - 27 July 2009

As soon as the Hotel restaurant opened for breakfast we were there, ready to go, as we were on a mission this morning. Looking down on Hohenschwangau Castle from near Neuschwanstein CastleWe had been well advised that the way to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle was to be at the ticket office when it opened at 8 a.m. and secure a place on the first English speaking tour. So, we were duly there at the head of the queue when the ticket office opened its doors and were able to secure places on the 9:20 tour.

We climbed the hill to the Castle and enjoyed the sun and views until our tour was announced. Neuschwanstein CastleThe castle, the inspiration for Disneyland's castle and featured in a number of films is the busiest tourist attraction in Germany so it is well worth making the effort to beat the crowds. When we got back down to the village it was overrun with tourists and the car park was practically full. (There are 4 other parks, but this one was the closest to the ticket office.)

Although looking like a mediaeval fairy tale castle, Wallgauit was built in the late 1800s by King Ludwig of Bavaria who, tragically, only spent 176 days living there before his untimely and suspicious death. The castle was never finished, the third floor remains unfinished to this day and the castle was opened to the public a mere 6 weeks after Ludwig's death.

Isar riverIt really is worth the hassle of procuring a ticket and climbing the track from the village (you can take horse-drawn transport if you are feeling particularly lethargic) as the interiors of the finished rooms are stunning.

Leaving the castle we climbed up further to MarienbruckeAchensee (Mary's Bridge) for a view of the other side of the castle with the valley beyond; we were terribly disappointed to find the entire side of the castle that was presented to us wrapped top to toe in scaffolding and plastic sheeting,

But the Alps were beckoning so we set off from Fussen across the border into Austria to Lermoos then back in to Germany through SchwazGarmisch-Partenkirchen and on to Wallgau. Wallgau is terribly attractive with the murals on the shops, hotels and restaurants that are built in the traditional Bavarian/Swiss/Austrian/alpine style.

After a bit of border hopping from Germany to Austria to Germany and back to Austria in a few short miles we were quite glad that EU travel rules were in place and all the border posts were abandoned and closed.

Judenstein (?)We drove down the side of Achensee were we found a coffee shop to take a break; looking out over the lake and the Alps beyond. On to Schwaz where we stopped for a wander around before taking the scenic route over the hill to Matrei am Brenner and our lovely hotel for the night.

Stelvio Tour, Day 2 - 26 July 2009

LandauThe morning began driving from Luxemburg (provence of Belgium), over the border into Luxemburg (country) where we used the motorway to skirt around Luxemburg (city) then across the border and into Germany for what was supposed to be a fast run across Germany on the autobahn.

While we did manage to top 198 kph we also spent great chunks of time when we would have been pleased to be achieve 1/10th of that speed.
Maulbronn Monastery complex
Maulbronn Monastery complexMaulbronn Monastery complexOur first deviation from the proscribed route was to Landau where we had a quick look at the Romanesque church before enjoying some refreshments in the square. Then back on the autobahn for a few more queues before heading off to find the UNESCO World Heritage Maulbronn Monastery complex.

Tallest church steeple in the world, UlmThis was well worth the detour as it is a really attractive village set within the Monastic complex, most of which can be seen for free, the only payment required is to enter the Monastery proper, and we were there on a beautiful day so it was at its picture-perfect best.

Then it was back on the autobahn for another high-speed run and some more queues before going into the centre of Ulm to see the tallest church steeple in the world. Leaving Ulm we were thrown off the motorway on a detour for the second time but this time the alternate route was through attractive Bavarian villages with the Alps as a backdrop.
Maulbronn Monastery complexUlm skyline

Stelvio Tour, Day 1 - 25 July 2009

Today we began the Stelvio Tour, a driving tour of the European Alps. la Patrouille de France performingOur early start was not really early enough to get us to the ferry at Dover with adequate check-in time but after a rather rushed journey to Dover, we sat on the quay for an hour longer than we should have due to delays caused by technical problems the previous day.

MonsHowever, we were entertained by the centennial re-enactment of Bleriot's flight across the channel as the restored replica of Bleriot's plane flew overhead before landing at Dover.

The delay in Dover meant that we arrived in Calais just as Chateau de Lavaux Sainte-Annela Patrouille de France (the French equivalent of the UK Red Arrows) was performing their routine for the French side of the Bleriot celebrations enabling us to enjoy a free show while we waited to disembark.

Then it was on the road for a motorway run across France and Belgium to Arlon, Arlon Cathedraljust before the border with Luxemburg.

To break the monotony we detoured into the centre of Mons and had a wander around the town square and later on we ventured off the motorway to see the Chateau de Lavaux Sainte-Anne and, after checking in at the hotel, we went into Arlon to wander around the town centre and up the hill to the Belvedere for a view over the environs.

Arlon CathedralChurch of St Donat, Arlon

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Future is here -18 July 2009

Chalk butterfly in a sea of sunflowersJust north of London can be found the recently opened Future Gardens, the first phase of the ambitious Butterfly World Project.
Wild-flowersInsect habitat
Opened just 6 weeks ago the gardens were a riot of colour with wildflowers in profusion along the driveway and beside the Meadow Trail.
Harry's GardenDesigner Gardens
There is a series of 12 Designer GardensDesigner Gardens where the designers have been given free reign to unleash their creativity; most are fantastic, some are 'odd' and three are simply boring. There is a fantasy area where the flower pots, garden fork and so on are hugely oversize; the Through the Flower Pot Garden is designed to show a garden through the eyes of an insect.

Theatre of Insects GardenHowever, if you want to see everyone smiling then visit the Theatre of Insects Garden. All manner of unlikely objects have been built into the walls of this stunning area to create nooks and crannies for insects to inhabit.

Heliconius numataObviously, there has to butterflies and until the tropical biome, the largest butterfly display of its kind in the world, is built there is a small walk-through tropical butterfly house where the glories of various species can be admired up close.

Next door is the Royal National Rose Society garden, which unsurprisingly has a huge variety of roses. The open season for this garden is from June to September but in mid-July the roses were already well past their best.
Royal National Rose Society garden

English gardens keep growing on us - 12 July 2009

Elton HallIt is impossible to see too many English gardens, but this morning we started the day with a rather different type of garden. Capel Manor Gardens is a series of different gardens, almost like a garden show, a really good place to visit to get inspiration for a regular city garden makeover. The gardens are part of a horticultural college on the site and are used for practical course-work by the students. There are also formal gardens, that originally belonged to the Manor, within the 30 acre complex.
Capel Manor GardensCapel Manor Gardens
Our main focus for the day, was a visit to Elton Hall. To reach this we followed a scenic route, which started near Greensted church. This is the oldest wooden church in the world and dates back to the 800s. Apart from its claim to fame as the oldest, it is definitely worth a visit; the church is stunning, with the original walls built from half tree trunks, a Tudor tower, and a fairly old brick extension. Undoubtedly it is much in demand for small weddings.
Greensted historic churchCapel Manor Gardens
The route wound it's way through "The Rodings", a collection of eight hamlets and villages that take part of their name from the nearby River Roding, and other picturesque villages, to eventually join the motorway beyond the lovely village of Ickleton.
Elton HallElton Hall
When we reached Elton Hall, we fell in love with the beautiful modern gardens, which were enhanced by the extremely stunning castle behind them. The castle itself has some very beautiful rooms, with a large art collection.

Faversham opens its doors - 11 July 2009


FavershamAfter visiting the London Open Home programme each year, it was interesting to visit the original Open Home scheme in Faversham. The Faversham Society was formed in the 60's, when a radical rebuild of the town was opposed by a group of citizens, who formed the Society. They still exist, and introduced the Open Home scheme to the UK. FavershamThis year was the 40th anniversary making it the longest running scheme of its type in the country.

Faversham has about 500 listed buildings, in fact the whole town centre appears to be historical, so it is an ideal town to have a look behind the scenes. Unlike London, most of the Open Homes were actual homes; most with exposed timber beams and impossibly steep and narrow stairs to the top floor.

FavershamThe day provided a fascinating peep inside many front doors. As a contrast to the private homes, the craftsmen's workshops on the quay were also open, and the huge Abbey Barn complex, has now become the local timber merchant.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

To 1625 and back - 5 July 2009

MGs in the sunAfter a fun MG treasure hunt and excellent pub lunch at Abinger Hatch, we did a little exploring in the area.

Hatchlands is a stunning house, made even more interesting by the world's largest collection of historical keyboard instruments, many associated with famous composers such as Chopin, Bach and Elgar.

South of here is the Tilling Bourne river valley system. We did a most interest tour of the Shalford Mill. The complexity of the pulleys, gears and wheels rotating from the central 30 ft solid 'tree-trunk' shaft is fascinating. Obviously a subject of great interest to the volunteer guides. They were just as passionate and fascinated by their subject as our Milton expert yesterday.

Shalford MillThis mill is here today thanks to the fund raising efforts of the Fergusson Gang, a band of eccentric, rich yet secretive band of women who rescued the mill in the 1930s and subsequently gave it to the National Trust. This band gave three properties in all and their identities remain a secret to this day.

Gunpowder crushersA mile or so upstream, are the abandoned gun-powder mills that were in use from 1625 to 1930. The area is tranquil enough now with streams, ponds and remnants of buildings, machinery and mills.

Traffic jams on the motorway home jolted us, unpleasantly, back into 2009.