Category Archives: 2015

• Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd

Visits: 7th/8th March 2015, 7th May 2016

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This WHS is quite close to my heart because it was to North Wales that I used to go on holiday as a child when we lived in Manchester. I recollect visiting two of the four castles inscribed here: Conway and Canarvon, as we used to call them. I revisited them last year in order to appreciate them as an adult, and then a year later I went to the two that I hadn’t seen: Harlech and Beaumaris.

The four castles – and more besides – were built in the 13th century by the English King Edward I. Upon coming to the throne in 1272 he boosted his popularity with an anti-corruption drive known as the Hundred Rolls. Edward was an aggressive ruler, and demanded tribute from the Welsh. When they refused he invaded, eventually crushing the Welsh leadership and resolving to impose his will on the troublesome region for the long run. To that end he decided to build these castles, and ever since then they have stood as symbols of English dominance and hence also as focal points for later rebellions under leaders such as the 14th/15th century Owain Glyndŵr.

Conwy Castle and Town Walls

7th March 2015

Conwy, on the north coast of the old Kingdom of Gwynedd, is a walled town with a castle at its centre. In Conwy and Caenarfon only English people lived within the walls of the town, which acted as a centre for the administration of the local area. Mum and I visited Conwy on the way to a family event on a breezy but bright day in March 2015. The castles currently cost £6 each to get into, and you can climb the ramparts and walk all around the medieval site.

Of the four, I think Conwy has been most spoilt by modernity due to the ugly road and rail bridges that jut out across the river right next to the castle- look that that one on the right – I mean what were they thinking?!

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Caernarfon Castle and Town Walls

8th March 2015

We met up with family and stayed the night in a Premier Inn in Caernarfon. This is another walled castle town, and to me it felt less spoilt. We drank at a historic pub, the Black Boy Inn, which, being within the city walls of a World Heritage Site, was just my cup of tea. The following morning my brother and I toured the castle in the rain. With its high walls and imposing strategic position at the western end of the Menai Strait it has changed hands several times over the centuries. It was first seized from the English by Madog ap Llywelyn before being retaken, then besieged by Glyndŵr’s forces a hundred years later. The Tudor dynasty marked the start of its decline as a fortress of note, but it was reoccupied by Royalists during the English Civil War and besieged thrice by Parliamentarians – making it the last British castle to be used in war. It was also the site of the curious made-for-TV investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969.

Harlech Castle

7th May 2016

Fourteen months later I drove up to Shropshire with Natalie to stay with Grandad for the weekend. On the Saturday we drove 200 miles in his car in a circular trip around north Wales. Our first stop was Harlech, where Edward built his castle in a truly commanding location on top of an outcrop overlooking the north end of Cardigan Bay. Harlech was probably my favourite of the four, and has a newly refurbished café and visitor centre to boot.

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In contrast to Caernarfon, Harlech castle withstood the siege of ap Llywelyn but fell to Glyndŵr. It became his residence as he continued his uprising before being quelled in 1409. Harlech played a role in the Wars of the Roses as a Lancastrian stronghold for seven years before giving in to a Yorkist siege that inspired the patriotic Welsh song Men of Harlech. From the turrets you get a great view of the sea and coastline – the latter of which is now significantly further from the castle’s walls than it was in Edward’s time.

Beaumaris Castle

7th May 2016

That same day we continued from Harlech north toward the island of Anglesey. After a spot of apple pie in the village of Beddgelert and a crossing of the mountains of Snowdonia we arrived in Anglesey via the double-decked Britannia Bridge. Beaumaris castle is located at the other end of the Menai Strait to Harlech, sitting at its northern mouth.

Beaumaris is a schoolboy’s idea of what a castle should look like. Surrounded by a moat, it follows a classic concentric design – consisting of an outer wall and an inner wall. UNESCO calls it one of “the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”.  It is so well-proportioned that it is thought to have been intended to be as much a royal palace for Edward as a defensive fortification. We know he travelled there during its construction to see it for himself, so he must have had high hopes for it.

These days it seems to belong to the seagulls, dozens of which were nesting up in the ramparts when we walked around.

After the castle we returned to the mainland via the Menai Suspension Bridge. I had assumed it was newer than the 1864 Clifton Suspension Bridge near where I live, but it was in fact completed in 1828, making it the oldest major suspension bridge in the world, if I’m not mistaken. We headed back to Shropshire via a stop at St Asaph’s Cathedral and a short re-visit to the fellow World Heritage Site of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which was very nice to see again.

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• Historic Centre of Florence

Visit: 21st-22nd November 2015

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From one Historic Centre in Portugal to another in Italy, Florence was the final World Heritage Site for me in what has been a fruitful year. 2015 saw:

  • 34 new WHSs visited
    • including 17 new sub-sites
  • 3 repeats (City of BathTown of Bamberg and Cologne Cathedral)
  • 13 countries (in two of which I saw no WHSs)
  • and even a whole trip to Ireland that ended without getting to our intended point of interest, Skellig Michael.

Florence is in some ways the classic WHS: world-famous, of unquestionable cultural value and yet still very much a living city. Its airport is not especially well connected, so most fly to Pisa 42 miles away and get a coach to Florence. Since I like to vary my airports and had flown to Pisa last year to see its Piazza del Duomo, I booked flights from the inconveniently-located (for us) London City, which meant a stay in the local Ibis the night before.

We arrived into Peretola airport in the rain and caught a bus to the town centre. We had only one night there, and there is a lot to do in the birthplace of the Renaissance, so after dropping our bags off we headed straight out to get some food at the city’s central market.

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It is a large covered market with stands selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses. It reminded me of the food market I visited with Ross and Louise in Valencia. The colours are wonderful, and some of the vendors offer hot food to eat there and then, which is what we did.

The first artistic site I was interested in seeing was the Palazzo Medici Riccardi – its courtyard pictured below.22630259353_6e16f23583_bThis grim defensive house (on the outside at least!) belonged to that famous banking family and rulers of Florence, the Medici, before transferring into the hands of the Riccardi family some years later. Probably its most notable element is the private Magi Chapel within, its walls frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli.

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Also of note within the miniature palace is the ceiling painting from the 1680s by Luca Giordano. A work of the Baroque, the extensive preparatory paintings for this ceiling are on display in the National Gallery in London (on the lower level, beyond the café). Knowing that we would be able to go and see the completed project in Florence, Natalie and I had visited the National Gallery a few weeks earlier to see how the canvases compared to the palace. The ceiling depicts mythological allegories of various positive character traits, such as fortitude, justice and prudence. The modelli that now hang in London were considered worthy enough to be on display in the palazzo itself until at least 1822.

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Not far from the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the Galleria dell’Accademia – home to one of the most famous works in all of art. At the end of a long room flanked by unfinished sculptures stands the 17 ft-high Statue of David.

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I haven’t seen Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but I am told that it can be very disappointing because of its small size relative to the enormous crowds taking constant flash photographs. David does not have this problem – its size ensures that it stands out – quite literally – from the crowd, and it is not encased in bulletproof glass. It really is a thing of beauty, and to think that you are looking at something that one of mankind’s foremost geniuses carved from Carrara marble with his own hand is quite something.

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I mentioned above the unfinished sculptures, and I think these are also worth considering as some of the museum’s most important pieces. Michelangelo was a man who always took on more than he could handle. He would accept commissions but often move onto something new before completing what he had started. These particular unfinished works were destined to become part of one of the grandest artistic projects ever conceived of. Pope Julius II was an enlightened man, a sophisticated patron of some of the most important figures of the Renaissance. But he was also an egotist, which is why he commissioned Michelangelo to build for him an enormous tomb adorned with dozens of sculptures. Michelangelo was known to be the fastest sculptor of his time, able to “knock off more chips of a very hard marble in a quarter of an hour than three young stone carvers could have done in three or four”. Yet the tomb design was so grand that even he was never going to be able to finish it. These incomplete blocks that history has handed down to us grant an insight into the great artist’s method, and there is definite beauty in seeing a figure emerging from the marble like this.

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As we exited the Accademia the light was fading and we walked toward the city’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome, designed by Renaissance master architect Filippo Brunelleschi, is still the largest of its kind in the world. At the time it would have been revolutionary.

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Opposite the cathedral is the baptistry with its gilded bronze doors by Ghiberti. The 20 three-dimensional panels on the so-called ‘Gates of Paradise’ depict episodes from the life of Christ in great detail.

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That evening we went back to our hotel, uncharacteristically skipped dinner and slept for over twelve hours. It seems foolish, given that we were on such a short break there, but we had been up since 5am.

The next morning the weather was much nicer – a clear blue November sky greeted the day. There is an excellent viewpoint to the southeast of the city walls, and after a coffee we walked up the hill to take in the Arno valley vista.

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Down on the river in the picture above you can make out a bridge. That is the famous Ponte Vecchio, which for some reason is covered in jewellery shops. On the north side of the Vecchio is Florence’s most famous museum, the Uffizi.

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Ponte Vecchio

‘Uffizi’ simply means offices in Italian, for that was the original purpose of the building when in 1560 it was begun by architect, artist and most notably art historian Giorgio Vasari. Since then it has been transformed into the repository of works by all of the great Florentine and Renaissance artists, including most famously Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera.

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Uffizi

Whilst I appreciate Botticelli, I didn’t find his paintings as impressive as others there, such as Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac or various pieces by Titian (one of my favourite artists). It probably helped that it was November, but the gallery was not at all crowded and we had to endure no queues on the way in. My advice if you go to Florence in low season is not to bother paying a ticket website the exorbitant commission it will charge you in order to pre-book for the major museums.

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Medusa – Caravaggio

I wasn’t always into art. In fact it is something I’ve gotten into only in the past two years or so, after watching the 1969 TV series Civilisation with Kenneth Clark. My neighbour Jeremy recommended a book earlier this year by E.H. Gombrich called The Story of Art, and I am still working my way through it. I took it with me to Florence in order that it might guide our visit in some way, and as you can see I was often looking things up in it.

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Florence really has two World Heritage Sites. The Historic Centre was the main subject of our trip, but the other is known as ‘Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany’, and consists of 14 different sub-sites, mostly in the vicinity of Florence. The most central of these is the Boboli Gardens, which sits in the grounds of the well-known Pitti Palace. Designed as a pleasure garden, it resembled in some ways the garden of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, with water features and neatly organised paths and hedgerows. We stood for a while and watched a heron catch a fish in an ornamental pool.

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Included in our gardens ticket was entry to the Silver Museum in the Pitti Palace – though not, unfortunately, the Palatine Gallery. Nevertheless I was impressed with the Baroque ceilings, such as this one by Giovanni Mannozzi that is painted to give the effect of a view into the Heavens. Note that it is not just the circle in the centre that is a painting – all of the apparent architectural embellishments around it are simply 2D representations of a 3D world. The ability to produce that effect I find a very impressive skill.

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We had time for one more sight before heading back to the airport for the flight home. Located near to our hotel, the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is the oldest of the great churches of Florence, consecrated in 1420. Inside hangs an early Crucifix by Giotto, who was really the first great artist connected with the Renaissance.

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More impressive, to my mind, is the so-called Spanish Chapel, with its 14th century fresco cycle depicting the Passion of Christ on one side and personification of the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the other. Unfortunately the main work that I had been led by Gombrich to expect in the Basilica was out for restoration: The Holy Trinity by Masaccio (a nickname which means ‘clumsy Thomas’) was painted in the early 15th century and is one of the first works to demonstrate a knowledge of the laws of perspective – ie. vanishing points constructed in a precise manner.

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Santa Maria Novella

There are many other treasures in Florence that we were unable to fit in. As I find myself saying so often, a return trip is in order. With Florence I think I am certain to be true to my word, since I do very much want to see Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel (the ‘first’ Renaissance building) the Bargello museum and the Palatine Gallery, as well as the 12 other villas and gardens in and around the city that make up the Medici villas World Heritage Site.

• Historic Centre of Oporto

Visit: 25th October 2015

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Porto was the third and final WHS of our October weekend in northern Portugal, located roughly between Guimarães and Coimbra. It is the country’s second city, so one day wasn’t enough time to do it justice. Natalie and I spent one night there and had most of the Sunday before flying home in the evening free to walk around the city.

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We arrived by train from Coimbra into Porto’s main station, São Bento (above). Built in 1916, it is famous for its tiled walls depicting scenes from Portuguese history. Stepping out into the streets we saw UNESCO signage all over the city, with short descriptions of what notable building one is standing next to.

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Not far from São Bento is the twelfth century Porto Cathedral. It is fundamentally Romanesque but was extensively reworked in the Baroque period, which accounts for features such as the rounded arch that would not have been available to its original designers.

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The Cathedral sits at the top of the Douro valley, surrounded by ramshackle houses that cascade down the hill toward the river in a charming manner. As I noted in Guimarães, the Portuguese like to tile their houses in bright colours. This, combined with the ubiquitous orange roofs, makes the slum-like Ribeira district a real pleasure to wander around.

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After walking down to the riverside we got a good view of Porto’s most famous landmark – the Dom Luís I Bridge. Opened in 1886, it closely resembles a slightly earlier bridge nearby, the Maria Pia, which was designed by the famous Gustave Eiffel. Like his Parisian tower, the bridges in Porto set records (longest bridge spans in the world) and showcased what could be done with wrought iron.

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Next we paid a couple of euros for entry to the Church of Saint Francis and its spooky crypt full of bones. Gothic and obviously very old from its facade, the church’s interior is lavishly decorated with carved and gilded wood. Again, this is a Baroque-era addition, and I think adds a great deal of majesty to the building.

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I have seen Porto described in the tourist literature as a ‘living museum’, and I think it deserves that epithet. The Ribeira district, though popular with visitors and certainly not somewhere that could be described as tranquil, still appears to be home to local people.

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Perhaps it is in order to appeal to tourists that the city – like Lisbon – still runs ancient electric trams (although the long-lasting recession that has hit Portugal – as one of the ‘PIIGS countries’ – particularly hard probably has a lot to do with it). But so long as they still work they are a useful way to get around such a hilly city. Bristol, where I live, could certainly benefit from them.

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How can I have written this much about Porto and yet not have mentioned the eponymous drink? Well, somehow – and completely unintentionally – I totally failed to drink any whilst there. The fortified red wine is produced upstream in the Douro wine region, then sailed down the river for onward distribution by the many famous brands that still occupy warehouses on the south side of the river (often with English names, like Taylor’s or Graham’s). It is for this reason that a return visit is a certainty, and the added benefit will be that I shall see more of this historic and intriguing city.

• University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia

Visit: 24th October 2015

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After a pleasant night in the quaint Portuguese town of Guimarães we set off on the train for the university town of Coimbra. Located about halfway between Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra is the country’s newest World Heritage Site – having been inscribed in 2013. As you can see above, however, they have wasted no time in placing commemorative marks of that recognition all over the town.

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The weather was not on our side that weekend, and our time in Coimbra was spent almost entirely in rain. Upon arrival I spotted a small bar that sold EU-protected pastries by the name of Pastel de Tentúgal, which we bought along with some coffee. Similar to Ovos Moles de Aveiro – another Portuguese snack – this traditional pastry contains a sweet but solid egg custard-type filling.

21932364333_22428c8d7d_zAfter visiting the town’s museum we trekked up to the top of the hill, where the ancient university is located. Coimbra has long been one of Portugal’s most important cities, fortified by a thick wall that still exists in places. During the Dark Ages it was the capital of Portugal before the country achieved independence. Following that event – when the city of Guimarães took its mantle – Coimbra countered the inevitable decline in its fortunes by establishing itself as a centre of learning.

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One of the best reasons to visit Coimbra is to see its fantastic library (above and below). It is a masterpiece of the Baroque, which I’m afraid my surreptitious interior photograph doesn’t do justice to. Walking through the library’s doors I was hit by the ‘wow factor’ that comes surprisingly infrequently considering the number of WHSs I have made it to in recent times. The Joanina library strikes me as the type of place that cartoonists and film-makers imagine when asked to come up with an archetypal prestigious library.22540952442_8d4d9d9a4a_z

There was no tour guide when we visited, so it was only by reading to the bottom of a laminated handout that I discovered the unusual technique the librarians use for keeping bookworms at bay in this room full of ancient tomes. The builders in the first instance created the bookshelves from oak, whose sap is a woodworm repellent. More surprisingly, the library is also home to a colony of bats that nest behind the gilded carvings at the top of the arches. Each night the bats wake and feast on any woodworms that have the temerity to make themselves obvious. The bat droppings are obviously a problem, but they are dealt with by covering surfaces each night and by employing a team of cleaners to give the room a once-over each morning.

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The €9 entry ticket also allows access to some of the academic function rooms, such as the Hall of Capelos, with its ceiling shown below, in which the most important university ceremonies take place (investitures, degree awards etc).

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There are good views from the university out over the town. Below you can see the Romanesque Old Cathedral of Coimbra. In the name of this World Heritage Site you’ll notice the terms ‘Alta’ and ‘Sofia’. Alta refers to the old town, where most of the university buildings are located (including everything covered so far).

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Sofia refers to the area around Sofia Street at the foot of the hill. I ensured we passed through it on our way back to the railway station – but we ended up bemused as to why it is included in the inscription. I probably should have allowed more time in Coimbra in order to look more carefully for the colleges on Sofia Street, because a brief walk down it on a rainy October afternoon did not give us any understanding of why it is considered culturally significant.

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By 6.30pm we were back at the station for our trip back to Porto to spend the night. I stood and drank a small beer in the station bar whilst the bartender loudly stacked plates. I decided to stand outside instead. You can still cross the tracks on foot at Portuguese stations, with only a traffic light and aural warning system to warn passengers of impending express trains steaming through. With that in mind I limited myself to just the one beer…

• Historic Centre of Guimarães

Visit: 23rd October 2015

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Guimarães is a town in northern Portugal that is known for being the spiritual birthplace of the Portuguese national identity. It isn’t a place I had heard of before, so I can thank UNESCO for bringing it to my attention by inscribing it on its list. Natalie and I flew Ryanair to Porto on Friday morning and then took a local train an hour or so north to Guimarães. We stayed one night there, which I felt would be sufficient for a quick visit to this small town. I chose what turned out to be a really nice little hotel within the old city walls – the Toural, if you ever find yourself in the area.22290558778_6380221847_z

Portugal came into being after Afonso Henriques defeated his mother, Theresa, at the battle of São Mamede in 1128. Fifteen years later he was recognised by the Kingdom of León (the area’s erstwhile ruler) as the King of Portugal.

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He chose his birthplace, Guimarães, to be the new country’s capital. The Portuguese like to say that, in a way, the whole nation of Portugal was born here too: hence the sign on the city walls.

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It isn’t a large town, so it didn’t take long for us to walk from one end of it (where out hotel was) to the other – the Guimarães Castle. The castle dates back to the tenth century, and still stands solid and imposing at the town’s highest point. They don’t charge an entrance fee to get in, and you can appreciate some pretty stunning views of the hilly surrounding countryside.

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The town’s medieval quarters have remained largely unchanged since they were built. We walked through the Guimarães’s two main avenues before dinner, stopping to look at the autumn lemons. The two main beer brands in Portugal are Super Bock and Estrela (both lagers), whilst they favour Italian-style espressos for their coffee.

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The Portuguese are keen on colourful tile patterns, as we saw the next day at Porto’s famous São Bento station. The green tiles on this medieval house are a good example of what I mean.

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The Portuguese national identity isn’t something that has much significance to me – I have only ever visited the country once before! But it was nonetheless a pleasant, relaxing place to visit, and an opportunity to sample ‘small-town’ Portugal – as opposed to the big-town bustle of Lisbon and Porto. The Romanesque church below was originally constructed in the twelfth century.

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Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira

The train ride to and from Guimarães takes travellers though some impressive scenery as the track winds its way along the bends of the Vizela river. This verdant valley, covered in damp vegetation, made it feel like we were journeying through a rainforest, with the Portuguese place names we passed through helping to make the scene indistinguishable at times from what I imagine Brazil or Angola must be like. We were heading back to Porto, there to get back on the railway and continue south to the university town of Coimbra.

• Frontiers of the Roman Empire

Visit: 3rd October 2015

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I went up to Cumbria for a family reunion earlier this month to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of my aunt and uncle, Heather and Ernest. It had been a memorable one because we all got snowed in to a local pub and nobody could get to the church, leaving the groom to drive around rescuing various guests in his tractor! I was only two at the time so don’t remember it, but I had a good time at the reunion barn dance talking to my fellow guests who did remember. Invites were extended to those who came to the original event, those who would have come but couldn’t due to weather and those who would have been invited had they been around but weren’t! That meant I brought Natalie and various younger cousins who hadn’t been born were able to come too. We stayed the weekend in a holiday cottage with my family near the village of Ravenstonedale, about a five hour drive north from Bristol.  Naturally, checked the UNESCO map for nearby World Heritage Sites and saw that Hadrian’s Wall was only an hour or so further north.

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Roman arch in a milecastle

My Dad was interested in seeing the wall too, as – despite being a Northerner – he had never been. I planned out a circular route of about 10km, starting in the Northumbrian hamlet of ‘Once Brewed’, walking along the wall and taking in two ruined Roman forts.

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You will have noticed the name of this WHS is not ‘Hadrian’s Wall’, but ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’. Although it was originally inscribed on the list in 1987 as Hadrian’s Wall, the inscription was later revised to include the Antonine Wall in central Scotland and the Upper German-Raetian Limes (spanning the Rhineland, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria). Hadrian’s Wall is of course the most prominent and most significant of the three, but I’d be interested to visit the other two walls if I’m ever in the areas. Together they are testament to the Roman Empire at the height of its power and its subsequent entry into decline.

21332103743_34c6c440fa_zHadrian’s Wall is 75 miles long and stretches (roughly) from Carlisle in the west to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the east. It was built under orders of the Emperor Hadrian in the mid first century as the Romans consolidated their hold on what they called Britannia. The wall was 6.5 metres high and 3 meters thick, with a ditch on its northern side. This made it a formidable barrier to the rebellious Picts, whom it was designed to keep at bay.

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Every mile there was a milecastle – a small stockade in which a unit of men would be based. We walked past the remnants of several milecastles. It is notable how hilly the terrain is on which the wall was built – it must have kept the soldiers fit as they patrolled between milecastles.

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Here you can just about make out a lake in the background, with some tomfoolery going on in the foreground. The wall at this point was atop a ridge line with a 50 metre drop, making it doubly impenetrable to outsiders.

Back in April Natalie and I visited Hadrian’s villa with Ross and his family. The difference between the refined luxury of Hadrian’s enormous estate outside of Rome and the bleak, rainy conditions his soldiers endured guarding his empire’s northern reaches make for quite a contrast.

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As you can see from the photos, we didn’t get the best views of the wall thanks to the dense fog that sat over the whole region all day. In a way this made it more atmospheric, giving us an idea of what it might have been like to be a Roman soldier peering out into the murky unknown. There were ten thousand of them here, stationed all the way along the wall. According to UNESCO, the relevance of the site to the decline of the Roman Empire relates to these soldiers’ morale. Archaeological evidence from the area shows that many soldiers – contrary to the rules of the Roman Army – maintained families in Britannia. They were stationed there for years at a time, and so acquired wives and children. As the empire grew its forces were stretched more thinly, meaning troop movements became more frequent. The inability to take their families with them each time they were called to a new outpost harmed morale in the army, and deserting began to develop as a major problem, in turn making the empire’s borders less secure. From then on it was inevitable that the empire would start to lose control of territory.

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Vindolanda fort

Hopefully soon we can return to see a different part of the wall, such as the end nearer Newcastle – and hopefully in better weather. Hadrian’s Wall is not as grand as the Great Wall of China, but still impressive, and a lot closer to home – even if it did feel like an eternity on the M6!

• Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church

Visit: 29th August 2015

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Canterbury had been bugging me for a while, it being the only WHS in southern England that I had never been to. Since it’s not far from London I decided to put that right and invited my friend Ross along with Natalie and me for a day trip. The site consists, as you can see from the wordy title, of three subcomponents: the famous cathedral, a nearby abbey and a small church. We arrived in Canterbury on a fast train from St Pancras and found a pub outside the cathedral. I liked the Gothic decoration on Christ Church Gate, below, put up under Henry VII.

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The cathedral is the seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is also a mixed Romanesque and Gothic masterpiece, though it looks quite different to another grand cathedral of that era, the one in Cologne. The top photo, below, shows its most famous angle – the Gothic western face – whilst the bottom photo is taken from the east and shows its older, Norman (ie. Romanesque) elements. I think you will agree that they look like two different buildings.

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As with other C of E cathedrals, entrance isn’t cheap. We went inside nevertheless, taking in the stained glass, the cloisters and the site of Thomas Beckett’s murder. Behind me, below, is the area known as the choir. Here a candle burns for Beckett, who was thought to have worked miracles and prompted much pilgrimage to Canterbury.

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The crypt held quite a surprise for me, as I was not expecting to see twelfth century frescoes in a C of E cathedral. The paintings, located in St Gabriel’s Chapel, were painted long before the C of E was created under Henry VIII, and the chapel was bricked up soon after its creation. It was discovered in the late nineteenth century, with restoration work finishing only in the 1990s. The frescoes put me in mind of the crypt at the Basilica of Aquileia – a northern Italian WHS we visited earlier in the summer.

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Finishing with the cathedral we stopped for a pint and then headed over to St Augustine’s Abbey, which was wrecked by Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His reason for destroying this building, along with hundreds of others up and down the land, was to weaken the power of the Catholic church in England, with whom Henry had fallen out over his famous divorce. Active from 598 to 1538, its inscription on the UNESCO list stands as testament to this period of English history.

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The final part of this World Heritage Site is the oldest church in England: St Martin’s Church. Located a ten minute walk up the road from the abbey, St Martin’s is an unassuming little building that looks like any other English parish church. It dates back to slightly before the abbey – so old, in fact, that Roman bricks have been found to form part of its structure. Canterbury’s location in Kent, close to the narrowest point of the English Channel, meant it was a natural stopping off point for those early Christian messengers coming to Britain to spread the gospel.

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St Martin’s is a quiet place, far removed from the crowds of the nearby cathedral and yet significant in its own way. I like to think of it as representing on the list all of England’s hundreds (if not thousands) of ancient parish churches, since they are an integral part of the story of ‘this blessed plot’. I found this plaque embedded into the road outside the church, bearing the symbol that many won’t recognise but is increasingly familiar to me as that of the World Heritage Site movement.21005286651_fd9d5d97de_z