Category Archives: United Kingdom

• Durham Castle and Cathedral

Visit: 30th November 2016

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Following two nights in Edinburgh with friends I set off early in the morning to head south, travelling by train the 90 minute journey to Durham. I’d never been to this city before, but I have a friend studying at the university who was kind enough to show me around.

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Jonathan picked me up from the station and drove us to a parking spot on the outskirts of town. We walked in to the centre via the placid River Wear that forms a horseshoe bend around the promontory that Durham’s centre is built upon.

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The castle, above, has been extensively modified over the years and is nowadays used as a student hall of residence. Durham University is organised into colleges, and this one is apparently the most desirable because the students who get in can say they live in a castle.

The only way to see inside the castle is to go on a guided tour. One stop is the dining hall, walls covered with paintings of illustrious graduates from the past. Durham is the third oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge.

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The castle is significantly older than the university, however, as evidenced by the Norman chapel contained within it. It originally had no windows, as these would have compromised the defensive strength of the castle, which was used as a redoubt from which to hold out against the Scots from time to time.

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Durham’s significance in the eyes of UNESCO is its manifestation of Norman authority over the English nation, standing as a symbol of the power they had won following William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066. The city centre’s hilltop location, surrounded on three sides by water, made it a natural place for a fortification and an imposing deterrent to any would-be attackers.

But it wasn’t a total Norman dominance. Durham had a unique status as a sort of buffer state between England and Scotland. After trying and failing to send Norman nobles up to rule over the border region, in 1075 William instead endowed Durham’s bishop with secular powers, giving him the grand title of Prince Bishop. In return for these powers he would protect English interests in the region. The office of prince bishop remained until 1836.

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The seat of the prince bishops, Durham Cathedral, stands next to the castle. Built in the 12th/13th centuries, it houses the remains of Northumbrian evangeliser St Cuthbert and Dark Age historian the Venerable Bede (below). Bede, a monk of the 7th/8th centuries, chronicled a period of British history that might otherwise be little known to us. His Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum runs from Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC through to the conversion of the English proto-monarchs to Christianity following the voyage to Canterbury of St Augustine.

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• The Forth Bridge

Visit: 29th November 2016

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During our LBS trip to Scotland’s capital I was able to persuade two of my fellow students – Gokul and Neill – to join me on an excursion to see this rather esoteric World Heritage Site. The Forth Bridge is only 20 minutes from Edinburgh city centre by rail, and because the railway line is exactly what the bridge was built to carry, our first sighting of it consisted of brief glimpses of girders as we passed along it.

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Gokul had been sceptical of the idea of coming to see a not-exactly-ancient bridge, but once we arrived at the Firth of Forth he was quickly converted. The train pulled into the picturesque village of North Queensferry, which is on the northern bank of the Forth, leaving us to make our way down the hillside to find a vantage point.

The Forth Bridge is the UK’s second most recent addition to the list (after Gorham’s Cave Complex in Gibraltar), having been inscribed in 2015. When it opened in 1890 it was considered a marvel of engineering for its employment of the novel cantilever system of distributing weight, and for its sheer length (541 metres). Over time it has joined the thistle and the Irn-Bru can as a symbol of Scotland (and it is surely no coincidence that the tangy drink’s famous strapline claims it is “made from girders”).

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Considering this was Scotland in late November the weather was remarkably good. We walked down this seaweed-covered jetty to get a better angle of the bridge. Since 1890 it has been joined by two further bridges across the water: the Forth Road Bridge and the under-construction Queensferry Crossing. But the iconic cantilever towers of the rail bridge will remain the sight that people come to see.

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• Old and New Towns of Edinburgh

Visit: 28th/29th November 2016

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With exams over for the autumn term I travelled with a group of fellow Masters students up to Edinburgh for a trip to a city I had never before been to. In fact it was to be my first time setting foot in Scotland, which seems odd given how close it is. The first of our group to head up north, Neill, Gokul and I met up at Tottenham Hale tube station before taking the train to Stansted airport and an early Ryanair flight to Edinburgh. Gokul was excited to try the ultra low cost carrier out for the first time, as he’s investing in an Indian airline that imitates a lot of Ryanair’s innovations.

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My overall impression of the Edinburgh was mild surprise at how nice it was. I expected it to be pretty impressive, but it also seemed like somewhere that would be nice to live in. It is split into the Old Town, which rises up on a promontory the length of the Royal Mile, ending at the castle, and the New Town, which is only as new as the skyscape of Bath, for example (which is to say mostly Georgian).

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The two halves are divided by a small valley, if that is the word, which looks like it should hold a river but actually holds a railway line and the city’s main station, Waverley (named after a series of novels by Sir Walter Scott, of whom the city is proud).

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Our trip organiser, Kat, had booked us apartments in the heart of Old Town, right on the Royal Mile. After checking in we first visited the cathedral, named after St Giles. It is smaller than I expected from such an important city, but that probably stems from the fact it was built in an area that was already bustling, in the heart of Auld Reekie (as it was nicknamed for its smell). We stopped off beside a statue of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and a face you can see on the £20 note (although ironically not on the Scottish version).

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We wandered over to New Town to get a few drinks in some heritage pubs. Needing hard currency, and interested to get some Scottish bank notes for myself and compare them to those of London and Gibraltar, we popped into a branch of RBS.

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Grand hardly describes this bank, built as it is in what used to be one of the founders’ mansion. This isn’t some sort of high net worth only branch like Coutts, but is open for anyone to use and has ATMs inside and a branch manager wearing a kilt!

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Before long the others arrived and we went for dinner and drinks. I had the local dish of haggis, neaps and tatties, which wasn’t bad at all.

The next morning I went with Gokul and Neill to see the Forth Bridge, which gets its own post as it too is a World Heritage Site.

On our return we ran into the Latin American contingent on their way to walk up Arthur’s Seat, the 820 foot hill that overlooks the city. They told us it was going to be a 29 minute walk from the Old Town, but that was quite an underestimate!

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That evening seven of us enjoyed a slap-up curry, during which we ordered and survived a phal (supposedly spicier than a vindaloo, but it wasn’t that bad at all in this case). We then had a long night out in both New and Old Towns until 4 in the morning.

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I left Edinburgh at 9am the next (same) day for Durham. I think that part of its charm comes from the wealth created by the many finance jobs (modern insurance and pensions were invented in Edinburgh, and it is a banking and fund management hub, second only to London in Britain). But also the uniformity of the architectural style is important, with all that imposing granite being used to great effect. I now see why it is on the itinerary of every tourist who comes to the UK, and long may it remain a member of our kingdom. That Scottish parliament building is a bit of a monstrosity though!

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• Gorham’s Cave Complex

Visit: 5th November 2016

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The UK got a new World Heritage Site this year, not on the mainland but a thousand miles south, in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. I have for some time wanted to visit one of those few remaining outposts of empire that remain under the sovereignty of the UK, so was glad to have a good reason for travelling to one.

The first highlight of a trip to Gibraltar is the arrival. Despite the area of the territory being only 2.4 square kilometres, they have managed to squeeze an airport into its northernmost point, right next to the border with Spain. The runway is bisected by Winston Churchill Avenue, which is the only road connecting Gibraltar to mainland Iberia. It is basically a grander version of a level crossing – instead of traffic waiting for a passing train it waits for an aeroplane. Given the short distance from the terminal to the centre of town, we walked across the runway both there and back.

Gorham’s Cave Complex is notable for being the last site in the world thought to have been home to Neanderthals. An engraving found there has been put at more than 39,000 years old. It is not ‘cave art’ in the traditional sense, but is thought to be some sort of ancient symbol, perhaps signifying an important intersection in the cave complex.

Unfortunately most of the actual caves included in this inscription are inaccessible to the general public. The museum offers occasional guided tours, but only for groups of a large enough size. We were only two, so had to make do with the only caves that are open to the public – Goat’s Hair Twin Caves. These caves are just the sort of places cartoon cavemen are depicted living.

The way to get to the caves is via a footpath called the Mediterranean Steps, which is also in the WHS core zone. This is a really memorable route down the steep side of the Rock. The top of the steps are not for the faint-hearted, as this picture should demonstrate.

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We were joined at the top by two of the territory’s Barbary macaques. The famous monkeys of Gibraltar are the only wild apes in Europe, and it is said that if they ever leave then the British will lose control.

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The Spaniards would certainly welcome that, since it is well known that they covet the peninsular that was taken from them by the Dutch and then transferred to the British in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

You can clearly make out Africa from the top, the Strait of Gibraltar being only 7.7 nautical miles across at its narrowest point. The strategically vital position of Gibraltar itself is the reason it has long been fought over by regional powers. Whoever controls the Rock can cut off access to the Mediterranean, as the Brits did successfully in both world wars, when they bored miles of tunnels into it in order to fortify it further. Its steep sides make it exceptionally difficult to take from its holders.

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The next day was a Sunday. Our flight home was in the evening, so we spent the day in town, where all the shops were closed. The first sight was the Moorish Castle, which is a fortified tower dating back to the days when North African Muslims controlled the Iberian peninsular. They built a wall up the slopes of the rock to keep out attackers coming at them from the land.

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Also interesting is Gibraltar’s cathedral, which is very different in its design to its mostly Gothic counterparts back in the British Isles such as Canterbury and Durham.

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The Gibraltarians issue their own Sterling bank notes, but are generally happy to embrace designs familiar to visitors from back home. I liked the incongruity of seeing red phone and post boxes next to palm trees.

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The locals consider themselves as British as fish and chips. In a 2002 referendum the Labour government mystifyingly decided to offer the people a referendum on the idea of the UK sharing sovereignty with Spain. The result was a resounding ‘no’, with 98.8% of voters rejecting the idea. That is only marginally less patriotic than the faithful Falkland Islanders, of whom in 2013 99.8% voted to remain British subjects (the number of votes cast against was 3).

I hope to return to Gibraltar again soon, perhaps as part of a group taking a guided tour of the caves proper. The place is dripping with history and is woven with a sense of faded glory. Plus it is socially acceptable there, unlike in the rest of Mainland Europe, to have a Full English breakfast in the sun.

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• Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast

Visit: 25th June 2016

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Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site, and one of just three on the island of Ireland. I had never been to this constituent country of the UK, and given Ryanair’s offer of £25 return flights from Gatwick to Belfast I booked us a day trip.

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It is necessary to hire a car to reach the Causeway Coast, which is located at the northern tip of the island. This came in at only £16 for the day, keeping the costs nice and low. It was about an hour’s drive from Belfast Aldergrove airport on a typical summer’s day of mild temperatures and a heavy grey sky.

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The visitor’s centre is new and blends well into the terrain. We didn’t go inside because entry is bundled with car parking and the car park was full. We were able to park in a miniature railway car park just a few minutes down the road, which was significantly cheaper (the official car park is £9 per person, whereas the one we used is something like £6 per car).

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The Causeway Coast is free to enter and open to the public like any coastal path. It takes ten minutes to descend from the visitor centre to the Giant’s Causeway, which was pretty busy with American tourists. It seems as if it is more famous in America than in Britain, judging by the range of accents we heard.

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The famous hexagonal pillars are the product of an ancient volcanic eruption. Molten basalt was forced up through chalk, and as it cooled and contracted it cracked into hexagons, like drying mud. The reason hexagons formed is because they are the most efficient shapes that tessellate (efficient in the sense of having the smallest ratio of edge length to surface area). The only other regular shapes that tessellate are squares and triangles. The utility of hexagonal tiling is more intuitive if you think of honeycombs, where bees use the shape to provide as strong and large a structure as possible for the least amount of wax required.

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Giant’s Causeway is far from unique in having these hexagonal columns of volcanic rock. In fact you can find them all over the place, but particularly around what might be termed the ‘Atlantic rim’ – ie. the west coast of the Europe and the east coast of North America. Here in County Antrim they are the most striking, but the reason you will find them elsewhere is because they are the product of the same volcanic eruption, back when the continents were all as one under the name Pangaea. They have slowly but surely been forced apart by continental drift at a rate of 2.5 cm per year so that Ireland and America are now some 3,000 miles apart. The epicentre is known today as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and it is still a point of great geological activity far beneath the waves. The ridge also runs through Iceland, giving that country its unique geology and giving rise to the WHS, Thingvellir National Park.

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The Giant’s Causeway UNESCO inscription does not just cover the famous Causeway but also the coast more generally for several miles to its east. We walked along the coastal path until reaching the edge of the inscribed zone, where it was very quiet indeed. Headland after headland jut out into the Atlantic, many boasting basalt columns exposed from the side.

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We had a traditional Irish lunch of steak pie and a pint of stout before driving south back towards Belfast. There was time to stop off at Loch Neagh, which is the UK’s largest lake by area, at 150 square miles. According to Irish folklore the lake was formed when a local giant, Finn MacCool, scooped up a handful of earth to hurl at a rival in Scotland, but his throw wasn’t long enough and it ended up landing in the Irish Sea to form the Isle of Man. This same giant is said to have begun building Giant’s Causeway as a way of crossing the sea to get at the other giant, named Benandonner, in Scotland.

• 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.

• 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!