We are on the cusp of seasons. Spring is tantalising us, slowly but surely shedding her outer layers and revealing flashes of warm light and emerging greenery. In my little patch the daffodil bulbs, which I thought I’d left too late when I planted them in December, are pushing through towards the sun. Today has been a cold day but I felt the occasional warm ray on my face, enough to power up the solar garden lamps which are gracing the dusk for a little longer each day. It is still light when I arrive home from work which is bliss! The new energy is almost tangible.
February 1st was the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc: for Pagans the first day of the ‘quickening’ – the turning of the year, and later adopted by Christianity and renamed as St Bridget’s day. It is a fire festival and marks the advance towards light and warmth….. even though in these parts we had seen snow just a few days earlier.
Although there’s still a way to go before we can put away our winter coats and scarves, it is heartening to see the early signs of renewal and enjoy the lengthening days. It’s a special time.
I am often guilty of forgetting about the many lovely places close to my home in favour of more interesting locations further afield. At this time of year when the grand houses of the National Trust have not yet opened their stately doors to the public, and when the countryside has not yet come into bloom, there is still much beauty to be found locally.
Scotsman’s Flash is one of many ‘flashes’ in the Wigan area, lakes formed as a result of mining subsidence on the sites of former coal mine workings. Scotsman’s is the largest and is a designated area of scientific interest due to the presence of rare plants and migrating birds such as Reed and Sedge Warbler. It is popular with canoeists, and people like my friend who sometimes walks her dogs there at the weekends.
Our stroll took us along a stretch of the Leigh branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.
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A new road – a busy dual-carriageway – which will ‘fly over’ the canal and the edge of the Flash is in the early stages of construction after decades in the planning stage. The next few months may be the last chance to enjoy views like these. It remains to be seen what the impact on the wildlife will be, so all the more reason to enjoy days like this one whilst I still can.
At this time of year I love to spend cosy weekends at home with books and copious cups of tea, pottering about and conserving energy to keep those winter bugs at bay; but it’s good to get out sometimes, to blow away those cobwebs.
I decided on a Sunday afternoon visit Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Rather than push through the crowds of Christmas shoppers, I opted for a relaxing stroll along the Rochdale Canal.
The Rochdale Canal runs down into the city of Manchester from high in the Pennine hills. In the late 18th and early 19th century it was key to the city’s industrial growth, through the transportation of cotton and finished goods to and from the plethora of mills and canal-side warehouses.
Of course, the industrial buildings have all now been repurposed, some as swanky offices or apartments, or even trendy clubs and restaurants.
The Sun was shining and quite a few people were out cycling or running or, like me, finding a quieter path through the city clamour.
Locals of the feathered variety ventured out from their desirable residences.
An art installation celebrates the late famed Tony Wilson, Mr Manchester: journalist and broadcaster, founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub.
I walked by Deansgate in the direction of Castlefield, passing under dark low bridges and alongside swelling lock gates holding back walls of water
A couple of work men repaired railings on the towpath
A little further ahead, Castelfield hub offered light and space
The wharfs and basins around Castlefield, once a hive of commerce where boats were unloaded at the city warehouses, is now one of the most popular spots in the city, especially in summer where people gather on the towpath and at the bars and restaurants. A wedding party posed for photographs. I offered my congratulations as I passed.
A small cluster of boats is permanently moored ….
….where an attractive space is used for outdoor performances and recreation. A single practitioner of Tai Chi moved gracefully whilst a group of boys practised skateboard stunts on the steps a short distance away, where my canal walk reached its end.
We talk a lot about the weather here in the UK. We never cease to be amazed at what shouldn’t really surprise us at all, as our weather is nothing if not unpredictable. But this year, we have been spoiled. Last winter outstayed its welcome, the last snow falling at Easter, but summer – when it arrived – was long and glorious. An exceptionally mild and bright autumn followed, dry and unseasonably warm. A recent visit to London was on one such day.
Inspired by an episode of Gardener’s World which featured two Indian inspired gardens, I had planned to visit both locations. Like the weather, even best-laid plans don’t always turn out as expected.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London is a very beautiful Hindu temple. At the time of its completion in 1995 it was the largest outside of India. Incredibly, the Bulgarian stone and Italian marble of which the temple is constructed were first shipped to India to be hand-carved and engraved by traditional craftsmen before being shipped to the temple site.
Photography inside the building is prohibited. Visitors must leave all personal belongings except purses, wallets and mobile phones inside their vehicles or inside the security cabin in front of the temple. Eagle-eyed security people watch for attempts at phone photography, which is fair enough. The interior is exquisite; the expanses of marble and the detail in the carved stone pillars brilliant. I happened upon three worshippers, friendly old men who spoke with great pride about their Mandir, telling us that it had been paid for by the community. Despite the beauty of the place and the welcome offered by these gentlemen, I found the watchfulness of the security presence rather oppressive. Nevertheless. it was certainly worth the visit and I got a few photographs of the outside once I had retrieved my belongings. No garden shots, sadly.
Back in central London, I decided to visit one of my favourite shops in the Soho area, and this seemed like a good time to stop for lunch. I thought I would probably grab a sandwich and find somewhere to sit outside rather than waste an hour of my day in a restaurant. Waiting to cross a side street, I was attracted by the sound of gentle drumming and chanting but couldn’t make out where it was coming from. Deciding to find out, I soon came across the familiar sight of orange-robed Hare Krishna devotees seated outside a small RadhaKrishna temple.
I was delighted to see that the temple incorporated a ‘karma free’ cafe offering simple vegetarian fayre. Forget the sandwich; the plan had changed.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but a karma free lunch is another thing entirely. I ordered a plate of poppadoms with spicy dips and a small green salad accompanied by a glass of fresh apple juice, all for the amazing price of £3.50. Govinda’s was very crowded and I had to share a table with some other people, something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but it was all part of the experience. I ate quickly, as even more people were waiting to be seated.
A security man paced back and forth constantly, more than I thought was necessary or polite. On my way out, I asked him why his presence was called for in what seemed a nice place full of peaceful diners. His answer was ambiguous but he told me they often had “trouble”.
I decided to walk for a while as I had time and it was a lovely day. I wandered down Whitehall in the direction of Big Ben and the Thames.
The second garden I wanted to visit was a newly opened creation at the Aga Khan Centre which is not far from Kings Cross Station. Monty Don had been given a sneak preview during the summer but the Arabesque symmetry garden had only opened to the public in late September. I was so happy that the day had turned out sunny, as I suspected that an exotic garden would probably require a certain quality of light.
It took me a while to find Aga Khan, an odd looking building which incorporated ancient Moorish designs into its very modern facade.
In I went, and out I came again, just moments later. Needless to say, I had looked at the website before planning my visit, but clearly I had missed the part which told readers that visits could only be made on Thursday afternoons by prior online booking. They were already booked up for the next three months.
The sun might have been shining on me, but Fate was behind a cloud, or so it seemed. I still had a couple of hours before my train so I decided on a walk around the Kings Cross area. This proved to be a revelation and worthy compensation for my earlier disappointment.
Hundreds of people had come out to enjoy the warm autumn day, sitting along the towpath of the Regent’s canal or picnicking on the grass, or even perusing the floating book store where I picked up a battered anthology.
Things often have a way of working out not as expected, but better. One thing doesn’t work out but something else turns up instead; something which might not have been discovered if the plan had….. gone to plan. 🙂
For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of a cruise. I don’t mean sailing around the Med or Caribbean, poolside, on a floating luxury hotel; that’s not really me. I’m thinking more of northern European fjords or the distant bleak but beautiful archipelagos of the British Isles. Before making any plans, I had to find out if I – life long sufferer of travel sickness – had sea legs. There was also the matter of my slight fear of sinking hundreds of miles from dry land…
A mini-cruise to Amsterdam presented a perfect opportunity to test out my personal fitness to sail, overcome my anxieties about drowning at sea, and to visit a beautiful city on my destination wish list.
I confess that I was nervous about sailing the briny waves but I was determined to conquer my fear of finding myself in a rendezvous with Neptune on the sea bed.
At the Port of Hull in north-east Yorkshire we boarded the good ship Pride of Rotterdam for the overnight voyage and checked into our cabin on deck 10. It was time to explore our vessel. First stop was the sun deck where very strong winds made it difficult to hold the camera still, but after noting the location of the lifeboats (and committing this to memory) I got a few shots of Hull, including the Humber Bridge.
Following a happily eventless night, we arrived alive and well in Rotterdam. From there, a convenient coach ride brought us to our destination, Amsterdam, about 90 minutes away.
We only had a day and it was already mid morning so time was of the essence. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to see but had to be realistic as the clock was ticking. This was a day to get a flavour of the city; I could return for a longer visit another time.
Amsterdam is known as the Venice of the North due to the extensive network of canals which weave around the city. A canal cruise seemed like a good way to take in some of the sights with the option of disembarking to visit any points of interest along the way.
The starting point was the boat and bus tour hub across from Amsterdam Central train station. I made a mental note of the ideally situated chain hotel just metres away which would be a perfect place to stay on a future visit.
Bus and boat tours were plentiful but queues were long. We waited for 25 minutes – a big chunk of time out of our short day but were lucky enough to get the last two places.
The audio recording provided interesting facts about the Dutch capital. In the 12th century, the dam in the River Amstel emerged from being a small fishing village into a hugely important port. The 17th century was known as the Dutch Golden Age which saw the growth of commerce and the diamond trade and expansion of empire. Amsterdam’s 17th century waterways have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.
We passed through one of the main commercial districts, the port and spotted the largest Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands. This area reminded me of Stockholm.
It was a warm sunny day and Amsterdam was buzzing as we wound our way around the Amstel. As I listened to the audio guide and learned some fascinating facts about the city, I found myself relaxing into my surroundings and forgetting about the time.
We passed through the Jewish cultural district famous for diamond and jewellery manufacturing. Some people left us there for a tour of the Gassan factory to see how diamonds are cut. I would like to explore this part of Amsterdam in the future.
Past City Hall and the magnificent Hermitage Museum, we arrived at an intersection with the Prinsengracht Canal where we encountered a boat rage incident. Not surprisingly on such a glorious day, many people were enjoying being on the water and a women’s boat race was in full swing. Several vessels -including ours – had become jammed at a bottle-neck bridge.
The determined women rowers were not for backing up and were quite vocal in their refusal, oars being postured to reinforce their words. I don’t know any Dutch, but locals looking down from the bridge were highly amused at the altercation. The women had to retreat in the end, but speedily sailed away towards their prize, their nearest competitors hot in pursuit.
House boats are so popular in Amsterdam that the authorities have put a stop to any new ones. Mooring charges are high and berths don’t often come available. Residents soaked up the rays outside their floating homes and along the banks where office workers and tourists alike were taking a break and enjoying the ambience.
At the Westkerk (west church) we decided to leave the boat and have a look around this central part of the city. The Church was closed, unfortunately.
The world famous Anne Frank House Museum is nearby. It goes without saying that a visit was out of the question on this occasion as queues can be very long and tickets should be bought in advance to avoid a lengthy wait.
We crossed over the Bloemgracht Canal. There are about 250 bridges in Amsterdam, many of them very pretty and reminiscent of Paris.
The bustling Jordaan area has quirky shops and cool apartment buildings and is a charming mix of old and new. I was very tempted by some contemporary Delftware, but ironically I couldn’t decide between several lovely pieces and bought none of them.
Strolling back along Raadhuisstrat we emerged in Dam Square at the centre of the city. It was packed full of people and life.
Sightseers milled around the royal palace; again, I was keen to explore but by this time had less than three hours before meeting the coach back to Rotterdam. Several protests and counter protests were taking place in the square but all were peaceful and calm, as is the liberal and tolerant Dutch way.
The Nieuwe Kerk (new church) was on my list of places to see but it was hosting an exhibition about the Buddha, which although probably fascinating, would have eaten too much into our remaining time. The rest of this gorgeous building had been closed off. Next time…
Damrak is the main shopping street and it was thriving. All the usual multinational eateries were mixed with museums and exhibition spaces. Many of the buildings are three hundred years old.
I was fascinated by the Amsterdam Cheese Company store with its huge cheeses on display in the upstairs windows.
At the end of Damrak, with Central Station in view, stand some of the loveliest houses in the whole of the city, centuries old and full of character.
Behind these is the red light district and infamous coffee shops. Amsterdam is synonymous with licentiousness and hedonism, but what really surprised me was that it is not ‘in your face’. If visitors want to ogle ladies in windows or enjoy space cakes with their special coffees, it’s all easily available – but you have to look for it. Side streets offer hints to what lies further ahead, but that is a choice, and nobody has to walk that way, and won’t find themselves there by accident.
I didn’t enter the labyrinth of the senses this time, but would do if time permitted, as the red light district is reputed to include some very handsome buildings.
A little more exploring and it was time to head back to Rotterdam with just an hour to spare before we set sail. Once again, relatively calm waters conveyed us back to Hull where we arrived at 08:00.
What a weekend! What a revelation Amsterdam has been! It was the briefest of visits, and I only got a glance, not a look, at a fascinating city. I will go back, but even though I do seem to have sea legs after all (albeit somewhat wobbly ones) and I can sleep through the night without watching for the sea seeping into the cabin, I’ll stick to the big metal bird next time around.
Several weeks ago when I arranged yesterday’s visit to London, I had expected that the last Saturday in September would be more autumnal. However, a forecast of 17 degrees and dawn to dusk sunshine resulted in a change of plans for the day. Museums and exhibitions can wait for colder days; this was going to be a perfect occasion for a stroll along one of the capital city’s waterways.
Having walked the stretch of the Canal from Regent’s Park to Camden last year, I decided that this time I’d begin at its starting point, Little Venice, where it meets the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin.
The nearest tube station is Warwick Avenue. From there, it’s just a five minute walk to the Basin.
I had expected there to be more boats around, but then it was only 09:40. Queues had already started to form for the water buses and private hire boats. I considered a cruise aboard Jason, but as embarkation was not for another 45 minutes I decided to walk instead.
Heading north along the towpath, I soon found to my annoyance that I had to walk back up onto the road which runs parallel to the water. It seems that the permanent boating community whose vessels are moored there are entitled to lock an access gate which essentially turns that stretch of the towpath into their private gardens.
Whilst I don’t begrudge them the privacy which this offers, I wish it had been made clear on the various websites I had consulted when planning my walk. At that point I briefly regretted not having waited with the other Argonauts to set sail with Jason
My diversion took me past a nice looking cafe bar situated above the Canal tunnel. I’d had a quick breakfast at 05:30 so I decided to break off for coffee and toast with a view of Little Venice.
From there, the diversion took me further away from the water and through a housing estate. I consulted my map which seemed to suggest that I was still on track, but I had no idea where I would get back onto the towpath. A jogger helpfully pointed me in the right direction, informing me that I would pass a “nice pub” further ahead and that close by there would be a gate leading back down to the canal. Both were easy to find, but to my dismay this gate too was padlocked shut. A sign indicated an alternative route should the gate be locked, suggesting that there was actually no way for a pedestrian to ever know in advance whether the towpath would be accessible, as this depended on the choice of the boat residents at any given time.
With the water back in view, I ambled along past St John’s power station where on the other side of the Canal yet another cluster of boat people had made a pretty little floating community.
They had also closed off the towpath where they had assembled some lovely gardens and homely structures. At that point, as I focused my camera through a gap in the railings, Jason sailed past. On balance, even though I had been diverted away from my chosen path through an insalubrious residential area , I was still glad I hadn’t wasted 45 minutes of my day waiting for that particular voyage to commence.
A little further on, I was able to cross over to join the towpath. By this time, more people were canal-side: walking, running and cycling, with some even on the water. The capital’s waterways are havens for busy city-dwellers.
My walk revealed a spectrum of city living, from the palatial properties on the far bank, through the array of quirky boat homes to the sleeping bags and tents under bridges and amongst the trees. One tent dweller bathed in the water as people passed by. I was quite moved by the sight of his little grooming kit of soap, shampoo, comb etc., guarded by his faithful canine companion. I hope he doesn’t have to do that for much longer as the days become colder and the water icy.
This part of the canal skirts the western boundary of Regent’s Park and cuts through London Zoo with bridges connecting the two sides. Animal sounds can be heard from within the grounds. The photographs below show an aviary on my left and the giraffe house across the bank.
The familiar view of the floating Chinese restaurant told me that I was to take the left turn under the next bridge.
Camden lock was just a little way further ahead, as announced by the Bohemian air and herbal aroma.
Camden Lock is a noisy and very vibrant hub of activity. It was almost midday and the area was teeming with visitors, exploring, shopping or just watching the world go by. The finger post told me I had walked two-and-a-half miles from Little Venice and that I could walk 302 miles to Liverpool if I fancied it. I decided to pass on that.
I love Camden and have been countless times over the years, but I have found that as I get older I am less comfortable and less patient in the thick of the very slow moving swarms of spatially unaware sightseers, but it’s still good to see the amusement and wonder on the faces of visitors as they pose for selfies in this bizarre and very unconventional part of London where anything goes.
The late Amy Winehouse was a Camden girl, a fact which is celebrated through art works around the Stables market where she once worked on a stall. Would she still be around now if she hadn’t found fame?
The Stables Market was formerly a horse hospital, dating back to 1854. Camden was an industrial hub where horses were instrumental in hauling goods between the canal and railway networks. References to the site’s former use are displayed throughout the market place’s alleys and courtyards.
I amazed myself by keeping my purse zipped shut as I mooched around the winding passageways, a cornucopia of ethnic, vintage, and curio shops.
Very ready for a sit down and a spot of lunch, I walked the short distance to Chalk Farm tube station to head back by train to the heart of the city.