Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

HMS Victory

HMS Victory

Portsmouth dockyard is home to historic warships alongside museums showcasing naval history. The dockyard has many attractions so you need at least two days to get the best out of it. A good place to start is HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship and the world’s oldest commissioned warship. Victory is in dry dock so unable to sport full mast because the weight would cause her hull to bow. In 1805 she was Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle in which Nelson died a hero’s death and which also marked the end of Napoleon’s attempt to invade Britain by the seas.

The inside of Victory gives an insight into what life would be like at sea. I found it a lot more compact inside than I imagined; even I had to duck my head at times. I found it strange to think that I was on the vessel where Nelson spent the last moments of his life.

The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose

In a dry dock behind HMS Victory is the new Mary Rose museum.  The building was purpose built to house the remains the flagship of King Henry VIII which capsized and sank in the Solent in 1545. The museum is very well done; the remains of the Mary Rose are on its starboard side and on the port side the artifacts that were found with the ship were displayed laid out as they would have been on the ship. The starboard side was preserved by silt whilst the portside was exposed and so decayed and was lost. The Mary Rose is currently behind Perspex because she is being dried out as part of the final stages of the work undertaken to preserve her. It was good for me to have seen Victory first because the layout of the two ships is similar which allowed me to interpret clearly what I was seeing of the Mary Rose.

Another historic sailing ship housed at Portsmouth is HMS Warrior. Built in 1860 she was the first armour-plated iron-hulled warship, the most revolutionary warship built. She rendered every other battleship of the time obsolete. Warrior was propelled by steam power as well as being fully rigged for sail.

HMS Illustrious with HMS M.33 in the foreground

HMS Illustrious with HMS M.33 in the foreground

Historic dockyard No. 1 houses HMS M.33 a Coastal Bombardment vessel built in 1915. M.33 is one of only two British warships to survive from the First World War. The ship fought in the Gallipoli Campaign and went on to play a part in the Russian civil war. She is currently being renovated and it is planned that the work will be completed, allowing full public access, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign later this year.

The dockyard is still a working naval dockyard and current ships of the Royal Navy can be seen in the harbour. They can also be viewed from Victory museum’s viewing platform. During my visit, one of the museum’s curators explained about the decommissioning of HMS Illustrious within Portsmouth Dockyard. She then produced a book on warships and showed some of the ships that were currently in dock. Another prominent ship in the docks at the time was HMS Dragon (Type 45 air defence destroyer) which was being refitted prior to her current deployment in the South Atlantic.

The curator next pointed out a Victorian structure that covered the place where Queen Victoria alighted her train before boarding a ship to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. I was also pointed in the right direction to find W L Wyllie’s excellent Panorama of Trafalgar which I otherwise would have missed. The painting was displayed as a ’son et lumiere’ which was an excellent way of showing it off but it also meant I couldn’t linger to study it as long as I would have liked.

Ships in Port

Ships in Port

The best way to see the ships that are docked in the port, along with other more permanent features is to take a boat trip around the harbour. The tour includes a commentary naming the ships in harbour on the day and pointing out other various features of interest.

It is also possible to take a free water bus to Gosport to see HMS Alliance at the Submarine Museum and the Museum of Naval Firepower which is situated nearby. I ran out of time so this is on my list for the next time I visit.

Royal Marines Museum

Royal Marines Museum

Another attraction included in the entrance ticket is the nearby Museum of the Royal Marines which is housed in the former Royal Marines Officers Mess at Eastney Barracks. The museum provides an in depth history of the Royal Marines and gives insight into what modern Royal Marines basic training involves and what it takes to be a Royal Marine. The videos of recruit’s stories as they undertook their basic training are quite touching and enlightening. I spent the whole morning there and I could have done with a little bit longer.

The dockyards are also home to the National Museum of the Royal Navy which is dedicated to past and present men and women of the Royal Navy. In addition to the fine ships and Naval history that can be seen at the dockyards there are many other historical landmarks that are worthy of notice.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and its associated attractions, not all of which I have mentioned.

A Reflection on 2014

Reflections on 2014Yet another year seems to have flown by in a blur. Where does all the time go?

2014 saw the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 and a series of events throughout the UK were scheduled to commemorate this occasion. This is a recurring theme at many of the places that I visited over the year.

Our first holiday of the year was to Mechelen in Belgium. This was our Christmas present to each other. Mechelen is rich in history and is also a place of many bicycles that inspired me to purchase a new bicycle on my return home. Throughout the summer months I enjoyed cycling around the nearby lanes with my camera ever ready in the bicycle basket.

Our next break was a weekend in Salisbury where I was able to visit Stonehenge and Avebury, two places I have been promising to revisit for some time.  My Mum accompanied us on the trip to make up for last years cancelled trip to Oxford; we had promised to take her away for a few days as soon as her broken leg had recovered enough. Later in the year we also went to Oxford although not on my birthday weekend as we had planned in 2013.

2014 was the year that Mr C became a gentleman of a certain age.  We spent his birthday weekend in London so that we could visit the Natural History Museum’s exhibition on mammoths, the highlight of which was Lyuba, a well preserved baby mammoth found in the Siberian tundra.

Whilst in London we took time to visit the Tower of London to see the major art installation; Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red which was part of the WW1 centenary commemorations. We saw the ceramic poppies being planted in the Tower’s moat with a Yeoman Warder helping co-ordinate the proceedings. We returned to the Tower in November, just three days before the last poppy was planted. On this occasion we also heard the commemorative roll call and the playing of the last post, which I found moving. I had been following this project since it was announced on the Tower of London’s website earlier in the year so I was pleased to have had the opportunity to see it twice and also purchase one of the ceramic poppies which arrived in early December.

Due to unforeseen circumstances we had to shelve Mr C’s original plan for a birthday holiday abroad. Instead, we planned a more modest but no less interesting vacation in Winchester during September. The weather was kind to us and we were able to wander around without coats. I had the opportunity to revisit Avebury more thoroughly than we had managed earlier in the year.

I was lucky enough to meet up with blog friends when the Shutterchance group met at RAF Museum Cosford in May. A good time was had by all. I revisited Cosford later in the year and found that replica WW1 planes had arrived and were to be part of the museum’s WW1 centenary commemorations. I must go back for another visit now that the exhibition is fully open.  Another place we visited in connection with WW1 commemorations was Dunham Massey which is currently displaying some of its rooms as they were when it was a war time hospital. On the subject of blog friends there was a touch of sadness when the Vision & Verb collaborative project (of women of a certain age) reached its conclusion in July.

I visited the National Memorial Arboretum for the first time in May. In keeping with the WW1 commemorations I followed a WW1 centenary trail. My visit there was a very moving experience.

Other places I visited were; Hodnet Hall Garden, Berrington Hall, Westonbury Water Gardens, Weston Park, Wroxeter’s Roman City and nearby St Andrew’s Church (where I was able to take photographs after two previously failed attempts). I visited Attingham Park on more than one occasion, the most recent being a few days before Christmas to see the house decked out to a ‘Christmas Through the Ages’ theme;  just the thing to put me in the Christmas spirit.

I wonder what 2015 will bring…

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year.


Martin’s Patershof breakfast room

Martin’s Patershof breakfast room

Last Christmas Mr C and I didn’t really want anything in the way of presents so we decided to treat ourselves to a relaxing weekend away instead.  This ruled out flying because that would mean several (non-relaxing) hours in an airport waiting to fly…

As luck would have it an email arrived from the Belgian hotel chain that we used when we stayed in Bruges.  It gave us inspiration and I fell in love with one of the hotels in the chain.  The Hotel, Martin’s Patershof, is a converted Church.  I researched the hotel’s town, Mechelen (Malines in French rather than Flemish), and found that it had many things of interest.  The guidebooks describe it as a beautiful medieval town, with charm and outstanding architectural treasures.

We decided that the best way to travel was by train.  The ‘end to end’ journey could easily be booked via the Eurostar site.  As well as travel to Brussels by Eurostar, we also booked travel by rail to London and onward from Brussels.

The Town Hall viewed from the Grote Markt

The Town Hall viewed from the Grote Markt

The journey to and from Mechelen by train including Eurostar was enjoyable and relaxing.  We had the luxury of being served with meals and drinks on both inward and outward journeys.  On arrival in Mechelen we quickly unpacked our bags before setting off to explore the town.  During my stay one thing I couldn’t help but notice was the abundance of bicycles both with and without riders.  I will always remember Mechelen as the town of bicycles. This inspired me to purchase a Dutch style bicycle shortly after I returned home from my travels.

 The hotel lived up to expectations.  Architectural features and stained glass windows are prominent throughout the hotel and our room had a stained glass window and stone pillars.  The breakfast room is quite stunning being situated in what was the choir of the church.  The breakfast buffet was one of the best I have ever seen.  There was even a decadent option of having a complimentary glass of Cava; I decided not to indulge so early in the morning.

St Rumbold’s Cathedral  from Grote Markt

St Rumbold’s Cathedral from the Grote Markt

Although this hotel is no longer a place of worship there are many historic churches still in use and eight are promoted as especially worthy of a visit. St Rumbold’s Cathedral with its wonderful architecture, artworks and stained glass windows was on our ‘to visit’ list but it was difficult to decide which others to include.  We settled on the Beguinage Church (which we found to be full of amazing artworks and treasures), Church of our Lady Hanswidj (whilst there we learned that it would shut for renovations in just two weeks’ time for four years), and the Church of our Lady across the Dyle. The custodians of each of the churches were very proud of their churches and keen to point out the special features of each to us. Being English we were somewhat of a novelty to them, with Mechelen not being an obvious choice for British travelers.

Kazerne Dossin military barracks

Kazerne Dossin military barracks viewed from the museum

Mechelen played a sobering part in the history of WW2 so the Kazerne Dossin museum and military barracks were also on our ‘to visit’ list.  The barracks and museum serve as a permanent history and memorial to the Jews who were held there awaiting deportation.  I found the museum thought provoking.  It serves as a poignant reminder that atrocities still occur today and invites the visitor to ask questions and look for answers.  Alongside the barracks is a restored railway goods wagon that had been used to transport the Jews from the barracks to Auschwitz Birkenau.

Haverwerf on the banks of the River Dyle

Haverwerf on the banks of the River Dyle

We visited many other things of interest; the garden of the former palace of Margaret of Austria (Belgium was, at one time, a part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by the Austrian Habsberg dynasty), an art exhibition of the work of Rik Wouters which is housed in the Schepenhuis, the toy museum, the Beguinages and we strolled through the botanic garden to see the ancient wooden fulling mill and also along the River Dyle passing the Haverwerf and three noticeable houses from the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  We were even lucky enough to find ourselves next to the Grote Markt when the annual carnival was in full flow. The town has its own brewery as do many towns in Belgium, although we didn’t go inside we passed it on more than one occasion as we explored Mechelen.

No visit to Belgium is complete without sampling some chocolate.  We came home with a box for ourselves and some as gifts.  The lady in the shop guided us through the different options and helped us to choose a bespoke collection for someone who has nut allergies.  The delicious chocolates didn’t last long…

I enjoyed my stay in Mechelen and the Hotel Patershof; there is more than a passing chance that I may return there one day.

You can read the unabridged version of my travels in the following links; Mechelen Day OneMechelen Day TwoMechelen Day ThreeMechelen Day Four and Mechelen Day Five

The best place to find out about the attractions of Mechelen is the official tourism site.

Old Newcastle

The Black Gate and the Castle Keep

The Black Gate and the Castle Keep

I fell in love with Newcastle many years ago when I had to attend business meetings just outside the city. On one occasion, as I was walking back to my hotel, one of my northern colleagues pointed out the historic features of ‘Old’ Newcastle to me whilst our colleagues continued to talk business. It was on this occasion that I first heard about the historic Castle Keep and the remains of the curtain walls that were part of the city’s medieval castle’s defences.

The castle keep is a fine example of a Norman keep; it was built by Henry II between 1168 and 1178. The Castle Keep website tells us that “it stands within a site that also contains: an early motte and bailey castle built by Robert Curthose, the son of William the Conqueror: an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and a Roman Fort (Pons Aelius)”. The keep is situated in a naturally defensible site on a steep sided promontory overlooking the River Tyne. I enjoyed spectacular views of Newcastle from the rooftop.

Near the castle keep is the Black Gate which is one of the last additions to the castle’s mediaeval defences. It was built between 1247 and 1250 as the gatehouse of the barbican, a walled, defensive, entrance passage that led to the castle’s north gate. Over the years the black gate has had many different uses and has been much altered over time. The name Black Gate has nothing to do with the gate’s appearance, it derives from Patrick Black, a London merchant who occupied the building in the first half of the 17th century.

St. Nicholas Cathedral

St. Nicholas Cathedral from the Castle Keep

Not far from the Black Gate is the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas which started life as a humble parish church, only becoming a cathedral in July 1882 when, due to the rapid growth of the industrial population, Newcastle separated from the ancient diocese of Durham. Soon after the castle was built, the first parish church was built on the site where we now see St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The first, wooden building was rebuilt in stone towards the end of the 12th century and was subsequently damaged by fire on two occasions leading to repairs and other modifications over the years including the addition of the stone crown and tower in the 15th century moving the church to much the same form as we see today.

To the rear of the Cathedral, in a street that is quaintly named ‘Amen Corner’, is the curious Vampire Rabbit. The rabbit (or is it a hare?) sits atop an ornate doorway which is now the entrance to an office. Although there are many theories, nobody seems to know the meaning of the strange creature.

The city has many archaeologically interesting buildings including an elegant Edwardian shopping arcade that is contained within the triangular triple-domed Central Arcade building. The arcade is underneath a glass barrel-vaulted roof and is decorated with fabulous tile work.

For those who like art there is the Laing Art Gallery. The gallery which focuses on British oil paintings, water colours, ceramics, silver and glassware houses permanent exhibitions including an 18th-19th century gallery and the Northern Spirit Gallery that celebrates the achievements of artists and manufacturers from the North East. The gallery displays temporary exhibitions regularly.

 I have stayed in many Newcastle hotels over the years; my current hotel of choice is The Vermont. It faces The Moot Hall which has a columned portico to the front and to its rear, is based upon the Parthenon.  If you are lucky your room in The Vermont will provide you with a close-up view of the Tyne Bridge, one of several iconic bridges spanning the Tyne it links the city of Newcastle with the town of Gateshead.

The Millennium, Tyne and Swing bridges

The Millennium, Tyne and Swing bridges with the Moot Hall in the foreground

Near to the Tyne Bridge is the historic Swing Bridge opened in 1876 to replace an older Georgian bridge that prevented large vessels from moving ‘up river’.  Opening in 1849, the High Level Bridge is even older than the Swing Bridge and is the oldest of the existing bridges. It was designed by railway engineer Robert Stephenson and it has two decks; the upper for the railway and the lower for the road. A more recent addition to the line-up of bridges crossing the Tyne is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which is a pedestrian and cycle bridge linking the waterfronts of Newcastle and Gateshead.

Tynemouth priory, castle, gun battery and coast guard station

Tynemouth priory, castle, gun battery and coast guard station

Further afield is Tynemouth with its Spanish Battery, the towering memorial statue of Admiral Lord Collingwood (Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar) and Tynemouth Priory and Castle. The castle and priory site contains interesting historical features including gun batteries that were used in the first and second world wars and a former coast guard station (not open to the public). Within the priory church the Percy Chantry is the only part to remain complete although it has been much restored.  It has a vaulted ceiling with finely carved bosses that are well worth studying. The headland where the priory and castle ruins are situated offers spectacular views over the sea and the mouth of the river Tyne.

I have not explored all of ‘Old’ Newcastle and there is much more to Newcastle than its history. It is a vibrant city with many restaurants, pubs and clubs to explore depending on your preferred choice.

More information can be found via the following links:


Cragside House

Cragside House

Whenever I visit Northumberland I am always drawn to visit Cragside, the home of industrialist Lord William Armstrong.

He initially built the house as a weekend retreat, but in due course went to live there permanently. Over the years the house was added to giving it an unusual appearance and leading to the building having the look of a baronial castle and to it sometimes being referred to as the “palace of a modern magician”. The house which is perched on a craggy hillside overlooking Debdon Burn, contains many of Armstrong’s innovations and inventions. Surrounding the house on three sides is Europe’s largest rock garden. He and Lady Armstrong also turned the craggy hillside into a mass of greenery by planting thousands of trees and mosses.

Cragside has many constituent parts. I always visit the formal garden first ensuring peace and quiet before the garden gets busy. It is a perfect example of a Victorian formal garden. Within it is a restored orchard house believed to have been built circa 1870. The fine structure, with its timber base and cast-iron glazing bars in the roof, is a quite distinctive landmark in the surrounding district. The orchard house was built to grow hardy and tender fruits protecting them from the Northumbrian climate.

Carpet Bedding and Clock Tower

Carpet Bedding and Clock Tower

Carpet bedding can be found next to the orchard house and in summer months it has diminutive foliage planed in geometric patterns. The plants are clipped fortnightly using sheep shears to form a flat carpet-like surface. Each bed requires 10,000 plants which have been raised in the nursery at Cragside. My favourite time of year to visit the garden is September because the Dahlia walk is spectacular.

A clock tower is just outside the formal garden. It originates from the 1860s and was previously the estate’s timepiece (and pay office), chiming the start and finishing times for the estate’s workers.

View over holiday cottages towards Rothbury

View over holiday cottages towards Rothbury

The formal garden also provides an ideal viewing point over the market town of Rothbury. If you venture down into the town, you will see a pleasing mix of old stone and newer brick built properties either side of a wide main street. Rothbury has a number of small and interesting retail businesses including a very nice ladies clothes shop.

From the garden you can walk to the house by crossing the historic iron bridge which was designed especially to provide walking access between the house and the formal garden. In 2009 the bridge was restored and reopened for the first time in nearly 30 years.  The 19th century grade II listed bridge spans the Debdon Burn providing magnificent views of the house and rock garden along with views of the Debdon valley with its waterfalls.

From the iron bridge the house is approached through the rock gardens, which extend all around the house covering 4.5 acres. Most of the rock has been man-laid, using sandstone from the local area.

Within Cragside itself you can see several of Lord Armstrong’s engineering achievements including a hydraulic lift which lightened the load for the servants when carrying coal to the upstairs rooms.

Lord Armstrong was a collector of contemporary British art, furniture and natural history. Some of his collections are still displayed in the house, which was the first house in the world to be lit entirely by hydro-electricity. This was done by using water from Black Burn and Nelly’s Moss to provide a head of water to turn a turbine in the Power House. The National Trust has recently completed the installation of a new hydro-turbine, the Archimedes Screw, which will produce 12kw of electricity over the course of a year providing around 10% of electricity required to power Cragside. This will light the house for a year, continuing the aspiration of Lord Armstrong to illuminate his house by hydro-power.

Cragside has its own holiday cottages offering spectacular views of the garden and Rothbury. The cottage building was once known as the Cottage in the Park and was built around 1865 for the estate manager.  The cottage has many features in common with the original part of Cragside and is thought to be designed by the same ‘unknown’ architect.

Nelly's Moss

Nelly’s Moss

There is a delightful leisure drive around the estate. The highlights for me are the Nelly’s Moss lakes which are beautiful. Behind the lower lake a labyrinth has been cut among the rhododendron trees to entice children of all ages. The drive is most spectacular when the rhododendrons are in full bloom.

If ever you pass in that direction I can thoroughly recommend a visit, there is something for everyone and something for all seasons.

More information can be found via the following links:

Attingham Park

When I have a bit of spare time on my hands I often choose to visit Attingham Park and take a relaxing stroll around the parkland.  The estate is centred around the river Severn and the river Tern and is nearly 4,000 acres which is about half the size it would have been in the 1800s.

The mansion itself was built between 1782 and 1785 by Noel Hill; it replaced Tern Hall which was the original house on the site. Noel was a successful politician for which he was rewarded financially and given the title of 1st Lord Berwick in 1784.  Not all of the Lords Berwick were quite so successful as Noel with the second Lord becoming bankrupt and the 6th and 7th Lords severely neglecting the estate which led to the 8th Lord having to sell off parts of the estate to enable the house to be restored.

 There are several walks to choose from in the 370 acres of woodland within the estate.  These woodlands are home to many species of wildlife including otters, dragonflies, as well as many species of birds and flowers.  In late winter there are delightful patches of snowdrops followed by bluebells in spring.

The estate is also home to around 200 Fallow deer, which can be seen close up and feeding during the months from October to March.  The deer park walk takes you past a 650 (!!!) year old Repton oak which is one of many ancient trees that can be seen in the woodlands there.

One of my favourite parts of the estate is the walled garden which is in the progress of being restored.  The restoration commenced in 2008 and so far half of the garden is back in production.  The garden, which is more than two acres was built in the 1870s and would have provided food for the whole household.  During the 20th century the garden fell gradually into decline. The fruit trees had been ripped out, the well filled in so that could be turned into a football pitch.  Nowadays the food produced in the garden is used for soups and salads in the tearoom.  Some of the produce is also sold in the national trust shop.

Just outside the walled garden is a historically-listed bee house complete with traditional straw skeps which are fully occupied by bees.  It is one of only two known Regency bee houses in the country.

People have been living in the area of the estate for about 4,000 years since the bronze age.  There are no less than seven Scheduled Ancient Monuments on the estate.  These include iron age settlements, saxon palaces, roman forts  and one third of the Roman city of Viriconium whose public baths have been excavated and can been seen at the nearby site of Wroxeter. Ancient crop marks and a medieval roadway can also be found within the estate.

On his death the Thomas 8th Lord (Berwick) bequeathed the estate to the National Trust.  He described his gift of Attingham as for public benefit.  I can’t argue with him there.  The estate has many educational opportunities for both adults and children and many people take the opportunity to visit and enjoy the estate.