Category Archives: latest-posts

Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel

Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel

When people talk about the Gleneagles Hotel it’s only natural to think they’re talking about the 5* hotel in Scotland which is set in 850 acres and offers distinguished guests everything from luxury accommodation and fine dining to three championship golf courses and country pursuits; but I’m not talking about that Gleneagles, I’m talking about the one in Torquay – you know the one – the one where you expect to see “the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and herds of Wildebeest” from the bedroom window.

There is a connection with the Scottish hotel however, because the first owner of the hotel in Asheldon Road named it after her favourite part of Scotland. Beatrice Sinclair bought it in 1964 when it was a private house and converted it into holiday apartments, and then, along with her husband Donald, gradually converted it into a 41-bedroom hotel.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 – The Effects of the Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 - The Effects of the Strike

“The Miners united … will never be defeated” was the battle cry from striking miners – but they weren’t united, and even though the South Wales miners were more united than anywhere else in the country, there were still those that went back to work before the strike ended, and that was bound to make life difficult when they had to start working together again.

There must have been other misgivings too, because although there was a wage packet being picked up again at the end of the week, they must have wondered for how long, and in the case of Bedwas Colliery, they knew straight away because it never even re-opened. By the end of 1985 another seven South Wales pits were either amalgamated or closed down, and it was the same story throughout the country.

Fortunately, Tower wasn’t one of them, and if you’ve read my previous post, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2, you’ll already know why I’m pleased to say that. These people may have had a lot to contend with, but they hadn’t forgotten our support either, and they invited us to a special evening at the Fernhill Social Club to thank us for that support.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2 – The 1984/85 Miners Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2 - The 1984/85 Miners Strike

This post covers the 1984/85 Miners Strike which had implications, not just for South Wales, but for the country as a whole and workers’ rights in general. It also shows how I became involved, albeit in a small way, in one of the most bitter industrial disputes in modern history.

 

EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE STRIKE

To understand why the 1984/85 Miners Strike had such an impact on the South Wales Valleys and a pivotal point in Britain’s industrial history we really need to go back a few years. In my previous blog, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1, I described how these once lovely valleys became a pretty depressing place for those who worked and lived here. There were other people who worked under difficult conditions, but the miners became one of the most powerful voices to fight for a better life.

By the 1970s some people were arguing that the trade unions had become too powerful, too undemocratic, and organized by extreme left-wing union leaders – and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was at the top of the list that those people were talking about.

In 1971, the incumbent conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, introduced the Industrial Relations Act, which amongst other things, was designed to curb union power. I didn’t think it was a particularly harsh bill, even though I was a strong union supporter, but it didn’t go down well in some circles. In 1972, and then again at the start of 1974, the miners went on strike, and to keep the country functioning – and the lights on – Edward Heath introduced a 3-day week and called for an early election. He didn’t win it, and there was another later in the year, which he didn’t win either. In other words, it was the miners who won, and for the next 5 years the unions had the labour government that they wanted.

In the 1979 General Election, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, after a disastrous Winter of Discontent, lost to the conservatives who had a new leader in Margaret Thatcher. A Soviet journalist called her the ‘Iron Lady’, and it was a label she was more than happy to be identified with, but in the red corner was the communist-leaning leader of the NUM – Arthur Scargill. The stage was set.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1 – The Demand for Iron and Coal

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1 - The Demand for Iron and Coal

This post covers a time period from around 1750 to 1983 when the valleys of South Wales changed from an idyllic rural setting to an industrial powerhouse, and then into an industrial wasteland.

Many of the pictures and videos therefore are from archive material gathered from various different sources.

  

I’ve often tried to imagine what the unspoilt South Wales Valleys might have looked like before the days of the Industrial Revolution: I can imagine water trickling down from the hilltops above, forming babbling brooks and streams that cascade over a series of waterfalls into the valley below: On the valley floor I can imagine the crystal-clear water tumbling over rocks onto a riverbed where trout and salmon come to spawn: I can imagine the valley slopes of oak, beech, and ash, providing a rich habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, and I can also imagine sheep grazing the upland fields to provide wool and food for the sparse population that lived here: What I, or anybody else, couldn’t have imagined though, is how dramatically this landscape was going to change forever.

Nature not only provided the raw materials to create a beautiful landscape, it also provided the raw materials for an industrial one too. Iron ore and coal were two of the most important ingredients that fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and along with the great minds of British inventors, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the country becoming one of the most powerful nations in the world. Advanced weapons of war, ships, railways, and industrial machinery were all possible because of iron and coal, and the South Wales Valleys was blessed, if that’s the right word, with an abundance of both.

To begin with, the pace of change was slow. Iron ore was easily extracted from rocks found at the top of the valleys, and the other ingredients needed to make iron were also readily available – limestone, water, and timber. In 1750, Merthyr Tydfil was just a small rural village and Blaenavon never even existed, but by 1850 Merthyr Tydfil was the largest town in Wales with the largest ironworks in the world.

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A Drive Around Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula

A Drive Around Skye's Trotternish Peninsula

I’ve often found travelling to places that I’ve always wanted to go a risky business because my imagination, and the real time experience, doesn’t always match up, but my first visit to the magical Isle of Skye in 1983 was the complete opposite – and one of the reasons why the island exceeded my expectations was the wonderful Trotternish Peninsula.

That first journey to Skye involved a 600-mile journey from the West Country in a rusty old Fiat Mirafiore: There were no cheap flights then, and there was no Skye Bridge either – it was ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ by ferry from the Kyle of Lochalsh. The toll-free bridge has made the island far more accessible now, not just for me, but for everyone else too, so it makes sense to come out of season if possible when there are fewer people around and the only difference in the weather is that the rain is a bit colder.

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The Boat Museums of Bygdøy

The Port of Oslo from Bygdøynes

The Boat Museums of Bygdøy

There are a fair number of islands in Oslo’s Inner Fjord and Bygdøy used to be one of them, but by 1800 the narrow strait between the island and the mainland had been filled in – so now it’s a peninsula.

This wasn’t such a bad idea on reflection because the ferries that run from Aker Brygge don’t come here in the winter – but buses do, and so I trudged through the snow for a second successive morning to the National Theatre where I caught the No.30 to Bygdøy.

Bygdøy is popular with both locals and visitors alike, especially in the summer as it has beaches, walking and cycling trails and several museums. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be lying on a beach today and I’d had enough of walking through the snow yesterday at Holmenkollen, so there are no prizes for guessing what I was coming here for.

It wouldn’t be sensible to try and visit every one of these museums in one day, even in the summer, but there were three that I particularly wanted to see, and they were all to do with Norway’s passion for maritime adventures and expeditions.

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Tryvannshogda and Holmenkollen

Tryvannshogda and Holmenkollen

Any reader of my blogs will know that they are a mixture of current and past destinations, and as Christmas will soon be here and gone and the New Year beckons, my mind wandered back to February 2006 when I paid a short visit to snowy Oslo.

I’m not sure why us Brits keep banging on about the weather all the time, because living in a temperate weather zone means that we don’t get extreme conditions like other parts of the world.

I’m not saying that we don’t get our fair share of rain, but extreme heat and cold are rare in comparison, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons why you’ll find plenty of half-baked bodies from our Sceptred Isle on the beaches of the Costa del Sol every summer.

‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ may well go out in the Midday Sun, but I’m not one of them anymore. These days, I prefer taking holidays in places like Scandinavia rather than Torremolinos thank you very much.

The problem for those of us who don’t live in Scandinavia is that we find it expensive, so for someone like me, visiting Oslo in the depth of winter kills two birds with one stone – it’s cheaper and it’s not hot.

Saying that it wasn’t hot when the plane touched down at Oslo airport is somewhat of an understatement. It was so cold, that inside the terminal they were serving coffee on a stick (I made that bit up), but I’m sure you get the gist.

Norwegians, like all Scandinavians, take this sort of weather in their stride, and even though we landed and drove into the city in a blizzard during rush hour, there wasn no suggestion that there would be any trouble getting to the hotel as normal. Back in dear old Blighty the plane wouldn’t have even landed.

After checking-in, I ventured out into the bitterly cold evening air and found a local café/bar where customers were sat outside – yep! you heard that right – outside the bar. Even though it was apparently -10 degrees here, it seemed to be the norm. Mind you, the establishment provided blankets and candles to make it a more pleasant experience, but even so, I didn’t hang around too long because a) the (cold) beer was expensive, b) I didn’t want to get frostbite and c) I wanted to be up bright and early in the morning for my trip up to Tryvannshogda and Holmenkollen.

Normally, I would take a look around the city centre first before venturing too far, but as I only had two full days in Oslo and I was staying in the city centre anyway, I focused my attention on seeing things that I don’t normally see at home – and Holmenkollen was definitely one of them.

Holmenkollen lies on the north-western outskirts of the city and is an outdoor recreational area, which at this time of the year means winter sports. For somebody who’s never put a pair of skis on his life, you may wonder why I decided to venture up here, but like I said, it’s somewhere different.

I made an early start so that I could make the most of the day, but anybody with any sense would have jumped straight back under the bedclothes on seeing the weather outside. Instead I trudged through the snowy city streets to the T-bane stop outside the National Theatre where I was hoping to catch the T1 to the end of the journey at Frognerseteren.

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The Ninth Fort

The Ninth Fort

Today was my last day in Lithuania, and thanks to a late flight home I was able to fulfil one last wish before leaving.

The Ninth Fort might not be on everyone’s list of places to see, but one of my passions, if that’s the right word, is to try and understand what caused the turmoil in Europe during the 20th century. I have always had an interest in the two World Wars as well as the Cold War: The Ninth Fort is one of those places that is uncomfortable to visit, but one that has left a profound effect on me ever since.

I don’t know if things have changed, but at the time I was here there was very little information about the fort and how to get there – certainly not in English.

Even though it’s located on the outskirts of Kaunas at Sargenai, and quite a long bus ride to get there, it wasn’t as difficult to find as I thought it was going to be.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire, and as relations deteriorated with Germany, it was decided to build Kaunas Fortress to protect its western border.

The Ninth Fort was part of this huge complex that surrounded the city covering an area of 25 square miles.

To learn more about the history of the fort there’s a museum housed in a soviet concrete monstrosity, which if they leave it as it is, could become part of the fort’s history itself in years to come.

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Trakai – Historic Town Built on Water

Trakai - Historic Town Built on Water

Today was going to be my third and final full day in Lithuania, and it looked as though the good weather was going to desert me. I had it in mind to go to Trakai, which is without doubt, one of Lithuania’s most popular tourist destinations, but I had my doubts as to how successful the day would be, especially as the holiday season was now in full swing.

I’m not one of those people who avoid such places (after all, they’re popular for a reason), but I’ll always try to time my visit accordingly. Today though, even if I could justify the effort in getting from Kaunas to Trakai, I was only ever going to be able to be there when it suited the public transport system, and not when it suited me.

After giving it some thought, I knew I would never have another chance to see the place that is so revered by the Lithuanian people, and so I decided to bite the bullet and catch the early fast train to Vilnius again – the same one as I took yesterday.

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A Brief Encounter with Lithuania’s Capital City

A Brief Encounter with Lithuania's Capital City

With around 600,000 people, Vilnius demands more than a day of anybody’s time, but I’m afraid that’s all I had.

The train journey from Kaunas can take anything between an hour and an hour and three quarters, and with that in mind I took an early fast train to Lithuania’s capital city.

The journey passed through some pretty flat countryside and quite different to where I come from: There were lots of trees and wooden farmhouses, one of which had a stork’s nest on its rooftop, an unusual sight for anyone from the UK to see.

Apparently, Lithuania has the biggest population of White Storks in the world, which is why it’s the country’s ‘National Bird’: They seem to be revered so much that March 25th is Stork Day when all sorts of rituals take place. Anyway, I digress.

I arrived at Vilnius railway station around 09.30 and made my way towards Ausros Gate, or better known in English as the Gates of Dawn.

The Gate gives entry into the Old Town, which is where most visitors to Vilnius head for, and which was bound to keep me occupied all day. The good thing is, that just a few streets lead straight through the Old Town down to where the Vilnia River meets the Neris near Cathedral Square and the Castle, where according to legend, the city was founded in 1323 by Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

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Kaunas – Lithuania’s Second City

Vilnius Street

Kaunas - Lithuania's Second City

When the low-cost airlines took off (sorry), it gave me the opportunity to visit some places that I’d always wanted to visit – and also some that I hadn’t; places such as Kaunas.

Kaunas was to be my first destination to the Baltic States, simply because it was the only place in that part of the world that I could fly to from my regional airport at the time. So, in the summer of 2012 I took off from Bristol not really knowing what to expect, so before I completely lose my marbles, here is an account of what I remember.

Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania with an urban population around the 400,000 mark, so it’s not surprising that we landed in the country’s second largest airport.

What did surprise me though was that it was so warm it was like arriving in Spain – and it was 10 o’clock at night.

I usually try to use public transport where possible, but on this occasion, I just jumped in a cab which took me directly to the hotel, which although it was called the Ibis Kaunas Centre, wasn’t quite in the city centre but convenient all the same.

The following morning, I was pleased to see the sun shining, and so after breakfast I didn’t waste any time in making my way past the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation to Laisves aleja.

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From Krakow to Auschwitz

The Cloth Hall, Rynek Glowney, Krakow

From Krakow to Auschwitz

With so many places still left to add to Easymalc’s Wanderings, people may wonder why I’ve chosen somewhere to write about that will hardly lift the spirits, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been asking myself the same question – and as yet, with no answer.

My trip to Krakow and Auschwitz took place in late September 2003, and it’s inevitable that this account will make for some uncomfortable reading at times, but it’s my intention to make this blog interesting and educational rather than depressing, but at the same time I have to warn readers that there won’t be much to laugh about either.

Now that I’ve lost the few readers that I do have, I need to explain that a subject like this demands a lot more information than I’m able to give here, and so it’s worth bearing in mind that there are bound to be gaps in the story, and I’m also sorry to say that the photographs are at a lower standard than I would have liked; there are gaps here as well, because there are some things that I won’t photograph out of respect.

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Christmastime in Vienna

Christmastime in Vienna

Is there a better build-up to Christmas than visiting a European Christmas Market? If so, I’d like to know what it is. Maybe it’s all that Glühwein and Orange Punch that I can’t pass by that helps, but even as a devout atheist I can’t help but respect the Austrians for adhering to the meaning of Christmas more than I do.

I absolutely love Austria at Christmastime, especially in places like the Tyrol, but if you like to add some culture to your bratwurst and beer, then Vienna is hard to beat.

When we were here the week before Christmas in 2016, it even snowed to give it the magical icing on the Christmas cake.

There’s no point in waffling on about what market is where, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. As for the culture, I’ll be dealing with all that later – hopefully.

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House of the Wannsee Conference

House of the Wannsee Conference

On 27th January 1945 Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army, and each year since 2005 the date has been commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This blog is dedicated to the memory of all those who died during this inhuman period of European history.

The Holocaust is largely remembered for the genocide of 6 million Jews, but there were also an estimated 11 million others including Slavs (mainly Poles and Russians), Roma, political and religious dissidents, homosexuals and the ‘incurably sick’.

My inquiring mind into why Europe descended into so much chaos during the 20th century has led me to some dark places – and here’s another one – but unlike Auschwitz, there are no gas chambers or mass graves here; in fact, this lovely villa perched on the shores of the Großer Wannsee, couldn’t be more different.

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Hitler’s Olympics

Hitler's Olympics

For someone who didn’t even like sport, it might seem somewhat surprising that Adolf Hitler was able to stage one of the most successful, albeit controversial, games in Olympic history; they were so successful in fact, that the format has been followed in much the same way ever since.

The background to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in many ways goes back to WWI, and the Langemarck Hall at the Olympic Stadium is a telling reminder of how Hitler had never forgotten his time in the trenches.

Langemarck was a WWI battlefield in Belgian Flanders and somewhere I visited several years ago. The war cemetery there holds 44,000 German soldiers including many inexperienced young men.

When the stadium, and the Langemarck Hall, was constructed in 1936, Hitler was known to turn to a few confidants to proclaim that there would be “Revenge for Langemarck”.

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The Siegessaule

The Siegesaulle

In the middle of The Tiergarten at Grosser Stern, stands the Siegessaule, or Victory Column, and if you’ve got €3 – and the energy – it’s possible to climb the 285 steps to the viewing gallery that sits just under Victoria, the Roman goddess of Victory.

The monument was designed by Johann Heinrich Strack, and the 8.3m golden statue on top of the column was added by Friedrich Drake and represents both the Goddess of Victory and Borussia, the Latin name for Prussia. Her face is supposedly based on Drake’s daughter and known as the Goldelse (Golden Else), or roughly translated as ‘Golden Lizzie’.

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The Tiergarten

Schloss Bellevue

The Tiergarten

The official German name for the park known as The Tiergarten is Grosser Tiergarten, which helps to distinguish it from the district of the same name.

This huge park in central Berlin covers an area of some 520 acres roughly enclosed by the River Spree on its northern edge to the Tiergarten Strasse in the south, and from the Brandenburg Gate in the east to the zoo in the west.

The Strasse des 17 Juni runs through the centre of the park from east to west, and where it meets the Großer Stern (Great Star) the Siegessaule (Victory Column) stands sentinel over the whole park around it.

Only Templehofer Park (the former Templehof Airport) and the English Garden in Munich are larger so it’s best not to underestimate its size before deciding on where to go.

The name Grosser Tiergarten literally means ‘Large Game Park’ and gives a clue to its original use.

In the 16th century the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm, turned this marshy ground into a hunting enclosure, but during the 17th and 18th centuries the area was gradually turned into more formal pleasure grounds for the people of Berlin – wide avenues were constructed, trees planted, and monuments erected.

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The Kollhoff Tower

View from the Panoramapunkt

The Kollhoff Tower

Kollhoff Tower stands at Potsdamer Platz 1, opposite the Sony Center and is named after its architect, Hans Kollhoff.

In contrast to the other glass and steel structures in the square, the building is constructed out of peat-fired bricks with a design more reminiscent of a New York skyscraper. It soars 100 metres up into the Berlin sky and was completed in 1999.

Mainly built with office space in mind, I don’t suppose too many people will be overly enthusiastic about these statistics, but it might interest people more if I say that the fastest elevator in Europe catapults you up to the 24th floor in just 20 seconds where there is an open-air viewing platform with some of the best views in Berlin.

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The Sony Center

The Sony Center

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz must have been an architect’s dream. The square was divided up into four separate areas which were to be redeveloped by four different developers, one of which was the area now occupied by the Sony Center.

During the ‘Golden Twenties’, the site was occupied by ‘The Esplanade’, one of Berlin’s most prestigious hotels. Frequented by film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, the hotel was even used by Kaiser Wilhelm II who entertained guests in one of the hotel’s magnificent halls.

90% of the hotel was destroyed by allied bombing raids in the winter of 1944/45, with the Kaisersaal (as the hall became known) and the breakfast room the only rooms to survive. After restoration of what was left, it once again fell into disrepair following the building of the adjacent Berlin Wall.

After the Wall came down, what remained was listed as a historical monument, which created a problem for the architects of the new Sony Center. The outcome was that the Kaisersaal was moved 75 metres and incorporated into the new design behind a glass wall, and the breakfast room was dismantled piece by piece and re-created for the new Café Josty, the original being a popular Potsdamer Platz meeting place for artists in the early 20th century.

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The Fernsehturm

The Fernsehturm (TV Tower)

 

At 368m, Berlin’s TV Tower is the tallest structure in Germany, so there’s no excuse for not seeing it.

There’s an enclosed viewing platform at 203 m, and fortunately you don’t have to climb up the 986 steps because one of the two lifts will whisk you up there in just 40 seconds.

It’s a good job the lifts are quick because they’re not very big and waiting times can be considerable.

Almost 1.2m visitors a year pay to come for a panoramic view of Berlin and if you don’t mind paying an extra premium you can have a fast track entry. Better still if you can get here for the 09.00 opening you won’t need to pay the extra and you won’t have to wait long either.

The prime reason for building the TV Tower wasn’t to give tourists a grandstand view of Berlin of course, but to provide radio and television transmissions, and also no doubt, to make a political statement that the GDR was capable of building structures every bit as impressive as those across the wall could – and in this instance, in my opinion, they were right.

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