Category Archives: latest-posts

The First World War Battlefields of France and Belgium – A Short Video of Remembrance

The First World War Battlefields of France and Belgium

A Short Video of Remembrance

I’ve just come across this video I cobbled together a number of years ago of some pictures I took around the Somme Battlefields in France, and Ypres in Belgium. With Armistice Day approaching I thought it would br worth including in Easymalc’s Wanderings. Picture No 2 is deliberately blurred by the way, in case you were wondering.

 

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Grenoble – Capital of the Alps

Grenoble - Capital of the Alps

Before coming to Grenoble I was somewhat surprised to learn that it’s often referred to as the ‘Capital of the Alps’: After all, the Alps run for 750 miles between France and Slovenia, and Grenoble is at the extreme western edge of the mountain range – and as far as I’m concerned, is not actually even in the Alps.

I thought that maybe somewhere like Innsbruck would have a better claim to the title, so I looked it up and can you guess what I found? Yep! That’s right, Innsbruck is also called the capital of the Alps.

I’ll leave it to the powers that be to decide which they think is the best candidate for the title, but if nothing else, it did focus my mind a bit more on how the city of Grenoble sees itself.

There’s no doubt that its location in south-eastern France, where the Rivers Isère and Drac meet, would have been a natural place to build a settlement, and from its humble Gallic beginnings in 43 BC, Grenoble has grown into a fair-sized city.

The official population is around the 160,000 mark, but if you include the sprawling suburbs of the metro area that stretch up through the valleys either side of the Chartreuse Massif, the population is nearer to 700,000.

 

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The Wester Ross Coast Road and Great Wilderness

Gruinard

The Wester Ross Coast Road and Great Wilderness

This coast road is part of the Wester Ross section of the North Coast 500 (NC500) route.

For those unfamiliar with the NC500 it was a concept dreamt up by the tourism marketing people to provide some joined-up thinking to promote all areas of the North Highlands and was launched in 2015.

It was an immediate success and featured as one of the Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World by Now Travel Magazine.

Having covered the full 516 miles in stages over a period of time (most of it before the NC500 was conceived) I would have to say that some parts of the route deserve more time to cover than others, and Wester Ross warrants more time than the area around John O’ Groats for example.

The full route starts out from Inverness, crosses over to the West Coast, and then follows the road north, across the top, and back down the east coast.

The Wester Ross section includes Applecross, Torridon and Loch Maree, and the coast road to Ullapool, and here I’m covering the section between Gairloch and Loch Broom, so pack a picnic, put some Celtic music on, and join me for a leisurely drive around some fabulous coastal and mountain scenery.

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Torridon and Loch Maree

Loch Maree from the Beinn Eighe NNR Trails Car Park

Torridon and Loch Maree

Sandwiched between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Scotland.

The Torridon Hills may not make it onto the list of the world’s highest mountains, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they rise up virtually from sea level to over 3,000ft, and as far as I’m concerned that makes them mountains rather than hills.

Overlooking the tiny village of Torridon are three mountains that form the bulk of the high landscape – Beinn Alligin (3,230ft), Liathach (3,456ft), and Beinn Eighe (3,310ft), all of which are a magnet for climbers. Not being a climber myself, I can only imagine what the views must be like for those that are.

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The Island of Raasay

The Sound of Raasay

The Island of Raasay

According to Wikipedia, Scotland has over 790 offshore islands; Whoever put their head above the parapet to make that claim must have been having sleep problems, but I’ll take their word for it.

Some are small, some are large, some are well-known, and some not so well known – so which islands to visit can also cause a lack of sleep if you let it.

Raasay (meaning Isle of the Roe Deer), is 14 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, which means that it’s not too small and not too big, but it’s not too well-known either. Lying between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, it can be reached by ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye and takes around 25 minutes.

For this blog I’m going back in time to 2008 when the ferry landed at East Suisnish, but apart from a new ferry terminal on the other side of the bay, I can’t imagine things would have changed very much.

Skye is an undeniably beautiful island, and looking across the Sound towards Raasay you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point in catching the ferry over to Raasay, which in comparison, doesn’t look anywhere near as inviting as the Cuillins or the Quiraing, but there are reasons why you might want to think again.

Firstly, in recent years Skye has seen a surge in visitor numbers, which if you were coming to the Scottish Islands for an away from it all break, then you might feel a bit cheated if you’ve chosen a busy time to come. Raasay is much more peaceful.

Another reason is that the views from Raasay towards Skye can be quite breathtaking – and of course, there’s the appeal of the island itself.

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The Culloden Battlefield

The Battlefield

The Culloden Battlefield

On 16th April 1746, five miles to the east of Inverness, the last pitched battle on British soil resulted in the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his attempt to reclaim the thrones of Britain and Ireland for the House of Stuart.

The Young Pretender’s ambitions have gone down in folklore and often been romanticized to such an extent that the real facts have often become blurred. This was not just simply a battle between Highlanders and Lowlanders, Scots and English, or even Catholics and Protestants. It was probably more about returning a Scotsman to the throne of Scotland than anything else, but be that as it may, Charles Edward Stuart’s ambition came to an abrupt end on Culloden Moor against the Duke of Cumberland, son of the Hanoverian King George II.

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Inverness

Inverness Castle and the River Ness

Inverness - Capital of The Highlands

Inverness is the self-proclaimed, and undisputed capital of The Highlands.

Its strategic position at the end of the Great Glen where the River Ness flows into the Moray Firth, has meant that it’s always been at the historical heart of The Highlands, even if it isn’t geographically.

In 2000 it became Scotland’s 5th city, therefore making it the UK’s most northerly city, and one of the fastest growing. The city’s population in 2012 was 46,870, and 59,910 for the Greater Inverness area, which means that a quarter of the Highland population live in, or around, Inverness.

For somewhere that holds such a key position in the affairs of the Highlands there’s surprisingly little of note to see in the city itself. The river, which flows for just seven miles between Loch Ness and the Moray Firth is crossed by the rather non-descript Ness bridge, but even so, a riverside walk is worth contemplating if you’ve found yourself here with time to spare.

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Glen Coe

Glen Coe

Hemmed in by the Anoach Eagach ridge and Bidean Nam Bian, Glen Coe is a spectacular mountain pass that rises up from the shores of Loch Leven through the ‘Weeping Glen’ where mountain tops are often covered in snow and shrouded in mist, and up to wild Rannoch Moor whose dark brooding skies drop copious amounts of rainfall onto an already waterlogged, desolate plateau: In winter this precipitation can fall as snow, and the bogs and lakes turn the terrain into a cold and icy landscape.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the stark beauty and grandeur of the scenery, and my words and photographs can’t possibly do it justice, but it’s not just the skies that can give a bleak picture, it’s the glen’s history too – most notably, that of the Glencoe Massacre.

Lying under the Pap of Glencoe and near to the shores of Loch Leven is the tiny village of Glencoe, where you can find a monument to the massacre, which was not as straightforward as some would have us believe, but it was an unwarranted massacre nonetheless.

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The Isle of May

Pilgrim's Haven

The Isle of May

Located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, about 5 miles and a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, is the uninhabited Isle of May. I say uninhabited, but that’s not strictly true because it’s home to a fantastic collection of seabirds.

If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.

Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.

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The East Neuk Fishing Villages

St Monans

The East Neuk Fishing Villages

‘Neuk’ is a Scottish word for nook or corner, and if you take a look at the map opposite, you’ll see that the East Neuk of Fife is the bit that juts out into the North Sea at the end of the Firth of Forth.

Along this coastline are a string of attractive fishing villages, the most interesting being St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther (including Cellardyke) and Crail.

If you’ve travelled to Fife over the Forth Bridge, then the first of these villages is St. Monans, about an hour’s drive away. There are several theories as to who St. Monan was, but the church that is dedicated to him is often described as Scotland’s nearest church to the sea, which is only around 20 metres away. It’s been here since the 14th century so whether it’s been that close since it was built, I wouldn’t like to say.

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Scotland’s Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

The Solway Firth

Scotland's Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.

From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.

Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.

Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.

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From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

At the beginning of the 19th century the population of Cardiff was less than 2,000, but the lush green valleys to the north were about to change – and so was this small town at the mouth of the River Severn.

The reason for this dramatic change was all down to the increase in demand for coal which was needed to power the Industrial Revolution – and which the valleys of South Wales had plenty of.

The Glamorgan Canal, and then the Taff Valley Railway, enabled the Black Diamonds to be transported down the valleys to the coast where places like Newport, Barry, Penarth and Cardiff all vied for the lucrative export trade.

While everyone else was working down the coal mines, there was one man that was sitting on a gold mine, – namely the 2nd Marquis of Bute. He realised early on that there was going to be money made in the iron and coal industries of South Wales, and in 1839 he built the first of Cardiff’s docks at West Bute to handle the trade.

As the docks expanded, so did the appeal to come and work here: Butetown, as the area became known, attracted immigrant workers and seafarers from all corners of the globe, and it wasn’t long before the area became known for all the wrong reasons. Although several theories have been bandied about, it’s not really known for sure why the docks and Butetown became known as Tiger Bay – but the name stuck, and just like its feline counterpart, began to earn itself a fearsome reputation. If you wanted somewhere to go and get drunk, have a fight, or meet a prostitute – or all three – Tiger Bay was the place to come.

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Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne Castle

Northumberland, being next to the Scottish border, is castle country. Apparently, it has more castles than any other English county – and I can quite believe it. One of these castles is perched on top of a mound of volcanic rock, known as Beblowe Crag (or Craig), here on Holy Island.

As the Vikings proved, Lindisfarne was vulnerable. The natural harbour provided protection for ships, but the island itself wasn’t safe from invaders: The Vikings may have gone, but there was still a threat from the Scots, and when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including Lindisfarne Priory, an opportunity presented itself to put the priory’s remains to good use.

Initially, the Priory church was used as a naval storehouse, but as the need for reinforcing Beblowe Crag as a defensive fort became more important, then the stone from the Priory was used to build a new fortress.

However, the need for strong defences against the Scots became virtually unnecessary with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, and consequently uniting the two kingdoms together:

Apart from the Royalist castle surviving a six-week siege during the Civil War and a short-lived Jacobite takeover in 1715, in truth, the castle didn’t really see that much action.

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Saxon Treasures, Viking Raids and Norman Houses of God

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne - Saxon Treasures, Viking Raids and Norman Houses of God

Following on from my previous post, The Saints of Lindisfarne, I want to expand on the impact that these saints, particularly St. Cuthbert, had.

St. Cuthbert had been laid to rest in Lindisfarne priory in March 687 AD, but eleven years later to the day, the monks exhumed his body to ‘elevate’ his remains in order for pilgrims to be as close as possible to the saint and his special powers.

Expecting to find just bones and dust in a small casket, the monks discovered a completely undecayed body, and so quickly made a wooden reliquary coffin which they placed on the floor of the church above the spot where he had been buried: Another miracle it would seem.

The enshrinement of St. Cuthbert appears to be the reason for the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, probably the most cherished illuminated book in the Anglo-Saxon world.

A 10th century inscription at the end of the original text states that the manuscript was made ‘in honour of God and St. Cuthbert’ by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne.

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The Saints of Lindisfarne

St. Aidan

The Saints of Lindisfarne

When the Romans left Britain, Christianity went with them and Anglo Saxon England reverted back to its pagan roots, or at least it did up here in Northumbria.

The Kingdom of Northumbria didn’t even exist until around 604 AD when Æthelfrith combined the two existing kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, and although these ‘Dark Ages’ are not always easy to follow, we do know that when Æthelfrith was killed in battle his four children were sent to the island of Iona off the West Coast of Scotland.

Iona was in the Kingdom of Dalriada, which covered an area equivalent to parts of today’s Western Scotland and North-Eastern Ireland, and it was to Iona that the Celtic monk Columba came when he was exiled from his native Ireland.

Columba founded a monastery on the island around 563 AD and was made a saint for his work in evangelizing Scotland, and before I go any further, I have to mention the fact that Iona is another extremely spiritual place to come, in much the same way that Lindisfarne is.

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The Holy and Spiritual Island of Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne Castle

The Holy and Spiritual Island of Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne is somewhere special, and anyone who’s been here will know exactly what I mean.

Religion and spirituality come together on Lindisfarne and it’s not difficult to see why St. Aidan chose this spot to bring Christianity to the North of England.

At one time, I thought that to have spiritual feelings I needed to embrace religion – but then I saw the light.

Religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same thing. It’s true that you can be religious and spiritual, but it’s also true that you can be spiritual and not religious.

So now that you’ve realised I’m a non-believer, why do I find Lindisfarne such a spiritual place?

Well firstly, there’s no point in denying that the religious connection with Lindisfarne brings an air of peace and tranquility to the place, but there’s more to it than that.

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Grace Darling

The Longstone Light

Grace Darling

Anyone who knows the story about Grace Darling will no doubt want to allow a bit of time after visiting Bamburgh Castle to come and see the Grace Darling Museum.

The location is easy to find as it’s at the top of the village directly opposite St. Aidan’s Church.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Grace Darling I’ll attempt to put into words what this remarkable young woman did to achieve the fame that she so richly deserved.

Grace was born in her grandfather’s cottage (a few doors up from the museum) on 24th November 1815, but after a few weeks was taken to Brownsman Island, one of the Outer Farne Islands, where her father was the lighthouse keeper.

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Bamburgh – Historic Castle in a Wonderful Location

Bamburgh - Historic Castle in a Wonderful Location

Bamburgh Castle can be seen for miles, and as you get closer to it you can see that it sits on top of an outcrop of igneous rock which forms part of the Great Whin Sill – a geological formation that for anyone who has been along Hadrian’s Wall will probably recognise.

The site was occupied by Ancient Britons even before the Romans arrived, and when the Romans left in the early 5th century the Celts were back in control – but not for long.

The Dark Ages brought an influx of invaders from the continent which resulted in the land the Romans called Britannia being carved up into various kingdoms – Anglo-Saxon Northumbria being one of them.

The first Anglo-Saxon King to rule from Bamburgh was King Ida who took control from the Din Guarie tribe in 547, and even though there must have been a fortress here before, it was from this time that we have the first written record of one.

The castle was of wooden construction and, according to that great early historian the Venerable Bede, it didn’t get its name of  ‘Bebbanburgh’ until King Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, passed it on to his wife Bebba.

The original wooden fortification was destroyed by the Vikings in 993, but William the Conqueror could see that he would have the same trouble as the Romans if he didn’t build another one to keep the Scots at bay and the northerners in check, but this time it was built in stone.

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Hadrian’s Wall through Northumberland

Hadrian's Wall country at Steel Rigg

Hadrian's Wall through Northumberland

This blog is not intended to be an in-depth historical account of the most important Roman monument in Britain, but if, like me, you have an interest, but not a degree in Roman history, and want to explore some of the more fascinating parts of this remarkable feat of engineering, then perhaps this tour will be a good starting point.

To put things in perspective, Hadrian’s Wall marks the extent of the Roman Empire in North-Western Europe, but unlike most of the other Roman borders, which used natural features, a man-made structure was needed to protect Roman Britannia from the ‘barbarians of Caledonia’.

Work started on building the wall in 122 AD and finished 10 years later. It ran for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) between Wallsend-on-Tyne and Bowness-on-Solway and did what it was meant to do for nigh on the next 300 years.

The wall also consisted of protected gates every mile (known as milecastles) with two observation towers in between (turrets), and at least 13 forts (the exact number depends on different factors).

Those people who walk the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path will get to know it intimately, but for those who can’t or don’t want to, then it has to be worth knowing where to start.

I think even the experts would agree that the Northumberland section of the wall offers the most interest, and for this post this will be the area I’m going to cover.

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Wallsend and Segedunum

Wallsend and Segedunum

Lying about half-way between the centre of Newcastle and the mouth of the River Tyne, Wallsend is an easy and worthwhile metro ride out of the city.

As soon as you get off the train you know that you’re somewhere a bit different because the station goes by its Roman name of Segedunum, but the English name of Wallsend is perhaps just as appropriate because Segedunum was the fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The wall was built during the 120s AD and was originally planned to end at Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne. It was then decided to extend it out here, where the river then became the natural frontier between the Roman world and the Barbarians to the north. The fort was probably built around 127 AD.

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