Category Archives: latest-posts

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin’s protestant cathedral was only forty years old when it was bombed by the allies in 1944, and it wasn’t completely restored until 2002. It’s never even had a Bishop’s chair – or even a Bishop – and yet it should be on every visitor’s list of things to see in Berlin.

Situated in the oldest part of the city opposite the Lustgarten, this neo-renaissance building was built by the young Emperor Wilhelm II as his private church to compliment his family’s city palace across the road. It immediately had its critics when the building’s religious significance appeared to take second place to the importance of the Emperor and the Hohenzollern dynasty, but somehow, it’s this connection with the German Empire that makes it especially interesting.

From the outside it almost looks as though the intention was to create a church on the lines of St. Peter’s in Rome but being a protestant church, I suppose it was more likely to have been influenced by somewhere like St. Paul’s in London.

Continue reading

Federal Row – The Bundestag

The Federal Chancellery Building

Federal Row - The Bundestag

 

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990, an opportunity arose to bring the Federal government back to where it belonged in Central Berlin.

I don’t suppose it took much deliberation as to where to locate the new parliament. The Reichstag may have been battered and bruised from the events of the 20th century, but it was still standing, and the wasteland that was left surrounding it created a blank canvas for developers who could no doubt envisage a new dawn for a new Germany in the new millennium.

Politics isn’t an exciting subject for many people, but rarely has politics been boring in Germany, and if you venture into this part of the city, which is more than possible, then it’s worth knowing a bit about what you’re looking at.

Continue reading

The Reichstag

The Reichstag

 

One of Berlin’s most famous landmarks is the Reichstag.

This iconic building has helped the German Bundestag become the most visited parliament in the world, partly because of its architecture, partly because of its accessibility, but mainly because of its history.

Kaiser Wilhelm II laid the final stone of this neoclassical building in 1894 and it has continued to play a pivotal role in German history ever since. Initially the parliament was really that in name only and the Kaiser was the man who dictated the terms, but in November 1918 Phillip Scheidemann announced from a window here at the Reichstag that the country was now to become a republic and the Weimar Republic was formed.

The republic was just fourteen years old when the Nazis came to power and the dubious Reichstag fire of 1933 helped change the course of history. The events that followed are obviously well documented elsewhere, but as World War II came to its final moments, one of the most memorable images of the conflict show the victorious Russian army raising the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag. Even today it’s still possible to see bullet holes if you care to look for them.

Continue reading

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.

 

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Glen Etive

Buachaille Etive Mor

Glen Etive

People who visit Glen Coe for the first time will invariably miss a small turning opposite the Kingshouse Hotel, and even if they knew it was there would probably give it a miss anyway, because this narrow single track road comes to a dead end after 14 miles, which means that you have to turn around and come all the way back – so why bother?

The answer is simple – the breathtaking scenery makes it, in my humble opinion, one of the best short scenic drives in Scotland.

As with all scenic drives, it’s best done outside of the peak holiday season. Fans of James Bond come here to see where some of ‘Skyfall’ was filmed, and it’s also popular with kayakers – and of course, climbers and hillwalkers.

Fortunately, when I drove down here one winter’s day, apart from one notable exception, we never saw a soul.

Several streams provide the River Etive with its source on Rannoch Moor, but for most people their acquaintance with it starts at Buachaille Etive Mor, the pyramid shaped mountain at the top of the glen.

The road follows the river down through the valley, at first underneath Buachaille Etive Mor, and then Stob Dubh before widening out as it flows into the head of Loch Etive.  Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading