Thirlmere and Great How

Even though it is now mid-september the weather still seems to think it’s July – I heard on the news that weather has been this warm at this time of the year for over a hundred years. Grabbing the last, freakish, shout of Summer we headed up the now, rebuilt A591 past Windermere, Ambleside and Grasmere to Thirlmere (reservoir) for a circular walk including a summit of the small, but perfectly built, Great How.

I should say that this stretch of the A591 has only been open for a few months since hurricane Desmond swept part of it away earlier this year, cutting one of the main routes in the Lake District between North and South. The road is now is shiny and new as well as a new bridge and some new drainage, etc. There are still a few diggers around though and we discovered several paths are still closed. Unfortunately we only discovered this after we’d walked them – what with the signs only being at one end and all!

Not much to say about the walk, except that it was short and sweet, very sweet. The valley is gorgeous and the views of Thirlmere from the top of Great How are stunning, especially on a day like this. Thirlmere is actually a reservoir and it’s construction before WW2 caused a strong protest that ultimately didn’t halt the reservoir but did lay the foundations of the National Trust – don’t say you don’t learn anything reading these.

We took a leisurely pace to soak up the scenery, and allow for our shocking lack of fitness, and finished off with a quick pint at the Traveller’s Rest pub before setting off home.

Chris

 

Brussels

Part three of our trip to Belgium.

After three lovely days in Bruges, we jumped back on the train to Brussels.

On the advice of Xavier, the owner of our Brussels B&B (X2), we avoided Brussels Midi station and headed to Brussels Central, much nicer and the same distance from our accommodation.

After the medieval splendour of Bruges, Brussels’s modern, sprawling, capital required a slight gear change in attitude, especially as it was raining.

Once we’d navigated our way to the B&B we dried off, relaxed with a coffee and were briefed on the best places to eat, see, visit, etc. Xavier, the owner, was very thorough, drawing it all onto a map and labelling the key locations so it all made sense. As we were early for the room, we left our bags and set off again into the city.

 

Comparing Bruges to Brussels is a bit like comparing York to London. One is a small, beautifully preserved medieval gem and the second is a large modern city with lots of historic places mixed in with the modern. Brussels is beautiful, but it can also be dirty, drab and shabby – like any big modern city.

 

We followed Xavier’s suggested route and found some of the most beautiful bits. One suggestion was the comic book festival at the Royal Park and the balloon parade, which was starting at 2pm. Even though we aren’t the biggest comic book fans in the world, we thought it would be colourful and interesting so we agreed to give it a go.

 

The festival was interesting, and colourful as promised, but Lady Hughes really wanted to see the balloon parade so at 1.30pm we found a spot and waited as the large inflatable characters were prepared. 2pm came and went and they still weren’t parading. Due to the crowds, and recent events, security was tight with lots of police and heavily armed soldiers patrolling the area.

 

At one point, a small girl lost control of her little balloon and it floated in the breeze, bouncing across the floor towards me, with her chasing it. When it came to me, to help her, I reached out my foot and gently stopped it, so she could catch it.

BANG! The balloon popped.

Four things happened. First, everyone jumped, including the police and the heavily armed soldiers just yards away. Secondly, the little girl stopped and looked up at me with a shocked, hurt, expression, her eyes saying “why?”. My guilt was only tempered by the thought that I might be machine-gunned down as a potential terrorist at a balloon parade at any second – not the way I want to go believe me. Third, every adult within twenty yards took in the scene and looked at me as though I was the most heartless, reckless bastard they’d ever seen, and the fourth reaction was one guy, stood about ten yards away who was just pissing himself laughing.

 

We continued to wait for the parade, until a tall man in a long coat, with a large support boot, sat down next to me and proceeded to grunt loudly. At this point Clare decided we should go, so we never did see the balloons parade – but at least I survived, which is always a good day in my books.

Following Xavier’s map we eventually found the Grand Place, which had been previously described to me as the most beautiful town square in the world. This we had to see, and it did not disappoint.

 

The stunning architecture was enhanced by the fact that most of the square was filled with the Belgium Beer Festival, so, when in Rome, etc.

A few beers later, we continued our exploration and found more beautiful parts to the city which I won’t list here. That evening we returned and had a lovely meal, and a few more beers, in Le Cirio, one of the oldest restaurants in the city.

The next day we had planned to visit the art gallery before catching our first train home, but we arrived at the entrance to find they were all shut on Mondays, so we quickly changed our mission, jumped on the metro and headed off to the Atomium. Just sixteen stops out of town.

The Atomium, was built as part of a World’s Fair in the fifties and is sometimes referred to as Belgium’s Eiffel Tower. It’s certainly impressive, commanding the view as you walk the short distance from the metro station.

 

Once inside we bought tickets to the top and explored the various ‘rooms’, etc. The 360°view from the top was wonderful and the light shows as you travel through the escalators and ‘balls’ as Clare put it, gave you the feel you were in an old science fiction movie. It was as if we’d travelled to the future, just a 1950’s version of the future – if that makes sense?

 

Back on the metro we headed back to the B&B to grab our bags and then hiked to the Midi station, which didn’t do much to improve our first impression, and the Eurostar home.

Looking back on the whole trip, Bruges is beautiful but so is Brussels in the right parts. I’d definitely go back to both and I think everyone should visit the WW1 Battlefields, at least once, as it really gives you a powerful perspective on the cost of conflict, in a way you can’t get from a documentary or a museum. Even now, as I watch the news there are events happening in the world that seem very similar in their own way, as if we have forgotten many of the lessons. It’s important to refresh what we’ve learnt to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes and the best way I’ve found is to go there and see for yourself.

Chris.

WW1 Battlefields

Part two of our trip to Belgium.

As we were in Bruges, and I’ve always had an interest in the First World War, I really wanted to visit nearby Ypres, an iconic location

Clare and myself decided that we’d make the journey by train on the third day of our trip, but as we weighed up the travel options we realised that it was doable but would take hours. When we mentioned this to the owner of the B&B she suggested we go with an organised tour company – Quasimodo Tours.

I was hesitant, not just because they were named after a famous hunchback, but it was a bit expensive and I was concerned it would all be a bit rushed. In the end we did opt for the tour as it meant we could relax about the travel logistics and we’d get to see more sights than if we were on foot.

After a few complications booking the night before we were picked up by taxi at 9am and driven to the pickup point – all part of the service.

The tour was extensive to say the least, lasting nine hours, we travelled around the area with our guide Phillipe giving us a constant commentary on what happened where and why. He really was excellent, with a genuine passion for the subject and a talent for bringing it all to life. We visited a lot of sights around the Ypres Salient including (thanks to Quasimodo for the info):

Langemark German Cemetery: the second largest German cemetery containing 44,000 bodies. Among them are more than 3,000 German students who died during the battle for Langemark, more infamously known as the “Massacre of the Innocents”.

Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall: The largest of the Commonwealth cemeteries. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here and another 35,000 are listed on the memorial wall – soldiers with no known grave.

Walking through the sea of gravestones, reading the names and where they came from, the emotional impact was very strong, very moving. Especially as many I came across, seemed to come from Manchester.

Polygon Wood: two cemeteries here and two memorials. Most of the dead here are from Australia and New Zealand, but there was still several Manchester graves scattered around.

The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner: Memorial to 2,000 Canadian Soldiers who lost their lives in the St Julian area during the first gas attacks in 1915.

Hooge Crater Cemetery and Museum: we had lunch at the nearby restaurant and explored the museum with its wealth of artefacts.

Hill 60 Preserved Battlefield (Messines): This was the site of vicious fighting including the detonation of two massive mines under the hill which killed 650 Germans.

Control of this strategic point changed hands several times, which can be seen by this British bunker, built on the remains of an older German one.

Ypres and the Menin Gate: The Menin Gate is a memorial to almost 55,000 men who fell during the Great War and have no known grave.

Ypres itself was completely destroyed during the war and everything we saw was rebuilt afterwards, which in itself was amazing, especially when you looked at the great Cloth Hall.

There was a blacksmiths event on while we were giving Clare the chance to buy an Ypres poppy to go with our Tower of London one we bought a year or two ago.

The Yorkshire Trench and Dugout: These are the remains of the actual trenches, reinforced with concrete to preserve them.

Essex Farm Cemetery and Dressing Station: one of the original cemeteries and made up largely of burials from the dressing station on the site. One of the youngest soldiers to die in the war – Valentine Studwick, a 15 year old from Surrey, is buried here. Dr John McCrae, a Canadian, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” here in 1915.

Phillipe also took us to the Menin Road and Hellfire Corner, the most dangerous place on earth during the war. He also showed us some recent finds, dug up by local farmers. This ‘Iron Harvest’ of shells, grenades and assorted ammunition continues to this day and is a constant danger for the locals.

It may sound a bit depressing to spend a day visiting cemeteries and it certainly wasn’t ‘fun’ in the literal sense, but to actually stand where all these events happened, hear the accounts and see the names of those men and boys whose stories ended there, was something I’ll never forget. It was fascinating, enjoyable and very, very moving. Also, when we look at issues such as chemical weapons, long-term effects for communities and war in general, there are still lessons to be learnt today from places like this.

If you have an interest in history and the subject, I’d heartily recommend it.

Chris

Bruges

Finally found time to write up our trip to Belgium last week, and it was so good, I’m going to have to break it into three parts. So, with that in mind, here’s part one: Bruges.

The current Mrs Hughes and myself travelled to Bruges, via Virgin Pendolino to London (of course!) and then Eurostar to Brussels, before catching a 40-minute connection to Bruges itself.

We’d never been on Eurostar before and it only took just over two hours to get there. It would have been quicker to fly, yes, but this was travelling to be enjoyed, not endured. It was smooth, the service was good (though not as good as Virgin – of course!) and sitting in a comfortable chair, drinking wine while the countryside raced past was lovely – I recommend it.

The only downside to the journey, was Brussels Midi station. A dark, ominous, subterranean place, made worse by the heavily armed soldiers patrolling constantly. You can understand why they’re there, after the recent attacks, but rather than reassure, they just seemed to give the place the air of a warzone. Clare really didn’t like this place but, hey, we weren’t there long. We were later told by an English guy staying in Brussels that he knew two people who had been robbed in there. We didn’t experience anything like that, it was just a bit shabby and a bit tense.

Bruges is a beautiful medieval town, which has somehow managed to avoid the ravages of both world wars and stay intact. It really is a stunning environment, with cobbled streets, canals, chocolate shops, beautiful old buildings and picturesque bars and restaurants. The only noticeable hazard was the risk of getting run down by a bicycle, they’re everywhere.

We stayed in a gorgeous B&B (De Loft) just 5 – 10 minutes’ walk from the centre. It is part of a converted lace factory and our room was more of mini-suite. The owners were friendly and recommended various places to eat and drink and also pointed out a few to avoid.

We did a few tourist essentials, such as climbing the belfry (361 steps) and going on the canal tour, but we mainly just explored, chilled out and enjoyed ourselves – and drank some of the finest beers I’ve ever tasted!

The Belgians view beer in the same way the French view wine, and in fairness they’re very good at brewing the stuff. Each different beer seemed to have its own glass, which must be a nightmare for most of the bars. One of them, Kwak beer, is served in a glass which can’t stand up on its own and comes with a wooden holder.

The local people encountered were warm and friendly and it was great to talk to other visitors from all over the world, including Spain, Denmark, Australia, USA, Germany, Italy and even Taiwan (via London), everyone was having a great time and all were friendly – I suppose having over a thousand different types of beer can really help international diplomacy, maybe something there for the UN to consider?

There are lots of things we didn’t do and I’d definitely go back again, given the chance, but we had limited time and something else we really wanted to do while we were there – look out for part two.

Chris