Return to Romania

I’ve finished a trip to Romania to research the next edition of the Bradt Guide to Transylvania – I had a lovely time and I can report that (despite rampant inflation) the country is in a pretty good place at the moment. The first thing that bowled me over, in Timișoara and București (Bucharest), was that drivers were desperate to stop at pedestrian crossings and let me cross safely – a total turnaround from how things used to be. They’re also quite punctilious in using their indicators now. So far, so jaw-dropping.

 Other changes were more predictable – far more people (and most young people) speak English now, contactless payment is everywhere, and there are all kinds of interesting beers available. When I visited in the early 1990s I made it my personal mission to save Romania’s dark beers and make a stand against the flood tide of lagers (especially with the main Romanian breweries being bought up by the likes of Heineken) – well, I can definitely report that that battle has been won. Cheers!

From beers to bears, and they’re everywhere too – hunting is no longer allowed (although it was a nice little earner for the country) and numbers have exploded. I was seeing bear prints in mud and snow not just in the higher-altitude forests but in relatively low, populated areas too, especially when I was walking between the Saxon villages where Brașov, Mureș and Sibiu counties meet. There were plenty of wolf prints too. There’s no great risk for daytime hikers, but who knows what might happen after dark? I used to camp wild without a second thought, but I would certainly think twice or thrice now. In many places I found myself following markers for the Via Transilvanica, a new long-distance trail that crosses Transylvania from northeast to southwest, crossing most of its main ecological zones and most touristed areas. It’s pretty good for walkers, though as usual in Romania there’s no telling when some forestry operation will turn everything to mud, but they also claim that it can all be cycled, which is far from the case.

The construction of motorways has been a long-running saga, with all kinds of delays and scandals – the sections from Ploiești (north of București) to Brașov and from Cluj west to the Hungarian border are an especially long way from completion, but it’s now possible to drive easily (and toll-free) from Sibiu and Târgu Mureș to Cluj, Deva and Timișoara – handy for drivers, of course, but I particularly noticed how quiet and pleasant so many towns and villages now are with the endless lines of Turkish trucks removed from them. Railway modernisation is not going nearly so well – huge sums of European money are being spent to rebuild the main lines, but at the same time any kind of useable service has been wiped out, with in many cases just a couple of one- or two-carriage trains running per day, and a general assumption by management that anyone who wants to get anywhere should just drive – bizarre! Bus (well, minibus, aka maxitaxi) services are better than they were, with most of the cowboy drivers tamed or removed, but weekend services are terrible, again with a general assumption that if you need to get anywhere you’ll drive or hitch a lift – which does work pretty well.

 The new edition of the Bradt guide will include some new museums (in Brașov, Bran and Cluj), and lots of fine new guesthouses (in eg Meșendorf, Valea Viilor, Richiș and Porumbacu de Sus), and of course cafés and restaurants – but you’ll have to buy the book for details.

 Friends of Charles

I had a spell of meeting FOCs (Friends of Charles – you know, the chap who was Prince of Wales and is now King, which has led to some verbal contortions in the new edition) almost every day. Most were just contacts, really, but at least two are inner circle. I’ve added a box to the text, not about them, but about the way Charles has brought together people working for architectural and ecological conservation in Transylvania, and how this exemplifies the co-operative approach of the best guesthouse owners and others working to make their region better and more sustainable.

 A bit of lit crit

I’ve been reading some books by expats in Transylvania, and can strongly recommend them. Arabella McIntyre-Brown’s A Stake in Transylvania is already a classic of the genre, with copies lying around in the type of guesthouses that foreigners use. It’s a candid account of her move from Liverpool to Transylvania and her far from blinkered love for her new home, with lots of balanced insights. Mike Ormsby’s books are somewhat similar but with a more satirical edge to them. Rupert Wolfe Murray’s Romania, Rude and Vile? (the name does not mean what you think) is an interesting collection of journalism and other pieces written between 1989 and 2023 that cover many aspects of Romanian life and culture with insight and affection.

Two Capitals of Culture – Veszprém and Timișoara

I’ve posted before about two UK cities of culture, Hull and Coventry, and now I’ve just been to two of the European Capitals of Culture for 2023, Veszprém and Timișoara (the third is Elefsina, once known as Eleusis, in Greece, which I don’t know much about). Timișoara, in the southwestern corner of Romania, is a city I’ve known since 1991, but I’m pretty sure I’d never been to Veszprém, southwest of Budapest.

 This is one of Hungary’s oldest and most historic cities, having played a key rôle in the establishment of Christianity in the country and thus the consolidation of the state and the royal dynasty. A diocese was established here under Prince Géza, who has been converted to Christianity in 975, and in 997 his son King István (aka St Stephen) defeated a pagan uprising here, with the help of knights sent by Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, father of István’s wife Gisela. She made Veszprém her home, and it has always been known as ‘the Town of Queens’. It was largely destroyed in the sixteenth century and rebuilt after 1711, with many ugly buildings added around the old town during the communist period.

 I took a very slow train (hauled by an oversized diesel shunter) from Györ (on the Vienna-Budapest main line), through the Bakony hills and forests, with hikers getting on and off, and eventually arrived at the station a couple of kilometres north of the centre of Veszprém. Having found my bed I headed for the castle area – and found it closed off, with all the buildings along Vár utca (Castle Street), leading up to it, hidden by scaffolding and plastic sheeting. This is a rocky plateau reached from the lower town through the Heroes’ Gate, fairly tastefully built in 1936 to commemorate the dead of the First World War (just before the second one broke out), next to the minaret-like Fire Tower (originally built in the thirteenth century but now largely Baroque). Vár utca winds up the hill between large Baroque buildings, some of which house art galleries, and into the square dominated by the Bishop’s Palace (Érseki Palota), a ponderous edifice (1765-76) built on the site of Gisela’s palace by Jakab Fellner, Hungary’s leading Baroque architect. At the end, beyond the Trinity Column (1750), is the cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, the current incarnation dating from 1907-11 – it’s in a pretty authentic Romanesque style, as far as I could see, although the interior murals are a bit bright. Gisela was beatified in 1911, and one of her forearm bones is preserved as a relic in a shrine by the altar.

 The cathedral, and the Trinity Column, seem, externally at least, to be in fine condition. The city’s Capital Culture brochure and website feature lovely pictures of this area, so it seems a bit odd that this is all happening now, with no prospect of being ready by Easter and maybe not even by the summer. Maybe the government was persuaded to hand over a large sum of money and they just went crazy?

 Veszprém’s biggest event doesn’t actually require much in the way of infrastructure, refurbished or not – the Street Music Festival takes over the streets every summer, and will be bigger and more international than ever this year. Oddly, Veszprém is already a UNESCO City of Music, although it’s hard to see why – it wasn’t home to the Beatles, or reggae, or flamenco, like other Cities of Music, just the Street Music Festival and a certain Auer Lipót (aka Leopold von Auer, 1845-1930), a violinist, conductor and composer that I had never heard of.

 Some exhibits are very very niche – the Tegularium, in the basement of the Dubniczay Palace, is a display of bricks (and of information on brickmaking, to be fair), and the Vass Shoe Gallery commemorates the world-famous shoe brand of László Vass, which, again, I had never heard of, as well as housing Lászlo’s collection of modern art, above all Hungarian abstractionists. The former jail, on the west side of the castle, is now a museum, and probably quite a decent one – there will ‘soon’ be lift access from the Ruttner House (Ruttner ház) down on Jókai Mór utca. The ActiCity cultural centre and events space will open ‘in the spring’ in the old children’s hospital on Hovirag utca, south of the centre.

 Otherwise, my sense of Veszprém was that it’s really a bit small for the job of Capital of Culture (yes, it covers the Lake Balaton area too, but Veszprém is its heart) – for instance, the old town restaurants were overwhelmed already (by 6pm on the first Saturday in March). And most of the signage that I saw was only in Hungarian, when English and German will be more important for international visitors.

It’s all Hungarian to me
Even the railway station is still being rebuilt

 Anyway, the Veszprém Street Music Festival will take place from 7 to 16 July, overlapping with VeszprémFest (12 to 16 July), with international pop and jazz artists such as Norah Jones. From 13 to 22 August there’s Rose, Riesling and Jazz Days, with food, wine and music in the main square, and from 28 September to 1 October the Balaton Wine & Gourmet Festival, launched last year, brings free wine tastings, dinners with Michelin-starred chefs, demonstrations and workshops.

 Meanwhile, Timișoara is a bigger, better organised city and seems to be more prepared for its latest year in the spotlight – of course, the revolution against the Ceaușescu regime started here, and Timișoara has enjoyed its fame since then, while also developing as a business and education centre, benefitting from its position near Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and even Italy. It’s full of students and has a lively grungey bar scene.

 The Timișoara Art Museum is large and excellent even in normal times, but it’s pulling out the stops this year. For me the undoubted highlight is the biggest exhibition of the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși for the last fifty years, but this won’t open until 30 September (running until 28 January 2024). To keep us going for the time being there’s a show of the surrealist painter Victor Brauner, from 17 February to 28 May.

 There’s also an active theatre scene here, with the German and Hungarian State Theatres both working with simultaneous translation (with surtitles or earphones, into Romanian and sometimes English), to show that language can be not an impediment but a unifying force. On the musical side, too, there’s plenty going on, notably the Timişoara Muzicală Festival (classical concerts and opera), JazzTM (jazz) and the Plai (world music).

 By chance I looked at the Romanian edition of the Riveter literary magazine, published in September 2020, and found that it focussed specifically on Timișoara, and that a remarkable number of the leading Romanian writers are associated with the city, such as Ana Blandiana, Herta Müller and Mircea Cartarescu.

 Also noticed in Romania

In Britain this winter everyone (well, almost) has been wearing bessiments (hats, gloves, scarves etc) in exactly the right tone of mustard yellow, whereas in Romania people are wearing down jackets and so on in slightly off versions of the same yellow – prototypes that didn’t make it in the crucible of the marketplace, or just poor copies?

Derbyshire – old mills, New Mills

I’d been to Derby once or twice before and found it rather dull – I was visiting universities and it didn’t have one of those back then, I was also visiting cathedrals on the side and it had one of those but really it’s just an overgrown parish church. Beyond that there didn’t seem to be much to it, but I was recently drawn back by the opening of the Museum of Making. This is in the Derby Silk Mill, which is claimed to be the world’s first fully mechanised factory, and it led me to realise that the way to appreciate Derby’s place in the world is to visit the whole Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. This was certainly the birthplace of modern manufacturing, with factories driven by water power from the early eighteenth century, but it’s hard to pin down the actual starting point – for years we were taught that Richard Arkwright opened the first factory at Cromford in 1771, and that the Arkwright System was the basis for efficient manufacture until the time of Henry Ford. But now it seems that the Derby Silk Mill got there first, in 1721 – what’s more, it was built next to another mill founded in 1704 which did the same thing, using water power to twist silk thread, but this one went bust. I never found an explanation of just what the key innovation was which means that the Derby Silk Mill is now seen as the first factory. Its founder, John Lombe, went to Piedmont in 1717 to undertake some industrial espionage and returned with the details of their silk-throwing machines (used since the fifteenth century, it seems) and with Italian craftsmen to make and install them.

 Regardless of this, the Museum of Making is well put together and well worth visiting (and it’s free). There’s a good café in the foyer, along with an ‘exploded’ Toyota car and a Rolls-Royce aero engine (both produced locally, of course), and the main exhibition on the manufacturing history of Derby and the Derwent Valley is up on the first floor. The second floor is a novel collection of manufactured items organised thematically by their principal constituent material (needless to say there’s a lot of metal – the whole building is lined with cast-iron signs warning and prohibiting, which seems to have been a dominant theme of Victorian life). There’s a small shop up on the third floor, and also studios, the Midland Railway archive, and a superb model railway which claims to be Kirtley Junction, a station on the MR between Derby and Chesterfield.

 I also visited the Derby Museum and Art Gallery (also free, of course), although I knew that the paintings of Joseph Wright (1734-97, Derby’s most famous artist) had been removed for a few weeks due to roof repairs – instead that gallery was occupied by some posters for 1970s gigs in Derby, including the Sex Pistols (although that one was cancelled due to national outrage after their TV performance), Sham 69 and Amazing Blondel. There’s plenty of archeology, the military history gallery is very detailed, and there’s a recreation (with the original panelling) of the room in which Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Council decided to turn back towards Scotland, much to his disgust. The other Derby City museum is the Pickford House, a fully intact house from the city’s Georgian peak.

 One modern oddity in Derby is the Assembly Rooms, on the Market Place, a key piece of brutalism by Casson and Conder (1977) – it’s regarded as ‘the most important postwar building in the country’, but has been shut up since a fire in 2014, after which asbestos was found, so its future is very much up in the air. My take on it is that it may be important, but it’s not particularly attractive, so why not do something really good with this site?

 I also noted that Derby City Council is really quite serious about rewilding, with sites ranging from Allestree Park, on the city’s northern edge, where 130 ha (including parts of a former golf course) will become a mosaic of woodland, scrub and meadows, with red kites, dormice and Highland cattle, to the Derwent Meadows and Alvaston, southeast of the centre. This latter is the area I saw most of, notable the riverside route of National Cycle Network route 6 passing Pride Park and Arenaland, with high-tech venues but not much sign of nature away from the riverside strip.

Northwards along the Derwent

The UNESCO World Heritage Site connects Derby with various other mills to the north in the Derwent Valley, notably Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford. There’s a good visitor centre there, and various shops and a café, but really you’re here for the buildings and location – and there’s plenty more industrial heritage around. Opposite the mills is Cromford Wharf, the end of a canal (opened in 1794) that can be followed (on foot or bike) south to Ambergate, which is coincidentally the first railway station on the Matlock branch. Just a mile or so to the south of Cromford is High Peak Junction, where it met the Cromford and High Peak Railway, opened in 1831 to serve mines and quarries to the west – this climbed over 300 metres in its first five miles, only possible by means of rope-hauled inclines. This daunting slope is now the High Peak Trail (National Cycle Network route 54), which links with the Tissington Trail, also a disused railway, to provide a brilliant day out on the White Peak. At High Peak Junction you can also step into what claims to be the world’s oldest surviving railway workshop. I cycled as far south as Belper, which also has some impressive mills, built rather later – unfortunately the museum and visitor centre is currently closed.

 Heading north from Cromford Mills, you first have lovely Cromford Village, with the excellent Scarthin Books and the Greyhound Inn, a fine hotel built by Arkwright to accommodate business associates and potential investors. Just north is Masson Mill (opened in 1783), known for the epic poem by Erasmus Darwin describing the manufacturing processes there – it’s now mainly a retail outlet, but there is a small museum. Then you come to Matlock Bath (which has its own station), once a hydropathic spa but now a sort of inland Blackpool that’s popular with motorbikers. Matlock itself, now the terminus of the rail branch, was a slightly classier resort which still looks good but doesn’t offer many real sights of interest. It’s the southern end of Peak Rail, a heritage railway that runs (at 25mph) along about 4 miles of the former Midland Railway line towards Bakewell, Buxton and Manchester; happily for me, there’s also a cycleway (NCN route 680) alongside it. NCN 680 continues as the Monsal Trail on a delightful stretch of the old railway with various tunnels and viaducts – however there’s a gap between the two sections (from Rowsley to near Bakewell) that’s bridged by a perfectly adequate bridleway that Sustrans has for some reason decided not to incorporate in the National Cycle Network. Usually they’re desperate to get cyclists off main roads such as the A6 but not it seems in this case. You can detour via lovely Bakewell, but I chose to stick to the Monsal Trail, which – surprise surprise! – passes some more classic water-powered textile mills at Cressbrook and Litton. The first Cressbrook mill was built in about 1785 but burnt down and was rebuilt by Richard Arkwright; the current fine Georgian building was built by William Newton (another important figure) in 1815, and is now divided into flats, some available for rent. Litton Mill was founded in 1782 and struggled from the start, mainly due to poor access and the lack of workers within easy reach – it became notorious for the terrible working conditions endured by the apprentices sent there from the parish workhouses.

 The next day we found ourselves in New Mills, on the west side of the Pennines but to my surprise still just about in Derbyshire (it could have been Cheshire or Greater Manchester) – partly to tackle the metal walkway strung through a gorge (sort of) between the railway and yet another mill, the Torr Vale Mill (built in about 1788 and powered by water until the 1940s, although steam power was also used from 1856 when it was expanded – it remained operational until 2000). In fact the path to the walkway passes through the remains of Rock Mill (built in about 1790 for cotton-spinning, becoming a steam-powered printworks in 1829), and Torr Mill (also c1790, producing cotton until 1890). A more recent innovation here (between various dramatic bridges where the Goyt and Sett valleys meet) is the reverse Archimedes screw installed in 2008 to produce hydroelectric power (for the nearby Co-op shop, among other things).

 So I’m happy to have seen the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, or one of them, but it’s not just about the oldest factories – the Smedleys knitwear factory near Matlock has been in operation since 1783, longer than any other in the world. I assume this is the same family as Smedley’s Hydro in Matlock, which was Britain’s largest hydropathic hotel from the 1840s to the 1950s.

 Pubs, of course

Derby’s pubs have a good reputation, but I did note that the pubs with good real ale tended not to do decent food – they’re drinking places, which was slightly unexpected in a city with so few students. But the Brunswick Inn, the Old Dolphin, the Smithfield Alehouse and the Derby Brewery Tap House are all good places to stop, loosely along the river from the station to the cathedral. A special shout-out for the Angler’s Rest in Bamford, one of the earliest community pubs (opened in 2013) which now includes a café and the village post office. And I did visit two excellent bookshops in the Peak – Scarvin Books in Cromford (with a nice little café) and Scrivener’s Books and Bookbinding in Buxton (which doesn’t have a café but does offer free tea/coffee-making facilities).

Graz – and a few other Austrian cities

It’s been in my mind for a while that I’d like to spend more time in Austria – I work on two hiking trips that finish in Innsbruck, but hardly ever go further east (in the 1990s I used to pass through Vienna (Wien) quite often on my way to Romania, but I didn’t often linger). And I did find myself in Innsbruck recently, with a week free – it wasn’t the time to head into the hills and hike, and I was going to Vienna, to see a friend and catch up on the art. Innsbruck is great, and maybe I’ll write it about when I’m not just there for work; Salzburg is a massive tourist trap (hotel prices are double those elsewhere in Austria), wonderfully photogenic but overwhelmed by overweening Baroque piles and of course the Mozart industry. I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever been to Graz, capital of Styria and Austria’s second city (but everywhere is tiny compared to Vienna), and it’s a city that many people recommend, so that’s where I went, by one of the world’s slowest express trains (see below).

 There’s no Mozart, and no ski industry, which makes it quieter and much better value than some Austrian cities; but it does have strong links to Italy and the Balkans, both historically and nowadays, which makes it more interesting. It’s quite a young people’s town, with relatively speaking a lot of smoking, tattoos, and cycling (see below), and the cultural scene is lively too, notably since the arrival of ‘the friendly alien’, aka the Kunsthaus (Art House), which sits by the river opposite the old town (it looks more like a sea squirt than an alien, but maybe that’s just me). It’s smaller than I expected, but the architecture is definitely a bit radical, although everyone seems to love it now. Housing temporary shows of contemporary art, as you might expect, it’s part of the excellent Joanneum system (established in 1811 by Archduke Johann of Austria), which now has no fewer than nineteen museums and the zoo under its umbrella. A 24-hour ticket is available, and presumably if you buy it at 10.15 you could pop into one at 10.10 the next morning and stay all day – I was visiting the museums on a Sunday, and they’re all closed on Mondays, so I couldn’t put it to the test.

 What did make sense for me was to walk out to Schloss Eggenberg (trams come fairly close) before 10.00 and start there – it took me an hour to see the Alte Galerie, and then the 11.00 tour of the State Rooms (in English) was covered by the 24-hour ticket. The gallery houses a beautifully displayed collection of medieval German art, much of it as a chronological progression through Christ’s life, which is an unusual but clever approach. This is followed by paintings by Cranach and a wide range of Flemish artists (due to the Habsburgs’ historic links with the Low Countries). I was also interested by the Angelika Kaufmann portrait of (probably) James Boswell.

 The palace was built from 1625 (by Pietro de Pomis, who I’d never heard of until I saw various portraits by him in the Alte Galerie downstairs) for Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg (1568-1634), chief advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, and from 1625 governor of Inner Austria, covering Styria, Carinthia and Carniola, including parts of what are now Slovenia and Italy, and with its capital in his hometown of Graz.

 The building has 365 windows (for the days of the year), and the 24 State Rooms (for the hours of the day) have 52 windows (for the weeks of the year), or 60 (for the number of seconds in a minute and the minutes in a hour) if the eight windows of the Planetary Hall are included. The lower floors have 31 windows each, for the maximum number of days in a month. This rigid numerology was apparently a response to the chaos of the times, with the Little Ice Age and the Thirty Years War (or Thirteen Years War, as guides here seem to pronounce it) bringing widespread hardship and devastation.

 Don’t miss the tour of the very ornate State Rooms on the second floor or piano nobile, some featuring Japanese paintings and porcelain; the amount of gambling the family and their guests indulged in is pretty striking too. The highlight is the Planetary Hall (1678-85), meant to be the entrance hall to the State Rooms but completed fifty years after them. Through the rows of low chandeliers, you’ll see the last of the cycle of about 600 ceiling paintings throughout the State Rooms commissioned by Hans Ulrich’s grandson from the Baroque artist Hans Adam Weissenkircher in 1678. Portraying the planets, the zodiac and elements, with members of the House of Eggenberg shown as gods, it’s an allegory of the supposed Golden Age under their rule.

 When the male line of the Eggenbergs died out in 1717, the State Rooms were shuttered up and left that way until 1939, when the palace and park were bought by the state of Styria. Thus they escaped the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century modernisations of the rest of the palace and have needed very little restoration.

 Don’t miss the tiny Gothic chapel (free access), built c1470 as part of the original mansion of Balthasar Eggenberger, financier to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, and its splendid winged altar. The gardens are glorious, and tucked away in the far corner is the Archeological Museum, a small modern building with a good collection of local finds, most notably the Strettweg Kultwagen or ritual vehicle, which looks like a steampunk invention but actually dates from the end of the seventh century BCE. There are also Roman mosaics, carvings and a fine cup, as well as Greek ceramics and three Egyptian mummy cases and ushebti figurines. Captions are in German only, but it’s definitely worth a look.

 Back in the city centre, the Joanneumsviertel is a group of buildings linked by a modern underground entry hall like IM Pei’s Louvre pyramid or the new Museum Island complex in Berlin; this links the Neue Galerie Graz (with temporary art exhibitions from its own collection and elsewhere), the BRUSEUM (dedicated to the local artist Günter Brus, born in 1938), the Natural History Museum and CoSA (the Centre of Science Activities). With a 24-hour ticket you could scamper round these, and then head a short way north to the History Museum (in the Palais Herberstein, built in 1602, remodelled in the Baroque style then decorated with Viennese Rococo stucco). The museum’s centrepiece is the Schaudepot or Display Store, in which over 2,000 items are displayed on shelves, without captions (although there are good booklets in German and English) – they include Venetian mirrors, Urbino majolica, Archduke Johann’s draisine (one of the earliest prototypes of the bicycle, dating from around 1820) and a penny-farthing, guild tankards and yellow plastic shoes by Zaha Hadid! They all add up to tell something of the city’s story. There’s also a cinema display – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Klaus Maria Brandauer were both from Styria.

 Almost next door is the Graz Museum (not part of the Joanneum system, although a discount is available if you have a 24-hour ticket, and not closed on Mondays), in another fine townhouse. This is the real city history museum, with a complex account of the city’s changing urban morphology. One thing that caught my eye was the city’s status as Austria’s cycling capital. It all began in the 1880s with the founding of various cycling clubs (including continental Europe’s first ladies’ club, in 1893), and then the Slovene Janez Puh becoming Johann Puch and founding the Puch bicycle factory, which lasted from 1889 until the 1960s and was followed by many others. More recently, cycling activism started in the 1970s and has not let up – traffic calming and a pedestrian zone appeared in 1972, plans for a north-south motorway through Eggenburg were dropped in 1973 after a petition picked up over 37,000 signatures, and in 1980 the first pop-up or ‘illegal’ cycle path was created. Now 20% of people cycle regularly, there are 160km of cycle paths, and the city’s Radoffensive (Cycle Offensive) promises to spend €10 million a year until 2030 to further boost cycle levels. One thing to watch out for is that cars turn right (fairly carefully) when pedestrian/cyclist crossings have their green phase.

 I saw much more, the cathedral (alongside the huge Mausoleum of Ferdinand III, built by de Ponis in 1614 with internal decor by Fischer von Erlach, whose work I’m familiar with across the former Habsburg territories of Central Europe, and whose home town this was), the Schloss, the Burg (not to be confused), but I think that’s enough detail for now.

Wien und Salzburg

Vienna is too big to give a quick overview of, and I really only stopped to see some art, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Leopold Collection, and to see an old friend – I did sample one café, not one of the famous ones on the Ring but a fairly authentic workers’ place near the Hauptbahnhof, the Café Goldegg. We also went to the Siebenstern brewpub, where I enjoyed some Märzen, derived from the original Vienna Lager developed in 1841 by Anton Dreher – the first bottom-fermented beer, and the lightest and clearest beer anyone had seen at the time (although it seems pretty amber to modern eyes), and malty rather than hoppy. Now it only really exists in the US and Mexico, oddly. Märzen was traditionally a stronger beer, brewed in March (whence the name), as brewing was banned from April to September due to the risk of fire, and kept in cold cellars, preferably with ice, until Oktoberfest. It’s good stuff, not at all what you might expect a ‘lager’ to taste like.

 I also spent a night in Salzburg, which really is a massive tourist trap. The riverside setting is stunning, the old town lovely in parts, but it’s overwhelmed by heavy Baroque piles such as the cathedral and the Residenz, and by the sheer number of visitors. No wonder Mozart was desperate to get away.

Go slowly

The Glacier Express, from Zermatt to St Moritz, proudly labels itself as the world’s slowest express train, but it does have the excuse that it runs on metre-gauge tracks, and it only gets really slow at its eastern end where it doubles as a local service – but the Transalpin from Zürich to Graz, which I took from Innsbruck to Graz, rivals it, in my opinion. It’s a normal electrically hauled standard-gauge train but it runs on a very curvaceous route and has a lot of stops, some only a couple of minutes apart. As so often, it’s worth looking at services via the capital, even if it’s the long way round – in Britain it’s worth doing almost anything to avoid Cross-Country trains, and with advance booking it’ll be cheaper via London. Now that really was a bit of a detour, but it’s free advice!

 Trains from Graz to Wien run over the wonderful Semmering Pass, a feat of engineering that’s now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List – there are lots of very tight curves so it’s not fast either, but it doesn’t take six hours to cover 300 kilometres, like the Transalpin. The Austrians are now copying the Swiss in building base tunnels under the original alpine railways – the Semmering Base Tunnel should open in 2030 (only six years late) and will bring Graz within two hours of Wien. The historic route will then become a delightful touristic route, like the old Gotthard and Lötschberg lines.

 From Wien west to Salzburg is largely on a new 200km/h line that tunnels under the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) and other obstacles, so it takes just under two and a half hours to reach Mozart Central. The Austrian state railways (ÖBB) operate services from Wien via Salzburg to Innsbruck and beyond with their very very nice and modern Railjet trains (also on Wien-Graz and other main routes) – but the Wien-Salzburg service has been taken over by a private operation called WESTbahn which essentially provides a semi-fast service, with lots of stops, but some very cheap advance fares. ÖBB uses the new Wien Hauptbahnhof interchange and has largely vacated Wien Westbahnhof, leaving plenty of space there for WESTbahn’s two trains per hour to Salzburg.

Margate and Broadstairs

Having cycled north from Canterbury to Whitstable (see my previous post), I set out to follow the cycle route (National Cycle Network regional route 15) along the Kent coast and into East Sussex – it’s largely on the sea wall, and thus level and 95% traffic-free, with the odd detour over the cliffs. In fact the route over the White Cliffs, on either side of Dover, involves rather more climbing, but from Whitstable to Deal is easy. And there’s an interesting variety of towns along the way, none very far apart, which I want to attempt to classify a bit.

 Some towns have become heavily associated with gentrification in the last decade or so, with hordes of hipster DFLs (Down From Londons, mostly specifically from Hackney and Shoreditch) moving in and driving prices up. This applies most strongly to Margate, but also to Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Folkestone, and even Deal. But there’s also an overlapping group of towns that are reinventing themselves through art (as Bilbao did, for instance), such as Margate and Folkestone, and in East Sussex Hastings and Eastbourne. Then there’s a group of ferry ports (Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone), of which only the second is still active – and then there are the small towns that used to be Cinque Ports (and were then notorious centres of smuggling), such as Sandwich, Deal, Hythe and (just across the border in East Sussex) Rye and Hastings. So it’s not easy to compare or judge these varied towns, but I think I can say that, for my own personal reasons, Broadstairs was probably my favourite.


East of the Roman fort and church towers at Reculver, the former Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland of Kent until the sixteenth century is now largely rich farmland, although pockets of wetland are being restored; cycling, it’s an empty few miles on the sea wall and then several more miles of fairly featureless resorts/retirement villages (Minnis Bay, Birchington, Westgate-on-Sea) before reaching Margate. Before the coming of the railways, when excursions from London were by boat, Margate became the first beach resort rather ahead of Brighton (which stole the limelight when the Prince Regent started visiting in the 1770s) – Britain’s first seawater baths opened in 1736, followed by the first beach donkeys in about 1780. The Theatre Royal opened in 1786 (and was refurbished in 2007), and artistic figures such as Keats and the actors Mrs Jordan and Mrs Siddons, not forgetting Nelson and Emma Hamilton, made Margate famous.

 The first object of interest there is the beach shelter in which TS Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land (‘On Margate Sands/I can connect/Nothing with nothing.’) – it might seem unlikely at first, but in fact his subject matter was exactly the new lower-middle class (clerks, typists and the like) who came here just after World War One. 2022 is actually a big year in the history of Modernism, marking the centenaries of the publication of both The Waste Land and Ulysses, not to mention Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and also the founding of the BBC, the first performances of Brecht’s Drums in the Night and Walton’s Façade, and the release of the Expressionist horror film Nosferatu. Quite a year. The Waste Land was published in October 1922, but the centenary was being marked in April (which is when I came here), perhaps because that’s when the poem opens (‘April is the cruelest month’ – a reference to Chaucer, whose pilgrims were of course travelling to Canterbury). By the way – there’s lots of lazy journalism at the moment about ‘the almost unreadable Ulysses’ – no, as they should know, it’s the later Finnegan’s Wake which is really hard.

 Just beyond is the spectacular Dreamland cinema (1935) – currently masquerading as the Empire, due to Sam Mendes filming Empire of Dreams there (a love story set in a seaside cinema, with Olivia Coleman and Colin Firth). It’s a wonderful piece of Deco architecture, with a soaring fin tower and, apparently, a cinema organ still in working order. Behind it is the Dreamland theme park, which I hadn’t heard of before researching this trip (and it was still closed for the winter), but it seems to have been key to Margate’s lure for the arty/hipster East Londoners – not so much for its architectural importance (the cinema and scenic railway are both Grade II* listed) but for its retro quirkiness, and for the hip bands that play there. It had run out of steam and closed but was compulsorily purchased by Thanet Council in 2013 and restored, reopening in 2015. It also includes the Cinque Ports pub, built in the 1930s and recently refurbished, offering craft beers and modern pub fare.

 Just to the east is the art institution I had actually come to see, indeed the only one of the various high-profile art galleries along the coast that I actually found open. Turner Contemporary is named after possibly Britain’s greatest artist (no, not you, Tracey, although you may be Margate’s greatest artist), who came here regularly from the age of eleven, when he was sent to live with an uncle, and called its skies ‘the loveliest in all Europe’. The original plan was for a striking building by Snøhetta+Spence that was supposed to open in 2007 out on the harbour arm. That never happened, but a less challenging design by David Chipperfield (who I’ve also come across in Berlin and Anchorage, of all places) opened in 2011 on the waterfront by the start of the arm. There was a temporary visitor centre nearby in Droit House, the former customs office (built in 1812), which is now a proper tourist information centre. As you might guess, there’s no permanent collection, but contemporary artists curate exhibitions which often refer to Turner and include his works on loan. There’s also a good café, run by hip caterer Barletta, which also runs the rooftop café at Dreamland, and there are a couple of micropubs out on the harbour arm (the Harbour Arms, of course, and the Lighthouse Bar).

 Margate does have a small and attractive old town – nothing medieval, however, but a few traffic-calmed streets with quirky boutiques and cafés, most notably Crate, a contemporary art and yoga space in the former Isle of Thanet Gazette printworks, with  the predictable single-origin coffees upstairs in the Storeroom café. The tiny Little Prince pub is tucked away in the Old Kent Market, on Market Place. There are also some fine restaurants between the old town and Turner Contemporary, such as Angela’s, Dory’s, Bottega Caruso and Ambrette – however the really cool places are up in Cliftonville, the clifftop suburb to the east which is the centre of Down From London hipsterdom – most notably the Albion Rooms, a Victorian hotel refurbished by The Libertines as a recording studio complex.


It’s just a few miles, around Foreness Point, to Broadstairs, the easternmost town in Kent (but quite a long way west of Ostend). It doesn’t try so hard to be cool, and therefore, of course, achieves it. Actually it’s always been a bit gentrified, but with a population that doesn’t need high-speed rail access to London. Culturally, it’s associated with Charles Dickens, who was an amazing writer but doesn’t have the modernist credentials of Eliot. Arriving by bike from the north, I passed Bleak House, where Dickens holidayed in the 1840s and 1850s, writing David Copperfield and (his masterpiece) Bleak House – but the house was known as Fort House until the start of the twentieth century (the fictional Bleak House is in St Albans). It’s not open to the public, but there’s the Dickens House Museum in a house overlooking the harbour that was supposedly home to the model for Betsy Trotwood (in David Copperfield).

 The harbour was renamed Viking Bay in 1949, in a rather confused tribute to Hengist and Horsa, the brothers from Jutland who began the Saxon (and Jutish) settlement of England in 449 – they came from what is now Denmark, but they weren’t Vikings. At Pegwell Bay, south of Ramsgate, where they actually landed, there’s a replica of a Viking ship, which was sailed from Denmark in 1949 – they copied a Viking ship because they apparently didn’t know what Saxon and Jutish ships were like, even though the Sutton Hoo ship had been discovered in 1939. The original settlement here was the village of St Peter’s, inland of what is now the railway station; the harbour of what was known as Bradstow or ‘broad place’, and then Broadstairs, was only developed from about the fifteenth century – the original timbers of the Tudor jetty are apparently still there, encased in later stonework, and approached by York Gate (1540), at the foot of Harbour Street. Incidentally, this is why Broadstairs and similar places have Victorian churches (at the rear of Bleak House, in this case) rather than a lovely old parish church.

 In any case, an elevated esplanade gives great views over the harbour and the sands of Viking Bay, and behind it are some charming narrow streets with proper old-school shops, the most interesting being Harrington’s, the ironmonger’s that supposedly inspired the immortal Four Candles comedy sketch (Ronnie B popped in when visiting Ronnie C, who had a holiday home here) – I was surprised a couple of years ago to see that a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford was called The Four Candles, apparently because Ronnie B was a pupil at Oxford High School, and I was relieved to see that there’s a Four Candles pub here too (see below).

 Food and beer are in fact one (two?) of Broadstairs’ main calling cards – start with ice cream from the delightfully retro Morelli’s parlour, complete with soda fountain and jukebox, then move on for dinner at The Table, Wyatt & Jones (or their offshoot Flotsam & Jetsam, which began as a pop-up takeaway and is now a very popular café) or Stark. But that assumes you can actually get in – eating out has become so much harder than it was, even if pandemic restrictions are largely finished. Stark is only open from Wednesday to Saturday evenings and W&J and F&J both open only from Thursday evening to Sunday lunch, while The Table opens Thursday to Saturday evenings and Saturday lunch (maybe they do all work a bit harder in summer). So they only open when they can be sure of being fully booked well in advance, unless something goes wrong, so forget about spontaneous dining. And Stark only offers a six-course tasting menu, stressing (their capitals) *PLEASE NOTE THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO CATER FOR ANY DIETARY REQUIREMENTS, DISLIKES OR ALLERGIES AND WE ARE UNABLE TO OFFER ANY SUBSTITUTIONS*. You know what? I’ll just go to the pub. Maybe via Staple Stores in St Peter’s, a bakery and café selling sourdough bread, cakes and pastries, and good coffee – but that’s only open Thursday to Sunday mornings. Surely the thing about staples is that you need them every day?

 Fortunately, Broadstairs does happen to have a very strong selection of micropubs, which are a bit of a Kent speciality. In the centre of town is The Magnet, which looks like a traditional pub (if on the small side) and serves largely traditional, and mostly local, beers. Towards the station is Mind The Gap, and just beyond is The Four Candles, mentioned above – when it opened in 2012 it was Britain’s twelfth micropub, and since 2014 it has also been Britain’s smallest brewery, with a tiny plant in a three metre by three metre cellar that somehow produces 440 litres a brew. The Magnet and Mind The Gap are both attractive little places where you’re likely to find lovely Gadd’s beers (properly called Ramsgate Brewery, but as the brewery is now here in Broadstairs that tends to be ignored) – Eddie Gadd the brewer is presumably related to Steve Gadd of Staple (but not to Steve Gadd the American jazz drummer). In fact the brewery now has a taproom for those who want to drink on an industrial estate. Other larger pubs are also available, with a range of gins, wines and food, although the ones in the centre of town are quite touristy.

 Margate is buzzy, and has been for a decade or two, while Broadstairs has a more established gentrification going on – it’s true that bed and board are harder to organise in Broadstairs, but if you can get that sorted, it would be my pick.


I recently took a cycle trip along the coasts of Kent and East Sussex, starting in Canterbury, going north to Whitstable and largely following the sea-wall from there – it’s a largely traffic-free route as far as Rye, which makes a lovely two- or three-day excursion. And there are interesting towns every hour or two, which appeals to me more than just crunching the miles.

Canterbury was the capital of the Cantii, a Celtic people who, as you might expect, occupied what is now Kent; the Romans called it Durovernum Cantiacorum, and it then became the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Kent. It became England’s’s ecclesiastical capital due to the arrival of St Augustine in 597 to begin the country’s conversion to Christianity. The cathedral still dominates the centre, at the heart of a religious complex that’s less permeable than the Vatican or Kremlin. To get close, you have to pay £14, or attend a service – morning prayers are pretty austere, held at the far end of the crypt, but you can then wander around the cathedral, whereas choral evensong is more interesting but you won’t be allowed to linger for long.

In 1170 Augustine’s successor Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral by four knights incited by Henry II, partly because he resisted the king’s view that the church should be under his control; so it’s no surprise that Henry VIII, who definitely did want the church under his control, tried to wipe out all evidence of the martyrdom cult that had developed and had led to Canterbury being a major destination for pilgrimages. It was also the starting point of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route to Rome that I recently cycled part of. Nevertheless Thomas is now a saint in the Anglican church as well as the Roman Catholic one, and the site of his death (known as The Martyrdom), in the north transept, is marked with a new altar, installed in 1986, beneath a metal sculpture of a cross and two swords.

The stained glass images of the Ancestors of Christ, in the Great South Window, are mostly from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but recent research suggests that some pieces may pre-date the great fire of 1174, which would make them among the world’s oldest examples of stained glass. There are also some interesting similarities with Cambridge, as the central tower was built (from 1491) by John Wastell, who went on to build the fan-vaulted roof of King’s College, Cambridge.







Not far away are the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, outside the cathedral precincts but enclosed this time by English Heritage. Founded by Augustine in 598, this became one of the great Romanesque abbeys of Europe (and possibly where the Bayeux Tapestry was created), but was destroyed by Henry VIII, who else. A bit further from the centre is St Martin’s church, thought to be the oldest church in Britain that’s still in use – some of the stonework survives from a Roman building used as a church from 597 by Augustine and Bertha, the French Christian queen of Kent. The nave was built in about 600, with the east end and tower added between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. It’s hardly ever open, but you can clearly see the different types of stonework on the south side. A few days later, in Lydd, I came across the second-oldest church in Britain that’s still in use, also with Romano-British stonework – but of course there’s no comparison with what I was seeing in Rome and Ravenna just six months previously.

St Martin’s, Canterbury

Up against the Roman walls in the southwestern corner of the city (near Canterbury East station – go figure), the Dane John is a Roman burial mound that became the motte or base for the keep (or donjon – whence the name) of the first Norman castle. This didn’t last long, and in 1123-35 a second castle was built just to the north; this has been closed since 2018 due to falling stonework, ie after nine hundred years it’s been abandoned due to our government’s wonderful austerity policy.

There are many other fine medieval buildings here, from churches and city gates to half-timbered inns, but one which caught my attention was the Hospital of St Mary of the Poor Priests on Stour Street, founded circa 1220 and rebuilt in 1373; the hospital closed in the 17th century and the building was then used as a workhouse, a school, a police station and then as the Canterbury Heritage Museum, until it closed in 2017. Now it houses The Marlowe Kit, the studio space of the Marlowe Theatre (the main theatre is a decent modern building opened in 2011) – the name is a pun on Christopher (‘Kit’) Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great rival, who was born in Canterbury in 1564. A few days later, in Rye, I came across the birthplace in 1579 of Shakespeare’s collaborator John Webster.

The Canterbury Heritage Museum may have closed, but there’s still a Roman Museum, and what is known as The Beaney (The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, in full), incorporating the former Royal Museum and the Beaney Institute (opened in 1899), with educational spaces and the city’s library and tourist information centre. I couldn’t quite pin down why I liked it, but the seemingly random mix of displays is actually well thought out. There are lots of interesting items from around the world brought back by travellers from Canterbury, such as clubs from Nootka Sound, acquired during Captain Cook’s second voyage, and Indian pieces from Stephen Lushington (1776-1868), who was MP for Canterbury and Governor of Madras, sometimes at the same time – Jane Austen wrote ‘I am rather in love with him. I dare say he is ambitious and insincere.’

One small gallery covers the output of the Smallfilms animation studio (run by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin), including children’s classics such as Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, Clangers and Bagpuss. There’s also quite a lot of decent art, both in a gallery and mixed in with other displays – a Virgin and Child by the workshop of Perugino (late 15th century) and a Baptism of Christ after Perugino (circa 1700) and others attributed to van Loo and Van Orley, as well as actual  authenticated works by Aert van der Neer, van Dyck and Gainsborough, plus several Murders of Becket, including one by Opie. Twentieth-century art includes works by Lucien Pissarro, Walter Sickert, Laura Knight, John Bratby, Gillian Wearing and Elizabeth Frink. The gallery next to the main entrance is devoted to TS Cooper (1803-1902), a local icon who spent his life basically painting cows (the last at 99 years of age) – I was largely unmoved, but there is one view of Canterbury cathedral across the meadows that’s reminiscent of Constable’s views of Salisbury.

Canterbury is now a student town, but it’s a younger more arty crowd than I’m used to in Cambridge, with lots of dyed hair and ripped jeans. The ‘historic’ university (founded back in 1965!) is the University of Kent at Canterbury, somewhat isolated on a hill north of town (above the world’s first railway tunnel, completed in 1826, as it happens), but Canterbury Christ Church University is far more visible, with multiple buildings in the city centre – it was founded as a teaching training college in 1962 and became a university in 2005 (without passing through a polytechnic phase). And Canterbury College is now part of the University for the Creative Arts (which has several other campuses across Kent and Surrey).

There’s the odd decent restaurant and pub (eg the Parrot and the Dolphin, both on St Radigund St – which is a surprising link with Cambridge) but really I only want to mention the Goods Shed (closed on Mondays) next to Canterbury West station (the one north of the centre) – it’s a fine farmers’ market with a great café and restaurant and other stalls such as Cheesemakers of Canterbury, Docker (sourdough and craft beer) and the splendid traditional Butchery (and you won’t hear me say that very often).

Canterbury’s stations

Don’t get me started on Canterbury’s rail links – perfectly functional, but very confusing for historical reasons. There are two stations, Canterbury East (which should really be called Canterbury South), on the Faversham-Dover line, and Canterbury West (which should really be called Canterbury North), on the Ashford-Ramsgate line. Both have trains from London Victoria, which set off claiming to be heading for Dover, Ramsgate or Margate, but in fact continue on a couple of loop routes around Thanet returning to Victoria (with route announcements changing as they proceed). Then in 2009 a High Speed service was added, using the HS1 Channel Tunnel line from London St Pancras as far as Ebbsfleet or Ashford, from where they also take a loop around Thanet, some calling at Canterbury West – so if you don’t mind paying the surcharge for this service, the hourly Ramsgate via Ashford High Speed service is the fastest way to get here. Therefore it’s possible to get a train to Canterbury from almost everywhere on the Kent coast – with the exception of Deal and Sandwich which are reached from Canterbury only in the rush hours (change at Ramsgate otherwise).

North to Whitstable

I headed north on the Crab and Winkle Way, the northern half of which follows the route of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway (known as the Crab and Winkle) – this was the world’s first passenger railway, opened in 1830, four years before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Because the C&W didn’t use steam engines throughout (static winding engines hauled the trains up a couple of hills), the L&M has become more famous, but its claim to be the first passenger railway is a bit weak. The southern half of the Crab and Winkle Way actually follows the Saltway, a far older trading route from the salt pans of Seasalter, just west of Whitstable. The route passes through The Blean, a large area of largely intact ancient working woodland that now includes an enclosure for European bison (which I didn’t see).

The old fishing town of Whitstable was a popular escape from London for the more bohemian element long before high-speed trains opened up places further east such as Margate. It was known above all for its oysters (from Roman times) and whelks (not winkles, from the nineteenth century), and still has some gastro options, as well as excellent micro-pubs. Britain’s first micro-pub, in 2005, was actually the Butchers Arms, just to the east in Herne Bay, and Kent still has more of these tiny delights than anywhere else.

A few notes on Nepal

One of my favourite books on Nepal, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, has appeared in an audio version, read by the author Jane Wilson-Howarth herself. It’s a beautiful evocation of a little-visited part of Nepal, the lowlands of the western Terai near the Indian border, but it’s also the moving story of the short life of Jane and Simon’s son David, and an enquiry into the limits of modern medicine.

 Jane (and Simon) and I both have our British bases in Cambridge, and of course we use the same hospital! I first met her when she was Bradt Travel Guides’ house doctor, providing medical text for some of my early books. She actually started out as a biologist, obsessed with creepy-crawlies, and then transitioned to medicine; she’s had a busy career since then working on health projects in the Global South (while Simon does irrigation work). At the same time she’s been writing about travel health, travelling with children and other topics – notable titles included Shitting Pretty and Bugs, Bites and Bowels (although their titles were later boringly watered down to How to Shit Around the World and The Essential Guide to Travel Heath). However, having been the travel health columnist at Wanderlust magazine since it first appeared in 1993, she was dropped by them in March 2022 (apparently they’d been wanting increasingly dumbed-down material anyway). Not a problem, as she has other interesting ventures afoot – she’s publishing a series of ‘Alex and James eco-adventures in Nepal’, Himalayan Kidnap, Himalayan Hideout and most recently Himalayan Heist, children’s adventure stories with a strong ecological angle (also based on her family, though perhaps not on real events). These and other books are being issued in electronic and audio formats, and are well worth looking out in whatever format suits you. (She’s also written about Madagascar, which, alas, I know nothing about.)

 The events described in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows took place in 1993-96, and the book took ten years to write, plus a bit longer to find a publisher, so she is partly looking back at her younger self. In 2014 she also published Snowfed Waters, a novel based on the same period living in the Terai. The backbone of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows (and you have to get to the end of the book to see the irony in the title) is the story of the short life of their disabled son David, with dreadful experiences of the medical machine in an English teaching hospital, with non-empathetic Clever Doctors who could only see him as an Interesting Case, and the happy life he was able to have once they reached Nepal, despite all its well-described challenges. But there’s much more to the book, with warm insights into the rest of the family, some very different Nepali characters and various expats too – her behind-the-scenes insight into development work is also valuable. There are descriptions of several hiking trips into the hills too – she has a great eye for nature, not just the wildlife but also the piles of shit that lie in wait everywhere (and she’s not afraid of the s-word!).

 I’ve also happened recently to read Into Thin Air – not the famous one by Jon Krakauer about disasters on Everest, but an older one by John Pilkington. I vaguely know Pilks, and I used his excellent An Englishman in Patagonia where I was first working in that part of the world. His Into Thin Air is about a trek in 1982 in western Nepal, not the Terai but real hills to the north, bisected by immense valleys. As he wrote, ‘The road west from Kathmandu ends after 150 miles, just beyond Pokhara, by the side of a lake. This lake, Phewa Tal, marks the termination of motor cars, electricity, hospitals, pizza – in fact all the elements of civilised life. Beyond Phewa Tal you enter another century, and you, of course, enter it on foot.’ He had some learning experiences along the way, but – of course – made it all the way across to the Indian border. Even today this area sees few foreign visitors, but this book would still be a useful introduction if you fancied a trek there. It’s entertaining, with excellent descriptions of both people and landscapes.

Community homestays

 For some years I was a trustee of Rural Assistance Nepal, which mainly supported nurses and teachers in remote villages, as well as village homestay projects. The charity no longer exists, but its founder Marianne is still working on community homestays, which ties in very well with the background focus of my career as a guidebook writer, trying to shift tourism from big hotels owned by big companies to local accommodation in less crowded places.

 At the moment she’s exploring the Taplejung area, north of Gorkha, and Phaleung, in the far east with great views of Kanchenjunga. This reminds me of the trek to Sandephu (or Sandakphu), also with wonderful views of Kanchenjunga, which I did from Darjeeling in India back in 1983 (my first real mountain hiking). Marianne (who also did it from Darjeeling in 2005) tells me that there’s now a trek from the Phaleung side too.

Trains in Nepal??

 And finally, quite by chance, passenger train services started a few days ago from Jayanagar in the Indian state of Bihar to Janakpur and Kurtha in Nepal – it’s not quite the first railway in Nepal, but the others have never been much use or lasted very long. This line should be extended within the next few years to Bijalpura and then Bardibas, on the East-West Highway, at which point it might actually be of interest to more than local travellers. (The very slow construction of the East-West Highway features in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, as it happens.)

Ukraine – a quick note

I don’t have anything much to say about Ukraine at the moment, beyond the general revulsion at Putin’s invasion and then horror after the massacres in Bucha and elsewhere. Surely our support will go up a notch or two now? I went there in 1992 to write a hiking guide, so I was mainly in the Carpathian Mountains, along the south-western borders, a forested area with hill-top meadows and lots of bears and wolves (not that I saw any) – but I also went to Kyiv and Lviv, and to Crimea, which were all lovely. I had to pay £50 for an emergency visa, clearly marked with the equivalent of ‘Access All Areas’ – a lot of money then, but life in Ukraine then cost almost nothing. Conversely, the next time I was there (in 2010) it was to check that visas weren’t required and I could cross with a British passport without problem – so I walked across the bridge from Sighet in Romania and spent an hour or so wandering around Solotvino. It was still pretty Soviet in feel, but it’s a pretty small unimportant village – I think one thing that Putin and his cronies have failed to notice is that in fact, in the thirty years since the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians have built a new nation that has moved far from the Soviet model and clearly has no desire to be part of the Greater Russia that Putin envisages.

 I have little doubt that the worst atrocities are being committed by Chechens and the like, but the Russian army as a whole is a shocking rabble, and the Russian state is also rotten to the core. As in the Soviet period, endemic all-pervasive corruption makes everything non-functional. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are well organised and doing a wonderful job of repelling the orcs, as they call the Russian soldiers – we need to do more to help, and in the meantime, Slava Ukraini!

Darwin in Cambridge and Kent

I’ve always regarded Charles Darwin as one of the truly great figures of history (even though his male-dominated view of breeding behaviour is under intense scrutiny at the moment). Writing guidebooks to Chile and Uruguay, I came across many records of his travels there and included as many quotations from his journals as I could – his descriptions of 1830s South America are still fresh and relevant. I’ve included plenty of books by and about Darwin in the reading lists at the backs of these books, and looking in turn at the references and acknowledgements of Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, it was brought home to me how much Cambridge, where I live, is a global centre of Darwin studies. This is partly because of the letters and archives held in the Cambridge University Library, and partly because two of his sons taught at the university and their families were important figures in local life (and the foundation of Darwin College is part of this). The university’s museums also hold many of his specimens – I particularly like the story about a volunteer at the Museum of Zoology discovering – on Darwin’s 200th birthday – a tinamou egg that he had collected in Uruguay but had been damaged because he packed it in too small a box. It turned out to be the only surviving egg collected by him.

 The key text on the Darwins of Cambridge is the much-loved Period Piece (1952 – and supposedly never out of print since) by Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), daughter of Sir George Darwin, Darwin’s son and Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge from 1883. She was a fine artist, marrying fellow artist Jacques Raverat and leading a revival of wood engravings, which became a distinctive feature of twentieth-century British art. I have my grandmother’s copy of Period Piece, a hardback printed in 1954, with Raverat’s charming illustrations, including some of their family home, Newnham Grange, now part of Darwin College (and somewhat changed). Later in her life, in 1946, she moved into The Old Granary, by the river at the end of Newnham Grange’s garden, now also part of Darwin College. This is a graduate-only college, founded in 1965 as a spin-off from Caius, St John’s and Trinity Colleges, incorporating existing houses with modern buildings that fit in perfectly well (and the riverside gardens are lovely). One of the college’s features that I particularly applaud is the DarBar travel grants, three awards a year of £200 and a free pre-departure drink, in return for sending a postcard to the college bar.

Newnham Grange

The Old Granary

 Other Darwin houses in Cambridge have also been absorbed into modern colleges – at the south end of the Huntingdon Road, The Grove was home to Charles Darwin’s widow, surrounded by meadows (long gone) where her sons Frank and Horace built homes for their families. Built in 1813, it’s now home to the MCR (graduate common room) of Fitzwilliam College. Horace (who founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company and became Mayor of Cambridge) built The Orchard, a smallish Tudor-style house that’s part of Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall).

The Grove

The Orchard

 One aspect of Period Piece that I especially enjoy is the description of the beginnings of Cambridge’s cycling culture in the 1890s (you may recall that I pondered cycling’s rôle in the development of West Cambridge). ‘My mother had (I believe) the first female tricycle in Cambridge; and I had a little one, and we used to go out on family rides, all together …  I found it very hard work, pounding away on my hard tyres; a glorious, but not a pleasurable pastime. Then one day, at lunch, my father said he had just seen a new kind of tyre, filled up with air, and he thought it might be a success. And soon after that everyone had bicycles, ladies and all; and bicycling became the smart thing in Society, and the lords and ladies had their pictures in the papers, riding along in the park, in straw boater hats.’

 She also writes about cycling alone down the Backs after dark, coming back from her grandmother’s or uncle’s houses, and the ‘great gulfs of darkness between the faint gas-lamps’, as well as the ‘most unpleasant people’ living in the tumbledown cottages of Mount Pleasant, who knocked her off her bike and pulled her hair. Why she didn’t go via Magdalene Bridge and the city centre I don’t know – maybe the undergraduates were just as boisterous and troublesome?

The Kent connection

I also went recently to visit Charles Darwin’s home, Down House, an easy bike ride from Orpington station in Kent – the village of Down was renamed Downe in the 1840s, but the house remained Down. Charles and Emma moved here in 1842, after four years on Upper Gower Street in London, and lived here for the rest of his life. The image of him living as a bit of a hermit is widespread but wrong – not only was he involved in village life (as a magistrate, among other things) but he also communicated constantly with family and with the wider scientific community, with 14,500 letters surviving to and from him. In 1851 he spent nearly £20 (equivalent to £1000 now) on paper, postage etc, and in 1877 he spent nearly £54.

 I’ve wanted to go there for ages, possibly since 2016 when I might have read about the reopening of the main bedroom, along with a collection of prints by Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. Incidentally, there are also now prints by Gwen Raverat on the upstairs landing, although these did not exist when the family lived here. Anyway, it’s all beautifully cared for (thank you, English Heritage) and there’s a real sense of it as a family home – the garden is particularly full of family memories, with the sites of various natural history experiments, not to mention the cold showers that Darwin took in a bid to settle his ‘weak digestion’. There are good factual displays, but I didn’t learn anything that I hadn’t already read in Darwin and the Barnacle – however, I did come away thinking that there really should be a full-on Darwin Museum, to go into his amazing career in more detail. Maybe on a nearby site at Downe – not in Cambridge, thanks all the same.

 But I can’t really recommend the café, which tries to be National Trust-y but just can’t manage the same quality of staff, in particular. Never mind, there are two good partly Tudor pubs in the village.

Garden cities of Hertfordshire

It’s an odd thing that when I take the train from Cambridge to London’s Kings Cross station I pass through both of the original Garden Cities, at Letchworth and Welwyn, as well as a couple of the later New Towns, at Stevenage and Hatfield (and if I go to Liverpool Street instead of King’s Cross I pass through Harlow New Town). For those who are not familiar with them, garden cities and new towns were twentieth-century responses to the dreadful living conditions in Victorian industrial cities. To be fair, industrialists had tried to improve living conditions from the end of the eighteenth century, in model villages such as New Lanark, Saltaire, Port Sunlight and Bourneville, but it was Ebenezer Howard‘s book To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), revised as Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902),  which caught the public imagination and launched a movement. The aim was to create a community with the benefits of both town (good jobs, educational and cultural opportunities) and country (nature, fresh air and low rents), expressed in Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets (remembered in the name of the Wetherspoons pub in Letchworth…), with Town, Country and Town-Country pulling the People towards them.

 Howard founded a company called First Garden City Limited which raised funds and bought land, and drew up plans with the architects and planners Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker; construction began in 1903 with the first cottages occupied the next year. In 1905 the first school was completed as well as the Mrs Howard Memorial Hall (in memory of Howard’s first wife, who had died in 1904) and the Cheap Cottages Exhibition, aiming to show that houses could be built for £150. This brought a lot of publicity, and around 114 of the original 131 cottages are still occupied (with round green plaques by the front door). These are mostly north of the railway, along Nevells Road, The Quadrant and Wilbury Road (the current station dates from 1912, following earlier halts in 1903 and 1905), but most of the public buildings, shops, schools, cinemas etc are to the south, as well as the Urban Cottage Exhibition Area on Lytton Avenue, which followed in 1907. Also opened in 1907 was the Skittles Inn at the east end of Nevells Road, the famous ‘pub with no beer’ which nevertheless became a popular adult education centre. Many architects were involved in addition to Parker and Unwin, such as CM Crickmer, Baillie Scott (mentioned in my post on West Cambridge), William Clough (whose nephew Sir Clough Williams-Ellis worked as site supervisor here, and went on the build the fantasy village of Portmeirion from 1925) and others, creating an attractive medley of styles, mostly rooted in the Arts and Crafts movement, and there are plenty of gardens and other green spaces, as intended. The shopping centre and public buildings are in a slightly grander, more classical, style.

Parker and Unwin’s offices, Letchworth

 But there was always meant to be industry here as well – the most obvious example is the wonderful Spirella corset factory immediately northwest of the station, now converted to offices. Irving Parachutes (founded in 1925) and the British Tabulating Machine Company (which arrived in 1920, and made the Bombe machines for Alan Turing’s code-breakers at Bletchley Park) both played major rôles in World War Two; the latter eventually became the computer company ICL (taken over by Fujitsu in 1998). The Anglia Match Company was founded (under a different name, no doubt) in Salzburg by Ukrainian-Jewish brothers who moved the business here in 1935 (it closed in 1954).

Urban Cottages, Letchworth

The town is only accidentally car-dominated, unlike the post-World War Two new towns, which were designed that way. Even so, there should be a lot more cycle parking, and the route west to Hitchin needs to improved, which wouldn’t take a great deal of work. The National Cycle Network’s route 12 runs north-south through the town, passing the UK’s first roundabout (c.1909), just south of the centre at the Broadway/Sollershott junction.

 Quakers and Theosophists were prominent among the early residents, and as mentioned above alcohol was frowned upon when the town was founded; however there are now a few decent pubs, and even the Garden City Brewery.

 In terms of museums, Letchworth is a bit rubbish, as North Hertfordshire Council decided to consolidate its offering, closing the Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery in 2012 and eventually opening a pretty good new museum in the former Hitchin Town Hall in 2019. But One Garden City, which now manages Letchworth, decided it did need a museum after all, and in June 2019 opened a one-room micro-museum exploring Letchworth’s social history for school groups. Of course you can walk or cycle around and get a feel for the place. I have the detailed 1977 Letchworth Conservation Area map which describes many of the original buildings – I don’t think it’s available now, but may be able to find a series of Heritage Trail leaflets. Otherwise, there are organised walks such as this.

 One thing that caught my eye in the Hitchin museum was the painting of The Red Curtain (c1916) by Harold Gilman, one of the leaders of the (post-Impressionist) Camden Town Group, who moved to Letchworth in 1908 (living first at 15 Westholm Green, then at 100 Wilbury Road). The Red Curtain was painted in the living room of Stanley Parker, brother of the architect Barry. Spencer Gore visited Gilman and produced fine paintings of Gilman’s House, Wilbury Road and Letchworth Station.

Next stop, Welwyn

The second Garden City, at Welwyn, was founded after World War One – it was much closer to London (on the Great North Road and the Great Northern Railway) and it was accepted that many residents would commute to the big city, but it was also a successful development of Howard’s ideas. Nowadays it seems more City than Garden, in comparison with Letchworth, but it does have splendid green axes, mainly north and south along Parkway. It was laid out by the French-Canadian architect Louis de Soissons (1890–1962), who used grander Queen Anne and neo-Georgian styles in the centre than at Letchworth – but the residential areas are pleasantly green and informal. Instead of cheap cottages, Welwyn had the the Daily Mail Ideal Home Model Village (41 houses on Meadow Green and Handside Lane) opened by Earl Haig in 1922.

 Just to the northwest (in the steep valley crossed by the Digswell viaduct, the major two-track bottleneck on the East Coast Main Line), the original village of Welwyn is now known as Old Welwyn and has preserved much of its charm – I’m always happy to see the plaque noting that Vincent Van Gogh walked here from Ramsgate in 1876 to see his sister Anne, who was teaching French here. It’s near St Mary’s church, a classic thirteenth-century structure that’s listed Grade II.

 The railway (a much wider corridor than at Letchworth) became a barrier, with the new centre to the west and industry and what soon became ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ housing to the east. Immediately east of the station, the Shredded Wheat silos are a familiar landmark – built in 1926 by de Soissons (inspired by Le Corbusier, but also by the grain silos of the Canadian prairies), the factory closed in 2008 and has been a problem ever since. Originally called Welgar (geddit?) and later Nabisco, it’s now been dubbed the Wheat Quarter, but all proposals for its future use have been bogged down in controversy. Plans by Tesco (whose headquarters are nearby) for a mixed-use development have been rejected by the planners; 27 of the silos were demolished in 2017, and there’s now talk of building 1,220 homes with arts and community spaces – but the buildings would be up to ten storeys high, double anything previously allowed here.

It’s a long way across the railway to the Wheat Quarter

One surprising thing about Welwyn is that you can visit some Roman baths here; what’s weirder is that they are right under the A1(M) motorway. A steel vault was installed when the new road was built, and in fact you’re hardly aware of the heavy vehicles thundering overhead. They’re not the best Roman baths I’ve seen, but they’re worth a visit.

Change for Hampstead

In addition to the two garden cities, there’s Hampstead Garden Suburb, which arose in response to fear of development following the opening of Golders Green station (on the London underground’s Northern line) in 1907. Initially there was talk of an extension of Hampstead Heath, but then Unwin left Letchworth to plan a garden suburb, involving architects of the calibre of Edwin Lutyens, then known for his work on country houses but later famous for laying out New Delhi, inspired by Garden City principles. Baillie Scott was also involved here, as (in the 1930s) was Ernst Freud (son of Sigmund). It has grand public buildings and churches, informal residential areas, green spaces, but no industry or pubs, and few shops. The extension created to the east in 1911-12 was soon cut off when Lyttelton Road and Falloden Way were connected to the Barnet Bypass and became part of the A1, near its junction with the North Circular, still a sewer of pollution and noise. I don’t know the area well, but it’s long been known as a good place to live, with intellectual and artistic associations.