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 Joanneumsviertal 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.

 Margate

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.

 Broadstairs

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.

Canterbury

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.

H is for Hawk – and for Hardwick

For the last few years many friends have assumed that I’ve read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, as a classic of modern nature writing, and one that is set largely in Cambridge, where I live – in fact much of the action takes places on a hill just a couple of miles from my house. (And I vaguely know one of the people vaguely alluded to.) I hadn’t got around to it, because I’m a travel writer not a nature writer, but I found a copy on my sister’s bookcase and read it over Christmas. It’s a classic of modern nature writing, indeed, but also a classic of the woman-coming-to-terms-with-her-father’s-death genre. The latter is not of great interest to me, and only partly because I’m not a woman who is going to lose a father. In short, a Cambridge academic loses her father suddenly, gets a goshawk to train, tries to become one with nature and wildness, takes it too far and basically goes off the rails, then gradually becomes resocialised as a human being, until her father’s memorial service provides closure (and she begins taking antidepressants) – problem solved, as she realised that everyone went through the same process. Oh, she also mentions a missing twin, but not that she has since identified as non-binary. Complicated….

 In addition to Cambridge, there are a few other locations in her story that were of interest to me – Walton-on-Thames, where I often visit friends, Carmarthenshire, which I cover for the Rough Guide to Wales, and Uzbekistan, which I have also written about and where she had a formative encounter with a goshawk the year before her father’s death.

 In any case, Cambridge is currently a major but rather unlikely centre for nature writing (unlikely because of its largely flat and uninteresting landscapes, and the pace at which it’s being covered in housing and science parks) – we have the great Robert Macfarlane, Jessica J Lee and Tim Dee, and now Merlin Sheldrake has also appeared with a Cambridge PhD and a book on fungi that was acclaimed by Macfarlane and Macdonald (although he’s not living in Cambridge).

 Macdonald’s pal Olivia Laing is not in the same category (and she recently left Cambridge for nearby Suffolk) – when she wrote that Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard was ‘about the death of a wife’ I’m afraid I lost interest. It’s a wonderfully luminous book, about travel in a very remote (and then closed) region of Nepal, about snow leopards and other wildlife (thanks to his zoologist travelling companion), and about Buddhism (both Zen and Tibetan) – there are digressions about the meaning of death, but I’d totally forgotten the bit about his wife’s death. But then I’m clearly from Mars and women are from Venus, and for me that was definitely background context only.

 As a guidebook writer and a hiking guide, it’s always been important for me to know exactly where I am – and of course travel requires a somewhere to travel to, as well as a somewhere to travel from. As Eliot wrote, ‘the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time’. Painters in particular have long explored the idea of ‘genius loci’ or ‘spirit of place’, but the phrase has recently come to mean something different in academic and cultural circles. In 2016 and 2017 I rather randomly came across a rash of events and exhibitions dedicated to the sense of place – in June 2016 the Balham Literary Festival’s theme was A Way of Being in the World – celebrating landscape, that summer I found an exhibition on sense of place at Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett, and at the end of 2017 I found another, in Victoria BC, called Point of Contact – On Place and the West Coast Imaginary. At a bit of a tangent, 2017 saw the publication of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, which divided us all into ‘somewhere’ and ‘anywhere’ people, partially as a way of explaining why British voters were so passionately for and against Brexit. And 2018 saw the publication of Nicholas Crane’s The Making of the British Landscape (also tangentially relevant but so good) and John Sutherland’s Literary Landscapes; charting the classics of world literature. Then sense of place largely gave way to the new nature writing.

 There is much that is wonderful about the new nature writing, but it does also set itself up for satire – Kathleen Jamie asks, in her best David Attenborough tones, ‘What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge!’. Mentioning no names – but of course women are now fairly well represented too. I’m a white, middle-class member of the Anglo-Irish diaspora living in Cambridge, but I don’t really do rapture, so it’s definitely not me. The greatest strength of the movement is that it stresses that we humans are of nature, and not something separate and free to exploit and destroy. It’s also good at pointing out the extraordinary restorative power of nature in coping both with that destruction and with trauma and loss.

 Anyway, the next on my reading list has to be The Rising Down by Alexandra Harris, which was to be published (by Faber) in 2021 but is clearly running late. It’s about sense of place, local history and changing perceptions of landscape. She looks at a specific area of the South Downs, where she has previously followed Virginia Woolf’s walks from Rodmell – which brings us back to Olivia Laing, who has done the same thing. (Woolf’s walks in London have been done in depth too, by other writers.) However Harris is in Oxford, not Cambridge (fine by me, as I have a foot in both camps).

PS In February 2022, soon after I posted this, Helen Macdonald made a BBC TV programme about training her new goshawk, Lupin, a rather different process with a happy balanced human working with another goshawk-fancier, rather than in isolation – I wish them all well!

The hill – with the radio tower that gets mentioned once or twice

Augsburg

In the autumn of 2020 I was in Goslar, in the northern half of Germany, where the Water Management System of the Rammelsberg mines is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A year later I was in Augsburg, in southern Germany, where another Water Management System is also on the WHL, and it’s even more impressive. The city itself is also attractive and well worth a stopover.

 To begin at the beginning, Augsburg was founded (as Augusta Vindelicorum) by the Romans in 15 BC, making it Germany’s third oldest city, after Neuss and Trier, and became the capital of the province of Raetia (nowadays associated more with southern Switzerland’s Rhaetian Railway). It lay on the Via Claudia Augusta, a major trading route north over the Alps (via the Reschen Pass) to the Danube at Donauwörth (about 30km north of Augsburg). As it happens, in 2021 I also went to Augusta Pretoria (Aosta), Augusta Taurinerum (Torino) and Augustodurum (Bayeux). In late/post-Roman times it was sacked several times by marauding armies but survived as a trading centre and became a Free Imperial City in 1276 – its leading merchants became immensely wealthy as bankers, financing kings and popes as well as their own forestry and mining businesses. The city’s peak came in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it produced large quantities of textiles and metalwork, notably armour, scientific instruments and fine gold- and silverwork; it was also a major centre of the new printing industry.

 As a free city it was able to turn Lutheran, to the displeasure of its bishop, and became a base for Protestant artists such as the Holbein family. Luther was questioned by the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan at the Diet of Augsburg in 1518, and the primary confession of faith of the Lutheran Church was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of 1530, and is thus known as the Augsburg Confession. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg protected the rights of religious minorities in imperial cities, and a mixed Catholic–Protestant city council then presided over a mainly Protestant population. However during the Thirty Years War the city, occupied by the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, was besieged by Catholic troops and in the winter of 1634/5 thousands died from hunger and disease – the city’s population fell from about 70,000 to about 16,000. In 1806 Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and attached Augsburg to the Kingdom of Bavaria, which eventually formed part of modern Germany. During the Second World War factories in Augsburg produced Messerschmidt planes and engines for U-boats, and the city was repeatedly bombed. Since then it was developed as an attractive and sustainable city, winning the Entente Florale award for Europe’s greenest and most liveable city in 1997.

Three water towers

 And so to the Water Management System – the Augsburg Western Woods (now a 1,175 square kilometre Nature Park) and the River Lech to the east of the city both provide a plentiful supply of fresh water, but the clever thing was that from 1545 (long before there was any real understanding of waterborne diseases) drinking water and process (ie industrial and sewage) water were separated in a complex system of channels that cross over each other in places. These fed the three complexes of water towers (the first dating from 1416), over a hundred fountains, and various power stations that originally drove cotton mills but now produce electricity. Most of these have been well preserved and can be visited from time to time – there isn’t one museum to give an overview, but the website gives an overview of what can be seen. In the city centre, the Augustus, Mercury and Hercules Fountains (1594-1602) still proudly gush forth (although the supply was switched from springs to groundwater from 1879), and there are over 500 bridges in all over the canals that wind through the city. (Not to mention the Eiskanal, some distance south of the centre, which was dug in 1647 to divert ice from the waterworks and was transformed into the world’s first artificial whitewater kayak course for the 1972 Munich Olympics – I have a friend who spent at least one summer camped out there.) And don’t miss the Stadtmetzg (City Butchers), built over a canal that cooled the building and also carried away waste – it was built in 1609 by Elias Holl, the city architect who was responsible for many late Renaissance masterpieces across the city, including the City Hall and the nearby Perlachturm, the Zeughaus (Arsenal) and the Heilig-Geist-Spital.

 You should pop in to Elias Holl’s immense City Hall (and pay at a Ticketautomat) to see the Golden Hall, a huge space (32.5 metres by 17.5 metres and 14 metres high) that is covered with breathtakingly ornate decoration (lots of gold). Created from 1615, it was rebuilt by 1955 and refurbished between 1985 (the city’s 2,000th anniversary) and 1996.

City Hall and the Perlachturm

 Augsburg’s other key sight is the Fuggerei, the world’s first social or charitable housing – it was founded in 1513 (with the first residents moving in from 1519) by Jakob Fugger the Rich, the city’s leading businessman and banker, whose original idea was to give people who fell on hard times but were still able to work the chance to live in dignity and be part of society – the rent was always low, just one Rhenish guilder (now equivalent to just €0.88) plus the obligation to say three (Catholic) prayers daily for the souls of the Fuggers. By 1523 the enclosed enclave consisted of 52 two-storey houses, with a church added in 1582; the Fuggerei was extensively damaged in two air raids in 1944, then rebuilt and extended by a third – by 1973 there were 67 houses with 140 living units (each has its own private door from outside, and its own chimney). In recent years the age profile of residents has changed from about 80% retired people to about two-thirds, with more able to work, as originally intended; there’s also an increasing number of single women, reflecting social changes and the rise in divorces. 

The Fuggerei

 Carved sections of stonework from bombed patrician houses elsewhere in the city were incorporated in the rebuilt Seniority Committee Building, near the entrance to the Fuggerei, the seat of the rather patriarchal management, which is still chaired by Gräfin Thun-Fugger and draws its income from the forests owned by the family since medieval times.

 It’s well worth visiting (info here), with a museum at Mittlere Gasse 14 (where Franz Mozart, great-grandfather of the composer, lived), as well as a typical apartment at Ochsengasse 51 and in an air-raid bunker. You can also refuel at the Fuggerei-Stube, next to the entrance, and from June to October also outdoors in the Markusplätzle.

 The cityscape is delightful, with wide streets and the above-mentioned fountains, canals and water-towers, fine merchants’ houses and many churches – the cathedral is, surprisingly, a little way to the north of the centre and easy to miss (the bombers largely missed it too, happily), but it’s worth a look. Founded in the ninth century, it’s a largely Romanesque structure (1043-65, with two towers added in 1075), with Gothic additions between 1331 and 1431, including the east end and the southern and northern portals. There are lots of altarpieces and, in the cloister, many good memorials; in the southern nave clerestory are five windows with the oldest stained glass in Germany (late eleventh/early twelfth century). Four panels of the life of Mary, on pillars in the nave, were painted by Hans Holbein the Elder in 1493, and there’s a huge fresco of St Christopher in the southern transept, painted in 1491.

 At the southern edge of the centre, the combined churches of St Ulrich and St Afra are an oddity – the Roman Catholic basilica of St Ulrich and St Afra is a wonderful Gothic church with three huge Renaissance altars and the Flamboyant Simpertkapelle (with the tomb of St Simpert, bishop of Augsburg, who rebuilt the basilica and died in 807). On its north side, the basilica’s former entrance hall became the Lutheran church of St Ulrich in 1526; closed from 1629 to 1648, it was rebuilt from 1680, finishing in 1710 with a white stucco ceiling and a gallery – it’s a delightful and unusual space. It’s pretty spacious because it was built to hold pilgrims to the tomb of St Afra, martyred in 304.

St Ulrich and (rear) St Ulrich and St Afra

Museums

Founded in 1966, the Roman Museum was housed in the former Dominican church (an unusual twin-naved building, dating from 1513-1515), but structural problems (with the floor, not the roof) led to it being closed in a hurry in December 2012. There’s been a temporary display in the Zeughaus (Arsenal, built by Elias Holl in 1602-7) since 2015, with no indication whether the church will ever be restored or a new museum built. The displays of Roman stonework are absolutely fine as they are and very impressive, and there’s a fine courtyard café-bar too.

 The Maximilian Museum displays decorative arts, above all gold- and silverware from the city’s golden age – it’s housed in two sixteenth-century mansions, with a glass roof built in 2000 over the courtyard between them. The city’s fine art museum is in the Schaezler Palace (1765-70), with some beautifully restored Rococco rooms (and a recreated Rococco garden). The first half, the Deutsche Barokgalerie (German Baroque Art Gallery), displays work by Augsburg artists Anton Mozart, Johann Heinrich Schönfeld and Joseph Christ, the better-known Swiss artists Anton Graf, Angelika Kaufmann and Heinrich Fuseli, and others. The former chapel of St Catharine’s monastery houses the more interesting collection of Old German Art, notably works by Thomas and Hans Burgkmair, Holbein the Elder, Cranach the Elder, Christoph Amberger, and a locally iconic portrait of Jakob Fugger the Rich by Dürer, who had been summoned to Augsburg by the Emperor Maximilian I during the Diet of 1518.

 North of the centre, near the cathedral, the Fugger-Welser Museum is in the Wiesel Haus, built c.1530 and named after the optician Johann Wiesel, the first to make spectacles tailored to the user’s eyesight, who lived here in 1637-42. It has excellent displays on local history, starting (fittingly) in the basement with the mining industry (mainly in Tyrol, Carinthia and what is now Slovakia) that made the Fugger and Welser families so wealthy. The Fuggers traded with Africa, India and the New World, and also funded the Habsburgs, as well as four popes and the kings of Hungary, England, Portugal and Denmark. The Welsers traded with India and South America, and actually ran the colony of Venezuela from 1528 to 1556 (using slaves, of course) and funded both Charles V and François I in their war against each other, only to go bankrupt in 1614. Incidentally, Luther was opposed to the monopoly power of the Augsburg bankers, but had no problem with slavery or child labour at the time.

 Out on a limb contextually, but not geographically, the Brechthaus is the childhood home of Bertolt Brecht; it opened as a museum in 1998 to mark the centenary of his birth. Young Bert had a lively upbringing in Augsburg before moving to München in 1917 (studying medicine to escape the military draft) and then to Berlin, where of course he found fame as a radical playwright. The museum is informative, but only in German – there’s an English tour on the museum’s website but the wi-fi was too weak for me to access it there.

 

Groningen

After cycling to (and around) Amsterdam, I put the bike on a train (three, in fact) to Groningen, to make a flying visit to this relatively remote part of the Netherlands that I’d not seen before. It’s flat (of course) and agricultural, and quieter than the Randstad, the area between Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and the North Sea that is the economic powerhouse of the Netherlands. Groningen is the country’s largest city north of Amsterdam, and a major educational centre (perhaps a quarter of the populace are students), so there’s plenty to do in the evenings.

 

 

 

 I was drawn particularly by the Groningen Museum, a post-modern riot opened in 1994 which covers both art and a bit of local history. There’s a small but excellent display of 25 archeological and historical objects which (in the style of Neil MacGregor) illustrate the area’s entire history from 10,000 BC (when reindeer hunters wandered across much of what is now the North Sea) via a brief Roman incursion, to medieval Christianity (when there were at least thirty monasteries here), conversion to Calvinism and then a brutal assault by the Bishop of Münster in 1672. There was also a larger display (temporary, I think) covering the city’s liberation in April 1945, by units with strange names such as the Fort Garry Horse – the Canadians stuck to the left flank of the allied armies after D-Day, pushing up the coast, which explains why so many Dutch girls migrated to Canada immediately after the war, and not to Britain or the USA. The regular Wehrmacht troops defending Groningen soon gave up but the SS did not and there was heavy fighting for four days before the city was liberated; unfortunately the civilian population insisted on coming out to meet their liberators (often bearing coffee and snacks) and many were caught in crossfire, no fewer than 110 being killed (and just 43 Canadians).

 On the art side, they’ve always been keen to be controversial, as in a 1996 poster of a woman peeing into a man’s mouth. It’s not immediately obvious, but in the West Pavilion there’s a fine little collection of Old Master paintings from Northern Europe, with lots of portraits of worthies (one by Cranach the Elder), a tiny Adoration of the Magi by Rubens and his sketch for a painting for Antwerp Town Hall (now in the Prado in Madrid), and a Man in a Helmet by the Circle of Rembrandt. There’s also lots of silver, and works by HW Mesdag and Jozef Israëls, who were both born in Groningen but moved south to become members of the Den Haag School of realist painters.

 In the twentieth century Groningen was known for a group of painters known as De Ploeg, meaning both The Plough and The Team. Founded in 1918, they were influenced by Van Gogh and then by Expressionism – Jan Wiegers travelled to Davos in 1920 and met Kirchner, and he, Alida Pott, her husband George Martens, Jan Altink, Johann Dijkstra and Hendrik Werkmann (who was active in the resistance and was shot by the Nazis just three days before Groningen was liberated) all produced excellent work. Another pavilion, displaying Applied Arts, was designed by Philippe Starck, with lots of gauze curtains; there’s an eclectic range of beautiful domestic items, for those that care about such things.

 The Groninger Museum has an outpost called Wall House #2 that I would have liked to visit, but it’s only open at weekends. It’s a very striking modernist house that was designed in the 1970s by New York architect John Quentin Hejduk, who had designed the original Wall House for a site in Connecticut, although it was never built. However Groningen’s city planners had the very clever idea of building it here, and it was completed in 2001, the year of Hajduk’s death. Another museum worth a look is the Northern Maritime Museum, in two fifteenth-century buildings in the city centre.

The Northern Maritime Museum, Groningen

 The north side of the Grote Markt (the main square) and some of the east side were destroyed in the fighting of 1945 and have largely been rebuilt, but with some very striking modern intrusions, notably The Forum Groningen just to the east of the square. It’s a cultural centre consisting of a library, an arthouse cinema, an outpost of the Groninger Museum, a tourist information office (called the Groninger Store), and bars and a rooftop terrace – it opened in 2019, after a two-year delay due to a risk of earthquakes after decades of natural gas extraction in the region. At the north-eastern corner of the square is the Martinitoren (St Martin’s Tower – nothing to do with James Bond’s favourite drink), a massive belfry, built in 1469-82, that dwarves the attached St Martin’s church. It’s possible to go up the 97-metres-high tower for views of the city – book at the Groningen Store.

The Forum Groningen and the Martinitoren

 Diagonally opposite it is the Stadhuis (City Hall, 1775-1810), the Neoclassical façade of which was hidden behind a screen with the image of that same façade on it – clearly some refurbishment work is going on behind. Then I saw the Korenbeurs (Grain Exchange), just to the west on the Aakerkhof, another Neoclassical building hidden by a screen bearing an image of… you guessed it. More refurbishment going on. The adjacent Aakerk (now used for concerts and events) is interesting because Groningen’s river is called the A, but the riverside quarter’s church is the Aakerk, for some odd linguistic reason.

 

 There’s more redevelopment going on out in the western suburbs, where the Suikerfabriek (Sugar Factory) site has been taken over by a range of alternative and youth-oriented cultural organisations, including lively bars and restaurants in and outside the former industrial buildings, and others such as the Rebel Rebel Hostel in stacked shipping containers. There was also a Ferris Wheel when I was there, but I don’t know if it’s permanent. Modern buildings are going up at the east end of Suikerlaan (by the ring road), and I imagine there’s pressure to develop the whole site. For the time being, see here (Dutch only) to know what’s going on; and if there’s nothing at the sugar factory, try the pudding factory or the machine factory, nearer the city centre. The liveliest student bars are on the Grote Markt, Poelestraat, the Vismarkt and Peperstraat – look out for beer from Baxbier Brewery (English info here and here) or De Prael.

 The best restaurants are by the canal just east of the centre, such as De Smederi, Eetcafé ‘t Zwarte Schaap and 2 Jongens uit Groningen eetcafé – when I was there they were all short-staffed but full (be sure to book) and none were great for vegetarians. Just west of the centre, Pizza Napoli is big and full of students, known for its well-loaded pizzas, and of course fine for vegetarians.

Getting around Groningen in a green way

Around 60% of all journeys in Groningen are done by bike and 57% of residents cycle to work – this is one of the highest levels in the world, but to be honest Groningen felt to me much like any other Dutch city in this respect. There’s plenty of good cycle infrastructure, but the key has been modal filtering, or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which have become a bit of a dirty word (ok, phrase) in the UK thanks to the machinations of the right-wing fossil fuel lobby. In fact people can get anywhere by car (and car ownership is pretty high in the Netherlands), but not necessarily by the most direct route, whereas of course cyclists and pedestrians can go directly to their destinations, and the filtered streets are peaceful and people-friendly.

 At least half the buses in and around Groningen are electric (you may see them charging their batteries via roof-mounted pantographs at some terminals) and hydrogen-powered buses are also being introduced – by 2030 the province’s bus fleet should be 100% carbon dioxide-free. Meanwhile in April 2021 Arriva started introducing a fleet of WINK (Wandelbarer Innovativer Nahverkehrs-Kurzzug or Convertible innovative short train for local transport) trains on the unelectrified rail network around Groningen – these are fuelled by vegetable oil that has been used for cooking, while in 2024 hydrogen-powered trains will also enter service on the line from Leer in Germany. When I left Groningen for Bremen, I took this route, but had to transfer to a bus to cross the border from Weener to Leer (fortunately I had a folding bike) – this was because the Friesen bridge, across the Ems river, was destroyed by a ship in 2015. Only in mid-2021 was a final agreement reached to replace it by 2024, at a cost of €125 million, about  double the initial estimates – the opening will be wider than before, and there’ll also be a pedestrian and cycle track.

[I’ll add more photos when WordPress decides to play nicely – for some reason I can only add small blurry photos at the moment.]