Buckfast Abbey, Dartmoor and the Pilgrim Steps

A visit to Buckfast Abbey, the wilds of Dartmoor and the Mayflower Pilgrims Steps at Plymouth.

We left Exmouth soon after 10am and headed towards Dartmoor.  When we planned this trip we would travel along the south coast stopping wherever we fancied in seaside towns.  Realising that we had seen enough fishing harbours and sandy beaches for the week, pretty as they were, we craved a change of scenery.  And you don’t get much different than a windswept desolate moor. 

We were passing Buckfast Abbey so stopped for a quick look round.  I was vaguely aware they made tonic wine and things with honey,  but didn’t know much else.

The abbey forms part of an active Benedictine monastery.  They started the current abbey building in 1906 but only finished it in 2013. You need to sell a lot of jars of honey and tonic wine to pay for an abbey.

Having seen a lot of different cathedrals and abbeys over the years I am used to seeing stone steps and floors worn down by thousands of feet over centuries.  It was nice to see something that new. The stonework was immaculate. The carvings looked like they were completed yesterday. They were, in cathedral age terms.

There was a small exhibition, nicely done, about the lives of the monks living at the abbey.  I got the, probably accurate, impression that it was mostly praying and keeping silent. Since we had no desire to pray and Madam does not have the ability to be silent, we returned to the car and set the SatNav for the Dartmoor Visitor Centre.

We climbed winding steep lanes heading inland. The lanes got narrower.  One car wide with only occasional passing places. Ferns where whipping against the sides of the car.  I tightened my seatbelt. My ears straining, listening for the sound of any car coming the other way. My eyes bulging as I tried to peer around corners. Perspiration glistened on my brow.   I gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter, my knuckles white.

“Let go of the steering wheel Honey,” said Madam, “I can manage the driving on my own.”

We climbed higher still.

Finally the road opened up and it presented us with the most amazing views of the moor.  Gorse dotted the hillsides with bright yellow flowers. Dry stone walls enclosed neat fields.  A few intrepid walkers were silhouetted on top of one peak. Cattle and sheep were wandering unhindered in the road and along the verges.

We parked in a small car park near the top of a hill and stood and gazed out over the moor. Serious looking hikers with Gore Tex coats, backpacks and poles were heading in all directions.  Rocky outcrops were dotted on the hillsides. Craggy granite peaks topped the hills. The hills were green and every shade of gold and brown. It was wild, desolate and jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Madam walked for a while up a steep incline following the hikers while I sat and kept the car company. I was concerned it might be frightened out there all alone.  

The visitor centre  had an exhibition based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘Hound of the Baskervilles.’  The visitor centre was formerly the Old Dutchy Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed and was inspired to write his novel.  Many of the locations featured in his book are nearby: Great Grimpen Mire, where the hound was kept; the tomb of Squire Cabell, reputedly the inspiration for Hugo Baskerville; and Hexworthy, the village of Grimpen in the novel.

Dartmoor is the largest area of upland and open space in southern Britain with peaks rising to 2,000 feet. Mostly granite (or more specifically adamellite for any geologists reading) covered by a  layer of peat.  Far more interesting is that the area is home to the world’s largest slug, the ash black slug, which grows up to eight inches long.  You can only find it in dense woodlands in remote valleys, otherwise I would have insisted we go search for one to take home as a pet. Much easier to care for than a Norwegian Blue.

Many places we visited on this trip left only vague and hazy memories. Others were just “Bleh,” no need to ever come again.  Some, like Dartmoor, left a lasting impression and vivid memories. Definitely a place to re-visit and spend more time. But time was pressing and we had a hotel booking for tonight so we headed to Plymouth as Madam was keen to see the Mayflower Steps.

We had booked into a budget hotel in Plymouth which turned out to be in a grim semi-industrial area.  A tyre and exhaust centre was opposite with a car crushing plant next door. The map showed a long walk via busy roads and roundabouts to the city centre but I noticed on the satellite view of Google Maps there was a cobbled path hugging the side of the docks. After some exploratory wandering in backyards and car parks, vaulting walls and studiously ignoring ‘Private’ signs, we found the path and reached the old harbour and Pilgrim Mayflower Steps away from the busy roads.  

Madam rushed to the steps which may, or may not, be the departure point of the Mayflower to America.  

“Take my picture… take my picture … take my picture,” she shouted as she pushed a couple of Japanese tourists aside.  

The steps are commemorated with a stone arch with a Union Flag and USA flag flying either side.  There is a small museum above the tourist information office which gave a brief history of the Mayflower and her passengers.  

The Mayflower was an English ship that transported the first English Puritans, now known as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to America in 1620. There were 102 passengers, with a crew of about 30.  

Some cargo choices were odd.  You would think that a ship bound for a colony would focus on seeds, farming and hunting equipment.  A few sacks of dried foods.  A return ticket in a back pocket.

One passenger, William Mullins brought 126 pairs of shoes, 13 pairs of boots, hose, stockings, haberdashery and stuff breeches amongst other items.

It must have been a miserable experience.  The cabins were cramped – the total area was only 25 ft by 15 ft.  Each person had a space less than the size of a modern single bed. The headroom below decks was less that 5 ft.  The cargo included pigs, goats, and poultry. Some passengers brought family pets such as dogs, cats and birds.  They were at sea for 65 days, much of it in rough weather, so add in seasickness for extra fun.

After arrival in America the harsh winter climate and lack of fresh food caused more problems.  Several of the colonists developed scurvy and the cramped conditions led to other contagious diseases.  Between the landing and the following March only 47 colonists and half the crew had survived. 

Not the best start for a new country.

We wandered around the harbour for a while, had dinner and helped fish the Japanese tourists out of the harbour, then headed back to the hotel for an early night.

Charmouth to Exmouth and Jurassic Coast Fossil Hunting

Charmouth to Exmouth on our West Country road trip.  Hunting for fossils along the Jurassic Coast and a trip to Lyme Regis.

We headed to the Charmouth Heritage Centre and had a polite look round at the locally found fossils on display.  The centre was set up in 1985 to encourage safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils from the local beaches.  They run guided fossil hunting walks on every day except Tuesday.  It was Tuesday.

They had an impressive display of fossils, both in terms of size and quantity.  So numerous were the 195 million-year-old belemnites that they were just piled in an apparently haphazard manner in a recreation of the sandy shoreline.

The fossil collecting part of the Jurassic Coast stretches from Charmouth to Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, a distance of about 96 miles.  It spans 185 million years of geological history covering the Triassic and Cretaceous periods as well as the Jurassic. At different times, this area has been desert, shallow tropical sea and marsh.  

The many sedimentary layers on this coastline are rich with fossils which can be found in abundance as sections of the cliff crumble and landslides occur. Fossil groups found here include crustaceans, insects, molluscs, echinoderms, fish, amphibians, reptiles and even a few mammals. 

How hard could it be to find fossils, even without a guide?  Just pop down to the beach and pick up a few handfuls. A walk in the park.  Well, a walk on the beach I guess.

A stiff breeze blew from the sea and waves were crashing on the beach.  Small groups of people were spread out along the shoreline looking down at the ground. Some down by the water following the receding tide and some up by the crumbling cliffs.

I had forgotten to bring the hammer from my toolbox and was too cheap to buy a proper geologists hammer for £20, so we walked along the beach, occasionally smashing two rocks together looking for fossils.  I walked a long way down by the water in the hope of finding a washed up belemnite or two.  I randomly kicked at pebbles and scraped my shoes through the wet sand.  All I got was a wet foot.

I tried searching up closer to the cliff but discovered that the cliffs are mostly made up of layer upon layer of soft mud, silt and clay.  Wet this with a drop of seawater and it makes an astonishingly sticky mud that adheres to shoes in an enthusiastic and expansive manner.

After much walking up and down the beach, we realised we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so we returned to the car and I spent the next ten minutes scraping the mud from my shoes.  

After a brief visit to the facilities, I decided one last time to go fossil hunting while Madam waited in the car.  I popped into the gift shop and bought a (very small) 120 million-year-old ammonite for 50p, which I presented to Madam with a flourish.  

Lyme Regis is smaller than I expected.  Unless I missed something it consists of one steep hill with the usual chain stores plus a few gift shops and a single fossil shop. 

It is more famous than its size indicates.  The harbour wall (The Cobb) features in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Persuasion’, and in John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. The 1981 film of the latter was partly shot in Lyme Regis.

The town is situated at the heart of the Jurassic Coast. It was in the cliffs nearby that an  Ichthyosaur was discovered by self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning in 1918.  She later found a complete Plesiosaur and the fossilised remains of many other creatures.  Anning became known around the world for the important finds she made in the fossil beds in the cliffs along the coast. Her discoveries contributed to important changes in knowledge of prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society and she never received full credit for her scientific contributions. The gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found often neglected to mention her name. 

To be fair on the Geological Society, when Anning was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1846, the society raised money from its members to help with her expenses.  Did anybody say too little too late?

I popped into the fossil shop at the bottom of the hill to fondle a few more fossils while Madam looked in an outdoor shop at Nordic poles.  I keep telling her I will never agree to go skiing or hiking over glaciers but will she listen?

We strolled down to the seafront.  Along the front was a combination of small cottages, mostly holiday lets, amusement arcades and tourist restaurants.  A stone harbour arm at the end of the bay provided a sheltered anchorage.  The tide was out and bilge-keeled sailboats were resting on the mud.  Two paddle boarders were trying to get through the shallow surf into deeper water.  A narrow street ran behind the harbour with gift shops and fish restaurants.  The promenade was crowded with visitors walking in the sunshine.

I saw two older men independently wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts of impressive vintage.  Early 1970s tour shirts if I’m not mistaken.  Like the mythical elephant’s graveyard where you will find a treasure-trove of ivory, I think I have discovered where old rockers go to die.  Somewhere in Lyme Regis there is an enormous pile of valuable Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster guitars just waiting to be found. 

Since we were far too young to hang out with old rockers, even if they were Led Zeppelin fans, we climbed up the steep hill to the car and set the SatNav for Exmouth.

Exmouth had more than its fair share of charity shops, bargain everything a pound or less, tanning salons and betting shops. The Conservative Club, squashed between ‘Bargains Galore’ and a gift shop selling buckets and spades and children’s fishing nets, was looking tatty with weeds growing from the roof.  

To be fair on poor Exmouth, it also had some pleasant pedestrian areas and leafy squares with more upmarket restaurants.  It had a compact well-managed park with thriving flower beds and hanging baskets. We walked around the park admiring the flowers and eventually found a wooden bench.  We sat and watched a balding man in his 40s feeding squirrels from a Fortnum and Mason bag.  

I looked at Madam and she looked at me.  “I think he still lives with his parents,” said Madam.

“I was thinking exactly the same thing,” I said.

While we watched the squirrels a young odd looking couple walked by.  Possibly the product of multiple generations of distinctly unbiblical sex.  They proudly showed us a large bag of nuts they used for feeding squirrels. They told us in great detail where we could purchase our own bag, how much they cost, and what fun it was.  

Some towns have cinemas.  Some have bowling alleys.  Most have pubs and clubs.  Exmouth has nuts.

A tea room nearby was selling Devon cream teas. Not just cream teas, but Devon cream teas.  

A cream tea, for those of you disadvantaged by geography, consists of a pot of tea together with scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. Traditionally a speciality of Devon and Cornwall, cream teas are now offered in most parts of England.  If you like to live on the wild side you can have a scone baked with currants or sultanas.  

There is a rivalry between Cornwall and Devon as to their cream teas.  The Devonshire method is to split the scone in two, cover each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam on top. With the Cornish method, the scone is first split in two, then spread with strawberry jam, and finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.  

“We need to try a cream tea in both counties,” said Madam, “we can see how they differ.”

Being partial to a scone or two I quite liked the idea and licked my lips in anticipation.

A little later that day she told me she didn’t really like cream teas so I wasn’t going to get one.  

Weymouth

A visit to Weymouth, England, via Lulworth.  Memories of a Weymouth B&B, checking the pier and Weymouth beach.

We headed from Durdle Door towards Weymouth through the village of Lulworth which has more pretty thatched cottages on one street than you would have thought possible.  I wanted to stop and take pictures but the roads were narrow and covered with no parking signs and double yellow lines.

Weymouth was on an attractive sweeping bay ringed by elegant townhouses, most of them now converted into hotels and guest houses. It is a pleasant old-fashioned seaside resort.  The sort of place my grandparents would have visited on holiday.  Down on the train for a week in a B&B.  Fish and chips for lunch.  Sit on the beach and eat ice cream.  Rent a deckchair as an extravagance.   My grandad would roll up his trouser legs and put a knotted handkerchief on his head to keep off the sun.  They would have gone home happy and talked about it for months.

Nowadays, people go to Majorca or Magaluf and feel hard done by if they can’t stream Netflix on the beach and aren’t blind drunk by tea time.  I had better stop there as I can feel a moan coming on and Madam will tell me off. 

Weymouth has one claim to fame that you’ll not find in many tourist brochures.  In 1348 the Black Death entered England in the port of Weymouth, then known as Melcombe Regis.  The plague had been spreading from the far east and crept across Europe, reaching France in 1347.  

According to a contemporary account: 

‘…two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of a terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first to be infected.’ 

The victims would only develop symptoms six days after infection so would often travel some distance unwittingly carrying their infection to new areas.

In case you need to know the symptoms for a future outbreak they include black necrotic pustules on your skin, fever, delirium and an unbearable headache.  If that isn’t bad enough your lymph nodes will swell to the size of an orange.  That would make putting on a sweater a real bitch. You have only a 70% chance of dying so it’s not all bad. 

The Black Death would go on to kill somewhere between 30% and 40% of Britain’s population.  The worst of the effects were over by 1351 but occasional resurgences would appear right up to the end of the 17th century, notably in 1665.

I would change my name as well if I was responsible for a plague entering the country.

We checked into our hotel, Somerset House, which was above a pub and in a bit of a rough area.  It was opposite the railway station, just across from “My Amazing Fantasy – Licensed Adult Shop” and just down the road from an off-licence whose main selling point seemed to be the alcoholic content of their beer.

Despite some misgivings about the area, the room was lovely.  The best we had stayed in for some time.  The bathroom was the largest and most elegant I’ve seen in any hotel.  It had a massive two-person shower, a bathtub with a TV built into the wall and many strangely coloured unguents lining the shelves.  Bathrobes and slippers were hanging on the back of the door.  Madam declared she wanted to move in and stay there, or at least take the bathroom home.

We walked down to the seafront, around the sweep of the bay, and along to a building at the end of the promenade optimistically described as the pier bandstand.  There was an attractive Art Deco building but no sign of either a pier or bandstand.  

There had been a bandstand on the site, built in 1939 and extending 200 feet out to sea, but it was demolished in 1986 to save a £300,000 repair bill.  A competition was held to determine who would press the button to start the destruction.  They gave two schoolgirls from Birmingham that dubious honour.  The demolition left only the land building which was eventually refurbished and taken over by a Chinese restaurant in 2002.

The 1980s have a lot to answer for.

We sat on a bench, overlooking the sandy beach and watching the sea and the seafront strollers.  The vibrantly coloured and decorated clock tower was to our right. A man walked past with an owl on his arm.  Two heavily tattooed shaven-headed men with a staffie walked past and glared at anybody who looked their way.  Older couples walked slowly past, leaning on sticks, watching the sea.

A cruise ship sailed gracefully out of the harbour from around the corner in Portland.  We found out later that this was a Disney ship catering mostly to Americans that started in Barcelona and sailed around Spain and Portugal to Dover.  They stopped in Portland for a day-trip to Stonehenge. An inside cabin a snip at only £4,592.

Just off the seafront was a large double-fronted fossil shop.  I was entranced. I picked up a heavy  68 million-year-old dinosaur bone.  Fondled ammonites by the score.  Examined echinoderms.  Thought about buying a dapedium or maybe a pholidophorus.  I’ve seen a lot of fossils over the years but they were all behind glass cases in museums.  Here, I get to hold them and all for free.  I would have been happy to stay for hours touching every item in the shop but Madam was bored after a minute and we needed to check the gift shops for tea towels. 

 We meandered slowly down the main shopping street.  It was pleasant enough and pedestrian friendly but with lots of cash converter style, betting and pound shops.  A sign outside one shop offered a Mr Whippy soft ice cream with a flake for £1.  Madam was asked a couple of times if she was from the cruise ship.  It would be a sad state of affairs if the cruise passengers had shelled out all that money and Weymouth was all they saw of England. 

Like a lot of seaside towns, Weymouth has suffered a reversal of fortunes as people holiday abroad.  There were still pockets of the town doing well with businesses obviously thriving but also areas of deprivation that gave it a seedy air.  Still, where else can you park your car and get an ice cream with a flake for a pound anywhere else along the south coast.

Madam looked online and picked the top two restaurants from Trip Advisor and we walked down to look at their menus.  She looked through the windows at the tablecloths and elaborately laid tables and said “They are a bit posh.  I don’t think we are dressed properly for these places.”

I rolled down my trouser legs, took the handkerchief off my head and presented myself for inspection.  Madam just rolled her eyes and said “You don’t have a jacket.”  

Instead, we went to a cafe bar around the corner and had a nice tapas selection for under a tenner a head.  Not having a jacket with me saved me £50.  Something to remember for future trips.

I woke up to loud chanting outside the hotel room at 3:30 am.

This wasn’t the calming chant of monks at morning matins or Buddhists preparing for meditation but the tuneless incoherent noise that comes from the strange physiological reaction you get when you mix a small brain with strong lager. 

“I don’t think I would want to live in Weymouth,” I thought as I lay awake listening and watching stray beams from the street lamp dancing on the ceiling.

In the morning we got to shower together in the hotel’s fabulous bathroom and I checked Madam carefully for any signs of necrotic pustules or enlarged lymph nodes.  There were none so, after only a brief delay, and a lovely breakfast at the hotel we were on our way to Charmouth to look for fossils.

Bournemouth to Durdle Door

First stops at the Durdle Door, Dorset, the beach and Bournemouth on our road trip to the south-west.

Due to Madam’s impressive driving skills we arrived in Bournemouth two hours before we could check into the hotel so we found a multi-story car park close to the pier where I parted with £4.50 for two hours parking.  We left the car park via the enclosed and gloomy stairs which seemed to serve as the local latrine.  The pungent smell made my eyes water.  This happens when you charge people 50p to use the toilet, never mind £2.25 an hour to park.  They use whatever doorway or stairwell is available.  I was tempted to have a discrete wee in a corner myself to get my money‘s worth but Madam was in a hurry to get lunch.

We had lunch on the upstairs balcony at the Hot Rocks restaurant overlooking the pier and beach.  A Dotto land train ran along the seafront below us.  A Ferris wheel opposite the pier turned slowly. The beach, packed with families was soft sand from the promenade down to the sea.  Couples strolled along the promenade.  

Madam said “The people are younger here.  Younger than in Bexhill.”

There is a belief that people move to Bexhill and wait to die.  It isn’t true.  They move to Eastbourne.  Bexhill is where their parents live.

We checked into the hotel, high on the East Cliff and walked down to the beach.  The tide was partly out.  Madam took off her shoes and walked along the waterline. As soon as her feet touched the wet sand she jumped up and down with joy and said “I’m on holiday!”  

It’s true.  We were.

She walked alongside the water towards the pier and picked up a weird looking seashell which we later identified as a slipper snail.  It looked like a claw or hand with six fingers.  I’ve lived by the sea for many years and seen nothing like it.  She put it in her bag to add to her souvenir collection.  She walked on past the pier and I suspect she would have carried on until the next town had I not promised her a ride on the Dotto land train that ran along the seafront towards Boscombe.  I’d wanted to visit Boscombe because it had a pier.  I have a weakness for piers that Madam will never understand.  

“What’s the point?” She said.  “You are just walking out over the water.”

“That’s exactly the point.” I replied.

“Boring,”  was all she could say.

We got to the Dotto stop only to find that the last departure was at 15:10.  On a Sunday.  During the summer.  A major tourist attraction stops running at ten past three on a Sunday.  Sometimes you wonder who organises these things. 

We went into the tourist information office to see about a trip on the open-top bus but found that stopped at 5pm. 

Bournemouth is divided neatly into two by a succession of fine parks running from north to south. They were created in the mid 1800’s and remarkably have survived to this day.  They were originally known as the Lower Pleasure Gardens, The Central Pleasure Gardens, and Upper Pleasure Gardens.   The former name proved too much for the genteel folk of Bournemouth.  The combination of both ‘pleasure’ and ‘lower’ in close vicinity to each other was just too much for ladies of a delicate disposition and they are now known simply as the Lower, Central and Upper Gardens.

We walked up through the Lower Pleasure Gardens.  Sorry, forget I said that.  We walked up through the Lower Gardens.  Whoever is in charge of the gardening does a wonderful job.  The flower beds were a blaze of colour even at the tail end of summer when you expect things to have died down ready for autumn. Large groups of foreign students and young couples had spread themselves over the grass enjoying the late afternoon sun.  We sat for a while admiring the flowers and watching people strolling through the gardens.  The Lower and Central Gardens are separated by an attractive pedestrian square with a restaurant and outdoor seating. We wandered through the square and up into the Central Gardens where they had the largest war memorial I had ever seen.  

The memorial was built in 1921 to remember the dead of World War I. It features two lions, one asleep and one awake, based on Canova’s tomb of Pope Clement XIII in St Peter’s. This enormous stone and marble memorial is now Grade II listed and was later extended to commemorate the dead of both world wars.

The upper gardens seem to be mostly sports fields so we stopped our journey and, it being a respectable time to start drinking, returned down to the square to find a suitable hostelry.  With a combination of random searching and Madam peering into her phone looking at TripAdvisor we found The Moon on the Square which turned out to be a Wetherspoons. 

There’s a tradition in all Wetherspoons that there has to be a large group of men drinking lager hovering near the bar and having a (mostly) good natured shouting match.  It is invariably regarding which footballer has the most knobbly knees.  I think that’s right.  Something to do with football anyway.  It requires them to wave their arms exuberantly and spill copious amount of beer on the carpet.  This pub was no exception.

Still, where else can you get somewhere to sit down, books to read, free WiFi and two drinks for less than a fiver?  

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay for the Evening Standard newspaper describing his perfect pub.  He called his pub The Moon Under Water.  It should have he said, amongst other things, that it be quiet enough to talk; the barmaid should know your name; that it sells cigarettes, aspirin and stamps; it never serves beer in a handleless glass; and you can get a good lunch for three shillings.

Several Wetherspoons pubs have ‘Moon’ in their name since they feel that is a good link to Orwell’s  fictional pub.  I’ve never been in a Wetherspoons where the barmaid knew my name, nor have they have ever served me a beer in a glass with a handle.  I’m not sure how I feel about them linking to one of my favourite authors for commercial purposes.  Maybe I will order lunch one day and proffer three shillings (15p) in payment then ask for an aspirin.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

We got back to the hotel and were relaxing and reading when Madam noticed a gentle slurping noise. She looked at me and I looked at her.  “It wasn’t me” I told her.  

She looked to the dresser on the far side of the room and shrieked “It’s alive!  It moved!”

It turned out that her seashell was still very much in use and the resident mollusc was wondering why the sea was so far away and how come the tide hadn’t risen.

“We have to take it back to the beach.” She said.

“It’s late.  We’ll take it tomorrow.” I told her.

She put it in the bottom of the bath lest it develop impressive locomotive powers in the night and crawl into bed with her.

“He needs a name. Think of a name,” she demanded.

“I don’t know” I said, “Shell?  Shelly?”

“Shelly is a girl’s name,” she said.

I went into the bathroom and reached into the bottom of the bath.  I carefully turned Shelly upside down.

“Yup, it’s female,” I told her.

I had a look at the Google to see if there was anything else worth doing in Bournemouth and, amongst the dozens of pages of advertisements offering me hotels and tours, was a brief piece from the official tourism website that told me, amongst other things, that it was a prosperous town with a population of almost 200,000 and that tourism remains an important industry.  

And boy, does it milk its tourists.  Parking for two hours was £4.50.  A stroll along the three hundred metre pier is £1.20.  An ice cream?  That will be £3.70 please.  Need a bottle of Coca Cola with that?  A mere £2.50.  A one mile taxi ride back to the hotel £6.00.

We were packed and on the road by 9am and heading towards the Durdle Door arch in Dorset.  Shelly was safely wrapped in the back seat.   As we drove along the B3070, there was a large sign ‘WARNING Sudden Gunfire!’ 

“Just like in Texas,” said Madam.  

I was glad she got to feel at home. 

We parked above the footpath down to Durdle Door beach to see the famous Durdle Door arch.  £4 for two hours.  A sign informed me they had over one million visitors a year.  It wasn’t hard to do the maths.  Four million pounds for a scree car park and footpath is a nice little earner for somebody as Arthur Daley would have said.

We started down the steep and slippery footpath towards the beach.

“Did you remember Shelly?” I asked Madam.

“Oh no!  I’m a terrible mother!” She shouted as she ran back towards the car.

She laid Shelly carefully at the water’s edge at Durdle Door beach and starting talking quietly.  I’m sure it was something profound but the wind took most of her words away.  All I caught was “I’ll miss you so much” and “send me a shelfie.”

We wandered down the beach along the chalk cliffs and water’s edge, stopping to take pictures of Durdle Door as we went.  Madam was under strict instructions not to touch any shells, dead or alive.

As we started up the long and steep path back to the car Madam said “Shelly was very lucky really.  She can cross Durdle Door and the Jurassic Coast off her bucket list.  It would have taken her years to crawl here.”

Schloss Ludwigsburg and Birkenkopf

We drove to Schloss Ludwigsburg, which I believe translates as Louis’s Castle.

The gardens were beautiful with  a central fountain, topiary and flower beds.  Elaborate Sand sculptures surrounded the garden.  No words can do them justice, so you will just have to look at the pictures on Instagram.

The palace started out as a simple hunting lodge but, in a spate of serious German willy-waving was extended to 450 rooms which needed 800 servants.

We splashed out €7 each on a 45 minute guided tour in English which took us around part of the palace.  The details are a bit hazy – it was mostly about, not surprisingly, kings and queens and their various marriages to cousins across Europe.  There seems to have been some serious inbreeding across several generations which may explain a lot.  Talking of willy-waving, one of the kings reputedly had somewhere between 300 and 400 illegitimate children.  I forget which king.  It may have been William the first, or maybe a Frederick or an Eberhard.  You have to say the last name out loud to appreciate it.

The Birkenkopf is a 511 metre high hill in Stuttgart, the highest point in the city.

During the war, 53 Allied bombing missions destroyed over 45% of Stuttgart, and nearly the entire city centre. Between 1953 and 1957, 1.5 million cubic metres of rubble were cleared and moved to the hill which resulted in an increase in height of around 40 metres. 

We walked up the long winding path to the top.  At the summit there were many recognisable facades from ruined buildings.  The ruins were towered over by a giant iron cross.  

It’s hard not to think of World War II when the results of destruction are sitting there starting you in the face.  It is a place for contemplation.  For reflection. A warning not to follow crazed demagogues of the right.  

In a sombre mood I took a few pictures and wandered the ruins and rubble.  There were lots of Germans, some walking dogs, some admiring the view, some sitting silently looking out over the city.  Flowers were growing amongst the ruins.  Children were playing and climbing the stones.  A sign of hope perhaps. 

 A plaque at the top reads:

“This mountain piled up after World War II from the rubble of the city stands as a memorial to the victims and a warning to the living.”

It would be nice if we learned from history rather than repeat past mistakes, wouldn’t it? 

Stuttgart Germany

We managed to pick one of the hottest weeks in a summer heatwave that had gripped Europe for our time in Germany.  Glaciers were melting in Sweden.  Britain faced a shortage of brussel sprouts.  Worse still, mon Dieu, France was suffering a  shortage of snails due to heat and lack of rain.

Parts of Spain and Portugal experienced temperatures of 48C as blisteringly hot air swept in from Africa.  It was marginally cooler in Germany, reaching only a high of 37C, still bad enough without air-conditioning. 

The heatwave and unseasonably dry weather has also affected America. It was the third hottest summer on record in Texas.  The tinderbox conditions led to several fires across the south-west. Sixteen of the largest wildfires burning in California have burnt over 320,000 acres and led to many deaths.  

Researchers have found that the ‘signal of climate change is unambiguous,’ and heat waves will become more common.  You will be hard pressed to find any climate scientists who do not believe climate change is real and man-made.   

Meanwhile,  a Republican state senator stood within sight of the fires in California and claimed climate change has nothing to do with man and blamed the fire on environmentalists.  The gist of his argument was that if you cut down all the trees, they wouldn’t be there to catch fire.  I suppose that argument has a certain logic.  

But enough of me bitching about stupid people.  This is supposed to be about Germany.

We caught the train in to Stuttgart from Vaihengen.  Like a lot of European local rail networks the city is divided into zones and the ticket you need depends of the number of zones crossed. There was little information on the station on which ticket to buy or where to zone boundaries started and ended. I struggled with the machine for a while trying to make sense of the different options and just ended up buying a group day ticket for four zones, which I suspect was more than we needed.  

After an interesting diversion through the suburbs to the wrong part of town, we eventually found our way to the central station and wandered up Königstrße, the main shopping street, towards Schlossplatz, or Palace Square.  Since Germany has not had a monarch since 1918, I am not sure why it has a Palace square, but it is a lovely open area with grass, fountains and a central statue of Concordia, the goddess of harmony, on a high column.  

There is a small area of Stuttgart, around the market square, that retains a few older buildings. They have a busy open market with greengrocers and other food stalls outside and a covered indoor market. Being of advanced years I can never remember the exact details of places we visit (I make up most of the stuff in this blog), so I looked at the German tourist website for a description of the indoor market. I present a few extracts for your delectation:   

“Behind the heavy entrance doors of this grand art nouveau building a paradise of lucullan pleasures is hidden.” 

 “. ..in abundance, diverse and colorful, the market hall presents the impressive offers artistically and appetizingly arranged, native products harmoniously lie next to international and ecological-biological products.”

“But how nice it is to simply stroll through the hall without a goal, to smell, to look and to taste!” 

I have to agree with the last sentiment.  It was lovely to stroll through and look at the amazing range of appetising foods on offer.  Had we timed things a little better it would have been a great place to eat.  Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Stuttgart.

We had a wander round Stiftskirche, a church dating from the thirteenth century.  This was extensively damaged during bombing raids WWII and rebuilt in the 1950s. There is a slightly odd mix of some of the historic features and some more new designs with modern stained glass windows and roof.  

Close to the Stiftskirch was the  Landesmuseum  with exhibits from Württemberg ranging from Neolithic to the early 20th century.  I was primarily attracted to the admission price (free) and Madam to the fact it had air-conditioning.  Even though it was free, we had to queue to get a ticket which was scrupulously checked on every floor.  They could have saved themselves a lot of work by eliminated this pointless procedure.

It was all well laid out although the guide insisted that we started vaguely in the middle ages, then to later periods, before we saw the Neolithic exhibits. I’ve always had an interest in anything stone-age.  It is surprising to see that stone tools throughout the world are made in the same shapes using the same techniques.  We forget that the Neolithic period lasted for several thousand years – long enough for travellers and traders to spread knowledge.  I did try to create an axe head from a flint a couple of years ago, firstly using another stone then, when that did not work, with a hammer.  All I ended up with was a bruised thumb and an undamaged flint.  I read somewhere that a Neolithic hunter would have created an arrow head in 20 minutes using only an animal bone and a lump of flint.  I’d like to see that.  

Both Madam and I both felt that we were being followed by the museum guides.  Every time we looked round a guide would be just behind us.  Maybe they thought we might be up to something.  About to tuck a small statue under my arm or scratch “Romani ite dominum” on a Roman column.  I hope that they were just bored and thought we might have questions. There were only a few other people in the museum which was a shame as it was well worth the visit.  I suspect all the tourists were busy in the BMW car museum posing for a selfie in front of an exhibit of indicators through the ages sponsored by local BMW dealers.  Car dealers always have a lot of optional extras left over.  

There are several motor manufacturers based near Stuttgart. The area is considered to be the birthplace of the petrol engine motor car.  Pioneering engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were both born near Stuttgart.  Benz developed the first 3-wheeled car in 1886 and Daimler the first 4-wheeled (a modified horse-carriage) in the same year.  

Due to its importance as an industrial area, the city suffered extensive damage during air-raids during World War II.  A total of 53 air raids between 1940 and 1945 destroyed 40,000 buildings.

Post-war planning and rebuilding during the 1950s has preserved the few remaining historic buildings and large parks.  Now the city has an open feel with wide streets, squares and green parks.

Before this trip, I had a look on the internet for the top attractions in Stuttgart.  Most of them seemed to involve cars. The second top attraction was the Stuttgart public library.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a library ranked number two in any city.  It turned out that this was due to the impressive and unusual architecture including a roof observation area from which you can see the entire city of Stuttgart.  Clearly, this deserved a visit.

We tried to get to the library on the local metro.  There were five train lines from the central station passing the Stadtbibliothek station.  How hard could that be? We got on the right train but it went along a different line.  It stopped at Budapester Platz, right next to the massive Milaneo shopping mall.  A bit like getting on the central line at Oxford Circus and the next stop is the Elephant and Castle. We went back to the central station and tried again.  We studied the map closely. Double checked the train. Triple checked the train.  We definitely got on the right train this time. It stopped at Budapester Platz.  We gave up on the library and went to the mall.  Malls are the same the world over, so we just headed up to the food court on the top floor for a late lunch. I asked Madam where she would like to eat. She chose Mcdonalds.

It may seem an odd choice to eat at an American fast-food restaurant while travelling.  I guess it is just easier sometimes.  The menu is broadly the same the world over.  It comes with pictures that bear a passing resemblance to the finished product. We looked at a few German restaurants but it was hard to decipher the German menu.  I have a translate app on my phone but it often gives bizarre translations.  You never quite knew if you were ordering a haloumi sandwich or a pig trotter and ox-brain sausage.  The Germans are big on sausages.  You go into most any restaurant and they will hand you a menu of twenty dishes. The first nineteen will be sausages.  They will have names like Schweinfoot und Grissel or Kalbsbrain mit Grosserbits.

The last item on the menu will be something disturbing like a veal cutlet with an aubergine and turnip sauce, served with raspberry ice cream if my translation app is to be believed.

After a brief wander around the mall which was indeed identical to every mall everywhere else in the world, even down to the same chain stores, we went back to main square.  We sad for a while admiring the fountains and gardens. We watched Japanese tourists pose for selfies in front of the fountain.  A group of five arranged themselves in every conceivable combination and variety of poses.  It took them twenty minutes to get every pose covered.

It started raining, and we briefly considered a car museum but realised it was 6pm somewhere in the world, possibly central Russia, so we went into a brauhaus to drink beer. 

Out of curiosity I looked at the food menu and had another go with my translate app.  The first item, according to the app, on the dessert menu was:

‘Homemade Oven Slipper A Swabian specialty with apples and raisins refined, vanilla sauce.’

Madam, being much smarter, asked the waiter for an English menu.  The first choice on the dessert menu was 

‘Homemade Oven Slipper. A Swabian specialty with apples and raisins refined, vanilla sauce.’

The rain had stopped, so we sat in Palace Square for a while. It was early evening by now and people were laying out blankets on the grass and settling in for the evening.  I was not sure if there was some event planned for a Tuesday night, or if that was what passed for entertainment in Stuttgart.  

Stuttgart was clean and prosperous, obviously thriving with many high-end stores in the shopping centre.  You have to admire the Germans.  Through sheer hard work and a large amount of cleverness they have turned a country of rubble and destitution into a thriving industrial powerhouse.  They are the fourth largest economy in the world with full employment.  The highest trade surplus in the world worth $310 billion. The biggest capital exporter globally.  The third largest exporter in the world.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile politicians (and the voting public) in Britain seem determined to turn the country into the nation state equivalent of a pound shop.

Am Osterfelderkopf

There is a cable car up to Am Osterfelderkopf at 2033 metres (6670 feet) high.  It costs an eye-watering €27 each for a seven minute ride. You can walk up the zig-zag paths but it would take a lot more stamina than I possess, and time that I had.

There was a cafe right by the cable car exit which was packed.  We had lunch there, as far away from the accordion player as possible.  The cafe had a captive market but I was pleased to see they had not taken advantage and their prices were not dissimilar to the restaurants in the town two kilometres below. 

 I walked a little further up the mountain, amongst the hardy walkers with serious-looking boots, nordic walking poles and backpacks.  To go any further would have needed ropes and crampons and an annual subscription to Senior Climbing Magazine, so I was happy to sit for a while and admire the view.

Once I got to the furthest rocky outcrop away from the chattering tourists there was complete silence.  I was above the treeline.  No birdsong.  No wind whistling through the treetops.  If I strained my ears, I could hear the occasional distant sound of hiking boots scraping on rock.  Once they rounded the corner there was nothing. Only silence.  

Try this for me, if you will.  Stop reading and listen.  Concentrate on every sound, near and far.  What can you hear?  Cars on the road outside?  Birds in the trees?  A distant TV? A dog barking? 

Unless we stop and listen, we tune out the background noises.  They are always there in modern life.  It isn’t until we are somewhere completely quiet – in a desert or on top of a mountain- that we realise how noisy our world has become.  Maybe we humans need some noise. If, by chance, there is silence most people will turn on the TV or play music, or maybe quietly talk to a bird eyeing them suspiciously from a nearby rock.

There is only one bird that ventures into this alpine region, the Alpine Chough.  An information board by the cafe informed me that these were social creatures that like to nest in large groups.  This one was all alone which was why he was happy with my company.  I told him all about the cable car ride and how I would almost certainly climb to the very peak of the mountain if I had only remembered some rope and my knees weren’t making a disturbing creaking noise.  I mentioned that there might be some leftover food on the cafe tables.  At the mention of food, he gave a little squawk and flew off.  “Just follow the sound of the bloody accordion” I called after him. 

Pictures from the trip can be found here

A Go-Cart and Oberammergau

Twenty-five miles an hour isn’t fast.  A plane going that slow would fall from the sky.  A car might be holding up traffic.  A bicycle would be a little scarier. But still not excessive.

Now imagine, if you will, going at that speed in a plastic go-cart, close to the ground,  down the side of a steep mountain for over 8,500 feet.  Seventy-three bends and nine jumps.  Thin wire-netting along the sides by the steepest drops which may, or may not, catch you if you fall out. How can that be scary?

We drove for a long time up  a narrow winding mountain road.  I’m not sure how I was persuaded – possibly the promise of a high-altitude cappuccino  at the top – but we got onto a chair lift suspended from a suspiciously thin cable.  We rose higher and higher for 15 minutes. The air grew colder.  I was almost starting to enjoy it when it ground to a halt.  The cable creaked. The seat started swinging gently. I looked down.  It was long way off the ground.  

In 2010 a 22 year old snowboarder, Dominik Podolsky, was stuck on a ski-lift in the Austrian Alps for six hours.  He thought about jumping down but he was ten metres above the ground and would probably have broken both legs and frozen to death.  He tried burning a paper tissue to attract attention.  When this didn’t work, he moved on to receipts and business cards.  Eventually, he was forced to burn banknotes from his wallet.  Finally, on his last €20 note, he managed to attract attention and was rescued.

Of course, none of this went through my mind at the time.  I just looked down at the ground and wondered if a double extension ladder would be enough or would they need to fetch a triple. 

After a mercifully brief stop, we started moving again and eventually reached the top.  It wasn’t a particularly high hill, around 1200 metres but the views were spectacular.  Across the valley to distant mountain peaks.  Nestled far below in the valley was the town of Oberammergau.  

It is primarily a ski resort but the hill in August was packed with hikers, some of whom had walked to the top.  Some, wearing sturdy boots and carrying impressively full backpacks were preparing to climb even further. The cafe was doing a thriving trade.  There was a rope walk through the treetops that needed bright yellow helmets and sturdy safety harnesses. A short zip line and playground for children.  And of course the go-karts.  

I checked my seat belt.  I checked it again.  The operator checked it and said ‘Off you go.  Just press that lever.’

I pressed the lever and off I went for 8,500 feet downhill. 

I changed my trousers at the bottom.  

 

Oberammergau is best known for its performance of the Passion Play every ten years.  It was first performed in 1634 after a promise made by the villagers.  They vowed that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague they would perform the play every ten years.  The play involves over 2000 actors, singers, musicians and technicians.  The villagers claim they have been free of the plague since its first performance.  I’d prefer a large bottle of antibiotics personally, but whatever.

The village has a population of 5,415 and 5,414 are involved with running either souvenir shops or restaurants.  The other resident is selling tickets for the 2020 Passion Play.  Had Madam needed a cuckoo clock, some Lederhosen or a creepy Bavarian doll she would have been set. Fortunately for my wallet and bulging suitcase, all our souvenir needs had been previously fulfilled.    

Like Partenkirchen, elaborate murals  decorated many of the shops and buildings.  Many were beautifully painted and must have taken skilled artists many hours of labour. 

We sat at one of the outside tables of a restaurant on the main square.  Rather than rely on the translation app on my phone and end up with a pig testicle and rhubarb sausage, we asked for an English menu.  Unfortunately, some of the translations were a little odd.  Once we had eliminated the twenty-three different types of sausage there were only a couple of options left.

Madam ordered a  ‘Cold Meats and a Bowl of Lard’ and I had the much safer Vegetable Rosti. Her’s turned out to be a correct translation and did include a large bowl of lard.  Yummy.  I was pleased I had the Rosti.  

We had a look at the outside of the Passion Play theatre and a half-hearted browse around the souvenir shops.   Since we only had a couple of hours in the town, we headed to the tourist office to see if we had missed anything. It was a Saturday and the tourist information office closed at 1pm.  

Garmisch Partenkirchen 1

It’s not often that you cross a country border underground.  Not legally at least. We were travelling from Stuttgart to Garmisch-Partenkirchen near the Austrian border where we planned to spend a few days.  Due to the intransigence of mountain passes in ignoring man-made political boundaries, we crossed from Germany into Austria through a long tunnel under a mountain then, a few miles later, back into Germany.  Both countries are in the Schengen zone so the border post building at the end of the tunnel was closed and abandoned. 

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a German ski resort in Bavaria. It lies near Zugspitze, the country’s highest peak at 2962 metres.  Anybody hoping for a spot of skiing during the current August heatwave would be disappointed although there were patches of snow high on the mountain tops and in shaded ravines.   

Garmisch (in the west) and Partenkirchen (in the east) were separate towns for many centuries and still maintain quite separate identities. Hitler forced them to unite in 1935 to prepare for the 1936 winter olympics.  The International Olympic Committee was concerned that there were not enough hotel rooms in Garmisch so they were made, unwillingly,  to combine and create a larger single town with more rooms.  That they are still combined may say something about the Bavarian psyche. 

We came out of the tunnel into bright sunshine. Rolling verdant green hills surrounded the high rocky snow-tipped mountains. Sparkling fast-moving streams ran alongside the road.  It was all astonishingly beautiful. I half expected Julie Andrews to come over the hill singing ‘The Hills are Alive’, followed by a cow with a bell around its neck. 

Imagine the joy in opening your curtains every morning and seeing that view. Unless it is raining.  Or snowing. Or blocked by inconsiderate tourists taking photographs.

I will post the pictures later.

Madam gazed excitedly out of the car window and said “We must go to Austria on holiday” 

I reminded her we were in Austria and on holiday.

We had an ear-popping climb along a long winding mountain road, followed by an even steeper descent into Garmisch.

I had a quick look at the Google just before we headed this way and Wikipedia tells me that ‘It has a relatively wet and snowy climate with high precipitation year round.’  True to form, it started raining soon after we checked into the hotel so I wandered round the lobby and obligatory gift shop seeking a diversion from the weather.

A poster announced that this weekend sees the start of the 63rd annual week-long Partenkirchen Festival.  This is a popular event attracting large crowds. There is a certain tendency for those outside of Bavaria to consider the inhabitants somewhat dour and conservative. Perhaps a little insular and inward looking.  I don’t want to be the one to blanket judge an entire culture, so I will leave you with the program of events for the festival and have you form your own conclusion:

Sunday: Bavarian Folk Night

Monday: Bavarian Dancers

Tuesday: Live Bavarian Band

Wednesday: Bavarian Folk Night

Thursday: Lumberjack Competition and Bavarian Band

Friday: Bavarian Band

Saturday: Live Bavarian Band

Sunday: Bavarian Folk Night

Monday: Bavarian Night.

I asked at reception about the Thursday attraction but the receptionist had never seen the lumberjacks at any of the previous years festivals.  She told me that they are on their way to Switzerland and are just stopping to sharpen their axes.

Somehow, the thought of being surrounded by hundreds of ruddy-faced Lederhosen clad Bavarians waving beer tankards in the air and singing a rousing chorus of Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit didn’t appeal. I am reliably informed that the British army demanded the surrender of all accordions along with heavy weapons at the end of the war, but were overruled by the Russians and Americans.

There is a viewing gallery on a raised floor above the lobby in the hotel.  There are a couple of comfy sofas and a few rustic wooden rocking chairs.  It is up a tucked-away staircase and was empty.  A perfect hiding place.  I checked under all the sofa cushions for loose change (without success) then sat on one of the rocking chairs looking out towards the mountains and watching the rain.  

Thin tendrils of mist slowly rolled through the evergreen trees perched precariously on the side of the hills.  Higher up, solid cloud and mist completely obscured the mountains.  Brightly coloured blue and red trains passed slowly in front of the hill.  Damp flags were fluttering in the stiff breeze. 

I’m never sure quite what to do on a holiday rainy day.  Do you brave the elements, don a raincoat, and go out and explore anyway?  Hide away in a quiet corner of the hotel with a book?  Find a museum or art gallery?  Get drunk in the bar?

I opened my iPad and checked the Google for German culture, lest I make some inadvertent social faux pas.  One website, on the front page of search results, informed me that Germans wore Lederhosen, drank a lot of beer and spoke German.  Useful information had I been of limited intelligence and visiting in 1756. 

Am I getting old or did Google once give you useful and interesting results?  Nowadays it seems, apart from the excellent Wikipedia, to be the same sites full of useless information interspersed with prominent annoying advertisements or affiliate links. One of our local newspaper websites has flashing vibrantly coloured ads between every short paragraph of an article.  I have to scroll past half a dozen ads to read the entire thing.  Half of the time there is so little information that I give up half way through. The internet now seems to be entirely focussed on making money rather than conveying much of anything useful.

I looked for things to do on a rainy day in Garmisch.  The number one top attraction on Tripadvisor was Wank Mountain.  The reviews were gushing:

‘I love Wank.  Wank is the best.’

‘If, like me you like walk but are not used to a more vigorous hike then the wank is a great choice.’

‘It was a great way to spend a beautiful sunny day.  Unfortunately, none of us wore sunscreen so we all have sunburn.’

Had we been here a couple of weeks later we could have caught the 2018 Annual Wank Festival starting later that month.

Purely for research purposes I did take a look at the Wank Festival website.  All 1,000 priority tickets have been sold, so clearly this is a popular activity in Bavaria.

Who said Bavarians don’t know how to have fun?

It stopped raining a little after 2pm and we went into Partenkirchen.  The houses and cobbled streets retain a traditional Bavarian feel.  The central street, supposedly pedestrianised, had a steady stream of cars and bicycles.  Souvenir shops, art galleries and restaurants lined the street. Elaborate murals decorated many of the shops and buildings.  We looked into the souvenir shops but decided we had enough t-shirts, miniature Bavarian beer steins and tea-towels.

The chocolate shop, Chocolaterie Amelie, looked more promising.  They manufacture their own chocolate and there was a large glass screen where I watched a young woman doing something mysterious with some molten chocolate on a steel table.  It all looked lovely and reminded me of the chocolate shops in York.  Who can resist a bar of chocolate on a damp afternoon?  I looked around at the impressive displays.  The cheapest bar of chocolate was €5.90.  I decided I could resist a bar of chocolate.

Nobody in the town was wearing lederhosen although I could have bought a fetching set in my size for only €199 in one of the souvenir shops.  I did see a couple of chaps wearing lederhosen at breakfast in the hotel.  They were drinking beer so I suspect they were tourists that had read the same website as me and wanted to blend in.  I think they were Americans.  

Copenhagen Day Eight and Home

We were up early and took the 8:30 train to Hillerod some 24 miles from Copenhagen.

Madam wanted to see yet another royal palace, Frederiksborg Slot. Literally translated this is Frederiksborg Castle. This summons up images of battlements, a moat and portcullis. In practice it was another palace with endless rooms of royal portraits and over-ornate furniture. Eighty-three rooms of it. I summoned interest for the first twenty or so rooms but my enthusiasm and my body flagged by thirty and I was frantically searching for a cafe by room forty. There wasn’t a cafe and their coffee machine was broken. I would have had much more fun with a bow and arrow shooting invading armies from the battlements of a proper castle, or prowling through castle dungeons.

An exhibition in the basement did make the entire visit worthwhile. There were dozens of portraits by the Australian-born visual artist Ralph Heimans. Several of the Danish royal family were featured as well as English royals and actors. And boy, can the man paint. You could get close and see the brush strokes. Stand back and you would think you were standing in front of the subject. Give me a thousand years and a mountain of paint and canvas and I could never come close to being half as good as Heimans.

After a short ferry ride round the lake, we headed back into the city and walked down Strøget looking for somewhere to eat. We had managed to book our week during the annual jazz festival as well as the hottest week of the year. It would have been lovely to sit in the square and listen to the outdoor concerts but every place with outside tables was packed. Sitting inside in the heat wasn’t an option.

We headed back to the hotel and the buffet in the neighbouring mall. Buffet food is often disappointing but this was probably one of the nicer meals we had in Copenhagen and half the price of eating in the square.

Our flight home wasn’t until 5.25pm so we arranged a late check out and planned to do one last excursion. Another royal palace if Madam had her way, or maybe a canal cruise if I had mine. In the end we just looked at each other and realised we were just about Copenhagen’d out. It is a wonderful city packed with amazing sights and lovely people and I could have happily spent another week there, but we had walked 55 miles during the week, often in almost unbearable heat, and it was starting to show. Instead, we just lounged around in the hotel room for a few hours, packed and took the train to the airport.

We were reluctant to eat at the airport but we ended up there at lunch time and the first place we saw served Smørrebrød sandwiches. There wasn’t much else that we fancied so we settled on this. My experience of airport food is that it is usually overpriced and often dire. What I hadn’t counted on was the Danish ability to deliver quality. The Smørrebrød were so good that Madam was picking them apart and studying the menu description, trying to work out how to recreate them at home. Have you ever had a meal that good at Gatwick or Heathrow? You don’t need to answer that – it was a rhetorical question.

I had a few Krone left after lunch and a couple of hours to kill. Rather than sit at a bar or read, I had a wander around the mostly expensive shops. There was a gift shop with the usual fridge magnets, keyrings and ornaments. The sort of stuff you buy then look at it when you get home and say “What on earth did I buy that crap for?”

My eyes wandered to an upper shelf and I saw it.

Oh yes I did.

Oh yes.

A VIKING HAT WITH HORNS!

Pictures from the trip can be found here