Cheddar Cheese

“It doesn’t taste anything like American cheese!” exclaimed Madam.

We were heading to Wells in Somerset for a couple of days and stopped off at Cheddar on the way and, after a brief look at the end of the gorge, had gone in to the only cheese shop to actually make Cheddar cheese in Cheddar. 

They had a wide range of samples and we worked our way around them from mild to mature.  The first cheese sample was the mild, matured for only a few months.  Madam savoured it slowly and said “Mmmm… nice.”

The second was more mature with a stronger taste.  Madam’s breath quickened and said “This is NOTHING like American cheese.”

When the cave aged Cheddar touched her tongue her breath became heavy and she let out a long soft moan.  Several women standing behind looked on with interest.  I wasn’t sure if I needed to guide her from the shop for fear of embarrassment or just buy her a wedge of extra-mature and leave her alone in a room.  

After much sampling, we settled on a cave aged mature Cheddar and an oak smoked Cheddar.  I’m not big on hard cheeses, preferring a soft French cheese, but even I could see how much better this was that the average supermarket offering.  I should hope so for the prices they were charging.

“I’ve eaten Cheddar cheese in Cheddar!” said Madam excitedly as we headed back towards the car.

“I’ve eaten American cheese in America” I thought.  It was bright orange and tasted of nothing much at all.  It was weirdly soft and sticky all at the same time.  

But I didn’t want to spoil the moment, so I kept the thought to myself.

“I’ve never seen a television that small” I said as I opened the door.

We had booked a self-catering “cottage” for three nights which was on a caravan park.  It was more chalet than cottage.

I opened a cupboard and the knob came off in my hand.  The ceiling was Artex.  Madam turned on a table lamp.  “Let their be light.” she said.

There was darkness.  

I pulled on a knob to open the wardrobe.  But you know what happened.  I put the two spare knobs on a shelf.

It had a tiny lounge with a two person sofa,  a TV just a little larger than my iPad, a two person dining room, a slide in sideways kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a bedroom just big enough for a bed and a wardrobe. 

“It’s better than a hotel room” said Madam.

Which was true, once you got used to moving sideways.   It was clean and comfortable with everything we needed for a few nights.   

We drove into Wells for dinner but we ended up passing the cathedral on the way from the car park.  We popped in and had a quick look round. The guided tours had finished for the day, so we planned on coming back later this week.  We had a really enjoyable tour in Salisbury cathedral and I hoped this would be as good.  It was almost deserted, for a cathedral, so I wandered round happily taking a few photographs unobstructed by other visitors.  I’m sure you have seen them on Instagram by now.

It was getting late and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we walked down the High Street looking for somewhere to eat.  Wells is billed as the UK’s smallest city.  It is certainly compact, you could walk across the centre in 20 minutes and still have time to pop into the bank, chat to a friend and change your library books.  

Unfortunately, its compact size hasn’t kept the chain stores at bay. All down the High Street was a succession of the likes of W H Smith, New Look, Costa, Nero’s, Vision Express, Carphone Warehouse, Waterstones and Greggs.  I’ve nothing against any of these – I can often be found frequenting them myself but it’s sad when you see family owned businesses, who have probably served the town for years and live locally, closing down to be replaced with yet another identikit store.  Maybe if we supported the independents more they might survive longer.

We went into Costa for a coffee.

We struggled to find a restaurant serving food at 5pm.   They were either lunch cafes that closed at 4pm or pubs serving food from 6pm onwards.  Eventually we wandered down a side  street and found an family run Italian restaurant by the name of Da Luciano which was both happy to rustle up a couple of pizzas and excellent. Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.  Madam wanted some weird combination not on the menu involving artichokes, swede, onion, basil, dandelion, elderberry, porridge, grapes and marmalade.  The staff were happy to oblige and Madam said it was the best pizza she had had for years. 

I may have got a couple of the ingredients wrong.  I was hungry and forgot to make notes.  

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Padstow and Newquay

Madam had wanted to visit Padstow for some time, mostly because it is the home of a celebrity chef.  I couldn’t find a single hotel in Padstow with availability that wouldn’t make my credit card squeal with pain, so I booked one in nearby Weybridge for a couple of nights. 

After checking in to the hotel, which turned out to be on the edge of town in a dreary industrial estate next to a timber merchants, we were both too tired to travel any further so we ended up having dinner in the attached restaurant, an experience neither of us wishes to repeat. 

It was a cloudy but warm day as we drove into Padstow. I had set the SatNav to the postcode of a car park near the town centre.  On the way into town, we passed a park and ride offering all day parking for £5.  I wondered why such a small town would even have a large park and ride as we continued into the town.  The first two town car parks were full.  The third had a narrow space that, after much manoeuvring, we managed to squeeze into. I started to see the wisdom of the park and ride.

Madam told me that the town was often referred to as Padstein due to the presence of the businesses owned by Rick Stein, the aforementioned celebrity chef.  We walked from the car park into the centre and passed a restaurant with his name, then a bakery, then another restaurant.  Even the tourist information office has a book of his recipes.  I checked with the Google later and learned that he owns four restaurants, a cookery school, a patisserie, a hotel and holiday rentals in the town.

The streets were packed with tourists. It was impossible to walk on the crowded pavements, we were forced into the road to make any progress. We had a look around the pretty harbour and I took a few photographs.  A fisherman was unloading lobsters from his boat.  A light breeze blew from the river.   A passenger boat was busy ferrying passengers between Padstow and Rock on the other side of the River Camel.

The streets were well kept and pleasant but I just couldn’t see enough to attract the masses of visitors.  A gift shop had a sign in the window that read ‘Anyone who tells you money can’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop.’ 

I stepped over an extending dog lead stretched across the pavement.

“So who is the Stein chap then,” I asked Madam.

“You’ve seen him on TV,” she replied, “he does the seafood dishes.”

I thought for a while.  “The one from Essex that whizes and wazzes stuff?  I like him.”

“No, that’s Jamie Oliver.  Stein does seafood.  Travels a lot.”

“Oh I remember now,” I said, “the one that owns the Fat Duck.”

Madam sighed, shook her head and pulled me away from a Spaniel about to use my leg as a lamp post.

“He wrote the ‘How to Cook’ series?” I asked.

Madam sighed.  “No, that was Delia Smith.  Stein is a really popular chef.  He has a seafood restaurant here.  Expensive but very good. We should go and look at the menu. It might be a good place for lunch.”

“Expensive you say?” I asked in a small but controlled squeak. 

We watched the ferry disgorge more passengers while I thought about our lunch plans.  A small fishing boat chugged into the harbour.

“Those £3 pasties in the bakery looked really nice.” I said.

I’ve never seen so many dogs in one town.  They were everywhere.  Most of them looked stressed and unhappy in the crowds. They were urinating on every available lamp post.  Many people had two or three dogs. We passed two specialist dog accessory shops.  Even the gift shops were selling dog bandanas. 

A Yorkshire Terrier was leaving a steaming deposit in front of one of Stein’s cafes.  We popped into a gift shop nearby as Madam needs more Christmas ornaments, apparently.  They didn’t have any but we asked the owner why there were so many dogs.  

He hesitated a while then said “I like dogs, I really do…. but it’s just out of hand.  Some of the shops started putting up dogs welcome signs.  Then they all did it. Word got out and everybody started bringing their dogs here.”

He rearranged a rack of t-shirts and said “I’m fed up with dodging piles of crap on the pavements.  One of my friends even calls this place Dogstein.”

He looked at Madam and said “Would you like a tea towel with a Labrador picture or do you prefer the Scottie?”

We had enough of tripping over dog leads and jumping puddles ourselves and couldn’t see anything in the town to further detain us, so we headed towards Newquay.  I was upset at leaving as we still had 45 minutes on our parking.

We stopped off at Mawgan Porth on the way.  It was a small sandy cove with a surf shop and a couple of cafes and, more importantly, free parking.  

Surfers were fighting the waves to get further out to sea.  An RNLI boat was on the beach, close to the water.  The wind was picking up and fine sand was blowing in the air. A few people were walking dogs on the beach.  The dogs looked happy, running in all directions, tails wagging furiously.  

And so on to Newquay.  As we passed through the outskirts, signs were advertising cheap wetsuits and slick boards, whatever they are.  We drove in along a high cliff road lined with hotels and parked close to the town centre.  A man was sitting on a sleeping bag by the car park entrance rolling a cigarette and enjoying a morning aperitif.   We walked past pound shops, charity shops, betting shops and an off licence.  Several shops were closed with faded ‘To Let’ or ‘For Sale’ signs.  

The attractive and photogenic sandy beach was small and focused on surfing.  Two RNLI trucks stood by on the beach.  Two men in wetsuits were standing at the waters edge holding boards and looking forlornly at the lack of any surf.  There were two surfing shops overlooking the beach, one if them looked as if it had closed down.  A bakery cafe and a fish and chip shop stood alongside them.

Six people were lying on boards on the sand, their instructor standing over them. Their lesson must have been ‘how to fall asleep on a board’ as none of them moved while we were there.

“Look at that sea” said Madam “It’s so blue.”

“You can go for a swim if you like” I replied.

She looked out at the fast receding tide and said “Lets get something to eat.”

I bought my first Cornish pasty of the trip and sat eating it on a wall opposite ‘Rip Curl Surf Threads’.  Next door, the library had signs outside in both English and Cornish.  A total of 400 people claim to be fluent in Cornish, while another few thousand can speak a little.  It isn’t recorded how many of them live in Newquay but I’m guessing they could hold a party in a phone box and still have room for the buffet table.

We added Newquay to the list of places we never needed to visit again.

We were back in the hotel by mid afternoon and I needed something cold to drink.  The vending machine in the lobby of the hotel was empty so I asked the receptionist if there was another machine.  She shrugged and said no, implying it wasn’t her problem and why was I bothering her. 

I walked into Weybridge along a busy main road in the hope of finding a convenience store or supermarket.  It was longer than it looked on the map, about a mile or so. I walked down a long busy main road, over a 15th century stone bridge above a shallow river, and into the town centre.

I was halfway up the pedestrianised main street when I realised there was something different about the town. There was a complete absence of chain stores. No WH Smith, no Boots with their glaring plastic and glass shopfronts. No Starbucks, no Next or New Look.  There were independent butchers, stationers, clothes shops, even a locally owned bookshop. 

It was like being back in the 1960’s. It was wonderful.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Land’s End and a Snow Globe

The sea spray splattered my glasses and the wind tugged at my hair causing it to stick up in an unusually expressive and interesting manner.  I looked like a cross between a mad scientist and just plain mad.  I zipped up my jacket.

“Amazing! It’s like something from National Geographic!”  Madam shouted above the wind.  

She was pointing her phone in every direction furiously taking photographs as fast as she could.  

“I’m glad I bought my windproof jacket.” I said.

“There’s no internet!” She said as she peered into her phone.  

Her selfie would have to wait.

We were at Land’s End.  The end of Cornwall and the end of the country.  The end of our westward journey.  This was as far as we could go.  Next stop America, over several thousand miles of ocean.

We had parked the car and walked to the southern side.  Steep twisting paths led down towards the cliff edge.  We had the area almost to ourselves. It was wild, windswept and desolate, everything we had expected, more than we had hoped. 

Sheer craggy cliffs cascaded down to the wild seas below.  Waves crashed against the cliffs below, inaudible over the wind.  Boulders were balanced so precariously on the side of the cliffs that it looked like the slightest breeze would send them crashing down into the sea.  Windswept gorse and heather gripped the thin soil.  Lichens and mosses lined the rocky hollows.

“This… this… this…” 

I looked at her expectantly. It isn’t often that Madam is lost for words.  

“This alone is worth all that driving! Amazing, magnificent, awe-inspiring, breath-taking!”

I think she liked Land’s End.  I was quite taken with it myself.

Small signs reading ‘WARNING – Cliff Edge – Risk of Falling’ were positioned a few yards from the sheer cliff edge.

I don’t know about you but I like to think that any adult allowed out without close supervision would have the sense to not stand on the edge of a cliff, peer over and say “I wonder what will happen if I lean forw…”

Do we really need ugly yellow signs spoiling the view?  I may sound callous but I think that we might be doing the gene pool a favour if we let people discover for themselves.

But of course, a trip to any destination wouldn’t be complete without checking the tea towels and Christmas ornaments, so we headed to the northern side, past the Land’s End Hotel.  Coaches were disgorging hordes of tourists and a steady stream of cars were pulling in to park.

There was the obligatory gift shop of course, but they have added an entire shopping and entertainment village.  You can buy a Land’s End Doughnut, visit a small animal farm, watch a 4D film experience, visit the Wallace and Grommit exhibition and check out Arthur’s Quest which uses ‘the latest interactive technology and special effects to conjure a magically scary world.’  Brian Blessed’s voice was booming from the speakers in the entrance.

It was mind-numbingly awful.  It was packed with throngs of visitors who seemed to be enjoying themselves.  Their children all had the crazed look that comes from a diet of sugar and E numbers.  It seemed that people had driven miles to a setting of natural splendour – probably one of the best in England – and then sat indoors to watch a film, eaten junk food and visited the gift shop to load up on tacky souvenirs to prove they had been here.

Even the iconic Land’s End direction signpost was a commercial venture.  It was roped off and only available for the official photographer. You want a picture by the sign?  £12.50 please.

If we had visited that side first we would have turned tail and given it a miss. What do they think they are doing, and who gave planning permission for this development at such a beautiful site? 

Madam rushed to the gift shop.  She spent a long time going through the entire shop but managed to restrict herself to two tea towels, both with a map of the shipping forecast areas.

“Um, why are you buying tea towels with shipping forecast areas my sweet?” I asked her.

“I love the shipping forecast!” She said with some vehemence. 

You can know somebody for more than twenty years and still discover something new.  Isn’t that great?

A small child pointed to my hair and ran crying to his mother.

“Is there anything you need from the gift shop?” Madam asked, eager to check out and do whatever women do with tea towels.

I looked around the shop, ignoring the tea towels, t-shirts and key rings, but was tempted by a snow globe with the Land’s End signpost. I gave it a shake and watched the fake snow fall over the sign.  I gave it another shake and watched it again.  It was strangely calming.  I watched the snow settle, looked closer and the scene grew, becoming my whole world. I felt like it was sucking me in, absorbing me.  Another shake and I could become one with a snow globe.  My hand reached out then I saw the price tag.  £7 could buy me two pints of Doom Bar in Wetherspoons. I lowered my hand.

“No, I’m good.  There’s nothing I need,”  I replied.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Eden Project and Lost Gardens of Heligan

I woke in a state of some anticipation for today we are going to the Eden Project.  I had wanted to visit for several years but due to a certain geographical inconvenience had never managed to get here.

In 1996, about three miles from St Austell, there was once a very large hole in the ground.  It was a disused china clay pit that had reached the end of its useful life.  It briefly courted fame when it was used by the BBC as the planet surface of Magrathea in the 1981 TV series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but otherwise it just did what holes do and sat there.

Later that year, a chap by the name of Tom Smit came along with a rather grand idea.  I should probably call it a Grand Idea.

Fast forward to 2018 and it has two huge enclosures consisting of adjoining biodomes that house thousands of plant species from around the world.  The largest of the domes simulates a tropical rainforest and the smaller a Mediterranean climate.  It also has an outside botanical garden that is home to plants native to Cornwall and the UK

A pleasant young man in the Eden Project ticket office cheerfully liberated us from £55, gave us a membership card and told us we could come back just anytime we wanted for the next year.  He even took our photograph.  It was like going through US immigration but without the fingerprints and unbridled hostility and aggression. 

There was a long walk down a winding path to the tropical dome.  It was hot and humid, not surprisingly in a tropical forest.  We wandered happily around the dome looking at the luxuriant foliage, beautiful vibrant flowers, and spotting exotic birds and other wildlife living in the undergrowth.  We stopped for a baobab smoothie which tasted a lot like pineapple.  We drank from a water fountain where a guide told us we were losing a litre of water an hour in the dome.  

I spotted a viewing platform high up in the centre of the dome.  At the entrance to the steps leading up to the platform we were presented with a printed sign with long list of reasons why we shouldn’t even think of climbing to the platform.  Were either of us pregnant?  Did we suffer from vertigo?  Back problems?  Mobility issues?  Are we prone to sudden heart attacks or strokes?  Could we cope with extreme heat?  Are our knees a bit creaky?  Did we eat breakfast?  Remember to clean our teeth?  

Madam looked at the list of warnings and up at the steel steps and viewing platform suspended by steel cables and decided she wanted to go to the lower levels and look for a certain frog.  I suspect she really snuck in another baobab smoothie.

I climbed up and up with a couple of stops on the way to admire the scenery.  The platform hovered just above the tops of the tallest trees, I could have almost touched them if I hadn’t been gripping the hand rail quite so tightly.

The platform was hanging from steel cables and swayed gently which added a certain frisson to the experience.  The guide told me that it was 34C on the platform and they closed it when the temperature rose above 37C. She said we were 100 feet above the ground but a normal tropical tree canopy reaches up 150 feet so still had some distance to grow.

I stood for a long time, sweating liberally, and looked down at the trees and the people walking below.

We had a look round the Mediterranean dome and the outside botanical gardens and in at an exhibition hall which had a smoke ring blowing machine.  No really, it did. They were all nice and worth a visit but the tropical forest was the big highlight for me.  

I’m sure you have already seen (and liked and shared) my pictures on Instagram or Facebook by now.

After another night listening to the boy racers, it was time to head to Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall.  

It was a mild and sunny Saturday and we waited behind a long line of cars to enter the car park.  I blinked when I saw that Lost Gardens of Heligan admission was going to cost £14.50 each to look around.  I blinked again to clear my vision.  It was still £14.50.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan were created by members of the Tremayne family from the mid-18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The gardens were neglected after World War I and restored only in the 1990s.  They include aged rhododendrons and camellias, a series of lakes fed by a ram pump, flower and vegetable gardens, an Italian garden, and a wild wooded area with subtropical tree ferns.  

We headed first to the kitchen gardens where they were growing a large quantity of beans, squashes, pumpkins, brassicas and numerous other vegetables that I neglected to note.  There were all in very neat rows and well tended and mostly weed free.  Far better than my allotment ever looked. Pens held turkeys, geese, chickens and pigs.  

We moved on to the flower gardens to find that the flowers were also growing in neat rows.  

It was like visiting a well-ordered and especially neat smallholding.  

In the hope of finding something more interesting we headed to the Jungle, the wooded area with the tree ferns and a much advertised rope walk.  The rope walk was, I guess, about 40 yards long and suspended above a small valley.  It swayed from side to side in an interesting manner and rather reminded me of a children’s adventure playground. We were a dizzying ten feet above the ground.  I stood on the walk and Madam took my photograph.

After the excitement we needed a sit down, so we sat for a while overlooking a pleasant pond on one side of the valley. Two loud, amply proportioned, older American women on the other side of the valley were discussing their trip to England and Scotland and how wonderful it was.  

One confided to the other “The only problem is the size of their seats.  Why do the British have to make their chairs so small?”

Pictures from the trip can be found here

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.

Copenhagen Day Seven

We splashed out on two Copenhagen cards which gave us entrance to the city’s major attractions as well as travel on all public transport for one price. One of those included was the land train which is a 45 minute tour around some of the more interesting areas of the medieval city. The first train we tried to board was full so we had an hour to kill.

What else do you do for a spare hour but go to a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, also included in the card. Their website breathlessly tells us that it is only place in Copenhagen where you’ll find the Taj Mahal built from 300,000 matches and a picture of Queen Margrethe produced from pocket lint, and metal junk art. I’ve seen these “Odditoriums” in various cities around the world and often wondered about them. They did indeed have a matchstick Taj Mahal and a picture of the queen, along with deformed stuffed animals, distorting mirrors and optical illusions. As we were leaving, I asked Madam what she thought of it. “Cheesy” was her succinct and accurate reply.

There was plenty of room on the second train. It was better than I feared and took us around some areas we hadn’t seen. Even nicer when we got to sit down instead of walking. It was only marred by five loud and annoying tourists. I’m not sure if they were Japanese or Korean. They demanded the ticket seller took their photograph sitting on the train, then spent the entire trip peering into their phones and shouting loudly to each other. I don’t believe they looked at anything on the tour. They could have saved money by giving the driver a few Krone tip for a picture then left the rest of us in peace. Madam got very excited about halfway around the tour when she saw an American Pie Shop. I stopped her from jumping from the moving train by promising to go back later that afternoon.

Our next stop was the Glyptoteket Art Gallery. They had a large advertisement on the outside of the building which promised Manet, Van Gogh, Monet, and Gauguin. I think I saw a couple from Monet and two from Van Gogh, one suspiciously unsigned. The rest were from, shall we say, lesser known artists. There were a large number of paintings from Gauguin, probably more than I’ve ever seen in one place. Madam examined them and immediately suggested we planned a trip to Tahiti.

The pictures were oddly arranged over three floors. A couple of rooms of paintings then you had to go up to the next floor to see more. Then again up another floor to see the rest. I have a bit of a weakness for French impressionists, so had only intended to see those but we wandered around some of the statues and the Golden Age of Danish painters (1800-1860) exhibition which was almost empty of visitors.

We watched a young French couple go from room to room, stopping only long enough to take each other’s photo in front of the largest picture in the room. They didn’t pause to look at a single picture. All they needed was a photo to prove they had been there. Everywhere we go we seem to be seeing selfie tourism. Whether it is Stonehenge or The Little Mermaid. People who rush from attraction to attraction pausing only long enough to take a selfie or a photo of their friends before rushing to the next. I just can’t seem to see the point. Are they just trying to impress their friends, real or online? Get Instagram likes? Make the world think they are seasoned travellers?

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut that said ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be’. This was decades before social media and the Instagram selfie age. Our image we present to the world via our Facebook or Instagram accounts is not us. It is just a collection of data on some remote server. To try and present ourselves as art lovers because we have a selfie in front of a Monet or two does us, or our friends, no favours.

Our Copenhagen card included a canal boat tour. At this point we were willing to do most anything that involved sitting down and not walking.

I’m always a bit suspicious about canal tours – so many of them just cruise past a few apartment blocks telling you how much they cost, then start hinting they would like a tip at the end. This one restored my faith. The young woman guide started asking if anybody would like the tour in Danish. A few raised their hands. Then she asked in English. Most of the rest responded. Then she asked in Spanish. One family said “yes please.” Obviously they said “sí por favor.” but you probably already worked that out. The tour included views from the canals of the Opera House, the Royal Palace, Christiansborg Palace and, of course, the Little Mermaid. The guide was the most entertaining we had in the city. Fun and knowledgeable and perfectly fluent in all three languages. And just a little bit cute.

My feet were still a bit sore, even after a 45 minute sit down. Madam astonished me by almost running down the road. Her feet were a blur. She was darting in and out of groups of meandering tourists. Ducking under selfie sticks. I struggled to keep up. I called after her. All I heard was “pie… pie… pie… pie”. I had completely forgotten about the American Pie Shop. We made it there just a few minutes before they closed and she selected a large slice of “S’Mores Pie” to take back to the hotel.

For those of you unfamiliar with this peak of American culinary expertise, this is a sickly sweet confection consisting of cracker crumbs, heavy cream, sugar, chocolate, eggs and marshmallows. 

We made our way back to the hotel for the evening and Madam started on her pie. I asked how it tasted and she just said “Mmmmmm.. Mmmmm …. Mmmm… mmmm.”

I wasn’t sure if that meant it was good, or that her teeth had stuck together.

Copenhagen Day Six

Today we planned a trip to Roskilde to see the Cathedral and the Viking Ship Museum.

Roskilde is about 22 miles from the centre of Copenhagen. Travelling in England such a vast distance by train needs serious planning. You’ll need to check if there is a strike this week. Engineering works and a bus replacement? Cancelled trains due to management ineptitude? A signal failure somewhere in Scotland? Is it a full moon timetable? Has it snowed in the last two weeks? Leaves on the line? Bizarre restrictions on times you can travel on a specific ticket? Can I catch the 9.24 do I have to wait for the 10:00? Is there a remote chance of there being a seat, or will I have to stand for 40 minutes? Can my credit card handle the fare? Which of sixteen discount cards do I need to use? Then you give up and drive because you want to get there before teatime.

In Copenhagen you get on a train. The seats are wide and comfortable. There are no time restrictions. Travel when you like. It is all one fare. Trains run 24 hours a day every 10 or 15 minutes. There are lots of empty seats. There is fast, free and unrestricted WiFi. You can use the same ticket on a train, bus, metro or boat. Nobody is shouting into a mobile phone or screaming at their children. You get there in 23 minutes.

Is there anybody at Southern Rail listening?

We had a bit of a late start and it was almost 11 am by the time we reached Roskilde Cathedral. The cathedral, on a small hilltop overlooking Roskilde Fjord, was the first gothic cathedral to be built from brick. It was started in the 1170’s but took a hundred years to build mostly due to the lack of cheap flights to bring in bricklayers from Poland.

The cathedral gets 125,000 visitors a year from around the world. There was a large entrance sign and arrow on one side of the building pointing around the corner. We walked all round the building looking for a ticket office and front door. Having done the complete circuit and reached the sign again we stood and checked the Google to see if it was open. It was, the Google assured us. We started round the building again, together with another couple who had done the same. Tucked into a shady corner was a plain grey closed door which, it transpired, was the entrance. They used to have 250,000 visitors a year until the ‘Enter Here’ sign on the door fell off.

Like any church in continuous use since first built, Roskilde Cathedral has undergone many changes. Chapels within the cathedral were demolished and rebuilt. The occasional fire has led to restoration and reconstruction, often with major stylistic changes. Around it, the structure of the medieval town is still visible, with some medieval buildings and a few fine 17th and 18th century houses remaining.

The cathedral had a bit of a fall in fortunes during the Reformation of the 1530’s. The king decided he, not the church, owned the building and contents, slapped around the odd bishop, and helped himself to anything he fancied, which was most of the contents. Still, it did give him plenty of space to create tombs for him and his descendants. And did they take it seriously. The next several hundred years was witness to the most extreme bout of willy-waving known to man. Every succeeding king tried to make his tomb larger and more ornate than the last. And some of them are very large and ornate indeed. The later royals have calmed down a little and the recent tombs are simpler and stylish. Almost forty kings and queens of Denmark are buried in the cathedral.

We spent a couple of happy hours here with Madam checking off her list of every king and queen. I knew that she had an encyclopedic knowledge of every minor member of the British royal family. I did not know that this knowledge also extended to the Danish royals. She rattled off a long list of Federick this or Christian that and their various brothers, sisters and illegitimate children but the details blur a little in my memory. All I remember is that the current queen Margrethe’s husband had a bit of a hissy fit and decided he didn’t want his remains in Roskilde since he was only given the title of Prince and not King. When he died earlier this year, he had his wish granted and half his ashes were scattered in Danish waters and the other half at Fredensborg Castle north of Copenhagen. He was French, a bit chubby and had a penchant for goose liver pate, so nobody was much bothered.

A walk through the park behind the cathedral led us to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde harbour. This museum has the remains of five original Viking ships from the 11th-century. The five vessels originate from a blockade about twelve miles north of Roskilde. They were sunk into harbour inlets to prevent invaders reaching the city by sea. The boatyard specializes in reconstructions of Viking boats using the tools and materials available at that time.

I was really only there in the hope of finding a Viking hat with horns in my size but alas only the usual pens, guide books and tacky souvenirs were available in the gift shop. I did ask the woman serving but she was a bit sniffy and said that was just a myth. There is no such thing, she said. I don’t believe her. I have seen the pictures.

We had hoped to take a tour of the harbour in one of the reconstructed Viking ships but they were fully booked by the time we got round to it. Instead, we took a brief tour of the shipyard where the guide explained at length how they were at the forefront of experimental archeology, creating nails from bog iron ore and planks from felled oak trees. Due to the immense amount of labour used smelting iron and splitting oak logs, each boat cost many hundreds of thousands of Euros to build. The on-site blacksmith created an iron nail while we watched and the carpenter hacked half-heartedly at an oak plank to demonstrate the techniques used.

We wandered around the remains of the ships, located in a specially built hall. It was directly on the water so you could see the sea behind the ships. It was well presented but there is only so long you can look at lumps of 11th century wood without needing a cup of tea. On the way out I noticed a workshop with an open door. I poked my head in and saw a very large and impressive table saw, an electric bandsaw and a lot of modern tools and perfect machined planks of wood.

Tivoli Gardens is listed as the number two attraction in Copenhagen by TripAdvisor. The park opened in 1843 and is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world, after Dyrehavsbakken in nearby Klampenborg, also in Denmark. It has one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters built in 1914 along with more modern rides that promise 4G forces and one which will turn you upside down at 100 km/h.

It’s probably great if you have deep pockets and young children with strong stomachs. Admission is over £14 then each ride costs between £3.60 and £10.70. Games of chance, with decidedly poor odds, were available if you needed a giant bar of chocolate or a stuffed giraffe. Not a real giraffe obviously.

There is a central lake and gardens and many restaurants and bars. In the evening it is lit by thousands of bulbs and we were promised a light show if we stayed until 10:45. We got there at 8pm and were bored by 9pm. It was nice enough, the gardens were pleasant and there were plenty of deckchairs if you could get over the smell of raw sewage wafting from the central drains. They seemed to be having a problem and there was a tanker with an impressively large hose down a drain in the center of the seating area.

Since neither of us had any desire to hang upside down seventy feet above the ground after dinner, or hang about by the drains, we strolled round the gardens a couple of times then sat in a bar waiting for the light show. I had a Danish beer served in a German beer-hall glass in an Irish Pub.

The light show? Oh dear. Somebody needs to go to Vegas to get some tips.

Copenhagen Days Four and Five

Day 4.

Our first visit of the day was to the Danish National museum in the centre of Copenhagen. I was mostly interested in the Viking exhibits which were wonderful and absorbing. Vikings in these parts had a habit of making offerings to the gods by dumping them in the local bog. These included jewellery, weapons, boats, animals and the occasional human sacrifice. The lack of oxygen in the bog preserved many of these and they are on display in the museum.

Having been to Jorvic museum a couple of weeks ago, I found this ten times better. I know it was Denmark, so it probably should have more stuff but the way it was displayed was far more thoughtful. More about education than entertainment. Sadly, the Jorvik museum with its long queues probably makes ten times as much money as the National Museum and that, after all, is what counts nowadays. I could have happily spent all day in there, but they didn’t have air-conditioning and they didn’t believe in opening any windows. We were both sweating liberally by the time we had finished the Viking exhibits.

It was a lovely museum spoiled only by the two young women on the ticket office booking us onto the 2pm tour of a seperate Victorian house that Madam had specifically wanted to see. We waited several minutes after 2pm, only to be told that the last tour for a week had been at 1pm. Madam was a little grumpy to hear this and remonstrated with any of the staff that would listen. Their response was to shrug their shoulders as if to say “We are blonde, what do you expect?” This made her very grumpy indeed.

The afternoon visit was to Rosenborg Castle. The Visit Copenhagen website tells me:

‘A royal hermitage set in the King’s Garden in the heart of Copenhagen, Rosenborg Castle features 400 years of splendor, royal art treasures and the Crown Jewels and Royal Regalia.’

It was all gold and gilt and twiddly bits of decoration, along with a bunch of tapestries and picture of deceased royals. After the first couple of rooms, they seemed to blur together. How many pictures of 18th century monarchs or how many elaborate carvings can you take?

I don’t remember much more of the castle apart from the King’s toy soldiers in the basement. There were 250 in all, in gilt silver. I couldn’t help wondering how many of the starving poor outside the palace gates all that gold and silver would have fed. I’m sure the ruling class would argue that the poor would just breed faster if you fed them. More poor at the gates and the king wouldn’t have had any toy soldiers to play with. That would never do.

The vault in part of the basement held the Danish crown jewels. Madam loves that sort of thing and I had to hold her back from asking if she could try on the crown. There was a young guide giving a private tour to four American tourists in the jewel room. We caught the last couple of minutes of his talk. At the end, one of the Americans asked “If the queen rules Denmark, is the Prime Minister just for show?” I tried to suppress a laugh. I really did.

Day 5.

“Mmmmm…” said Madam “These bananas taste just like the ones in England.”

She pondered this profound thought for a minute and continued “I like Copenhagen but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

“Why not?” I asked.

She gazed out over the harbour enjoying her Danish-just-like-English banana and thought for another minute and said “I don’t speak Danish.”

I did wonder about our complete lack of knowledge of the language when we booked the trip. Normally we attempt to learn a few words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘do you speak English’ and ‘If I speak loudly and slowly in English will you understand me?’ Due to two other trips in the weeks before, we didn’t even get round to that. We need not have worried. Try as we might, we couldn’t find a single Dane that didn’t speak English. Some of them were so fluent you would have sworn that they were a native of an English speaking country. I later flipped through the TV channels in the hotel and many were in English.

Spoken Danish still sounds something like “fladen laden dahden dodle due nic den naden noodle” but after a week there we started to understand some of the written signs and menu items. It helps that some of the words sound similar even if the spelled words have weird and joined up letters like æ and ø. For example In and Out are Ind and Ud. Cold is Kold. Forty Six is Seksogfyrre (think six and forty). Parking is Parkering. Free is Fri. Give me a month there and I think I could manage to order a pizza in Danish if the server was very patient. It helps that the Danish word for pizza is pizza.

Copenhagen Day Three

This morning started with a visit to the Botanic Gardens. There were just a few people strolling or walking their dogs – a pleasant change from the crowds of yesterday. It was nice enough but just lots of different trees and shrubs, rather than flowers. A walk amongst 50 shades of green. There was a butterfly house and a palm house I wanted to visit but it was hot and the sun was beating down. Spending an hour in a glasshouse didn’t appeal.

We picked one of the hottest weeks during a heatwave that had spread across the northern hemisphere. It wasn’t as bad as California which recorded a high of 49C, or Algeria at 51.3C but it was still uncomfortably hot. Walking in blazing sunshine in high temperatures was more tiring than we expected. When you visit a traditionally hot climate, you can often pop into a shop or cafe to cool down but the Danes have never embraced air-conditioning. Their focus is on keeping warm in subzero temperatures. If was often far too hot to spend a lot of time in museums or restaurants.

In search of a cooling breeze, we headed to Amager Strand beach on the far eastern coast of Copenhagen. You can see the bridge to Malmo in Sweden a little further along the coast, fading into the distance but I couldn’t make out the Swedish coast. The sandy beach was a popular area with the locals and was already packed by noon and a steady stream of new visitors were arriving from the train station or on bicycles. We sat on a bench for a while but there wasn’t much to do apart from sunbathe or swim.

A proper seaside town would have slot-machine amusements and a pier. Tacky gift shops selling buckets and spades. Pubs selling two-for-one cocktails and a promenade with interestingly shaped slicks of slippery vomit. Sticks of pink rock with an alarming quantity of E numbers. Kiss Me Quick hats and donkey rides for the children. Spilt beer and broken bottles. Cheap tattoo parlours where you can get ‘Carpa Diam’ tattooed on the back of your neck along with unusual intimate piercings. Feral ten-year olds on bikes boasting about their lastest ASBO.  A brawl every evening at 11pm sharp.

These Danes just don’t know how to have fun.

A short metro ride back towards the city found us in Christianshavn. Our guidebook promised us cobbled streets and charming houses and courtyards. After much searching, we found one street with a couple of old houses but that was about it. We caught a bus back to the hotel so Madam could take a nap.