Ludlow in a Day

From eggs to aliens – my day in the Shropshire town of Ludlow.

Ludlow is known as a foodie destination. I wasn’t that impressed with the food side of things, but did find plenty to keep me interested on the day I spent there as part of my A49 road trip.

First up was the Ludlow Food Centre. This is slightly outside Ludlow itself along the A49 in Bromfield. Continue reading “Ludlow in a Day”

Vikings and Vasa

A boat that sank 300 years ago and a Viking called Gustav.

Ok, so I’m a bit obsessed with Vikings. I know I shouldn’t approve of mobs of wild men who go out raiding, pillaging and generally scaring the living daylights out of everyone who comes across them, but there’s something about them that fascinates me. It’s probably their zest for life and intrepid travel that attracts me.

Vasa Museum
The purpose built Vasa Museum

Of course I couldn’t go to Stockholm and not visit Vasa. It’s the biggest tourist attraction in the city. What the Tower is to London, Vasa is to Stockholm. The Tower of London gets almost 3 million visitors a year; Vasa gets 1.2 million. But when you think that London is one of the world’s major capital cities and is an important hub for air travel, then you realise that Stockholm is punching well above its weight with Vasa.

I knew this meant it would be crowded and I thought it could well be tacky, but it’s not every day I get the chance to visit a massive Viking ship that lay on the bottom of the sea for 300 years before being raised in a death-defying recovery operation.

IMG_8468Vasa was actually so much better than I expected. Yes, it was crowded, but not so much that I felt hemmed in or unable to see anything.

IMG_8427The ship sits in the middle of a huge hall with various levels of floor wrapped around it. Some parts have been restored, but others have been left open so the inside can be seen.

IMG_8463 IMG_8467 IMG_8479I started with a tour. The guide was really informative and walked the small group round the ship talking about the history, the design, the engineering, the recovery and of course, how it sank in the first place.

Vasa detailIt was on its maiden voyage and only made it 1300 metres before going down due to being top heavy with all the cannons it was carrying into battle.

Vasa cannonEven the Titanic did better than that!

paint samples

Over a period of twelve years, more than a thousand pigment samples have been taken from Vasa. All in all, twenty different kinds of paint have been found.

A small replica ship has been built showing how brightly coloured the original Vasa would have been when it set sail.

Painted replica Vasa painted replica VasaHow stunning is this? And how different to the dull brown that I assumed the ship would have been.

Although the bulk (literally as well as figuratively) of the exhibition is taken up with the Vasa itself, there are plenty of other related displays too.

The one that interested me the most was about the skeletons found in the boat. Using modern technology, several of the skeletons have had facial reconstructions so we can see what they would have looked like. Scientists have also been able to discover facts about their lives from their bones.

Gustav's skeleton


Information about GustavAfter spending several hours looking at everything, reading everything and photographing everything it was time for fika.

The cafe has a wonderful outdoor area that made feel like I was sat on a boat, albeit a more comfortable one than the Vasa.

cafe at Vasa

Skansen Open-Air Museum

I needed more than a day to see the world’s oldest open-air museum.

I like open-air museums. I like being able to poke around in the houses and imagine how people used to live. I’d been to a couple already in Sweden, but knew the best was to come.

turf roofed house, Skansen

Skansen was the world’s first open-air museum. It opened in 1891 and has been growing ever since. The buildings cover five centuries of Swedish history and have been collected from the far ends of the country as well as all the bits in between.

house and gardens, SkansenI first heard of it when I read Selma Lagerlöf’s book ‘The Wonderful Adventure of Nils’. The 1906 novel tells of a naughty boy who is shrunk by a elf and finds himself swept away on the back of a goose. He travels with the flock to the far north of the country and back again, having many adventures along the way. One of the places he finds himself is Skansen.

turf roofed house, Skansen milk churns and crate, Skansen Skansen gardenI knew Skansen was going to be big so I made sure I was there early. As well as the buildings, there is also a zoo and an aquarium. I stayed the whole day – I was able to continue wandering round after it had officially closed, so don’t know at what time they actually throw people out – but still didn’t get time to visit the aquarium. And although I felt like I got a good look at everything else, I would’ve have liked to have been able to take it more slowly. I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime.

trains, SkansenIMG_8295 Skansen houseSome of the buildings have people dressed in periodic costume and demonstrating the skills and trades of the time. I was most interested in the ones involving food, like the bakery below, which was selling the finished product.

Skansen bakery Skansen grocer's bikeThe lady here was making traditional bread. It was only made a couple of times a year and would be a great social occasion as the women would come together to spend the whole day making it. The bread was dried so it would last for months.

Making bread, Skansen Baking bread, SkansenThe zoo had native animals like wolves, wolverines, reindeer and bears. Most of the animals were either hiding in the bushes from the strong sun or running around so fast I couldn’t get a clear photo. But I did catch this sleepy reindeer and bear.

Reindeer, Skansen Sleeping bear, SkansenThere was also a monkey house, but I somehow think these aren’t native.

monkey, Skansen

Groningen Museum

An exhibition on Nordic Art was a great way to start my visit to Groningen.

Arriving on the train from Amsterdam this morning I went straight to the Groningen Museum. This made sense as the museum is right in front of the station, lying on an island in the canal that runs in front of the station and circumambulates the old part of the city, effectively turning the whole of the old city into an island.

Groningen Train Station

It also made sense because I could leave my heavy bag in the cloakroom and so didn’t have to walk round with it for a few hours. I’m only in Groningen for 3 days and so only have my daypack but it’s still heavy to be lugging around with me all day. The hostel is on the far side of the town, only a 20 min walk from the station but still … and I couldn’t check in till after 3pm anyway.

It cost a hefty 13 euros to get into the museum and I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a museum year card at 49 euros but worked out I probably wouldn’t get my money’s worth. When I used to come to the Netherlands more often I always had a museum card and it was so much nicer not having to worry about the cost when going to museums.

I had no idea what to expect from the very modern multi-coloured building (a complete contrast to the old ornate train station opposite) so hoped I wasn’t to be disappointed. I wasn’t.

The current special exhibition is on Nordic Art and blew my mind. The colours! The light! The impact! I had never heard of any of the artists but now have a few new favourites.There were artists representing all five countries which are considered Nordic – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland. I spent well over an hour walking from room to room trying to take it all in.

Yin Xiuzhen ‘Weapon’ 2003-2007

Another exhibition which caught my attention was the a display of weapons hanging from the ceiling of one of the rooms, all at different heights. Each ‘weapon’ had a kitchen knife tip but the hilt was made from old clothes; stretched jumpers and the like. It was all rather colourful and effective. Here’s the blurb:

Resembling darts that appear to be heading directly toward their target, these colourful objects look not only dangerous but also comical. On the one hand, the threat is reinforced by the knives that are attached to the spear-like objects, but the fact that these are primarily kitchen knives, in conjunction with the feature that they are made of second-hand clothes, emphasizes their domestic nature. The ‘weapons’ evoke the idea of TV masts, which have similar form and function all over the world. To Yin, they are the ultimate weapon. After all, they control the flow of information like gigantic filters.

How deep and meaningful is that?

I sat in the theatre for an hour watching a Michael Palin film about Danish artist Hammersvoi. I’d never come across this programme before let alone the artist so learnt quite a lot.

The rest of the museum I wasn’t so interested in. The regular collection, which was actually quite good, couldn’t excite me after the Nordic Art exhibition. I also found a basement room full of crockery. China displays never really interest me at the best of times and this one didn’t either. What I did like about it was the way it had been displayed. The glass cabinets were all shrouded by a maze of net curtains. It really was like a maze and got quite disorientating walking around trying to see everything and never knowing what was going to be behind the next curtain. In one space the exhibits were actually in the floor with a layer of glass over them. I think it was meant to be representative of how some of these exhibits have been ‘discovered’ but as there was no information it was difficult to be sure.

Finally I saw an exhibition of Russian women artists which at another time I probably would have really enjoyed but by this time I was all museum-ed out and had achey legs and an empty stomach. I retired to the restaurant for an expensive panini and a cup of coffee before wandering round town and finding my hostel.

Here are some of the amazing Nordic Art paintings I saw:

Hajj Exhibition at the British Museum

A major exhibition at the British Museum.

The Hajj Exhibition at the British Museum was of relevance to me because of my interest in Islam. As an aspect of Islam, the Hajj is of particular fascination because it’s something I’m unlikely to ever experience. To be allowed to enter the area of Mecca I’d have to be a Muslim. As a female I’d have to be in the company of my husband or close male relative who would also need to be Muslim. Now that I’m over forty I could get around the unaccompanied female clause by going as part of an all female group, but there’s no way around the non-Muslim bit unless I was to convert. As I’m not religious and don’t hold any particular belief in God that would be rather hypocritical of me.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All able-bodied Muslims must make this pilgrimage once in their lifetime as long as they can afford it. And of course it is something they should try to afford. As pilgrimages go this must be one of the, if not the, most ritualistic. Over the course of five or six days the various steps are followed by several million pilgrims, aided by around 12,000 guides. Bear in mind the setting is the red-hot Saudi Arabian desert, and one of the steps involves standing out on the plains of Mount Arafat for the whole day, and you can begin to see that this is no holiday but a real test of mind and body.

This site is the official Saudi Arabian site for the Hajj and gives lots of details.

But, back to the exhibition. I’d bought my ticket well in advance and so could go straight in. One of the first things I saw was a piece of a kisweh. The kiswah is the gigantic cloth, usually black and decorated with a band of Arabic inscriptions embroidered in gold thread, that covers Islam’s most holy place, the Ka’aba. It is to the Ka’aba that Muslims all over the world turn when they pray. A new cloth is produced each year. The piece in the exhibition was huge and it was wonderful to get so close to it. I can’t imagine the majority of pilgrims themselves getting that close. Although all pilgrims must circumambulate the Ka’aba seven times, sheer numbers must surely mean the majority are circumambulating at some distance.

Once inside the exhibition proper, the displays wound around the hall imitating the journey of the Hajj itself. The first section showed what it’s like to prepare for Hajj and had stories told by people departing from different countries. The next sections followed the days of Hajj culminating in the pilgrims’ arrival back at home. Each section had a range of exhibits, which I found quite interesting to see, and various short films, audio testimonies and photographs to complement them. There was plenty of information provided in each section so a visitor not so familiar with the procedures and meanings of Hajj should learn plenty and have no trouble understanding what they are looking at. I found this slightly less interesting as it was a little too basic for me. Any visitors who have studied Islam should go to the exhibition with the intention of seeing artefacts they would not normally get the chance to see, rather than to learn something new.

Would I recommend this exhibition? Yes. Is this one of the best exhibitions I’ve been to at the British Museum? No.

Here are some statistics about last year’s hajj that I’ve copied from the Telegraph website.

Key numbers for the Hajj this year:

– An estimated 2.5 million pilgrims are gathering in Mecca this year – 1.8 million from abroad and 700,000-800,000 from inside Saudi Arabia.

– Every Muslim country has a hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants and the biggest contingent – 200,000 pilgrims – will come from Indonesia.

– Saudi Arabia is deploying some 63,000 security forces, including 3,500 anti-riot policemen backed by 450 armoured vehicles, while the civil defence is deploying 22,000 forces and 6,000 vehicles.

– Some 1,500 CCTV cameras have been installed in and around Mecca’s Grand Mosque and 29 police stations will be open to serve the holy places.

– Some 20,000 health workers have been mobilised to cope with any emergency and five rescue helicopters also have been readied to serve the faithful.

– More than 12,000 male and female guides known as “mutawif” help organise the pilgrims’ stay.

– The Grand Mosque at the centre of Mecca, where pilgrims gather to pray and circle the cubic Kaaba building, covers 368,000 square meters and can hold more than 1.5 million people.

– The Kaaba rests on a marble base and is built from granite, and has a door made from 280 kilos (616 pounds) of pure gold. The black silk kiswa covering, made anew every year, is embroidered with holy phrases using 150 kilos (330 pounds) of gold and silver thread.

Whilst I was googling I came across this site – I’ve only had a quick look at it but it’s definitely one I’ll come back to.

Hockney at the Royal Academy

Wish I’d allowed more than 2hrs to see this fantastic exhibition.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the Hockney exhibition whilst I was in London. The online allocation of tickets had long been sold out so I was reliant on buying a ticket once I arrived. The queue for same day tickets was an hour or two long, but for next day tickets it was only 5-10 minutes long. Lucky me.

The following day I turned up and got straight in. It was quite crowded but the timed tickets made sure it wasn’t over-crowded and so it was still easy to get a good look at everything.

The exhibition was much bigger than I’d expected and spanned a period of about fifty years. Many of the paintings depict landscapes, including a series showing the same countryside scene throughout the four seasons.

Not all of the works were paintings however. Several large scales images were actually made up of hundreds of polaroid photos. These photographs were each taken of a tiny part of a huge landscape such as the Grand Canyon and then pieced together jigsaw style to create a whole huge image. The look was really effective and this is something I really must try at some point. I don’t have enough wall space (or enough patience) to do anything on his scale, but even a smaller version would be fun to try.

Hockney has recently discovered iPads and has been using one for his intial sketches. One exhibition room had a series of iPads showing the sketches he’s done. In one of the main exhibition rooms was a group of primary school children all squatting on the floor with their own iPads copying his paintings. It was fascinating to watch them and seeing the iPads in use – they were getting almost as much attention as Hockney!  

One of the best exhibits was a series of films. Hockney was born in Bradford but has lived in Los Angeles for decades. A few years ago he came back to Yorkshire to spend time with his sick mother and rediscovered his love of the place. He’s painted quite prolifically since then, but also got into film-making pioneering a technique using 18 cameras. The cameras were all loaded onto the front of a landrover at different heights and angles. As he drove slowly up a Yorkshire lane the cameras captured the scene from eighteen different perspectives. These films are shown simultaneously on eighteen joined together screens. There is some overlap which in itself creates an interesting effect, but mostly the perspectives merge well to give the impression of actually moving down the lane yourself. One camera, even with a wide-angle lens, shows such a restricted perspective but it’s only when seeing something like this do you realise how restrictive normal photography and filming is. I really felt like I was there and it seemed more realistic than any 3D film I’ve seen.

I spent about two hours at the exhibition and could easily have stayed longer, but I had to leave to ensure I was on time for my floatation appointment. I would highly recommend this exhibition, but do allow plenty of time.

Laxness Museum

A mission in the snow led to a house I could’ve moved right into.

Going here was a real mission. Halldor Laxness is Iceland’s best known writer, probably because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which I suppose says a lot. I’ve only read one of his books so far, but I loved it and do want to read more. As well as liking him as an author, the reviews of this museum were good and as I love having a nosey round other people’s houses … well, it just had to be done.

I’d checked the opening times of the museum online, so I only needed to know how to get there as it’s quite far out of Reykjavik. When I asked for directions in the tourist office, the woman behind the desk said ‘well, first you need to rent a car, then …’ She didn’t continue as she’d seen my look of dismay. Even if I could afford car rental, there would be no way I’d drive in this amount of snow!

So then she said, ‘let me check in case I’m being too pessimistic’. A few minutes later she’d come up with a plan for me. I had to get one bus way out of the city and then get a connecting bus that left only five minutes after the first bus was due to arrive, so it would all be a bit fine-cut, but possible.

On the day, I wanted to be sure of nothing going wrong so called in at the bus station an hour and a half before the first bus was due to leave. I checked my plans with the lady in the ticket office and what a good job I did. Because it is winter and not many people go to the Laxness Museum, the second bus only runs if it is booked at least an hour in advance. She phoned for me and booked both my outward and return journeys. As the buses are only every four hours I was going to have a long time at this museum. I was hoping for a little coffee shop I could sit in and read and write my journal.

The first bus arrived on time and got me to the required stop right on schedule. I shouldn’t really expect any less from Icelandic buses. Even in this weather everything seems to run like clockwork. There was a taxi waiting at the bus stop, with two people sitting in the back. The bus station lady had said something about the bus being a taxi, but I thought she meant some kind of minibus taxi. No, the bus was an actual taxi.

The bus/taxi driver dropped me at the last stop which was a few minutes walk from the actual house. It was bitterly cold and the snow was really deep and difficult to walk through. By the time I got to the house my fingers were numb even though I was wearing fleecy gloves. I wasn’t looking forward to hanging around the bus stop for long on the way back.

The house is large and white and Laxness lived there with his wife and children for most of his life. His wife, who was younger than him, is still alive but lives in a home in Reykjavik. There are wonderful views of hills and fields on all sides. In the garden to the side is a small swimming pool. The steam rising from the geothermally heated water made it look so inviting; an oasis in the snow.

The house was so homely inside, I could really imagine living there and curling up on one of the sofas with a good book. There were so many things that I would like in a house of my own if I could have one big enough. The hallway had a grandfather clock and an old chest; the living room had a grand piano, an egg chair, and large array of cacti and other tropical plants (they looked incongruous but good against the snowy background!); the dining room had a table to seat twelve and a samovar; the bedrooms had plenty of bookshelves; the study was lined with books, had a couple of desks (a tall one that Laxness would stand at to write, and a regular one at which his wife would sit to type up his manuscripts), and piles of papers; and there was a small library, basically what would be the box room in any other house, but in this one it was lined with books. Throughout the house was an art collection of mostly modern works and a collection of artefacts gathered from trips around the world.

I walked round the house listening to the audio guide and then went round twice more just looking and trying to absorb the place. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the house, but plenty can be found here on the museum’s website.

Once I could tear myself away, I walked round the garden and then watched a short video in the ticket office. One of the ladies working in the museum was finishing work and offered me a lift back to the bus stop where I could catch one of the regular buses back into Reykjavik. As there was no coffee shop for me to sit in and wait another 2 or so hours until the taxi bus was due, I gratefully accepted and she phoned to cancel the taxi bus for me. If the weather had been different I would have easily passed the time going for a walk and exploring the area, but it would have been foolhardy in conditions like this when I would have no idea what the ground was like that I was walking on because of the thick layer of snow.

Even though it’s a real trek out of town, this is somewhere I will come to again the next time I’m in Iceland.

I wrote this review of Laxness’ best known novel, ‘Independent People’.