Bruges 2011 – Day 4

The morning of our return to London is bright and sunny, though with a slight chill on the air. We got up and went for breakfast as usual and then returned to the room for the last time to close our bags and make sure we had packed everything.

The plan is to take the train to Brussels straightaway, deposit our bags in a locker, and explore the city until it is time to check in at Eurostar. Perhaps I will get a belated chance to speak French.

Brussels feels more French to me
Brussels feels more French to me

When we reached the bus stop near the hotel, we found it was closed. This meant we had to set off and find another one, dragging our bags along behind us. This is a chore at the best of times but the Belgian cobbles make it even harder work, not to mention noisier.

The street name signs are in both languages
The street name signs are in both languages

We found a bus stop and enquired of each driver whether the bus went to the station. We were third time lucky. After our experience with the day tickets yesterday, we asked whether we could buy a day ticket here in Bruges and use it in Brussels. Apparently not, the reason being that the Brussels buses are run by a different company.

The train we caught was 10 minutes late and therefore missed its slot, with the result that it had to follow a slow train to Ghent, after which it was able to resume normal running speed. We were glad that we had chosen to go early or we would have been worrying that we were going to miss our connection.

They have public hire bicycles here too
They have public hire bicycles here too

At Brussels we tried without success to make the luggage lockers work but they grumpily refused to operate. In the end, we gave up and took our bags to the left luggage. We would have had to pay more because they charge per item but we managed to stuff Tigger’s bag into my larger one and save money!

Fruit and vegetable market in the Maroccan quarter
Fruit and vegetable market in the Maroccan quarter

We then set out to explore Brussels. By chance we found ourselves in what turned out to be a Moroccan or Middle Eastern district and had mint tea in a Moroccan cafe.

Le Faucon
Le Faucon

I had had a lengthy conversation in French on the train but now I could hear French spoken all around me. We were looking for the cafe where we had had lunch on our Waterloo courier run (La Plume – De Pluim) but didn’t manage to find it. (See A trip to Waterloo.) Instead, we had lunch in a brasserie called  "Le Faucon", which was very French, and where I felt I was in comfortable familiar surroundings.

Familiar surroundings
Familiar surroundings

After lunch we had time to go for another walk. Up the road from the restaurant is the Porte de Hal (Hallepoort), set in a pleasant garden or park.

The medieval (though modified) Porte de Hal
The medieval (though modified) Porte de Hal

The Hal Gate dates from the Middle Ages when Brussels was a fortified town. It was one of seven gates in the inner wall of the city fortifications built in the 14th century. These fortifications, measuring 8 km in length were dismantled in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Hal Gate alone survived because at that time it was used as a prison.

In the 19th century, the Gate became one of the first museums of Belgium and its exterior was modified with the addition of sloping roofs and a neo-Gothic façade. Today it remains as a cherished reminder of Belgium’s past.

The Porte de Hal in its park
The Porte de Hal in its park

The gate is set in a fine park where today people were enjoying the warm weather and the sunshine. Unfortunately for us, though, we had to start back to the station to reclaim our bags and check in for our Eurostar departure.

We had been advised to visit the main centre of Brussels but because we had relatively little time to spare, we didn’t pursue that idea. In the event our visit to the Moroccan area and the Porte de Hal was interesting enough in the time we had. Even so, we left feeling a little cheated because Brussels seemed worth a longer visit. Perhaps we will manage to spend a longer time here on another occasion. I would certainly like to get to know it a little better.

We hope to come to Brussels on a longer visit
We hope to come to Brussels on a longer visit


Our trip to Belgium was a success and we enjoyed it greatly. Tigger organized it all, together with our days out, and made it all fun as she always does.

Apart from passing through Brussels, we spent the whole time in Flanders, the Flemish part of Belgium. Flanders impressed me as a modern, efficient and clean country (very Dutch in that respect) that also keeps a careful eye on the historic and beautiful vestiges of its fascinating past. The people were very kind, helpful and good humoured, and in this respect they added to the pleasure of our stay. They are rightly proud of what they have.

I find it sad that this beautiful and attractive country should be so divided politically and culturally, with the threat of break-up continually being mooted, but whatever the future holds, I am hopeful that the Belgians will face it resolutely and conquer any vicissitudes.

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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Bruges 2011 – Day 3

This is the weekend when the clocks go forward. The hotel thoughtfully put a printed "important message" in our room to remind us. It means that we have an hour’s less sleep. I do wish they would stop messing about with the clocks in this way.

Today we are taking the same train as yesterday but going only half as far – to the city of Ghent, the second of the cities recommended to us by the tourist information office. At the station we again bought a weekend tariff ticket and then had a train within minutes.

The day is overcast, though the sun is trying to break through, and it is again cold.

Collared dove Nesting dove
Collared doves of Ghent station

On arriving at Ghent station we were met by a pair of collared doves who had a nest in the platform canopy.

Colourful decor, Ghent station
Colourful decor, Ghent station

Ghent station is smaller and far less elaborate than Antwerp’s but the concourse is prettily and colourfully painted.

Ghent station's turreted design
Ghent station’s turreted design

The exterior of the station is an unusual turreted design, like a castle, with a tall, off-set clock tower.

Bi-lingual war memorial
Bi-lingual war memorial

The station is not in the more interesting part of town. On arrival, we had to work out which transport would take us to the centre. With a little help from a local, we took a tram, having bought day tickets at a ticket machine. We got out at the Vogelmarkt ("Bird market") and started exploring.

I found it difficult to characterize the style
I found it difficult to characterize the style

At this point Ghent seemed far less picturesque or interesting than Bruges. We saw numbers of large impressive buildings, some old and of traditional pattern, but I found the style hard to characterize. Tigger felt it is more French but I am not so sure about that. It is true that I notice more vestiges of the French language here than in the other two towns but that could simply be a matter of chancing on them here and missing them elsewhere.

Monument to Edward Anseele
Monument to Edward Anseele

As it was Sunday, very little was open and there was a Sunday hush over the whole town. We eventually found a pleasant cafe for a rest and a hot drink. Afterwards we continued walking and eventually came upon the more interesting and picturesque part. For lunch, we found an inexpensive veggie place selling ready prepared foods and a choice of hot soups.

Electric cable with shoes
Electric cable with shoes

In this street, a cable carrying electricity and lights had become a depository for old shoes.

The old Stadhuis with another off-set clock tower
The old Stadhuis with another off-set clock tower

Traditional stepped gables
Traditional stepped gables

While Ghent has its share of traditional stepped gables, many other styles are also in evidence.

This building reminded me of Wedgewood designs
This building reminded me of Wedgewood designs

This building, reminiscent of Wedgewood designs is dated 1706. White relief on a red background creates an elegant as well as colourful finish.

Ghent's well preserved castle
Ghent’s well preserved castle

The Gravensteen Castle (“Castle of the Count”) was first built in the 12th century and still cuts and imposing figure with its well preserved battlements and turrets.

Street view with the Church of Saint Nicholas (Sint-Niklaaskerk)
Street view with the Church of Saint Nicholas (Sint-Niklaaskerk)

As in Bruges, there are plenty of churches in Ghent and plenty of religious iconography, as befits a country where the majority religion is Catholicism, I suppose. A favourite, to contrast the softly feminine Virgin holding the Christ Child, is the violently macho Archangel St Michael.

St Michael swashbuckling as usual
St Michael swashbuckling as usual

He is often shown, as here, waving his sword and trampling on a dragon who supposedly represents Satan.

Monument to the Van Eyck brothers
Monument to the Van Eyck brothers

This monument celebrates Hubert and Jan (or Johannis) Van Eyck, Flemish painters who were born in what is now Belgium. I don’t know why the pair look so snooty unless that’s supposed to be painterly gravitas gone slightly awry.

The Great Cannon (Groot Kanon)
The Great Cannon (Groot Kanon)

A slightly different sort of monument, this one is the Great Cannon, situated in a small square named after it, GrootKanon Plein. I have to admit that I do not know what purpose it served but I bet St Michael would like to get his violent little fingers on it.

These people seem to have the right attitude to monuments
These people seem to have the right attitude to monuments
The figure represents Jacob Van Arteveldt, aka “The Brewer”
(Look him up)

Feeling a little buildinged- and monumented-out, we decided to go for a tram ride. We had, after all, bought day tickets and might as well use them. This is actually a good way to tour the city.

Riding the tram is a good way to see the city
Riding the tram is a good way to see the city

We caught the tram at the castle and went with it to the terminus called Flanders Expo. There we stayed aboard (actually, I dozed off – so much for seeing the city!) while it ran back the other way to Wondelgem. Here we were turfed off but as this place just a suburb, the middle of nowhere, so to speak, we remained with the tram until we were allowed to board again.

Wondelgem or The Middle of Nowhere
Wondelgem or The Middle of Nowhere

By the time we reached the centre again, we were beginning to feel that we had seen and done enough, so we started back towards the station. Refreshments were in order so we made for the station buffet.

Buffet from outside Buffet carving
A sign of things to come

As we approached the buffet, from the pretty windows and carvings, we gained a hint of what was to come.

Tall pillars and painted-dial clock
Tall pillars and painted-dial clock

With its tall pillars and painted-dial clock, the buffet was like something from a past, more elegant, era. There were wall paintings, too, and a colourful tiled ceiling. Despite having been redecorated (perhaps many times) it retains its ancient charm.

The painted walls and lofty build give a "continental" feel to the premises
The painted walls and lofty build give a “continental” feel to the premises

Having had coffee, we decided to stay on for an early supper in these pleasant surroundings. The menu was entirely in Flemish and we sought the assistance of the waiter.

The glazed- tile ceiling
The glazed- tile ceiling

The waiter, it turned out, was the only person we encountered in a service position who had no English at all. He had to fetch two more colleagues who between them managed, with a bit of a struggle, to elucidate the menu for us.

Cycle park - they take their cycling seriously in Ghent
Cycle park – they take their cycling seriously in Ghent

Having finished our meal we saw that a train would depart for Bruges in about 10 minutes and so we hurried to the platform. We were pleased to find it was a double-decked train of the sort that is also common in the Netherlands. Naturally, we chose seats on the upper deck, where you have a better view out.

Chubby cherubs above a corner shop
Chubby cherubs above a corner shop

I think such double-decked trains would help alleviate the chronic congestion problems on the British railways but for that to be possible, bridges and tunnels would need to be raised or tracks lowered and I imagine that the cost would be prohibitive.

Public pump spout
Public pump spout

Back in Bruges, we went to catch the number 16 bus to the hotel. A single journey would cost 2 euros each so Tigger tried the day tickets that we had bought in Ghent. They worked! We got back to the hotel without further expense.

Yet another sad-faced saint (Sint-Veerle)
Yet another sad-faced saint (Sint-Veerle)

Bruges remains the prettiest of the three towns we have visited. The other two have their individual characters and points of interest and are worth a visit, but I think Bruges is over all the most attractive. On the other hand, it is smaller than the others and people keen on nightlife and other activities might prefer other livelier towns.

Coat of arms, Bisschopshuis (Bishop's Palace)
Coat of arms, Bisschopshuis (Bishop’s Palace)

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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Bruges 2011 – Day 2

Approaching Bruges station
Approaching Bruges station

Today is bright but overcast and chilly. I have reverted to my winter coat.

A quiet corner of the canal
A quiet corner of the canal

Breakfast at the hotel is a buffet with a good selection of foods, cooked or cold. We stocked up well, not knowing how long it would be until lunch!

Terrace of houses dating from 1582
Terrace of houses dating from 1582

We visited tourist information during our ramble yesterday and they were very knowledgeable and helpful. In view of our preferences, they suggested two towns to visit and today we are off the first of these, Antwerp. The hotel is rather a long way from the station but we decided to walk, using the map I had printed from the Web before we left London. Tomorrow I think we will try the bus.

The station was very quiet today (Saturday)
The station was very quiet today (Saturday)

For train travel at the weekend there is a special weekend rate, so it’s worth asking for this or clicking "Weekend" on the ticket machine. Our train arrived promptly at 10:04 and we went aboard. We found a pair of seats at the end of a carriage, near the door. The journey from Bruges to Antwerp takes about an hour and a half. I fell asleep for part of it which made it seem shorter.

Arriving at Antwerpen Centraal
Arriving at Antwerpen Centraal

Our first surprise in Antwerp was the station. It is huge and there are platforms on several levels. The station itself is elaborate and highly decorative. It’s more like a cathedral or prestigious government building than the common conception of a railway station.

Antwerp station concourse
Antwerp station concourse

The architecture of the station is quite magnificent and many people stopped to take photographs or be photographed with it as a background.

These domes are decorative and let in the light
These domes are decorative and let in the light

We spent some time studying the details of the station which was quite overwhelming.

One of the palatial entrance arches
One of the palatial entrance arches

In the square outside the station there were also curious and interesting sights to behold, such as

Lamp base
Lamp base

this ornate base holding a tall lamp, or

A wooden man
A wooden man

a piece of modern art in the form of a wooden man with a window in his chest.

One façade of the station
One façade of the station
(The camel belongs to the nearby zoological gardens)

The town centre where the more important buildings and monuments are to be found is away from the station but at the distance of an easy walk. There were many things to see along the way.

Chinese gate
Chinese gate

As in Bruges, there were religious shrines and symbols.

Religious symbols
Religious symbols

Streets of traditional buildings
Streets of traditional buildings

The Stadhuis (Town Hall)
The Stadhuis (Town Hall)

We reached the Grote Markt (market square) where the Stadhuis (Town Hall) stands.

A striking set of façades
A striking set of façades

We had been feeding our eyes (and our cameras) but now we felt it was time to feed the body.

Lunch!
Lunch!

We had lunch in a small restaurant called De Stadshuys because it was in the square opposite the actual Stadhuis and from here we saw what looked like a 19th century horse bus drawn by two beautiful chestnut horses. It turned out that the bus is a modern replica, not an antique, but even so, it seemed worth going for a ride.

The horse bus
The horse bus

It was cold on the open top deck of the horse bus but there were blankets and these helped. We hoped we might get some good photos from the high vantage point.

A view from the horse bus
A view from the horse bus

The ride lasts 40 minutes and although the speed is about walking pace, it’s a good way to see parts of the town. As in Bruges, many roads in Antwerp are cobbled. While such a surface is long lasting it also gives a bumpy ride and in a horse bus this is additional to the rocking and jerky movement of the vehicle, all of which combines to make it difficult to take photos without blurring.

A stall selling silver goods
A stall selling silver goods

After the horse bus deposited us in front of the Stadshuis again, we continued walking, working our way back towards the station.

Antwerp Zoo
Antwerp Zoo

Near the station is the Antwerp Zoo. This was founded in 1843 (which may explain why the name is displayed in French). I have no idea how good the zoo is as we did not go in.

Tiger mosaic
Tiger mosaic

We found that we had just missed a train to Bruges and had an hour to wait for the next one. This gave us the opportunity to engage in further exploration of the station.

The station operates on three levels
The station operates on three levels

Despite the elegance of the design, the structure is quite complex because the station operates on three levels.

Antwerp station clock
Antwerp station clock

The station clock shows the date of construction as 1905.

While Antwerp shares similarities with Bruges (the inevitable stepped gables were much in evidence) it has its own character. It feels like a bigger, busier town. Some parts of it were dirty and and in need of repair. For people who like the thrum of the city and plenty of night life, it is probably a better choice than Bruges. On a short visit we could not do it justice and it would take much more time to form an adequate view of the town.

By the time our train arrived, there was quite a crowd waiting. Belgians are not shy at pushing forward so there was something of a bun fight to get aboard and find seats.

My impression of Belgian trains is generally positive. The carriages seem wider than those of British trains because the seats are roomier whilst the central aisle probably gains a few centimetres too. One disadvantage is that the platforms at some stations are lower than at others, requiring more of a climb to get aboard. This would make life a little difficult for the elderly and the disabled.

The chilly morning had given way to a cold afternoon and an even colder evening. Arriving back at Bruges, we did not fancy a long walk in the dark from the station back to our hotel. Enquiries revealed that buses 6 and 16 would take us near our hotel. A 6 duly arrived and the driver confirmed the route then, having asked the name of our hotel, not only to told us when we reached our stop but also gave us directions on from there. This fits the general pattern of good humour and helpfulness that has characterized our interactions with the locals since we have been here.

The opulent interior of the Royal Cafe, Antwerp station
The opulent interior of the Royal Cafe, Antwerp station

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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Bruges 2011 – Day 1

Our destination on this trip is the Belgian city of Bruges, or Brugge. We will stay at an hotel there for three nights and, we hope, visit a couple of other towns as well.

As you probably know, modern Belgium mainly consists of Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south. As a result of political tensions, these are now autonomous regions, each with its own official language, Flemish in Flanders and French in Wallonia. There are also a few municipalities in the Liège area where German is spoken.

Brussels, both the national capital and the home of the European Parliament, represents a linguistic anomaly: although it is geographically within Flanders in what is theoretically a bi-lingual area, the city itself and the surrounding area are mainly French-speaking.

For more information on the fraught subject of Belgian politics and linguistic culture, see sources such as Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook.

The journey to and from Bruges is in two stages: first, St Pancras to Brussels by Eurostar, and secondly, Brussels to Bruges by local Belgian railway services. The Eurostar ticket covers further travel beyond Brussels to other destinations, as long as the second journey is taken within 24 hours of arriving at Brussels.

Our last trip to Belgium was in August 2008 when we went to Waterloo on a courier run. See A trip to Waterloo.

We got up bright and early with that energy that comes from the excitement of travel and the anxiety not to miss the train. Final packing done, we went to the bus stop.

Early morning at the bus stop
Early morning at the bus stop

It is a fine clear morning despite the chill, with an orange sunrise over the first buildings of City Road. There is already plenty of traffic on the main roads. The 214 bus is almost empty and we haul our luggage onto the empty rack.

At St Pancras, the Eurostar gates are already busy and I am glad I have the printed tickets ready. We shuffle through the gates and queue for the baggage inspection. Here we go through the demeaning process of removing all metal objects from our person, including belts with metal buckles and seeing our valuables slither away in a tray. At least they don’t make you take your shoes off here as they do in some places.

We dress again while queueing at passport control. The French Police des Frontières officer submits my passport to the machine, glances briefly at me and returns it.

After the expectation created by the check-in process, there is now nothing to do but wait. Our 7:34 train is still captioned. "Please wait in lounge", so I queue at Nero for coffee and rejoin Tigger and the luggage. At about 7:15, our platform is finally announced and we join the stream of people making for platform 5. There is no rush and everyone moves along calmly.

We have reservations in carriage 16, near the front of the train. Our seats are in the middle of the carriage, facing the rear. A woman’s voice emanates from the loudspeakers, first in English with the slightest of accents, then in perfect French and finally in Flemish, all with admirable fluency. The train pulls out into a bright sunny morning rendered slightly dusky by the tinted glass of the windows.

We passed through the Channel Tunnel while I was queueing at the buffet which, as usual, had already run out of nearly everything eatable. This is a continual failing on the part of Eurostar: how can you be out of food before 8am?

On arrival in Brussels, we disembarked and looked for the platform for Bruges. Tigger queued at the information kiosk while I looked at departures boards. Tigger won: our train would leave from platform 16 at 11:05. In fact, there was a last-minute platform change but we were soon on our way. I had my first conversation in French with a ticket inspector on the platform. He was "un petit rigolo", but at least I found out about trains and he was good enough to warn us of the platform change.

Platform 16, waiting for the Bruges train
Platform 16, waiting for the Bruges train

The train journey to Bruges takes about an hour. The station is on the outskirts and the hotel near the centre, so we took a cab. The cabbie turned out to be a Bosnian "new Belgian" and gave us some account of the town and of local politics. Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned a year ago but continues in office, running a caretaker government more or less in a state of paralysis.

Typical stepped gables
Typical stepped gables

The Flanders Hotel is posher than our usual hotel. We would not be staying here but for the reservation being part of an out-of-season package. We registered and went to our room which is small but quite pleasant.

Canals are a picturesque feature of Bruges
Canals are a picturesque feature of Bruges

We had a little rest, then set out on an exploratory tour of the town. Bruges is very picturesque and succeeding generations have taken pride in it and sought to maintain and enhance its beauty.

Flanders is famous for its intricately patterned lace
Flanders is famous for its intricately patterned lace

Because Flemish is spoken here, I would be at a loss here, not knowing anything of the language, except for an interesting and significant fact, namely that English is so widely spoken as to be almost considered a local language. So far, every native person we have met has spoken English fluently. Note too that the accent is, for the most part British and not American.

The elaborately styled stadhuis or town hall
The elaborately styled stadhuis or town hall

The reasons for this unusual linguistic phenomenon (which nevertheless reminds us of the similar widespread use of English in the Netherlands) include tourism and the presence in Brussels of the European Parliament and its associated institutions for all of whom English is the lingua franca.

Horse-drawn carriages are a good way to see the town
Horse-drawn carriages are a good way to see the town

Convenient and useful as this widespread competence in English is seen to be, concerns are being expressed about the degree to which the language, with its associated culture, is impinging on the Flemish language and culture. Official advice to those coming to live here is that they should learn Flemish but such "new Belgians" often complain that when they do try to speak the language, people answer them in English!

The Halles and Belfry
The Halles and Belfry

We had lunch in a small restaurant and this evening dined in a cafe whose main attraction was its low prices. While we ate, the manageress and three male customers engaged in amiable conversation, smoking all the while. This was a shock after smoke-free Britain. Moreover, as far as I know, they were breaking the law, because although smoking is still allowed in some places, it is banned where food is served.

The Provincial Court in the market square
The Provincial Court in the market square

After dinner we went for another ramble around the local part of town. In the dark with the lights, we were able to see another aspect of the city which we tried to capture with some night photos.

The fish market
The fish market

Our hotel provides a kettle and the makings of tea and coffee (a facility rarely found on the Continent in our experience). We have of course brought our own favourite teas with us and have rounded off an agreeable day with a brew-up.

Nearly every street corner has its Virgin and Child
Nearly every street corner has its Virgin and Child

Thus ends our first day. Travelling by Eurostar is easy, comfortable and convenient (as long as there are no tunnel fires or other problems!) and changing trains at Brussels was easy. Bruges impresses us as a pretty town, well cared for. Many buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries and have been preserved rather than modified and modernized. The typical stepped Dutch gable is seen everywhere but eventually comes to strike one as a cliché. I began yearning for some variety.

Canal and Belfry
Canal and Belfry

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Ready to go

While going away on a trip or a holiday is fun, for me there is always a downside: it involves taking Freya to the cattery. I start to feel anxious days before and this uncomfortable feeling intensifies as we come nearer and nearer to the date of departure.

I suffered the same anxiety over my previous cat, so it has nothing to do with the particular cat or with the cattery. The cattery we use today is very good and looks after Freya, perhaps better than she deserves, given her grumpy and even fractious behaviour while there.

My emotional discomfort comes, I think, from the fact that I cannot explain to the cat that her stay is only temporary and that we shall soon come to collect her and take her home again. I can do nothing to assuage the fear and uncertainty that Freya obviously feels when she is put in the basket to go to some unknown destination. I imagine her in the cattery with no way of knowing that this new life is not permanent, no way of knowing that I will eventually come for her. I suffer the anxiety that I imagine she suffers.

At the time of writing my last post, I was uncertain whether Freya would be going to her usual cattery or staying with the vet. We resolved that question this morning. The vet found that Freya had not lost weight and I was able to say that her demeanour had improved and that she had even eaten a hearty breakfast. On the other hand, she hasn’t been usual herself over the last few days and so, for peace of mind, we agreed it was better that she should stay with the vet, who boards cats and dogs on the premises. I will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that her condition is being supervised and that if treatment should be necessary, there will be a vet on hand.

I phoned the cattery to let them know that Freya would not be staying with them this time. They were quite happy with the arrangement as they understand the situation and in any case, would not want to have to handle an ailing cat.

So tomorrow we depart to our as yet unrevealed destination (or have you guessed it yet?). Faced with my failure to print off the Eurostar tickets online yesterday evening, I called Eurostar this morning. They confirmed that reservations issued by that particular agent would not print on their site but agreed that it was a good idea to print them beforehand. So after depositing Freya, I walked down to St Pancras and interviewed a ticket machine. Or did it interview me? No matter: either way it worked. You type in your booking reference, it displays your details, you confirm they are correct and it prints off your tickets. All done and dusted.

All that remains is the packing. Our stay is a short one so we will not need to take much but at this time of year it is not easy to know what to pack: warm clothes? spring clothes? raincoat? We will end up taking a range of stuff to cover all eventualities.

Our train leaves at 7:34am and we are advised to check in 45 minutes beforehand. I hate these early starts! Fortunately, St Pancras is within easy walking distance or we can take the friendly 214 bus to the door.

And yes, I am looking forward to going to fetch Freya next Tuesday.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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A short intermission

There now follows a short intermission, as they used to say in the old days of the cinema.

On Friday, terribly early in the morning, we are supposed to be departing by Eurostar to what some people consider the European mainland and other people, foreign parts. All being well, we shall return again and I will recount our adventures and show you the photos.

I am writing this now as I am not sure that I will have time to post tomorrow. We have had a difficult few days and tomorrow promises to continue in the same way.

It turned out that I was over-optimistic in thinking that Freya had been restored to full health. After an initial boost to her appetite, she stopped eating again and was very quiet and unresponsive, not at all her usual alert and affectionate self. Since then, her appetite has picked up a little and she is more herself, though still rather quiet and not eating normally.

I felt that I had to call the cattery and tell them this and ask what they thought about it. It would have been wrong just to foist a sick animal on them, quite apart from the unfairness of that for Freya herself. We involved the vet in the discussion and the matter rests as follows. Tomorrow at 9:30am I take Freya to the vet for him to assess her state of health; if he thinks she is in good health, I will then make the journey to Chingford and deposit Freya at the cattery as usual; if, on the other hand, the vet thinks there is cause for concern, I will leave her with him for boarding and observation.

Either way, I shall feel anxious until we return to London and find out how Freya is getting on.

Another problem appeared this evening and concerns our tickets. We have bought a travel and hotel package from a company online. Tickets are not supplied: you have to get these from the ticket machine by entering the booking reference. Because we are leaving early on Friday morning, I thought to go onto the Eurostar Web site and print the tickets from there. I tried several times but each attempt failed with the error message “No booking has been found”. I assume that if the reference doesn’t work on Eurostar’s Web site it won’t work in their ticket machines, either. We will need to sort this out tomorrow.

This is not the happiest start to a trip and we can only hope that things get better. I shall let you know.


Usually, rather than telling you where we are going, I give you a clue. I don’t yet know much about our destination so my clues are probably a little weak and easy to solve. It’s a city in Flanders, the Flemish region of Belgium; it is a World Heritage City, and has been called “the Venice of the North”.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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‘H’ is for Highgate and for Hampstead

Having disported ourselves yesterday, we had to do the shopping this morning. Breakfast in the Daisy cafe in White Conduit Street was some consolation, as was the fact that rain had been forecast but instead we enjoyed a dry and even sunny day.

Pond Square, Highgate
Pond Square, Highgate

We first took the bus to Highgate, which is always a pleasant destination, if you discount the busy road that crosses through it and is difficult to cross. The above picture shows what is called Pond Square, and you might be wondering where the pond is. The short answer is that they (for there were more than one) were filled in in 1864 having become stagnant.

The area originally formed part of the Hornsey estate belonging to the Bishop of London. The first community included people who worked on the estate, but also a hermit. The hermit, unlikely as it may seem, was responsible for maintaining the road from Islington. The ponds are said to have resulted from the digging of gravel for the road.

In the 14th century, the bishop caused a new road from London to be built over the hill and set a number of toll gates along it. The hamlet or village possibly took its name – Highgate – from the “high gate”, the one at top of the hill.

Blue plaque to a dog poet
Blue plaque to a dog poet

Tigger’s sharp eyes spotted what appeared to be a blue plaque affixed to the wall of a house but almost hidden by foliage. It is hard to read but it turns out to be an unofficial one in honour of Barking Lord Scruff. The inscription reads “100+ dog years. Music critic, dog poet, photographic model and all round good egg, Barking Lord Scruff of Highgate, lived here, 1985 – Nov ’99. Erected by good friends.”

Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution
Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution

The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution was founded in 1839 “for the promotion of useful and scientific knowledge” – a slightly odd way of putting it, perhaps, as though “scientific” is in a different category from “useful”. The Institution has occupied the present building since 1840 and still maintains a full programme of activities. The bearded face on the right presides over the entrance.

The Highgate Society
The Highgate Society

Next door to the Institution is the Highgate Society. Formed in 1966, it has as it aims “to make Highgate and its neighbourhood a better place in which to live and work; to ensure that any changes made in the environment enhance the amenity of the area: to encourage sound planning and to improve public transport.Sir Yehudi Menuhin, then living in High­gate, was its first president.

The (Headless) Angel Inn
The (Headless) Angel Inn

We walked to the High Street where all the interesting shops and cafes are. As inhabitants of the Angel, Islington, we naturally notice other “angels”, such as this one, the Angel Inn. I have already photographed it and its headless angel before (see A bucket handle and a silver lion). How did the angel lose her head, I wonder. (Though angels are, sensu proprio, genderless, this one, like many, displays a female anatomy.)

High Tea
High Tea

We felt it was time for refreshment and looked around for somewhere where we could have tea or coffee. Across the road was this tea shop, called, appropriately enough, High Tea. It seemed a likely place, especially as it had a cream tea on the menu. A friendly, if slightly posh, establishment, it seemed to me to fit the Highgate ethos perfectly.

fearys

High up on a wall, this plaque shows that the row of shops that includes High Tea was in 1791 called Feary’s Row. The name possibly derives from an es­tab­lish­ment on the other side of the road, a double frontage occupied around 1769 by one Samuel Feary, shoemaker. How he would have come bequeath his name, however, remains mysterious.

Then there is the landscape Devonian painter, John Feary (died 1788) who also worked in London but even though good views of London and its surrounding country can be had from Highgate, he seems rather a long shot in this instance.

Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath

After our tea break, a bus brought us to another place atop a hill, Hampstead. No less than Highgate, which it is some ways resembles, Hampstead is like a town of its own. It owes its exclusivity to the fact that the horse trams couldn’t climb the long hill and so the tide of workers flowing into London in the 19th century broke against the lower beaches of Camden Town and Somers Town.

Heath House has a view over Hampstead Heath but is sadly derelict
Heath House has a view over Hampstead Heath but is sadly derelict

Hampstead is characterized by broad streets of fine. elegant houses, some of which, such as Burgh House and Fenton House, are now museums and art galleries. It also has winding alleys, some stepped, whose houses perch upon outcrops of the hill with fine views over the Heath and the city beyond.

Shaded walks
Shaded walks

Hampstead is also known for the Heath and Parliament Hill Fields, pleasant green areas which also include the famous bathing ponds. In ancient times people hunted here and perhaps some also farmed as it is thought that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “homestead”, the intrusive ‘p’ appearing only in the 13th century.

Jack Straw's Castle
Jack Straw’s Castle

At a busy cross-roads on top of the hill stands Jack Straw’s Castle, once Hampstead’s highest pub and now an apartment block. There is a mystery associated with the name as no one seems quite sure who Jack Straw was. He is thought to have been involved in the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and his name may be a corruption of John Rakestraw or a pseudonym for Wat Tyler or another of the leaders. Real or legendary, he is portrayed in some accounts giving a speech to the rebels on Hampstead Heath, standing on a hay wagon, which was then humorously dubbed “Jack Straw’s Castle”.

Whitestone Pond or the Horse Pond
Whitestone Pond or the Horse Pond

Nearby is the Whitestone Pond, also known as the Horse Pond from the days when military and other horses stopped here to drink. What look like vehicle access points (you can see the far one at the top) are said to recall the use of the pond to test amphibious vehicles in WWII, though I wouldn’t have thought it was deep enough for that. (See Update below.)

Today it has a paved bottom
Today it has a paved bottom

Generations of children have floated the toy boats here but the horses are gone. Nothing grows in it (except for some confined new plantings) because the bottom is paved. It has recently been “refurbished” and this has turned it into an unlovely, aseptic artificial water feature, one more natural feature destroyed by the tidy bureaucratic hand lacking in all aesthetic sense.

A pair of ducks flew in
A pair of ducks flew in

Even so, a pair of ducks flew in and started paddling around, perhaps thinking there was more here for then than there actually is. They were mildly interested in some seeds that Tigger offered them.

Fenton House
Fenton House

There’s a lot to see in Hampstead and a full inventory would be very long. For example, there is Fenton House, a 17th century merchant’s house, now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. A description of its charms and points of interest can be found on the National Trust Web site.

Clock tower, old Fire Station Sundial, Sundial Houseterracotta
Clock tower, sundial and terra cotta

There are many interesting buildings and details to be seen all around by an observant eye, such as the clock tower on the old fire station, a sundial on the front of a house, or terra cotta and sculpted decorations.

The Sailors' Orphan Girls' School and Home
The Sailors’ Orphan Girls’ School and Home

One of the more striking buildings is this one in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, the Sailor’s Orphan Girls’ School and Home. The name explains its role and by all accounts it was a happy place to live, where orphans were given a home, schooled, and trained to work in service. Originally founded in 1829, the Home moved here in 1862 and was later renamed the Royal Sailors’ Daughters’ School and Home, suggesting that it accepted not only orphans but perhaps also the daughters of men who could not care for them while away at sea. Today, it is owned by the Council and called Monro House. I believe it is used for sheltered accommodation.

Highgate and Hampstead both begin with ‘H’ and share other similarities in the feeling of elegance, affluence and exclusivity, though Hampstead perhaps less so these days than in times gone by. Hampstead is bigger, busier (if we ignore the unending traffic through Highgate), and more varied. Highgate has something of the country town about it, though the the cattle and the horse pound are long gone. Both can make claims to intellectual and cultural activity and have plenty to offer the curious and the historically inquisitive.

Update March 21st 2011

This evening, leafing through Bygone Hendon (published by Barnet Libraries Archives and Local Studies Department, undated), I came across picture no. 31 which shows the Burroughs Pond (now built over) as it was in 1903. Visible in the picture is the same sort of slope that we see in Whitestone Pond. As a bonus, the picture includes two horse-drawn carts actually standing in the water.

Once you see this, the purpose of the slopes becomes obvious: how else is a horse to drink from a pond with raised sides other than by walking into the water! Forget amphibious vehicles, and instead imagine horses trudging up the hill, dragging heavy carts, and stepping gratefully into the cooling water for a long drink and a refreshing splash.

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