From London to Lincs (and back again)

I am from the ‘flat as a pancake’ County of Lincolnshire. When I tell people where I’m from, the vast majority of replies consist of “Where’s that?”, “Oh, you’re from Lincoln?” or my personal favourite “Where the sausages are from?”.  I can understand how Lincolnshire is England’s forgotten County. I was born and raised there and know practically nothing about it so I’ve always been very forgiving because I am equally as clueless.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt more and more attached to my roots. Yes, I left Lincolnshire and I cannot see myself returning there, but, it gave me a blooming good start in life. As I’ve grown more sentimental about my home County, a festering sense of guilt at my ignorance, about what Lincolnshire has to offer, has gained a strangle hold grip on my conscience. So, I did something about it. I cycled in Lincolnshire and visited some of the most famous bits.

I got a train to Grantham as I’d decided my first stop should be Belton House which is the National Trust stately home just down the road from Grantham train station.

I had been to Belton House before (as a young ish child) because I loved a series on the BBC called ‘Moondial’ and it was filmed at Belton House. I adored the BBC series of Moondial because my favourite author was Helen Cresswell and the series was based on her book of the same name. My Mum had found out that Helen Cresswell was at Belton House signing books so she took my sister and I as a surprise. I was armed with my weathered copy of Moondial and very ready to have it signed. I still have that book today and it lives alongside my signed copy of ‘The Watchers’ as I was lucky enough to meet Helen Cresswell twice before her death. She was a gem of an author and I sincerely hope her books are not forgotten by future generations.

Anyway, I have deviated. My point was that, my visit to Belton House as a child was utterly overshadowed by the fact that I got to meet Helen Cresswell! I remember nothing of the day other than standing in the queue excited beyond words and then not being able to say a word to Helen herself. I just thrust my copy of Moodial at her and grinned like a fool. I may have gushed as she handed my signed book back to me and then sprinted back over to my Mum for the obligatory ‘I just did something awesome and I’m very happy right now’ hug. Therefore, I should revisit and not only relive memories, but acquire new ones.

I brought my ever faithful Daisy bike with me on the train and then cycled the few miles to Belton House. The staff there were lovely enough to let me leave my soggy panniers and waterproof in the visitor reception so I didn’t have to cart them around all day. Daisy got locked under a tree (new experience for her, the poor urban thing that she is) and I went off to explore the house.

It’s a real shame the weather was so awful because Belton House is set in the most stunning grounds and I would dearly have loved to wander around them for an hour or so. However, the rain made me miserable, soggy and deprived me of anywhere pretty to eat my cheese sandwich picnic. I think you’ll admit that the weather didn’t really impact on how imposing the house is from the exterior.

The terrible weather did put a bit of a downer on my attempts to explore the grounds but luckily, there are still some pretty good views of the gardens from the dry and warm interior of the house. Hoorah! Here’s a snap of (one of many) an amazing garden view.

Belton House seems very lucky to have an army of dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers at its disposal. Every room in the house (which is open to the public) is manned by a volunteer who will happily tell you all kinds of information about the paintings, tapestries, furniture or just generally anything they know something about. My favourite volunteer was the lady manning the front staircase hall. I was gazing at the ceiling and wondering how to get the best photo and she obviously recognised what I was sizing up. Her advice to me was to “Just lay flat down on the floor my love. You’ll get some funny looks but it’ll be the best picture”. It wasn’t the best picture but I certainly enjoyed sprawling out on the marble floor.

I think the best picture of the stairs and hall that I snapped was this one. I took it from the top and really rather like that you see a bit of everything. You see stairs, marble, carpet, chandelier and bannister.

Every room seemed to hold it’s own treasure but my absolute favourite item was actually on loan from the V & A in London. It is a cabinet cladded in Lapis Lazuli. It’s not any normal cabinet though. This cabinet contains no less than 16 hidden drawers and compartments. There was a video in the room showing the head of exhibits removing each drawer. Just when you thought there was nowhere left for a drawer to be removed from, he’d produce 3 of them from the apparently black hole like cabinet. It was just superb!

I genuinely enjoyed every room in Belton House but the library was maybe the most imposing. There’s just something about book lined walls which makes a room feel decadent. Well organised book walls are an under used interior design feature in my opinion.

The other room with real awe factor was the dining room. Its A) massive and B) two if the walls are entirely covered by 2 gigantic paintings. So enormous actually that the room was redesigned in order to fit them both in. That is true dedication to a piece of art you want to display isn’t it?

And so endeth my tip to Belton House. It was absolutely gorgeous in the house and I am inredibly pleased to have re-visited as an adult to fully appreciate all the history and tradition which accompanied the stately home and the families who lived there. As my visit was complete, I got back onto Daisy and cycled the 45 miles back to my Mother’s house. A day well spent!

The other Historic place I visited was Lincoln Cathedral. I cycled there along the Sustrans National Cycle Route 1 and what a glorious ride it was. I covered the 35 miles in just under 2hrs 20 minutes and can honestly say I enjoyed every single second and would highly reccommend route 1 as a well maintained and friendly ride. But, let’s get back to the main event.

I have never really spent much time in Lincoln as my life never called for me to visit much so I really didn’t know what I was in for. Luckily, my sister, nephew and friend caught the train up and met me in Lincoln. They knew where they were going so I followed their lead through the city centre and towards what they described as ‘an hoofing great hill’. About half way up said hill, I got my first proper glimpse of the Cathedral.

It really is a staggering building. The idea that it was built before lorries, diggers, cranes and all the other modern day magic we have to help construction along today, is simply mind boggling. It honestly puzzles me how such a building was erected on the top of a large hill but there are  many such places in the world, this is just the most recent one to make me scratch my head.

Once inside the Cathedral, I managed to get one of the last places on the roof tour which was due to leave in 5 minutes. The timing could not have been more perfect. There were two guides and both were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Cathedral has a pretty interesting history. For a start, during the original construction, most of the cathedral was knocked down by an earthquake. When they rebuilt, someone’s ruler wasn’t quite straight because they managed to misalign the new build with the section which remained standing after the earthquake. You can see this both from the inside and form the roof. From the roof, you can see a slight bend in the line of that section of roof. From the inside, the top of the archway looks off centre. See if you can spot what I mean the the photo below:

Still a fairly good bodge job, right?

There are some beautiful pieces of glass in the Cathedral but perhaps my favourite is the circular window (below) because it is just stunning. I was able to get so close because we were along a walkway leading to the tower stairs which gave me an eye level aspect on the window. Just beautiful.

On the ascent up the tower, the guides told us gleefully of the spire which used to sit atop the Cathedral and made it (at one point) the tallest structure in the world. Unfortunately, high winds blew the spire down and took out one side of the Cathedral with it hundreds of years ago. When they rebuilt the Cathedral section, they decided not to bother with the spire again.

We also saw and heard the bell, known as Great Tom. If you turned Great Tom Upside down, he would, apparently, hold 1000 pints of beer (I think that’s what the guide said) so he is a big old bell. The original ringing mechanism was to have the bell swing around 360 degrees in a frame but, because of Great Tom’s size, this made the tower shake, so they instead fixed the bell and had it strike with a hammer instead. Much better idea.

After the bell chamber, it is straight on up to the roof. I literally mean the roof. I was stood on the actual roof of the Cathedral. It was a surreal but amazing experience. The day was clear and I could see for miles. 35 miles actually. I was able to spot the church located in my home town (where I had cycled form that morning) on the horizon. You can see for yourself just how good the view was.

The rest of the day in Lincoln was spent shopping and eating cream tea. A rather good combination for anyone, basically. When it came to returning on the train, we got a little shock. There were a lot of people waiting for the train so when it rolled in as a single carriage already packed to the rafters, it was not a happy sight. Plenty of people got off the train and, once some shifting around of luggage had been done, Daisy and I were safely on. There were no seats and lots of people standing but it wasn’t too crowded in the end. I had a little chuckle at people complaining that it was too crowded on the train as, in London, the train isn’t full until the doors can’t close and you have been reduced to precisely zero millimetres of personal space. Anyway, all was well in the end and everyone arrived safely back at home after what was, truly, a fabulous day.


A jolly jaunt to somewhere new

I have never travelled much in my life for various reasons. This is something that I have resolved to fix over the next few years. I decided I wanted to start close(ish) to home and then broaden the net. Where I have started was Dublin, Ireland. Luckily, three of my friends also thought it sounded like a pretty good plan to have five days away in Dublin and booked themselves in with me for a jolly old jaunt. I am the kind of person who would have gone alone quite happily but it’s always more fun when there’s someone to drink with. If nothing else, it makes you feel like less of an alcoholic. Anyway, I deviate.

We flew with Ryan Air. I’d heard some pretty terrible things about Ryan Air but the flights we booked were only £40 return (including taxes and credit card fees) and for that kind of money, I’ll put up with quite a lot of rubbish. As it turned out, Ryan Air was fine. Yes, there were queues. Yes, you have to run for a seat. Yes, the cabin crew have eaten nothing but lemons all day and yes, the landings were pretty scary, but, I didn’t die and it cost me £40 to visit a different Country and come home again. I got exactly what I paid for. Nothing more and nothing less.

We arrived safe and sound in Dublin spent our first day finding the hostel, have a small explore, eating and then drinking.

The hostel we stayed in was actually far better than I expected. It’s called Avalon House and is a 5 minute walk from most of the action in Dublin City. The building is secure, the staff were friendly and the facilities were more than adequate (there’s a communal kitchen, TV room, bicycle hire, guitar borrowing, a free internet cafe and free in-room wifi). Most importantly, it was clean. The price was also incredibly reasonable. Four nights, in a twin private room (including breakfast), was 190EUR which equated to about £80 each. That right there is value. I would definitely recommend Avalon House in Dublin as a good hostel.

We had a miniature explore on day 1 and found the river. Please see below for an example of my best ‘I could not be more excited to be here’ face.

This is O’Connell bridge which is the main connection between the North and South sides of the River Liffy. As you can see, I was pretty happy to be taking the best ‘myspace profile’ style picture I could manage.

We really didn’t do a lot on day 1. We just meandered around and took in a few sights and sounds. The first tourist spot we stumbled upon was the Temple Bar area of Dublin. The place is jam packed full of shops, pubs and places to eat. This is one of the entrances from the river side.

Our favourite place in the Temple Bar was the Badass Cafe. With a name like that, how can it not be a successful tourist trap?

When in a new place, it’s always a good idea to take advice form the locals on where to go for a good night out. On the first night, we went, under advisement, to a place called Dicey’s Garden. Dicey by name, dicey by nature. We had a good night but we saw a lot of questionable things going on. The place is cavernous to be honest. You enter underground but there are three floors. Drinks were only 2EUR each which basically resulted in wall to wall people, not enough security staff and a lot of dark corners. There was a live band on upstairs so we stayed and watched them play as that room was the best lit and seemed to contain the lowest ratio of normal people to weirdos (ratio in favour of the normals). If you go to Dicey’s Garden, have your expectations set in the gutter and then you won’t be shocked. Anywhere above the gutter and you’ll be offended by the place. Night one was was messy as is mandatory when on holiday.

Day two was a more productive. We did some actual sight seeing around the city. We started off by seeing the original Irish House of Lords which is part of the Bank of Ireland building. The building istelf still contains a fully functioning bank branch as well as the rest of the administration that goes along with a national bank. The outside is quite impressive.

The House of Lords is much smaller than the English counterpart found in Westminster. Although the interior has been preserved as closely as possible, the benches have been removed so you sort of lose the feeling and ambience of what it would have been like to have rows of Gentlemen shouting at one another across the room in agreement or argument. There are a few free tours each day but we were not able to attend one so we just poked around by ourselves. Here’s a little snap of the inside.

The Bank of Ireland is literally across the road from Trinity College and that made the College our next stop.

We got onto a tour for the college and I was very pleased we did. Our tour guide was informative, witty and full of anecdotes about the college and the grounds. Bits of it have fallen down and been rebuilt. Other bits were designed by people who didn’t even bother coming to see the site. Some pieces look like poured concrete and should frankly be ignored at all costs. Other parts are under renovation so as to gleam as they did in their heyday. Some bits are reportedly haunted by murdered Law Masters. It’s well worth getting the tour around Trinity. Here’s a picture of me just at the start of the tour in front of the imaginatively named Library Square.  You can see Campanile in the background. The statues on each corner of the Campanile represents each of the three schools of Trinity (Law, Medicine & Science) with the last representing Divinity. The building to the rear right is the old library.

Trinity College has the largest library in Ireland. It’s also a legal library which means that they can, and do, request copies of any book published in Europe and they must be supplied with one on a complimentary basis.  The old library is very impressive. It was built to exceed the size of the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge at the time. It houses many of the older, less well used books. It’s a good job they’re less used because all the volumes in the old library are organised by size. Yep, that’s right. Big books at the bottom, little books at the top. Bonkers. The old library at Trinity is very impressive indeed but you are not allowed to take and pictures of it inside which is a shame. It’s one very long room with an arched ceiling and dark wood panelling everywhere. Below the library you can find the Book of Kells which is widely regarded as the epitome of calligraphy and illustration to survive into the modern day.

Next, I just want you to see an arty farty photo which one of my friends took. This sculpture is found outside the hideous concrete library which is found next door to the stunning museum building. I like the contrast of old and new.

Trinity College really was well worth a visit and I would highly recommend going for the tour too.

We stopped briefly at The Four Courts on our way to the Old Jameson Distillery for a quick poke around. Thanks to my degree, I have an unhealthy obsession with sticking my head into court rooms just to see what’s going on and because you’re allowed to. The others weren’t feeling as confident about this as I was so the trip was brief and I didn’t get to see what was going on in Court 3 (there was definitely something good going on because the TV crew outside were looking rather excited). We were also booked onto the Jameson Distillery tour and we didn’t want to miss our time slot so we walked on down and prepared ourselves to be immersed in whiskey lore. The entrance leaves no doubt as to what’s about to happen.

On arrival, we found the Jameson Distillery to be as corporate as expected. The entire tour is essentially to drum into you the selling points of Jameson whiskey (it’s triple distilled don’t you know). I enjoyed the tour though because I knew that I was signing on for corporate brainwashing. I wasn’t disappointed!

Aspects of the tour were interesting but most of it was nodding and smiling. I did like the display of  how the colour of whiskey changes as it ages. The barrels below show the colour of 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 year old whiskey (it gets darker the older it gets).

There’s also a whiskey tasting session which you can volunteer for. My friend volunteered as expected. Actually, he basically mugged the tour guide in order to get his hands on the tube that identified him as an official whiskey taster. It’s a shame he let the side down by liking the scotch whiskey the most then the american whiskey 2nd leaving Jameson to bring up the rear in last. The guide was still gracious enough to give him a certificate for his poor efforts though. Look how proud he is.

To finish the tour, we treated ourselves to proper Irish coffee. It was actually the best Irish coffee I have ever had so You have to see a photo of it.

Night 2 was spent in a restaurant having good conversation with fun people.

Day three began with a walk to Dublin Castle. We missed the tour times unfortunately but we still got to enjoy the exterior. I really didn’t learn anything about the castle as there was very limited information available if you were not on the tour.

There is a chapel attached to the Castle which was open. The interior was being used for a commemorative display of the Queen’s visit to Ireland. The inside of the Chapel was very beautiful. The organ was ornate and very detailed but what really caught my eye was the stained glass and wood carvings. I think you’ll agree it is beautiful.

Very near to the castle is the tax museum. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I found it very interesting. Tax is something that causes a massive amount of friction between Governments and the general public. People get annoyed at how much tax they pay. People try to avoid paying it. people get annoyed when people who they deem should pay tax aren’t paying tax. it’s a very prickly subject whichever way you look at it. I found the Tax museum very informative but it really won’t be for everyone. It is free though so, if you’re open minded about it and the history of the evolution of the taxation systems commonly in use today, then do give it a bash.

Also very close by is the Chester Beatty Library. The Chester Beatty Library was actually my favourite attraction in Dublin. It is truly stunning! It holds a vast collection of scriptures from across the world which cover traditional folke lore and religion. It is an incredibly informative place and you can absolutely get lost in the wonder of all the information available. The approach to the Library is also fairly good.

Photography inside the exhibits is prohibited because some of the texts are incredibly old and delicate. They have a fantastic collection of papyrus. Most of the rooms are also very dimly lit in order to try and preserve the exhibits for as long as possible. The only place where you can take a photo, and it’s worth it, is the roof garden. The view over the memorial garden towards the castle is gorgeous.

If you go to Dublin, make absolutely sure you make time to go to The Chester Beatty library. You will not be disappointed. If you are, you should buy a self help book and read it, fast.

Next, we walked to Christ Church Cathedral. We did not have time to go into the cathedral (as we were booked into the Guinness Brewery for that day too) but the outside was impressive. The main building is set in a picturesque churchyard. On the day we were there, the church yard was playing host to a food market.

I found the configuration of the bridge over a road connecting the two buildings intriguing so got a photo of that too.

I was amazed how every street in Dublin seems to contain at least 1 stunning old building. On the walk to the Guinness Brewery, we passed numerous beautiful buildings but had no time to investigate what they were or the significance they held to the City. This is my favourite mystery building. I have no idea what church this is or even if it is a church (I assume it is on the basis of the cross on the roof).

The Guinness Brewery was out last destination of day three. I think I was the only one excited to be there.

The Guinness Brewery was good fun but overall, I was disappointed. There was just a ‘follow this arrow and hope you go the right way’ cattle steering system in place. The ‘virtual guide’ was ok but the place was so loud that you had to be right near the speakers to catch even the slightest word. Audio guides were only available in foreign languages but I would have liked an English one just to be able to hear what the virtual guide was saying above the racket of all the tourists. I found it a pretty stressful experience overall. Too many tourists, not enough staff and, really, a woeful amount of information provided for the cost of the ticket. The level of brand propaganda was akin to that in the Jameson Distillery but Guinness hadn’t even bothered to personalise it with a physical guide who could answer questions, or at least pretend to, if they came up. The best part was the pint of Guinness in the bar at the end.

It genuinely was a superb pint of Guinness.

We cooked our own meal in the kitchen of the hostel that evening before hitting Temple Bar. We actually ended up in The Temple Bar (as in a pub called The temple Bar which is in temple Bar, confusing, no?). There was traditional music being played by a live band and plenty of Guinness in the barrels. We were happy.

Day four was spent in the National Museum of Archaeology in the morning and in the shops for the afternoon. The National Archaeology Museum is an interesting place but, I’m more a fan of history. There were plenty of genuinely interesting exhibits but archaeology doesn’t really float my boat so a lot of it was lost on me. I enjoyed the weaponry sections and found the idea of leather surviving for hundreds of year without decaying horribly pretty fascinating but that was about my lot. I liked the building the museum was in better than the contents of the museum.

Again, it is free to go into the museum so even if you only find a few things interesting, it’s still worth the time investment because you never know what you might discover.

I won’t bore you with the shopping details but I will suffice to say that hunting around for the markets will pay you dividends. There’s a wealth of talented jewellers, artists and designers in Dublin with an extremely broad range of goods to offer. Market > High Street.

Night Four was started with Leo Burdocks famous fish and chips. They were good fish and chips but I’ve had better. We then migrated to a pub called The Foggy Dew. The pub is entirely clad in wood panelling. It’s a charmingly odd pub and I was quite happy to sup Hoegaarden in there for several hours, so I did.

Day five was out final day in Dublin. It was more of a morning really. My main remit was to shop some more. I discovered more markets and bought some gorgeous earrings by a talented chap called Adam King (you can find him on Facebook). We also found the weekend food market in Temple Bar where we enjoyed delicious cheese, mouth wateringly good quiche, crusty bread and cakes which would make Mr Kipling proud. A great end to a marvellous few days in Dublin.

I’ll now do my obligatory bullet point list of things to do when in Dublin (out of what I saw anyway):

  1. The Chester Beatty Library
  2. Trinity College tour and The Book of Kells
  3. The Craft markets/oddities shops
  4. The Tax Museum
  5. The Old Jameson Distillery
  6. The Four Courts
  7. The House of Lords
  8. The Guinness Brewery

What do I wish I’d had time to do whilst in Dublin:

  1. Cycle
  2. A River Tour
  3. Dublin Castle Tour
  4. Christ Church Cathedral
  5. St.Patrick’s Cathedral
  6. Custom House
  7. The Royal Hospital Kilmainham
  8. Kilmainham Jail

That is my mini tour of Dublin all explained.

50 miles to happy feelings

Regular readers know that I am an avid cyclist. I rode from London to Brighton last year in order to raise money for The British Heart Foundation. This year, I decided to change the event and the Charity. This year, I rode for the Stroke Association on their Thames Bridges ride.

The ride had three routes. A family route, a standard route (35 miles) and an extended route (50 miles). I signed up for the extended route and, to my surprise, several people fancied coming with me. In the end, there were six of us who showed up to do the ride.

The start point was Soutwark Park (which is incredibly pretty) and to get there, we had to cycle over Tower Bridge. For the first time since I have lived in London, I saw Tower Bridge raised. It was an unexpected start to the day and felt like a big treat. Tower Bridge doesn’t really raise very often and I’m not really in that bit of town all that often so, if you factor in the probability factors associated with me being around when Tower Bridge is raised, they are pretty slim. I feel very privileged to have seen it.

We did eventually get to Southwark Park to start the ride. Here I am ready to go!

I was of course riding the ever faithful Daisy. It was an absolutely glorious day for cycling. the sun was shining but it was not overly warm. We were all incredibly pleased that the rain had packed it’s bags and gone away for the day.

We got cycling through central London first before working our way west. We crossed Tower Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Westminster Bridge, Albert Bridge, Lambeth Bridge, Chelsea Bridge…….basically, a lot of bridges! I only stopped for pictures on bridges that I really don’t get to see often i.e. the ones in the very west of London. Here’s a little snap of me (and Daisy) on Chelsea Bridge looking rather to pleased with myself.

One of the best looking bridges we crossed, in my opinion anyway, was the Albert Bridge. It’s a stunning structure which doesn’t just out at you and say ‘Look at me aren’t I beautiful’ like Tower bridge or Southwark bridges do. Albert Bridge just sits quietly and gets on with just being a rather handsome bit of design work. Here I am presenting it to you for your enjoyment.

Anyway, we all finished the ride waaaay over in Hampton Court and still had smiles on our faces. It was a great day which not only raised money for a very good cause but also introduced me to many areas of London which I now want to cycle round a lot more often.   Here is a picture of Amy and I proudly flashing our new medals (mine now hangs next to my London to Brighton 2011 medal). I really love this photo because if you look carefully in the reflection of my sunglasses, you can also see both of the bicycles which carried us all the way.

Amy and were the most experienced cyclists in our group and did end up pelting off in front of the others (sorry guys!). We completed the 5o miles in just under 6 hours with some pretty decent rest stops and slow cycling to look at all the beautiful landmarks and nature we passed (Richmond park was particularly slow as there was not only gorgeous views but also deer!).

I’d like to thank everyone who sponsored me for the ride. It really does give you a boost knowing people are behind you willing you to do well when you’re flagging at mile number 45. So thank you for not only supporting my charity of choice but also for supporting me as I continue to do fairly ridiculous things. Stay tuned for the next instalment of cycling craziness which is scheduled in for July 12th!

As a summary, I would say the following things:

  • London to Brighton (L2B) felt like it was better organised than The Thames bridges Bike Ride (TBBR) but I do think that could be a function of the fact that there were 2000 rides for TBBR and there are around 15000 for L2B. There was noting wrong with the TBBR organisation but it just didn’t have the same atmosphere as the L2B. There were no cheering crowds or community projects along the way. Not even at the proper rest stops. I would have felt very alone if I hadn’t been cycling with Amy. As a solo ride, I would do L2B over TBBR because of this. Maybe for next year, the organisers should consider inviting some Scouts/Guides/Youth Clubs etc to the rest stops. They could bring home baked cakes and orange squash. Cyclists will pay 50p for a cake at a rest stop, trust me. It would also lift a lot of flagging spirits in the later stages.
  • Just Giving is an incredibly clunky website to administer a team through. Virgin Money Giving was much easier.
  • The TBBR was much more historically interesting. L2B was a gorgeous ride through country lanes but TBBR was more inspiring.
  • I’d ride both the TBBR and L2B again in a heartbeat