Views of Beinn Eighe aross Loch Clair, Torridon Hills, Scotland
The Scottish Highlands are a romantic yet desolate place. Hiking in these remote hills feels a bit like being at the edge of the world. Beautiful, amazing, alone. Snuggled deep within the forgotten Northwest Highlands, the village of Torridon clings to the shores of Loch Torridon. The region is full of places to muddy your boots and whet your imagination – one of which is the little Loch Clair, where an off-the-beaten-path trail circumnavigates the lake, giving views over Beinn Eighe and other peaks of the Torridon Hills. Other peaks in the Torridon Hills include Liathach and Beinn Alligin, all of which are known to climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. This is the kind of place to get lost. Not lost in the sense of “send the mountain rescue helicopters!” but lost as in a place you can get lost in your thoughts, daydreams and nature. This is a place where the romantic poets and landscape painters of the world would feel at home, a place where the 21st century has yet to find, where mud-plastered boots, Nordic walking poles and Gore-Tex hiking gear is the style. To hike Loch Clair, head west on the A896 from Torridon for 15 minutes until you hit the Loch Clair car park on the left; the trailhead is across the road. Follow the rugged Loch Clair shores for magnificent lake and mountain views and stunning silence – best viewed during the famous Golden Hour!
Twisted Tombs in Highgate Cemetery, London, England
One of the creepiest places in London, Highgate Cemetery is old and dark, overflowing with cracked, crooked tombstones grinning like jagged teeth and fanned with thick overgrown grass. Scattered amongst the stones are statues and stone caskets marking out the wealthier dead – even in death, social classes are made apparent. West Highgate (visit by guided tour only) is older, full of cracked tombstones hidden under heavy trees and dark bushes, while East Highgate (across the road) is newer, orderly, and home to the famous Karl Marx tomb (an enormous stone bust). In the overgrown Victorian West Cemetery, vicious vines grasp forgotten tombs, determined to pull their sepulchres underground, their owners’ names sanded away by centuries’ worth of wind. Highgate Cemetery was born in 1839 alongside seven other cemeteries, built to release the pressure of overcrowded intercity (and sometimes illegal) cemeteries. The dark Victorian path twists through overgrown rows of grey stones and wailing angels, leading to the obelisks of Egyptian Avenue (Victorian interest in Egypt had been piqued by Napoleon). Following that is the Circle of Lebanon, crowned with a massive ancient cedar tree older than the cemetery itself, circled by tombs seemingly revering it. Finally, the brave visitor will pass through dark, vaulted catacombs where warmth and light seem devoid. It is said that this creepy endroit inspired Bram Stoker while writing Dracula (particularly the scene at the graveyard with the undead new vampire Lucy Westenra). While this is not proven (experts suggest the mythical graveyard might’ve been St Mary’s Churchyard), there is certainly no denying the eeriness of this fiercely Victorian Gothic graveyard in north London. Get ready for goosebumps while wandering this dark and wild place where the din of London and the 21st century seem leagues away.
Though designed just before WWII, Bristol’s crescent-shaped City Hall wasn’t built until after the war’s end. Situated in a prominent place in Bristol, the secular City Hall faces the massive and gorgeous Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library and the College Green, the building is a classic example of the Neo-Georgian style except for one glaring oddity: both of the turreted ends to the building are topped with an unusual statue – a unicorn! (Not so very different than the Dragons of London!) If you look carefully, Bristol functions like an “I Spy” book (“I spy 12 unicorns…”) – they are everywhere! On St. John the Baptist Church, the SS Great Britain ship, on the Royal West of England Academy, at the entrance of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, on the North Bristol Rugby Club tie and blazer, and until 2004 they were on the logo of the renowned University of Bristol. They are even part of the city’s coat of arms! Why, you may ask? To solve the mystery, we need to delve back in time to 16th century Bristol, when the city’s leaders chose to include two unicorns on the official seal which was then stamped on important city documents scattered across Bristol – therefore imprinting the unicorn forevermore into Bristol history. As for the mystery of the City Hall Unicorns, architect Vincent Harris actually secretly commissioned the two three-foot-high bronze unicorns without informing the council, put them up and hoped for the best! They’re still there, so we can assume that the council accepted their city hall’s impromptu mascot!
It’s washing day in this quintessential English thatched cottage lost in the English woodland. The air is steeped with the smell of soap and fresh laundry, hung outside to dry outside this cottage on this sunny English day, making you feel as though you’ve fallen into a fairy tale. This magnificent thatched cottage stands in a quiet meadow in the English countryside not far from the quaint but bustling town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Best known for being the birthplace of the great writer William Shakespeare (who did wonders for the English language, by the way; we still use words and phrases coined by him), Stratford-upon-Avon is crossed with medieval streets lined with Tudor houses and never-ending shops, spires of ancient churches and tolling church bells. Avoid the crowds by instead meandering through the brilliant English countryside where you’ll stumble across quiet pastures and thatched cottages. Thatch, once a common roofing material, is rare today, owing to the amount of maintenance required (you must replace it every few years), the overabundance of other roofing materials and the fact that it’s a significant fire hazard. Here though, you’ve stepped straight into a fairy tale. There is something very magical about this cottage in this place – as if fairies or forest nymphs or singing maidens may tumble off the pages of a storybook and come to life here. In this place, wandering these quiet countryside lanes outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, you can see where Shakespeare took his inspiration. Alone on the path by the cottage, you may even expect to meet one of Shakespeare’s colourful characters along the way.
Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands
Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating profound connection between you and the land itself.
Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland
There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.
Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)
They don’t call Scotland’s northern metropolis “The Granite City” for nothing—Aberdeen is remarkably grey. But somehow, its greyness is what makes it special. In fact, another of it’s nicknames is “The Silver City;” so-called because the locally-quarried granite tends to sparkle due to a mineral called mica which is infused within the blocks. Aberdeen has been the site of human habitation for something like 8,000 years, and Aberdeen University is the 3rd oldest university in Britain! Unfortunately, it’s also known as Europe’s oil capital—which has undoubtedly brought wealth to the city, but hasn’t exactly helped its reputation. Regardless, its ‘Ancient University’ (yes—that’s an official term in Britain!) has many of foreign students studying within its ancient walls, giving the city an international, worldly feel despite its high altitude.
Getting a birds-eye view of any city, mountain or anything in-between is always a rewarding experience. There is something inherently special about climbing as high as a bird, getting an entirely new perspective on the world. London is no exception. While incredibly overpriced, the view from the London Eye is no less impressive—though half the fun is watching the next little bubble rise behind you and fall in front of you. Being on top of the Eye allows you see London fold out below you—Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are of course easy to spot, but it’s just as rewarding to squint into the distance, searching out into the far reaches of London. London is one of the most beautiful, vibrant, cultured, interesting, busy and fun cities this planet has to offer—and it’s fairly amusing to watch how the city functions from above.
Nothing beats a good set of ruins! In all seriousness, sometimes what has been left to crumble away is just as important as what has been redone and rebuilt. And when it comes to castles, often the most romantic castles, the most picturesque, the most spectacular are the ones quietly deteriorating – especially in Scotland. Case in point, imagine Dunnottor Castle on its cliff-side peninsula, Stirling Castle in the rugged hills, Eilean Donan Castle (the most photographed castle in Scotland) on its beautiful loch, and of course, St Andrews castle itself on the beach. Circa 1200, the St Andrew’s Castle was sacked, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, burned, sacked, rebuilt, etc., as the Scots and the English often clashed and continually took their disagreements to the battlefield. Today, the ruins border nearby St Andrews University (the oldest university in Scotland and also the institution that educated Prince William and Kate Middleton), while overlooking the shores of the North Sea, whose waves quietly lap the base of the castle’s cliffs. The ruins are quite beautiful in a crumbly, “everything falls apart,” romantic sort of way.
Ah the infamous rugged Scottish coast. Perhaps because of its northern location, perhaps because of its sparse population, or perhaps because of its numerous castles and famous myths, legends and stories that have come out of this small country, Scotland always seems so…remote and rugged, in a rather romantic way. Little seems to have changed in Scotland over the years. One of the nicest ways to see Scotland is by train—and the best time? Early morning! Scottish sunrises such as this one are mystical, reminiscent of bygone Scottish tales of giants, dwarfs, warriors, and other fantastical creatures. Of course, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen are beautiful and bustling metropolises, but if you want to feel like you’ve stepped off the page of a Scottish legend, jump on a train head for the northern coast, and get there in time to catch the sunrise!
Okay, it’s been awhile; sorry about that, but at least I have a good excuse! I was travelling! Images from Belgium to come soon! In the meantime, here is the little town of Bradford-on-Avon (yes, it’s on the same river as Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, as the name suggests). A typical English town, Bradford has less than 10,000 residents–though plenty of pubs (of course!) like the one here. Happily overlooking the Avon River, it also rests on the edge of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The pretty little path running alongside the canal creates a lovely place for a walk, bike or run on those rare sunny mornings. Once used to transport goods across the country, the canal lost its significance with the growth of railways, but Bradford was genius enough to restore to the lock and canal to working order by the ’80s, providing a link to Bath (via the Avon) in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east. Bradford’s canal is surely one of the best places in the world to go for a run!
Welcome to the beautiful, rustic ruins of Cardiff Castle (or in Welsh Gaelic, Caerdydd Castell). This 11th Norman century fortification most likely commissioned by William the Conqueror, the castle was built on top of a 3rd century Roman fort, as the site provides a good vantage point to defend the city. Composed of a central Norman keep and squat lookout tower, circled by a thick defensive wall and a deep moat, perched on an artificial hilltop and topped with crinolines, the castle is the picture of fortified defence. It was repeatedly involved in conflicts between the Normans and the Welsh before finally becoming little more than a decoration after a rich Marquess built a Victorian mansion and demolished all other medieval buildings minus the Norman keep, thinking that it looked Romantic. In fact, during the Victorian era, owning a castle or ruin – a real one or an artificial ruin (called a folly) – was all the rage among the wealthy landowners at the time. Those who didn’t have a ruin on their property often either bought one, or constructed one (learn more about follies such as Sham Castle, Kreuzenstein Castle or the Chateau de Montmelas, or even the more modern Albigny-sur-Soane). Still, it makes a pretty awesome ruin! One of the most significant sites in Cardiff, be sure there to get there early (or visit off season!) to get the site to yourself.