Amongst Brexit talks and EU deals, sometimes you just want to find a little corner of Britain overlooked by the world, a place one can relax to a simpler tune. Northern England – specifically the Yorkshire Dales and Cambria – is just that place. Swaledale is a beautiful dale or valley (one of the northernmost within Yorkshire Dales National Park) in the Pennines Hills, containing some of Northern England’s most quaint villages. One such place is Muker Village which, despite its name, comes straight out of a fairytale! The quintessential stone town is the picture of 18th and 19th century rural charm. Built alongside a bustling little brook crossed by a perfect stone bridge, Muker has a quaint English parish church, an old world tea shop, a traditional pub, an old village hall, crafts and arts galleries and meandering cobbled streets closely lined with old stone houses. For all intents and purposes, it is the perfect example of an English country village. And its location in Swaledale, surrounded by the world-famous barns, drystone walls and sheep-dotted pastures, complete the painting. Mining and agriculture were once the only industries here, leaving Muker, Swaledale and Yorkshire in general in much isolation – a fate which helped keep local traditions alive. Today, Muker has finally found itself on the map now that the famous long distance hiking path, England’s Coast to Coast Trail (a 192 mile/309 km path) traverses Swaledale and Muker village (as well as three national parks: Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Moors). And even more excitingly, in 2014 the first stage of the Tour de France from Leeds to Harrogate passed through Muker!
Pro tip: If you’re planning to hike the Coast to Coast (in entirety or even only just a section of it), you’ll get the most out of it with a local guide. Muker village to Keld Village along the River Swale is a lovely 5km (3 mile) gentle walk through one of the most beautiful dales of the region! Best to hike on the western bank of the river.
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)
Before London was London, England (well, technically Wessex, an ancient kingdom in southern England) was ruled from Winchester. It’s hard to imagine that this cheery, quaint town in southern England was once a major seat of power – but then again, history loves to throw us curve balls (like the fact that Brits were once ruled by Vikings, Russia was still a feudal state until well in the 18th century, Italy wasn’t Italy until the 19th century, and there are still parts of Spain where Spanish is not the most widely spoken language, etc). Originally the Roman city of Venta Belgarum, it became known in 648 as Wintan-ceastre (‘Fort Venta’ in Old English). And by the way – about the Vikings, we owe them the present layout of Winchester; good ol’ Alfred the Great rebuilt Winchester during the 9th century in order to create a better defense against the Viking invaders. Today, Winchester is a quaint city full of lively pubs and historic streets, and makes a great point of entry to visit the even older and more mysterious New Forest.
Happy New Year everyone! Yes, this little guy is a wild pony, well-fed by the New Forest’s robust undergrowth. The New Forest, located in southern England near Winchester, the ancient capital of England, is what remains today of a once-majestic great wood. It was once the King’s Wood (or Kingswood), a forest set aside for the king’s enormous hunting parties, started sometime after 1066 by our old friend, William the Conqueror. The Forest continued to be inhabited by simple folk who could–and can–trace their lineage centuries back. Many of them kept ponies (for work), though they let them roam free, which is how the Forest came to be inhabited by these furry, hardy creatures. Despite world events, the New Forest has changed very little in the last 1000 years. Ancient trees still loom together, looking over muddy fields, quiet lakes and thatched roofs. One still sees the same names on doors, such as Furzey, an old local name. One still sees remnants of its Norman beginnings, such as the village of Beaulieu (though today pronounced “Byoow-lee” by locals). Old, dark spires rise up along modern roads built on top of ancient paths. But for the full effect of the New Forest, one must leave the car behind and trek into nature. One cannot fully appreciate the New Forest until one has mud on one’s shoes, rain in one’s coat, leaves in one’s hair, a pony in one’s sight. It is an old, magical place, this misnomer, the very old New Forest.
*If interested in the New Forest, check out Edward Rutherford’s intriguing and epic tale of the place, simply called “The Forest,” spanning nearly 1000 years of history of the Forest, told through tales about the inhabitants over the centuries.
Unknown grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, England
Angels and demons haunt the hidden, overgrown paths of London’s infamous Highgate Cemetery. Originally one of the “Magnificent Seven,” Highgate was among seven ‘modern’ cemeteries built during the early eighteen hundreds in the London outskirts in order to alleviate overcrowding in Central London. Unlike many cemeteries kept perfectly manicured, Highgate is a wild, savage place. There is no doubt that it is also elegant–one has only to look at the grand Egyptian Avenue or the beautiful Circle of Lebanon to comprehend its splendor–but here, nature is given free reign and seems determined to take back its dead. Trees and bushes crowd the grounds, grasses and flowers cover every inch of the graves, roots grip the tombs, paths are narrow and hidden. In fact, graves are so close to each other that they are practically tripping over each other. It is both a beautiful and creepy place. One does not have to try hard to conjure images of ghosts and demons–in fact, the place is known as a possible inspiration for Bram Stoker in writing Dracula, and in the mid 1900s, it inspired the legend of the ‘Highgate Vampire.’ Though long debunked, one certainly gets goosebumps and perhaps starts to reconsider the possibility of the supernatural while wandering the forlorn paths of Highgate.
The Welsh capital doesn’t have the glamor of London, the charm of Edinburgh or the ambiance of Belfast. In fact, despite the fact that it’s the UK’s 9th largest city, Wales is often skipped over when travelling through the UK. Yet, one should not ignore the Welsh capital. Wales has its own uniqueness; one has to look no further than its language to understand that. Welsh Gaelic is a very old and complicated language, and throughout much of the 20th century, it was in decline, though it never died out. However, the Welsh government, in an effort to promote Wales and a Welsh identity, has recently tried to bring back the language, posting bilingual signs and including it on school syllabi. In 2010, the Welsh Assembly voted to approve several measures developing and promoting the use of the Welsh in Wales. Visiting Wales, you’ll probably start your journey in ‘Caerdydd’ (Cardiff) where many signs will be in ‘Cymraeg’ (Welsh). You’ll be greeted with ‘croeso’ or ‘helô’ (welcome and hello). You might hear ‘bore da’ or ‘p’nawn da’ (good morning/good afternoon). You should probably learn how to say ‘diolch’ (thank you)…followed by ‘mae’n ddrwg…dw i ddim yn deall!’ (sorry, I don’t understand!) I know very little about Welsh (so excuse any errors)…but just from studying a Welsh text or two at uni, it seems to be a very interesting albeit very complicated language! Today, only about 562,000 Welsh residents reported the ability to speak Welsh.
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!
The green waters filling this beautifully constructed bath date back to 60 AD when the Romans first “discovered” the natural hot spring, then constructed a temple and public baths over top of it. One million liters of mineral-rich water pour out of the spring every day! You can imagine the gold-mine this was to the Romans. Over the hundreds of years of usage that followed, the baths were altered and embellished. By the 1800’s, Bath had developed a reputation as a curative spring, and visitors even drank the water – Jane Austen was a frequent visitor to the city of Bath, though it seems that she disliked the city (her novel, Northanger Abbey was set in Bath and didn’t treat its setting nicely). Today, over a million people visit the baths every year, though to bathe in the water, there is a modern complex next door.
[This is also where I studied as an undergrad, and living here made me fall madly in love with England (a love still in full bloom today!) and hope one day to live here again!]
At 135 meters tall, this is the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe. And it is also the most visited attraction in the UK – three and a half million people ride this wheel every year! Why? Probably because they want to see one of the most beautiful views of one of the most beautiful cities! Even in the rain – in fact, the rain makes it all the more authentic – London is one of the most majestic, lively, and interesting places on Earth, and it is one of those places that you can visit over and over again and still find something new and exciting to see each and every time.