Category Archives: Around Europe with Ghosts:

Discovering the Semois

Winding its way lazily for 210 kilometres, starting in Arlon in Belgium, arriving in France and changing its name to the Semoy before joining the Meuse at Monthermé , the Semois can charm most lovers of the great outdoors. Usually, the river has an optimal flow of water for safe canoeing and kayaking in early summer, but following substantial rain it is also becomes navigable in August and September. The area was more popular in the 60’s and 70’s before European visitors jetted off in search of more far flung pleasures. To me this is a benefit as the crowds have gone elsewhere, making the trip down the Semois very civilised indeed. There is still plenty of accommodation from hostels and camping sites to luxury hotels but on this trip we stayed with friends at their house.

The Semois
The Semois

Canoe and kayak hire locations can be found at numerous points along the course of the river. The operators will collect you and your boat at the end of your voyage or even take you upstream to commence your journey. The river is perfect for first time kayakers as there are no dangerous rapids and generally the water is slow moving. There are a number of weirs which can be avoided by beaching beforehand and carrying your boat past. We went over the weirs and had no adverse effects other than a bow wave that washed over the kayak’s prow soaking our legs. My camera, watch, phone, spare clothing, lunch, etc. were stowed in a waterproof barrel secured to the kayak.

Kayak on the Semois
Kayak on the Semois
Dragon flies and flowers
Dragon flies and flowers

Paddling downriver is not the only means of slow travel to explore the Semois. GR16 is a long distance trail that follows the river valley from Arlon to Monthermé, where it connects with GR12.
We hiked a section by Cugnon and made a deviation to visit the caves where Saint Remacle lived for a while in the seventh century while converting the Ardennes to Christianity.

Caves of St Remacle
Caves of St Remacle

GR 16 looks like an appealing project when we have finished our flirtation with GR 579 (Brussels – Liege) and GR 12 (Brussels – French Border), but there is still a lot of Semois river to paddle! That is the primary benefit of slow travel; there is always so much more to experience.

Rock stairs on GR 16
Rock stairs on GR 16

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

The bell tolls for paradise lost

Bostadh Beach with its bell on Great Bernera, off the Isle of Lewis is an enchanting place. It is not a new discovery as evidenced by the Iron Age Village unearthed by a storm in 1992. Trying to encapsulate its charms with my humble words is a futile task; therefore, this will be a photo essay. In fact as with many places like this only a visit can convey the full experience.

Bostadh Beach
Bostadh Beach

Time and Tide Bell

In 2010, Bostadh was selected as a location for the installation of one of Marcus Vergette’s twelve Time and Tide Bells that are to be installed around the British Isles at the rate of one per year. The waves at high tide move a paddle which is connected to a striker which sounds the bell albeit reasonable quietly. With the predicted sea level rises over the coming decades the bells will not only toll more frequently but the tones will change subtly according to the height of the tides. It is not intended to be a part of the Dark Mountain Project, , but it fits nicely with the philosophy of civilisation being slowly drowned. The bells will toll more frequently signalling the demise of low-lying habitats around the world. Bostadh is an excellent place to stop and think, and perhaps the bell sounding will stimulate thought of places less fortunate as the tide comes in.

Time and Tide Bell
Time and Tide Bell

Installation of the bell at Bostadh was approved after local consultation and meetings. Objections were received just after the approval had been given. A number of people got in touch complaining that it would spoil the pristine natural environment at Bostadh. I’ve already mentioned the Iron Age village, in addition there is a cemetery, car park, toilets and picnic tables. However, there is little else there. Apart from the toilets there is no building newer than the Iron Age.

But, it seems for some people, a single bell can destroy paradise. But not as fast as the human race is managing to do in the early 21st century.

 

Iron Age Viallage at Bostadh Beach
Iron Age Village at Bostadh Beach
Iron Age Village at Bostadh
Iron Age Village at Bostadh
Inside Iron Age House
Inside Iron Age House

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

Slow Scottish travel

This summer I found some Bargain Berths for the Caledonion Sleeper Train. Staying at family run B&B’s and hostels and hiking to Inverness seemed like a low carbon, ethical way to travel. It was certainly enjoyable. I guess Sleeper Trains are higher carbon than normal trains and that passenger trains are higher carbon than full buses; so we could have done better. Passenger trains are less efficient than buses due to the weight built into the trains to ensure safety. I’d hate to be the engineer that has to justify the designs for an efficient passenger train, if it means that more passengers would be injured or killed in a crash.Sustainable Scottish travel via the Great Glen Way The Great Glen Way uses a lot of Forestry Commission roads. Views of the various lochs were not that frequent and depended upon where the trees had been felled recently. Plesiosaurus The Loch Ness monster still draws the visitors to the loch and especially Drumnadrochit. Fort Augustus Fort Augustus has the biggest choice of accommodation between Inverness and Fort William. There is also a good choice of shops, restaurants and Takeaways. When staying at the various B&B’s and hostels, the question went through my mind that how ethical did the various family source their supplies? The hotel chains are now looking at this issue. In the old days it didn’t matter so much as most produce was local, but now it is easy for a B&B owner to pop into a supermarket and source some goods with a high carbon footprint or buy linen produced in a sweat shop somewhere. All questions that got me thinking. How do you address these subjects? Caledonian Canal The Caledonian canal is now busy with holiday traffic. It never really fullfilled its expectations for commercial traffic. Caledonian canal The views improve as you hike towards Fort William. General Wade's Military Road Originally built to subjugate the Scots. General Wade’s Military roads were used effectively by the Jacobites in the uprisings at the start of the 18 th century. This is just the type of path that the Scottish midges love. Fortunately I had a net over my cowboy hat and furthermore the weather was either too windy, too sunny or too wet to suit the midges. I was using a Deet based repellent purely because we have a supply to use up. Future expeditions will probably use Mozzy Off made from bog myrtle or will research the Avon Skin So soft that also receives a lot of praise. Other options include visiting in May or September. At least by visiting Scotland twice in August we know that we can get by comfortably. Invergarry Castle After hiking down the paths on the far side of Loch Oich we back tracked up to Invergarry to stay at the Invergarry Lodge, easily the best hostel we stayed at on our week hiking the Great Glen Way. Hand operated swing bridge   Most of my photographs have rain clouds and we had a fair share of rain on our journey.  Not sure who said it originally, but the saying “No such thing as bad weather; only inappropriate clothing” held true.

Further information for Slow Scottish Travel

Look up the website of the Great Glen Way or the Wikipedia page.

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

A Welsh Day Trip in February

This is a short photo essay of part of a day trip to Llandudno and Anglesey on a Sunday in February. The first part of the day was spent walking around the Great Orme at Llandudno, but this post will concentrate on the afternoon spent in Anglesey. Crossing the Menai Straits on Stevenson’s Britannia Bridge we stopped for photos of his railway bridge and Telford’s Suspension bridge.

Menai bridge
One of Thomas Telford’s masterpieces

Telford’s bridge probably comes out in front in the elegance stakes, but I am impressed by Stevenson’s Britannia bridge. Originally a tubular rail bridge, it burnt down in the Seventies, to be recycled into both a rail and road bridge, using Stevenson’s original piers. Something sustainable in that approach appeals to me.

Brittania Bridge
Stevenson’s Britannia Bridge now carries road and rail traffic

On Anglesey we headed for Newborough Beach mainly because I hadn’t been there since I was a child. Back then it involved a trek across a track only passable in something like our farm Mk 1 Landrover. A TV programme on the geology of Llanddwyn Island had also stirred my interest.

Celtic cross on Llanddwyn
Newborough beach with Snowdonia in the background

Newborough beach is a expanse of clean sandy beach, behind which sand dunes and the red squirrel inhabited Newborough Forest rise up majestically. Walking North we came to the island and read the information panel on both the island’s significance as a place of pilgrimage and the Pre Cambrian geology. Then venturing onto the island passing the well used by lovers to check on the fidelity of their lovers, we came to a Celtic Cross. This is one of two crosses commemorating St Dwynwen on the Island. Llanddwyn and St Dynwen's Cross Her original cross can be found inland from the old lighthouse. The lighthouse was where a lot of the filming for “Half light” starring Demi Moore was filmed. The island also supplies locations for some scenes from the 2009 “Clash of the Titans” movie.

Pony on Llanddwyn
Pony on Llanddwyn

Llandwyn Island was Wales’ first bird reserve and the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The isle is grazed by ponies and sheep which maintains its present look.

Further reading for a Welsh Day Trip

This post is a companion post to Ynys Llanddwyn a place of pilgrimage for Welsh Lovers on the VisitBritain SuperBlog. Ynys Llanddwyn on Wikipedia.

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

On the Tintin trail in Brussels

While walking the streets of Brussels, I am often aware that I am following in the footsteps of Georges Rémi, better known as Hergé, creator of Tintin. From where I type this article, I can see both of the schools he attended in his youth. He left his mark in the form of murals at both schools. One when he was a Boy Scout and the other when he was an accomplished author / illustrator. They are not available for viewing by the public, but Brussels has lots of other Tintin related works that are accessible to all.Information panel for Tintin trail inParc de Bruxelles

VisitBrussels publish a map that folds down to credit card size; “In the footsteps of the little reporter – Sized for Tintin”. It retails for 0.50 Euros and is available from the Information Offices. The trail starts in the Parc de Bruxelles where a temporary information panel explains that the park was the inspiration for the drawings in King Ottokar’s Sceptre. It then continues on around the centre of Brussels highlighting sights that provided inspiration for the Tintin stories, murals featuring Herge’s work, the Tintin shop and the Belgian Comic Strip Centre.  It also includes the Hergé / Tintin locations outside the centre of Brussels, including his birthplace and tomb.

Hergé's birthplace

Compared to Tintin, Hergé didn’t travel extensively. He used the work of photographers who had recorded scenes from the locations in his books, as the basis of his drawings. He also researched the locations thoroughly.  National Geographic was a favoured source. He drew the planes, trains, automobiles that interested him from life. Even the rocket that Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy take to the moon, was inspired by the V1 test rockets developed by the Germans in the Second World War, then used by the American Space Programme after the war.
Hergé mural Stockel

Brussels provided much of the inspiration in the cartoon strips. Exhibits from the Musée Cinquantenaire and Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren appear in many of his stories. In 2009 Grand Place was the venue for the World’s largest Comic Strip, when a page from Objective Moon filled most of the square. It was so large that you had to climb up on a viewing platform to appreciate it.

Part of largest Tintin in Grand Place 2009
When Spielberg made his animated movie, he remained true to the books and original locations that inspired them. The film starts in place Jeu de Balle, in the Marolles quarter of Brussels, where Tintin gets his portrait drawn by Hergé, before finding the Unicorn on sale.  The flea market is is still held every morning. When I went out with my camera, I didn’t find the Unicorn, but I did come across a trawler. Perhaps it was a clue pointing towards the reason why all the fish are disappearing from the world’s oceans. Tintin the young Belgian Reporter, would have loved to expose that story.

Not the Unicorn, Flea Market, Marolles
Not the Unicorn, Flea Market, Marolles

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

Trail gazing

Have you ever stood on a railway station concourse and stared longingly at destinations on the Departures Board that were not printed on your tickets? Have you ever found yourself on the road somewhere and found that the you were travelling along one of the world’s more famous long distance routes and felt the urge to keep on going? Have you ever stood at the bottom of a valley and felt an irresistible pull towards the summit high up above? I suffer from all of these afflictions and then some.

Camino de Santiago waymarker
Camino de Santiago waymarker

Long distance footpaths can also be found there in the mix saying “Come on! I dare you to walk me and find out where I go through and end up”. My gaze is always arrested by the waymark stickers for the Camino de Santiago and get I exited just by seeing the white and red horizontal  bars signifying a GR (Grand Randonée – a European long distance trail). These markers are as valuable as SatNav for anyone hiking on these trails. Perhaps I’ll post again to explain how they’re used for navigation and how they vary across Europe. I’ll certainly post extracts from some of my hikes on these walking routes.

Waymarker on GR5
Waymarker on GR5

So when I’m out shopping in Brussels and come across a litter bin with a white and red bar painted on it, I stop and sometimes even take a photograph, but each time I’m wondering where the trail leads. In fact the one in this photograph is for GR126, which starts in Brussels, crosses GR12 in Grand Place then heads off south through Namur, Dinant and finishes at Membre-sur-Semois by the border of the French and Belgian Ardennes, where it joins GR16, which in turn has followed the River Semois from by Arlon in South East Belgium. This then rejoins GR12 on its way from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels.

Grand randonée waymarker GR126
Grand randonée waymarker: GR126

It is amazing where two painted bars on a litter bin can lead.

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

Free to view art: Part 2 – Murals and sculptures

In an earlier post, I shared some of my the street art I had come across on my travels. This post will also be about free to view art, but this time the art herein is all officially sanctioned.  Belgium is the capital of Bande Desinée (carton strips), many of the characters in the books are on display on this wall outside the International Railway station at Gare du Midi. How many of the characters do you recognise?

Bande Desinée mural, by gare du Midi, Brussels
Bande Desinée mural, by gare du Midi, Brussels

If you call in at the Tourist Information office in Brussels you can get a walking tour taking in all of the murals. I find this one amusing, but in fact most are quite amusing.

Bande Desinée mural, Brussels
Bande Desinée mural, Brussels

It would be remiss of me not to include a Tin Tin mural in a post including Belgian cartoon strips. Here is our hero at Stockel Station. It is worth mentioning at this point that all of the Metro Stations in Brussels have major works by well known artists. Look up the STIB Website or call in at their shop at De Broukere, Brussels and get a brochure detailing the works.

I for one can’t wait for the new Tin Tin movie. I love the work of Speilberg, Jackson, and Steven Moffatt who wrote the first draft of the script. How about you?

Tin Tin mural on Brussels Metro
Tin Tin mural on Brussels Metro

Moving on to sculptures, Jean Michel Folon, is one of my favourite Belgian artists. Many of his works are on display in public places.

Quelqu'n (Someone), Namur, Belgium
Quelqu'n (Someone), by Folon, Namur, Belgium

Niki de Saint Phalle also produces colourful works in all senses of the word. This one can be found at Luxembourg City’s bus station.

"La Grande Tempérance" by Niki de Saint Phalle
"La Grande Tempérance" by Niki de Saint Phalle, Luxembourg

Arne Quinze produces some interesting pieces. Previously he had a big piece at Toison d’Or in Brussels. The Sequence can be found behind the Belgian Government buildings.

"The Sequence" by Arne Quinze, Brussels
"The Sequence" by Arne Quinze, Brussels

Flaine, the purpose built winter sports centre in the French Alps comprises 1960’s style concrete apartment blocks. The sculptures on display though, provide an artistic counterbalance. There is a big work by Picasso, but my favourite is this one by Jean Dubuffet.

Dubuffet, Flaine, France
Dubuffet, Flaine, France

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

Britain’s most popular canal?

The Llangollen canal between Llantysilio and Chirk is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United Kingdom than spans two countries. The listed section covers a distance of 18 kilometres and includes two aqueducts spanning deep valleys, as well as two tunnels. It was built between 1793 and 1808 and remarkably, given the terrain; no locks were employed. It was added to the list in 2009, but I have known it as long as I can remember. The fields of the farm I grew up on went down to the canal. I remember being given a fishing rod and trying unsuccessfully to catch a fish. I didn’t even catch an old boot or supermarket trolley. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why travel is one of my hobbies and not fishing. I remember our attempts as Scouts to cross the canal without getting wet, but inevitably someone would fall in, as we attempted to get across on ropes.

Llangollen Wharf
The canal was a branch of the Ellesmere Canal that linked Chester, the Mersey estuary, the Severn and the Midlands canal network. In fact it is still possible to get to London by canal from Llangollen. The canal was built near the start of the Industrial Revolution to Thomas Telford’s design and the work overseen by William Jessop. Telford designed the aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysyllte using innovative materials and construction for that time.
Chirk Aqueduct
Chirk Aqueduct
The boundary of the UNESCO site is at the bridge at Rhosweil, a kilometre inside England. The photo above, is of Chirk Aqueduct, here there is a sign at the English side of the aqueduct saying ‘Welcome to England’ and a sign at the Welsh end saying ‘Welcome to Wales’. I wonder where you are when you are on the aqueduct itself? If you have an amusing answer then drop it in the comments.
The aqueduct across the Ceiriog Valley, is now eclipsed in height by the railway viaduct running alongside. A civil engineering statement about railway supremacy, something that the M1 motorway failed to do to the West Coast Main Line railway at Watford Gap. The railway embankment rises above the M1 as trains speed past the motorway traffic at nearly double the speed.
Chirk tunnel
Chirk canal tunnel
Shortly after Chirk Aqueduct the canal enters a 420 metre long tunnel. Which along with the 175 metre tunnel at Whitehurst, were the first in Britain to incorporate a towpath. The route of the canal is easy walking, even when it enters the steep sided Dee Valley, as it was designed to follow the contours of the land and falls a mere 30 millimetres every kilometre.
Pontcysyllte aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte aqueduct is the most impressive part of the Llangollen canal. Having taken the canal across the Ceiriog Valley, an even bigger obstacle had to be overcome, in the form of the deep glaciated Dee Valley. Telford designed a masterpiece of civil engineering with an aqueduct of nineteen slender hollow masonry piers supporting a cast iron trough with jounts sealed by Welsh flannel, soaked in sugar and sealed with a mixture of white lead and iron particles. The aqueduct carries the canal up to 38 metres above the valley for 307 metres making it the tallest and the longest aqueduct in the UK. Opened in 1805 the canal started making money in 1815 transporting slate, limestone, lime, and iron from the North Wales Coalfield and the Dee Valley. The grandeur of the project sealed Telford’s reputation and he went on to become the first President of the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE), a fact recorded on a plaque by the canal on the Froncysyllte side.

Llangollen canal
The canal then hugs the side of the beautiful Dee Valley to Llangollen and beyond to the Horseshoe Falls at Llantysilio. It is possible to hire a boat for the day from the wharf at Llangollen or take a horse drawn barge trip above Llangollen to by just below Pentrefelin. Of course many visitors come by narrowboat, Wrenbury, near Nantwich in Cheshire being a popular starting point for the cruise.
Horseshoe Falls
Horseshoe Falls
Due to be closed in 1944,  it was retained, albeit in a non navigable state, to supply water to Hurleston Reservoir, Nantwich. It underwent a renaissance not long after as canal cruises became popular and is now probably the most popular canal for narrowboats in Britain.
Getting there:
Nearest railway station is Chirk
Frequent buses to Trevor and Llangollen from Wrexham and the rail station at Ruabon.
Links:
UNESCO Listing
An unforgettable trip – A narrow boat trip on the Llangollen Canal by @Traveldudes on the VisitBritain SuperBlog

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

A prehistoric post: Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey, Wales

 

Anglesey, the large island separated from the rest of North Wales by the Menai Straits, is rich with megalithic sites.  Bryn Celli Ddu is considered to be the most important. The English translation being ‘the mound in the dark grove’. It is now in open fields but now and then my camera tells lies.
I arrived on a rainy July day to be denied the views of Snowdonia, that are usually reward visitors. The passage grave afforded some protection from the constant drizzle, so I proceeded inside.


Upon reaching the main chamber, I accidentally emulated the experience of the workmen who excavated the site in the 1920’s, a dark man sized, standing stone loomed up behind me. Spooky!


Sites such as Bryn Celli Ddu are still a mystery. The information boards around the site provide useful insights, but will never tell the full story. It is known that during the Stone Age, there was a henge here, with a stone circle within. Then during the Bronze Age the large passage grave was built over the centre of the henge. The earthen mound would have been four times as large as the present structure, making it more like Newgrange in Ireland.
Recently it has been confirmed that the passage aligns with sunrise on the summer solstice, the rays from the rising sun illuminating a quartz rich stone at the back of the chamber.

Some visitor information:
Location on Google Maps.
Nearest rail station is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
No admission fee, no restaurant and no souvenir shop.

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

Daily Photo: Chamonix Railway station

One of the plus points for Chamonix is that it has links to the French Autoroute system, is served by the Inter City European bus network, as well as the national rail network. Unfortunately TGV’s and sleeper trains terminate at St Gevais / La Fayet. You must then take the Mont Blanc Express to get to Chamonix. You can go all the way to Martigny in Switzerland if you like (another change of trains at Vallorcine may be required).
Chamonix Station

The station is one of my favourites both in terms of its architecture and that backdrop!

This is an HDR rendition, putting it in the ‘Around Europe with ghosts‘ series of posts.

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.