The largest prehistoric mine in the world

By now you’ve probably realised that Wales has three things aplenty: sheep, castles and mines.
Wales was famous for it’s coal mining throughout the 19th and early 20th century and had substantial slate mines but there had been small-scale mining in the country since the British Iron Age. Gold, copper and lead were mined in substantial quantities, zinc and silver not quite as much, until it wasn’t profitable any more.

I finally got to visit the Great Orme Copper Mines properly this year (with my parents in tow). Located half way up the Great Orme in Llandudno, it is the largest Bronze Age mine in the world and was uncovered in 1987 during a scheme to landscape an area of the Great Orme. Since then it has been an ongoing archaeological project of slowly uncovering bit by bit.

On the surface you can tour parts of the opencast mine which is over 4,000 years old and take a look down a deep Victorian mine shaft.


Walking through the 3,500 year old tunnels you get a feel for the harsh conditions copper mining involved in those days and it always dazzles me what the people of that age were able to accomplish using only stone hammers and bone.

The tunnels take you down to the second level which is approximately 60ft below the surface and it gets really cold and damp down there. If you feel claustrophobic easily this might not be the right place fore you. Only 3% of the tunnels are open to the public at the moment so some follow up visits might be required in the future.

And if you feel like you need some open air afterwards just make your way up to the top of the Great Orme with its stunning view.

Wide awake in the ‘City that Never Sleeps’

After fulfilling a life long dream last year and visiting New York City for the first time, I was back this summer – and how much more relaxed I was this time. As I had seen most of the major sights already, I didn’t have the permanent feeling of not being able to linger somewhere and constantly thinking “Got to go, there’s so much more to see”. I still managed to make my feet hurt by the end of each day; I do prefer exploring places on foot, if possible, which means I could end up walking from the upper end of midtown to downtown, on to Brooklyn and back again, crisscrossing the island of Manhattan. This time I also got to explore parts of the other boroughs and even spent a day at the beach, enjoying a refreshing swim in the Atlantic during the heat wave.

Back home while looking through hundreds of photographs I was wondering what exactly to show you. So I’ve decided to go for the places where there weren’t that many tourists around. It doesn’t mean these are less interesting or less beautiful places but sometimes just that extra bit further away. I will try not to bore you with too many details, you can always look things up.

The Cathedral of St John the Divine (nicknamed St John the Unfinished) is located at the north western end of Central Park in the Morningside Heights neighbourhood. Building began in 1892 and, as the nickname suggests, it remains unfinished to this day. But my main reason for visiting: it’s MASSIVE!! There is a dispute whether St John or Liverpool Cathedral is the world’s largest Anglican cathedral and church but it definitely is the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Entry is free, however they ask for a donation. Please give some, so they might be able to finish it one day. DON’T MISS: the Keith Haring tryptich, his last work before he died!

The northern part of Central Park is far less crowded and much hillier than its southern part but doesn’t lack attractions. You can come across several foundations of old forts, Harlem Meer is a nice spot and the Conservatory Garden is one of the hidden wonders of Central Park. It’s the only formal garden in Central Park and is divided into three separate gardens: the French Garden, the Italian Garden and the English Garden.

The Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is probably best known for its unisphere and the water towers which have featured in many films and movies. Created for the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair and also hosting the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair it is the largest park in Queens. The nearby zoo and science museum make a nice addition for a day out and in summer they offer open air screenings of movies. DON’T MISS: the mosaics when you enter the park from the subway station. Where else can you step on a Salvador Dali?!

The Staten Island Ferry offers some spectacular views of Manhattan’s skyline, and it’s completely free! It’s not really a secret anymore and tourists are flocking to the ferry  but it’s not as crowded as on the boats to the Statue of Liberty. Make sure you have enough time for a wander around Staten Island and taking in some of the sights. DON’T MISS: the Battery Maritime Building next door to the ferry terminal. It is being redeveloped now but you can still imagine the old splendour. The Governor’s Island Ferry departs from here.

South Street Seaport and Pier 15 East River Esplanade are a good option if you want to chill out. Pier 15 offers a bi-level recreational space on the water with sun lounges and a nice view over Brooklyn. Next to it you can see the The Peking, a steel hulled 4-masted barque. South Street Seaport is a designated historic district and features some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan. It offers some nice boutique shops and bars. DON’T MISS: the Brooklyn Bridge mural and Fishbridge Park Garden (corner Water St & Dover St), probably the smallest garden open to the public I have ever been to. (Oh, and there is a water taxi IKEA Express Shuttle departing from Wall Street Pier 11 in case you’re in need of some Swedish furniture.)

When you walk amidst all those skyscrapers in Manhattan you easily forget that this is actually an island. Whereas the stretch from  North Cove Yacht Harbour to South Cove Park is less touristy it’s still worthwhile to continue through Battery Park. It’s beautifully planted and offers some interesting monuments too. DON’T MISS: The Sphere that once stood in the middle of Austin J. Tobin Plaza, the area between the World Trade Center. 

If you fancy a day at the beach I’d recommend Rockaway Beach in Queens but the most famous beach resort is still Coney Island. Very colourful, a bit commercial and tacky but the beach is nice and the Atlantic Ocean wonderfully refreshing. DON’T MISS: Eat a hot dog at Nathan’s, the most famous hot dog in the world. It’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and the first Coney Island store is still there, though I preferred to eat mine on the promenade.

Obviously architecture and the ‘weird and the wonderful’ are a big part of New York City as well, so here is just a small selection of some other things I came across.

 

There is plenty more to see and do. I can’t recommend the American Museum of Natural History enough; make sure to catch a movie at one of the movies in the park events, (the one in Brooklyn Bridge Park has the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop!), but be sure to protect yourself from those mosquitos; try some food from the original The Halal Guys, there’s usually a queue in front of the carts but worth the wait; The Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum is great, based on an old aircraft carrier you can see lots of planes, a Concorde and even the space shuttle Enterprise; catch a sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park and roam the streets of Manhattan at night with all those colourful lights; and get on top of one of the skyscrapers (I like Top of the Rock) for some stunning views (DON’T MISS: look up the elevator shaft when going up and down at Top of the Rock).

The lesser known castles of Wales

Having almost too many castles in one country can pose a bit of a dilemma: which ones do you promote for tourists to visit? What are the criteria? Was it once a real castle or just the architectural vision of a rich family in later centuries?

Considering it was once a proper castle, I suppose you could say there are three main criteria for fame:

  1. Does it look good – obviously if it is almost complete with rooms and gardens etc  (like Chirk Castle or Powys Castle) it is a definite must. And if the walls still stand in the shape of a castle that allow visitors to go around it, climb towers and explore the castle grounds, that’s good too. The visitor needs to be impressed by the craftmanship of the time.
  2. Location, location, location – if the location is right then some walls, gates and towers are more than enough. Spectacular views, strategic position and easy to reach by car ensures it to be an attraction for young and old. Put it on the top of a hill with spectacular views across the Dee valley (Castle Dinas Bran – though you have to climb a hill) or on top of a former cliff (Harlech Castle) and a mention in various leaflets is guaranteed.
  3. Historic importance – if the castle played an important part in the history of Wales or British monarchs, a lack in substance and prime location can be forgiven. But it needs to have some big names or events attached to it. A mention in a Shakespeare play doesn’t hurt either.

If you look at all the castles that fit into at least one of these categories you’ve got a lot covered, especially along the north Wales coast line. But there are the odd ones out – barely there ruins in a not very scenic, easy to reach location where nothing truly important ever happened. These are usually ruins popular with locals who like to go there for a Sunday family stroll. One thing I noticed, while visiting these places, is that they seem to be mostly typical Welsh castles whereas their famous counterparts are usually built by the English to keep the Welsh in check. This might be a result of the Welsh being defeated in many battles over the centuries and the Welsh castles being neglected, abandoned or even torn down afterwards.

But I think it’s time to take a closer look at some of these.

Located in Wrepre Park in a corner of the woods is Ewloe Castle of which you can find a more detailed post here. The castle, which was one of the last fortifications to be built by the sovereign Princes of Wales, was abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277 and given little military value, allowed to fall into ruin.

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Ewloe Castle is tucked away in the corner of the woods

Tucked away on the top of a hill in Caergwrle is Caergwrle Castle which I have visited several times before. Built by Dafydd ap Gruffydd, it was the final castle to be built by Welsh rulers before the loss of independence. But when Dafydd’s forces rebelled against Edward I, the king sent forces to take the castle andDafydd retreated and sabotaged the structure. It was rebuilt and Edward gave it to his wife but abandoned after a fire broke out. Never being reubilt again it was then just passed down the royal line until nothing much was left.

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Caergwrle Castle is set on top of a hill with stunning views but unfortunately not in a tourist attracting area

And then there is Holt Castle. This is probably the one castle that left myself the least impressed so far. It looks more like someone forgot a couple of stairs, windows and buttresses on top of a rock. Shows you how spoiled I am already when it comes to castles.

Holt Castle was a medieval castle built on the Welsh-English border on the banks of the river Dee in the town of Holt. The castle, which was constructed between 1277 and 1311, was shaped like a pentagon and had towers at each corner. It was built from local sandstone on top of a 12 metres high promontory but today only the base remains.

This is just the beginning really, there are many more “forgotten” castles, not only in north Wales but even along the Welsh-English border. After all somebody had to keep the Welsh in check….

But that’s something for another time.

All is ‘tickety-boo’ – this was 2015

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2015 was certainly an interesting year. I travelled a lot to some very interesting places, met lovely people along the way and made very  interesting experiences. I walked up mountains, discovered cities and watched the three queens together with about one million people in Liverpool. 

Amongst the places that stood out the most were certainly New York City, Blenheim Palace and Llanddwyn Island. New York had been a life long dream come true and it was funny in some ways as I’m finally getting used to all the British dialects and accents but felt somewhat challenged by certain American pronunciations. I will never forget one of the phone calls I made whilst there. I had to confirm my shuttle service from the hotel to the airport. After some formalities I was finally asked “Where are you staying, ma’am?” and I answered in my best English “The Pod Hotel.” “Where?” “The P-O-D Hotel!” “I can’t find that on my list. What’s the address?” By now I began to sweat slightly and gave the lady the address of my hotel. “Hmmm. Is that port or pod?” And here’s the thing, she pronounced it ‘pɑd’ whereas I had pronounced it ‘pɒd’ (you can hear the difference here) So after I copied her pronunciation everything went smoothly. Still a lot to learn.

Also this year I have been closest to a hunt I hopefully will ever be. I’m not talking about a fox hunt here but pheasants, I think. I had been out on a walk in Shropshire and had been hearing some shooting and pheasants shouting (or whatever you call it) for a while. At a canal I met a mother with some children. The children were wearing protective headphones and started playing at a canal. They looked as if they had been bored for a while and were glad to be able to throw some stones and sticks into the water. The mother, however, said to them “Keep quiet, this is still a drive.” This is when I spotted some hunters with their rifles in the meadows. I quickened my pace and tried to find some tranquility. Still not British enough for some traditions.

I hope the new year has more exciting adventures in store for me that I can share with you and you will hopefully enjoy reading about them. 
Here’s to 2016!

Roman soldiers and ghostly creatures in Chester

Christmas trees and decorations are always a good sign that Christmas and the New Year are just around the corner. Another indicator, however, are the Saturnalia and Winter Watch Parades in Chester.

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The streets of Chester were quite busy with late night shoppers

I love to go and watch it, especially on a mild evening like yesterday, and combine it with a visit to the Christmas market and maybe through in some Christmas shopping . Unfortunately I was a bit late yesterday so the best places for taking pictures were taken but it is more about the atmosphere anyway.

Saturnalia was a popular Roman midwinter festival celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture, and worship of him hopefully encouraged prosperity to come. It was a time to eat, drink and be merry and there was a tradition of tomfoolery and role reversal, where masters became servants and vice versa.

Dating from the 1400’s the Winter Watch Parade was originally held at Christmas. The City leaders would hand over the keys to the City to the City Watch (early police force) after processing around the City to ensure it was secure. There followed a banquet and celebration of Christmas, knowing the City was safe. (more info and pics here)

Fulfilling a Dream: New York, you were wonderful!

I can’t believe it’s been a week already since I left the exciting city of New York. I had a wonderful time, managed to see a lot and still haven’t scratched the surface. I already know new places to visit next time.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share some more impressions with you that don’t include major sights (well, apart from a few) and to share some of my newfound ‘wisdom’.

Walk – as much as you can. Somehow Manhattan didn’t seem quite as big as I imagined. Don’t get me wrong, it is a big city but was manageable on foot. The grid system is easy for orientation and if you walk at a certain pace (namely mine), the lights will turn to ‘walk’ just in time when you get there and you can just keep walking. As long as you don’t change directions, that is.

If you are on a shopping spree on 5th Ave, get tired and find yourself on the upper end – grab yourself a coffee or ice-cream in the atrium of the Trump Tower and go up to the outdoor gardens on the 5th and 6th floor. You won’t get a great view but it’s quiet and tourists just usually stop by to take a picture and leave again.

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Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and here’s the thing. Entry is $25 but it’s a RECOMMENDED admission charge. You can pay as much as you like, they will ask you how much you want to give and won’t be offended if you part with less. Make sure you’ve got a couple of hours because there is much to see and don’t miss the roof garden (open May-October), the view of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline is amazing.

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You might have to wait a bit at the elevators as numbers are restricted. But the view is worth the wait.

If you love books – Strand Book Store is the place to go. You can get books to reduced prices and even rare ones. Apart from the store on Broadway they also have Central Park Kiosks (60th St at 5th Ave).

If the weather is nice and warm don’t waste your time in a restaurant. Grab yourself something to eat and get a table or bench in a square or park like everybody else. Much more interesting and there’s always free space. Maybe even play a game of speed chess at Union Square.

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Relax at one of the tables in Union Square

But enough with the talking (or writing in this case), I wanted to show you some impressions that don’t necessarily include one of New York’s major sights.

First of all, there is the architecture. Keep your eyes upwards and you can spot intricate details on many buildings. Unfortunately I can’t tell you the name or location of every building and some I missed completely due to lack of time (or knowledge).

And then there is the more modern architecture (and no, not the Gehry building)

But if you’re looking more for that ‘village feeling’ and the typical fire escapes

Another art form New York is quite famous for is graffiti. Just walking up and down The High Line shows you some nice examples but you can find in various places

New York wouldn’t be New York without some curiosities

And finally my favourite sculpture. There are many in New York, in parks, on squares, in front of buildings, by the road. But this one caught my attention. It’s the American Merchant Mariners Memorial in Battery Park south from Pier A. Set out in the harbour on a stone break water and shows three men balancing on a tilting deck, one of them trying to reach a fourth man in the water. Their hands are barely touching, but when the tide rises, the drowning man disappears. It is moving especially as the waves break over the head of the drowning man making him appear to bob up and down. The sculpture was based on photograph of a real event from World War II.

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The dramatic sculpture was dedicated in 1991 and created by Marisol Escobar.

I’m reading the book ‘I never knew that about New York’ at the moment that I bought on my last day in New York. I wish I’d had it before my holidays. It’s a good read and gives you some information and details you won’t find in your regular guide book. I’m already planning what I’m going to see next time…

Blenheim Palace – The only non-royal ‘palace’ in England

I always wanted to see this magnificent building, the only non-royal ‘Palace’ in England, and as this year’s motto is ‘going to places I always wanted to see’ (more about this in a couple of weeks), Blenheim Palace was on my list. It is one England’s largest houses; the money and royal land to build it on was gifted to the 1st Duke of Malborough by Queen Anne for his military triumphs against the French and Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession, culminating in the 1704 Battle of Blenheim. (At the same time a ‘quit-rent’ standard was issued. Every year a new version of this French royal standard is made and this Blenheim standard is sent annually as ‘quit-rent’ to the Sovereign at Windsor Castle otherwise the land the palace is built on is reclaimed by the Royal Family. Traditionally this happens on 13th August every year to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim.)

View from the Great Court towards the palace entrance.

View from the Great Court towards the palace entrance.

The building of the palace didn’t go quite as planned though and it soon became the subject to political infighting leading to exile, fall from power and damage to the architects reputation.

But it is also the place where Winston Churchill was born and proposed to his future wife. The palace remains the home of the Dukes of Marlborough and is enjoyed by thousands of tourists each year. Architect Sir John Vanbrugh designed the palace in the rare, and short-lived, English Baroque style and it stands proudly in the parks and gardens.

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The palace entrance

The interior and the state rooms are impressive to say the least:

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Winston Churchill was born here.

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The Great Hall leaves you speechless.

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The Green Drawing Room

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The Red Drawing Room. In the late 1800s some paintings, amongst other things, had to be sold because of financial problems.

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The Green Writing Room with part of the ‘Blenheim Tapestry’.

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That’s what I call fine dining…

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Apparently the Dining Room is still used by the family once a year at Christmas.

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Above the fireplace you can see an older version of the ‘quit-rent’ standard.

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The Second State Room

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The Third State Room

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Queen Anne statue in the Long Library

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The organ in the Long Library was built in 1891 by the famous London firm of Henry Willis & Sons.

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The Long Library

The palace chapel dominated by the 1st Dukes tomb and sarcophagus.

The palace chapel dominated by the 1st Dukes tomb and sarcophagus.

It’s a shame that not many buildings were built in the English Baroque style as it features some lovely details.

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Obviously there are amazing gardens and don’t forget that the palace sits on an extensive estate.

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The Water Terraces. I can recommend getting an ice cream, find yourself a place to sit and just enjoy your surroundings.

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It is a nice backdrop for having lunch.

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The narrow second terrace

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On the lowest terrace stands the scale model made by Bernini for his famous fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome

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View across the lowest terrace

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Temple of Diana, where Churchill proposed to his wife

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Statue in the Churchill Memorial Garden

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Rose Garden

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The Cascade. Most popular feature was a swan having a drink in the middle of it at that time.

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The Italian Garden, not open to the public.

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The Secret Garden, a tranquil place to escape and relax.

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The Roundel

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View from the south lawn towards the palace.

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The Column of Victory

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This 40 metre high Doric column remembers the legacy of the 1st Duke of Marlborough

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View on the way back from the column towards the palace.

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The Grand Bridge. It became really grand when famous landscape architect Capability Brown made the River Glyme flow through the lower parts of the bridge.

There is much more to see than I could possibly fit in this blog post so if you get a chance, go and visit. And make sure you have enough time to explore it all.