The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these islands are uninhabited. Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands. The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay. Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby. He’s not alone. The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.
But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents. No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw. Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them. The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.
It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap. Many operators offer excursions. A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks. We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs. To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range. Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.
Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip. We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people). Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person. We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530. We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.
Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed. We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock. We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.
Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived. This in itself made the day. Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.
Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule. Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set. Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience. Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth. And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.
Would I recommend the trip? Definitely. It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.
Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.
I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.
Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.
My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.
Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.
Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails. The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.
Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith. An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.
Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.
Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.
Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.
However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.
But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.
You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.
The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog. The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.
Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember how I enjoyed a trip to the Christmas markets in Regensburg, Germany last year. If you’re looking for a German Christmas market destination, then I’d recommend this small city near to Nuremberg as the markets are compact yet very atmospheric, with one located in the grounds of the delightful Thurn und Taxis Palace. I snagged flights with Ryanair for less than a fiver, making it viable both in terms of time and cost for a day out.
Copenhagen’s Christmas markets were also well worth the trip, with the Danish capital adding some Scandi style to the proceedings. This year, I’ll soon be spending the weekend in charming Salzburg, Austria to see how they compare. In the meantime, you can read more about Regensburg and Copenhagen’s markets here:
But what about the markets closer to home? Can the UK compete? A news feature on BBC Look East about increased security at Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre was not only reassuring but perhaps more importantly, brought the event onto my radar. It took about an hour and a half to drive through some of North Essex and Suffolk’s most scenic countryside to reach the town. At midday on the Friday of the Fayre, the Park & Ride was full, as were the town’s long stay car parks. I began to wonder whether I should have taken the train, though it would have involved two changes and an extra hour on the return journey. Finally, we were given permission to tuck the car into the exhibitors’ car park. Was it worth the trip?
With around 300 stalls spread across several locations in the town, there was plenty to hold our attention. In total, we spent around 5 hours at the Fayre, beginning in the pedestrian streets spanning Cornhill and Buttermarket. Moyse’s Hall Museum, which focuses on local and social history, is worth making the time for.
Outside the museum, we found several enticing food stalls, the best of which specialised in salami and sausage. Purchase one in the bag. Not far away, Just Our Stall, which has a permanent base in the town on St John’s Street, had a wide selection of sheepskins and farmed reindeer hides. Prices were very competitive and quality was high.
From there, a stroll down Abbeygate Street led us via shops and cafes towards the Abbey itself. Fairground rides and Santa’s Grotto would keep the kids happy. Inside, we were disappointed at first to find that there weren’t as many seasonally-themed traders as we’d imagined, though once we got to the reindeer pen, things got a lot more Christmassy. One of the two reindeer wasn’t too keen on remaining in the pen, attempting to climb out when someone produced a carrot. He was a real character.
Through the Abbey gate, the concentration of stalls selling Christmas gifts and decorations was higher, making this our favourite part of the Fayre. Stand out traders, for their sense of humour as well as their product range, included HaGA Lifestyle which enthusiastically embraced the Danish concept of hygge. Locals will be aware that their regular base in Eastgate Street has an excellent cafe, a deli and also offers dog grooming.
The Once I Was stall also brought to mind the recycling theme I’d seen in action in Copenhagen. Each of the products had previously been something else before being repurposed for use in the home. Tealight holders, chopping boards and Christmas decorations had been fashioned from drawer fronts, fence posts and sheets of plywood. Also worthy of a mention is The Crafty Foxes. Based in Queens Road, they offer craft workshops. Here at the Fayre, they had a range of gift bags for sale which made excellent stocking fillers, as well as some rather unique Christmas tree decorations.
Food stalls were in abundance and there were some tempting and very festive offerings from which to choose. In contrast to the European markets, however, there was a lack of seating nearby, which meant either standing around or walking around with food and drink. Hopefully, that’s something which St Edmundsbury Council might consider for next year.
As the sun set, the festive atmosphere ramped up a notch. There hadn’t been time to duck inside the Athenaeum for the indoor stalls or catch one of the cookery demonstrations in the Cathedral Courtyard. Walking back to the car, we reflected on what an enjoyable afternoon it had been and well worth a return visit.
Regular readers of this blog will know how I’ve made a number of day trips by air to some of Europe’s most captivating cities. Yesterday saw me jet off to Venice, in perhaps my most ambitious trip yet.
You’ll find a full list of the others at the bottom of this post or on my Index page here:
While I’m not suggesting for a minute you’re going to truly get under the skin of your chosen destination in such a short space of time, it is great when you have little or no holiday left but still have that pressing need to travel. Or in my case, a desire to keep two dogs out of kennels and into Daddy Day Care which is always a priority. If you believe those predicting Brexit will put an end to cheap European flights from the UK, time could be running out to snap up a bargain. Here’s the how, where, when and what of Venice in a day.
My local airport is Stansted, the main UK base of Ryanair, and once again it was to the controversial budget carrier that I looked for my cheap fare. Normally, Ryanair flies in to Treviso airport, but while the airport has been closed for essential runway maintenance, flights are being rerouted to Marco Polo instead. Marco Polo also has the advantage of being closer to the city and well connected by both boat and bus. The current closure lasts until 18 October, but it’s worth keeping an eye out as it’s not the first time I’ve read flights have been diverted. My flight departed on time from Stansted at 0620 and touched down ten minutes ahead of schedule at 0910. The return left a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 2230 and taxied to the terminal to unload us at 2355, about 15 minutes late. Total ticket cost this time was £34 return. I should also add, as per usual I didn’t bother with a seat reservation and got a randomly allocated window seat on the outbound flight and an aisle on the return leg.
To reach Venice from Marco Polo it’s possible to catch a bus. An express service takes around 20 minutes to make the journey to Piazzale Roma, near the top end of the Grand Canal and the city’s Santa Lucia station. Return tickets cost 15 euros. But to arrive in style, I figured I needed to arrive by boat, though my budget most certainly doesn’t stretch to water taxis. There are, however, direct transfers from the airport with Alilaguna who offer a reliable service on one of three routes. This is double the price of the bus at 30 euros for a return, but in my mind well worth the cost. However, I should mention you do sit low in the boat, which isn’t great for sightseeing if you aren’t tall.
I opted for the orange route as it takes you via Cannaregio and then down the Grand Canal. Journey time to the Rialto Bridge was just under an hour. From there, the boat continues down to Santa Maria del Giglio, just short of St Mark’s. It was busy, and I had to wait for one boat to leave before getting on the second one, which added about a 30 minute delay to my journey. However, the boats serving the blue route were bigger and there wasn’t a wait. They loop via Murano and Giudecca instead, and calling at San Marco on the way. This is a really convenient option if seeing Murano’s famous glass is on your wishlist. However, it does take about 90 minutes to get to San Marco and it doesn’t transit the Grand Canal. The way I see it is that this transfer is part of your day out rather than just transport, but if time is the priority then the bus is a no-brainer.
Note: From Treviso, an airport bus scheduled to coincide with arrivals takes around 70 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma. Make sure that you’re on the ATVO bus and not the Barzi bus as the latter calls at Mestre station rather than Santa Lucia (requiring a second train journey to get to the city) and also Tronchetto Island which is again inconvenient for Venice’s top attractions.
The links you’ll need (including timetables, fares and maps):
ACTV bus and city boats: http://actv.avmspa.it/en
Ailaguna boat: http://www.alilaguna.it/en
Venice is time-consuming to get around, which is why I refer to this as my most ambitious day trip to date. Because of the lack of roads, you either have to walk or take to the city’s canals. It’s a pleasure to wander on foot, but the downside is that many alleyways are dead ends leading to canals or courtyards. Without a good map (or even with one) you’re likely to get lost. I relied on a combination of paper map, Google map navigation on my phone and a general sense of direction.
Those of you who know me will realise the latter is pretty much non-existent. Narrow streets and a maze of densely packed buildings mean that sometimes Google maps don’t quite have your location right. I also struggled with night mode, as the canals and alleys have almost no contrast – the waterways are such an essential aid to navigation that I switched it back to day mode. Fortunately even with very limited Italian, people were helpful to my pitiful “Scusi, dove Rialto Bridge?” attempts at conversation and pointed me in the right direction with a smile.
There has been a lot in the press about how residents are fed up with the city being overrun by tourists; the historic centre’s residential population numbers only 55,000 now, compared to an estimated 28 million visitors annually. Do the maths: that’s more tourists per day than the number who actually live there. Whether it was because I visited in the quieter shoulder season or whether such irritation has been exaggerated in the press, I didn’t see any indication of frustration with tourists invading locals’ space. But it’s certainly not an issue to brush under the carpet.
Due to the unhappy marriage of being time-poor and totally incompetent at map reading, I decided to splurge on a day pass for the city’s ACTV boats. This cost 20 euros and can be purchased at the many ticket booths near the jetties. (The jetties themselves are easy to spot being a) near the bigger canals and b) on account of their bright yellow livery as in the photo below.) You do have to validate the pass before you step onto a floating jetty, or risk a hefty fine. Look for a white oval terminal as you step off dry land and tap the card against it. I got my money’s worth hopping on and off, but you’ll need to make several journeys to cover your outlay.
Things to do
With so many sights to choose from, whittling down what’s easily a month’s worth of sightseeing into the nine hours I had in central Venice was tricky to say the least. It helped that this was my third trip to Venice, so I’d already seen the main attractions and (fortunately for me) years ago, well before selfie sticks had been invented. I was also keen to test out the new policy of the Venice authorities which is to encourage people to explore off the beaten track. You’ll find a wide choice of suggestions here (when they first pop up, you might think they’re written only in Italian but they’re actually dual language with English too):
I began my day by alighting at the Rialto Bridge boat jetty and crossing the bridge itself to the adjacent market. Originally the market moved to this location in 1097, but a 16th century fire destroyed almost everything in the vicinity. The market was rebuilt and depsite being a stone’s throw from the tourist crap which lines the bridge and its environs, manages to retain more than a little of its charm. There’s plenty to see, including more varieties of mushrooms than you could ever expect to see back home, capsicums done up like posies of flowers plus of course a pungent but vibrant fish market.
There’s a treat tucked around the back of the market in a hard to find alley (even with the address, Sestiere San Polo 429, it was concealed so well it took me a while to find either of its two doors) What I’m referring to is Cantina do Mori, the bacaro which claims to be the oldest in Venice. This tiny bar whose ceiling is hung with dozens of copper pots still retains a customer base who are happy to share their local with tourists like me. It’s been around since 1462 and once counted the infamous lothario Casanova among its clientele. Today, it’s still a popular place to go and have an ombra (Venetian slang for glass of wine) and soak up the alcohol with some cicheti (or in English, cicchetti), the Venetian equivalent to Spanish tapas.
Eventually, I prised myself away from the bar and its surroundings. I decided first to take a stroll in search of Venice’s narrowest street. Calle Varisco is just 53cm at the little end, though mercifully for pedestrian flow, it widens as you walk down. If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed; several properties off the street were having work done and there was a fair bit of rubbish around as a result. Forget what you’ve read: it’s not the narrowest street in the world (that’s a German one) and it’s not even close to being the slimmest in Italy.
Moving on, I headed north and picked up a boat which looped around the Castello district to bring me to the San Zaccaria stop. I was hoping to see if the church’s flooded crypt was underwater, but it closes from 12 noon until 4pm each afternoon so was out of luck. Nearby though, I passed Banco-Lotto No. 10 which sells clothing made by inmates at the women’s penitentiary on Giudecca Island. Sadly, that too was closed, though it shouldn’t have been according to the sign on its doorway. The clothes looked fabulous, even for someone with my limited fashionista skills.
Next up was a bookstore, and one which proves that Amazon can’t provide everything. The Libreria Alta Acqua is a treasure. Books stacked in precarious piles fill every inch of available space. Balanced on shelves, filling redundant gondolas and bath tubs, they represent what a bookstore should be.
This is a place to be savoured, to potter and to forget the time or anything else on your mind. The store owner wandered about, leaving the rather scary looking cat to mind the till while he wheezed and tutted to himself looking for items unspecified but clearly important. I think I could have watched him all day too. Out back was the tinest of courtyards with a sign imploring people to climb up some wobbly stairs made of old books to see the view over the canal.
I couldn’t resist walking south via St Mark’s Square. This might sound odd as I really hate the crowds and the tourist paraphernalia but I think I wanted to see just how bad it was. On the way, in Calle del Mondo Novo, my nose caught the aroma of a cheese and ham store as my eye was drawn to a pig in the pizza shop window opposite. Incidentally, I read that you should never eat pizza in Venice as wood-fired ovens are banned with just a tiny handful of exceptions. The store, Prosciutto e Parmigiano, is known locally as Latteria Senigaglia (that was the name of the original family-run dairy produce store which was set up in 1940).
In St Mark’s Square, I navigated a sea of people who couldn’t have been more synchronised in pointing their mobile phones towards whatever their guide was pointing out had a musical soundtrack been in place. Pausing only to recreate the famous shot of the gondolas lined up facing out across the lagoon, I hopped on another vaporetto. This one was bound for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the top of its belltower, or campanile as they’re called, the views across the city are splendid and of course you look out over the campanile in St Mark’s Square rather than from it. It costs 6 euros to ascend, but for that they provide a lift, and free entertainment when the bells chime the hour, frightening unsuspecting visitors. Best of all – no queues.
It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to explore a little more before I left, so I took a boat a short way up Canale della Giudecca, jumping off at Spirito Santo church to cut back through to the Grand Canal near the Peggy Guggenheim art collection. Another vaporetto took me to Venice Casino from where I could cut through to the district of Cannaregio. This is on the Venice authorities’ recommendations list and is where you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto. It lacked the crowds of St Mark’s and it’s probably very uncharitable of me to hope that the city’s campaign is unsuccessful and it stays that way.
I had planned to have an early dinner in Osteria al Bacco, which is one of the area’s most highly rated restaurants, but got sidetracked by the wonderful Al Timon instead. You do need to book ahead for dinner reservations, though they don’t always serve what they display in the window. Get there right on the dot of six when they open to grab a table for cicheti and a Spritz – for something classically Venetian, swap the fashionable Aperol for Campari.
Time was ticking on so I took a last vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal and then bought a ticket for the boat back to the airport. I’d definitely recommend a visit outside of summer and most importantly, away from the crowd. Venice is never going to be one of my favourite cities, but it’s growing on me.
The other day trips by air:
Copenhagen Christmas markets
Fresh air and water are always a good combination. With excellent rail links as well, it made the riverside town of Wivenhoe a good choice for my third outing with Greater Anglia this summer. There’s an easy but very pleasant 4km walk that takes you along the banks of the River Colne from Hythe to Wivenhoe. The really good news is that if you don’t wish to walk it in both directions, the path is easily accessible from Hythe station and leads you straight into the station car park at Wivenhoe. Both the path and the railway line follow the banks of the Colne Estuary, offering splendid views. As a walk, it couldn’t be more convenient if it tried!
If you’ve been following my previous blogs, you’ll know that I’ve enjoyed days out by train to Harwich and to the East Anglian Railway Museum. Greater Anglia have some very affordable advance fares across their network as well as £2 child fares and many other offers. It’s well worth checking out their website if you’re at a loose end this summer.
I set off from Hythe station just before lunchtime and walked along the riverbank towards the University buildings and on towards the new apartments that are springing up. I’d come this route a thousand times – it’s on the way to B&Q and Tesco – but from the car, you just don’t see what’s under your nose. There’s some fantastic artwork to be seen.
Information boards telling a little of the area’s history help provide context. In parts, they form trail markers. You can’t miss them in their steel cages.
Following the river, I passed the iconic lightship and headed off in the direction of Wivenhoe. Urban becomes rural pretty quickly and it’s a pleasant and flat walk past riverside meadows, reed beds and woodland. Even on a weekday, there were plenty of joggers and cyclists using the trail, as well as a man in a wheelchair walking his dog. This is a trail for everyone to share.
Towards Wivenhoe, there’s a board marking the entrance to the Ferry Marsh Colne Local Nature Reserve; the name’s a bit of a mouthful but it’s well worth the diversion. There’s plenty of seating along the river banks on which to sit and watch the birdlife and see what the ebb and flow of the tide reveals. If you’re lucky you could even see otters or water voles.
But it was Wivenhoe that I’d come to see. From its railway station, I found myself on the charming quayside in just a few minutes. Wivenhoe Quay is packed with buildings of historic interest, among them The Nottage, open on weekends, housing a museum with an eclectic collection of nautical items. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon until September 3rd you can visit to learn more about Captain Nottage, the Victorian army officer and keen yachtsman whose name is on the door.
Next door to The Nottage is the excellent Rose and Crown pub. Its outside tables are perfectly placed to watch the comings and goings along the Quay and the food’s not too shabby either. In the sunshine, there are few places in Essex more attractive for an al-fresco lunch.
I wanted to see something of Wivenhoe and began to explore its quiet streets. Just along Rose Lane, I noticed a blue plaque commemorating the great Miss Marple actress Joan Hickson, who once made her home here. Around the corner, I couldn’t resist browsing the produce on offer in the Village Deli. Owner Mike had an interesting take on the calorie issue presented by the ice cream on sale. According to him, if you use the attached spoon correctly, the calories can be neutralised and thus don’t count. That’ll be a salted caramel tub for me, then, and…
Along the High Street I found the Wivenhoe Bookshop, the kind of place that almost doesn’t exist anymore. Staff member Sue told me they’ve worked hard to create a space that works as a community cultural hub as well as a bookstore. Coming up there are writers’ workshops, book signings, a knitting group and even a philosophy breakfast, reflecting the University of Essex presence on the edge of town. You don’t have to be a local to get a warm welcome. The place has a homely feel – the sofa in the back room was just the kind of sofa you’d want to sink into on a rainy afternoon. I was blessed with blue skies so it was time to move on.
My final port of call was to The Sentinel Gallery, run by the delightful Pru Green whose enthusiasm for art is catching. Inside, work from some of East Anglia’s most talented artists was on display as well as some of the most colourful pottery you’ll find in the county. The modern structure features angular lines and huge panes of glass. It stands in stark contrast with the very traditional buildings that surround it, but it doesn’t jar. And the light which floods into the exhibition space is incredible. Even if you’re no art expert, this place is worth a visit, though don’t come on a Monday or a Tuesday as they’re closed.
Wivenhoe, I decided, had much to recommend it and if you want to see for yourself, there’s a ton of special events still to come this summer. The Sunday, August 20th, sees the Wivenhoe Crabbing Competition, great fun for all the family; register on the Quay from 10.30am. The town hosts its Beer Festival from September 1st to 3rd with the Art Sea Music Festival following close behind on September 9th. Throughout the summer season, a weekend foot ferry links Wivenhoe to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe so long as the tide is high enough. With limited parking in Wivenhoe, it’s a really good idea to take the train.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for providing transport to and from Wivenhoe.
Rail tickets and offers from Greater Anglia
The Nottage Maritime Institute
Rose and Crown pub
The Sentinel Gallery
“Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.” Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.
But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate. Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list. Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties. With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.
Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was hot work. As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable. Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead. I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.
Whatever your age, there’s something special about a trip to a railway museum and the chance to see a working steam engine. If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement, then I’d recommend you visit the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne. While riding on the footplate was a special treat, visitors will sometimes be able to take advantage of the museum’s “Taster for a Tenner” promotion where you can learn how to drive a diesel loco for just £10.
This summer, Greater Anglia are making it better than ever to travel by train. For a number of attractions across East Anglia and London, the East Anglian Railway Museum being one of them, presenting your rail ticket gets you 2FOR1 admission. If there’s just two of you, Greater Anglia’s advance fares will also keep your costs down. For larger groups, check out the Group Save tickets, a good deal for families and groups of friends looking for an affordable day out. Even better, Group Save can be used in conjunction with the 2FOR1 offer. With rail tickets for children costing from just £2, arriving at the EARM by train makes a lot of sense. Chappel and Wakes Colne station lies between Sudbury and Marks Tey on the pretty Gainsborough Line. From Marks Tey there are frequent connections to London’s Liverpool Street as well as Ipswich and beyond.
I chose to time my visit to coincide with one of the EARM’s regular special events. The 1940s Vintage Tea Dance marries our nostalgia for the age of steam with a love of music, dance and reminiscing about the war. Headlining the event were the fabulous Fox, Wiggle and Sass. Perfectly co-ordinated in red polka dot dresses, hair coiffed in immaculate victory rolls and lips painted a perfect scarlet, the girls had the Forties look down pat.
Aimee (Fox), Amy (Wiggle) and Gemma (Sass) hail from what they term the Bermuda Triangle of Essex: Layer de la Haye, Finchingfield and Witham. Over the last four years, they’ve been hired for countless weddings and private parties, but coming back to the EARM is special as it was the first gig they ever played. This talented trio made performing the harmonies and melodies of iconic Forties classics like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “It’s a Good Day” as well as swing hits like “Sing Sing Sing” look simple.
Watching them perform was a full house – or rather goods shed – of people, many in 1940s costume themselves. Servicemen danced with WVS volunteers while onlookers sipped tea from vintage china and ate cream teas. Sharon from Swing Jive Sudbury was on hand to teach everyone the basics so even complete beginners could join in the fun.
Also in the goods shed, Bunty Bowring had laid out a fascinating collection of 1940s vintage clothing, showing how in times of rationing, make do and mend were of vital importance. Together with husband Richard, who was dressed as one of the Home Guard, she shares her passion for all things wartime by giving regular talks to various local organisations. Outside the goods shed, meanwhile, members of the Suffolk Regiment Living History Society had brought their rifles, kit bags and even their trucks and The Viaduct mini-pub was open for those wishing to sample the local beer.
The event had been fun, but to leave without exploring the museum’s regular exhibits would have been a travesty. I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way. The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top. Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.
Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory. Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on. There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.
The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge. Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate. But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury. Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers disappearing into the mud.
EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree. I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train. Whether you time your own visit for an event day or not, you’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out. The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Best of all, taking the train instead of the car gave me the chance to mull over what I’d seen and done. My verdict: I’m going back – and next time I’m taking a 2FOR1 friend.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for courtesy train travel to and from the museum and to the East Anglian Railway Museum for a great day out.
Greater Anglia’s offers
East Anglian Railway Museum
Fox, Wiggle and Sass
Richard and Bunty Bowring
Suffolk Regiment Living History Society
It’s the people that make a place special. How often have you read that? It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché. But sometimes it’s also true.
Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog. They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip. I chose Harwich. I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned. To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree. After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it? I needn’t have worried. The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable. The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.
A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history. Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast. To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.
The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels. I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank. To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.
Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace. Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence. The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.
It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside. Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming. Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate. With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time. I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.
A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale. Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business. Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well. In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58. The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary. Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching. I’m pleased to report it worked.
Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine. Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve. I asked Christian how close he got. “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said. That sounded close enough to me.
Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Greater Anglia trains:
Harwich Harbour Ferry:
Seal boat trips:
The Pier Hotel: