juliamhammond

train travel

A day with the steppe nomads

My back jarred with every rut.  The small Japanese saloon was poorly suited to Ulan Bator’s potholes, let alone the enormous bumps and holes over which we creaked in the Mongolian countryside.  It was clear that at some point, the arid steppe climate had experienced some rain, and the trucks and 4x4s that had come before us had churned the mud into deep and now rock solid furrows.  Having spent two nights tossing and turning on the train from Irkutsk, and a good nine hours hanging around at the border, I was beginning to wish I’d taken my chances with the pickpockets of UB (the guide book’s judgement, not mine!) and not been in such a hurry to get out of the city.  It had its advantages though.

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A 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan an hour or so out of the city posed serenely in the early morning dawn, awaiting its hordes of visitors once they had prepared their picnic lunches.  We paused briefly to admire it by the roadside before moving onwards to tangle with a stray herd of cattle.  After two hours, we reached the Steppe Nomads ger camp, where my Italian travelling companions alighted.  For me, a half an hour jaunt across the fields would take me, jolt by painful jolt, to my nomad hosts, with whom I would stay the night.

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The setting was idyllic.  Enormous blue skies dwarfed the gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tents, perched halfway up the field; scrubby meadows led enticingly to deceptively distant mountains.  I took in my immediate surroundings.  Four gers, a 4×4 and, underneath the latter, three dogs snoozing in the early morning calm.  A short way up the hill was a rustic corral containing a few horses, downhill, a couple of small paddocks for sheep and goats.  In the distance, cows and horses roamed free, down by the River Khergen.  A couple of other gers and a truck back the way I’d come completed the picture.  It seemed wonderfully simple compared to the complicated life I lead back in the west.

The guest ger was beautifully decorated.  Intricately painted designs on orange woodwork contrasted with the faded cream canvas of the ger’s exterior.  Hot pink beds with carpet mattresses were pushed to the edge and a matching dressing table was festooned with family photos and mementoes.  It seemed to me a fairly comfortable introduction to camping!  My driver indicated that the small structure across the field that looked like a British Telecom workmen’s cocoon was actually the toilet.

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On closer inspection, the structure was tall enough to provide sufficient privacy, the boards firm enough to avoid any hapless falls and there was even a shovel and some loose dirt by the side for me to cover my tracks.  Having a wash was going to involve several kilometres of trekking down to the river, but I figured I’d already had two shower-free nights on the train, and, let’s face it, the horses weren’t likely to complain.  I felt very smug.

And then I was served breakfast.

I struggle with a piece of toast some mornings, so my traditional Mongolian breakfast of sick on a plate was hard to stomach.  In actual fact it was some kind of curd cheese, and to some palates, delicious I’m sure, but, for me, that morning, it was sick on a plate, served with small finger shaped pieces of lardy bread.  The cinnamon tea was lovely though, so I drank plenty of that, forced down some bread and sick and finished off with a caramel flavoured boiled sweet which had been thoughtfully provided in a small dish.  I felt terribly guilty for struggling with the food, as it was served by a delightful nomad lady with a squeaky voice and a smile as broad as the Gun Galuut horizon.

After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the corral to watch the horses.  I envisaged lounging by the fence, channelling Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer.  Unfortunately, unlike in the States, these poles were not fixed and periodically they would be charged by the horses before they made a break for freedom and hurtled down the field.  Not wishing to be trampled, but still wishing to be close enough to secure some decent shots, I kept one eye on the action and the other on the camera, as poles cascaded down around me.  The young men of the nomad group had the difficult task of roping the horses and fitting their bridles ready for the tourists at Steppe Nomads to ride them later in the day.  It was certainly no easy task.  Even with their dexterity, lassoing the only semi-tame creatures was no easy task, and the animals’ mad eyes and toothy grins only served to add to the humour of it all from the bystander’s point of view.  Many times I watched as the horses bolted and their would-be captors rode expertly after them to herd them back up the field.  I’m not sure I would have neither such patience nor the perseverance, especially whilst being watched.  I was reassured to see that the young girls at the nomad camp thought it was as funny as I did, much to the lads’ embarrassment.  Eventually, to the relief of all those involved, sufficient horses were roped and galloped down the field at an impressively fast pace to meet their excited riders.

Watching the action is all very well, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being the outsider, and so came ten year old Tilly to the rescue.  Her name was something much longer and infinitely more unpronounceable, so Tilly was settled on as a name we both could manage.  Tilly set about making it her mission to teach me to play volleyball.  “Gee-oo-lee-aah!” she would cry, lengthening my name so much that it seemed I had been re-christened especially for Mongolia.  At regular intervals throughout the afternoon, she would call for me, and we would continue with her attempts to refine my awkward technique.  “Yee-ess.  Verrry good!” was the response I hoped for, though more often than not, she just collapsed in a fit of giggles and ran down the field after the stray ball.  It was an ice-breaker, nevertheless, and I was soon adopted as the new friend, someone to show off to (but not to share with!) her younger brothers.  Before I knew what was happening, I was carted off the field to help milk the cows.  The nomad women (and tiny infant children!) made it look simple, but for me, the hardest part was balancing on the tiny wooden milking stool without toppling over and falling into the freshly dropped manure.  Once I’d mastered that, milking was easy – if a little messy.  Much the reverse of volleyball, it seemed.

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By the time the tourists came up to visit on their horses, the latter looking much tamer than they had that morning.  The Italians looked a little uncomfortable and slightly saddle sore.  It seemed like forever since I had left them this morning and I was surprised at how easily I’d settled in to such an alien environment.  Dinner was brought out – a watery but delicious mutton stew – and I savoured every mouthful.  I helped to unload two horses from the nomad’s truck and watched, toddler on hip, as the farmer administered some medication.

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Later we sat, watching the sun set and the stars brighten in the blackening sky, smiling contentedly and watching the animals settle in the paddock for the evening.  It was clear to see that this was a tough life, but the community was close-knit, the scenery was world-class and I had laughed more than I had for a long time.  Shower aside, did I really need any more than this?


Is it time you visited Colchester?

Colchester’s been busy – a new advert using the tagline #ifthesewallscouldtalk has popped up on our television screens and sets out to promote the town’s many historic attractions. As England’s oldest recorded town and also its first Roman city, there’s a lot of history to uncover. But while most of us in the region know about Colchester’s castle, some of its more recent history can get overlooked.

As part of Greater Anglia’s summer #railadventure campaign, I set out to rediscover Colchester. The first decision I had to make was which station to use: Colchester has three railway stations. I opted to alight at Colchester Town (formerly known as St Botolph’s) as it is closer to the town centre than Colchester (also known as Colchester North) and Hythe.  From there it was a six minute stroll to my first stop.

Tymperleys is a Tudor mansion tucked away in a courtyard off historic Trinity Street. Building began in the 1490s and over time it was added to and altered as the place changed hands. Among its illustrious owners was William Gilberd, an Elizabethan scientist who, it’s said, came up with the term “electricity”. Later, Colchester businessman Bernard Mason, who owned a successful printing firm, bought the place. His passion was clocks and amassed a collection of over 200 timepieces, one of the largest in Britain. This is what Wikipedia has to say about him:

Mason was a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and the author of “Clock and Watchmaking in Colchester” (1969) which originally cost four guineas (£4 4s 0d £4.20). He was made an OBE in 1959. Mason claimed that there are 375 known examples of Colchester clocks and he managed to collect 216 of them in his lifetime, travelling far and wide to bring them back “home”.

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After Mason’s death, he bequeathed his collection – and the house – to the people of Colchester. In 1987, the Tymperleys Clock Museum opened and would remain a popular attraction until 2011. But I had another reason to visit. These days, Tymperleys is perhaps (despite stiff competition!) the best cafe in the town centre and it’s especially lovely in the summer when you can eat al fresco in the delightful walled garden. No surprise, therefore, that most customers were sitting outside. With a fierce July sun beating down, I was glad of the shade of a garden umbrella as I enjoyed a tasty lunch surrounded by the pretty floral displays.

These days, not a single clock from Bernard’s collection – I asked – is left in Tymperleys. Before you fret, however, they have been moved. A short stroll across the town centre you’ll find them in the excellent Hollytrees Museum. It’s free to look around and learn something of the Colchester clockmaking industry which, it turns out, was quite something back in the day. Once a centre for baymaking (the manufacture of a felted woollen cloth), Colchester’s industry diversified in the Georgian era and it was then that the town became a centre for clock making.

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Perhaps most productive of these craftsmen was Nathaniel Hedge. The Hedge family set up in business in 1739, running a factory from 1745 until the late 1780s. Other names to look out for include John Smorthwait, who trained up the young Nathaniel. One of the oldest clocks on display is a Thirty Hour Longcase clock made in 1698 by Jeremy Spurgin out of oak. Many of the pendulum clocks on display feature adornment in a style known as Japanning, a lacquered decorative finish involving paint and varnish. It’s an intricate style, a reminder that fashion was as important as function when it came to clockmaking.

By 1800, however, the industry had peaked and went into a steep decline as clocks could be made elsewhere much more cheaply. The industry and its contribution to Colchester’s history would be all but forgotten if it wasn’t for Bernard Mason. Whether you’re local or visiting from outside the region, it’s well worth the detour to take a look at this fascinating collection.

The visitor information centre is housed on the ground floor of Hollytrees Museum; their walking tours of the town provide an insight into the town’s past that you’d be hard pressed to achieve without their knowledgeable guide. For this and more on the town’s historic attractions, check out my previous blog.

The lowdown

Greater Anglia offered me a free train ticket in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure. Travelling by train is an inexpensive way to travel, particularly off peak. For instance, if booked in advance, tickets from Norwich to London cost just £10, Cambridge to London can be had for £7 and Southend to London only £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book their ticket – this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, GA are offering a 2FOR1 deal on top London attractions; with the summer holidays fast approaching this is great news for families. And don’t forget, the excellent Hollytrees Museum is free. It even has a kid-friendly display of vintage toys and a couple of nursery rhyme surprises, though I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself.

Colchester Town station had one last treat as I was waiting to board my train home. This poem, written by C. E. Benham in 1890 is entitled “A ballad of the Tendring Hundred” and you’ll find it on the station wall. Best read out loud – see how well your North Essex accent turns out!

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Discover destinations and ticket prices at www.greateranglia.co.uk and plan your journey at www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5CG9TGG


On the trail of the Witchfinder General

Summer’s here and the skies are blue over my corner of Essex. Our river estuaries are at their most attractive at this time of year with plenty of birdlife making the most of the shallow water. Some of the best walks in the county follow the river banks and many are easy to reach by rail. So when Greater Anglia asked if I would like to help promote this summer’s #railadventure campaign, I jumped at the chance. Many of my favourite North Essex coastal towns and resorts are easily reached by rail, among them delightful Walton-on-the-Naze and Dovercourt’s historic lighthouses and Blue Flag beach. Regular readers of this blog might remember the super Greater Anglia days out I had in Harwich and Wivenhoe last summer – if you’ve never been, I’d definitely recommend them.

This excursion was inspired by a novel I found on a book exchange shelf in a guest house in Cape Verde. My charger wouldn’t function, the Kindle was out of juice and I’d resigned myself to a long flight back with no reading material. It was the only book on the shelf which was in English and when I turned it over to read the blurb, I found it was set in Essex. That book was “The Witch Finder’s Sister”, the debut novel by Beth Underwood which told the unsavoury tale of Matthew Hopkins, who held the position of Witchfinder General in 17th century Essex. Though born in Suffolk, Hopkins was closely associated with Manningtree and Mistley. Nowadays, they’re not only both reachable by train but a half hour walk apart.

L0000660 Portrait of Matthew Hopkins, the celebrated witch-finder.

The journey from Kelvedon required two changes of train but nevertheless ran like clockwork, taking just over half an hour in total. There’s even more opportunity to enjoy the countryside views on the way back – time it right as I did and there’s a direct train from Manningtree to Kelvedon taking just 20 minutes. It’s faster than driving, as well as being much less stressful. We’re wedded to the convenience of our cars, but on the train it’s nice to be able to get up and walk around – or sit back and relax on the comfortable seats. There was even sufficient time on the Colchester to Manningtree train to grab a coffee from the onboard buffet. For a less hurried walk when connecting to the Mistley train via the underpass my tip would be to find a seat nearer to the front of the train.

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Alighting from the train, my first impressions of Mistley were favourable. The port, once centred on the transportation of grain and malt for the brewing industry, is still operational but many of the old buildings that line the quayside have been renovated and repurposed. The malt extract works on the opposite side of the road are still in business and the smell of malt permeated the air as I strolled down towards the village centre.

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I couldn’t resist popping into Cooper’s Gallery to browse the colourful ceramics, paintings and textiles. Next time I shall walk in the opposite direction so that the gallery is my final stop; as it’s just across the road from the station I won’t have to walk far fully laden. This time, however, willpower was required as I wished to walk to Manningtree unencumbered by shopping bags. Liz, the gallery owner, was a mine of useful information about Mistley and the history of the quayside, lending me a calendar of old photographs to browse as I ate lunch at the T House cafe next door.

It was low tide and Liz explained how the partially submerged barge I could see from her window came to be stuck in the mud. Apparently, the sails of the Bijou caught alight during a bombing raid in 1940. So that the fire wouldn’t spread, she was cut free from her moorings and allowed to drift away from the quay. Burnt out, she’s been there ever since, the tide covering and uncovering this century-old vessel and gradually eroding what’s left.

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Across the street was The Mistley Thorn. The present day building was built as a coaching inn about 1723 and is now a restaurant with rooms to stay in. A pub stood on the site in the mid 17th century which was reputedly owned by Matthew Hopkins. He was supposed to have “examined” his first witch at the Thorn in 1644. An information board on the side of the Thorn tells a little of the story that Beth Underwood so cleverly adapted for her novel.

In an age of mistrust and religious upheaval, Hopkins decided there was more money to be made as a witch finder than as a lawyer, switching professions and assuming the role of Witchfinder General by 1645. Witch hunting set in motion a chilling sequence of denunciation, interrogation and finally execution. The trials were a joke. So-called witches were said to bear the Devil’s mark, a part of their body that didn’t feel pain. This could be a mole or a birthmark, which Hopkins prodded with a spike or cut with a blunt knife to see if it bled.

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Another method was to tie the alleged witch to a chair and throw her into a pond. God’s pure water would reject a witch, it was thought, and she would float, but if “proved” to be a witch, she would be hung. Hopkins used to carry out such practices at Mistley’s Hopping Bridge, a short walk from the Thorn. It’s said that his ghost haunts the site and is most likely to be seen when there’s a full moon.

The exact number of women who were targeted by Hopkins is not known, but it is thought that the prolific Hopkins was responsible for several hundred deaths. In less than two years the number of witches he convicted represented about 60% of the total number punished in England from the early 15th to the late 18th century. In 1646, a parson from Huntingdon by the name of John Gaule published a pamphlet exposing Hopkins methods for the nonsense they were. The Witchfinder General wrote back in an attempt to defend himself, but popular support for his actions had begun to wane. Hopkins retired to Manningtree, a rich man. He died in 1647 of tuberculosis and was buried in the churchyard at Mistley Heath; both the graveyard and his body are long gone.

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I headed to Manningtree, passing Mistley Towers, erected as part of a failed scheme in the late 18th century to reinvent Mistley as a saltwater spa town. The twin towers that remain are all that’s left of a grand Georgian church, designed by Robert Adams and eventually demolished in 1870. I walked over the Hopping Bridge – in broad daylight I saw no ghosts. A lone swan glided across the still waters of the pond.

Across the road, following the south bank of the River Stour along what’s known as The Walls, I encountered more of these graceful birds. Mistley has been traditionally associated with a large population of mute swans, which have made their home here since the 18th century. Back then, as barley and other grain was unloaded at the quayside, some would be blown by the wind into the waters of the Stour and its tributary channels. Not surprisingly, the swans hung around to feed off this grain and have done so ever since. These days, those that remain are part of a domesticated herd.

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The sun was out, fittingly for what’s termed the Essex Sunshine Coast, and I couldn’t resist an ice cream as I walked towards Manningtree. In Tudor times a centre for the cloth trade, later a port, Manningtree claims to be England’s smallest town (by area, not population). The town also gets a mention in the Shakespeare play Henry IV Part One, as Falstaff is likened to a “roasted Manningtree ox”. The Witch Finder’s evil reach extended to Manningtree too, for it was here that some of his victims were hanged, and the town sign bears his picture.

With bunting out and kids playing on the town beach, it was hard to imagine such troubled times. As I made my way to the train station, I thought what a pleasant afternoon I’d had on my latest #railadventure.

The lowdown

I received free train travel from Greater Anglia in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure, but there are some great deals to be had for paying customers, particularly if you travel off peak. For instance, if you book in advance, tickets from Norwich to London are available at just £10, Cambridge to London at £7 and Southend to London at just £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book for their ticket as this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, they are offering  2FOR1 on top London attractions, helping your summer holiday budget stretch further.

Discover destinations and ticket prices at www.greateranglia.co.uk and plan your journey at www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5CG9TGG


Book review: Europe by Rail

I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy.  This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide.  But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?

Europe by Rail

A task of epic proportions

Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking.  As a consequence this book acts as an overview.  While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive.  The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers.  The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent.  Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.

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CityNightLine

An inspiring guide

The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform.  So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages.  Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured.  While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy.  If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.

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Crossing the Landwasser Viaduct in Switzerland

Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona.  The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.”  Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore.  Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.”  Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.

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The Cinque Terre

What could be improved?

Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title.  Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way.  It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not.  It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.

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Spain’s high speed AVE

Each route features a map.  The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable.  While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way.  This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps.  I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text.  Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.

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Sintra station’s exquisite ticket office

There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality.  I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix.  These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.

The verdict: would I buy this guide?

For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion.  Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date.  Don’t wait until you leave to buy it.  The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like.  If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…