Eighteen months ago, I moved to a village close to Britain’s oldest recorded town. Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD; it was then known as the Roman settlement of Camulodunum. After much time spent doing DIY and decorating the house, I decided it was time to get out and explore the town on my doorstep. Today that took me to the delightful Bourne Mill, a National Trust property just outside Colchester town centre.
If you live in East Anglia, you might be interested to know that Greater Anglia are running a promotion this summer called Let the Adventure Begin. There’s also a competition running until mid-August in which you could win first-class train tickets to any station on their network:
Win that, and you too could be exploring Colchester. Visitors today can see plenty of evidence of the town’s long history, from the Roman Berryfield mosaic at Firstsite to surviving groundworks of the Roman theatre which can be seen in Maidenburgh Street in the town’s Dutch Quarter. The Tourist Information Centre run a superb bi-weekly walking tour which I highly recommend.
Now, look closely at the photo above and in particular, the materials used to build the castle. The structure that you see is Norman. Construction began in 1076, similar to the Tower of London, but all is not what it seems. The foundations stand on what was the Temple of Claudius dating from about 55-60 AD and many of the building materials were recycled from Roman Colchester. In particular, look at the red stones that form the cornerstones – they look almost like roof tiles. These crop up elsewhere too, for example, in the remains of the fortifications that once encircled the town (you can make them out about halfway up the original wall to the left of the picture below):
I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to see the same materials plundered to build Bourne Mill, located about a 20 minute walk away. This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey. A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.
After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it. Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill. The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, this wonderful building was the result.
Well actually, not quite.
What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner. On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory. Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true. This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.
But that story doesn’t end there, of course. Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter. Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.
The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says. They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular. A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth. That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.
Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium. It became a fulling mill, a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable. A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive. Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth. Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead. Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.
After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more. The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton. As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape. By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. It was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed. Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and learn at Bourne Mill, expecting only to see a waterwheel and not a lot more. The team of volunteers work hard to bring the Mill’s history to life and succeed in communicating their enthusiasm. I’d especially like to thank Liz Mullen and Joan Orme for their insights and for not burdening me with more historical detail than I could cope with.
Acknowledgements and practical information
I’d like to say thanks to the National Trust who provided me with a free pass to visit Bourne Mill. If you’d like to do the same, entrance costs £3.75 for adults and £1.90 for children. The place is open from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 10am to 5pm. Dogs are welcome on a lead, though there’s a steep ladder-like staircase to the upper storey which they won’t be able to access. There’s a small cafe too and plenty of picnic tables perfect for sitting and watching the ducks, including Joan’s favourite with the quiff.
There are plenty of things to do with the kids, including free use of the Mill’s pond dipping equipment, making this a good choice now that the school summer holidays are upon us:
The National Trust website also has a guided walk which you can follow to get a better grasp of your surroundings. I shall be back soon to try it out.
If you’d like to begin with the Camulodunum to Colchester walking tour, then this takes place at 11am on Saturdays year-round, with additional walks on Wednesdays at the same time throughout the summer. Walks need to be pre-booked as they do fill up; adults cost £4.30 and children £3.10. Find out more here:
At Bourne Mill, parking is limited on site – Sir Thomas Lucas didn’t plan ahead – but you should be able to find roadside parking nearby. Better still, take the train. Greater Anglia’s nearest station is Colchester Town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the town centre to the Mill, but you can catch a bus to Mersea Road from outside the station if your feet have had enough.
The fastest connections from London Liverpool Street to Colchester’s main station take just 46 minutes and just over an hour to the Colchester Town station right in the centre of town. More details can be found on the Greater Anglia website:
Visitors to San Antonio might be surprised to learn that it’s the seventh largest city in the USA, larger than San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Boston. This fast-growing city has a population of around 1.5 million. In Texas, only Houston beats it. But the best thing about San Antonio is that with such a compact and walkable downtown, it doesn’t feel big – and that’s why I like it. I’m not alone. An estimated 32 million visitors flock to San Antonio every year.
The Spanish first set foot in San Antonio in 1691, founding a settlement in the early 18th century. Some of the earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands. San Antonio became the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas; today it’s still possible to visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace. Years ago, during my first visit to Argentina, I met a woman from San Antonio and was a little irritated by her insistence on pronouncing Texas as Tay-hass. Now, I realise that perhaps it was just a pride in her city’s heritage. You can read the story here:
The single storey adobe building that forms the Spanish Governor’s Palace was the original comandancia, the place where the military garrison’s officers lived and worked. Its whitewashed walls and simple furnishings allow the building to speak for itself; the tranquil courtyard garden is a serene oasis from the modern city which surrounds it.
Of course, the most famous historic building in San Antonio is the Alamo and no visit to the city can be complete without a visit to this historic mission. From 1821 to 1836, the city was the capital of Mexican Tejas, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1821. But when Antonio López de Santa Anna, later to become the country’s 8th president, abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued. The Texian Army, a group of volunteers and regulars, managed to force the Mexicans back, capturing San Antonio in 1835 during the Battle of Bexar. But in 1836, Santa Anna hit back, marching on San Antonio to defeat the Texian forces who were trying to defend the Alamo. A memorial stands outside the building, inscribed thus:
Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.
“Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry of the Texian Army. Later that year, Santa Anna was defeated and Texas won its independence. It remained that way until 1845 when it was annexed by the USA with popular approval from the Texians. Texas was formally incorporated as a state of the USA on February 19, 1846.
A stroll along the city’s River Walk is the most scenic way to reach the cathedral. This urban waterway, lined with trees and restaurants, is the social heart of San Antonio. Catastrophic flooding occurred on the San Antonio River in 1921, leading to calls to manage the river as it wound its way through the heart of the city. Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open in 1946, but I’d recommend you pay a visit to Cafe Ole where you should ask if their server Richard is rostered on – he’s excellent.
The cathedral is well worth a visit. Also known as the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, it was originally built from 1738 to 1750 and some of those original walls still stand. The current structure largely dates from the 19th century. Each evening, a sound and light show tells the history of the city, the captivating graphics projected onto the cathedral’s façade and twin towers.
Though it can feel like it at times, the city’s not just the sum of its Mexican heritage. There’s actually a historic German district known as King William, located within an easy walk of downtown. In the 1790s, Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of the city’s five missions, sold off land to settlers. It wasn’t until the 1860s, however, that the district was sectioned off into plots and took on its present day layout. At that time, it attracted a sizeable population of German immigrants. The main street was named King Wilhelm 1, after the King of Prussia, though it garnered the derogatory nickname Sauerkraut Bend for a while too. Its wealthy residents competed to construct the most impressive mansions and a stroll along the street today is as much an exercise in real estate envy as it is regular sightseeing. A visit to the Edward Steves Homestead Museum affords the opportunity to see how such families might have lived.
There’s plenty more: a rich cultural heritage manifested in a number of excellent art museums and a plethora of shopping plazas including El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the USA and La Villita, a concentration of arts and crafts stores showcasing some of the area’s finest artisan talent. And if you wish to get kitted out with your own stetson before continuing your Texan journey, then I’d recommend a visit to this place:
Paris Hatters celebrates a century of trading this year. It’s not much to look at, but the tiny store is packed with boxes stacked almost to the ceiling ensuring that whatever your style choice or your size, there’s something to fit. Its clientele boast a number of the rich and famous, among them former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. You never know, as you look in the mirror, someone you recognise might be right behind you!
One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.
Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen. No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.
The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.
During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.
Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?
Visiting Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, last month I came across this machine in the hacienda’s museum. I presume it was some kind of machine used to grind the coffee, but there was no information on it. What caught my eye was the place name on the machine: Maldon. That’s a fifteen minute drive from my house.
Since getting back, I’ve been finding out a bit about E. H. Bentall and it makes for interesting reading. Not least, the E. H. stands for Edward Hammond, which is my father’s name. Edward’s father (the Heybridge Edward, not mine) was a farmer named William. He designed a plough to use on his land near Goldhanger and got a local smithy to make it up. Word got around and by 1795, he’d gone into business making them. Business boomed but raw materials at the time had to be brought in by barge up the Blackwater. William Bentall upped sticks and moved down the road to Goldhanger where he built a place by the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Bentall diversified, producing amongst other things the first steam powered threshing machine.
Meanwhile, with his wife Mary Hammond, he’d produced a son. Edward Hammond Bentall had the same aptitude for engineering as his father. This particularly makes me smile as my Dad was an engineer throughout his working life. He took over the business in 1836 aged 22 and three years later, registered as E.H. Bentall & Co, it was thriving. In 1841, mindful of competition, he took out a patent on an improved Goldhanger plough protecting it from imitators. Under Edward’s leadership, the company began to export machinery overseas and one of those machines found its way to a coffee hacienda just outside the village of Jayuya.
Back at home, Edward Hammond Bentall had been elected as Member of Parliament for Maldon, a post which he held from 1868 to 1874. In 1873 Edward had an imposing home built, known as The Towers, which was located near Heybridge Cemetery. It was so well built that when the time came to pull it down in the 1950s, dynamite had to be used to blow it up. By the time Edward passed the business on to his son Edmund in 1889, he was a wealthy man. He died in 1898.
Mechanisation of the coffee plantations further increased profits, particularly after World War Two while the company operated under the leadership of Edward’s grandson, Charles. He died in 1955, and just six years later, the company was taken over by Acrow, which eventually went bust in 1984. That was it for Bentall & Co, but their warehouse still proudly overlooks the canal in Heybridge.
And if you remember Bentall’s department store (now Kingston Fenwicks), the founders of that store are related to William too.
It’s been a busy time recently, working on lots of different projects. I try to keep an up to date list on my website http://www.juliahammond.co.uk but I thought it might be a good idea to post some links here too.
I’ve written a number of articles for this excellent website and it’s really good to have an outlet for some narrative driven pieces rather than factual blogs. If you haven’t had a look, then I’d recommend you have a browse. To get you started, here’s a piece on Cusco:
Camping and Caravanning Club of Great Britain
Closer to home, the Camping and Caravanning Club commissioned a series of blog posts covering a variety of British cities. It took a while for them to go live but they’re now all up. You’ll find the likes of Norwich, York, Manchester and Oxford but here’s one on London:
Sunday Times Travel Magazine
Following a string of rejected pitches, I finally managed to get an idea accepted by the Sunday Times Travel Magazine after snagging the £342 business class error fare to New York last year. I’ve pitched a second idea which may or may not be a follow up piece, but we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, here’s the piece that made the cut in the March 2017 edition:
The excellent Go4Travel continues to be a satisfied client and I’m delighted that they accept my work on a regular basis. Alongside my regular articles on New Zealand, I write on places I’m currently visiting, so most recently, I’ve had blogs published on Puerto Rico following a most enjoyable trip there last month. A round up of most of the articles can be accessed via this link:
Towards the end of last year, I submitted a piece to the Essex Belongs To Us initiative and learned in December that my short article on what it’s been like to move to Salcott had been accepted for their anthology. It’s due to be published in March and launched at the Essex Book Festival which sadly I won’t be able to attend as I’ll be off travelling. There should be news here in the near future if you’d like a copy:
I love a good train trip and the ultimate in rail journeys has surely got to be the Trans-Siberian in some form or another. If you’re thinking of crossing Russia by train, I’d suggest doing some background reading beforehand to get your head around what seems like a complex trip but in reality is more straightforward than it looks.
What is the Trans-Siberian?
Some people wrongly believe that the Trans-Siberian is one single luxury train. It’s not. It’s one of several long distance routes that stretch across Russia. Generalising a little, there are three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. Following each of these routes, it is possible to travel on a single train, but most people stop off along the way to explore some of Russia’s great sights – and see something of Mongolia and China as well, perhaps.
How long will I need?
To follow the classic route from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east without stops will take 6 days. If you plan to do this, you’ll need to book the Rossiya train (number 1 or 2 depending on the direction you take). Extending your journey , you could begin (or end) in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, which are connected by an overnight train taking about 8-9 hours, or the high speed Sapsan train which covers the distance in about 4 hours. Personally, I’d allow at least a couple of days to scratch the surface of Moscow or St Petersburg, though it’s easy to spend more time in either. To cover the whole route with a few meaningful stops, it’s best to allow a couple of weeks, more if you can. And of course, you can do the whole trip overland with connecting trains via Paris and a route that takes you through Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk.
What was my itinerary?
Mine is, of course, by no means the definitive tour. On these three routes, it’s easy to tailor your journey according to your own personal preferences. I flew from London City airport to Moscow as at the time I booked, this worked out cheapest. When I planned my trip, I’d already been to Beijing, so I opted for the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, leaving the Trans-Siberian on the map above at Ulan-Ude and heading south to the border. Read more about Russia here:
I stopped at Vladimir (for Suzdal and the Golden Ring) and then Perm (to visit one of Stalin’s notorious gulags). I skipped the popular stop at Yekaterinburg for reasons of time, though I’d like to visit next time, making the journey from Perm to Irkutsk in one go (a little under three days and over 3000 miles) as I wanted to experience a multi-night trip. I think that was enough: though you can book itineraries which involve staying on board the train for longer, I was definitely ready to sleep in a proper bed after two nights on the train and it was an amazing feeling to luxuriate in a bath and soak away all that train grime and staleness. There’s only so much wet wipes and dry shampoo can achieve!
I had a couple of days at Irkutsk so I could visit Listvyanka at Lake Baikal. On a second trip, I’d build in more time here as it was beautiful – and frozen in winter, it must be a special place indeed. Reboarding a train, I crossed over the border to Mongolia. Having seen a little of the Mongolian capital I set off into the surrounding countryside for an unforgettable stay in a ger with the steppe nomads. Culture shock is an understatement! Read about it here:
I then retraced my steps to Ulan-Ude from where I caught a flight back to Moscow with budget airline S7 – a six and a half hour domestic flight which gives you some idea of the country’s vast size. This worked out considerably cheaper than finding a single leg fare to Moscow and home from UB. In all, the train tickets cost me about £500, with flights adding about £350 to the total. In all a couple of weeks’ holiday cost me around £1500 including basic hotels, meals and sightseeing.
Is it easy to do as an independent traveller?
Yes and no. I’m a big fan of independent travel, not only for the cost savings, but also for the flexibility it gives me to tailor the itinerary to suit my exact requirements. But I’m also not a Russian speaker and I felt I needed support with the booking process to ensure I ended up with the right tickets for the right trains. As you can see from the ticket below, it’s not at all easy to understand not only a different language but a different alphabet as well.
Due to the complexities of the railway ticketing system plus visa considerations, I decided to use a single specialist travel agent for those two aspects of my trip. As is my usual style, I booked my own flights, accommodation and most of my sightseeing myself; the exception was a private tour to Perm-36 Gulag which I also outsourced. I used a UK-based company called Trans-Siberian Experience (https://www.trans-siberian.co.uk) who were very efficient and helpful. The day trip was a 260km round trip from Perm, customised to my personal requirements and cost £170, the most extravagant part of my trip but more than worth the outlay.
The company I used at the time was Real Russia.
Their website has a dedicated Trans-Siberian section which enables you to check train times, suss out possible routes, check prices and order visas. It’s clear and in my experience the support offered by the team was excellent. All my tickets were sent in good time with English translations, the visa process was uncomplicated and every aspect of the trip that they’d arranged went according to plan – which was more than could be said for some of my own bits:
Since switching careers, I’ve done a lot of work for Just Go Russia, another London-based agency specialising in Russia, and they are always extremely efficient. If you’re looking for a tour, they do offer a wide range of options. You can find them here:
Even if you don’t end up booking a tour, it’s a good way of getting an overview of the route and whittling down the options about where to stop off. Another source of information is The Man in Seat 61, my starting point for every train trip I’m planning outside the UK. There’s a good overview here:
What’s it like on the train?
Each of the trains I took was a little different. I “warmed up” on the short leg from Moscow to Vladimir and this was a regular seated train. That took away some of the nerves about checking I was on the right train, right seat and so on, without the worry of a missed long distance connection. From Vladimir heading east, some of the long distance trains leave in the middle of the night, so I opted for one departing early evening which arrived after lunch the following day. The overnight trains varied considerably in terms of speed and quality, something that is reflected in the price.
Another thing to factor in if travelling in Russia’s hot summer is that the air-conditioning is turned off when you stop at the border and the windows of such carriages don’t open; more basic trains have windows that can be pulled down to let in a breeze. (In winter, in case you’re wondering, the trains are heated, so prepare to swelter on the train and freeze on the platform.)
Some compartments featured luxury velour seating, others were more basic, such as the one I travelled on from Perm to Irkutsk. In my opinion, that didn’t really matter as I followed the lead of my compartment companions (all Russians) and stretched out on a made bed all the way rather than converting it back to a seat. When I did the Irkutsk-UB leg, the train was more luxurious, those sharing the compartment were all tourists like me and we all sat up during the daytime. To be honest, I liked the local approach best.
In all cases, I opted for second-class tickets which provided comfortable accommodation though no en-suite facilities. The logic to this was that as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to be alone in a compartment with a single man and the first-class compartments came as two-berth not four-berth kupe. I shared with three men from Perm to Irkutsk but as everyone sleeps in their clothes nothing untoward happened and actually I was well looked after by one of them in particular, a Russian army officer heading on to Chita.
Border crossings can be daunting, but knowing my visas and documentation were in order was helpful. Formalities vary and the immigration officials will make it clear whether you are to remain on board or not. It is normal for them to take your passports away; that can feel stressful but having a photocopy of your papers is a comfort. Note that the Chinese trains run on a different gauge so the carriages have to be lifted onto new bogeys.
What should I pack?
As you are likely to sleep in your clothes then picking something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a loose T-shirt is a good idea, though clearly you won’t win any fashion awards. Who cares? I found it helpful to pack changes of clothes (socks, underwear and T-shirts) in a day pack so I could store my suitcase under the bed and forget about it.
In terms of footwear, most of the locals seemed to favour blue flip-flops with white socks. Slip on shoes of some form are convenient to help keep your bedding free of dust picked up from the floor. The provodnitsa, or carriage attendant, will come round with the vacuum cleaner each day and will chastise anyone who’s made a mess, so keep the compartment clean.
It’s a good idea to book a lower bunk as you are then sleeping on top of your bags, affording grreater security than the open stow holes up top. It’s possible to lock the door from the inside, but not from the outside, so when you visit the bathroom it’s reassuring to know that your belongings are out of sight. Having a small handbag to carry passport, money and other valuables – like train tickets! – was also helpful. When I’m travelling by overnight train I always take a lockable, hard shell wheelie; it’s narrow enough to wheel down train corridors and light enough to lift from the platform, but also more robust than a slashable canvas bag. A determined thief will steal or break into anything, so it’s about making yourself a more difficult target than the next passenger.
When I travelled, the bathroom facilities were pretty basic so I would definitely recommend taking lots of wet wipes and also a can of dry shampoo. It’s amazing how clean you can get yourself in a small cubicle with just a small sink. These days, most Russian overnight trains have a special services car with a pay-to-use shower which would have been great. You do need your own towel, but I use a special travel towel which folds up small and dries fast. I won mine in a competition but you can get something similar here:
In terms of sustenance, the provodnitsa also keeps a samovar boiling from which you can get hot water to make tea, noodles or soup, so I packed some of these too. Some were more accommodating than others; if you get a grumpy one, she’ll lock her door or disappear for hours at a time. I was lucky to have a smiling provodnitsa on my longest leg, which made a difference. The Russians travelled with plenty of food which they generously shared, most memorably omul, a kipper-like smoked fish common in Siberia.
There’s a restaurant car as well and at station stops, despite the queues there was often enough time to nip off to buy food from the platform vendors, so carry enough small change for these kind of purchases. Finally, it’s a long way. Although batteries can be charged (though sometimes in the corridor on older trains) I’d pack an old fashioned paperback to read or carry a pack of cards to entertain yourself. Take family photos – in my experience it’s true that Russians love to share theirs. It’s also true that a bottle of vodka can break the ice though some compartments sounded more raucous late at night than others – the luck of the draw! I also had a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (as opposed to the Lonely Planet which I would usually take) because the level of detail about what you’ll see out of the train window was much better.
Anything else I should know?
One of the things I was most worried about before I set off was missing a train or missing a stop. In the event, neither of these were an issue. At the station, huge signboards helped identify where the train might pull in and showing the ticket and smiling a lot got me escorted to many a carriage door. Pretty much without exception, I found the Russian railway staff very helpful. The trains used to run on Moscow time which could be a little confusing at first, but there are timetables up in the corridors and even on the longer legs I usually knew roughly where I was. Since summer 2018, they’ve switched to local time and are showing both times to help ease the changeover.
A phrase book helped me decipher the Cyrillic alphabet; my technique was to focus on just the first two or three letters rather than trying to remember the whole name. Thus Suzdal became CY3 etc. The train provodnitsas were very good at giving their passengers plenty of warning when their stop was imminent and so I managed to get across Russia without incident.
I never felt unsafe during my trip but I would say that you need to be a bit savvy when it comes to your valuables. Keep your passport and money with you, don’t flash around expensive cameras or laptops but equally, don’t get too paranoid.
Would I do it again?
Yes! The scenery at times was monotonous but that was missing the point. The adventure was in the interactions with people on the train; the sightseeing came after I alighted at the station. Next time I think I’ll begin in St Petersburg, detour to Kazan and make that visit to Yekaterinburg before heading east to Vladivostok. Now where did I put that Trans-Siberian handbook?
Sometimes there’s a travel listicle that does the rounds that just makes you laugh out loud. I’ve just read a piece by Tour Radar claiming to have been written in conjunction with Lonely Planet which puts Prague, Sri Lanka and Goa on a compilation of eight “best kept secrets”. I’m sorry, but walk into any High Street travel agent and it won’t be hard to find a package to any of those. I’m shocked that this got through the filter, if I’m honest, so here’s my response. You want best kept secrets? I’ll reveal a few of mine.
Everyone goes south from Lima, but head north and leave the crowds behind. The area around Chachapoyas has some superb sights and you’ll often get them to yourself. Read more in my guide to Northern Peru’s Chacha circuit here:
Citadelle Laferriere, Haiti
Haiti’s troubled political history and its penchant for getting right in the way of terrible natural disasters means that tourist infrastructure is severely limited. Make the effort, though, and there are many wonderful places to be explored. Aside from Jacmel, I pretty much had everywhere to myself.
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
Central America is packed with Mayan ruins but you’ll have a hard time finding space for a bit of quiet reflection if you stick to the beaten track. Honduras’ reputation as the murder capital of the world keeps the tourists away, but the savvy traveller will know that away from the large cities, the country is as safe as they come. Saddle up and see for yourself in sleepy Copan Ruinas.
The only other foreigners at the lodge in Obuasi were a bunch of South Africans who partied hard by night and worked the gold mine by day. Few tourists make it to this part of Ghana but it remains one of my favourite underground experiences.
The draw of this South Pacific island is well documented – an active volcano which bred the Prince Philip cult. Its remoteness, however, means that it sees relatively few tourists and those that venture are likely to have little company as they view some of the most spectacular sights on the planet.
If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track in Europe, you’re going to have to search hard. Bremen’s northerly location in Germany means it sees relatively few visitors and yet there’s lots to do and see.
Also in a country that sees its fair share of international tourists is the delightful region of Extremadura. Overlooked in favour of its southerly neighbour Andalusia, yet an easy ride from Madrid, this part of Spain is packed with history and extraordinary scenery. Get there before everyone else. No, scratch that – leave this one to me!