Tourist London: A Walk In History

My friend Antony sent me another of the You Tube videos of Joolz presenting one of his very informative walks.

This time, he is walking around some very famous Central London tourist areas, and giving a detailed history in his inimitable style.
(The film is just under 30 minutes long.)

If you have ever wandered around the same places, you may well be interested in the background to them.

Holidays and Travel: Ghent 2007

As nobody can travel at the moment, I am reblogging this post from 2014, about a short but very enjoyable trip to the city of Ghent, in Belgium. Other than Jude, I don’t think any of you have ever seen it.

beetleypete

When you are thinking of a destination for a three-night break, it is unlikely that Ghent will find a place on your shortlist. All the old favourites will be considered; Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Bruges, and Barcelona, alongside others, perhaps further afield. But what if you have already visited these before, possibly several times? And what if you don’t want the hassle of flying, and getting out of Central London, to an airport?

In 2007, I was going to be fifty-five years old. Julie had already taken me to Rome, for my fiftieth birthday, and wanted to mark the occasion this time, with another short trip, that did not waste too much of the time in travelling. She asked if I had anywhere in mind. I had never been to Budapest, Vienna, Lisbon, or Venice, so these places were all considered. I also added Ghent to the list of possibles, as…

View original post 1,581 more words

Featured Blogger: Lorenz Omondi

I have been asked by Lorenz to make you aware of his blog.

As you can see from the logo, it is all about Kenya. He seeks to promote cultural tourism in that country, with many photos and features.

There is also a lot of very interesting tribal, political, and cultural information that may well be new to you.

If you would like to see and learn more about that picturesque African country, or just give Lorenz some encouragement, here’s a link to his blog.

https://ke1tribe.wordpress.com/

East Germany, as a tourist

With my current fiction serial set in East Germany after WW2, I thought I would re-post this old travel article from 2013.
It may be of interest, though quite a few of you have seen it before.
A long read, at 3,500 words.

Before I went to East Germany in 1979, I didn’t know much about the place, other than the propaganda that we saw over here. I wasn’t even aware that holidays there were possible, until I saw an advertisement in The Morning Star newspaper, for a company that specialised in holidays to places behind the Iron Curtain, as well as countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, that had so recently been ravaged by war. The East German trip seemed to offer fantastic value. There were direct flights to and from Dresden, the services of a guide throughout, and coach travel to numerous destinations in that country. All meals were included, and the ten-day holiday took in such desirable sights as Leipzig, Meissen, and Berlin. (East, of course) The total cost for this, was an unbelievable £110 per person, cheap even all that time ago.

By this time, it was usual for my wife and I to take two holidays a year. We were both working, and keen to see as much of the world as we could afford. Because of the North European destination, we decided it was best to book for the summer time, and still amazed that this holiday actually existed at that price, we took our chances, and booked. It was not my usual practice in those days, to fully research a holiday before departure. There was no Internet then, and guide books were notoriously out of date. Besides, holidays to East Germany, with its reputation of repression, doom and gloom, and the infamous wall, were hardly common, so travel guides were non-existent. As an arch Lefty, it seemed to me to be somewhere that I should travel to, to see another side of the argument. So, I decided to trust to luck, and politics, and off we went.

The flight was not full, and we scanned the rows, trying to decide if any of our fellow passengers were to be in our tour group. It seemed unlikely, as most were travelling solo, save one large family group from Northern England, talking loudly near the front of the aircraft. Arriving in Dresden, I was all eyes. After all, this city had been the subject of the famous ‘fire storm’ bombing by the RAF and USAAF, in February 1945, and I had not expected to see much still standing. We were met by our guide, an elderly lady, a grandmother in fact, and a lady of great dignity, warmth, and friendliness. She spoke excellent English, though I later learned that she had never left Germany, and had even been resident in Dresden as a teenager, during the terrible bombing raids. Making our way to the coach, we noticed that the talkative Northern family were in our group, together with a few couples, and most of the single passengers who had been on the aircraft. It was a small group, only fourteen, including us. We were introduced to our driver, who would stay with us for the entire trip, and we left the airport, heading for our hotel in the city centre.

By this time, we had already travelled to the Soviet Union, so were used to seeing Communist iconography, inspiring statues, and lots of colourful banners. The route from the airport to Dresden centre did not have that much to offer, seemingly consisting of many rows of shoddy looking medium-rise apartment blocks, set in large estates. These were modern-looking, so we assumed that most had been built during the 1960’s. Traffic was reasonably light, and we got our first sight of the ubiquitous Trabant car, a vehicle that would have caused laughter in the UK, but in this country, was an expensive object of desire. On arrival in the city, we were pleasantly surprised to find a modern central area, not unlike an English New Town. Our hotel, near the bank of the River Elbe, was a comfortably appointed and newly-designed building, which exceeded our expectations. The following day, we had a brief tour of the town, before going out to visit the Zwinger, a rococo palace, housed within the old city’s defensive walls. Despite being destroyed by bombing, it had been fully restored to its pre-war state, and made for a pleasant excursion.

Some of our group had American accents, and we discovered that one couple were Canadians, who had travelled to the UK specifically to take this trip. They had relatives near Dresden, who they had never seen. Part of the family had emigrated to Canada before the war, and had managed to keep in touch on and off, ever since. The couple’s family made the long trip to Dresden to meet them, bringing many gifts, even though they were desperately poor agricultural workers. The Canadians met them in the reception area, and it was a very emotional scene. The Germans had to stay in a different hotel, as our hotel was reserved for foreigners. They were able to meet up for a couple of days, and the two members of our group stayed with them, not bothering to go on any trips. It certainly brought home the fact that the East Germans were not allowed to travel to the West, even though the Canadians would have willingly financed their journey. Despite feeling positive towards the Communist regime there, I was not so naive as to be unaware of some of the shortcomings.

The next day, we departed for Liepzig by coach, with a stop on the way to see the lovely town of Meissen, home of the famous porcelain. This is an attractive town, with an imposing cathedral, and impressive castle. The red-tiled roofs of the old centre give the place a fairytale feel, something repeated many times throughout our stay in that country. We also stopped briefly at Colditz Castle, famous as a prisoner of war camp in WW2. We could not go inside, as it was then in use as a psychiatric hospital. Leipzig was a delightful city, at least in the centre. Our hotel was a marvellous old building, that had survived the war. Built sometime around the late 1800’s, it was a masterpiece of faded glory. The high ceilings, huge windows, and ancient telephones, all made me imagine the grandeur that once was, and the dignified guests who had stayed there in the past. The centre of Leipzig still had cobbled streets, as well as pavement cafes, and a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. Young people were everywhere, as this was the home of a popular university too. Wandering around, it was hard to believe that we were in a country so vilified for repression and severity. It certainly did not seem like it, that evening.

I was keen to see the battlefield of the famous battle of Leipzig in 1813, which was a defeat for Napoleon, and the beginning of the end for his conquests in Europe. Despite what was said in the UK, we were completely free to come and go as we pleased. Our guide suggested that we get a tram to the site, which was on the outskirts, and directed us to the large tram terminus near the hotel. My wife spoke some German, and I was picking it up quickly, due in part to the similarity of many words. We asked an old lady for directions, and she took us to the correct stop, then waited until the right tram came, before ushering us onto it, and waving goodbye. Other passengers explained how to buy tickets, and punch them ourselves. When we reached the stop, the driver directed us to the short walk to the battlefield. There was a museum, a large model diorama, and lots of historical information, all in German, of course. After a good visit, we retraced the journey to the hotel, and remarked how friendly everyone had been.

The next destination for us, was the capital city, Berlin. Any signs for Berlin were always accompanied by the words ‘Haupstadt der DDR’. It was as if you might forget that Berlin was the capital, or maybe they were just very proud of the fact. Another thing I had soon realised, was that Berlin was actually deep inside East Germany. Despite having a Western Sector, this city was a hundred miles from West Germany, leaving the western side with a small corridor through which to enter the city. Having seen and read everything I could about the Second World War, Berlin had been on my ‘must see’ list for many years. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Eastern Sector retained most of the ‘good stuff’, from a tourism, and historical point of view. The ruined Reichstag could be seen, (actually in the West, but visibly close to the border wall) The Brandenburg Gate, the Unter den Linden, the famous thoroughfare, The National Opera, and much more. There was also the huge Soviet war cemetery, the size of a large village, and the chance to perhaps see the famous wall. Our hotel was a five star affair; the modern Hotel Palast, designed like a stepped pyramid, all bronzed glass, and ideally located, close to most things we could want to walk to. As usual on this trip, it was a ‘foreigners only’ hotel, not accessible to East Germans.

So, we ‘did’ Berlin, and really enjoyed it. Those buildings destroyed during the war had been rebuilt, (except The Reichstag) and there were modern areas too. Alexanderplatz, with the tall TV tower nearby, was the natural centre, buzzing with all sorts of people during the day, and we took the opportunity to go inside one of the highest buildings in Europe, and take in the view. We toured the city, sometimes by coach, or on the underground, and saw all the sights during a relatively short stay. One morning, we were offered an outing, at no extra cost, to see the former Concentration Camp of Sachsenhausen, near Orianenburg. This had been in use from 1936, until the end of the war, and had been used to house political prisoners at first, and later, prisoners of war. This was the centre of the notorious money forging plan, where the Germans employed expert prisoners to forge banknotes in the currency of their enemies. The inmates would be forced to work in the nearby Heinkel factory, as well as making bricks, and undertaking other labouring jobs. Many companies still well-known today made use of this forced labour, notably AEG, and Siemens. Large numbers of the prisoners were executed here also, and it remained functional until 1945.

It is hardly a pleasurable experience to visit a Concentration Camp, but we felt compelled to go, to see for ourselves the extent of Nazi atrocities during the war. Like most other camps, the gates are emblazoned with the legend ‘ Arbeit Macht Frei’, the cynical notion that hard work would win freedom. Much of the camp had been razed to the ground, though some huts, including the medical experiment block, remained as small museums. A large memorial obelisk dominated the site, and there were outlines to show how many huts had existed when the camp was open. During this sombre visit, we began to take some photos. One of our group, a single man with an American accent, asked if we felt it was appropriate to do this. During a short discussion with him, the first time he had addressed us during the trip, we discovered that he had actually been a prisoner there as a young man, later moving to the USA, as he had managed to cross Germany after liberation. He also told us that one of the other single men, again with a US accent, had lost some of his family in the camp. Both men had travelled from America, for the sole purpose of this visit. We agreed that photography was probably in bad taste, though I did buy a tiny commemorative badge, from the small souvenir shop. One of the things we saw in the camp remains fresh in my mind. There was a large cinder running track, circling the centre. We were told that prisoners had to run around this, wearing new boots, often in the wrong size, to break them in to be worn by army recruits. They also tested different styles of footwear on this track, crippling prisoners in the process. On the way back to Berlin, we decided that we were glad to have seen it, but it did make you feel very uneasy about the association of tourism with so much depravity.

The next planned excursion, was an overnight stay on the Baltic Coast, in the seaside district of Rostock, called Warnemunde. This was an interesting diversion. In reasonable weather, we saw family groups of East Germans enjoying themselves by the seaside, eating ice cream, or sausage and sauerkraut in rolls, and behaving as we might, at any resort town in England. It was short and sweet though, and a little pointless, other than for the East Germans to show supposedly sympathetic Westerners that such places existed in the DDR. It is true that some of the group were sympathetic to the politics of East Germany. I certainly was, and the noisy family from Northern England turned out to be from The British Communist Party. However, most were nothing of the sort, including my wife, and at least five North Americans, with diverse reasons to be there, as well as some others from England, who had German relatives, and wanted to see it for themselves.

Back in Berlin, we were due to leave the next day, to return for one more day in Dresden, before flying home. We had not had the chance to visit the West of the city, so we approached our guide, to ask if that might be possible, expecting this to be politely declined. Once more, we got a pleasant surprise. Not only could it be done, she would arrange for us to stay an extra night in our Berlin hotel, with no charge. It would mean us taking a train after that, at our expense, and making sure we arrived back in Dresden in good time to catch up with the group, to fly home to England. She explained the best way for us to get over to the West sector, and sorted out train times for the trip the following day. It was even arranged to take the bulk of our baggage on the coach, to save us lugging it around. We were very happy, and it showed once again, that we were more or less free to come and go as we pleased. It also gave us the reasonably exciting prospect of being on our own, in the sinister capital of the DDR! As it turned out, no Stasi agents, or secret police appeared, to throw us into cells for interrogation, from where we would never be heard of again. It was all very normal.

The next morning, we waved goodbye to our group after breakfast, and headed off by underground train to Friedrichstrasse Station. I had hoped to cross through Checkpoint Charlie, like the spies in the films, but the guide had suggested this alternative as being quicker and easier. The situation at the station was one of the strangest I had ever found myself in. Arriving on one side, we were in East Germany, but the opposite platform was in West Germany, and we had to go through border control and customs, to enter it. The East German guards gave our papers a cursory examination, and waved us through. It was the West Germans who were perplexed. They couldn’t understand how we were coming through from the East, as they were so unfamiliar with tourists entering from this direction. They even asked us if we knew that we had come from the East, then grew suspicious and sullen when we laughed, and said ‘of course’. Leaving the station exit, we were back in the ‘Free World’, at least that part of it that was West Berlin.

The differences were instantly apparent, and not necessarily in a good way. For the first time since arriving in Dresden, we saw vagrants, drunks, shifty-looking characters hanging around, and young women who were obviously prostitutes. And it wasn’t even 11am! All the trappings of Western living were there, clustered around the station. Gaudy advertising, traffic jams, fast-food outlets, people of all races, and lots of military, many openly drinking outside bars, in uniform. As well as German Police and troops, there were American soldiers and British soldiers, some wearing kilts. Despite the reputation of the DDR as being police-controlled, and militaristic, we had not seen a fraction of the uniformed men there, that we saw in minutes, after crossing to the West. Once we had stopped for a coffee, we were at a loss what to actually see, now that we were there. There was the famous Zoo of course, but we could go to zoos in England. Outside the centre, there were apparently some nice parks, with ornamental lakes, but they would be the same anywhere. We settled for a trip to the Tiergarten, the large area of parkland, containing the famous Victory Column, and supposedly a pleasant area to stroll. We found the column, and went inside, up to one of the stages, that give panoramic views around. Otherwise, it was just like a large park in any city, so we set off for a look at The Wall. On this Western side, there were actually places erected not far from the Wall, where you could walk up and get a look at it. But it was just a wall after all, and other than its historical interest, hardly worth the effort.

After a late lunch, we reversed the process at Friedrichstrasse station, once more cautioned by West German guards that we were entering the East, until they discovered that we had DDR visas, and again eyed us with great suspicion. Back in Alexanderplatz, we actually felt relieved to be out of the West Sector, and strange as it may seem, felt almost at home back in the ‘Haupstadt’. For me, the most enjoyable part of the excursion, had been the process of entering and leaving, feeling like defectors, or undesirables, fleeing behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. So, despite being fairly bored during our time in the West, we were happy to have had the opportunity to see it. Back at the Palast Hotel, we went out for dinner, and then packed our few things, ready for the train trip to Dresden the next morning.

In the 1930’s, it used to be said of the Nazis, that they at least made the trains run on time. Nothing had changed in that respect, so we were sure to be at the main station in good time to get tickets, and not to miss our train. At the ticket window, I got a real shock; we were asked if we wanted first or second class tickets! I was staggered. There we were, supposedly in a ‘Socialist Republic’, and they had first class on the trains. Yes, you’re right, we went first class! It was still very cheap, and I really wanted to try it, as I could never afford it back home. It was nothing grand though, a somewhat old-fashioned compartment train, and we had the seats to ourselves. There was a buffet car, and very clean toilets at each end of the carriage. The ticket inspector arrived soon after we departed (on time, to the second) and he was grandly uniformed, as well as impeccably polite. The journey to Dresden was reasonably fast, and uneventful, and we got to the hotel a few hours before the evening departure to the airport. We did some last minute shopping, buying lots of chocolate, and other sweets, to give to our guide, for her grandchildren. She had been so lovely, and we knew that it was hard for her to buy goods from the foreign currency shops. We gave her the sweets at the airport, as well as some ladies’ tights, that were supposedly hard to find there. We also gave her £20 as a tip, that she could use to purchase luxuries. That was about a month’s salary for her then, and she burst into tears.

Flying back to England, we reflected on what a surprising trip it had been. The people had been friendly, and we had been free to come and go with no restrictions. The sights had been interesting, and the experience of our trip to the West had shown us that maybe things were not as bad in the East as we had presumed. However, we were not blind to the poor living conditions we witnessed in the large estates, or the poor quality of construction, the occasional power cuts, and shortages of many things we would have considered essentials. Mostly, I was sorry that the citizens were not allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Bloc, and that there was no fraternisation in the tourist-only hotels. I felt sure then, and still do, that many of them would have soon realised that those much-desired streets were not as golden as they had imagined.

The Lakes: The Bowderstone

All photos are large files and can be clicked on for detail

After the exertions of Monday, Antony promised me a much easier day to follow. In reasonable weather, we headed off on the drive to Buttermere, one of the smaller lakes in the area. On the way, he suggested a stop at The Bowderstone, in the Borrowdale Valley.
A gentle walk of about ten minutes from the car park took us to the site.
dscf0357

This huge rock is believed to have fallen from the crag above, perhaps thousands of years ago, and it is unusual in that it came to rest on its edge, and has not moved since. Now managed by the National Trust, it was one of the first tourist attractions originally promoted in the area. In 1798, Joseph Pocklington publicised the stone as a tourist site, and employed an old woman to act as a guide. He even built a cottage for her next to the stone, which still stands.
dscf0358

During the day, she would sit inside the stone, telling improbable tales to the travellers who had come to see this natural phenomenon. Her spot is clearly visible, in the overhang to the right. You can also see the gate leading to her cottage, on the bottom left of the photo.
dscf0351

To give some idea of how big it is, I walked up the ladder and took this shot looking back down it. Ollie can be seen at the bottom. He was crying, because he had tried to follow me, and was afraid to walk on the wide treads.
dscf0353

It was impressive indeed, and in an idyllic setting too. The perfect start to our day, as we continued on to Buttermere.

Tourist London: An unlikely destination

Most tourists, foreign or domestic, are unlikely to venture south of the Thames to visit the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. There is little else nearby, and the area is not that attractive. However, I would urge you to make this trip, as I can guarantee that it will be worthwhile. A short walk from Waterloo Station, or accessed from the underground stations at Lambeth North, or Elephant and Castle, the imposing building is easy to find, and well sign-posted too.

With the centenary of WW1 fast approaching, the museum has recently undergone a massive facelift, and there has been a lot of coverage on TV about the new exhibits, not least a special exhibition about the Great War. From the time you see the huge naval guns outside the main entrance, to your first walk into the grand atrium, with its suspended aircraft, and displays of tanks, rockets, and field guns, you will soon realise that you have found somewhere very special. And what’s more, it’s free!

As well as the famous static displays of military equipment, weapons, uniforms, and paintings, the museum is now completely up to date, with interactive displays, computer generated graphics, and extensive use of new technology. There is a haunting Holocaust exhibition, which alone is worth the visit, as well as extensive displays of photographs, fascinating artifacts, and personal memorabilia. This is not a place that seeks to glorify war, but a reminder of the devastation it brings, and the effects it has on society and individuals alike. To be able to see objects only imagined, or previously seen in films or on TV, has a profound affect on the viewer. I have a close personal association with this building, and it played an important part in my youth.

After its foundation in 1920, the museum had two homes, before finally settling into the current building, in 1936. This had been the former home of The Bethlem Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had moved to this site from the City of London, in 1815.  Despite some demolition, the remaining parts were well-suited for use as a museum, and the Imperial War Museum was able to move there, from its previous premises in Kensington. The museum was affected by the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, when some exhibits were actually removed, to be used by the armed forces during that war. As a result, the museum closed, re-opening fully in 1949, with new galleries, and a restored collection. So, by the time I was born, it was still seen as a relatively new museum, and it was very popular, especially with the local people. By coincidence, I was born a stone’s throw from the site, in the former Lambeth Hospital, long since closed down.

My first experience of this museum was on a school trip. Herded around in a well-behaved group, we had to look at what we were told, and other than the larger exhibits, I don’t remember a great deal about that visit. Once I was old enough to venture out on my own, in 1960, I was soon able to find my way there, by a short bus trip from home. When I got a good cycle soon after, I could ride up there anytime I desired, and made frequent trips, usually alone. Now I had as much time to spend as I wanted, I could wander the galleries for hours, staring at the contents of the numerous glass-fronted cases. There was every type of rifle, pistol, and machine-gun to examine in detail. Their names and types were listed on small cards, and I got to know them all intimately. There was even a rifle with a bent barrel, and a periscope mounted on the top. This ingenious device had been invented to fire around corners, allowing the user to remain safely concealed.

I also became interested in the numerous paintings, many depicting events during WW1. They hung on the stairs, on landings, and in dedicated galleries. As well as commemorating the two world wars, there were also memories of the past. Zulu war shields, Indian knives with curved blades, and examples of the weapons that we used against these native adversaries. They had also decided to keep up to date with more recent conflicts, and featured items from the Korean War, as well as the many colonial wars that Britain was engaged in at the time. I recall being fascinated by one cabinet that displayed different sized bullets and cartridges. I was amazed how large many of them were, and tried to imagine what it must have been like, if one of them struck your body. Similarly with bayonets; gazing at rows of these terrible weapons, some with jagged teeth, finding it incomprehensible that they were once plunged into soft bellies. Displays of uniforms made me realise that men were significantly smaller in the past, at least those that had to go and fight. Medals from long-forgotten campaigns gave testament to past bravery, cleaned and polished in long rows, with their colourful ribbons beside them.

There were later school trips. Older now, we were taken to see the films of Leni Riefenstahl, ‘Triumph of the Will’, and ‘Olympia’. These Nazi propaganda films are well-known today, but to us at the time, the imagery was overwhelming. The teacher was trying to make us aware of the power of film to change minds, and persuade people. He succeeded. Once I left school and started work, I had no time for more trips to Lambeth. Over the years, I moved around, and it was always inconvenient, or too far to travel, to visit the museum I loved. In 1986, I found myself living once again in Rotherhithe, after an absence of nearly twenty years. I went back to Greenwich, and revisited the places of my youth, on the now regenerated riverside.

Eventually, I found my way back to my favourite museum, making a special trip to see the Holocaust Exhibition when it opened. It was much as I remembered it. The aircraft still suspended, the rockets looking intimidating; the artillery and tanks might have seemed a little smaller, but no less interesting. The museum had expanded. It had taken over the old airfield at Duxford, and built a marvellous aircraft museum there. It had also refurbished HMS Belfast, providing a floating museum of great distinction, right next to Tower Bridge. They later opened a branch in the north of England, near Manchester. Despite modernising the whole experience, and making it an attractive proposition for the i-pad generation, I can still remember the first time I went there alone, and the impact the place had on me. It left me wanting to know more, and with a respect for history, and war, that has stayed with me ever since. Here are some links for you to follow. I hope you decide to go there one day. With the new exhibition about the Great War, there has never been a better time.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast

Non-Tourist London: A London Walk

Euston to Clerkenwell Green: A circular route.

These are not two areas of London that might spring to mind as destinations for a tourist, or visitor. For those with an interest in history, architecture, or seeking unusual opportunities for photographs however, they may well provide some nice surprises. The walk is essentially flat, and not at all arduous. If not wanting to spend time in any of the museums, you could easily do this in a half-day trip. It is probably best done after 10am, when the busy period of the rush hour has abated, and before the afternoon exodus from the capital begins.

Arrive at Euston Station by main line railway, bus, or underground train. It is one of the easiest destinations to find, on any transport network. Leaving the station by the main exit, the outside food court will be behind you, and the busy bus station will be on your left. Turn left at the main road and walk along to the traffic lights. You will see the bus station on one corner, and opposite you will be the local Fire Station, housed in an old building. Cross the road heading south, and make sure to use the pedestrian lights, as the road is incredibly busy. You will now be at the corner of Upper Woburn Place.  Opposite, you will see the imposing St Pancras New Church, built in 1828. Unfortunately, proximity to traffic has stained the once pristine stonework, but this building is of some importance, and is Grade 1 listed. The church has a crypt, and this now houses art exhibitions. Details can be found on the church website.

Continuing south along Upper Woburn place, look out for an entrance on your left. This is Woburn Walk, a pedestrianised shopping street. One of the best preserved examples of a Victorian street that still exists in London, it is not that well-known, but worth exploring. Often used in film and TV productions, it may seem more familiar than you imagined. It is also the site of the home of W.B. Yeats, from 1895-1919. Leave by the same entrance, and turn left towards Tavistock Square, passing the imposing British Medical Association building on your left, and the large garden square on your right. At the junction with Tavistock Place, turn left, heading east. On the left hand side of this road, you will soon see the unusual building called Mary Ward House. Once the home of that famous novelist and social reformer, the house is now used for functions, and is also a popular filming location. It is one of the most unusual architectural designs you will see in London. Continuing along Tavistock Place, you will find cheap hotels and backpacker hostels, as well as reasonably priced cafes and restaurants. This is part of the University area of London, and is generally very busy.

At the junction with Hunter Street, turn right, and head south towards Brunswick Square. You cannot fail to see the concrete housing estate on your right. Built above a shopping area, in the style of a stepped pyramid, this example of 1960’s brutalist architecture is home to a large amount of social housing, and the style has divided critics over the years. There is an art-house cinema, some trendy shops, as well as some useful shops, and a couple of very decent restaurants, that are not too expensive. I actually like this development, and would urge you to wander inside for a while, to get the feel of it. Across the road is another large garden square, that gives the area its name. At the north-east corner, you will find the Foundling Museum, dedicated to the original Foundling Hospital. This houses many exhibitions, and also tells the story of the founder, Thomas Coram, as well as the history of Handel and Hogarth.

Back south along Brunswick Square, and into Grenville Street. At the junction with Guilford Street, you will see opposite you the famous Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Turn left, and head east again for a short while, until you see Doughty Street across the road to your right. Cross over into this street heading south, and you will see the Dickens Museum on your left, at number 48. This is a lovingly-restored Victorian house, that was the London home of the famous writer, and where many of his most famous books were written. It is open to the public, and there is an admission fee. After this, continue along Doughty Street until it becomes John Street. At the end, you will be on the busy Theobalds Road. Directly opposite, on the south side, is the large complex of Gray’s Inn. This is one of the four Inns of Court. It is home to this professional body, and also houses the offices (known as Chambers) of many barristers, and others serving the legal profession. Built around a large square garden, this has existed here since the fourteenth century. Just to your right, you will see a narrow road called Jockeys’ Fields. Immediately before this is a walkway that gives pedestrian access to the area, and you can have a look around this unusual and bustling place, with barristers in their gowns and wigs.

Follow this south until it merges with Jockeys’ Fields. At the end, turn right into Sandland Street, then next left into Brownlow Street. At the main road, turn left and head east, in the direction of Chancery Lane Station. Before you get to there, you will see some very old buildings on the other side of the road. Their name is Staple Inn, and they are timbered buildings dating from the Elizabethan era. Once part of the Inns of Court, they survived the Great Fire, and are now home to some incongruous shops, unfortunately. But they will be a delight to the eye, some of the oldest surviving original buildings in London. Continue past Chancery lane Station still heading east. At the junction where the road divides in a prominent fork, take the sharp left, into Hatton Garden. This long street is home to London’s jewellery district and diamond market, including the famous De Beers. Virtually every shop is a jeweller, and it makes for some interesting window-shopping, as well as providing historical interest, as it has been the jewellery district since the reign of Elizabeth the First. To the right is Ely Place, where you can see the oldest Catholic church in England, St Etheldreda’s, dating from the 13th Century.

At the end of your northward stroll, you will arrive at Clerkenwell Road, directly opposite St Peter’s Italian Church. This is the hub of London’s Italian community, who have had a long association with the Clerkenwell area. Built in 1863, it is a modest building, with some colourful exterior decorations. Facing the church, turn right, and head east until you cross the busy junction at Farringdon Road. Take the left into Clerkenwell Green, and you will see the mixture of buildings that once formed a small village, dating back to the Middle Ages. Though the present buildings are home to fashionable offices, the architecture is a pleasant mix, and has the feel of a country village still. The square is dominated by an attractive church, St James Clerkenwell, dating from 1792.

Retrace your steps back to the junction at Farringdon Road, and head south to Farringdon Station. Here you can get a tube or main line train, or take a bus back to wherever you want to go. You will have seen some unusual buildings, a great deal of history, and parts of London far from the usual tourist routes. If you take this walk, I hope that you enjoy it.

Here are some links to points of interest.

http://www.stpancraschurch.org/index.php?id=163

http://londonunveiled.com/2013/07/04/woburn-walk/

http://www.marywardhouse.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunswick_Centre

http://www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk/

http://www.dickensmuseum.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staple_Inn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerkenwell

 

 

 

Tourist London: Another View

This week, I read a post by my blogging friend Jude. She had just been on a trip to London, and had written about the visit, with some nice accompanying photos. http://smallbluegreenwords.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/just-back-from-london/

This got me thinking about the power of the blog to advise and inform, so I thought I would make some suggestions in this post, to help those who might want to get some more out of a trip to the capital of the UK. As a Londoner, albeit transplanted recently to Norfolk, I should have a different view of the city, and some ideas outside of the usual expensive tourist destinations. I do, and here they are. They are not the best things to take children to though, and are of more interest to keen photographers.

Blackheath, Greenwich, and the Thames Foot Tunnel.

Many visitors to London make the trip to Greenwich, in the south-east of the city. It is home to the National Maritime Museum, and The Cutty Sark tea clipper, as well as a busy market. I would suggest that to save a lot of climbing, you approach the trip in this way. Take an overground train from London Bridge Station, to Blackheath Station.  When you exit the station, walk up towards the shops, and you will see the heath before you, a large area of grassland. You will notice the distinctive needle spire of All Saints Church to your right. Continue across the heath and cross the busy main road (the A2) before walking towards the gates of Greenwich Park. Once inside, you will be on a long avenue, with car parks. A short walk will bring you to the Royal Observatory on the left. This small building is a museum of astronomy, and is also home to the world-famous Prime Meridian. marked by a metal strip and globe, where you will be able to place one foot on each hemisphere of the earth. This is a popular photo opportunity, so you will likely have to queue for the shot.

Next to this is the statue of General Wolfe. From this high vantage point, there are great vistas across London to be enjoyed, and it is one of the best places from which to photograph the City of London, and the refurbished docklands opposite. Lower down, the grounds and magnificent buildings of the Maritime Museum and The Queen’s House can be seen, with the Old Naval College behind. And of course, the River Thames, with the pier where the river boats will be landing. To the left, a steep path winds down towards the town. The benefit from this starting point is that you will be walking downhill, rather than up. At the end of this path, you emerge into the small town, with its market area, shops, cafes, and some pubs. Beyond these, you will see the masts of The Cutty Sark, recently renovated after a fire, and next to it, the smaller craft Gipsy Moth, used by Sir Francis Chichester for his solo circumnavigation of the globe. From here, you can get fine views, and photos of the Canary Wharf complex on the northern bank.

Nearby, you will see a small building with a thick glass cupola. This is the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a pedestrian crossing under the Thames. The deep tunnel can be accessed by spiral staircase, or lifts, and is worth the trip for two reasons. The first is for the sheer novelty of walking under the river, in this 112 year old tunnel. The second is for the photo opportunities from the north bank, looking back across at Greenwich. Next to this northern exit is the large Island Gardens open space, where you can relax and enjoy the river views after your sightseeing. A short walk north takes you to the well-signposted Island Gardens Station, on the Docklands Light Railway, from where you can return to where you are staying, or continue on to more sights. I would allow at least 4-6 hours for this trip, especially if you intend to spend any time in the museums.

The Barbican, and Museum of London.

As a tourist or weekend visitor, you may well consider this area to not be worth the effort of your time; unless you had decided to attend a concert at the excellent Barbican Centre complex. If you looked at photos beforehand, the three tower blocks and assorted shops and offices you would see might put you off completely. I hope to present the area to you in a different light, and to tell you why I think it is well-worth a half-day away from the usual sights. This is one of the oldest parts of London. It is the site of the first Roman fortress and extended settlement, dating from between 50 and 200AD. Some of the original Roman walls remain to be seen, as they were later incorporated into other buildings. When the area was extensively re-developed in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the City of London Corporation was careful to retain many of the remaining original features, including the interesting church of St Giles Cripplegate. This is one of the few churches in London to survive both the Great Fire, and the later Blitz.  Some of the old gravestones are incorporated in the paving around the church, and the juxtaposition of the ancient building and the modern architecture is a real delight.

The heavy architecture in the aptly-named ‘Brutalist’ style, is a matter of taste perhaps. When I first saw it, I considered it to be futuristic and overwhelming, Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ made real. It is now listed, and regarded as a magnificent example of this modern style. Inside, there are small planted areas and water features, including the man-made Barbican Lake. It is home to the City of London School for Girls, and the Guildhall School of Music and Dance. There are some cafes around, where you can relax after your walk, and a good pizza restaurant overlooking the busy London Wall tunnel, if you need a meal. At the end of London Wall, built above ground on the roundabout is The Museum of London. This is open every day, from 10-1800, and admission is completely free. As one of the oldest cities in the world, the history of London has so much to offer, and this museum is an ideal place to see it. It is not too large, but big enough to enjoy a couple of hours viewing the exhibits.

What makes this area an ideal place to visit is also the proximity to St Paul’s Cathedral. A short walk to the south, along St Martins Le Grand, well-signed from the museum, you will find this magnificent example of Wren architecture. Despite always being busy, and often full of tourists, it is still worth the effort. There is no finer church to see in London, and though it may not be as large as St Peter’s in Rome, or as exotic as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, any visit to London would be enhanced by a trip to this cathedral. If you make the diversion to here, you can get a tube train from St Paul’s Station, to return to your accommodation, or move on to your next destination. Or you could catch a number 15 bus outside towards Charing Cross, and use this public transport to see many sights from the comfort of a bus seat.

The Globe Theatre to Tower Bridge.

Both of these are well-known landmarks, and popular with tourists. I am suggesting an easy walk between the two, easily done in half a day, and offering a lot more than you might expect. From Blackfriars Station, walk south over Blackfriars Bridge. At the traffic lights, turn left into Stamford Street, and continue for the short walk to Hopton Street on the left, following the signs for the Tate Modern. At the end of this street, you will arrive at the open area around the Tate Modern Gallery. Unless you really want to, I would avoid going in. The exhibits are usually avant-garde, and an acquired taste. Continue along the riverside to The Globe Theatre. This is a marvellous recreation of the original Globe, famous in the time of Shakespeare, and evokes a real feel of Elizabethan London on the South Bank. Nearby, you can see the house where Wren lived during the time he designed and built St Paul’s on the opposite bank, and the footbridge known as The Millennium Bridge, which connects the two areas. Continuing east, you will notice the ancient riverside inn, The Anchor. Walking along Clink Street, there is the museum of the famous Clink Prison, that gave its name to the common English expression, ‘being in Clink’, still used today, to refer to a stay in prison. A little further on will bring you to the recreation of the famous sailing ship, The Golden Hinde ll, a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship from the 16th Century.

Many of the former riverside wharves and dock buildings have been modernised in this area, but you can still get a real feel of the time from Dickens to the 1950’s, just by wandering around. Approaching London Bridge, you will see the stately Southwark Cathedral on your right. A church has stood here since before Norman times, and the present building dates from 1106, though later alterations were frequent. Crossing the bridge heading east, the area is dominated by the recent addition of The Shard, the tallest building in Europe. The viewing gallery affords some of the best views in the capital, but it is very expensive to buy a ticket. On your right, there is the messy frontage of London Bridge Station, on the traffic-clogged Tooley Street. Turn left through Hays Galleria shopping centre, and head for the river again. Here is the floating museum of HMS Belfast, a Royal Navy cruiser. Launched in 1938, this vessel saw extensive service during World War ll. You can go aboard for a fee, but I would suggest just getting a good photo, with Tower Bridge in the background. Continue east towards Potters Fields open space, and there you will find the unusual building of City Hall. This is the home of the London Assembly, and Office of The Mayor, and was opened in 2002. It looks as if it is falling over, and is a clever design which is also a matter of taste; though I personally think it works. Access is allowed, and there is a cafe inside, though visitors will be searched.

You will not fail to realise that you are now almost directly under Tower Bridge. As I was brought up in this very area, I am understandably biased, but I believe Tower Bridge to be the best thing in London, the jewel in the crown of the city. You will not see its like anywhere else in the world. The design and function is near-perfect, and the huge main towers, colourful decoration, and sheer majesty of the way it strides across the river never fail to inspire me. For me, as a Londoner, it is the symbol of my city, and by far the most enduring vision of London to take away with you. When I was young, it opened frequently, causing traffic chaos in the surrounding area, as slow-moving ships passed below. These days, openings are less regular, but if you look on the website, you can make the trip when the bridge is opening, and enjoy the full effect as the roadway ‘splits’ in the middle, and the vessel passes through. It is opening three times today, for example, and it really is a wonderful sight. The bridge houses a permanent exhibition, and is well-worth the fee, and your time, to view it. As well as being able to walk across the high walkways between the towers, you get a full history of the construction, and a chance to view the enormous engine room below ground, with the counterweights that still move the bridge when it opens.

Walk north across the bridge, and you will see the famous Tower of London on your left. This is always full of tourists, so best to carry on to Tower Hill station, and continue your journey.

I hope that these few examples have given you food for thought, and provided you with some alternatives to staring at Buckingham Palace, or wasting your money in Madame Tussauds. As for the popular London Eye, be warned that it is in the wrong place entirely. It faces west and south west, so will not provide you with any interesting views of anything except The Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, and Vauxhall Station. There are views west along The Thames, but unless you especially desire to pay a lot of money to be up reasonably high in the air, it will prove to be a great disappointment. I have listed a set of links below, which you can use to look at some of the things I have mentioned that might interest you.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackheath,_London

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Observatory,_Greenwich

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cutty_Sark

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gipsy_Moth_IV

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwich_foot_tunnel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbican_Estate

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_pauls_cathedral

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum_of_london

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare%27s_Globe

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southwark_Cathedral

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hms_belfast

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Hall_London

http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/

 

 

 

 

 

Holidays and Travel: Soviet Union 1977

As a young man, I had read all the classic books of Russian literature, as well as newer works, by Mikhail Sholokhov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I had watched the films of Eisenstein over and over, and seen countless war documentaries. Russia was a mythical place to me; enemy in the ‘Cold War’, ally when it mattered most. The Russian Revolution was fifty years old in 1967, and the western allies still regarded this country as the greatest threat to world peace. I had always considered myself politically on the Left, and I really wanted to visit The Soviet Union, and to see all the wonders for myself. I had to wait though, as it was not that easy to travel there in the 1960’s.

By the start of 1977, I had a fiancee willing to travel with me, and enough money to finance a short trip. More importantly, some minor tour companies were beginning to offer reasonably priced packages, all escorted, and excursions included. I could hardly contain my excitement, when we booked a holiday to include Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. We would fly direct to Leningrad, spend two more days there, on to Moscow for two more days, and then down to the Ukraine, before returning for another stay in Leningrad, then home. As it was going to be in late February, we had to prepare for weather we had never experienced. I borrowed an enormous sheepskin coat, and bought thermal underwear, and new ski mittens. We had been advised to take large amounts of chewing gum, women’s tights, and ballpoint pens. Apparently, they were hard to get there, and would be valued as tips, or gifts. We received visas in the post, and were informed that they would be stamped on arrival, and retained on departure, so we would never have the desired CCCP stamp on our passports. We would also have to exchange our money for Rubles over there, as it was not a traded currency.

We had to travel by the state airline, Aeroflot. This was not a prospect we relished, as their terrible safety record was well-known. It soon became apparent that customer service was also unknown, with the grumpiest flight attendants I have ever seen, as well as no announcements in English. The aircraft had basic seating, no-frills catering, and nothing by way of in-flight entertainment. We were later informed, that at this time, all the pilots doubled as military pilots, and the aircraft could be stripped out for use by the armed forces, at short notice. This went some way to explaining the unusual flying style, reminiscent of bombing raids, and totally disregarding passenger comfort (and panic). Despite feeling ill during the flight (and on all subsequent Aeroflot flights), it was all forgiven on arrival in Leningrad. Although the daytime temperature of -20 that greeted us almost froze my ears off, I could not have been more excited. We were ushered to one side in the airport terminal, and dealt with quickly, helped by our guide. It was obvious from the looks and stares, that they were not used to western tourists, and we stood out dramatically, in clothes that were totally different. I just wanted to get to see The Winter Palace, and to retrace the films of my youth, so gave this attention little regard.

Once in the coach on the way into the city, I was a little disappointed to see endless rows of large blocks of flats, flanking each side of the road, and stretching into the horizon. However, I soon recalled that the view from Heathrow Airport into Central London is not a great deal better. Many of the blocks also had huge painted symbols on the sides, my first ever view of the iconography of the Soviet Union; something that I was to get to know, and to admire greatly. Arriving at the hotel, on the banks of the River Neva, looking across to the Gulf of Finland, I was amazed at how luxurious it was. Our room overlooked the water, and we had an oblique view of the famous Cruiser Aurora, the museum ship that fired the signal shot to begin the October Revolution (as legend has it). I was keen to get out and about, but it was already beginning to get dark, and the biting cold made it impossible to be out for much more than thirty minutes at a time; even the river was frozen.

Since its early construction as a Russian city in the 18th Century, the architecture and open planning of the old city has rightly been regarded as an example of some of the best ever seen in Europe. The grand squares, and the canal system, even gave rise to its common description as ‘The Venice of The North’. With the coastal location, and marvellous buildings such as The Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Kazan Cathedral, it really is a touristic gem. We walked along the wide avenue called Nevsky Prospekt, home to the elegant shops, restaurants, and nightlife. This thoroughfare has been mentioned in the works of Dostoevsky, and Gogol, and here I was, strolling along it. We went to look at the famous gates of The Winter Palace, seemingly unchanged since they were stormed by the Bolsheviks, in 1917. Inside The Hermitage, too large to ever see in one lifetime, we managed to marvel at Faberge Eggs, lavish costumes worn by Catherine The Great, and rows of magnificent coaches, once used by the Tzars. There was so much to see, and so little time to see it. In bitter cold, yet bright sunny weather the next day, we went to The Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally built to defend against Swedish attacks, this large area has served as a garrison and prison, as well as being home to a Cathedral, with its distinctive bell tower and gilded cupola. It is also the burial place of all Russian royalty, and even houses the remains of Nicholas II and his family, killed by revolutionaries, in 1918. I was enamoured with this city, and even now, would urge anyone to visit it.

The next day, we flew to Moscow; capital and largest city of the USSR, and famous for so many reasons. Who has not seen Red Square on the news, with its Mayday parades, the multi-coloured onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at one corner? The Kremlin, The famous Metro system, the monolithic Art Deco constructions of the University, and some grand hotels. I wanted to take it all in. I did my best. Despite continuing cold (but not as as cold as Leningrad) we toured as much as possible, in the short time we were there. The Sparrow Hills, giving a wonderful view of the city, full of newlyweds, traditionally having their photos taken. The huge stadium, later home to the 1980 Olympics, and the breathtaking sight of the banks of the Moskva River, illuminated at night. We went to the incredible galleried department store, GUM, and experienced the strange style of shopping there. You chose an item, went to another desk to pay for it, then took the receipt back to the original counter to collect it. It was time-consuming, yet fascinating, in its own way, and seemed to apply in every shop, whatever you bought. Once burned by Napoleon, and later bombed and shelled by the Germans, the city has endured through history, and is a great place to visit. We enjoyed a trip to see The Bolshoi Ballet, at that time housed in the enormous Palace of Congresses, inside the Kremlin. I am no huge fan of Ballet, but really enjoyed it. We also went to see the famous Moscow State Circus, a dazzling display, inside a purpose built arena. The Metro stations are worth the trip alone; with their amazing architecture and chandeliers, statues in alcoves, and tiled graphic images, they really are a wonder. We watched the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb, queuing for an eternity to file past the embalmed body later. Despite the sights of Moscow, I was harbouring a soft spot for Leningrad, and looking forward to returning there.

The next stage of the trip took us west to the Ukraine, and the city of Kiev, on the River Dnieper. This is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and was once part of the Khazar Empire. It was traditionally independent, and despite incorporation in the Soviet Union, retained its own Ukrainian language, and a degree of self-government. We were taken on a tour of the sights, including the St Sophia Cathedral, the Golden Gate, and the Monastery of The Caves. This was a somewhat hurried part of the trip, and after just two days, we were soon on our way again, back to the airport, to return to Leningrad. We had just one more day there, before returning to the UK, and I pledged to return another time. And I did just that.

So, what of the real Russia, the people, everyday life, and the experience of the tourist? There was little time for this, to be truthful, but we did what we could. The first thing we noticed, after changing our money into Rubles, was that it didn’t buy much. This was due to the entirely artificial exchange rate of one Ruble to one Pound. In the ‘real world’ it would have been more like twenty rubles, but we had no alternatives, and could not shop around for better rates. As a result, we were ‘ruble-poor’ and everything seemed ridiculously expensive. We knew that this could not be the case, as ordinary Russians only got around £25 a month salary, so they would never afford to live. No, it was simply the exchange rate. We were approached in the streets, mostly by youngsters, who wanted chewing gum, coca-cola, and any western logo items. Denim jeans were very popular, and they would happily wait while you took them off in a secluded spot, (presuming you had brought something to change into) offering high-value items in return. Cameras and watches were offered, and for the smaller items, we were given badges, belt-buckles, and small Russian souvenirs, like Matryoshka dolls, or carved boxes. Almost nobody spoke English, or at least not to us directly, and this bartering was all done using sign language. Normal shops seemed to sell only one thing. Some shops would be completely full of milk, others of bread, yet another sold only cakes. Supermarkets were not apparent, and the larger stores were like department stores, with different goods on each level of the shop.

We did see some people queuing, a very long queue indeed, all around a city block. We later saw what it was they were waiting for, when a truck loaded with oranges arrived, and they all went in to buy them. Getting around was not that easy, mainly due to language difficulties. I only knew the Russian for ‘Please’, ‘Thanks’ and ‘Comrade’, so not much use. There is also the fact that they use the Cyrillic alphabet, which makes looking at signs and directions almost impossible. I did manage to buy a fur hat, in a department store in Kiev.  This was the three-stage process, all done with sign language, and pointing. They seemed to be implying that the hat I had chosen was too expensive, and were amazed when I casually handed over the equivalent of £17 for it, which would have been a bargain in London. There were lots of people in uniform everywhere. There were City police, State police, Militia police, KGB, (in uniform) as well as the numerous soldiers and sailors, on and off duty. Young people were sometimes dressed in uniform too, as members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. They often acted as honour guards, around famous monuments and buildings. They were approachable, and one gave me his belt, with brass Hammer and Sickle buckle, for six packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum. I still have it, to this day.

For tourists who wanted to buy things, we were directed to the Beryozka shops. These shops contained most Russian consumer goods that were not widely available outside. Large items, like cameras and lenses, telescopes, and binoculars, as well as general souvenirs, and the exotic lacquered boxes famously made in Russia. In these shops, only foreign currency was permitted, and no Rubles could be spent. Outside one of them, we were approached by a well-dressed man, who explained, in good English, that he would like us to buy an umbrella for him, as he couldn’t get one anywhere else. In a country with so much snow, it seemed crazy, but he offered us fifty Rubles, for a £10 umbrella. I felt sorry for him, but had to decline, as exchanging money unofficially, in any form, was strictly forbidden, and we didn’t want to fall foul of the authorities. So, our interaction with ordinary people was limited, but you have to recall the mood of the time. I did make up for this, later, getting to see something of real life. But that is for another post.

My first visit to the Soviet Union was all that I had expected, and more, and whetted my appetite for a longer trip, which I will describe another time.

Life without America

For some reason, it occurred to me today, that I will probably never see America; at least the United States of America.

When I was younger, I could not consider visiting this country. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the fare, or did not qualify for a visa. I had enough time on my hands when at school, and after I started work, there was always annual leave entitlement. No, the reasons were straightforward, it seemed to me. They were imperialists, and considered themselves to be the arbiters of policy and behaviour, for the entire planet. America equalled good, therefore anything not American, or anti-American, was bad.

Of course, I came from Great Britain, where they more or less invented this concept. But that Empire was long ago, and by the time I was in my teens, practicalities, or in many cases, armed struggle, had made them see sense. The America of the 1960’s , by contrast, was on a mission, internationally speaking. It would oppose the Soviet Bloc anywhere, anytime, just to force the issue of who was ‘The Daddy’, on the world stage. Communism was not just undesirable to them, it was unacceptable, and they would do anything to stop it getting a hold, anywhere. This included sending troops to S.E. Asia , arms and money to Central America, and any kind of spying, coercion, and underhanded double-dealing, to achieve their stated goals.

Yet this was a country where a black person could not sit in the same area as a white person, or drink from the same tap, in a huge percentage of its own lands. Gun crime was an everyday occurrence: as were mass murder, serial killings, and other atrocities. There were race riots in large cities, appalling treatment of workers, and uncivilised employment and working conditions for much of the ordinary populace. Racism, antisemitism, corrupt landlords, and even more corrupt local politicians, were all tolerated, and in some cases, encouraged. Emerging nations, particularly those in geographical proximity to US territory, were intimidated, blockaded, or even invaded, unless they played the American game.

How could I possibly go to this place as a tourist? Give them my money, support their economy, and by doing so, condone their actions and philosophy. So, I didn’t go there. I went to Grosvenor Square instead, and protested against the Vietnam War, outside their London embassy.

It was not as if I did not have numerous reasons to want to visit this vast, beautiful, and breathtaking country. Who would not want to see the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Yosemite National Park, or the excesses of Las Vegas? I would have to deny myself the spectacle of Monument Valley, so often seen on screen, in John Ford westerns, and the magnificent skyscrapers of New York. I had other reasons to want to visit, more personal ones. A lifelong obsession with the American Civil War, had provided a long list of must-see places for my itinerary; Antietam, Gettysburg, Charleston, and New Orleans. My love of Soul and Motown music, would have meant a trip to Detroit, and on to Chicago, to see the home of the Blues. I might even have ventured further West, to walk around Alcatraz, the subject of so many prison films, then back via Texas, for a visit to The Alamo.

None of this was going to happen. America was assisting the Israeli government, so that they could continue their immoral, yet perhaps understandable expansions, at great cost to the indigenous population of Palestine. They were escalating the wars in Indo-China, by using indiscriminate bombing, and widespread chemical warfare. As a country, it was morally reprehensible. I could no more go there, than visit the apartheid-ruled Republic of South Africa. I would just have to abandon my touristic desires, and realise that it was somewhere that I would never see.

The years went by, America lost in Vietnam, and pulled out the remaining troops. They started to talk, albeit tentatively, to Cuba, Russia, and other countries previously renounced as enemies of the Free World. That Free World was, of course, the USA. Black people finally got a voice, at least outside the South, and became Judges, Politicians, and Civil Servants. International policies mellowed, and things started to look up, for this potential visitor. Then came Reagan, and the Bushes, and the Gulf Wars, followed rapidly by Afghanistan. By this time, the UK was complicit, and we now had a ‘special relationship’. This means that we are little more than the 51st state of America, and a convenient airfield, for their interests in Europe.

Even with the election of Obama, twice, it still doesn’t ring true. There may be a black president, but the power is white, and it is still the same power that was behind the McCarthy trials, and the Hoover years in the FBI. The cloak may have changed, but it still conceals a multitude of sins. I have nothing against any American personally; other than the very nice people that I ‘meet’ on this blog, I don’t know any. However, as a nation, nothing has changed.

So, it looks as if I will have to go to my grave without ever visiting the place, and that makes me feel sad.