Places we love, Places we hate


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Broadstairs village centre

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Kent coast, Broadstairs

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Ramsgate Harbour

So far I’ve only posted blogs about fabulous places that inspire our writing, but what about places we loathe, places that we know only too well, locations full of awful people intent on making their fellow human beings’ lives difficult or unpleasant?

Lady with a Van

If you’ve watched “The Lady in the Van”, a film starring Dame Maggie Smith, you’ll know that playwright Allan Bennett used his experiences of living in a particular part of London to pen a wonderful book on which the film is based.

When a homeless lady in a van arrives in a fashionable part of Town, snobbish residents at first want to get rid of her, later they begin to vie for her attention with attempts to be charitable. It makes them feel less guilty about being wealthy and having reached a certain position in life. Some 15 years later, the lady in the van is still there, parked outside Allan Bennett’s home, and she’s just as ungrateful as ever for any type of “charitable acts” inflicted on her.

As Bennett’s book shows, places we loathe, or are made to feel uncomfortable in, can be just as inspiring as the delights of Paris or Venice, Florence or historic Bamberg and serve to illuminate either our own state of mind or that of our fellow citizens (or both, as in the film/book).

The people in such places often deserve to be taken to task for how they behave. Parts of Allan Bennett’s story are set at the Kent coast, in Broadstairs, where Dame Maggie Smith, dressed as a homeless woman, is seen to enter the local fleapit cinema in the film and stand at the beach, looking wistfully out to sea. It’s an area where people retire to, and they don’t like seeing young people, or change or anything in fact that shakes them out of their daily routine. Indeed, the brother of the character Maggie Smith portrays in the film has retired to Broadstairs, where she visits him on occasion. He admits having had her committed to an asylum because she was “just so odd”. Here, being different is clearly tantamount to committing a crime.

With such a population, the place is ideally suited as a setting for a great satire or comedy. Such locations are perfect fodder for writers. Snobbery exposed, or uncaring attitudes or one-upman ship among neighbours…the possibilities are endless.

Other locations are excellent backgrounds for particularly brutal crime stories. One could be describing how society has broken down to such an extent that even horrific crimes no longer shock those who live there, Ian Rankin style. Ruth Rendell often uses the fictional location of provincial Kingsmarkham as a mirror of what’s going on in the mind and private life of her Chief Detective Inspector Wexford and demonstrates how the town’s proximity to London is changing rural societies over time.

Or how about a romance gone wrong – where the location is deceptively pretty but harbours dark secrets? Rural areas are ideal for that. Charming isolated farmsteads and villages, as Sir Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes put it, are often the setting of  unspeakable crimes.

Nasty things that have upset us in a specific place bear within them the kernel for a great story, allowing us to deal with whatever happened to us in a constructive way.

Lady without a Van

I’m still digesting what happened to me, so don’t know yet what fictional work will come of my unpleasant experience. The following is a true story and happened to me just a hop and a skip away from where the sainted feet of Dame Maggie stood in the sand. No doubt at some point I’ll see the funny side of it, but right now, I’m just disgusted.

Because I’m using the Kent coast as background to a series of books (Inspector Beagle), I visit Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate occasionally to do research at local libraries and to take photographs of locations. It made sense to use the area, because I used to live in Ramsgate and know the Kent coast reasonably well. I can honestly say that I hated living in Kent, because the majority of people who reside along this part of the coast, called the Isle of Thanet, are truly awful.

If they’re not criminal and destructive, they are usually snooty and UKIP voters happy to embrace all that is reactionary and anti-foreigner. While I am used to people reacting to a German national with suspicion or even dislike, the Thanet way of “welcoming” visitors goes way beyond that and has little to do with my nationality.  Anyone not being Thanet (in)bred and born is classed as an undesirable intruder.

Here the term foreigner means everybody who doesn’t hail from the Isle of Thanet. That includes even you, Londoners, and people visiting from Canterbury just up the road. There are many Thanet residents who have never taken the train or bus out of Thanet and to them, anything and anyone even slightly different is a threat. No matter that they are residing in what is supposed to be a seaside resort open to tourism. They resent people coming here to enjoy beach and facilities. Sit down with a book at Broadstairs’ Dumpton Gap beach on a sunny day and locals will glare at you until you leave. It is one of the most unwelcoming places I’ve ever been to – and that includes the former East German state.

In the summer, when National Express coaches disgorge South East London’s day trippers, I have seen locals stand around at the seafront and openly make hostile comments about such visitors…tourists who are spending hard-earned money in these resorts to support local economies. Would they bother if they knew how racist are large section of locals are? Doubtful.

So this is what happened to this pedestrian lady, permanently without a van:

I was camping to save money on accommodation. I walked along the seafront early in the morning, when it was still dark. Camping in the cold season isn’t a lot of fun, so one tends to leave far earlier in the morning than one would, when being in a tent is quite comfy. Realising that I was too early for the first cafe to open and serve breakfast, I sat down in one of those shelter things dotted along the Ramsgate promenade up on the East Cliff. I noticed, as I was sitting down, that on the street level (one level up from where I was sitting), a woman and her dog had just arrived for their regular morning walkies.

Taking out my little torchlight, I checked my watch to see what the time actually was and whether it was worth getting out my glasses and book to while away the time until the cafes opened. I heard the woman get out her mobile to make a call, but didn’t take any notice. Little did I know that my turning on the torch had alerted her to my presence and sent her inbred Thanet pea-brain into overdrive. No, deciding I might as well be comfortable and warm for the 20 minutes or so I had to wait, I took out my little travel blanket that I use when I sit around in underfunded, freezing cold Thanet  libraries, and draped it across my legs.

What happened next?

Van overboard!

A police car arrived and I was questioned at length. Their opening gambit was, if I’d seen a suspicious man with a large backpack. But this turned rapidly to my being questioned  about my identity and what I was doing there. Why? Because the idiot dog walker had called them, reporting me as a potential suicide who had been “spotted near the railings overlooking the cliff edge”. I wonder, did Dame Maggie Smith have the same problem when visiting Broadstairs on a windy, rainy day? Ah, she’s a smart woman, she probably didn’t risk sitting down anywhere other than the ice cream parlour we see her patronising in the film.

I hadn’t been anywhere near the railings overlooking the cliff edge, having walked in a straight line through a small park, along the landscaped garden area that formed the dog walker’s level of promenade and directly up to the little shelter where I sat down. The dog walker would have been quite aware of this, having seen me arrive at the shelter at the same time as she arrived on the landscaped level overlooking the promenade.

However, mistaking me for a homeless person who was sitting where she obsessively walks her dog (in the pitch dark!), she needed a valid reason for the police to scare me off. How dare a person sit in a spot where she walks every day!

Why a woman should choose to walk her dog (without a torchlight) in a pitch dark area, when she could simply walk the beastie along the lawned area on the upper level lit up by streetlights is anyone’s guess. To me it simply proves that she has little common sense.

Had she simply reported me as a “homeless” person sitting there, the police wouldn’t have bothered to come out. Reporting me as a potential suicide made sure of their immediate investigation. I had seen the dog walker a couple of times before, so knew she always walked her dog there at roughly the same time every morning. My presence, a small change to her routine, frightened her so much, she risked lying to the police.

A Van of mistaken Identity

Ironically, her arrival was what had prompted me in the first place to check my watch with my torch, because I realised I had walked faster than usual and arrived far too early. I normally saw her depart, not arrive. And it had also made me feel safe, seeing another woman and knowing dog walkers were around. Otherwise I wouldn’t have sat down for a little rest where the shelter was, in the dark, but would have walked on to the harbour where there are lights and benches and CCTV.

She had reported me “as a man with a big backpack”, yet I was wearing a floral skirt so couldn’t possibly have been the person she claimed to have seen – nor did I have a backpack. Had she really seen me standing under a streetlight by the railing, she couldn’t possibly have mistaken me for a man. The police should have been able to work that out for themselves, and also noticed that one cannot actually see the railings from where the woman claimed to have seen the alleged suicide attempt. However, they chose to ignore these obvious facts. Doesn’t leave one with a lot of faith in Kent’s police force to do detective work, does it?

Lady ready to drive her van the hell out of Dodge

Instead of questioning the veracity of what was clearly a false claim made by the dog walker, the police (2 of them!) insisted on taking down my details, asking me where I was headed, my address etc etc. Throughout this procedure, the dog walker, who was quite obviously “the concerned member of the public” referred to by the police, stood there cool as a cucumber and threw in morsels of polite chit-chat such as “that’s a nice bag” (pointing at my large bag which was full of books I as going to review that day) and “where did you walk from this morning…oh, that’s a long, long walk, no wonder you wanted to sit down.”

She may have felt guilty about reporting a blameless member of public at this point, but still not guilty enough to apologise for the hassle caused to me. Why? Because I have a non-Thanet accent.

When I voiced my annoyance that a member of the public who had sat down harmlessly on a park bench for a couple of minutes (literally!) was being harassed in this manner, the police got stroppy and of course, having a foreign accent in a place famously anti-visitor, didn’t help matters either. They actually checked their records if anyone had reported me missing! Presumably from some institution where all foreigners should be detained as dangerous lunatics. I’m the first to admit that as a writer I’m as loopy as the next creative person, but this really is taking things too far. I sat quietly on a public bench at 6.25 am, not rampaged around the seafront at 3.35 am, roaring drunk, toting a gun!

Nothing, not even a handout of £5 million by some local benefactor would induce me to move back here. If I had had a van in 2007 when I left Kent to move to Wales, I would have erased Kent from my sat nav map to ensure my little van would never be able to find its way back.

Nothing but a Van-load of Trouble

It really was farcical to be told by the police that they are “concerned about everybody’s welfare” and must investigate claims of persons liable to harm themselves or others, when they clearly don’t give a damn and never turn up when hordes of youths (mostly grammar school uppity types) regularly rampage through the town centre smashing windows or throwing paint all over shop fronts. I know this as fact from talking to local cafe and shop owners and my own observations.

Throughout the summer gangs of youths from wealthy homes, sometimes as many as 20 or 30, party along the West Cliff every night of the week, leaving huge amounts of litter everywhere and keeping long-suffering residents awake with their shouting and screaming, loud music and revving of motorbikes.

Do the police turn up for that? No, they do not.

Instead, both the council and police apparently told West Cliff residents to put a sock in it and put up with normal “seaside resort” summer activities, even if these “activities” involve drunken brawls and public drug-taking in the streets. Indeed, I was told by one resident that the council told them off, when residents rang up to say they had formed a committee to clear the rubbish on a daily basis, as they were fed up seeing the mess every day those youths left behind. How dare residents take initiative was the council’s response. Clearing rubbish away was strictly council business. Residents were apparently ordered to stop cleaning up the lawned areas immediately!

Nor do the police bother to help homeless people sleeping in doorways in sub zero temperatures or in torrential rain conditions. There’s an old homeless man sitting regularly on a bench in Ramsgate town centre – does the police come and ask him, if he’s alright? No, they do not! I have seen them walk right past the old man without so much as a glance in his direction.

So why investigate me?

This is why: the dog walker lives on the well-to-do Ramsgate/Broadstairs border, where homes are large and rather expensive….where people are posh and have double-barrel names, and send their obnoxious offspring to local grammar schools to raise them in their UKIP image. The shelter I sat in was closer to Broadstairs than Ramsgate. Which is why the police never bothered to query the dog walker’s report. A general consensus to hide local poverty, homelessness and other problems caused by chronic corruption among those who should ensure there are jobs and housing means false reports like the one made by the dog walker are apt to be believed, when the person making the report is from Broadstairs (where those in charge of local finances apparently live).

Her call to the police was taken at face value, especially as the person she reported turned out to have a foreign accent. Broadstairs is Kent’s big draw tourism-wise and “The Lady in a Van” film will obviously ensure a new generation of tourists will come next summer. Broadstairs postcodes call the shots around here, their hotels, restaurants etc pay large amounts of business taxes.

Ironically, given the subject matter of the film, the presence of homeless people or emotionally unstable persons is strictly “verboten” and must be stopped. I’ve even seen local vigilante gangs walk along the cliff top in summer, wearing night-vision goggles, so they can find homeless people sleeping rough in the undergrowth of parks and along the seafront and drive them off.

When I questioned how I could possibly be the person the “concerned member of the public” had reported, I was told by one of the police officers, I “fitted the description”! Hang on, your colleague said the report was about a man with a large backpack…isn’t it therefore ludicrous to suggest a short middle-aged woman in a floral skirt without a backpack should suddenly fit that description?

Oh, the fear of the unknown…the sudden appearance of change in our lives.

Lady dismissing the Van of Oblivion

So let me offer an official statement to Kent police and all dog walkers along this stretch of coast – and please do take this at face value: If I ever feel like committing suicide at any point in the future, it won’t be in a dump like Ramsgate, Margate or Broadstairs. I  wouldn’t want to be seen dead anywhere in Kent!

That’s why I sold up and moved away and am busy writing a series of books that ridicule the area. Sorry to disappoint, but I really am not ready to get into the van of oblivion and hurl myself down a cliff, especially as I’m neither called Thelma nor Louise.

However did Dame Maggie Smith get away with walking around Broadstairs dressed as a bag lady? She must have had a huge entourage protecting her from Thanet’s unpleasant dog walkers. Possibly a solicitor on stand-by to bail her out of jail in case Dame Maggie fitted somebody’s description of a suspicious looking man?

I wonder how the dog walker would feel, if I rang up the police and reported a “dangerous dog had tried to attack me at the seafront”, even though the claim giving a description of her dog would be false. She would be upset and disgusted. Now you’re getting it, Thanet pea-brain. Please hold on to that thought.

(In the interest of fairness, I would like to stress that many of the younger residents, the new generation of adults if you like, are quite different and rather ashamed of the attitude their elders display towards visitors. I have met some lovely young people here, who are as helpful, friendly and tolerant of foreigners and non-Thanet visitors as can be.

But I still wouldn’t want to be seen dead – or alive- in Kent.)

 

 

(copyright for photographs: Maria Thermann)

 

 

 

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An Awfully Big Adventure


Blakeney village, Norfolk, UK

Blakeney village, Norfolk, UK

Norfolk has been a holiday destination since the 1930s. The picturesque village of Blankeney gets very busy in the summer months – well, what passes for a summer in Britain – and has many wonderful 17th and 18th century buildings visitors can explore. The North Norfolk Coastal Path runs along this part of the British coast, travelling along the Blakeney quayside and zigzagging a course through the local salt marshes.

Just to the west of the historic resort lies the village of Wells-next-the-Sea, where a lovely miniature and heritage railway lines rattles along the coast for some 11 km, offering spectacular views over this amazing and mostly flat landscape.

Why am I telling you all this in the middle of rain-soaked October, when you’re busy scooping out pumpkin flesh and thinking about hot toddies?

My favourite murder mysteries are nearly all set in the 1920’s and 1930’s, so when I came across Ian Sansom’s book The Norfolk Mystery in one of my local charity shops and read the blurb for it, I simply couldn’t resist, I had to read it. And what a hugely enjoyable and entertaining read it’s been!

Gently lampooning some of the most famous writers of murder mysteries, including Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lord Peter Wimsey’s creator Dorothy L. Sayers, Sansom’s manages to cook up a first rate cozy that makes you laugh out loud at times and sit still deep in thought at others.

From bearding a seemingly genteel and well-to-do Norfolk village society that is really nothing more than a hotbed for Hitler’s warped and racist ideologies, to commenting on every little thing he sees en route while solving the village’s mystery, Professor Swanton Morley is a fabulous creation and amateur sleuth.

With his newly acquired assistant and reluctant side-kick Stephen Sefton, a young man traumatised by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Professor Morley sets out to “discover” Norfolk in an effort to create the ultimate county guide for it. They get as far as the village of Blakeney in the north of Norfolk, before they stumble over a dead reverend, hanging inconveniently from the rafters of his own church, just when Morley wants to interview the man for his book.

ca. 1835, John Sell Cotman, Drainage Mills in the Fens

ca. 1835, John Sell Cotman, Drainage Mills in the Fens

Trapped in the village until Norfolk’s Constabulary allows them to travel onwards, Morley and Sefton set out to solve the mystery surrounding the clergyman’s death. This becomes even more pressing, when the reverend’s servant is also found dead within 24 hours of his apparent suicide.

I particularly liked the use Ian Sansom makes of the locality, the special landscape that is the Norfolk Fens – contrasted nicely by Sefton’s visit to Foyles in London, where he soon gets lost in the aisles that hold the bewildering number of books The People’s Professor has spewed out over the years.

To me, it read like a literary representation of Norfolk’s Fens, where rivulets, canals, streams and wetlands go off into every direction, leading the unwary traveller by the nose and easily to their doom, if they don’t follow the local guide’s instructions (at Foyle’s this would be the young woman behind the counter, who helpfully offers to write down instructions for young Sefton).

Morley is as eccentric as it gets and so is his daughter Miriam, a young woman with very strong views on most things, including how to chat up young men while driving her prototype Lagonda at break-neck speed. And while Sefton ends up in the arms – and bed – of pretty much every young woman he meets during the Norfolk trip, he seems to have a peculiar antipathy for Miriam.

Fortunately for us readers, Ian Sansom has already completed a new adventure, Death in Devon, so I can enjoy another highly entertaining and thought-provoking read soon and find out, if Miriam succeeds in turning Sefton’s badger-coloured head.

Since Professor Morley wants to complete guides for all 39 counties…Samson has his work cut out and eager readers have plenty of awfully big adventures to look forward to.

Tulipomania Part 2


Gerrit Adriaensz-Berckheyde, De Bocht van de Herengracht te Amsterdam, ca 1685, www.rijksmuseum.nl , Public Domain

Gerrit Adriaensz-Berckheyde, De Bocht van de Herengracht te Amsterdam, ca 1685, http://www.rijksmuseum.nl , Public Domain

The tulip craze lasted just a few years, reaching its height in 1636 and coming to a spectacular end in February 1637, when prices crashed due to governmental intervention, leaving thousands of speculators penniless and victims of wide-spread ridicule. Moggach’s book makes use of this craze by mirroring tulipomania with a passionate, but ultimately doomed love-affair.

The Rijksmuseum’s blog provides a great timeline for the most important events, displays fabulous paintings of tulips sold at the time and also shows some of the gorgeous white and blue Delftware flower stands specifically created to show off tulips and other bulb-grown plants to their full advantage, namely indoors in Holland’s cold climate.

In a Business Week article, tulipomania is compared to the dot.com bubble the world saw not all that long ago. It is hard to imagine today how one man, the proud owner of a dozen tulip bulbs for the variety Semper augustus, could possibly turn down an offer of 3,000 guilders for ONE bulb in 1624, when that represented about a whole year’s income for a wealthy merchant.

The name of this greedy beggar was not recorded by history – leaving one to speculate if he was one of thousands of tulip-investors forced to jump into Amsterdam’s grachts, after losing everything in the tulip-crash of 1637, including their homes, mortgaged to the rafters to buy tulip bulbs.

Semper Augustus, public domain, Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper augustus, created before 1640, famous for being the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands

Semper Augustus, public domain, Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper augustus, created before 1640, famous for being the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands

Semper augustus was the most expensive tulip bulb ever sold during the craze and provided inspiration for quite a few painters – as well as prompting author Moggach to write a love story about people involved in the tulipomania of 17th century Amsterdam.

It’s also hard to imagine what times were like for people. After eons of wars with Spain the Netherlands suddenly saw huge wealth poured back into its country from trading with newly established foreign colonies. Perhaps for the first time in history, merchants began to financially out-class the aristocracy. They could afford to build mansions, deck themselves out in the latest fashions, wearing precious silks, gold embroidery and semi-precious stones like their nobles before them. Merchants could now afford commissioning paintings just like the rich upper crust had done for centuries.

Society was changing rapidly on a never-before seen scale, aided by Europe’s Reformation. Moggach makes use of religious doubt extensively in her book, although the ending of her novel is utterly contrived as a result and very unsatisfactory in my view.

But the influx of vast sums of money also allowed the Dutch to create a country in their own image, draining wetlands, reclaiming land from the North Sea, engaging in huge construction programmes to improve their country’s infrastructure. Yet another challenge to God, to the Grim Reaper, to Eternal Darkness – the grachts have endured, no matter what craze befell human minds in the interval.

This look towards extension of one’s alotted life-time is a long, long philosophical and religious way off from the medieval – and catholic – view of eternal damnation, heaven and hell.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Amsterdam. The wealth it must have taken to create the grachts/canals is staggering, practically incalculable in today’s money.

The houses that would eventually grace the Prinsengracht and the Herengracht, where Moggach’s love story “Tulip Fever” is set, sprung up in those heady days when money seemed to be as plentiful as duckweed floating in English village green ponds.

Amsterdam's canal, c. 1686 Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA) Stadhuis, zijde Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal •Attribution • File:Paleist3.jpg • Uploaded by BotMultichill • Created: 1 January 1686

Amsterdam’s canal, c. 1686
Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA)
Stadhuis, zijde Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal
• Attribution
• File:Paleist3.jpg
• Uploaded by BotMultichill
• Created: 1 January 1686

Occupying the Gouden Bocht or Golden Bend of the Amstel River, the Herengracht reached only as far as the present-day Leidsegracht until 1663. After that date, Amsterdam’s fortifications were expanded and Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht were all extended. Buyers wishing to build on Heregracht were encouraged to buy not one but two lots of land and construct double-width mansions.

As a by-product of the three canals having been laid out at a greater distance from each other, the lots were not just wider, but deeper, allowing merchants to build veritable palaces.

Adorning their Amsterdam-palaces with classicist facades and richly stuccoed interiors, especially the magnificent ceilings, the merchants also established lovely gardens that were opened once a year to the public. You can just imagine them being filled with tulips of the richest hues, can’t you?

Where the Amstel River bends, just by the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat (the “new mirror street”), the richest citizens chose to build their dwellings, which prompted the public to rename this part of the river the Golden Bend.

Moggach’s fictional young wife Sophia, lover Jan van Loos and cuckolded husband Cornelis would have been neighbours to the real-life family living at Herengracht 475, the wealthy clan of the De Neufville, who lived their from 1731 to 1733.

Jan Breughel the Younger, Satire on tulipomania, ca. 1640

Jan Breughel the Younger, Satire on tulipomania, ca. 1640

Interestingly, a list of the real people, who lived in the Golden Bend of the Herengracht during the time Moggach’s book describes, includes the following names:

  • Jan Bernd Cicker (#460)
  • Gerrit Braamcamp (#462)
  • Cornelis Munter (#468)
  • Willem Andriesz Munter (#444)
  • Jacob Boreel (#507)
  • Maria Meerman (#480)
Ilya Repin Sadko Public Doman, Google Cultural Institute

Ilya Repin Sadko Public Doman, Google Cultural Institute

all of them have first names Moggach uses in her novel – better still, “Meerman” is the Dutch word for mermaid/mer-people and servant Maria dreams in the novel of swimming through an underwater world. You see, writers’ minds soak up everything they see and regurgitate every morsel as something totally different, something inspired!

Admiral Verjick van der Eijck, source Wikipedia, Public Domain

Admiral Verjick van der Eijck, source Wikipedia, Public Domain

What is missing in Moggach’s novel is the ebb and flow of humanity. Between the years of 1578 and 1665, the time when Amsterdam sided with the supporters of the Reformation, urban development reached an unprecedented scale. The city grew from 30,000 to 160,000 people – only London and Paris were larger at that time. This huge influx o new residents was not just driven by the Reformation though, which forced large numbers of protestants to feel the catholic South, but was also the result of Antwerp losing its hold as “Golden Age” centre in favour of Amsterdam.

Although a single, much older canal existed, the way Amsterdam looks today is due to a four-phase construction programme that began in earnest in 1585. By 1613 a second phase had completed an even larger section of canals and between 1613 and 1625 the third phase was completed.

The final phase took place in the years 1656 to 1665, the time the Gouden Bocht was constructed and Amsterdam’s most prestigious address was created, the Herengracht between the uneven numbers 441 to 513 and even numbers 426 to 482. I can’t help but wonder what Maria Meerman (if I’d known this name existed, I’d have made it my pen name!) got up to in her mansion. Did she “swim” through stuccoed rooms, floating by her magnificent rear garden, waving at the goldfish in her pond, while casually picking off dead petals from her Semper augustus, tulipa clusiana and Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen?

The latter bulb was sold for 5,200 guilders, an all-time record in the winter of 1636, when the sale of just 70 tulip bulbs achieved revenue of 53,000 guilders for a handful of orphans, whose father had left them nothing but tulip bulbs.

Summer in the City


Which City? Have a guess!

Horseguard Buckingham Palace

Horseguard Buckingham Palace

Yep, my camera and I were let loose by an irresponsible friend and snap-happy I took hundreds of pictures of landmarks, architectural highlights, attractions and the city’s star attraction, the big old River.

Vintage Bus outside Scotland Yard

Vintage Bus outside Scotland Yard

London Eye to the left, Big Ben straight ahead

London Eye to the left, Big Ben straight ahead

Big Ben telling me it's time for elevenses!

Big Ben telling me it’s time for elevenses!

Old River Thames, my favourite attraction!

Old River Thames, my favourite attraction!

London Skyline seen from Tower Bridge. The Tower to the right, the Gherkin to the left

London Skyline seen from Tower Bridge. The Tower to the right, the Gherkin to the left

There is a reason for this sudden outbreak of tourist fever – I’m preparing two murder mystery series, one is set in London in the 1920s, the other at the Kent coast in the 1940s.

Fountains at Trafalgar Square

Fountains at Trafalgar Square

Millennium Bridge before Harry Potter got there!

Millennium Bridge before Harry Potter got there!

Both make good use of locations, so it helps me when I’m writing from some hovel based at a different part of the UK or on the Continent (being an location independent online writer does have its advantages!), I don’t have to imagine what a place looks, smells, sounds or feels like at a particular time of year, I can look back at my photographs.

Borough Market in Southwark

Borough Market in Southwark

It was also huge fun snapping away, for this summer there’s been very little rain and although some of the pics look as if taken against a grey sky.

Tower Bridge, Southwark

Tower Bridge, Southwark

It was actually boiling hot at the time, the sort of hazy sunshine one only gets in The Big Smoke.

Imagine me standing there with an opened umbrella to shade my noggins and camera from sun and 30 degrees C temperatures, and you get the “feel” of the situation…

Horseguards emerging from Buckingham Palace

Horseguards emerging from Buckingham Palace

Her Magesty's secret agents having a chin wag?

Her Magesty’s secret agents having a chin wag?

London's full of mad artwork and statues

London’s full of mad artwork and statues

Dolphin statue & Spring at Tower Bridge

Dolphin statue & Spring at Tower Bridge

So to start off my series of city impressions, interesting landmarks and famous attractions, here are a few snapshots. I will do a post on each of the attractions/locations with more pics and proper descriptions over the next few weeks.

Golden Hinde, Sir Francis Drake's old ride in Southwark

Golden Hinde, Sir Francis Drake’s old ride in Southwark

Entrance to Buckingham Palace from Trafalgar Square

Entrance to Buckingham Palace from Trafalgar Square

Shakespeare's Book Bench outside Globe Theatre, Thames Embankment

Shakespeare’s Book Bench outside Globe Theatre, Thames Embankment

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Southwark, Thames Embankment

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Southwark, Thames Embankment

The Clink Prison, Southwark

The Clink Prison, Southwark

The London Eye, Thames Embankment

The London Eye, Thames Embankment

Join me on my Summer in the City tour, but please bear in mind, I’m just an amateur photographer with a rubbish Olympus camera, so please don’t expect too much!

Gates at Buckingham Palace

Gates at Buckingham Palace

 

 

 

 

Queen Victoria Monument & Fountain o/s Buckingham Palace

Queen Victoria Monument & Fountain o/s Buckingham Palace

Stop evil Ivory Trade NOW


anatomy of an elephant; picture source Wikipedia, public domain

anatomy of an elephant; picture source Wikipedia, public domain

I’m sending this round in the hope that as many of you as possible will reblog this and sign the petition. It is an outrage that elephants and other critically endangeroured animals are slaughtered to make silly tourist trinkets and that Thailand, one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to environmental issues and conservation, has been allowed to get away with it so long. I’m all for sanctions, because Thailand lives off tourism – and illegal logging, illegal ivory trade and a whole host of other unsavoury and illegal enterprises. I have copied this text from the campaign.

There are only hours before politicians go into a meeting to decide the future of yet another magnificent animal has come to a shocking end. PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION AND PASS ON, SO THAT THIS SHOCKING TRADE CAN BE WIPED OUT AND THAILAND BE SENT A MESSAGE IT CANNOT IGNORE. Thank you with all my heart.

From Avaaz.org: Each day, 50 regal elephants are butchered just to make dinky ivory trinkets! The main culprit for this carnage is Thailand — the fastest growing market for unregulated ivory. And tomorrow the international body created to protect endangered species has a chance to sanction Thailand until it cracks down on the elephant killers. Experts fear Thai leaders are mounting a propaganda campaign to dodge penalties, but it just takes Europe and the US to ignore their noise and spearhead action to end the slaughter.

Let’s give key European delegates, and the US, the global call they need to tune out Thailand and bravely lead the world to save the elephants. A final decision could be made tomorrow, so we have no time to lose — sign the petition, then send a message to the UK Environment Minister:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/hours_to_save_elephants_uk/?bfflbdb&v=41999

20,000 African elephants are killed every year, and the number of ivory products on sale in Bangkok trebled in the last twelve months. Government representatives to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have the responsibility to keep the world’s rarest plants and animals alive, and when sanctions were applied to Thailand twenty years ago, it forced the country to pass critical wildlife protection laws.

Thailand says it’s hard to distinguish legal ivory from Thai elephants from smuggled African ivory, and that it has adopted an action plan to stop the ivory trade. But 20 years of delays and a recent military coup tell a different story. If we reach out to the ministers who set the position, we can get the votes needed to prevent Thailand exporting items like aquarium fish and exotic flowers.

Right now CITES representatives are considering whether to sanction Thailand for its failure to stem the ivory trade. Let’s make a call directly to key delegates and the UK Environment Minister now to ensure they make the right decision. Add your voice, then share widely:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/hours_to_save_elephants_uk/?bfflbdb&v=41999

Last year, the Avaaz community helped force Thailand to agree to ban the domestic ivory trade. But Thailand’s new military government has done little to show it will fulfil this promise or restrict this bloody business. Let’s show the strength of our community by issuing an enormous call to protect the lives of one of the world’s most precious species.

With hope,

Alex, Danny, Alice, Nick, Lisa, Emma and the rest of the Avaaz team

MORE INFORMATION:

World famous elephant ‘Satao’ killed by poachers in Kenya (Forbes)
http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2014/06/15/world-famous-elephant-satao-killed-by-poachers-in-kenya/

The ivory highway (Men’s Journal)
http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/print-view/the-ivory-highway-20140213

Legal reform must shut down Thailand’s ivory trade (WWF)
http://wwf.panda.org/?209665/Legal-reform-must-shut-down-Thailands-ivory-trade

Elephant population too small to supply huge local ivory market (Bangkok Post)
http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/418534/thai-elephant-population-too-small-to-supply-huge-local-ivory-market

Cooking with the Detectives


stock-photo-1474113-healthy-chicken-saladTwo writers I much admire are simply breathtakingly good at making the most out of the locations their plot is set in. Alexander McCall Smith and Tarquin Hall write detective stories that embrace all the senses and if you haven’t read any of their stuff yet, I suggest you track down their books immediately, for you are in for a treat and a master class in writing.

Alexander McCall Smith’s series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is set in Botswana in Africa. His “traditionally built” lady detective Precious Ramotswe solves mostly mysteries rather than murder cases, but his books are so full of humour and humanity that the case in question becomes almost immaterial. Before sitting down with one of his books, get a travel guide of beautiful Botswana and follow Precious Ramotswe’s trips around her beloved homeland by leafing through searing photographs of deserts and animal-filled national parks. Can’t you hear those lions roar?

Imagine sitting next to Precious in her tiny white van, the suspension groaning under her traditionally built person and red dust settling on everything. Feeling thirsty yet?

stock-photo-4701539-relaxing-on-remote-beachWater topics and talk of water is ever present throughout the book. In a dry country, water is the most precious commodity. Everything depends on it and it has shaped the way in which people see their fellow man, their country and the rest of the world.

The sounds of gentle cow herds grazing in the shade under African skies, their bells penetrating the early mist, will stay with you for a long time to come, as will the cooking smells of pumpkin, beef and green beans, the laughter and songs of children growing up in an orphanage, and the noise and smell generated by Speedy Motors Repair Garage and the best car mechanic of Botswana. Full of colour, smells, temperatures, beverages and food, McCall Smith’s books are a tonic for the soul and utterly addictive.

This may be a fictional Botswana that never existed in this form, but I still dream of going there one day. These are not books about Africa’s poverty, dictatorships or corruption. These are books about real people, their hopes and dreams, their achievements and their shortcomings.

giraffel

Detecting your way round Indian cuisine

Writer and journalist Tarquin Hall’s detective Vish Puri is middle-aged and overweight, a little hen-pecked by his wife and mother. Not that this would stop Vis from having an ego equalling the size of India itself. Set mostly in Delhi, the stories are full of the sounds, colours and tastes of India’s many different regions and peoples. A keen observer of the ridiculous, Tarquin Hall’s writing often made me laugh out loud.

stock-photo-1383999-chicken-breast-rolled-in-sesame-seeds-with-side-saladAfter every chapter I could practically detect the scent of jasmine, tamarind, saffron, ginger, coriander, curry and fried butter chicken in my room. Every purchase of this book should come with a voucher for the nearest Indian take-away, for your belly will start grumbling after every page Tarquin’s filled with mouth-watering delicious dishes and puzzling clues.

No case gets solved unless Vish Puri’s belly has been satisfied. No suspect is interviewed without a steaming dish arriving on the table between detective and suspect first. His fiercest rival is not another detective or even the police, no, it’s his very own Mummy-ji, whose interest and success in crime solving drives Vish mad. His love of food is only matched by his love for his family and remaining a man of integrity in a country famous for its corruption.

Both writers manage to sneak in some excellent observations about the countries they have lived in for many years without ever looking down their nose at their host country’s failings. These are fictional travelogues at their best, for they open not just our eyes but our hearts to a country’s culture, heritage and modern attitudes.

Try “The Case of the Love Commandos” and “The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken”, two excellent guidebooks into the world of detection, fragrant Indian cuisine and how to remain sane when your eighty-year-old Mummy-ji is determined to outshine the rest of her family.

jafdanc6

When Caretakers turn to Butchery


dolphinBefore booking your next holiday or city break please consider what kind of track record the country you’re travelling to has in caring for zoo animals.

Denmark is a small country, and tourism revenue is important to it, yet Copenhagen Zoo flies in the face of this simple fact and continues to butcher healthy zoo animals – the very animals they are supposed to care for. Instead of being caretakers and doing their best for conservation of endangered species, Copenhagen Zoo’s management has turned to butchery. As soon as tourist numbers to Copenhagen will drop drastically, I have no doubt that Copenhagen Zoo officials will suddenly develop remorse for what they have done and find a scapegoat to take the blame.

Not content with killing a healthy giraffe, they have now murdered two lions and their cubs. You can voice your protest via their official tourism websites, their embassy in London or the Danish Embassy based your own country and by signing the Care petition. The zoo has now euthanized a family of four healthy lions to make way for a new young male. Such a practice is unacceptable and is clearly down to total incompetence among the zoo’s management team.

Please go to http://www.care2.com and sign the petition if you care about the way zoos should be run and pass on the message on social media, too. I’ve already passed on the petition link via Twitter and sent protest emails to various official sites. If you care about animal welfare and conservation of endangered species, please sign the petition – this is important, for if Copenhagen Zoo is allowed to get away with it, other zoos will follow this practice to save money, not because it’s part of “conservation” programs. Zoo officials are happy to take our tourist dollar, in fact, they rely on it, so we must have a say in how our zoos are run and ensure they are run ethically and responsibly.

Would you want to take your kids to a zoo where instead of seeing a healthy happy animal in its enclosure you are suddenly faced with a bunch of butchers killing and ripping apart that very animal right in front of your children, as Copenhagen Zoo did with a healthy giraffe a couple of weeks ago? According to zoo officials this was deemed to be “educational”.

Some things may be educational, but the only thing a child would learn from this type of practice is that adults put in charge to look after vulnerable groups in our society cannot be trusted and that it is ok to kill animals for “demonstration” purposes and pleasure.

A Change of Scenery can work Wonders for your Character


alien00092 roswell tshirt alienA change is as good as a holiday, or so the saying goes, and I admit leaving the torrential rain in Wales behind me and entering the sunny, albeit slightly grimy landscapes of the capital has done wonders for my mood and inspiration.

Although as a rule, I dislike London, on this occasion I’m having a pretty good time of it, as I’m staying in a part of town I hadn’t been to before, so there’s lots to discover. I’m exploring new smells and new sounds, eccentric new neighbours and unusual shops and advertising signs. There’s so much to make a note of: inspiring architecture, both old and new, and colourful traditional markets full of fragrant food stuffs I’ve yet to taste.

It made me think how a change of scenery can breathe new life into a serial – after a few instalments our readers might have fallen in love with the characters we have created but if we don’t keep our readers and fictional characters on their toes, the familiar surroundings our protagonists use to get from plot beginning to plot end will eventually appear stale and less challenging for both writer and reader.

parliament-london-1410502-mIf your hard-boiled, alcoholic detective inspector usually solves his gruesome crimes in New York, New Delhi or Hong Kong, why not take your hero and their team out of their comfort zone and send them off on a police seminar in rural surroundings or a holiday to another country or state? To add to the conflict, give your detective a rookie partner who drives your hero nuts or a temporary new boss who hates your hero’s guts.

Changing locations means doing more research, but this can also be fun, as both writer and reader face new challenges together. A new location forces a writer to come out of their comfort zone and really think about their characters and their inter-relationships. While their skills normally allow your team of sleuths to either clash or work well together in their familiar territory, new surroundings can expose different strengths and/or weaknesses.

stock-photo-4755397-big-benstock-photo-3849808-long-highwayBecause certain things aren’t possible logistically or the climate of the location enforces certain choices, the whole set up requires far more thought than familiar surroundings the writer – and reader – knows well. A writer may have to do far more characterisation than in previous books, thus really giving readers what they crave, namely a greater insight into hero, secondary characters and possibly even the villain, if it’s a recurring one.

If the plot centres on a murder committed in a ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, just popping down to the shops will involve snowshoes, skis, sleighs and putting on several layers of warm clothing. Few people manage to look alluring and sexy, once they are swathed in bobble hats and woolly scarves, thermal undies and three layers of socks. This is the moment when you can send up your hero, making them more “human” in the eyes of the reader by revealing flaws, phobias or a surprising lack of skill.

stock-photo-6469631-purple-freedomIf your hero doesn’t know how to ski and negotiate the steep slopes outside the chalet, the villain will get away clean and your hero must pick up the pieces by employing the famous “little grey cells”. However, you could also have a lot of fun with a chase down the mountain side, as your hero is forced to take a crash course in snowboarding or skiing, if the bad guy is to be caught.

In other words, use unusual locations to your advantage to reveal a new side to your hero/heroine.

stock-photo-16395736-gold-sand-and-blue-waterTake Venice for example, where there are more waterways than roads. The choice of vehicle means you can either show your hero’s tenacity and ability to think on their feet or you can reveal they are not very good with modern gadgets like GPS, they can’t swim or are hopeless at map reading and finding their way around Venice without a tourist guide.

Every time your hero takes a wrong turn and lands on their belly like a fish out of water, a writer can use that particular location to reveal something about the main character’s foibles, weaknesses or strengths. Your hero might crash-land in a Venetian glass factory and express real regret at having destroyed 500 years of exquisite artefacts, revealing your hero to be cultured despite their rough edges. Or your hero might pilot their speedboat into a pizzeria and deliver a sarcastic one-liner about fast food.

mice with baguetteIf you want to teach your arrogant protagonist a valuable lesson in team work and how to be a humbler person, or if your hero is out to impress a girl but you feel he doesn’t quite deserve her yet, make it a gondola chase – life in the slow rather than the fast lane. Not only will this insert some much needed humour into your detective story but it will also allow you to take down your hero’s ego a notch or two, sending them on a brief journey of self-discovery.

stock-photo-8810395-foggy-tokyoAs writers we are often told to “use what we know best” as the basis for our books, but I believe the opposite is also true…coming out of our comfort zone and entering new landscapes hand in hand with our hero can work wonders for our writing.

(source of all animation gifs: heathersanimations.com; all photographs royalty free stock photos)

Why don’t you sling your Hook elsewhere?


Toy_pirate_2 pirate rowing awayWith yet another storm howling past the windows of my local library and more hail and torrential rain spoiling the great British public’s weekend, I’m beginning to see what it must have been like being a 17th century pirate.

As some of you may remember, I’m publishing my Giles Gimingham pirate adventure “Sweet Charity” chapter by chapter on www.jukepopserials.com. In the interest of historical accuracy I’m therefore researching into the ways of the Caribbean Brethren around the time Jamaica’s Port Royal was all but destroyed by a nasty earthquake and tidal wave in June 1692.

I discovered a wonderful book about Welsh pirates and browsed through 17th century pirate vocabulary and slang last night, marvelling at how many modern English language terms actually stem back to the Age of Sail. Every day phrases that we use quite unthinkingly and take as “modern” expressions were the language of buccaneers, pirates, smugglers, merchants and Royal Navy men.

Pirates without the mess...just chapter by chapter

Pirates without the mess…just neat chapter by chapter cut throats

Did you know that “sling your hook” refers to unpopular ship mates, who were told to go and sling their hammocks elsewhere?

Since space was scarce on overcrowded 17th century ships, nobody wanted to sleep next to an unpopular shipmate. How I’d love to tell the Welsh weather to sling its hook and let off steam, storm and rain elsewhere…but there…it’s already done that and my former haunts in the counties of Surrey and Kent are also being buffeted and deluged as I’m writing this!

Or how about the expression “show your true colours”? 

This refers to the Brethren’s habit of hoisting their pirate flag only when reaching firing distance to a merchant or Spanish treasure ship.

My personal favourites so far?

“Shake a cloth in the wind”, which means to be slightly tipsy or drunk but not helpless (or legless!).  I’m also rather fond of “yoh-ho-ho, heave to and a bottle of rum”  which would do nicely right about now!

Admittedly, these pirate expressions come a close second to:

“Catgut Scraper”, which would describe any of the fiddlers hired to keep the men entertained aboard a ship. Pirate captains would recruit musicians into their crews because pirates got easily bored on long voyages, so disputes and fights would often break out over the smallest disagreements. Getting them to sing a sea shanty on deck during working hours was good for moral; even in Sir Henry Morgan’s and Captain Kidd’s day the entertainment value of “Britain’s Got Talent” couldn’t be ignored.

Vocabulary with Captain Kidd will cost ye just six pieces of eight!

Vocabulary with Captain Kidd will cost ye just six pieces of eight!

I like the expression because it reminds me how my beloved Bunny The Cat would wander about the house, seemingly singing to herself:) Almost as scary as meeting Captain Edward Teach himself!

and my absolute favourite is…

“The Doctor”, which in the Brethren’s day didn’t mean TARDIS captains Tom Baker, Christopher Eccleston nor doctors Matt Smith or David Tennant, but simply the cooling trade wind in the West Indies, which brings relief to seafarers when the dry season sets in.

If only a dry season would hit the UK this afternoon!

I could forgo lusting after the “Doctor” and quite endure a little hot air instead, if only it would dry out the long gallery of damp socks, shoes and coats accumulating back home! Nothing dries in this weather…and that brings me neatly back to where I began, namely what it must have been like living in the Age of Sail…and as a good little writer who paid attention in William Stadler’s and Richard Asplin’s class, I mustn’t forget to incorporate weather and its effect on people when I write the next chapter for my Giles Gimingham yarn!

The ship's artist takes a day off...with fatal consequences as captain makes writer MT walk the plank for this meritless daub.

The ship’s artist takes a day off…with fatal consequences as captain makes writer MT walk the plank for this meritless daub.

Wishing everyone in the UK “Bon Voyage” and a dry season to start soon!

(original artwork by Maria Thermann – animation sourced via heathersanimations.com)

                               

How homely can a northern Castle be?


St Fagans Castle rear entrance

St Fagans Castle rear entrance

In my recent blog post about St Fagans, the National Museum of Wales, I promised to tell you a bit more about St Fagans Castle, which is a Grade 1 listed building and ranks as one of the finest examples of Elizabethan manor houses in Wales – or anywhere, really.

Unfortunately, one isn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so all I can offer you here are some pictures I took of the outside and the lovely gardens. It’s a truly inspirational place for writers of fantasy and historic fiction, for it represents a real Welsh family home rather than the great fortresses built by the English to keep the Welsh from transgressing across the border and revolt.

The original manor house was constructed in 1580 on the site of a much earlier castle that dated back to the 13th century but was destroyed in 1536.

St Fagans Castle front entrance with cistern

St Fagans Castle front entrance with cistern

Like all aristocratic families, the manor’s Victorian owners followed the motto “if you’ve got it flaunt it” so they spent much of their income on remodelling and refurbishing their manor in the 19th century, when Cardiff’s high society grew fat and rich on the proceeds of mining and shipping. Inside the manor house visitors get to see collections spanning four centuries, including original furniture dating back to  when the house was first constructed.

Italian Garden urn

Italian Garden urn

St Fagans walled gardens

St Fagans walled gardens

Upon entering St Fagans Castle one feels that this has always been a family home – it doesn’t feel like a museum’s piece or one of those grand country houses, those stately homes of England, many of which were erected with money from the slave trade and adorned with Adams fire places and gilded Venetian mirrors that were paid for with the lives of thousands of African men, women and children. One could, of course, argue that the manor houses of Wales were built and paid for by virtual slave labour and exploitation of Welsh miners, for most  aristocrats based in Wales seem to have had a finger in the mining-pie at one time or another and loathed to spend money on improving living and working conditions of their “subjects”.

While most medieval castles and 18th century country estates are cold, echo-y and cavernous, St Fagans is a cosy country house, a family home that once belonged to Lord Robert-Windsor, who later became the Earl of Plymouth. He kindly donated St Fagans Castle along with 18 acres of land to the National Museum Wales in 1946. Perhaps trying to make up for past wrongs done to the Welsh mining public?

 

A Welsh cottage kitchen centuries ago

A Welsh cottage kitchen centuries ago

Come on a lovely spring day – choose the middle of the week or you get trampled by the crowds – and stroll through the gorgeous gardens that surround the castle on all sides.

The Italian Garden was created in 1902 and features several ponds. It was restored – to much acclaim – in 2003 and still contains many original features. So far I’ve yet to discover the thyme garden, but I have located the secret walled rose garden, an absolute delight on a hot summer’s day, as one can escape both the crowds and the hot sun for a quarter of an hour and recover in this tranquil and shady place.

Throughout the grounds of the museum there are wonderful man-made landscape features to explore; the real beauty is that one seems to come upon them unawares, as if by magic they had just appeared out of the mist. From fish ponds and mill streams to pretty fountains, from covered walkways and mulberry groves, to vinery, cottage gardens and vegetable patches from WWII, from woodland areas and farmyards to Anglo-Saxon round-house villages and 19th century shopping mall – soak up St Fagans’ past, breathe in deeply and inhale every-day-Welsh-history and when you get home, let it flow out of your fingertips and populate your laptop’s memory.

St Fagans Castle duck

St Fagans Castle duck

Gardens tell us so much about the Welsh people who once lived in these homes; rich or poor, Elizabethan castle dwellers in their embroidered finery and furs or humble prefab bungalow citizens in their 1950s petticoats, they all have one thing in common: they are part of Welsh history and equally important, when a writer needs inspiration for their characters!

St Fagans Castle is not imposing, not even that richly furnished. It has nothing of the grand regal gesture of Caerphilly Castle about it nor is there a whiff of Castle Coch’s romance and memories of courtly love present at St Fagans Castle. However, for my money St Fagans Castle is a real homely northern castle, one where I could envisage having been part of a busy household – perhaps as medieval seamstress pricking an amorous squire with my needle to put him in his place or maybe as cook preparing the master’s spit roasted piglet or plucking pheasant’s feathers after the hunt. Not unlike a modern day writer plucking the best bits from ordinary people’s past and using their lives to create a new hi-story.

Don't forget to bring some bread for the pond life in the Italian gardens

Don’t forget to bring some bread for the pond life in the Italian gardens

If folklore, heritage and locations like this one influence and inspire your writing, be sure to visit St Fagans Folklore Museum one day, but if you can’t visit, here’s a virtual tour:

http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/2241/

(copyright for all photographs: Maria Thermann; animation gif source: heathersanimations.com)

Cardiff revisited


xmas turkey and wineI really must apologise for my long, long absence from this site – I have missed blogging and catching up with what everybody else is doing. Now I’m back I can’t wait to get started again…and yes, I still owe everyone another instalment of Merlin fan fiction! Sigh, there are just not enough hours in this writer’s day.

What have I been up to all this time?

Apart from completing a huge amount of client work, landing not one but two jobs with big writing teams in the US and several other clients to boot, I’ve been beavering away at writing my first adult murder mystery, “Mrs Arbuthnot takes a Trip down memory Lane”, the first chapter of which is currently awaiting editor approval for publication on http://www.jukepopserials.com, where I had already published the first 3 chapters of my Giles Gimingham adventure “Sweet Charity“.

It’s a great site that’s gone from strength to strength over the past year and a perfect place for an author like myself to publish the traditional chapter by chapter way…and get paid for it, yay! Mrs Arbuthnot’s plot is set in WWII, 1941, at the Kentish coast and is part 1 of a series of books. Doing the research has been hugely enjoyable, as this is about British people and their every day WWII  experiences; it’s not about politics and certainly not about war-mongering, murdering lunatics from my own country, although naturally Germans receive a few well-deserved curses throughout the book. I’m really exploring how police officers deal with crime during a difficult time when bombs fall all around them; does one sordid murder really matter or should a police officer concentrate on the bigger picture: looters, the black market, deserters and enemy spies?

Rediscovering Cardiff

Writers will know this: we spend so much time in front of the laptop screen inventing worlds of our own, we forget what the real world looks like. One day I opened my eyes, blinked and looked around me, and what I saw horrified me.

I moved out of my horrible mouse and Gunter-infested home and took on an artist studio as my place to work and grow my freelance writing business from. However, the studio proved less than adequate for my needs. I had extended my work activities to include editing fictional books, which is enjoyable but time-and space-consuming. In addition, I decided to build several websites of my own, hoping that over time I’d make a wee bit of money with affiliates. So all in all, I’ve been pretty busy.

One of these websites is all about visiting the Welsh capital on a budget. I’d lived in Cardiff for a number of years and had almost forgotten how much there is to do and see for free or for very little money. So here are a few impressions of what I’ve been up to – a happy-snappy review of what Cardiff has to offer visitors on a budget:

There was the Cardiff Country Fair held at Cardiff Castle…Welsh breadcomplete with 200 varieties of cheese cake …and Welsh organic bread…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAabout 50 or so vintage tractors…and antique stalls…

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and then there were the fantastic events at St Fagan’s Castle, located in the open-air Welsh National Museum…

St Fagan's Castleand the great Extreme Sailing event in Cardiff Bay, which is also the home of the Dr Who Exhibition…

Extreme Sailing 2013as well as a very successful Summer Festival held at Roald Dahl Plaza in Cardiff Bay that attracted thousands of families this year:Mermaid QuayOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And just when you think it can’t get any better, you can join boat cruises in the Bay for a fiver or explore the River Taff by river bus, followed by a free guided walk in Bute Park…I know, I know: you all want to visit me now next summer!

I may have to rent a much bigger studio…St Teilo's Church OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Homely Northern Castles (Part 7)


Deutsch: Hamlets Schloss – Schloss Kronborg in...

Today’s candidate for homely Nordic castles only made the list because

a) I stumbled across it by accident while I was researching ghost-related places for my blog site willowthevampire.com and it’s got ghostly goings-on AND

b) because in a round-about way it relates to Merlin and the Arthurian legends…AND

before you ask…no, I haven’t had a chance to rewrite the ending for my Merlin fan fiction thanks to my lovely clients all wanting their work ASAP the last couple of weeks; hopefully, I should be able to finish the story over the next few days (famous last words!).

Kronborg Slot on the Zealand peninsular in Denmark – or Castle Kronborg – is situated a mere 4 km from the Swedish coast, just a hop and a skip from Helsingborg. Serving as the focal point for the Danish town Helsingør, Kronborg Castle is famous for a number of things, including spooky things, but mostly for being the inspiration for Elsinore, Hamlet’s legendary castle in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

Kronborg Castle, Helsingør, Denmark

As one of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe, Castle Kronborg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the early 1400s, when the first stronghold called Krogen was built on orders of King Eric VII.

It was part of a number of coastal fortifications that served to protect and control the entrance to the Baltic Sea. It wasn’t until 1574 and the reign of King Frederick II that the fortress was transformed into Kronborg Castle, a splendid Renaissance residence fit for a moody princeling like HAMLET.

But we’ll forget what’s above ground for a moment and have a peek under the casements, where one of Denmark’s most important national symbols resides: one Holger Danske or as he’s also known, Ogier le Danois – a name that dates back to the crusades and the Song of Roland, a French poem that describes the gruesome derring-dos of knights and Saracens.

Ogier the Dane in Krongborg Castle

Deemed to be invincible, Holger or Ogier the Dane returned to Denmark after the crusade and a major battle in France. Upon arrival at Kronborg, he promptly fell into a long and deep slumber. Legend has it, should anyone threaten the Danish kingdom, Ogier or Holger will awake instantly and set out to fight for this country and king. Sound familiar, my loverly Merlinians?

Oddly, this Nordic hero is linked to the Arthurian legends and just like Arthur, he became a king of the mountains, a protector who would awake when his country needs him most. I’ve been all over Denmark and I’ve yet to discover mountains…so where does this medieval error in map reading spring from, I wonder?

Is this our friend Merlin trying to befuddle our brains with a bit of Camelot magic? Is this reference to mysterious mountains an attempt to hide his beloved ARTHUR’s real resting place until it’s time for Arthur to wake and have his breakfast after a millennium of sleep?

According to legend, Ogier the Dane was also taken to Avalon by Morgan le Fay, which makes the link to Arthurian folklore even more interesting.

Holger Danske (Ogier the Dane) in a 16th centu...

The 11th century Song of Roland – or Chanson de Roland – is part of wider rhyming chronicles that chart the times of Charlemagne and is known to be the oldest surviving major work of French language literature. It was so popular during its own time that several different versions survived in manuscript form throughout the 12th and 14th centuries. The oldest of these manuscripts (dated to between 1140 to 1170) can be found in Oxford (UK) and is usually referred to as the “Oxford manuscript”.

In around 4,004 lines the poem describes the notorious battle, spawning many more heroic adventure stories of its kind throughout the middle ages. Therefore, the Song of Roland and our bearded friend Ogier have to be seen as part and parcel of the Arthurian legends we know and love today.

The Chanson de Roland or Song of Roland is essentially a heroic poem that relates the Battle of Roncesvalles in France in 778, which took place during the reign of Charlemagne. There are various references to Olgier/Olger/Holger that date back even earlier than the Chanson de Roland, such as a chronicle held at St Martin’s monastery in Cologne, where a reference to pillaging Saxons in 778 links directly to an Olger, Leader of the Danes, who helped – in the words of the monkish chroniclers – to rebuilt the monastery after the Saxons burned it to the ground (756 to 1021, Chronicon Sancti Martini Coloniensis).

Kronborg Castle

The monastery, incidentally, served as a Benedictine monastery for monks from Scotland and Ireland and was once Cologne’s main church (Groß St Martin), but it had been erected on a much earlier place of worship that dates back to Roman times.

What the Song of Roland also demonstrates is the power of story telling…if told well, a story can survive against all the odds.

Just think, minstrels all over Europe braved the ravages of Black Death, boils, starvation, plague and constant medieval warfare to turn up at whatever manor or castle would pay for their keep – and in return they recited their poems about heroic deeds and beautiful maidens…capturing our imagination more than 1,200 years after Olger the Dane allegedly threw a bucket of water over the smouldering remains of St Martin’s monastery.

It convinces me good storytellers are here to stay, no matter how hard Amazon seemingly tries to destroy the booktrade and deprive authors of a decent wage!

elf-smelling-flowersShould you ever find yourself at Kronborg Castle be sure to visit the enormous Knights’ Hall. At 62 metres length it is one of the longest in Europe and contains a statue of Holger Danske/Ogier the Dane. If you’re a Merlinian at heart, why not indulge in a little daydream of minstrels singing at Arthur’s court…

Canons at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark

Canons at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…and if you’re Shakespearean at heart…RUN, for Elsinore’s moody owner Hamlet is bound to have another murderous temper tantrum soon.

Homely Northern Castles (Part 5)


Deutsch: Die Orangerie des Schweriner Schlosses

Apology to Merlin fans: I won’t have time to do a “Merlin” review of the last three episodes until Thursday this week with more Merlin fan fiction to follow next week…the usual client work gets in the way of the far more serious business of Merlinian shenanigans, I’m sorry to say.

While over on Willow the Vampire’s blog (http://willowthevampire.com) I’m discussing the mysterious and ghostly presence of the Petermännchen (Little Man Peter) in greater detail, here at Maria Thermann’s blog we are taking a closer look at the Petermännchen’s once and future home: romantic Schwerin Castle, my favourite of all the homely northern castles.

English: Castle bridge Schwerin with castle; M...

Schloss Schwerin or Schwerin Castle in Mecklenburg is seemingly floating in the centre of a lake right in the heart of the beautiful town of Schwerin. For a very long time the castle served as residence for the Dukes of Mecklenburg.

The castle’s history dates back around 1,000 years and its present circumference harks back to a hill fort that was erected on the small island in the centre of the lake in the year 965. For over one thousand years generations of architects and builders reshaped the castle but hardly any trace remains of their “blue prints” until in around 1500 the first generation of organised builders and architects start collating a plethora of pictorial and documented construction plans. Just as an aside, the terracotta used to build the castle came from my home town Lübeck, no doubt supplied by a happy merchant who was a member of the Hanseatic League.

Schwerin Castle, south-eastern aspect

The castle as it stands today owes its appearance to the considerable refurbishments and restoration works carried out during 1845 and 1857. No fewer than four architects worked on the castle, using French Renaissance castles as their guide.

Travellers familiar with the architecture of Castle Chambord will probably spot some similarities, as the at the castle along the Loire River in France was one of the examples used by architects Georg Adolf Demmler, Gottfriend Semper (the same chap who was responsible for the Semper Opera House in Dresden), Friedrich August Stüler and Ernst Friedrich Zwirner to create the romantic effect we see today.

I won’t bore you with all the various people who tried to get their greedy paws on Castle Schwerin and the fertile lands of Mecklenburg (King Henry the Lion being one of them in 1160). The first time I clapped eyes on this magical castle was a few days after the Berlin Wall fell. My parents took me across the then still existing East German border, which ran just about 8 or 10 km inland from where I grew up.

English: Schwerin Castle Deutsch: Schweriner S...

English: Schwerin Castle Deutsch: Schweriner Schloss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schwerin Castle.

I’ll never forget the truly awful state in which nearly all of the historic monuments in towns and cities like Rostock, Schwerin and Wismar languished. Castle Schwerin was in a pretty rotten condition and when I saw it nearly a decade later, restored to its 1857 glory, I have to admit I looked upon it with swimming eyes.

At the end of 1989, when the German “Democratic” Republic was finally consigned to the history books and declared to be part of a united Germany once more, a consortium of 25 companies in and around the city of Kiel created an emergency trust fund with which important monuments like Castle Schwerin should be rescued from total collapse.

Whole armies of dedicated and hard-working restoration experts are responsible for the amazing transformation world heritage treasures like Schloss Schwerin have undergone since April 1990, when the first workers arrived to deal with the many problems of the domed roof alone.

front aspect of Schwerin Castle, Germany Españ...

front aspect of Schwerin Castle, Germany Español: Castillo de Schwerin en Mecklemburgo-Pomerania Occidental Italiano: Castello di Schwerin Česky: Zámek v německém městě Schwerin Polski: Zamek w Schwerinie Русский: Шверинский замок в городе Шверин в Германии (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Castle Schwerin Deutsch: Schloss Schwerin

When I visited the castle last, there was talk of connecting the seven lakes in the area up to Lake Schwerin, as tourism from canoeists, cyclists and walkers is vital for the economies of the area. The castle is home to the State Museum and a major tourist draw.

The castle gardens were still “under construction” when I visited last, but I see that in 2009 they underwent considerable restoration and reconstruction, too, in order that UNESCO World Heritage status could be applied for on behalf of the whole castle complex.

It is an absolute MUST see destination for anyone travelling around northern Germany and, of course, for anyone thinking about writing a story with a romantic castle setting. I would like to thank the armies of workers who have tirelessly restored this treasure to us after decades of shameful neglect by the so-called government of the so-called German Democratic Republic which, as we learned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was as rotten and in need of urgent restoration as the castle in Schwerin itself.

Bundesgartenschau 2009 - Schwerin Castle seen ...

For more detailed historical information, please visit Castle Schwerin on Wikipedia or go to

http://www.museum-schwerin.de/orte/schloss-schwerin/ , if you’re fluent in German and to see the lovely pictures there. Click on the left hand side on Museums Schloss Schwerin for a picture gallery of the castle and visit the webcam for a view across the gardens from one of the castle’s highest towers.

For information about the little castle ghost, the Petermännchen, just head to http://willowthevampire.com, where I’m explaining what the ghost is and why it still haunts us today.

Homely Northern Castles (Part 4)


Nydam Boat, Gottorp Castle, Sleswig

Nydam Boat, Gottorp Castle, Sleswig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No tour of homely Northern Castles would be complete without Schloss Gottorf located in my native Federal State of Schleswig Holstein in Germany.

It’s not a castle I’d use for the setting of one of my children’s books as it is too “new”, but Castle Gottorp as it is called in Low German is important for different reasons than its architecture and splendid interior.

Just like a person (it’s the inside that counts, not the gorgeous exterior) Castle Gottorp or Schloss Gottorf in the small town of Schleswig is a character with hidden depths. It is home to some of Germany’s most valuable historic collections and adjacent to one of Northern Europe’s most important archaeological sites.

English: View of the southern wing of Gottorp ...

English: View of the southern wing of Gottorp Castle, Schleswig, Germany Deutsch: Blick auf den Südflügel von Schloss Gottorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Built originally as the ancestral home of the Holstein-Gottorp branch of the House of Oldenburg, a bunch of local aristos, the castle sits just 40 km from the rough Baltic Sea coast on an island in the Schlei, a river-cum-firth-cum-estuary of outstanding natural beauty.

The estate sprung to life in 1160 as home and imposing residence of Bishop Occo of Schleswig, another one of those all powerful bishops that couldn’t possibly live in a hovel like a good Christian , medieval monk-boy should have done at the time.

In 1268 the Danish Duke of Schleswig bought the whole estate but in 1340 the estate changed hands again, when Count of Holstein at Rendsburg acquired it (a member of the House of Schauenburg, another aristo branch hanging out by the Baltic Sea’s stormy coast, must be the lovely white sandy beaches that lure them there, I reckon. Perhaps somebody should have told them it’s always freezing cold up in Schleswig).

Eventually, after several generations and through inheritance the estate fell into the hands of Christian I of Denmark, who was the first Danish monarch to head the House of Oldenburg in 1459.

Nicodemus Tessin d.y. (1654-1728)

Nicodemus Tessin d.y. (1654-1728) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the centuries the estate was enlarged and altered until it finally became the Gottorp we know today. Construction on the castle as seen today did not start until 1697 and the whole complex was finally completed in 1703 under the watchful eye of famous architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (one of my favourite names…Nicodemus…perfect for a children’s mystery or horror story…also the name of Marian’s cat in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the Kevin Costner movie).

Like so many castles in Northern Germany, Castle Gottorf served as home to refugees and displaced persons for a number of years after WWII.

Just like Schloss Eutin (see earlier post), the restoration needed was considerable after such “misuse” and the works were not deemed complete until 1996, when the State Art and Cultural History Museum and the State Archaeological Museum moved in (see http://www.schloss-gottorf.de for pictures and if you speak German, there’s plenty of stuff on temporary exhibitions held at the Schloss).

Deutsch: Schloß Gottorf in Schleswig

I feel after 800 years of various uses the castle has finally found its calling: its museums are superb and offer great insight into the early dwellers of the region – particularly, as Castle Gottorp is THE place to go, when researching Vikings – important for my Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove novel as well as for Willow’s new adventure, which will still have Viking-related plot twists and turns, despite the fact that it’s partly set in the south of Germany, in the town of Würzburg, which couldn’t be less Viking and Nordic, if you showered it with Pretzel and Sauerkraut and shouted “Skol”.

Haithabu (known as Hedeby in English), located near the castle and island, is an amazing place. Once it was the largest trading post in the “south” for Scandinavian Vikings.

Map of Schloss Gottorf

Map of Schloss Gottorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The many archaeological finds displayed in the castle museum and the separate Haithabu-exhibition show a lively and huge merchant settlement with “all the trimmings”, including walled fortifications. Over the last few years the museum has expanded its exhibits considerably, and now there are 7 Viking houses and a jetty, where visitors can experience what it must have been like to be part of this important community.

English: Iron axes and shield bosses from Nyda...

English: Iron axes and shield bosses from Nydam Mose, at Museum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany Deutsch: Eiserne Axtköpfe und Schildbuckel aus dem Moorfund aus dem Nydam-Moor, im Archäologischen Landesmuseum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denmark_0396 - Gottorp Celestial Glope,

Denmark_0396 – Gottorp Celestial Glope, (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Thanks to the Viking museum and the many finds that document what life was like 1,000 years ago in Northern Europe, Castle Gottorp ranks as one of Germany’s most important museums. While the site itself is inspiration for perhaps a dark age island adventure aimed at older children, the finds within the Haithabu museum offer a huge amount of inspiration for any number of stories – for children of all ages as well as for adult literature.

Viking Knit Bracelet

Viking Knit Bracelet (Photo credit: musicanys)

If you like writing medieval mysteries a la Ellis Peter’s Cadfael novels or Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose, this is the place to come for research. The Viking corpses found in the local moors alone are worth a visit by any writer interested in historical fiction and a taste for the macabre!

The settlement at Haithabu was mentioned as a “very large town at the outer most end of the world’s ocean” by the Arabic chronicler Ibrahim ibn Ahmed At-Tartûschi in around 965, when he wrote about his northern travels. This one sentence sends shivers down my writer’s spine and I want to sit down and start a story in which Kirk Douglas type Vikings battle it out with sea monsters a la Jules Verne.

From Haithabu the Vikings traded with far flung places like Russia and Mongolia and with virtually all of western Europe. From here they established trade routes that centuries later were still in place, when Hanseatic League merchants hopped on board their ships from my home town Lübeck and set sail for Bergen, Riga and St. Petersburg.

Deutsch: Orgel in Schloss Gottorf

Deutsch: Orgel in Schloss Gottorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Read more: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/schleswig/A26338.html#ixzz29cwzoZXT

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

Homely northern Castles (Part 2)


Schloss Glücksburg

Schloss Glücksburg (Photo credit: kbs478)

In stark contrast to Pierrefonds Castle in France and last week’s Eutiner Schloss, which both appear solid and built for the purpose of keeping inmates snuggly within their walls and intruders out in the cold, Glücksburg Castle is a dreamy affair that floats on the waters of the Flensburg Fjord like a melting blob of vanilla ice cream drifts on a plate of hot blueberry sauce.

Widely regarded as one of the most important Renaissance castles in northern Europe, Schloss Glücksburg was once home to the Dukes of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, which is so much of a mouthful that even the imaginative Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t have turned it into a gothic spine-tingler (like he did with the House of Usher).

Deutsch: Schloss Glücksburg Orgelansicht 1

Schloss Glücksburg mit Prinzessin

Besides, the white towers of Schloss Glücksburg seem far too cheerful for Edgar’s gloomy goings-on. The one truly sinister thing that did happen – depending on your nationality and point of view – is that the Dukes were kicked out for a while and the Danes moved in – it was a sort of castle upgrade, since the homewreckers were Danish kings no less.

Deutsch: Schloss Glücksburg 2

The lovely town of Glücksburg is just a stone’s throw from Flensburg, once an important trading centre for Jamaican rum shipped in from the Caribbean. Glücksburg is also within a hop and a skip of the Danish border and, just like the town of Flensburg, it was once a bone of contention between the German Dukes and the Danish Kings (1779).

Today Schloss Glücksburg houses some truly wonderful treasures like the lavishly decorated baroque chapel on the ground floor or the empress’ salon and bedchamber on the upper floors, where the family’s private quarters are. The castle was built between 1583 and 1587, thus being a much “younger” candidate in my series on castles. The Lucky Fortress is open to the public all year and guided tours are available (in German).

English: Glücksburg Castle, Glücksburg, Schles...

The actual moated palace or Wasserschloss as it is called in German is centred between four octagonal corner towers that seem to hold the whole complex together as it seemingly drifts on the mirror lake. Sandwiched between the four towers are three adjacent buildings with tall roofs.

Unlike other German Wasserschlösser or moated palaces, Glücksburg was not erected on piles but rests entirely on a foundation of 2.5 meters of granite and recycled bricks pinched from a former monastery.

To the north of the palace generations of gardeners have defied logic and Northern Germany’s harsh climate and planted some 400 varieties of roses, which start to bloom in late May and early June, filling the air with an incomparable perfume and introducing a much needed splash of colour into the grey landscape.

Deutsch: Schloss Glücksburg 6

For me the castle’s appeal lies perhaps mostly in the fact that – apart from its beautiful proportions and location – it was partly constructed of left-over bits of rubble that belonged to the monastery of the Rüdekloster.

The monastery once stood where the lake is today. Built in 1210, the Cistercian cloister Rus Regis or Rüdekloster stood on nearly the exact spot where the castle was erected by architect Nikolaus Karies.

The cloister of the original Cluny order was founded in 1192, but the monastery survived only until 1541; the cloister and church must have eventually fallen into disrepair, prompting the Duke’s salvage crew to move in and loot the best parts for the erection of their spanking new castle.

Nikolaus’ master, Duke Johann the Younger, subscribed to the motto “May God give good fortune with peace (German: Gott gebe Glück mit Frieden)” and so the new castle ended up being named Glücksburg or Lucky Fortress in the vernacular.

Incidentally, for my UK readers, the current Duke of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg is a cousin four times removed of present day Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

Deutsch: Glücksburg in Schleswig-Holstein. Die...

Deutsch: Schloss Glücksburg Gesindestübchen

Only part of the castle has been converted into a museum, the remainder is very much a ducal family residence; while the more stately rooms are there to impress, there are various rooms that are a charming, sometimes touching example of how several generations of the Duke’s family and their servants had to put up with the inconvenience of living in this damp and draughty place called Northern Germany.

For example, there are some splendid Gobelin tapestries in the Weisser Saal (the white salon), which are presumably not just hanging there to show off wealth but alsoto keep the bitter cold out in winter (and as this is Schleswig Holstein, I’m also respectfully mentioning…the bitter cold in spring, summer and autumn). The castle was restored and given a new coat of glistening white paint in 2006, now once more floating on water like a ballerina in her starched tutu. Duke Johann the Younger and his architect Nikolaus would have been so proud.

Entrance to Glücksburg Castle (Schloss Glücksb...

The castle would make a wonderful location for a romantic novel with damsels in distress and brave men to the rescue…picture it….a manly rower is crossing the moat, the muscles on Count Adalbert’s arms nearly bursting from his attempt to get his beloved far away from the villain of the piece, the dastardly Duke Fritz, who wants the beautiful Countess Mietzi for himself.

Mietzi, meanwhile, dreams of spending the night in the arms of handsome, charming but utterly unreliable servant Merlin…oh hang it, I just remembered – you’re all waiting for more Merlin fan fiction from me!

Seeing the castle pictures in this blog, what romantic hotchpotch would you come up with? Or does it inspire anyone to write a family saga with gothic undertones and Edgar Allan Poe-style ravens croaking from the ramparts?

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com, source of photographs Wikipedia)

Homely northern Castles (Part 1)


View from the castle square to the main facade...

It’s not just Germany’s southern regions that are littered with castles. Closer to my original home, there is one of the most romantic settings any writer could wish for their castle adventure.

I haven’t decided yet, where and how I’m going to use Eutin’s splendid castle, but at some point next year I plan to visit again and take lots of pictures as well as notes for a future novel.

Eutin Castle (in German: Eutiner Schloss) is the centre piece of the town Eutin in the north German district of Ostholstein, which is part of the Federal State of Schleswig Holstein (that bit below Denmark).

Surrounded by lakes and rivers, Eutin Castle and it’s adjacent open air theatre are the major tourist draw in this otherwise sleepy little town (dubbed the “rose-town” because of the many rose bushes displayed everywhere).

Schlossmuseum Eutin

Together with the castles of Gottorf and Glücksburg, Eutin Castle is regarded as one of the most important courtly secular buildings in Schleswig-Holstein.

Eutin

The castle served originally as the seat for the mighty prince-bishops of my home town Lübeck, who were forced to select a residence well away from their actual “realm”, because the courageous burghers of my little home town gave them so much grief in their struggle for independence and running a Free Hanseatic City State that the prince-bishops deemed it safer to reside in Eutin instead of Lübeck.

The castle – which is often called a baroque palace – is constructed along a four-winged design, but the origins date back to medieval times (1156). Eventually the Dukes of Oldenburg moved in, when the prince-bishops got kicked out.

Today, after 20 years of extensive restoration and refurbishment, the castle is open to the public during the summer months and houses a museum with a collection of artefacts, tapestries, paintings and a permanent exhibition about the Cape Horne exploration (a former resident was an intrepid traveller to those parts of the world).

Eutin Schloss 2

Until Frederic August II abdicated in 1918, the castle served as the ducal summer residence. After his abdication, the castle fell into disuse for a long period of time, resulting in some considerable disrepair.

Perhaps the most turbulent times and – from a writer’s point of view richest of times – occurred during and after WWII, when Eutin Castle was transformed into a home for refugees.

Although the town and castle survived both world wars without damage (the area is rural, there’s no industry of any kind and it appears even Hitler’s henchmen couldn’t be bothered with it), at the end of WWII a huge wave of refugees arrived, mainly from areas that are now Poland and from neighbouring Mecklenburg, thousands of displaced people, who had to be housed somewhere in a hurry. To start with several hundred people where crammed into the unoccupied castle, which at that time had only four working toilets – conditions must have been horrendous.

Ineke posing in front of stuffed horses in the...

Ineke posing in front of stuffed horses in the Knight’s Hall (Photo credit: Erwyn van der Meer)

Some 90 people had to share the Knight’s Hall and the refugees had to look after themselves, using the small ovens in the kitchens to cook their meals. The smoke coming from chimneys that hadn’t been swept in a generation damaged the ornate stucco ceilings and can’t have done the furnishings, in particular the tapestries, any good either.

So bad was the situation with regard to lack of housing, the castle had to serve as refugee and displaced persons camp until well into the early 1950s, when the refugees were finally given their own homes. The Knight’s Hall was so badly affected by the years of “abuse” that it wasn’t opened to the public again until 1997, after a full decade of restoration.

The rather unsympathetic renovations and restorations seen today took place from 1986 to 2006 and the castle is mainly used for exhibitions now as well as museum’s space. The IKEA style display cases rather destroy the romantic atmosphere one plunges into upon encountering the exterior of the castle and its beautiful setting. The gardens are splendid example of 18th and 19th century English landscaping craftsmanship.

Eutiner Schloss, Hof

You can visit a virtual tour of the castle by going to http://www.schloss-eutin.de. Click on Rundgang on the menu, then on the picture of the castle, when it appears. Be patient, it can take up to 30 seconds before the next picture appears and the tour starts in earnest. For more information in English go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eutin_Castle.

The gardens, lake and surroundings all become a magnificent background to the open air performances of famous operas and operettas during the summer months of July and August. The Eutiner Festspiele (Eutin’s Festival) is a much-loved and popular event in the social and cultural calendar of the region and beyond. The music festival is held in memory of a local boy, composer Carl Maria von Weber, and has been held here since 1951.

Eutin, Torturm

If you speak enough German to make a booking you can order tickets at http://eutiner-festspiele.de/

For more information on the gorgeous lake district surrounding the castle and town go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gro%C3%9Fer_Eutiner_See where you can see pictures of the Great Lake Eutin (there’s a smaller version of the lake nearby, hence the Great and Small Lake Eutin).

Here are some details of the lake itself:

http://www.encyclo.co.uk/define/Gro%C3%9Fer%20Eutiner%20See together with info on cruises:

http://www.eutiner-seerundfahrt.de/

There is a webcam on the above website that shows the lake, when one clicks on the central picture.

A visitor to the area took these wonderful pictures and published them on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/impressiones/3920805096/; the collection features the castle and grounds, the lake and even a great collage of the landmark buildings that transformed my home town Lübeck to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Eutiner Schloss. Blick über den Großen Eutiner...

I’m severely tempted to use the area as a background for a crime novel set in the 1950’s – using local knowledge can work wonders for a piece of writing, even if the events and some of the locations are entirely fictional.

Philip Pullman used his local knowledge of Oxford in the UK to great effect in his trilogy His Dark Materials, while J R R Tolkien used his knowledge of rural England and Wales in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (in Hobbit terms, we’re talking about the Shire), forever planting in our collective memories what a rural idyll should look like.

My apology to fans of Merlin fan fiction, my story will be continued next week…in preparation for Merlin returning to our BBC 1 screens on 6th October at 7.45pm. YAY, can’t wait!

(source of photographs: Wikipedia)

Fairy-tale Castle Wernigerode


 

My apology for not posting much lately, but life’s a little complicated at present. Having given up my room to a lovely young doctor from Germany, who has already invited me to stay with her and her husband in Berlin next year, I’m currently trying out my brand new camping equipment – living in a tent is hard work, when you’re not used to it! Haven’t done this since I was 21-years-old, which is a very long time ago…

I promise my Merlin fan fiction story will continue shortly – but just to get us back into the magical mood and fairy-tale settings:

Castle of Wernigerode in Winter, Shutter speed...

Having introduced you to the idea of pocket-sized castles, why not take a look at Schloss Wernigerode in the Harz Mountains of Germany? The nearest airport is at Leipzig, which is a great city and worth a few days of your time before you carry on your journey into the Harz Mountains.

From Leipzig take a train to Halle and change to the Wernigerode train there. Services are frequent and the whole journey takes only around 1.5 to 2 hours.

The Harz Mountain range is located roughly in the middle of Germany. At tourist hot-spot Wernigerode you’ll find not just the castle as the major attraction – the real star of the town is a genuine narrow gauge steam train that takes you up to the Brocken, the summit where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set his witches’ celebration in Faust.

Train heading towards the Brocken on the Harz ...

Train heading towards the Brocken on the Harz Railway near Drei Annen Hohne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wooden witch-dolls, plastic witches, witches on brooms and smiley witches without brooms but clutching black cats…they are everywhere. Walpurgisnacht, as the magical dance and merriment is called in German, is celebrated on the 31st October…and the witches have their party on the Brocken mountain…you see, I’m giving you just enough time to organise your trip, if you’re a real life witch or wizard.

The Wernigerode line of the steam train connects up to Eisfelder Talmühle, where another choo-choo train can be boarded to take you to stunning Quedlinburg, UNCESCO World Heritage Site and stuffed to the gills with half-timbered houses lining the cobbled streets and market place.

Wernigerode, once you’ve made your way from the little train station through the modern residential part into the town centre, isn’t lacking in half-timbered houses either. Its towered Rathaus (Town Hall) dates back to 1277, although it sprang to life as a much more fun place, a theatre. Note the 33 figurines which, rumour has it, depict worthy towns-folk of the time.

Wernigerode (Harz)

Wernigerode (Harz) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

View from Castle of Wernigerode over the city ...

View from Castle of Wernigerode over the city to mount Brocken in Winter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The town hall you see today bears more resemblance to 16th century, late gothic architecture, but is lovely all the same. Wherever you go, there are amazingly beautiful houses, secret little backyards, cobbled streets and more timber-framed houses.

The so called "Brockenbahn" (Brocken...

The castle dates back to the 12th century and has not just been lovingly restored but also much expanded. You can stay in a B & B in the castle complex; if I remember it’s around EUR 45.00 – EUR 50.00 per night including breakfast.

The castle contains a museum as well as much original furniture and paintings, which are used to furnish and decorate the castle as if it were a family home. The Festsaal, or ballroom, is utterly splendid and if you’re a girl, you can just see yourself twirling around in a Vienna waltz with your whiskered beau. From the courtyard there are the most marvellous views over most of the town. Children are treated to fairy-tale readings by a roaring fire and the whole place is simply magical.

Wernigerode (Harz)

Wernigerode in Saxony-Anhalt serves as a gateway into a large part of the eastern part of the Harz Mountain range.

Right next to the station is a sizeable bus terminal from where regular buses leave for the historic towns of Blankenburg and Thale as well as for the Drei Annen Hohne and Schierke, which are both villages at the very edge of the wonderful Hochharz National Park, an area of truly outstanding natural beauty, where you can observe much interesting local wildlife.

Once or twice a week there’s a market being held in the heart of Wernigerode, where they sell the usual fried sausages and various local delicatessens as well as your weekly groceries, if you’re staying in self-catering accommodation.

For lots of great pictures of the castle, please visit their website at http://www.schloss-wernigerode.de. On the home page go to the left hand column and click on the 5th entry down “Bildergalerie”…and for even more pictures of some of the events being staged at the castle, click on the last but one entry down in the left hand column “Märchenhafte Impressionen”; when the page opens up, just click on the blue entries.

Wernigerode (Harz)

Other interesting places to visit in the town are Das Kleinste Haus, a miniscule house that somebody actually used to live in and the Harzmuseum Wernigerode, which has all sorts of interesting exhibits about the eastern Harz and the town.

There’s also the Museum for Aviation and Technology (Museum für Luftfahrt und Technik) and the windmill museum (Mühlenmuseum und Galerie im Kornboden) and, if like me you like all things glass blowing, there’s also the glass blowing workshop and factory at Glasmanufaktur Harzkristall to admire.

Useful websites:

http://www.wernigerode.de, where you’ll find information on the town and the museum as well as accommodation details.

http://www.luftfahrtmuseum-wernigerode.de

http://www.gutsmuehle.de

http://www.harzkristall.de

Summit of the Brocken, seen from Torfhaus (5 km)

Summit of the Brocken, seen from Torfhaus (5 km) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Information on the narrow-gauge steam trains can be found under http://hsb-wr.de. HSB stands for Harzer Schmalspur-Bahnen GmbH, the company running the little trains. The train tickets are expensive, but worth every cent. At the bus terminal the bus ticket office is located directly opposite.

Wernigerode (Harz)

So, what are you waiting for? The Harz is great in the autumn; dust off your hiking boots or hire a mountain bike, when you get there or simply sit in the Konditorei and Cafe am Markt, munch a slice of yummy cake and observe the hustle and bustle of this little market town, now that the majority of tourists have gone home…by the way, you’ll have to be relatively fit to get up to the castle, it’s a steep 15 minute climb, but sooooooo worth it!

Schloss Wernigerode is just the right type of castle to give children’s writers lots of inspiration – the type of castle an “average” knight and his family might have occupied. Not too ostentatious, not too large and not too “fortressy” – the kind of castle where a local princess might be waking up every morning, greet the day with a big yawn and throw open the window of her turret to look out for any passing princeling worth a kiss or two.

(source of photographs is Wikipedia, source of animation: heathersanimations.com)

 

One Woman’s Palace is another Woman’s Hovel


When Guildford Castle started out as a royal residence, the entrance was actually on the first floor to deter attackers – it would also have deterred anyone without a head for heights, I would imagine.

The king’s apartments would initially have been in the keep, where the ground floor had no windows for the same safety precautions.

English: S Knights, my pic, Oct 2007

The king’s chamber would have been on the first floor, where a wardrobe or closet with a latrine would have been installed. A chapel would have also been located on the first floor, showing the king got his priorities right: don’t let any marauding hordes disturb you when you’re

a)      busy praying

b)      busy reading the latest news from Portsmouth Harbour and Canterbury comics while testing your latrine

Ninth of Henry Holiday's original ilustrations...

Ninth of Henry Holiday’s original ilustrations to “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the second floor, touchingly and perhaps tellingly, there was a two-seater latrine, which would have tested anyone’s head for heights – the second floor brings the keep to just over 21 metres / 70 feet in height.

English: Guildford castle gardens

There were no fancy wall paintings, the chambers were just covered in plaster and white-washed. The roof would have been made from lead. Just as well it doesn’t rain as much in Guildford as it does here in Wales – the noise on a lead roof would have been deafening!

Eleanor of Castile, queen consort of Edward I ...

Eleanor of Castile, queen consort of Edward I of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Henry III took on the castle in the 13th century, he ordered a number of improvements which included large new windows for my lady’s chamber, so the Queen could see what the Guildford burghers were getting up to (perhaps she was just as keen to keep up with the latest developments on the bowling green). Henry also had two marble columns added to the Queen’s apartments, probably so she slam his head against them and ask him for a larger clothing allowance.

The Great Hall also got a make-over and was furnished with paintings and coloured glass windows. Sadly, the hall was damaged during a fire in 1245. The king’s own apartments were painted green with twinkling gold and silver stars and he ordered a garden to be created that was surrounded by more marble columns.

Henry also asked for more rooms to be built in the Tunsgate area, which were for his daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile and also housed his queen’s knights.

The year 1245 also saw Henry III buy another parcel of land along Quarry Street to enlarge the bailey, where a number of rooms were built for Edward, son and heir to the throne.

The mind boggles – perhaps Edward played his fanfare too loudly at dawn and was sent off like any other medieval child-pain-in-the-butt?

The seven-year-old Edward moved into his new chambers the following year – which puts a whole new spin on “children should be seen and not heard”. In this case, given the distance between Quarry Street and the Keep, young Edward would have needed a fanfare, drum kit and electric guitar to make himself heard.

മലയാളം: Guildford castle - UK

Actually, Edward’s private chambers seem to have done his self-esteem the world of good. During Simon de Montfort’s rebellion there was no fighting at Guildford, but Edward captured rebel Adam Gurdon in single combat action at nearby Alton and returned him to the keep at Guildford.

Rumour has it that Eleanor of Castile, Edward’s wife, took pity on the rebel and pleaded for his life. The man was spared and became allegedly a loyal servant during Edward’s reign.

When all the improvements were completed, Guildford Castle had acquired the description of “palace”, although by Queen Elizabeth II’s standards the castle-cum-palace would be more of a hovel.

A lady used to Windsor Castle, Balmoral, Buckingham Palace and all the other royal hang-outs would probably scoff at Henry’s idea of comfort and sophistication. What Queen Liz would make of the two-seater toilet perched 70 feet up in the air is anyone’s guess!

Naturally, my reasons for including Guildford Castle in this series are not just springing from nostalgia. The castle grounds contain one of my favourite gardens, thanks to the charming Alice in Wonderland statue that stands there, in close proximity to the house once occupied by Reverend Charles Dodgson…aka Lewis Carroll, one of the world’s most beloved children’s writers.

Guildford Castle may not be up to Queen Liz’ standards, but I couldn’t help imaging whenever I sat in the gardens that any queenly person sourced from Lewis Carroll’s imagination would have wholeheartedly approved of this pocket-sized castle with palace pretensions.

English: "Alice through the Looking Glass...

English: “Alice through the Looking Glass”, Guildford. Statue in Guildford Castle grounds based on the Alice character in Lewis Carroll books. Lewis Carroll lived nearby in The Chestnuts, Guildford and is buried in the borough too, in The Mount cemetery. In the background is Guildford Castle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for the Grunters of this world, who started me off on my castle fixation: Off with their heads, she cries!

A pocket-sized Castle just right for an Afternoon


Guildford Castle

I had planned to post this yesterday, but my dog-walking duties and client work got in the way. B’s getting restless again, so I’d better get on with this blog, before there’s a puddle on my carpet.

I have to confess that of all the places I have lived at in the UK, Guildford in Surrey is my favourite. Known as the “stockbroker belt”, Guildford and its neighbour Woking are within an easy commute of London and Portsmouth with trains running approximately every 10 minutes into either direction.

It takes just 45 minutes on a stopping service to get to London Waterloo and half an hour on the fast service. A 40 minute train journey takes travellers with a hankering for the sea to Portsmouth; add another 15 minute journey by boat and you’re on the lovely Isle of White.

മലയാളം: Guildford castle - UK

My blog series on castles should not miss out Guildford Castle, which will be used as one of the locations in my WIP “The Daddy Snatchers”, a novel for children aged 7 to 9.

Having lived in the town for such a long time, I feel confident of using it as my main location for a story about two small boys trying to come to terms with the loss of their dad and the possibility of their mother marrying again.

Guildford Castle grounds are a lovely place to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun. The gardens are exceptionally well maintained and the castle complex is just large enough (or small, depending on your point of view) to keep you  entertained for a couple of hours.

Buy your picnic lunch at the bakery in the High Street, spread out your travel rug on the lawns or kick a lazy student off a bench and enjoy the magnificient gardens and keep!

Construction started reputedly just after 1066 on the order of none other than William the Conqueror himself, who marched into Canterbury and then attacked towns situated along the Pilgrim’s Way, which included Guildford in Surrey.

The above may be a medieval urban myth, but it is fairly certain the castle’s oldest parts date back to the 11th century.  The building works aren’t mentioned in the Doomsday Book, which suggests the construction didn’t start until after 1086, when the great book was compiled. The remaining complex was developed up to the 13th century.

Initially Guildford Castle was little more than a motte or mound, consisting of a deep ditch and bailey, which would have been surrounded by a wooden palisade to keep marauders out – marauders in this case being the miffed inhabitants of the area, who were none too happy to see William the Norseman’s hordes occupying their lands.

English: Guildford Museum Quarry Street Entrance.

English: Guildford Museum Quarry Street Entrance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original bailey would have encompassed much of what is today the heart of Guildford, Castle Street for example and South Hill as well as Quarry Street, where the museum used to be when I lived there, and the Bowling Green, a wonderful place to sit in the summer and watch the players concentrate with furrowed brow on what must be one of the most satisfying games for the elderly.

At the time the castle was built, Guildford was – along with Southwark – the only sizeable town in Surrey and lay on the important route between London and the coastlines to the south and west of England. In other words, the main supply lines to the shores where William’s Norman troops would land with their ships.

Initially there would have been a wooden tower built on top of the motte, where a lookout would have been posted and the garrison would have found some shelter, too.

It wasn’t until the early 12th century that the wooden palisade was replaced by a chalk wall (shell-keep), large parts of which are still standing today.

English: Guildford Museum and Castle Arch. On ...

English: Guildford Museum and Castle Arch. On Quarry Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the 1130’s the wooden tower was replaced with a more durable material, namely stone. The location of this first keep or great tower was probably part motte, part shell-keep, as the motte wouldn’t have been able to carry the great weight on its own.

The stone was transported from the Goadalming area, a charming little town with excellent pubs (brewing their own ale), if you happen to be in Surrey, take an afternoon to explore – you can take a local bus from Guildford. The stone is called Bargate stone and has far greater density and therefore durability than chalk.

The castle originally consisted of two floors, of which the first floor would have been reserved for the king’s private apartments. The surrounding walls once carried crenellations, where sentries could keep watch and alert the garrison, should the Guildford population revolt over their meagre supper and their king.

English: Guildford Castle Gardens. This is in ...

English: Guildford Castle Gardens. This is in the ditch surrounding the castle which is to the right, out of photograph. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it proved the king wasn’t all that interested in using the castle as his permanent private residence, the keep became the newly appointed Sheriff’s quarters in the late 12th century.

Eventually, Guildford Castle was used as the county goal for Sussex and Surrey, when the king moved to more comfortable apartments in the bailey, where a chapel and domestic buildings had been erected.

It is assumed the Great Hall was located on the site, where today two houses stand, at the very bottom of Castle Hill. The Hall was constructed from stone and had wooden aisle posts, which apparently had been painted to resemble marble, a savvy cost cutting device employed by a king who was always strapped for cash.

When Henry III made further additions and improvements to Guildford Castle, it suddenly gained the status of “palace”, although there’s little trace of that today – more about the palace in my next blog!

I’m using the town centre with Castle Street and Quarry Street, where my erstwhile solicitors used to have their offices, as settings for a big event in my novel that will be largely determined by the town’s unique location by the River Wey.

Guildford is a charming place to visit for a long weekend. The Wey River Navigation allows houseboats, canoes, kajaks and rowers to fully enjoy the “messing about in boats” a wise Ratty has been advocating for years (get your life-coaching from Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows, I always do!).

English: The Keep of Guildford Castle as seen ...

English: The Keep of Guildford Castle as seen from Castle Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a lock, a rowing club and a pub overlooking the waterways, as well as a park with picnic areas. The path along either side of the river is perfect for a walk or a trip by bike, if you haven’t found your “sea-legs” or shy away from the rather expensive hire costs of a river barge.

It’s possible to hire these barges for a week or so and travel at the alarming speed of 4 miles per hour through the Surrey countryside. If I’m not mistaken, the Wey River links up with the Thames at some point, so one could make it a two week trip at that speed. The boats come in different sizes and can sleep up to 12 people, if memory serves me right.

English: View From Guildford Castle Photograph...

English: View From Guildford Castle Photograph taken from the viewpoint, in front of Guildford Castle Keep, in the direction of Guildford Cathedral. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information about Guildford Castle, please visit http://www.guildford.gove.uk/article/7576/History-of-Guildford-Castle

or contact Guildford Museum directly on heritageservices@guildford.gov.uk

(source of photographs: Wikipedia; source of animation: heathersanimation.com)

Romantic, even by German Standards


English: Heidelberg Castel and Bridge, Germany.

English: Heidelberg Castel and Bridge, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to imagine anything more romantic than Schloss Neuschwanstein, Mad King Ludwig’s dreamy castle in Bavaria, but for my money, Schloss Heidelberg comes a close second and is far more steeped in “real” history, having grown organically over centuries.

Frankly, Neuschwanstein is a “Johnny-come-lately” among Germany’s plethora of castles, dating back only to 1869.

Ever since the football world cup took place in Germany in 2006, it seems the world has suddenly remembered what an amazingly beautiful country Germany actually is.

In the years prior to the 2006 Soccer World Cup there were virtually no travelogues published in the UK’s Sunday papers on holiday destinations in Germany – with the exception of Christmas markets and trips down the Rhine river, which were typically availabel as coach tours for the elderly.

However, the football coverage on worldwide TV came clearly as a revelation to many people and ever since then there has been a marked increase in international tourism.

English: Heidelberg at Night from the castle

English: Heidelberg at Night from the castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re planning a visit to Germany next year, be sure to put Heidelberg on your list. August and September are particularly good months to visit, as the Heidelberg Castle Festival takes place in August, which is followed by even more celebrations in September, when the Heidelberger Herbst (Heidelberg’s Autumn Festival) is in full swing.

Much of Baden Württemberg is wine-growing country, a fact aptly honoured by many wine festivals throughout the autumn.

The most convenient airport to fly into is Stuttgart. Go down to the lower ground floor, where the metro train station is located and buy a Länder train ticket for the Federal State of Baden Württemberg, which is the cheapest way to travel.

These tickets come as “singles” (for one traveller) and “group” tickets, where up to 5 people can travel on the same ticket during a 24 hour period.

Deutsch: Heidelberger Schloss (Teilansicht, innen)

Deutsch: Heidelberger Schloss (Teilansicht, innen) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the metro train from the airport to Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and board one of the many regular train services to Heidelberg. The journey time is roughly 45 minutes from Stuttgart to Heidelberg and 30 minutes from the airport to the main train station. A taxi also takes 30 minutes to arrive, but is naturally far more expensive.

Heidelberg Schloss Plan, 1888.

Heidelberg Schloss Plan, 1888. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Heidelberg is located approximately 130 km from Stuttgart and is home to Germany’s oldest university and one of its most stunning castles. Unfortunately, the 30-years war took its toll on Heidelberg in 1622, when most of the ancient city was erased and then demolished again, when French troops invaded Germany in the late 17th century.

Still, Heidelberg has plenty of amazing architectural treasures left to see and is regarded as one of the country’s most romantic places to visit.

Thanks to its 32,000 plus students the city has more pubs, bars and clubs than a tourist could possible manage in a week’s pub crawl. Heidelberg is very touristy and rather expensive, but the city at the Neckar River is a tourist destination not to be missed by anyone exploring the country’s many castles.

Schloss Heidelberg (Castle Heidelberg) sits on a forested hill called the Königstuhl (literally the king’s throne) overlooking the Neckar and has its own museum, cafe, garden terraces and spectacular views to offer.

Deutsch: Schloss Heidelberg Schlosshof D-69117...

The Gothic-Renaissance fortress may be largely in ruins, but its magnificence can still be seen today. Initially it started life as a much smaller castle, built around 1214. Some king moaned about it being far too small to home his troops – who were forced to camp outside – so later the original castle was turned into two castles, built around 1294 and eventually combined into one large castle complex in the intervening centuries.

Heidelberg Castle as seen from the bridge

Heidelberg Castle as seen from the bridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was at one point home to a branch of the house of Wittelsbach, the Bavarian royal family and its oldest recognisable parts date back to the 13th century, when building works began for the castle complex as seen today.

Most of what is left now are actually remnants from 1693, after the castle had been rebuilt and destroyed again, but there are still plenty of 14th century examples of architecture around.

When viewed from the Old Town below, the castle’s red sandstone stands out and dominates the hilly landscape – but standing in the castle courtyard overlooking the river and the city is frankly breath-taking.

The Castle above the Old Stone Bridge

The Castle above the Old Stone Bridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I visited during the hottest summer ever recorded in Germany (July 1983), when there wasn’t even the slightest breeze drifting up from the river and sun worshippers lined the embankment in their thousands – mostly in the nude, which was rather foolhardy, given that sun factor 50 is about the highest one can buy and delicate “cheeks” were left mainly unprotected against the sun’s rays.

At 9 am the thermometer had already climbed up to 47 degrees Celsius and by mid-day it was 49 degrees Celsius. It was so hot that scampering about in the castle complex was incredibly strenuous and had to be interrupted by frequent rests to drink gallons of mineral water. I remember virtually falling asleep when leaning against a wall and snatching a little shade. Girls from the cool Baltic climate simply can’t cope with African temperatures at the Neckar River!

Marienstatue und Schloss Heidelberg

Marienstatue und Schloss Heidelberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With its impressive Pulver Turm at the eastern side of the entry (where the gun powder was kept = the tower actually exploded) and a viewing terrace overlooking the river, its Grosses Fass (an enormous 18th century keg allegedly capable of holding more than 220,000 litres) and its contrasting Kleines Fass, which is neither small nor less impressive, there are enough tourist attractions here to keep you riveted all day.

In addition, Schloss Heidelberg is home to the Deutsches Apothekenmuseum, the German Pharmaceutical Museum. Anyone interested in the origins of European pharmacy and “witch doctors” of days gone by should definitely pay a visit to this fascinating museum.

Since Heidelberg is one of those places that does get plenty of international visitors, you’ll be able to get an English-language guide and map.

You can reach the castle either on foot from the Old Town, using a path that runs along the eastern side of Karlsplatz, past the statue of Goethe (that bloke of Faust fame) and a nice fountain.

The walk takes around 10 minutes, but is quite steep, as you’re climbing more than 200 ft. upwards.

If walking through the ancient cobbled streets has left you somewhat footsore, you can also take a ride up the hill on the funicular railway that starts from lower Kornmarkt.

Deutsch: Die Stadt Heidelberg

If you’re into fairies and Brother Grimm, stay on the funicular and travel up to the TV tower on top of the hill, where you’ll be greeted by the Fairy-Tale Park, where small kids will have a wonderful time seeing some of their favourite fairy-tale characters come to life.

Kornmarkt Schloss Heidelberg

Kornmarkt Schloss Heidelberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some useful English-language websites with more information:

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

http://www.visit-heidelberg.com/tours/castle.htm

http://www.tourism-heidelberg.com/explore/historical_sights/schloss_heidelberg/index_eng.html

http://www.heidelberg-marketing.de/content/heidelberg_for_/families_and_children/trips/index_eng.html

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com, source of photos Wikipedia)