Lobster – Maine’s fabulous food feast!

Lobster eating in New England

Lobster feast in New England

I’m missing Maine and its luscious lobsters after holidaying in New England over the last fortnight. It took just a couple of days for me to become addicted to the bright red crustaceans!

During the vacation I enjoyed six large boiled lobster dishes as well as lobster rolls for lunch and an American-style lobster pizza.

‘Lobster and fries’ is like ‘fish and chips’ in England – eponymous and almost as cheap. So it’s no wonder I’ve been guzzling down these delicious sea creatures during my trip to Maine.

I’ve been back in England a mere 24 hours and already I’m suffering from ‘LWS’ or ‘lobster withdrawal syndrome’.

Lobster capital of the world

Lobster fishing shack

Lobster fishing shack – Mount Desert Island

Maine is king when it comes to lobsters. It produces a staggering 90% of the USA’s lobsters.

That, of course, means that everywhere you go along Maine’s coast you’ll see a profusion of lobster pots, baskets and buoys.

There’s a huge cottage industry of lobstermen with their small fishing boats.

It’s all down to the state’s cool waters and rocky sea floor which lobsters love. They also adore the wealth of sea food to eat from mussels and crabs to starfish and sea urchins.

The Gulf of Maine seabed is home to ‘Homarus Americanus’, one of 30 species of clawed lobster in the world.

They’re fascinating creatures which are faster than you might think. They can travel up to four miles a day. If threatened, they can flip themselves backwards up to 25 feet with their strong tails!

Lobsters are naturally a dark green-brown colour but only turn bright red when they’re cooked.  This is where I started to get interested in them.

Inside the lobster shack

My first lobster experience on this trip was just over the border in  Massachusetts at Rockport, also renowned for its seafood.

It was here that I discovered the joys of the lobster shack – a simple affair where the setting is cheap ‘n cheerful but the food is divine.

Lobster shack in

Roy Moore’s lobster shack in Rockport

Don’t be put off by the shacks’ basic appearance. They may not be fancy but locals tell me that this is where you’re guaranteed to get the best lobsters fresh from the adjacent quayside.

As you drive up the coast into Maine there are lobster shacks on every street corner and harbour front.

Although these are essentially no frills joints, there are plenty of culinary thrills as this is some of the best and freshest lobster you can taste on the planet.

Lobster shack

The Lobster Pound at Boothbay Harbor

There’s nothing better that a fresh lobster, boiled and then served straight from the pot in its shell. It must be one of the healthiest meals in terms of avoiding dodgy food hygiene because the live lobster is cooked and instantly served inside its shell.

When you arrive, there’s a chance to select your own live lobster from the salt water tanks where the live critters are swimming around.

I felt a bit guilty looking at them with their large ‘crusher’ claws held together with elastic bands to stop them biting.

At first, I found this experience a bit weird - we’ve become so far removed from food production that anything that isn’t served up in cling-film packs from a supermarket seems somehow primitive.

But here’s a chance to meet what you’re eating before it’s plunged into boiling water so you can eat it!

Lobster eating in New England

Selecting your lobster – Bar Harbor

Seeing the live lobster dangling its claws in front of you and being weighed ready for your consumption seems cruel at first. But after a while, I found myself feeling strangely at one with nature.

It helps that the Maine lobster industry is well-regulated to prevent the depletion of the crustacean population. The lobsters cannot be taken for eating until they’re at least seven-years-old.

There’s also protection for pregnant females and young lobsters. They must also be a minimum and maximum size before they can be caught.

This may not appease vegans but at least it’s a transparent trade – and the lobsters do get to live into their mature years.

Stuffed lobster in Maine

Stuffed lobster

However, I’ve also read that without fishing or predation, lobsters can occasionally live up to 100 years and grow to a massive 40-50 pounds in weight!

Choosing the lobster is also a fine art.

They’re graded by size but in my opinion the mid-sized 1.5 pounders are both meaty and sweet, the best of the catch.

Posh restaurants tend to prepare the lobsters for you and often serve them stuffed in the shell with other seafood or with a Lobster Newburg sauce which contains cream, sherry, cognac and butter.

There’s also a difference between hard and soft-shelled lobsters.

The lobster molts (sheds) and regrows its shell every so often so a newer shell is softer. The soft variety, which have recently molted, are slightly sweeter if you like that style of meat.

My favourite lobster shack was Thurston’s at Bernard on Mount Desert Island which has the yummiest lobsters of all the places we visited.

I picked a 1.5 pounder from the tank. This was a hard shell variety jam-packed with succulent meat especially in the main claws and tail.

Totally delicious with a simple salad, butter, and bread roll, washed down with a glass of Chardonnay.

Overlooking Bass Harbor, you can sit on the terrace or deck watching the lobster boats go by. The whole sea is a mass of colourful lobster buoys to which nets are attached for catching the crustaceans.

Lobster pots

Lobster pots in Bass Harbor

Breaking the shell

Having got your order sorted at the lobster shack, breaking into the shell is a fine art.

The shack will issue you with full instructions plus a plastic bib so you don’t go home covered in lobster juice!

Lobster meat is healthy – it’s highly nutritious, rich in vitamins. packed with and Omega 3 fatty acids and low in cholesterol. It’s better for you than chicken or beef because its meat is virtually fat-free.

Lobster eating in New England

How to eat a lobster

As a Maine lobster virgin, I was ready to battle the hard shell with the traditional lobster implements – the nutcracker ‘cruncher’ and the picker.

I’ve only ever eaten pre-prepared lobster in the UK (probably frozen) so having to crack open a fresh lobster was quite a challenge.

Put on the plastic bib provided by your host - you will need it because eating a whole lobster is a messy affair that requires using your fingers and special lobster cutlery.

The first thing is to identify which bit is which on the lobster.

The big shredder and crusher claws are the tasty bids but you need to work on them with the pincher to remove the finest, sweetest meat.

The trick is to break off the claws and grab the tastiest meat first. Then snap off the end tail and work the tail meat out from inside the shell. This is my favourite piece, full of succulent pink flesh.

The hairy legs and feet have only a small amount of meat in them so it’s best to break them off and suck the meat out a bit like using a straw. Probably not the best choice for a romantic date!

Lobsters in Maine - Thurston's shack

The top claws and rear tail are the best bits of the lobster

I’m least keen on the top section of the lobster – the ‘carapace’ or large backplate. I find this meat rather rough-textured and hairy.

If you’re hardcore, eat the green ‘gunk’ at the head of the carapace. It’s actually the lobster’s liver and pancreas – and it’s called tomalley.

This is regarded as a delicacy but many folk discard it, as I did the first time.

Later, I tried it properly – and started to get a taste for a small helping of it but I wasn’t 100% convinced! There can also be red eggs or roe inside part of the lobster.

This is called coral and many people also see this as a delicacy, a bit like caviar.

After a few more shack trips, I was becoming an expert of sorts – in cracking a lobster. But my final crustacean at Thurston’s proved to be tricky with its extra prickly claws and extremely knobbly body.

A heavy dollop of lobster juice which shot into my wine glass livened up the whole experience.  I think that I also squirted the owner’s dog Daisy who was sitting nearby, but didn’t seem bothered by what is probably a regular experience!

I also cut my finger on one sharp section of claws which reminded me that even cooked lobsters can bite back. Ouch!

Lobster eating in New England

Lobster shack warning sign!

Everything lobster

Maine’s obsession with lobsters is absolute so this isn’t perhaps the best culinary destination for vegetarians. But if you like seafood, this is the place for you!

Thurston's lobster shack in Bernard

Thurston’s lobster shack in Bernard

During early August there’s the week-long Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland with cooking contests, parades and culinary delights.

One ice cream restaurant in Bar Harbor called Ben and Bill’s boasts Lobster Ice Cream which has become a cult favourite.

Despite my lobster cravings, even I thought this was a step too far!

Maggie’s in Bar Harbor boasts lobster crepes with French brandy sauce.

Sadly there was a power cut when I visited the harbour so I didn’t get the chance to try this highly recommended restaurant.

Personally, I’d rather eat my lobster without any sugary sweet concoctions!

Lobster gifts

Lobster pot and gifts in L.L. Bean

Lobsters are omnipresent in Maine – wherever you go there are lobster signs, cuddly toys, crustacean imagery and gifts featuring the large, red creatures.

The paraphernalia of the lobster industry is everywhere you look from small boats to huts and steameries.

There are reckoned to be 6,000 lobstermen in Maine so it’s easy to spot them hauling up their baskets in most harbors and bays.

Each has his or her own particular territory, marked with their own distinctive, coloured buoys.

Buoys

Lobster buoys

Lobster tales

It’s hard to avoid the lobster in Maine – it’s the quintessential symbol of the state, emblazoned on everything from bumper plates to roadside signs.

Lobster shacks are like kebab shops in England – there’s one on every street or harbour front. The tell-tale sign is a large vat of steaming water!

Steaming lobsters

Steaming lobsters

Local newspapers and magazines are also jam-packed with lobster-related stories.

I spotted one Mount Desert Islander newspaper front page had a large photo story about the so-called “rarest of rare” lobsters – the yellow lobster.

It turns out that one was recently caught in Frenchman Bay in Acadia by the aptly named ship the Starfish Enterprise!

The yellow colouration only occurs in one in 30 million lobsters so you can imagine the local excitement. Fortunately for this lucky specimen, it was returned to the seabed rather than ending up on a dinner plate.

Super sea food

Lobster is a delicacy in the UK so eating this delicious crustacean is a complete treat. A bit like Roast Turkey or a three-stuffed game bird at Christmas.

In New England, it’s everyday food – and its super-cheap and available on tap.

Only a few UK restaurants feature the dish on their menu but generally they serve the frozen variety – and the lobsters tend to be very small and over-priced.

But Maine is very different. Here in New England you could live like a king and eat lobster every day. It’s the lobster kingdom of the world – and I want to come back for more.

Time to get cracking on planning my next trip to the ‘lobster coast’!

Tammy’s top tips - Maine’s lobsters

Tony with lobster

Tony with lobster at Thurston’s in Bernard, Maine

Maine is located about 90 minutes drive from Boston on the USA’s eastern seaboard.

Why not hire a car and take a leisurely drive up the coast to Boothbay Harbour or Mount Desert Island? Visit Maine has essential travel information about the area and where to stay.

The best lobster spots are seafront towns like Bar, Bass and Boothbay Harbors where you’ll find a mix of top end, mid-priced and cheaper restaurants serving fresh lobsters.

These towns are also great hubs in terms of places to stay overnight. Boothbay Harbor is a lively town with plentiful accommodation.

We stayed at the Tugboat Inn but there are several larger hotels such as Beach Cove Waterfront, Boothbay Harbor Inn and Cap ‘n’ Fish Waterfront.

The Tugboat Inn Maine

The Tugboat Inn at Boothbay Harbor

If you’re staying in a self catering cottage, why not trying boiling your own lobsters. There are many outlets serving live lobsters including Parsons in Bar Harbor in Mount Desert Island.

Don’t forget that you’ll need to have a lobster pot and a recipe!  Cooking time is approximately 15 minutes.

Watch this ‘how to cook a lobster’ video on YouTube from two quirky-looking experts from Maine!

Here’s a few local shack suggestions from my travel blogger colleague Maine Travel Maven.

Lobsters are best served with fries, salad, ‘pulled’ butter, corn on the cob or a plain bread roll. Keep it simple!

Lobster eating in New England

Tammy – dressed for lobster eating in Maine

 

Tour de France in Yorkshire – Britain goes cycle crazy

Tour de France Yorkshire

The Tour de France hits Yorkshire

The Tour de France in Yorkshire has got everyone in Britain going crazy for cycling. The nation has fallen in love with bikes in a big way.

Standing by the roadside at East Witton on the opening stage of this year’s Tour in Yorkshire is like a surreal dream. I never thought that I’d see Le Tour in Yorkshire during my lifetime.

Ten years ago the definition of a British cycling fan was someone who had a niche interest in the sport who was prepared to battle the weather in very small numbers to watch their heroes.

Over the last 15 years we travelled to France where we were often the only British cycle supporters. Back home we shivered on roadsides watching the Tour of Britain with a handful of cycle buffs.

Tour de France

Le Tour de France in France

It was easy to rub shoulders with Mark Cavendish in a sleepy French village after a sprint win. You could even share gossip with Bradley Wiggins next to the team bus at the start of a Tour stage.

But after Olympic success in the velodrome and two consecutive Tour de France winners in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, British cycling has become as big as it is on the continent.

It seems almost unthinkable but this revolution in cycling has proved that Britain can be a big player in the cycling world. And I’m loving it!

Roadside view 

Tour de France Yorkshire

Knitted cycle jersey from Yorkshire

We’ve been planning our trip to ‘Le Tour’ in Yorkshire for months in common with many British cycling fans.

Being there on the first stage of this year’s race was never in doubt – and we knew that the camper van had to be part of the experience.

The excitement was building as we drove down to North Yorkshire the night before the race . The Tour was less than 12 hours away and we couldn’t wait to see how Britain’s hot favourite Chris Froome would fare in a competitive field.

There was also the added bonus of the Manx flyer, Mark Cavendish, sprinting for the green jersey on home territory. The race couldn’t have been closer to home – it was going right past Cav’s mum’s house in Harrogate.

Tour de France Yorkshire

East Witton goes Tour crazy

When we arrived, it was amazing to see how Yorkshire had responded to the Tour. In East Witton the whole village was covered in bunting and yellow Tour bikes.

Later in the day, I spotted a pet dog from the village wearing a red and white polka dot King of the Mountains T-shirt!

Dog in Tour kit

Dog in Tour kit amongst the revellers

In the thick of it

The trick, of course, with the Tour is always getting close to the action and battling the crowds and road closures.

So we arrived early on Friday night at The Blue Lion, an olde worlde gastro pub in East Witton, North Yorkshire. The pub has the charm of an old style hostelry with top class food.

Tour de France Yorkshire

The Blue Lion - the eve of the Tour

We’ve been regular diners at the pub for several years so it seemed like the ideal place to watch the action unfold – whilst enjoying the food and drink experience!

The night before the Tour we enjoyed great traditional English food including a giant haunch of venison and halibut in a cream sauce prefaced by a very French confit of duck.

Paul Klein, who runs The Blue Lion, once again, showed himself to be the host with the most! The pub had – like most of the village – themed up its rooms with a Tour style.

Tour de France Yorkshire

The Blue Lion gets giddy for Le Tour

The Tour in Yorkshire

On the day of the race, the Blue Lion couldn’t have been in a better spot to watch the spectacle of Le Tour coming through the village. The race came right past the pub’s door!

There’s a real sense of occasion when Le Tour hits your village. Little East Witton got 100% into the party spirit with roadside parties, marquees and fan mania!

Tour de France Yorkshire

The Blue Lion - ready for the cycling action

After a great pub dinner the night before the race, we were early to grab a prime pitch to watch the race come through.

We selected our perfect pitch by the roadside at the top of a climb before the cyclists hit the village. A couple of camping chairs and glasses of wine eased us into the French spirit.

Nearby a few locals had chosen to go the ‘full French’ with black berets. Others were waving national flags or – in my case- waving noisy rattles!

Tour de France Yorkshire

Tammy on her roadside Tour pitch

Like Le Tour de France in its home land a caravan of floats came through first as an ‘amuse bouche’ for the main event.

Ever hopeful I looked out for flying giveaways thrown from ther floats but small children were more agile than us grabbing the free goodies!

Then an army of Tour cars, outriders and even half of the French gendarmerie leading out the riders!

It was brilliant to see the leaders chasing up front and the peloton holed up a few hundred metres behind is a sight to behold.

The French coppers lead the way!

After much waiting around, a strange hush descended on the village as there were murmurings that the race was only 10 minutes away.

The excitement built. This was the moment we’d all been waiting for – the Tour in East Witton for goodness sake!

As the first riders emerged, we struggled to work out who was in the lead but the ever-reliable BBC website commentary confirmed that had been a break away group of three riders.But the peloton had hunted them down and was taking control.

The peloton

The peloton race by

By the time they reached the our village the peloton were in control of the race.

Meanwhile the crowds were going crazy. One group were hoisted above the hedges and fields on a tractor extendor arm or ‘cherry picker’. What a great view!

Locals in East Witton

High living during the Tour in East Witton

The peloton flies by

After much waiting around the riders were just around the corner, having wrestled with two steep climbs at Buttertubs Pass and over the moors.

Tour de France Yorkshire

The riders arrive in East Witton

As they appeared coming up the hill, trying to pick out individual riders was tricky. They fly by so quickly that they’re gone in the flash of a blinking eye.

Was that Chris Froome I spotted in the Team Sky jersey? He was so well-protected by his team mates that he was hard to see.

There was also a small group of back markers preceded by a man with a broom. Was that Fabian Cancellara near the back of the race? The shame of it!

Although it’s a great thrill being at the live event, it’s much easier to spot what’s going on when you’re watching on TV!

The race flies back too quickly but there’s a real sense of being in a place where history was being made.

Tour de France Yorkshire

Blink and they’re gone…

Who would have dreamed the Tour de France would come through the tiny village of East Witton?

After the bikes whizzed through the village at great speed there was a gulp of amazement. Le Tour in Yorkshire – the unthinkable had become a reality!

There were gone in less than a minute.

We headed down to the village green to watch the final stages of the race unfold on a giant screen.

Tour de France Yorkshire

Watching on the big screen

Germany’s Marcel Kittel was the eventual victor of the stage when it reached Harrogate but the real winner was British cycling despite Mark Cavendish’s horrendous crash on the final sprint.

The Tour in Yorkshire was a true tour de force!

Tammy’s top tips for Le Tour

Tour de France

Tour de France

The Tour de France continues through Britain on stages 2 and 3 of the race in Leeds, Cambridge and London between 5-7 July before heading back to France for the main section of the race.

The race reaches its climax in Paris on 27 July 2014. Book your place for the grand finale on the Champs Elysees for one of sport’s great spectacles.

For more tips about the Tour de France in France read Tammy’s top travel tips. Watch out for road closures and grab your pitch early.

Follow the route of the Tour de France in Britain and France.

Tour de France Yorkshire

Tammy goes on Tour in Yorkshire

Best of all is getting into the Tour spirit, something that Yorkshire embraced brilliantly as one million people turned out to support the race on its Grand Depart.

What an event and what an amazing achievement in Britain!

If you’re going to the rest of the Tour, don’t miss the crazy carousel which precedes the main cycling event.  It’s a blast with its crazy rabbits, gyrating dancers, loud klaxons and mad floats.

The Tour caravan

The Tour caravan

 

 

The Human Factor at London’s Hayward Gallery

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 14/6/2014.

Bear and Policeman by Jeff Koons - The Human Factor. Photo by Linda Nylind

There’s a real buzz around the Hayward Gallery’s Human Factor show – quite literally. A sculpture of a woman with a hive of bees sitting on her head is buzzing with activity on the outdoor terrace.

Standing a little close for comfort, I backed off this remarkable work which is one of many challenging pieces in the Hayward’s highly entertaining summer sculpture show. 

There’s an unsettling feeling throughout the exhibition with figures such as Jeff Koon’s grizzly bear hugging a policeman, Yinka Shonibare’s headless ballerina brandishing a gun and Thomas Hirschhorn’s disturbing shop window dummies.  

Spanning 25 years the Human Factor  looks at contemporary artists who have used the human body as a means of exploring concerns about everything from consumerism to politics.

Uncanny figures

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 14/6/2014.

Thomas Schutter’s battling figures. Photo by Linda Nylind

Step inside the first gallery and you’re confronted by two large wooden totems by Thomas Schutter. Look closer and you’ll see that they’re intent on taking large chunks out of each other’s bodies.

It’s one of the many works in the show with an underlying message. Here we have the brutality of man against his fellow man.

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.

Falling Woman by Weisz.
Photo - Linda Nylind

These battle-ravaged warriors also have a certain mythic or folkorish quality as if they’re from The Lord of the Rings.

Hanging from the ceiling above is Falling Woman, a female figure hanging upside down wearing what looks like a strait-jacket or draped robes.

This powerful work by German artist Paloma Varga Weisz could represent a torture victim.

But its two-sided face with different expressions provides a degree of ambiguity which makes this a fascinating piece.

Confronting the work at close quarters is slightly unnerving.

I couldn’t make out if the figure had been dismembered or was engaged in a strange ritual.

Over in a nearby corner, the ambiguity continues with a group of slumped figures lying in a heap.

This bundle of figures is equally disconcerting and puzzling.

ALTHAMER, Untitled, 2006_1

Althamer’s Untitled c/o Neugerriemschneider Museum Berlin and Foksal Gallery Foundation

Pawel Althamer’s work is called Untitled and we’re left to make our own minds up about what happened to them and why their faces are masked.  Have they been kidnapped, murdered or imprisoned?

It’s unclear what to read into the work but it’s provocative and powerful.

Girl Ballerina (2007) by Yinka Shonibare. Photograph: Yinka Shonibare/Stephen Friedman and DACS

Girl Ballerina by Yinka Shonibare. Photograph: Yinka Shonibare/Stephen Friedman and DACS

So far so good. I was enjoying myself… 

As I moved on to the upper gallery space, there were a few less dramatic works which I skipped past because one exceptional work had caught my eye nearby.

British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s Girl Ballerina is a fascinating study in femininity which takes its cue from Degas’ famous ballerina statue. 

But this ballerina has a sting in her tail.

The headless figure wields a revolver behind her back as she poses in a typical ballet posture, all grace and perfection on the outside.

I love the way that the artist has subverted this archetypal feminine image.

In the same gallery, there were more explorations of femininity with a series of shop window dummies by Thomas Hirschhorn.

These were some of my favorite works in the show.

They pulled a mean punch. I loved the idea of the plastic mannequins being corroded and eaten away by society’s greed and rampant consumerism.  

In the impressive work, Resistance-Subjecter, the mannequins have been taken over by jagged crystalline shapes. 

Model mannequins

Frank Benson’s thoroughly modern mannequin of the Human Statue – Jessie also speaks volumes about the representation of women in modern society with its faceless figure striking a perfect pose.  

BENSON_Human Statue Jessie

Benson’s Human Statue (Jessie) c/o Sadie Coles HQ and Andrew Kreps Gallery New York

The model wears outsized sunglasses and there’s a sense of creating a modern-day version of a classical sculpture.

There are strong hints of Greco-Roman sculptures overlaid with present day technologies of wire frame modelling and robotic carving.

This bronze and polyurethane sculpture is a strange hybrid of classicism and hyperrealism.

Mannequins are a big theme across the two floors of the exhibition.

Downstairs you’ll find Isa Genzken’s android clubber decked out in outlandish clothing.

I wasn’t so struck by this work which was pretty average compared to the rest.

But it amused me when I read that the model is wearing clothes borrowed from Genzken’s own wardrobe.

What the hell must she look like when she goes out for a night on the town! To be fair, some of the items were fashioned from salvaged materials which the artist had assembled.

Apparently the choice of cheap or discarded materials reflects the artist’s concern with environmental issues and a horror and fascination with the excesses of contemporary urban life.

GENZKEN_Untitled, 2012_3

Genzken’s Untitled mannequin

It didn’t really work for me but Ryan Gander’s series of bronze sculptures  featuring the escaped figure of Degas’ ballerina (yes, her again) did engage me.

These pieces were rather good.

Legend has it that the artist first took his subject off her plinth for a cigarette break!

He then created further episodes in her rebellious ‘after life’ set in an art gallery.

As the sequence progresses, the ballerina shows her increasing independence and a lack of respect for art institutions.

My favourite work is a statue the ballerina staring at new horizons from a gallery window at the great wild world beyond the institution’s doors.  

 This is a kind of modern feminist version of the ballerina who has thrown off her shackles and escaped from being an object on a plinth.

The reflection of the gallery behind her adds to the sense of her claustrophobic life before her run for freedom.  

GANDER_Come up on different streets

Ryan Gander’s Absinth Blurs My Thoughts. Photo – Peter Hauk

Classic nudes

This exhibition boasts many images of women from hyper-realistic nudes courtesy of Paul McCarthy to Ugo Rondinone’s classical-style statues.

The three life-sized nude casts of Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (T.G. Awake) are super-real replicas of an actress sitting in a variety of postures on top of glass-topped trestle tables.

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 14/6/2014.

Paul McCarthy’s That Girl Photo by Linda Nylind.

Some of the works are almost gynecological in their attention to detail, provoking a slightly embarrassed reaction from some British tourists at the show.

These lovely looking works are made using life-casts in what the artist calls a desire to connect with “a fear of the virtual, the fear of being unable to discern a real human from a mannequin”.

Equally impressive are Ugo Rondinone’s classic-style series of nudes. These life-size figures are cast in wax from the bodies of young dancers.

Placed directly on the floor, the seated nudes are depicted with eyes closed, in a state of peaceful retreat and introversion.

Their placement around the edges of the gallery creates a sense of being inside the dancers’ studio.  It’s as if we’ve eavesdropped on them during their break.

They are frozen, timeless figures. It’s almost like we’ve burst in on a frozen performance and the floor as a stage.

RONDI36988 view01 Helicon a

Ugi Rondinone’s Dancer c/o Galleries Eva Presenhuber Zurich. Photo – Stefan Altenburger

Figure it out

Just in case you think that the male body has been missed out, you’ll be pleased to hear that the show has plenty of studies of masculinity.

BENSON_Human Statue, 2005

Human Statue by Frank Benson c/o Benson, Sadie Coles HQ and Andrew Kreps Gallery New York

Frank Benson’s Human Statue of a hyper-realistic toned male figure leaps out as you enter the upper galleries.

I like its perfect Adonis-like classical style with a modern twist.

In a similar vein is one of the best pieces in the show - an old favorite by British artist Mark Wallinger.

You’ll remember Ecce Homo from its appearance on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Now there’s a chance to see it at close quarters with its golden crown of thorns.

There’s something deceptively simple yet beautiful about this white marbelized statue. 

When Wallinger made this work, acts of genocide in Bosnia were very much in his mind.

According to the artist, Christ’s head is shorn because “that’s the kind of humiliation they doled out during ethnic cleansing -  it’s what the Nazis did to the Jews”.

There’s no denying that this is a powerful work when confronted close-up.

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.

Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo c/o Mark Wallinger 
Photo by Linda Nylind

The statue is just as resonant today, if not more so, with the current civil conflicts going on in Syria and Iraq.

CATTELAN, Him 2001

Him by Maurizio Cattelan c/o Cattelan Archive

Also with a political theme are two powerful and compelling works by Maurizio Cattelan.

Cattelan’s work is concerned with deception and deceptive appearances. Nothing is quite what it seems in his work.

His image of Hitler certainly deceived me as I approached it from behind, thinking it was a man praying.

As I moved around, I was shocked to see it was Adolph Hitler.

I wasn’t sure if Hitler was supposed to be praying for redemption or if  he was in a deep state of contemplation.

Another of his works – a life-size effigy of President John F. Kennedy lying in state – also plays with your mind.

Apparently Cattelan once dealt with real corpses when he worked in a morgue and he seems to have a fascination with mortality.

Perhaps these works have something to do with the ongoing fame and notoriety of these political figureheads in the media? 

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.

JFK – Now by Cattelan  - photo by Linda Nylind. Copyright of Cattelan Archive 

There’s plenty of figuring out to be done at this exhibition which is one of the things that makes it so intriguing.

A strange work called Skinny Sunrise by Urs Fisher featuring a skeleton on a park bench also puzzled the punters. This work also uses the theme of mortality but twists it in a playful way.

FISHER_Skinny Sunrise, 2000

Urs Fischer’s Skinny Sunrise c/o Fischer/Gallerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich  

Bees buzzing

Now this all brings me back to those buzzing bees I mentioned earlier.

Pierre Huyghe’s Liegender Frauenakt features a reclining female nude. The basis of the work is an existing sculpture that has undergone a transformation and evolution.

The original bronze sculpture, a classical work by the 20th Century Swiss sculptor Max Weber, has had a swarming beehive installed on its head.

pierre-huyghe-liegender-frauenakt-untilled-2011-2012-2012-installation-view-the-human-factor-hayward-gallery-2014-photo-linda-nylind

Pierre Huyghe’s Liegender Frauenakt - photo Linda Nylind

Pierre Huyghe has created a surreal hybrid between a man-made creature and a living organism. This strange metamorphosis is Kafkaesque.   

It’s one of the most diverting works in the exhibition – especially when the bees break loose from their subject! 

Elsewhere, there are a few ordinary works in the Human Factor show. But overall this is a dramatic and entertaining exhibition with a lot of compelling and provocative sculptures.

It certainly had me buzzing!    

Tammy’s top tips – The Human Factor

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.

Yinka Shonibare’s Boy on a Globe c/o the artist, Stephen Friedman and DACS. Photo by Linda Nylind

The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is on at Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London until 7 September 2014. Tickets are £10.90 for adults (concessions are available).

The nearest Tube station is Waterloo. Buses along Waterloo Bridge also stop next to the Hayward Gallery.

Also located nearby are Somerset House, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – if you’re looking to combine this show with another exhibition.

Credits – Photos are courtesy of Hayward Gallery, the artists and galleries as credited above.

ALTHAMER_Monika and Pawel

Pawel Althamer’s Monika and Pawel c/o Foksal Gallery Foundation

Ashington Miners’ Picnic – Northumberland’s rich heritage

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

There’s one strange thing you should know about the 150th celebration of the Ashington Miners’ Picnic in Northumberland.

Despite its title, there aren’t actually any miners at the event any more. Not any working ones, at least. Just a smattering of retired ex-miners and their families.

The picnic started 150 years ago when coal was king in South East Northumberland. In its heyday the picnic was a major event in the annual calendar with guests including national political and union leaders.

Today it has changed from being a day out for miners’ families and a political rally into a celebration of Northumbrian culture.

The reason is obvious – the dramatic rundown of coal mining in the North East of England led to the closure of mines in the region.

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

The Ashington Miners’ Picnic site

The modern miners’ picnic

This year’s Miners’ Picnic at Woodhorn Museum encompassed everything from a colliery brass band, morris dancers and Northumbrian folk music to a marquee with Geordie actors reading from The Pitmen Painters play.

Ashington Miners Picnic at Woodhorn

Ashington Miners’ Picnic - watching the colliery band

On the big outdoor stage it was slightly surreal to watch the Ashington Colliery Band when there’s no colliery any more.

Today they’re part of a new generation of musicians celebrating an old tradition with a few old members left to recall the days when coal was king in this community.

But it’s great to hear them in fine form, blasting out old favourites and new tunes. I think it’s important to preserve this tradition and keep it fresh.

Later in the day modern folkies The Unthanks and a local community choir played folk songs old and new as part of a project called The Big Sing.

Singer songwriter Glenn Tilbrook became an honorary northerner for the day performing songs from his Squeeze back catalogue as well as new solo material.

Glenn Tilbrook

Glenn Tilbrook joins the Picnic

When coal was king

As I watched the entertainment, I couldn’t help thinking about the ghosts of the past and reflect on what Ashington was like when coal was king.

South East Northumberland was once one of Britain’s biggest and richest coalfields.

Back in 1913, the Great North Coalfield employed almost ¼ million men, producing over 56 million tons of coal every year from about 400 pits.

Clocking on at Woodhorn Mine

Clocking on at the mine

Ashington developed from a small hamlet in the 1840s to a rapidly expanding colliery town with five pits employing around 5,500 men in the 1920s.

The boom in coal lead to the formation of the Ashington Coal Company who built the first miners’ houses from 1857 onwards. By the 1930s there were over 3,000 back-to-back miners’ terraces in Ashington.

Ashington School painting

Ashington School painting of terraced miner’s houses

Workers came from as far afield as Ireland and Cornwall to work down the pits in the South East Northumberland coalfield.

Pit cage

The pit cage

Ashington became a centre for the coal mining industry - it was considered to be “the world’s largest mining village”.

Miners at Woodhorn Colliery would descend from the pit head in a cage which plunged 888 feet into the deep mine every shift.

I don’t envy this scary daily journey to work!

At the pit face there’s no doubt that conditions were hard, dangerous and physically demanding.

A quick scan of mining accidents reveals some horrendous facts.

Hundreds of men injured or killed by stone falls or industrial accidents.

The youngest victim I spotted in the records was just 13-years-old whilst the oldest was 77-years-old.

Coal mining was dehumanising work in many ways but some would say that at least it was a job. And there was a very strong sense of community.

But the mining industry experienced a rapid decline and job losses in the 1970s and 1980s. Ellington Pit was the last deep mine in Northumberland but its closure was announced in early 2005.

Today the coal mining industry is virtually extinct in the North East of England with no deep pits left in production.

Woodhorn Mine sign

Pit notice about riding in the cage to the mine shaft

Many inhabitants spoke a distinctive dialect called ‘Pitmatic’ which was used by miners to communicate with each other when they were down the pit.

The language was part of the camaraderie of underground working in hot, noisy and cramped conditions. Many Pitmatic words were mining terms such as the term ‘corf-batters’,  the boys who scraped the coal out of filthy baskets.

‘Hoggers’ were shorts worn by miners underground. Other Pitmatic words also crept into everyday life including clag (to stick), clarts (mud), hacky (dirty) and progley (prickly).

Many of the words are still used today in Northumberland, some of the few remnants of the mining past. The mines have long gone and most pits have been reclaimed as country parks, industrial estates or wildlife reserves.

Hauxley Reserve

Hauxley mine is now a nature reserve

The big day out

A trip to today’s Miners’ picnic is a throwback to an earlier age. This is perhaps why I felt privileged to enjoy this week’s event because it continues in spite of the loss of the mining industry from Northumberland.

Traditionally the Miners’ Picnic was held on Bedlington High Street, up the road from Ashington. The highlight was a huge procession of banners and brass bands.

There were also food stalls, fairground rides and beauty queens from each local colliery in competition.

The Miners Picnic

An early Miners Picnic

There’s a wonderful early Ken Russell film of the Bedlington Miners’ Picnic from 1960 which captures the event beautifully. I’m still trying to locate a copy of this fabulous black and white film.

This colour amateur archive film provides a glimpse of the event back in 1964.

There’s also this Facebook page with interesting archive photos of the original Northumberland miners’ picnics.

Miners' banner

Miners’ banner

Today many of the mining banners are in the museum at Woodhorn.

Their colourful proclamations of unity and brotherhood echo down the corridors of the museum.

Today the Picnic is a more commemorative event with a Miners’ Memorial Service and performances by the last remaining brass bands and male voice choirs.

On the big stage this year’s Master of Ceremonies asked the crowd who’d been to the earliest miners’ picnic.

A woman raised her hand at the back of the park. She had been at the Ashington Miners’ Picnic 65 years ago in 1949.

What dramatic changes she must have witnessed in the fortunes of the mining industry over the course of her life time.

But it’s good to see so many young people at the event too, a sign that the area’s mining heritage will never be completely forgotten.

Today’s event seems to have come full circle with a big focus on the community’s roots, past and present. It still feels like this community is alive and kicking.

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

The pit buildings at Woodhorn

Today the pit heads, spoil heaps and mining buildings have long gone. In their place are monuments, memorials and museums to the North East’s industrial heritage.

Woodhorn Museum provides excellent displays of the mining industry, the people who worked in it and the life of a mining community.

There are loads of old mining buildings to look at from the mine shaft and winding mill to the old pit baths, now converted into an exhibition space.

The museum is excellent and raises a few laughs as well as looking at the harsh lives of the miners. Here’s one display which made me laugh – a bathing cubicle for the miners to clean themselves after their grimy shift down at the coal face.

Woodhorn Mine

Reconstruction of miners’ pit baths

Meet the Pitman Painters

One of the highlights of a trip to Woodhorn Mining Museum is the gallery featuring works by the Ashington Group of painters.

Dubbed the “Pitmen Painters”, this amateur art group was founded in 1934 by local Ashington miners.

Typical mining town

Pitman’v view of a typical mining town

After exhausting shifts at the Woodhorn or Ellington pits, the group started art appreciation classes at Ashington YMCA in their spare time.

The results of their labours provides a striking record of life in a mining town.

Pitman Pitman

Inside the mining workshop

The Ashington Painters captured life above and below the pit – the pit ponies, the miners working at the coal face and the men coming up exhausted after their shifts.

For the painters like Harry Wilson there was a great sense of self-expression: 

“When I paint as we do in our group, I have a feeling of freedom; here, I find an outlet for other things than earning my living; there is a feeling of being my own boss for a change, and with it comes a sense of freedom.” 

I love looking at the pitmen’s paintings in Woodhorn’s Gallery. A favourite is George Blessed’s Whippets which captures two miners with their beloved dogs.

Many of the paintings have a naive style but later works are more sophisticated and challenging. It’s a thrill to walk through this gallery of working class art.

Pit Yard marquee at Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Pit Yard marquee at Woodhorn Colliery Museum

One of my favourite moments at this year’s picnic was at the Pit Yard Marquee when actor Chris Connel recreated scenes from Lee Hall’s acclaimed Pitmen Painters play and read sections of this powerful true-life drama with actress Phillippa Wilson.

Both starred in the Broadway production of the play and Chris explained how they’d made the sometimes impenetrable Geordie language work for an American audience. A tricky feat!

Actor Chris Connel talks about The Pitmen Painters

Actor Chris Connel talks about The Pitmen Painters

I stayed on for the Northumbrian Dialect Society talk. I’d expected a dull lecture but it was a fascinating performance of writings and poems read by two charismatic locals.

I hadn’t expected to be so well-entertained. I was fascinated by Raymond Reed’s reading of poems, largely in the Pitmatic style.

It brought home to me how important it is to remember your roots.  A bit like the Ashington Miners’ Picnic.

The past is a foreign country but it’s still good to visit it from time to time.

Tammy’s travel tips

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Museum is 15 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne near Ashington in South East Northumberland. Admission is free (car parking charge is extra).

It is located at Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland. The museum is open 10-5 Wednesday – Sunday (plus Monday & Tuesday in school holidays and Bank Holiday Mondays).

A visit to the museum can be combined with a trip to Queen Elizabeth Country Park and a trip on the Woodhorn narrow gauge railway (entrance fee).

The small train travels from Woodhorn through the QEII Country Park to the north end of the lake. The train operates on Saturdays and Sundays 10am – 2.30pm plus Bank Holidays. 

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Railway

The Ashington Miners’ Picnic takes place annually in mid June at Woodhorn Museum. During the picnic a free shuttle bus service is provided from Ashington Bus Station to Woodhorn Museum.

Look out for the forthcoming Ashington Colliery Heritage Trail, due to open later in 2014, which will celebrate mining history including the site of an underground access tunnel to the old mine workings.

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Museum and Ashington Miners’ Picnic

 

The West Frisian Islands – Holland’s northern wilderness

Frisian Islands

Horses on the Frisian Islands

The West Frisian Islands are Holland’s wildest and most remote travel destination. They are what you might call ‘the back of beyond’.

You can’t get much further north than this archipelago of islands which form a chain off the tip of Holland in the Wadden Sea.

The islands are on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list which instantly attracted me to them.  I love remote islands so this was an essential trip, even though it required careful planning.

Time and tide

Frisian Islands

Moving landscape – the West Frisian Islands

The history and landscape of the Frisian Islands (Waddeneilanden) has been shaped by the sea.

The West Frisian Islands are the remains of an ancient sandbank, a remnant of the last Ice Age. For centuries the sea has been eroding the islands’ sandy edges.

Several islands have been abandoned to the elements including Griend and Rottumeroog, a testament to the wild and unpredictable nature of this habitat.

It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the landscapes became more stable with the building of dikes.

Our main destination was Schiermonnikoog, one of the largest of the islands, recently voted the prettiest place in Holland.

The island also boasts the broadest beach in Europe. Visions of beach combing, sea birds and sand castles filled our heads as we travelled north.

Going to the northern edge

We drove from Amsterdam in a camper van, breaking our trip in Enkhuizen before driving to Holland’s north coast, a trip which took another couple of hours

We knew that getting onto the island would mean abandoning the van at Lauwersoog ferry port because no cars are allowed on Schiermonnikoog, other than those belonging to islanders.

Time to deploy the bicycles and outdoor gear.

After a surprisingly calm crossing in very windy weather, we arrived on the island after a short 40 minutes cruise.

It looked as wild as we had hoped but the first thing that hit us was the wind!

Frisian Islands

Wild island

Rather like our own North East England coastline back home, this is a place that can be windy even on the brightest of days.

Cycling the short distance into the main village was a struggle because of the swirling cross-winds.

I looked like Nanook of the North, wrapped inside my furry jacket and hood,  as I battled with the larger gusts which nearly knocked me off my bike.

So we cycled further inland along a more sheltered route which took us along fields of birds including large flocks of Barnacle Geese and Lapwings.

Finally, I was able to look at the pretty scenery and nature without worrying about falling off the bike!

Grey Monk Island

We took a trip around the main village with its picturesque, quaint cottages. It’s like walking back 200 years with little of the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Time seems to have stood still here.

Its sleepy, gabled cottages date back to the 1860s although many newer properties have been added in a similar style.

Schiermonnikoog’s roots date back to the 1400s when Cistercian monks lived in Klaarkamp Abbey. In fact, the island’s name can be translated as ‘Grey Monk Island’.

When the monastery was dissolved, the island became the property of the wealthy Stachouwer family. For three centuries the island remained private property.

In the 1700s it was divided into villages and the street layout became more like it is today.

Schiermonnikoog village

Schiermonnikoog village

When the Stachouwer family sold the island, John Eric Banck, the new owner started planting the sand dunes with marram grass to stabilise them.

It’s easy to forget that the island is a changing, dynamic eco-system. Today you can walk or cycle along the dike which runs across the southern perimeter of the island.

But the largest village, Westerburen, had to be abandoned around 1725, when it became the victim of drifting sands and the encroaching sea. 

The island has moved 15 miles east since the Middle Ages as a result of ocean currents, tides, winds and ‘shifting’ dunes’. We should have guessed it would be windy!

The island’s colourful history takes in the Napoleonic War and Second World War because of its strategic location.

Frisian Islands

Old style houses on the Frisian Islands

When the Germans invaded the Netherlands during World War Two, the Wehrmacht occupied the island and heavily fortified it as part of the Nazi’s Atlantic defences.

On 11 June 1945 the island became the last part of Europe to be liberated from German occupation. It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like here under the Nazis.

On the beach

After a tour of the town and its history, it was time to hit the beach for lunch – or at least that was the plan.

Soon it became obvious why there were so few people out and about. The beach was even windier than the harbour road.

My poor bike was getting blown around like a row of tottering nine pins in a bowling alley.

Frisian Islands

Wooded picnic spot

Undeterred we soldiered on, found some shelter on the inland bike paths which criss-cross the island – and even discovered the perfect picnic place.

To my great surprise, we managed to eat our sandwiches without getting too much sand in them.

We heard the sound of willow warblers in the low trees but even the birds had the good sense to have taken cover.

Frisian Islands

Life’s a beach

Back on the bikes we drove down to the main western beach, dismounted and walked the short distance over the dunes, only to be blasted by a ferocious wind tunnel.

Soldiering on, we admired the stark beauty and atmospheric landscape of this strange place but it was a struggle to walk against the wind.

There was nobody to be seen – perhaps we were the only people mad enough to venture out in the conditions.

As we enjoyed the solitude, we spotted a small horse-drawn carriage drawing towards us on the edge of the horizon.

Friesian ISlands

Horse-drawn carriage on the horizon

As it grew nearer and moved slowly along the edge of the Westerduinen, it was like a scene from a movie.

When it arrived, the covered wagon dropped off a party of tourists who huddled on the windy beach for a few minutes before remounting and continuing on their way.

The horses were a special, hardy breed with thick coats to protect them from bad weather. They needed to be in this wind!

Horses on Schiermonikoog

Horses on Schiermonnikoog

Windy and wild

The wind was getting a bit too much for us so we hopped back on the bikes and cycled inland where the wind was less gusty.

En route we popped into a bird hide at Westerplas overlooking a small lake but there wasn’t much action.

Frisian Islands

View from Westerplas bird hide

Even the normally rugged ducks, geese and waders had taken cover from the winds.

A flock of Barnacle Geese had sensibly flown onto a sheltered farmer’s field nearby, a scene reminiscent of rural Holland in an earlier century.

Friesian ISlands

Barnacle Geese on the fields

There were great views of these black and white striped geese from the Waddenzeedijk (Wadensee Dike) especially with binoculars.

Much of the island’s landscape is influenced by man’s intervention.  Even its salt marshes were turned into polders to create grassland and farmland and dikes were built to protect the land.

Frisian Islands

The dike – holding back the tides

Reflecting on the dynamics of this windy, ever-shifting landscape, I’d lost any sense of the time.

I was shocked to discover that we only had 20 minutes before we needed to get to the ferry for our return trip to the mainland.

We had to abandon plans to visit the Nordeduinen beaches with their impressive broad sands.

So it was back on the bikes and a ride through farming country, admiring the old farms strung along the flat Dutch landscape.

Frisian Islands

Bird paradise

One weird thing we discovered was that 100 people on the island speak a Frisian dialect called Skiermuntseagersk which isn’t dissimilar to Old English.

Looking at the words, there are bizarre similarities to Geordie, our local tongue back home.

For example, the Geordie word for child is bairn whilst the Frisian dialect version is bern. It seems that the Frisian people have an affinity with our own Northumberland culture!

I’d love to return and explore more of these islands on a future trip.

Schiermonnikoog is definitely a walk and cycle ride on the wild side. My teeth were still chattering when we got back to the port.

But this island is a remarkable places. It’s great for nature and wildlife - but next time I hope it won’t be quite as wild and windy!

Tammy’s top tips – Frisian Islands

Getting there

Schiermonnikoog is located on the West Frisian Islands off Holland’s most northerly coast. We took the DFDS Ferry from the UK to Amsterdam and drove north to Friesland, a journey of 3.5 hours.

Schiermonnikoog village

Schiermonnikoog village

The ferry to Schiermonnikoog runs from the village of Lauwersoog and the crossing takes 45 minutes. It’s a modern ferry with a cafe and facilities on board. No cars are allowed without a residents’ permit.

Tickets can be bought online or on the day at the ferry office. The ferries run two-three times each day in both directions during the spring, summer and early autumn.

Check ferry times before you plan your journey. The trip needs a full day. It’s possible to stay overnight in holiday homes and camp sites on the island.

Back on the mainland, there’s a small camper van site for overnight trips at Lauwersoog marina overlooking a pretty lake. There’s a larger motor home and camping site nearby called Lauwersoog Camping in the National Park.

Frisian Islands

Hire or take a bike

Before you go…

Don’t forget to buy a map of the island on the ferry. There is very little information in English but the map will give you the basics and enable you to get around.

The National Park website has the best information about the islands in English. Most local guide books are in Dutch.

Schiermonnikoog is only 9 miles across and 2.5 miles wide so it’s easy to get around It’s the perfect place to take bikes. The island has 20 miles of bike routes. Bike hire is available on the island.

Check out the Netherlands Tourism website for the bigger picture.

Frisian Islands

Restaurant in main village

Alternatively, there’s a bus from the ferry port to the village and the rest of the island, if you’re on foot.

The main village on Schiermonnikoog has a selection of shops, restaurants and cafes.

This is one of a number of the Frisian Islands that can be visited. Also look for trips to the islands of Ameland, Terschelling, Vlieland and Texel via Island Hopping ferries.

Schiermonnikoog is great for nature with its stunning array of flora including grasses, algae, mosses, flowers, plants and trees. Look out for guided walks across the fascinating tidal flats.

The island is a brilliant bird watching spot with spoonbills, egrets, avocets, terns, marsh harriers and lapwings. Its rich ecosystem boasts variety of habitats including wetlands, dunes, beaches, mud flats and bogs.

Look out for seals in the waters around the  islands.

Frisian ISlands

Tammy goes wild

 

Walking the Wannie Line railway

Wannie Line walk

Wannie Line walk

Walking the Wannie Line in the heart of some of England’s most beautiful and unspoiled countryside is a treat on a glorious summer’s day.

With lovely views of the Simonside Hills, I was puzzled how this picturesque country walk had remained a well-kept secret.

I discovered it by chance when I spotted a poster on a visit to Wallington in Northumberland last week.

I knew there’d been an old railway line in Rothbury but never realised you could actually walk the closed line.

So it was time to grab our ruck sacks, walking boots and a picnic lunch for a walk with a difference.

The Wannie Line

Walking the Wannie Line

Getting on track

Before leaving it was time to check out some local history. I was puzzled why a railway line was built in this remote location.

In the mid-19th Century railways were king and new lines sprung up all over Britain. Even rural Northumberland, with its farmland and sparse population, saw the arrival of the rail roads.

The Wansbeck or ‘Wannie’ Line opened in 1862 at the height of the steam age, running for 25 miles through Northumberland from Morpeth to Reedsmouth.

Wannie Line

The old railway route

Sir Walter Trevelyan, owner of Wallington Hall, was one of the driving forces behind the building of the railway with two of the lines crossing his estate. He saw the benefits of being better connected to the wider world.

The line was developed by the Wansbeck Railway Company, with backing from the Trevelyan and Ridley families plus Earl Grey.

Later it became part of the North British Railway, a long-forgotten name that conjures up images of railway’s golden age.

Trains steamed along the route, carrying Wallington’s stone, lime, coal and livestock as well as passengers.

Stations or halts along the way were located at the small towns and villages of Meldon, Angerton, Middleton, Scots Gap and Woodburn.

Even Charles Parsons, the steam turbine inventor, had his own private platform near his home at Knowesgate.

Wannie Line walk

The overgrown line today

Despite its early popularity, huge numbers of passengers never really flocked to the railway line.

There were only three daily trains between Morpeth and Rothbury whilst freight traffic was mainly agricultural or connected to local collieries and quarries.

Here’s a video about the historic railway made by BBC Look North a few years back.

Sadly, this rural service started to hit the buffers in the 1940s. The outbreak of World War Two resulted in a reduced service with only two trains a day.

Competition from car transport spelled the end for the Wannie Line and the passenger service was withdrawn in September 1952. The last goods train ran in 1966 from Morpeth to Woodburn.

Tammy on the Wannie Line

Tammy on the Wannie Line

Walk the line

With a head full of history, it was time to set off on the seven mile walk which takes you onto the Wannie and Rothbury lines.

We started the walk at the car park behind the former National Trust Regional Office at Scot’s Gap, 1 ½ miles north-east of Wallington on the B6343.

After walking along a short path, we dropped down some steps onto the Wannie Line itself.

The Wannie Line

The start of the Wannie Line

We walked along the old railway track until it split and then took the right fork onto the Rothbury line from which there are beautiful panoramic views from the top of the embankment.

As we strolled along the Rothbury Line we were struck by the tranquillity of the scene. Once steam trains would have thundered through several times a day but now there’s only the sound of birds and a gentle breeze.

A skylark soared overhead whilst willow warblers sang their trilling songs in the hawthorn bushes.

The Wannie Line

Top of the line

We carried on over two old bridges, the only signs that there was once a railway line running through this quiet countryside.

When we reached the Delf Burn we followed the route pinpointed by a waymarker which took us down off the line and along the burn.

Near here a tragic accident happened when a train with six passenger wagons and eight empty limestone trucks was derailed and crashed down the embankment in 1875.

Four people were killed including the guard and a mason who had just finished rebuilding nearby Rothley Lake House.

It’s so tranquil today that it’s hard to imagine such a scene of devastation.

The Wannie Line

Remnant of the rail age

Peace, tranquillity and bulls!

As we followed the path through the Delf Burn plantation, the countryside became wilder and even more beautiful.

A stream cut its way through the landscape with colourful wild flowers carpeting its banks including speedwell, greater stitchwort, forget-me-not and red campion.

It was a perfect, quiet glade with a plantation of trees along one side.

It didn’t look like many people had come through this area for a long time. It was like nature’s secret garden.

This is a brilliant place if you’re looking for solitude and relaxation. We didn’t see any other walkers on the trip in three hours. Not a single one.

Wannie Line walk

Babbling stream

As we left the plantation through a gate into a field, we got a bit confused about the directions as the signs temporarily ran out.

So we walked up the hill and through another gate until we reached a field full of young bulls. Crossing the field seemed like a good idea until the bullocks started to get excited.

A small stampede headed towards us. We retreated as fast as we could towards the stile at the end of the field.

It felt like a narrow escape. I had visions of newspaper headlines the next day – “Tammy Tour Guide trampled to death by bulls”.

The Wannie Line

The ‘bullock incident’

Tony assured me that the bullocks were just curious but the sight of 30 large males didn’t make me feel very confident!

Crossing over the stile we entered an old quarry, a strange, knobbly landscape with a group of old lime kilns.

Beneath the Wallington estate lies high quality limestone which is ideal for burning into lime for use in farming and other industries.

Lime kilns

Lime kilns

The quarry was once the main source of the estate’s limestone. Miners and workmen lived in cottages along the track at High Hartington. It’s thought that some of the lime was exported on the railway.

As we continued up a hill towards a small woodland, Tony was still in an intrepid mood, taking me across a large field of thistles and nettles.

For some reason, even the easiest of our walks seem to turn into Ray Mears-style adventures!

The Wannie Line

Tony tramples through the prickly thistles

I’m not sure that this was the route we were meant to take but eventually we found ourselves back on track.

By now, I was starting to get a little tired and sunburned. It was time for a picnic. Luckily, there was a perfect rock by a pretty stream just up ahead.

Picnic on Wannie Line walk

Picnic time

Charging ahead

Having recharged our batteries with sandwiches and cake, we continued onwards and eventually re-joined the old railway line after leaping over several stiles and kissing gates.

As we crossed the road at Rugley Walls, we dropped back down onto the old Wannie line and this section of the route appeared wilder. A belt of trees lined the way – and clearly they’d been planted after the railway closed.

The Wannie Line

The Wannie Line’s wild side

It’s an idyllic scene and it’s hard to believe that trains once steamed down this old, railway line. As we walked up onto a raised section of the old railway there were a couple of remnants of its past history.

A small furnace and two railway posts were amongst the only signs we’d seen of the railway’s working days.

As we finished the walk, it was interesting to look over the old railway bridge down to the old Scots Gap railway station.

The Wannie Line

The old Scots Gap railway station

The building has been changed considerably since the heyday of the railways but you can see part of the old station platform.

Sad really, but times change. I mourn the loss of the railways but you need people to sustain them in a rural area like Northumberland.

Today the railway could have been a tourism and heritage attraction but the lines are too grown over, the tracks torn up and the infrastructure has been lost.

Little remains of the railway and there’s not much to see of the stations or halts along the line.

The Wannie Line

Fragment of the The Wannie Line

The Wannie Line wasn’t even a victim of the Beeching cuts – it started its decline much earlier. But the history of the railway lives on and hopefully more people will discover its history.

So why not ‘walk the line’?

Although I’m not a railway buff, this walk along the two old rail lines is a fascinating trip back in time.

Wannie Line walk

Looking back at railway history

Tammy’s Wannie Line walk

The Wannie railway line can be walked as a seven mile circular route starting at Scots Gap in Northumberland. Allow about 3-4 hours for the walk.

There’s car parking at the old National Trust office in Scots Gap where the walk starts. Take an OS map or GPS and print-out of the railway walk. There’s also a map at the start of the route.

But the signposting is ‘hit and miss’ and runs out in places so an OS map is really important if you’re not going to get lost.

The Wannie Line

Start the Wannie Line at the National Trust office

Don’t forget to take the right kit – walking boots are a must together with bad weather gear in case things turn wet and windy.

Watch Tony’s video about the Wannie Line and its wildflowers.

If you’re a very energetic walker, you could opt for the linear walk from Scots Gap to Rothbury, a route of around 15 miles.

Picnic on Wannie Line walk

Get kitted out!

Other nearby attractions include Wallington Hall and gardens where you can visit the home of one of the Wannie Line’s backers, the Trevelyans.

As you drive over to the Wallington estate look out for several railway bridges which were once part of the Wannie and Rothbury railway lines.

Wallington - house and nature

Wallington Hall

 

Kielder Forest – top scenic drive

Kielder Forest Drive

Camper van on Kielder Forest Drive

On a clear day you can see forever when you reach the top of the Kielder Forest Drive in Northumberland with its mix of beautiful panoramas and woodland scenery.

It’s like being on the top of the world with its big skies and majestic landscapes.

The Forest Drive is a 12 mile stretch of gravel road which takes you through the coniferous forest and over the top of the moors and back down into farmland near Kielder Castle.

Fasten your seat belts, you’re in for a thrilling scenic drive!

Deep in the forest

We started our drive from the main entrance to the Kielder Forest Drive off the A68 at Blakehopeburnhaugh in the east.

There were very few cars around so for the early part of the route we had no company or crowds. We felt like adventurers as we drove through the dense conifer plantations interspersed with the occasional piece of open land.

A short way into the drive we pulled into a lay-by to have a look at a ‘stell’, an old sheepfold used by farmers for herding their flocks.

Kielder Forest Drive

‘Stell’ or old sheepfold at Kielder

Look out for deer and wild goats on the wilder sections of the route. Sadly we saw neither on this trip but if you’re lucky, you can spot these wild mammals lurking in the woods or ‘edge’ habitats.

Also gaze to the skies for a glimpse of an interesting selection of birds from buzzards to woodland specialists like siskin.

Look out over the pasture areas and moorland for meadow pipits, skylarks and swooping summer swallows zipping around.

Kielder Forest Drive

Go wild on the Kielder Drive

The forest drive takes you across one of England’s highest roads, peaking at over 1,500 feet at the barren moorland landscape of Blakehope Nick.

It’s here that you can pull in and take a look at the remarkable landscape. There are carpets of wildflowers at this time of year including the pink cuckooflower (commonly called ‘ladies’ smock’).

There was once an old wives’ tale that this flower should never be brought indoors because it can induce lightning strikes! Thankfully, there were no thunderstorms on our trip. 

We took a look at the interpretation board which gives you a sense of the wider locality. It suggests looking for cloudberry and bilberry although I didn’t spot either of these plants.

Cloudberry is a bush which likes mountainous and hilly habitats – it can survive extreme conditions and low temperatures. It can get pretty bleak in the winter up on the top of Kielder so it’s little wonder that it thrives here.

Kielder Forest Drive

Top of the moor

Top of the world

On the highest section of the moors it’s a bit like being on the top of the world, looking down on creation.

OK, this isn’t the Himalayas or even the Cairngorms but there is a certain wild pleasure from driving across this windswept landscape.

I love the local ridge names - Oh Me Edge is my favourite. Its bizarre name is thought to be a reminder of an old border feud between warring clans.

I can also recommend Blakehope Nick as a brilliant picnic spot. We parked up with stunning views in all directions and ate our bacon and eggs in the camper van.

Here’s Tony after his lunch feast wishing that he’d brought a bike to work off those calories on one of the park’s cycle tracks later in the day.

Kielder Forest Drive

Ideal picnic spot

But it’s not all pretty-pretty scenery. There are beautiful vistas but this is very much a working forest with logging and tree felling.

We came across an unusual, lunar landscape which came as a surprise but it’s a reminder that this isn’t just a pristine environment. The strange lumps and bumps are the result of quarrying as well as deforestation.

It’s a part of the ever evolving landscape of this forest. This isn’t just a place for tourists. It’s a living, breathing space.

Kielder Forest Drive

Lunar-looking landscape at Kielder

Birds and wildlife

After our picnic stop we drove on over the moors looking for the elusive red grouse which live on the tops of the hills.

But this bird is also a master of camouflage so none were spotted despite our eagle eyes and binoculars.

The final section of forest thins out slightly as a result of new tree planting and there are large swathes of small ‘Christmas’ tree’ sized conifers.

Kielder Forest Drive
New conifers at Kielder

Finally, we were back out of the woods and into a gentler, more rounded landscape with farms and domesticated animals like cattle and sheep.

One word of warning – look out for sheep sitting in the middle of the road!

As you descend towards the Kielder Castle visitor centre, there’s a feeling of returning back to the comfort of the lower lakeside and forest tracks.

Kielder Forest Drive

Wild drive

But this trip does feel a bit like a mini adventure.  I love an excursion in the hills and Kielder is one of the UK”s best kept wilderness secrets.

Northumberland National Park is amongst the quietest of all Britain’s protected landscapes. So why not take a drive on the wild side?

Tammy’s Kielder fact file

The Kielder Forest Drive is an unsurfaced 12 mile long road through remote countryside. It is located in northern Northumberland near to the English border with Scotland.

The Forest Drive is a toll road with a £3 fee which is payable at the toll machine at the Kielder Castle end of the route.

The Forestry Commission recommends driving carefully and keeping to the 20mph speed limit. So don’t even think about becoming a rally cross driver for the day!

There is little or no mobile phone coverage during the course of the drive.

Watch out for logging trucks during the working week. Remember this is a working forest.

The exposed section of the drive can be affected by extreme conditions but it’s generally OK in spring and summer.

Kielder Forest Drive

The long and winding road at Kielder Forest

Also worth seeing

Kielder Water and Forest Park is a massive recreation area with activities to suit everyone from sporty types to casual walkers and scenic ‘car tripsters’.

There are great days out for water sports lovers from sailing and canoeing to water skiing and fishing.

Kielder in Northumberland

Top of the park – Kielder in Northumberland

Don’t forget to strap your bikes on the back of your car or van as this is ideal cycling country. There are over 100 miles of traffic-free trails radiating from the trail hub at Kielder Castle. The trails cater for everyone from inexperienced cyclists to hardcore mountain bikers.

Bikes can also be hired from The Bike Place and Purple Mountain in Kielder.

Kielder is renowned for its public art trails and art installations. I can recommend a walk up to James Turrell’s Skyscape.

Skyscape at Kielder

True blue – Skyscape

The Skyspace is a circular room with a hole in the roof where the artist plays with the visitor’s perceptions of light and space.

The light changes as the sky above responds to the time of day, seasonal variations and different weather conditions.

James Turrell’s Skyspace is a one and half mile walk each way from the car park to the north of Kielder Reservoir.

Nearby is the Kielder Observatory with its programme of astronomy events. It boasts some of the best dark skies in Britain.

Another must for art lovers is the Maze at Kielder Castle… go inside this art work and see if you can find your way out!

Kielder art Maze

Kielder art Maze

Related posts - Tammy at Kielder Reservoir.

Ospreys return to Bassenthwaite in English Lakes

Osprey

The Osprey

This is my favourite season for wildlife because it’s the time of year when migrating birds head back to the British Isles. It also marks the return of the fabulous Osprey from Africa.

This thrilling white bird of prey is one of my favourite summer visitors. Not only is it a real stunner, it’s a superb hunter of fish and a very good parent.

Ospreys are spring and summer residents in the UK so a trip to look for early bird arrivals in the English Lake District was a treat this week.

The Bassenthwaite Ospreys have been coming to the Lakes for their summer ‘holidays’ since 2001 when they nested successfully for the first time in 150 years.

The ospreys have returned every spring since then and have raised at least one chick every year. This is down in no small part to the conservation work of the Lake District Osprey Project.

The birds arrive back from Africa in late March or April, breed, nurture their chicks and leave in August and September when they return to the west coast of Africa.

I was excited to discover if this year’s new arrivals were sitting on eggs so we headed to Bassenthwaite Lake for some birding action.

Flying high

We arrived in Bassenthwaite near Keswick on Saturday lunchtime so took a quick look down by the lake in case the birds were hunting for fish.

After sitting on a large boulder for about 40 minutes, we’d had no sightings of the birds despite the sunny weather and clear skies. Would the ospreys make an appearance? At first, nothing – not even a faraway sighting.

Then, a breakthrough – we spotted an osprey hovering very high in the sky on the thermals over the far side of the lake above the coniferous forest.  Bingo – this was our bird!

Bassenthwaite Lake

Bassenthwaite Lake – Osprey territory

Although the bird was some distance away, its white plumage was clearly visible. But it wasn’t long before it disappeared back over the hills. Ten minutes later, it returned for a brief fly past, then headed way beyond the fells.

Ospreys are difficult birds to identify from a distance because they often fly on high and alone.

You need a telescope or binoculars to spot a flash of their white and slightly mottled underparts and long, outstretched wings.

Sometimes you can only see them as a distant silhouette so it’s easy to mistake them for a large gull. The trick is to look at the bird’s silhouette against a grey sky so you can identify the bend in its wings and its tail feathers.

Ospreys try to fly with the minimum of effort so they use thermals at every opportunity so looking up high in the sky is a good plan.

We had hoped for a closer view. In my dreams, I had visions of the male bird plunging into the waters 20 feet away and emerging with a large fish in its talons.

I’d seen this spectacle from close quarters a few years back when I was lucky enough to see ospreys at Loch Insh in Scotland. But this time I wasn’t so lucky.

The Osprey has specially shaped talons (two facing forwards, two  backwards) which are perfect for grabbing fish out of the water in a stunning aerial display. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles.

With no close-up views of the birds, we did the next best thing and headed up to Dodd Wood, one of the official osprey viewing points overlooking Bassenthwaite.

Dodd's Wood

Dodd’s Wood – osprey viewing point

There are two main viewing points. The first is a short hike uphill from the car park where wardens will help you identify the birds from a safe distance to avoid disturbing them.

With the help of super-powerful telescopes, I was eventually able to see the osprey’s nest, with a bit of coaching from the warden.

Nesting birds   

The nest is a large, ramshackle affair but it was a thrill to see that the birds were back even if I couldn’t identify the female bird.

Bassenthwaite Lake

Spot the ospreys – Dodd Wood viewing platform

The helpful warden explained that the nest was in front of the “round cauliflower tree” in the far distance, “left of the broccoli-shaped tree”.

Eventually, I could see what he meant. Just as well I have a strong visual imagination!

The nest was near the top of unprepossessing, dead-looking tree with large, bare snags.

I guess it’s hard to land in a bushy, green tree if you’re as large as an osprey. These birds have a wing span of around 1.5 metres. Rather like storks, it’s easier for them to pick a bare-looking nest site without too many obstacles.

Most exciting of all, the female osprey was sitting on three eggs. We couldn’t see her or the eggs as she was lying quite low to protect her precious chicks who are due to emerge anytime soon.

These bird have the slightly strange names of Unring and KL. They arrived back from Senegal in early April, a flight of around 3,500 miles.

I’m told that the parents are brilliant egg-sitters. They do their duty ‘on the eggs’ until the chicks emerge and then it’s a case of feeding the fluffy youngsters with large volumes of food so they can put on weight quickly.

Although our view of the bird wasn’t great, I’m told that it’s sometimes better to walk further up the hill to the upper viewpoint for a better angle on the nest.

If you’re lucky, you might be rewarded with the sight of a male bird bringing in a fishy treat for his partner.

Bird land

Watching the ospreys always sends a shiver of excitement down my spine. Not only do they look amazing appearance, it’s a sobering thought that this bird was almost lost completely from the UK.

Osprey

Osprey

Once upon a time ospreys would have been widespread throughout most of British Isles.

During the Middle Ages most large houses and monasteries had fish ponds which attracted this fish-eating bird of prey.

Unfortunately, many of the birds were hunted and killed.

The persecution of ospreys continued into the 18th and 19th centuries with gamekeepers, egg collectors and trophy hunters being the bird’s main predators.

Habitat loss added to their list of woes and the osprey became extinct as a breeding species in Britain.

But with modern conservation things have improved for the osprey over recent decades.

In 1954 pair of the birds nested at Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands, raising two chicks, but persecution by egg thieves remained a big problem.

It was a long time before a healthy population of ospreys started to re-establish themselves. They began nesting again in 1954 after birds from Scandinavia found their way to Scotland.

There are now over 200 breeding pairs of ospreys in Scotland plus a further 50-100 across England and Wales.

Male ospreys tend to return to breeding sites close to their original birth places when they are aged between 2-3 years. They often come back to the same place year after year.

It’s brilliant to see these bird thriving in the UK again. I can’t wait for this year’s chicks at Bassenthwaite to emerge from their egg shells!

I’ll be watching the Bassenthwaite webcam with eagle - or should that be osprey – eyes.

Osprey watching – Tammy’s top tips

Why not try your hand at osprey spotting with my top tips for spotting this impressive bird?

Ospreys live almost exclusively on a diet of fish so look out for them hovering over lakes looking for their next meal.

The ospreys are easily recognised by their large wingspan, white head, pale underparts and dark brown upper parts.

Also look up to see the birds soaring very high above lakes and surrounding hills in areas where they are known to be present in summer.

The birds catch their fish close to the surface of the water by plunge-diving or crashing into the water feet first. Look out for their aerial manoeuvres and diving antics.

Dodd Wood and the Whinlatter Forest are two of the best places to watch the ospreys in the English Lake District. Both sites have viewing areas.

They are located a short drive from Keswick on the two opposite sides of Lake Bassenthwaite.

Bassenthwaite Lake

Bassenthwaite Lake – look out for sightings

Whinlatter Forest has a visitor centre with an osprey CCTV camera link-up where images are relayed back from the bird’s nest.

Dodd Wood is about 3 miles North of Keswick off the A591. There are public transport links with the daily X4 and X5 Stagecoach bus services between Penrith and Workington calling at Keswick.

There can also be views of the bird from a quiet walk alongside Bassenthwaite Lake down by the Lakeside Lodges along a marked path. Don’t forget to look high in the sky.

Please don’t get too near the ospreys or disturb them.

There are many places to stay in this area of the northern Lakes including hotels in Keswick, the Lakeside Lodges on Bassenthwaite and several Caravan Club certified sites for motorhomes, caravans and camper vans.

We stayed on this small farm site which has gorgeous views over Mungrisdale - although it has no shower block so you’ll need to have your own on-board facilities.

Mungrizedale camper van site

Mungrisdale camper van site

Ospreys in Scotland, England and Wales

Another good place in England for osprey watching is Rutland Water in the East Midlands which has benefited from a project to reintroduce the birds.

Why not take to the water at Rutland? Take a bird watching cruise on the Rutland Belle boat during the summer season.

In Wales one of the best osprey sites is the Dyfi Osprey Project near Machynlleth.

One of the strongholds of the osprey is Scotland where there are nest sites with public viewing at Loch Garten (Highland), Wigtown (Dumfries and Galloway) and Loch of the Lowes (Perthshire).

Also look out for the ospreys at the Queen Elizabeth Forest from the viewpoint over Loch Katrine.

Loch Leven, famous for its trout, is another place where there’s a good chance of seeing these amazing birds.

Find a high vantage point at any of the above locations and don’t forget your binoculars.

All the above osprey sites have webcams on their websites where you can watch live pictures of these birds if you’re unable to travel to see them.

Find out more about Ospreys on the RSPB website.

The Museum Diet and how to lose weight on holiday

British Museum Great Court

The British Museum – great for calorie burning

Every wondered why you lose weight on city break holidays?  Could it be that you’re doing the ‘Museum Diet’?

There have been many famous food diets – the Atkins, the Macrobiotic, The Zone and South Beach Diets. There was even one called ‘The Paleo’ or Caveman Diet which focused on ‘prehistoric’ exercise and non-processed foods.

But what weight watchers have failed to grasp is that the Museums Diet could be the best of all.

It’s simple and fun. All you have to do is walk around museums and galleries for hours on end during a holiday.

The health benefits of a Museum Diet occurred to me a couple of years ago when I realised that I was losing around four pounds in weight every time I went on a city break or vacation.

That set me thinking about the health benefits of cultural tourism… so here’s my tongue-in-cheek guide to the Museum Diet and how you can shed those pounds by looking at a few Michelangelos or Monets.

The Vatican Museum, Rome

Walking distance – 9 miles

Vatican Museum

St Peter’s and the Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum is huge with mile-upon-mile of paintings and art works. As a result, it’s one of the best tourism attractions for weight watchers.

With over nine miles of halls, corridors and galleries, you could find yourself burning off more calories than a work-out at the gym.

It’s been estimated that if you looked at every painting for a minute, it would take four years to complete a circuit of the museum.

It took me four hours to get around the Vatican Museum’s rooms on my first visit and, even then, I whisked by many of the exhibits, giving them barely a glance.

Vatican Museum

Don’t forget the Vatican Museum gardens

Naturally, you’ll want to see the famous Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo but committed weight-watchers shouldn’t miss the far-flung rooms including the Gregorian Museum and Borgia Apartments.

And don’t forget to take the walk through the Papal Gardens and complete the full tour of St Peter’s to maximise the benefits of this fitness plan.

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Walking distance - 7.5 miles

The Victoria and Albert Museum is London’s treasure-house of decorative arts with everything from ancient rugs to fabulous fashion and furniture.

It’s also one of the capital’s biggest maze-like attractions. I’ve lost myself in its complex layout of rooms and endless corridors many times.

So it came as no surprise to find that it has an estimated walking distance of 7.5 miles if you cover every nook and cranny.

Best of all, it has plenty of staircases which are an excellent substitute for step classes at the gym. Throw in a couple of big temporary exhibitions and you’ll be losing a couple of inches around your waist in no time.

For fitness addicts, why not combine the V & A with the Science and Natural History Museums as they are located in the same ‘museum triangle’.

Elmgreen and Dragset

The V & A with art banner c/o Elmgreen and Dragset

The Smithsonian, Washington DC

Walking distance – 9 miles +

The Smithsonian in Washington DC is the ‘daddy’ of museums, covering 19 museums and galleries with more than 137 million objects detailing America’s story.

As the world’s largest research and museum complex, it’s ideal for several strenuous days of walking and looking at ‘stuff’.

You’re guaranteed to lose pounds as long as you can resist the temptation of giant-sized American burgers, fries and huge cakes after your trip.

Amongst the Smithsonian highlights are Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz and the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History.

Over at the National Air and Space Museum, there are large collections including the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module. Plenty more walking!

Smithsonion Museum

The Smithsonian – a series of mega museums

It has been estimated that if you spent one minute day and night looking at each exhibit, in 10 years you’d see only 10% of the whole collection.

This is an ideal choice for those looking for an advanced fitness regime which can be tried over several days.

The Louvre, Paris

Walking distance 8 miles

The Louvre

Exhaustion after The Louvre tour

The Louvre is another belly buster of monumental proportions with a huge collection that ranges from antiquity and statuary to period rooms and paintings.

A good place to start your weight loss regime is the Sully Wing at the heart of the Louvre. Then work up a sweat with a trip to the Egyptian rooms.

Finally, make sure you do a complete lap of the Louvre’s superb art collection including the Venus de Milo, The Winged Victory of Samothrace and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Lose yourself in the period apartments, discover the extensive furniture collection and don’t forget to walk down to the basement for the ultimate fitness work-out!

With 35,000 art works, it has been estimated that if you spent one minute observing every piece of art, it would take 64 days to see the entire museum.

Like Mona Lisa, you’ll be smiling with your super-healthy exercise regime but don’t overdo things. On my last trip, I succumbed to two painful blisters on my feet.

The Louvre

Lose yourself in The Louvre

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Walking distance - 14 miles

The Hermitage  has a stunning art collection which boasts more than 3 million objects ranging from the Stone Age to the early 20th Century.

The museum occupies six buildings along the Neva River including the famous Winter Palace. There are 120 rooms of art ranging from the Middle Ages to present day masterpieces.

Catherine the Great founded the museum but since her time the collection has mushroomed. Today, the museum is also home to Emperor Nicholas II’s private collection including his paintings, drawings and medals.

There are miles of corridors and galleries to test the fitness of the keenest ‘culture vultures’. As you walk the circuit, look out for paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Cézanne and Van Gogh.

You could lose yourself for days in this place.

By the end of this fabulous feast of art treasures, head for the bathroom scales to measure how much you’ve lost in weight.

The British Museum, London

Walking distance - 3 miles

British Museum exterior

The British Museum

The British Museum is the largest museum in the UK with a collection of more than 8 million objects ranging from archaeology to ethnography.

It’s one of those museums where you can easily find yourself walking around in circles. Didn’t I see that magnificent, gold helmet from the Sutton Hoo half an hour ago, three corridors away?

Never mind because this is another great exercise destination which beats power walking on a gym treadmill.

The Egyptian gallery boasts a fine collection of antiquities as well as the Rosetta Stone. Naturally, you’ll want to explore the hidden corners of the gallery and its temporary exhibitions to maximise your calorific burn-off.

I’m convinced that the distances covered at the British Museum might be more than 3 miles so why not take a pedometer to measure your walking distances?

The Prado, Madrid

Walking distance - 6.5 miles

The Prado in Madrid features all the stars of Spanish painting including Velázquez, Goya, Ribera and Zurbarán as well as boasting big collections of Italian and Flemish artists.

It is renowned for being one of the biggest museums in the world. There are 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures and over 8,000 drawings plus a new wing has enlarged the gallery by a further 400 paintings.

With the added bonus of the Spanish heat, a visit to the Prado is a great way to sweat off a few more pounds on holiday.

Museum Walking distances and calories

Walking distances and calories

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Walking distance - 10 miles

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in North America with more than 2 million items covering antiquity to the present.

Within the museum there are galleries which are so large that they might be considered to be museums in their own right.

Start on the ground floor with antiquity and the Egyptians, take a tour of Assyria and then finish off with the massive collection of paintings which range from Greek and Roman to medieval works and contemporary art.

Met Museum New York

Marvel at the Met’s giant collection

Despite our best efforts to cherry-pick key masterpieces from the collection, we must have walked through every room in the Met. When we got to room 950, I started to think we’d overdone things!

We ended up taking several unwise ‘short-cuts’ which led us through antique clocks and musical instruments. Bottom line – we couldn’t find the way out!

Three hours later, we were exhausted and hungry but had put our bodies through a fitness work-out of epic proportions. Later that night, we sat in the hotel bar feeling refreshed by our tour of the Met’s marvels!

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Walking distance - 1.5 miles

Tammy in Florence

Tammy before the epic Uffizi trip

The Uffizi boasts the world’s finest collection of Renaissance paintings. All the famous names of Italian art can be found in its many galleries —from the Renaissance masters to early medieval, baroque and mannerist painters.

Before you get in, there’s the joy of waiting in a two or three-hour queue so this in itself will burn off some calories.

Once inside, there’s a sprint to get to the Old Masters, notably Botticelli, Titian and Caravaggio. Jostling elbows with fellow visitors is also a good exercise regime which can be added to your walking work-out.

By the end, you’ll be so exhausted that you’ll be beyond the point of feeling hungry!

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Walking distance - 1 mile

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

Although the Rijksmuseum has the smallest walking distance on the my museums list, it’s amazing how many calories you can burn off here.

With 900,000 objects the Rijksmuseum is the largest collection of art and historical works in Holland. It’s most famous for its paintings by 17th Century Dutch masters including Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals.

For an even more effective regime, why not squeeze in several museums on a single day to create the ultimate burn-off diet.

The Rijksmuseum sits within a cluster of galleries in Amsterdam’s Museum Quarter. Try combining it with the Van Gogh and Stedelijk Museums next door for maximum results.

Storm King, New York State

Walking distance - Approx 4 miles

Storm King, New York

Storm King, New York

Storm King is an immense site which is home to some of the world’s most interesting art works and outdoor installations.

Located in the Hudson Valley, it’s set amidst 500 acres of fields, hills, and woodlands which provide the setting for more than 100 sculptures created by some of the biggest international artists.

On a sunny day this is a great way of getting those legs moving as you’ll need to get close to the sculptures to see them at their best.

I shouldn’t disclose this but there is a tram that traverses the site but don’t cheat if you want to drop a dress or jacket size!

Rating the Museum Diet

To be honest, there’s a fine line between burning off those carbs and enjoying yourself on holiday.

Despite losing pounds on my last cultural adventure,  I’m starting to think that the Museum Diet isn’t really the solution after all.

Museum overload

Watch out for museum overload

First, there’s the strong possibility of ‘museum overload’ and fatigue as you traipse around miles and miles of corridors.

Just look at this photo of my partner Tony after a full day spent at the Met and Guggenheim Museums in New York.

Not a pretty sight. He looks like a zombie!

There’s also the potential damage to your feet and joints. Not to mention, family relationships and your sanity.

Perhaps it’s better to embark on a proper adventure holiday like a walking trip in Nepal or trekking across Colorado?

Then, there’s always the sporting holiday with swimming, wind surfing and beach buggying.

Or you could try Disney World in Florida which has around 12 miles of attractions to walk around?

Keeping lean on holiday is a challenge because we’re likely to over-indulge with eating and drinking when we’re on vacation.

But even with that in mind, I still manage to lose weight by being active on holiday – even when I’ve gorged myself on Belgium chocolates or French pastries.

To diet or enjoy yourself? Ultimately, the choice is yours!

Tammy’s Note – The distances around museums are based on the best available information from travellers with pedometers or from the collections themselves. The number of calories burned is based on the average person’s weight and 100 calories per mile of slow walking.

Walking distances and calories

Amsterdam’s top tourist and culture hotspots

Amsterdam's canalside

Amsterdam’s canal culture

Amsterdam is one of the world’s great cities so if you’ve visited before, it’s definitely worth going back for more.

It’s a city which is constantly reinventing itself. There’s always something new and different to see, as I discovered on my trip this month.

With several new tourist attractions and makeovers for old favourites, here are my ‘must see’ highlights for travellers to Amsterdam this spring and summer.

The Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum looks magnificent since re-opening following its extensive make-over. For several years the refurbishment meant that only part of the collection was on show.

Now it’s back to its full splendour and the tourists are flocking to the museum in droves to see its world-famous collection of Old Masters including Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer.

Rijksmuseum

The revamped Rijksmuseum

The superb collection is one of Europe’s biggest draws but there’s just one problem with this tourist ‘honey pot’. The sheer number of visitors can be suffocating.

As with the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican Museum in Rome, you can expect big queues and long waiting times at the entrance. Make sure that you allow for queueing time or pre-book tickets online.

Rijksmuseum

The Night Watch – crowd alert

Once inside, large crowds congregate around the most popular paintings including Rembrandt’s Night Watch, one of the most stunning art works in the world. It can be a fight to get up close to the paintings.

Away from the Old Masters, there are some less congested galleries including the Asian Pavilion and the ‘special collections’. If you enjoy looking at model ships, weaponry and Dutch porcelain then take a detour to these quieter areas.

But expect the main galleries to be fantastically busy especially at the height of the tourist season.

Rijksmuseum

Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

On a positive note, the Great Hall, which provides a stunning entrance to the main galleries, is so large that you can shake off the crowds for a few moments.

It’s here that you can see the beautiful decorative wall paintings and ceilings of the Rijksmuseum.

Alternatively, why not lose yourself in the new shop, cafe or outdoor gardens?

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum – the new courtyard

Stedelijk Gallery

The Stedelijk Gallery of Modern Art, another of Amsterdam’s big three art galleries, has also benefited from a major facelift.

It hasn’t been without controversy. The gallery building is now dominated by an impressive architectural extension which has been dubbed “God’s Bathroom” because of its shiny, white shape which resembles a wash tub.

I like the design which is fun and playful but it may not be to everyone’s taste!

Stedelijk Museum

‘God’s bathroom’? – The Stedelijk Museum

Inside the museum the visitor experience is much improved with new galleries, a fabulous basement exhibition space and impressive shop.

I’ve always been a fan of the Stedelijk with its classy modern art collection but the revamped spaces have brought it alive for a new generation.

The summer exhibitions are well worth the admission price too. Look out for Canadian artist Jeff Wall’s striking photographic tableaux in the upstairs gallery.

Jeff Wall's amazing tableaux

Jeff Wall’s amazing photo tableaux

These larger than life images are super realistic. Look closer and you’ll see that they’re made up of a montage of overlaid images. Amazing!

Don’t miss the basement where there’s a superb exhibition featuring the work of Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, a fabulous mix of Daliesque pieces and extraordinary objects.

Look out for giant heads, surreal eggs, spectacular interiors and radical furniture designs.

The main collection covers everything from painting and photography to poster art and furniture design.

There are displays from the famous modernist De Stijl designers including rooms from a house designed by the Dutch designer, Gerrit Rietveld.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Barnett Newman – the ‘big blue’

My favourite work is this bright blue painting – called Cathedra - by the American colour field painter Barnett Newman.

The big blue canvas almost seems to change colour and move as you stare into it.  It’s simply gorgeous.

Other highlights from the collection include modern art by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Cezanne and Monet.

Pop art aficionados are in for a treat with works by Andy Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein as well as contemporaries like Jeff Koons with his kitsch sculptures.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Warhol’s flowers at the Stedelijk

Another personal favourite is The Beanery, a bizarre bar installation designed by the American artist , Ed Kienholz.

It’s a representation of the interior of a Los Angeles bar called Barney’s Beanery where time seems to have stood still.

Go inside this ‘walk-in art work’, move around the claustrophobic space and interact with the surreal figures which have bizarre clocks for faces.

It’s a slightly disturbing experience with a weird sense of the bar’s regulars being stuck in a time warp.

Stedelijk Museum The Beanery

The Beanery bar – a time warp

Film EYE

Eye is a great addition to the Amsterdam cultural scene which will delight film and art lovers alike. Eye is part cinema, part media gallery.

Its striking white architecture with jagged edges stands out on the Amsterdam waterfront. There are interactive displays and changing multi-media shows as well as an extensive film programme.

Eye! Amsterdam

Film fanatics will love Eye

Cinema Remake Art and Film is the current exhibition featuring the work of filmmakers and artists who use existing films to create something radically new.

It’s the perfect mix of art and entertainment topped off with a great cafe with stunning views over the waterfront.

Eye is a short hop by free ferry service from the terminal at the rear of Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Eye to eye in the cafe bar

Eye, Eye! The cool cafe bar

The Hermitage Amsterdam

The Hermitage Amsterdam is another welcome addition to the city’s cultural scene.

It’s the Dutch spin-off of its parent museum in St Petersburg, Russia from where it takes its changing programme of exhibitions.

Hermitage exhibition

The Silk Road c/o State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Silk Road is the big summer show for 2014 with a selection of objects and art including a mural from the palace in Varakhsha, Uzbekistan as well as silver and gold treasures.

The exhibition is beautifully presented, if a little too focused on the objects rather than the stories of the people who lived and worked along the Silk Road.

The Hermitage is housed in the old Amstelhof, one of the largest 17th Century buildings in Amsterdam.

Overlooking the River Amstel in the Plantagebuurt district of the city centre, it’s a short walk or cycle ride from the main historic area.

Hermitage Amsterdam

Hermitage Amsterdam – Photo by Luuk Kramer

It’s more relaxed and quieter than many of Amsterdam’s popular attractions which makes this a good place to escape if you can’t stand the queues outside the Rijksmuseum.

Het Scheepvaart or Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum is a good choice if you’re looking for an attraction with something for everyone including children.

Starting in the large open courtyard, you can navigate through the building using the four points of the compass to find your bearings.

National Maritime Museum Amsterdam

National Maritime Museum – lives on the waves

Great presentation and storytelling make this a very engaging experience, whether you’re wandering through the tales of whaling, the Golden Age of Dutch shipping or taking in a 360 degree film about the port of Amsterdam.

The highlight is the replica of a Dutch East Indies ship called The Amsterdam from the 1740s which is moored in the dock outside.

Climb on board to get a sense of  life above and below deck during the 18th Century. Delve into the bowels of the ship or try lying in a hammock. I climbed into the hammock but got stuck because I have a bad back!

Tammy on board

Tammy on board ship

For those who love nautical history, there’s everything from figureheads and navigational instruments to old atlases and models of ships.

An imaginative children’s section keeps the hardest-to-please youngsters engaged.

The great revamp and modernisation of the museum is a triumph. It manages to be interactive, fun and entertaining whilst shining light on 500 years of seafaring, ships and maritime adventures.

Courtyard at Amsterdam's Maritime Museum

Courtyard at the Maritime Museum

NEMO

Another striking addition to the Amsterdam waterfront is NEMO, an interactive Science Centre, which is perfect for kids who like to push buttons and enjoy hands-on activities.

Marvel at the strange building designed by the famous, international architect Renzo Piano. It looks like an ocean liner or underwater vessel from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

There are breathtaking views of the port of Amsterdam from its sloping roof which doubles as an ‘urban beach’ in summer.

The Deep

Nemo – explore ship-shaped science

Van Gogh Museum

It’s always a delight to drop in to the Van Gogh Museum, one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions.

Van Gogh is one of Holland’s greatest artists and nowhere has a better collection of his oil paintings, drawings and personal letters than this museum.

From Sunflowers and Irises to his self-portraits and landscapes, you’ll need plenty of time to explore the artist’s stunning works.

Don’t miss Wheat Field with Crowsone of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings which was painted in July 1890 during the last weeks of his life.  Many experts believe it was the painter’s last work.

Van Gogh c/o Van Gogh Museum

Wheat Field with Crows by Van Gogh c/o Van Gogh Museum

Although I’ve visited the museum many times, there’s always something new including a programme of changing exhibitions.

This season’s show focuses on Felix Vallotton, a Franco-Swiss artist working in the early 1900s whose style was influenced by Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Like Amsterdam’s other museums, the gallery isn’t resting on its laurels. A spectacular, transparent glass entrance is being built to improve visitor facilities.

Van Gogh Museum - new entrance plans

Van Gogh Museum – dramatic new entrance plans

Anne Frank’s House and Jordaan neighbourhood

Beware of massive queues at Anne Frank’s House!

Anne Franks' House

Anne Franks’ House – join the long queue

After three trips to Amsterdam, I’ve still never managed to get inside the small house where Anne Frank and her family lived during the Second World War.

It’s disappointing to miss out on visiting this iconic house where the teenager wrote her famous diary while hiding in occupied Amsterdam.

Book ahead or pick your time to avoid the queues. There’s also late night opening most nights.

If you’re disappointed and fail to get in, why not hire a bike or walk around the surrounding Jordaan area, one of the most scenic districts in the city.

This pretty quarter is often overlooked by tourists but has much to offer including quirky shops, cafes and impressive canal-side houses.

Jordaan

Jordaan quarter

Amsterdam’s changing waterfront

Everyone heads for Amsterdam’s canal boats which are a fun way to spend an afternoon. But why not try something different?

Ferry travel in Amsterdam

Ferry travel in Amsterdam

Take a ferry ride from Amsterdam’s Central Station to discover a different perspective on the city from the water.

Ferries are largely free and there are regular services to several destinations along the Ij Canal.

We took the number 52 ferry from the station terminal to NDSM Werf from where there are interesting views. The trip takes just 15 minutes each way with regular services day and night.

Greenpeace and sub Amsterdam

Old submarine spotted from the ferry

Look out for a former Soviet submarine which was once in a museum. There were plans to convert the sub into a floating club but these were scuppered when it was found to be falling to bits. It’s now on sale for scrap

Next door are the Greenpeace ships, Rainbow Warrior III and Esperanza which are docked in Amsterdam when they’re not involved in campaigns overseas.

It’s a thrill to see these iconic ships which aim to convey Greenpeace’s messages of environmental protection.

Ferry travel in Amsterdam

Greenpeace ship docked in Amsterdam

Just around the corner from the ferry stop at NDSM Werf there’s an interesting arty-eco quarter with cafes, eco-houses and riverboats.

It’s a strangely urban, post-apocalyptic scene which could be straight out of a Terminator movie.

One large, derelict shipyard shed has been turned into artists’ studios. Outside we spotted this surreal, old car with stained glass windows.

Amsterdam art zone

Amsterdam’s art attack

It’s another of Amsterdam’s many surprising experiences. Amsterdam is full of unexpected delights which makes this a city you have to keep on coming back to.

I love Amsterdam. Why not enjoy a holiday break to this great city too!

Tammy’s top travel tips

When and where to go

Plan your schedule to make the most of your trip.

The major galleries are located close together in the Museum Quarter – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh and Stedelijk. This means they can be combined on a single day trip but beware of  ‘museum overload’.

Think about booking ahead for the Rijksmuseum or joining a pre-booked tour.  Expect crowds!

The National Maritime Museum and NEMO are located close together so can be combined on one trip. Both are walkable from Central Station or catch a bus from the station, if you’re feeling lazy.

Stedelijk

Spread out museum trips to avoid ‘culture overload’

Check opening times before you set off as some attractions are closed on Mondays in Holland. The Riksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Hermitage and Stedelijk museums are open on Mondays.

Some galleries are open late including the Stedelijk (Thursdays till 10), Anne Frank’s House and the Van Gogh Museum (Fridays till late).

Hermitage Amsterdam c/o Kramer

Hermitage Amsterdam – Photo by Luuk Kramer

The major museums have good cafes where you can hang out and relax in between sightseeing tours.  We enjoyed the Eye Film Museum’s chilled-out cafe - its meals are good value for money.

The Hermitage has a beautiful restaurant on its upper floor whilst the Stedelijk has a street cafe which is perfect on sunny days.

Stedelijk Museum

Monday opening – Stedelijk Museum

Travel

Travel around Amsterdam is easy especially by tram and bike. Buy a three-day or week-long tram pass if you’re staying for more than one night as this is better value. The tram pass also includes bus services.

All travel tickets can be bought from the office opposite the main Central Station as well as from tabacs.

Take to the water to see a different face of Amsterdam whether by canal trip or ferry-boat. There are plenty of commercial canal trips to choose from including evening dinner cruises.

The GVB ferries provide a shuttle service around Amsterdam’s waterfront.

Amsterdam ferry

Amsterdam ferry – free shuttle services

If you’re travelling to Amsterdam there are a variety of flight options from the UK with operators such as EasyJet, British Airways, KLM and Jet2.

If you’d prefer to travel by sea, DFDS Seaways runs daily ferry services from Newcastle in North East England to Ijmuiden/Amsterdam.

We opted to travel by DFDS ferry so here’s a look at how that experience worked out for us in this video film…

Read more about travelling to Amsterdam on this blog post about ferry travel from the UK.

Check out the Netherlands Tourism website for the bigger picture.