Rockport – sea monsters and tales of the unexpected!

Rockport Massachussetts

Rockport’s iconic red shack

Rockport is a picturesque, historic fishing town in New England which boasts a pretty harbour and stunning sunsets.

But behind its pretty demeanour and the curtains of its white clapboard houses there lies chilling tales of the unexpected.

From strange stories of sea serpents and salty schooners to yarns about rebellions and rum, many of the town’s tales would make your hair stand on end.

A short hop from Boston, Rockport makes for a pleasant weekend or day trip in coastal Massachusetts. But be prepared to discover its darker history as well as its stunning historic houses and quayside.

Bear attack

The main historic centre of Rockport is focused on the brilliantly named Bear Skin Neck. The district takes its moniker from a bear which was caught by the tide in 1700.

Rockport Massachussetts

The story of Bear Skin Neck – Rockport

Legend has it that one of Rockport’s residents, Henry Witham, was attacked by the marooned bear on the shore.

With no gun to defend himself, he stepped into the water and battled with the bear using only his knife. After a scuffle, he killed the bear, skinned it and spread the animal’s fur to dry on the rocks. 

The battle between man and beast led locals to call the area ‘Bear Skin Neck’. It may sound improbable but it’s true.

As you wander along its charming shopping streets lined with artists’ studios, it’s hard to imagine a time when bears came up onto the coastline.

Rockport Massachussetts

Craft shop at Bear Skin Neck

Sea serpent

Most fishing towns are deeply superstitious so perhaps it’s unsurprising that tales of strange sightings and creatures abound along the coast.

Rockport lies on the Cape Ann peninsula which also takes in the nearby port of Gloucester. In 1817 there were numerous eye-witness reports of a huge sea serpent off the coastline of both towns.

A local newspaper talked of “a monstrous sea serpent, the largest ever seen in America” spotted in the calm waters of Rockport and Gloucester harbours.

Rockport Massachussetts

No sightings of the Cape Ann sea serpent today

For almost a month, witnesses reported seeing what they described as a sea serpent 80-100 feet long with a head resembling a horse with a horn-like appendage.

This scaly monstrosity was compared to a “row of casks” by some eyewitnesses. Perhaps it was simply that – after all, it’s hard to get a clear view of the sea when the mist rolls in.

But a firm sighting was reported by two women on August 10, 1817 who claimed to have seen the creature swimming in Gloucester harbor.

Cape Ann sea serpent c/o Cape Ann Museum

The Rockport sea serpent c/o Cape Ann Museum

In the following years there were sporadic sightings from ship’s captains and eye witnesses who claimed the serpent had  the “head of a turtle…  larger than the head on any dog… (with) a prong or spear about twelve inches in height (coming from its head)”.

Although not seen in recent decades, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for the sea serpent which is Cape Ann’s version of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster.

Sadly it didn’t pop up on my visit to the town!

Rockport’s rum revolt 

My favourite Rockport story is one of temperance, rebellion and liquor. It’s a rum tale which rivals the prohibition battles fought in Chicago during the 1920s.

In the 1850s there was growing concern about alcohol consumption in Rockport. Fishing was the main employment but the weather only permitted this for nine months of the year.

Rockport Massachussetts

There are no bars in Rockport even today

During this enforced three-month “vacation” the fishing men idled away their time and drank enormous amounts of spirits.

The town’s women became increasingly worried about the amount of money being spent on alcohol which was causing problems for poor families.

In 1856 a gang of 200 wives, mothers, daughters and supporters gathered in the town’s Dock Square. Led by seamstress Hannah Jumper, they swept through the town, smashing up all supplies of alcohol.

Rockport Massachussetts

Rockport’s raid on rum reverberates even today

Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protesters set out to destroy every drop of alcohol in the town. After five hours “Rockport’s revolt against rum” was over. Legend has it that the women went home to make supper for their families.

One eyewitness described the scene: “On finding any keg, jug, or cask having spirituous liquor in it… with their hatchets they broke or otherways destroyed it.”

Except for a brief period in the 1930s, Rockport remained one of 15 Massachusetts’ dry towns. It wasn’t until 2005 when Rockport voted that alcohol could be served at restaurants. Amazingly, liquor stores are still illegal in the town!

Military might

For a small town Rockport has an unusually colourful history. During the 1812 Anglo-American War, Rockport became the focus of attention during a siege on its coastal defences by the British.

Throughout the war Bear Skin Neck was home to the Old Stone Fort and barracks which were built to provide protection from the British warships that would patrol the coast and prevent townsfolk from fishing in the bay.

On 8 September, 1814 the British launched an unexpected attack on the tiny fishing village of Sandy Bay (the old name for Rockport).

The town’s people hurled rocks at the enemy using their stockings as slings because they didn’t have muskets and cannons.

Rockport Massachussetts

Site of Rockport’s fort

The site of the old fort is now marked by a historic plaque at Bear Skin Neck which commemorates the 1814 attack.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the east coast was a battle ground for British military power in America – and that Britain was the last ever country to occupy the US mainland.

Artistic community

Rockport Massachussetts

Motif Number 1 – distinctive red shack

Rockport isn’t all sea serpents, marauding bears and military manoeuvres –  it also has a softer, artistic side.

Once again, it’s a surprising story of a small, sleepy town punching above its weight.

International artists such as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and John Sloan drew inspiration from the town’s coastal setting, exquisite light and distinctive maritime character.

We noticed the light on our trip which is especially dramatic at sunset when you can sit on the harbourside watching the changing hues and colours as the sun goes down.

Rockport Massachussetts

Rockport sunset

One of the town’s main inspirational draws for artists is a simple, red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf, known as “Motif Number 1“. The shack is the most frequently painted building in the USA.

Painter Lester Hornby was the first to call it Motif Number 1 in the early 20th Century – and the name has stuck ever since.

Built in the 1840s, this iconic New England-style building was swept away in 1978 by snow storms but has been replaced by a replica which is every bit as distinctive.

Its frail, simple structure is part of its appeal – a throwback to early centuries when fishing was at the heart of Rockport’s economy.

Rockport Massachussetts

Motif 1 – an iconic sight in Rockport

Town of granite

After discovering so many tales about Rockport, the town  has one last unexpected story to tell.

The clue is in the town’s name. Rockport is a town built on rock – quite literally…  its granite was an important factor in its growth at the beginning of the 19th Century.

The first granite quarries were developed to the north of the town near Halibut Point. By the 1830s, Rockport granite was being shipped to cities and towns throughout the USA’s eastern seaboard.

Haliibut Point

Halibut Point – quarry turned park

As the demand for its high quality granite grew for industry and construction, the quarries of Rockport boomed.

A special type of sloop boat was developed to transport the granite far and wide across North and South America.  

The quarry eventually closed in 1929. Today the disused quarry is a popular nature reserve. There’s a lovely walk down to the beach and great opportunities for bird watching on the nature trails.

Its tranquility makes it easy to forget that this was once a hive of industry but the scattered remains of old stones provide a glimpse of its past. A Second World War watch tower now dominates the country park.

Haliibt Point

Halibut Point observatory

Rockport’s real life stories

Rockport is much more than a small, charming town with historic buildings and a pretty harbour. It has fascinating and authentic stories to tell.

Delve deeper and you’re bound to find more… from its splendid, white First Congregational Church and historic homes to its headland and shoreline.

Rockport Massachussetts

Rockport today

With its tales of scary bears, sea monsters, mining men and marauding women, Rockport is my kind of small town. Quite simply, it’s one of a kind.

Just a shame that it’s still hard to get a drink of alcohol!

Tammy’s travel tips – Rockport

Rockport is located 35 miles north of Boston on the Massachusetts coast – it takes around 50 minutes to drive there.

Rockport Massachussetts

Rockport historic centre

Where to stay?

There are fewer hotels than I expected in Rockport but locals recommend the value-for-money Bear Skin Neck Motel, The Seafarer Inn and the upmarket Rockport Inn.

We stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea, a historic hotel which lies just out-of-town. Its main claim to fame is that the writer Waldo Ralph Emerson visited the original hotel on vacation at the height of his fame.

Rockport Massachussetts Emerson Inn

Emerson Inn by the Sea – Rockport

There are cracking views of the sea from the Emerson Inn’s garden plus a charming dining room and porch with a seafront vista. This place oozes history.

Where to eat?

Lobsters are on the menu wherever you go in Rockport. We picked Roy Moore’s restaurant on the main street for our evening meal although his smaller shack has pleasant tables on the outer deck for a daytime snack or lunch.

Locals also recommend The Red Skiff and The Lobster Pool in Rockport town centre.

Lobster shack in

Lobster shack in Massachusetts

Where to shop and relax?

Rockport boasts an attractive shopping centre with a mix of tourist shops, arts and crafts galleries and high-end boutiques.

As my partner Tony put it – “the tourist shops in Rockport have higher quality tat” rather than the usual rubbish. That’s a little unfair as Rockport does have an air of class, although it also has some ‘bog standard’ gift shops.

For some reason it also has high proportion of psychic, boho and ‘hippy’ shops, if you fancy a touch of tarot or transcendental meditation.

Rockport Massachussetts

Rockport’s shops and galleries

On the attractions front, Rockport boasts a rich heritage and I was struck by the impressive number of historic buildings. It’s worth taking a stroll around the historic centre.

The stunning Shalin Liu Performing Arts Centre is a must for music lovers with beautiful views from the rear of the concert hall out to sea.

Rockport Massachussetts

Heritage house in Rockport

Acadia National Park by horse and carriage

Horse and carriage ride in Acadia

Get on board for the horse and carriage ride in Acadia

Travelling by horse and carriage is always seen as a thing of the past but in Acadia National Park it’s one of the best ways to get around.

Four legs are better than four wheels when it comes to Acadia’s famous carriage roads. This may seem incredibly antiquated but horse power scores over the automobile big-style.

Taking a half day trip by horse and carriage is not only relaxing, you get to see parts of the park not open to gas-guzzling motor cars.

This isn’t a quick tour around the sights, it’s a proper road trip. It feels like you’re on a mini-adventure!

Carriage roads

Acadia National Park is unique with its extensive network of car-free carriage roads which cover 57 miles of countryside.

Carriage road - Acadia National Park

Carriage road – Acadia National Park

The carriage roads were the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller Junior, a rich philanthropist, who was worried about the impact of the motor car on the countryside.

He was a nature lover and early conservationist whose dream was to create Acadia as a national park with car-free roads.

This was a vast enterprise which involved the construction of gravel roads, 17 stone bridges and a well-designed loop network which took place between 1913-1940.

Rockefeller donated his own land, bought up and assembled other landowners’ holdings to create the carriage drives which can be enjoyed today.

On the horse and carriage ride you get an excellent and entertaining commentary about Rockefeller’s roads as well as ambling along the highways at a leisurely pace.

Wildwood Stables

My journey started at Wildwood Stables in Acadia, a well-run equestrian centre, which offers drives on board the horse-drawn carriages.

There’s a variety of trips but I opted for the Rockefeller Carriage Roads Drive, a two-hour excursion through the park’s scenic by-ways with great views of its pretty bridges and woodland.

Carriage ride Acadia

Meet the Suffolk Punch horses

At first I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but found myself loving every minute as I hung onto the back seat for dear life!

As I made friends with my fellow passengers, I realised that this is a slow experience in which you soak up and enjoy the local flavours and landscape without speeding ahead at a mad pace. So no need to cling on!

Our knowledgeable guide, Morgan, told us about the history of the roads, throwing in entertaining anecdotes as we meandered along. It was a perfectly pitched commentary and a fun experience.

Carriage ride Acadia

Giddy up Tammy!

As we hit the open roads, we learned that the horses were Suffolk Punch, best known as dray horses from eastern England.

The stables also use other big breeds like Percheron and Belgian draught horse to pull the carriages, the crew and eight travellers.

The horses walk at a gentle 3 mph and there’s no trotting or cantering so it’s a safe to say that you’re in for an easy and smooth ride.

Carriage ride Acadia

The Rockefeller bridges road trip

As we left the stables we went up a bit of an incline and gradient but the horses coped brilliantly. Apparently they love their work and the challenges it brings so this is all in a day’s work for them.

Our carriage driver told us that today they were chomping at the bit to put on their working gear and get out on the roads. You almost get a sense that they could make this trip without a driver.

But then you forget that carriage driving is a real skill. Avoiding ditches, negotiating tricky bends and keeping the horses focused is trickier than I thought. Apparently, the horses do get distracted by stuff along the route!

Carriage ride Acadia

A scene reminiscent of 1940s Acadia

Country roads

Carriage ride Acadia

Pretty vista –  a carriage road and bridge

So how did the carriage roads come about? After all, this must have been a huge and expensive undertaking.

It was the result of John D. Rockefeller’s fantastic vision which still shines brightly today. But the story behind the roads is even more remarkable.

John D. Rockefeller Junior’s father was the wealthy head of the Standard Oil Company, whose fortunes were inextricably linked to the motor car.

He joined the family business as a young man but after a few years decided that it wasn’t for him. At the age of 36, he retired from the business and decided to dedicate his time and money to philanthropy.

John Junior had bought a house at Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Islands in 1910 as a summer retreat from New York. He loved the great outdoors and the simple pleasure of travelling by horse-drawn carriage.

It was this that gave him the idea for creating a public network of carriage roads.

Carriage ride Acadia

Carriage horses – Acadia

He was also keen that the roads were made to the highest standards. Each of the bridges was hard-crafted by local stonemasons using the island’s famous granite stones.

The use of native materials helped the roads blend into the natural landscape. Rockefeller made sure that the roads followed the contours of the land and he made the most of scenic views. This is evident when you’re riding along today.

The carriage roads were designed to cope with Maine’s wet weather with built-in stone culverts, ditches and layer-upon-layer of rock to ensure good drainage.

He also graded the roads so they weren’t too steep or sharply curved for horse-drawn carriages. After all, you wouldn’t want to end up in a ditch!

Carriage ride Acadia

One of the Rockefeller bridges at Acadia

Rockefeller wanted everything to celebrate the landscape of Mount Desert Island so the roadsides were landscaped with native vegetation including blueberries and ferns.

John Junior was hands-on in the construction of the roads and bridges, and paid attention to the most minute details. He also spent a sizeable chunk of his personal wealth on creating the carriage roads.

He also financed 16 of the stone bridges. We stopped at one of the prettiest bridges and dismounted from the carriage, taking a walk down the bank to look at its stunning craftsmanship (see above).

The setting was simply gorgeous and so quiet that it felt like you’d walked back in time 100 years. No buzzing of traffic, no coughing of engines and no air pollution from cars. Pure peace and quiet.

Carriage ride Acadia

Carriage bridge – Acadia

Today you can see the labours of his dedication with many beautiful bridges spanning streams, waterfalls, road, and cliff sides.

One of the prettiest sections is around Jordan Pond, the deepest body of water on Mount Desert Island, which is surrounded by the hills of the Bubbles.

Another gorgeous area of carriage roads traverses the countryside around stunning Eagle Lake. It’s well worth returning here by bike or on foot to complete the circular loop.

Jordan Pond Acadia

Jordan Pond

On the return route, we were told an amusing anecdote about the carriage road that runs past the Jordan Pond Gatehouse, a French-Romanesque style villa built as a checkpoint to keep automobiles off the route in the 1930s.

Rockerfeller had this sumptuous villa specially designed to give the architecture of the park a touch of class and style.  He also wanted it to blend in perfectly with the rustic countryside setting.

Villa in Acadia

‘French’-style villa

The bells in the gate posts next to the house were designed to alert the person living in the gatehouse to open the way for the horse-drawn carriages.

But local children would ring the bells so many times (and then run and hide as a jolly jape) that the angry tenant tore them off their plinths and threw them into Jordan Pond where they still lie today.

Carriage ride Acadia

The empty bell plinths on the gatehouse today

Homeward bound

As we came within sight of the Wildwood Stables on our return leg, the carriage had to perform a tricky manoeuvre to get back inside the compound.

Once again, it demonstrated how this horsing around business can be harder than you think. Just as well we were in safe hands with our expert carriage drivers.

This may be a very slow and laid-back way to see the countryside of Acadia National Park, but it’s a fascinating throwback to an earlier age when four legs dominated the roads.

Thank goodness that one man had the vision to create and preserve this idyllic countryside and its horse-drawn carriage roads. Best of all –  there’s not a single car or motorbike in sight.

Tammy’s top travel tips – Acadia’s carriage roads

Carriage ride Acadia

Carriage road travellers – Acadia National Park

The horse and carriage rides depart from Wildwood Stables in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island which is located in northern Maine.

To reach the stables take the free Acadia National Park Shuttle Bus from Bar Harbor Town Green or drive the National Park Loop Road. The regular bus shuttle service stops directly next to the carriage departure point.

There’s a choice of rides including Mr Rockefeller’s Bridges, the Day Mountain Summit (with great views), Day Mountain Tour and Jordan Pond House. Private charters are also available. The trips cost between $20-$26 per adult.

Carriage road view

View from carriage road

Most of the carriage roads are also open to bikes. All are available to walkers and hikers. Cycling is hugely popular on these routes so why not pick up a carriage roads map to make the most of your trip.

Take a hat, sunscreen and suitable outdoor clothing. Weather conditions can change quickly and the carriage has no cover.

If you head out on the morning ride, why can combine your trip with a visit to nearby Jordan Pond House, famous for its ‘popovers’, a kind of fluffy dessert which is a mix between a scone and sweet Yorkshire pudding.

Pop up the road (walk or use the shuttle bus) for a ‘popover’ in the Jordan Pond restaurant. But don’t eat too many like me – they are more filling than you think!

Popover at Jordan Pond  Acadia

Popover at Jordan Pond House

Where to stay? Try the nearby town of Bar Harbor which has a wide range of hotel and cottage accommodation down the road from the park entrance.

Whale watching in Maine

Whale watching in Maine

Whale watching in Maine

It wasn’t my first whale watching trip but it was definitely one of the best. A perfect summer day in Maine on a lovely boat in Boothbay Harbor with calm seas and a bright, blue skies.

I’m never at my best on boats but this memorable trip soon had me feeling at ease with the high seas. There wasn’t a bumpy wave in sight!

As we motored away from the main harbour, the trip went to plan like clockwork. The marine life came out to greet us in their droves – from dolphins and porpoises to harbour seals.

But would we succeed in spotting the world’s largest mammals – the whales?

Whale of a time

Boothbay Harbor

Boothbay Harbor – calm waters

It wasn’t until the day of the trip that I decided that the whale watching excursion was definitely on. As I peered out of the hotel window, I had to make sure there were perfect weather conditions. No rough seas, not a hint of wind and a good weather forecast.

After the hurricane which hit the USA’s eastern seaboard a few days earlier, I was understandably nervous.

But the weather was so perfect that it was just a case of hitting the sun cream, donning a daft hat and taking a sea sickness tablet (just in case!).

Tammy on whale watching boat

Mad cap Tammy on whale watching boat

The Gulf of Maine is one of the very best places to go whale watching because of its cool, nutrient-rich waters which attract a wealth of marine life including whales.

We were on the look out for fin and humpback whales – but, as ever on these trips, there’s no guarantee of a sighting. It’s a bit like finding a needle in the Atlantic Ocean.

The whales are a law unto themselves – they move around the seas and they’ve often underwater which adds to the difficulty of finding them.

Tammy on whale watching trip

Tammy searches for whales on deck

Boarding the boat, I was optimistic because the weather was so perfect that surely even the shyest whales would be out hunting for food in the clear, azure waters.

Cap’n Fish Boat Tours run most of the whale trips from Boothbay Harbor midway up the Maine coast. It’s a beautiful spot but the boat needs to travel way out to sea if there’s a chance of seeing the whales.

I’d heard on the grapevine that these huge marine mammals had been spotted about 14 miles off the shore the previous day – so we would be heading to the same area. The omens looked good.

As the boat, The Pink Lady, moved out of the harbour, my attention focused on the scenery and the many small islands. There were great views of the famous Burnt Island lighthouse too as we pulled out to sea.

Burnt Island lighthouse

Burnt Island lighthouse

It wasn’t long before we spotted seals bobbing up and down in the bay’s waters, as curious about us as we were of them.

As we moved out towards the high seas, we accelerated towards the best whale watching areas in the Gulf of Maine.

No luck at first but the scenery was interesting. There were lots of lobstermen in their fishing boats bringing in their lobster pots and baskets.

The many classy sailing yachts had us dreaming of owning a boat.

There were also some interesting sea birds that were new to us which the tour guide told us were petrels, a good sign because where they feed, the whales often hang out too.

Boothbay Harbor

Scanning the seas for whales

But there were no whales. I was starting to worry that these elusive creatures had moved further up the coast.

We were looking for small clues as we cast our eyes over a seemingly endless sea of blue that went on and on for miles. We gazed into the expansive void on all sides.

Then, unexpectedly, came a hopeful sign that the whales were in the vicinity – about 16 miles out to sea.

Our pilot, Captain Steve, announced that he had spotted a whale blowing about 2 miles ahead of us. We accelerated towards the spot – and the excitement grew on board.

Tammy on whale watching boat

Tell-tale sign – whale blowing

It wasn’t long before we got our first sighting of two large finback whales, blowing and riding the waves. These long, super-sleek mammals can weigh up to 70 tonnes but they glide along gracefully.

The tell-tale sign is their prominent dorsal fin on their backs. Compared with humpback whales, they are smoother and longer in appearance.

We followed their progress for the best part of an hour as they came up for air before diving again and disappearing under the waters.

Boothbay Harbor whales

Fin whales riding the waves

They stay under the water about 10-15 minutes during which time they can dive down to around 700 feet. They can also move at a nippy 23mph in quick bursts.

It’s a real art working out where they’ll resurface when they come back up for air. But this pair were sticking around and didn’t seem fazed by our presence.

During their final resurface, they came pretty close to our boat and we enjoyed fabulous views of the whales swimming side by side. It was an exhilarating moment.

Whales

Resurfacing whale

What a thrill to see these fabulous animals in the North Atlantic!

Finback whales

Finback whale

Finback whales are around 85 feet long

Finbacks are the world’s second largest whales after blue whales – and they are frequently sighted off the Maine coast.

They are huge mammals, reaching around 85 feet in length – the size of  a two and a half double-decker buses. They can live to the age of 80-90 years.

It’s hard to believe that in earlier centuries people hunted these fabulous creatures and nearly drove them to extinction. Commercial hunting in the North Atlantic ended only in 1986. Remember the ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns?

Today we’re hunting whales to watch these spectacular creatures in their natural habitat.

After a long while tracking them, our cruise was over and it was time to go home.

As we headed back to the harbour a pod of dolphins played in the boat’s slipstream, enjoying the adrenalin rush they were getting from the disturbed waters.

On the return leg, there were yet more seals and some incredible sea birds plus an osprey sitting on its nest near the entrance to the harbour.

But the highlight had been watching the whales. What a show they put on – and how incredible these huge mammals are when you see them up close!

Tammy’s top whale watching tips

Boothbay Harbor whale trip

On the deck – The Pink Lady whale boat

Boothbay Harbour is in mid Maine, New England, USA. Our trip was organised by the excellent Cap ‘n Fish who run boat trips several times a day including two whale watching trips in the early morning and afternoon.

The trips cost around £35 per person ($54) and take around 3.5 hours. Buy a ticket on the day or book in advance during the holiday season by phone. The company also has several kiosk sales points along the main trawl of Boothbay Harbor.

The boats are a decent size so they’re reasonably stable, if your sea legs aren’t too great. There’s also a small bar, cafe and a toilet on board.  There’s a choice of seating on the open deck or you can opt to go under cover inside the boat.

As well as Finback and Humpback whales also look for the smaller Minke Whales and Basking Sharks on your excursion.

Whale

Whale watching on the St Lawrence estuary

Other good whale watching spots in Maine include Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island where you can catch a whale watching catamaran from the main waterfront.

Further up the Maine coast near Campobello Island there are also whale watching trips from the Head Harbor Wharf back on the mainland.

In Massachusetts there are whale watching trips out of Provincetown on Cape Cod with views of the mammals breaching and spouting almost guaranteed.

Be aware that some whale watching trips can get cancelled during bad weather so try to pick a calm and clear day. Avoid misty and dull days with poor visibility. Pick your time of year – May to October is the viewing season in Maine.

Tammy whale watching in Canada

Tammy whale watching in Canada

Elsewhere in North America there’s great whale watching in the following places:

  • Washington Stage, Oregon – Killer Whales are the big draw here between April-October.
  • British Columbia, Canada – great territory for Killer Whales off Vancouver Island in the summer.
  • Saguenay National Park, Quebec – watch Beluga Whales from the land as they swim in the fjord.
  • St Lawrence river estuary, Canada – boat and dinghy trips run from Tadoussac or look out for the whales on the ferry crossing between Tadoussac and the southern mainland. We saw about 12-14 whales on a single dinghy trip.
  • Alaska – trips run into the Gulf of Alaska and Inside Passage with the best viewing in the spring.
  • Hawaii – great whale spotting opportunities between October-May around the West Maui channel.

Wear sensible clothes and a hat as it’s easy to get sunburned or cold on a boat once you’re out on the open seas – remember that  weather conditions can be changeable.

Tammy in hat

Don’t forget a hat!

Don’t forget to take binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens.  I was amazed how few people had binoculars and looked at mine with envy!

Look for tell-tales signs of whales – blow flumes, disturbed waters, fins… Birds feeding on krill (small fish) on the water may indicate that whales are nearby as both like eating the same dinner.

Do your homework and go with a reputable boat company who know their whales. Their guided and knowledgeable commentary will help you get the most from your trip.

Boothbay Harbor whales

Surfacing whale

 

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.