Yellowstone and Wyoming – Big Sky Country

Yellowstone

Great geysers – Yellowstone

What’s your favourite holiday destination?  One of mine is Wyoming in the United States which boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

If you’re looking to book a vacation this summer, why not head to the ‘big sky state’ with its wonderful wildlife and wilderness landscapes?

Here are five reasons to love Wyoming.

1. Dramatic landscapes and big skies

Wyoming’s dramatic scenery is the main reason to visit the state. This is where The Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains.

Its expansive, blue skies are legendary. This is a place where you can lose yourself in nature and its many great wilderness spaces.

Big Skies - Wyoming

Big skies – Wyoming

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are the two biggest tourism attractions with their stunning scenery which takes in everything from mountains, meadows and forests to canyons, rivers and lakes.

And the picture perfect scenery doesn’t stop there. Less well-trodden areas of Wyoming throw up surprises, from the ranching landscapes of Powder River Basin to the stunning mountains of Beartooth Pass and Shoshone National Forest.

Wyoming

Wyoming’s dramatic scenery

Coming from a small country like Great Britain, it’s hard to appreciate the expansiveness of Yellowstone National Park which covers an area the size of the north of England.

When planning my trip, I under-estimated the size of Yellowstone so badly that my itinerary looked hopelessly flawed as soon as I arrived at the park gates where the ranger handed me a proper map.  Could it really be that big?

I’d allowed three days to explore the park which is achievable if you focus on two or three ‘honey pot’ areas, but is bonkers if you want to get to know the park properly.

Getting around Yellowstone National Park is a lot slower than you might think, mainly because of the frequent animal ‘jams’ which reduce traffic to a snail’s pace.

Everyone enjoys seeing a bison or bear grazing by the road so prepare to be patient. In wilder areas of the park, look for families of wolves which have recently been reintroduced to the area.

And if you’re thinking of hiking on one of the many trails, you’ll need plenty of time to complete your excursion, especially if it requires camping overnight.

In some ways Yellowstone is best seen on horseback or foot but most of us have to settle for a drive around the park. In two days you can complete the Upper and Lower Loop Drives, but even this provides only a cursory glance at the scenery.

Wyoming

One of the stunning landscapes

I’d recommend seven days staying in one of the park’s lovely lodges with their impressive wooden atriums and western-style decor.

Although Yellowstone steals the tourism thunder, Wyoming is blessed with many natural wonders from the badlands of the Bighorn Basin to the Black Hills and Thunder Basin.

In southern Wyoming there’s Fossil Country with its dry, open spaces as well as the remains of ancient petrified forests and historic mining towns. If you’re lucky, you might even see wild horses, a throwback to Wyoming’s pioneer days.

Yellowstone

Typical Wyoming scenery

One of the USA’s greatest scenic drives is the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming. Again, I messed up because I didn’t realise that this spectacular road takes so long to drive and reaches heights over 12,000 feet over its 68 mile length.

The scenic route gets windier and windier as it twists upwards along a sequence of never-ending Z-bends which take you over the top of the ski lift and across a desolate landscape where only small Alpine plants can survive.

Just when you think the road has almost reached the summit, its starts winding upwards again, a bit like a giant stairway to heaven. After a couple of hours, you realise that this scenic drive warrants a day trip in its own right.

2. Hot springs and geysers

It’s easy to forget that Yellowstone is said to be one of the most dangerous places on Earth. It sits on top of a giant magma chamber which could blow up at any time.

One of the last small earthquakes devastated an area several miles wide to create Quake Lake, an eerie area of water with dead, submerged trees sticking out of it.  Another earlier explosion blew a hole to create the extensive waters of Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone

Eerie Quake Lake  – Yellowstone

Guide books assure visitors that it has been 230 million years since Yellowstone experienced a major volcanic devastation. The area averages one large earthquake every 200 million years so we’re 30 million years overdue for the ‘big bang’. It could blow anytime!

In Yellowstone you’re walking on a very thin area of the earth’s crust which is essentially a dormant volcano. The whole area is volatile and unpredictable. One National Park ranger told me that the next blow-out could destroy an area of 1,000 square kms including the town of Bozeman. A sobering thought.

Yellowstone’s geysers are some of the most impressive anywhere in the world. Old Faithful is the most famous with its spurting, thermal outbursts which can shoot 140 feet into the air.

But there are many more geysers in the park including my favourite, the Morning Glory Pool, with its beautiful, iridescent turquoise and gold rim. Grand Prismatic Spring is an equally impressive coloured geyser which provides a great photo opportunity.

Yellowstone - geyser

There she blows – simmering geyser

Popular hot spots and geysers include the squelching Steamboat, the spurting Whirligig and the glorious Great Fountain.

There are signs everywhere saying how dangerous the whole area is. “Take extra special care”. Every warden can be overheard telling visitors that “at least a handful of people are killed or severely scalded by Yellowstone’s geo-thermal features every year”.

Apparently, six-year-old boys are particularly at risk, presumably as they stick their hands in the geysers to test the temperature. Don’t even be tempted.

Yellowstone geyser

Hot, hot, hot – look but don’t touch

The geysers are a feast for all the senses. The smell of geysers can be a real knock-out with the characteristic sulphurous, bad egg odour which gets inside your nose.

Geysers are an unpredictable bunch. Some go off like clockwork whilst others erupt less often and you have to wait around for several hours to see them in full flume.

Hot springs abound in Wyoming but be careful before you’re tempted to bathe in their waters. Once again, there are endless stories of people being sucked under the springs  and boiled alive when they become trapped in an unexpected surge of hot water.

Yellowstone geyser

Keep a safe distance when the geysers blow

3. Wildlife wonderland

Bears, bison, wolves, beavers and moose are just some of the wildlife you’re likely to see in Wyoming particularly in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

With minutes of driving into Yellowstone, we enjoyed sightings of a couple of bald eagles guarding their nest. Further down the park road, we stopped in a lay-by where a golden eagle swooped down onto a wood post, perching just a couple of feet away from the car.

Yellowstone bear

Brown Bear at close range in Yellowstone

Driving through the Mount Washburn area, we spotted a commotion by the roadside. As we drew up and leapt out of our Jeep, we spotted a grizzly bear eating berries on the bank about 15 feet away.

Didn’t the park warden tell us not to get within 100 feet of these bears? This grizzly seemed unperturbed by the close proximity of a group of humans. It was passively turning over rocks and looking for food but we were warned that its amiable demeanour could change in a split second. My heart was racing with fear and excitement!

Further along the loop road, we watched a black bear scrambling around on the ridge in the distance. What a sensational experience to see two bears within 10 minutes. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising as Mount Washburn is one of Yellowstone’s biggest bear havens.

Bison

Bison watching from a safe distance

Elsewhere, we enjoyed frequent sightings of bison, elk and pronghorn antelopes. But you need to be quick to capture a photo of the antelopes as they are the speediest creatures I’ve ever seen.

Bison are amazing creatures and can be seen crossing the roads or grazing on the pastures in the park.  They are huge, furry eating machines with voracious appetites.

But ‘bison beware’ – some visitors have been gored by these large buffalo which can weigh 2,000 pounds and sprint at a speedy 30 mph.

They may appear tame but there are warnings everywhere telling you that they are wild and unpredictable. I wouldn’t want to get into a rumpus with one.

Yellowstone geyser

Bald eagle nest – Yellowstone geysers

4. Cowboy country

Wyoming is the cowboy state. It even has the image of a cowboy on a bucking horse on its car license plate, recalling its history as an important place for ranchers and farmers.

It’s also Buffalo Bill Country. William F. Cody was one of the state’s most famous citizens, renowned for his exploits as a US army scout, showman and early precursor of Ray Mears. He gave his name to the pleasant town of Cody where there’s a fantastic museum commemorating the man and the period in which he lived.

Cody, Wyoming

Cody, Wyoming

We planned a quick trip to The Buffalo Bill Historical Centre but soon realised this was yet another miscalculation. With five different collections – natural history, western art, native American crafts,  firearms and Buffalo Bill – there was a lot more to see than we’d reckoned on. The trip took three hours at a speedy canter.

The Buffalo Bill displays were the highpoint of the trip with outstanding memorabilia and historical pieces. There’s Bill’s bison coat, his cowboy hats and his favourite rifle, which was so well-used that it was almost shot to oblivion.

I felt torn about Buffalo Bill because revisionist history marks him out as an early conservationist and supporter of North American Indians.

But this fails to take account of his track record of killing wildlife and almost driving the buffalo to extinction. After all, this was a man who had so many buffalo coats that he could have opened a department store selling them.

Cody, Wyoming

Buffalo Bill Centre – Cody, Wyoming

Lack of time meant that I had to run around the fine art collection which includes some great cowboy paintings, sculptures and an impressive reconstruction of famous western artist, Remington’s studio. The gallery is very impressive and it’s no surprise that this has been dubbed “the Smithsonian of Wyoming”.

Having spent too much time looking at the cowboy collections, we headed to the museum cafe which serves a mean and lean bison burger.

If you find yourself in southern Wyoming, don’t forget to check out Cheyenne and Laramie’s Stagecoach Corridor which recalls the days of the wagon train and pioneers.

5. Teton’s meadows and mountains

Drive south through Wyoming for a very different landscape, characterised by Grand Teton’s towering mountains and lush water meadows.

The Tetons form a dramatic sequence of jagged peaks rising to 9,000-10,000 feet. The mountains appear to rise up from the flat valley bottom like vertical daggers or teets (hence the name Tetons).

Teton

The dramatic landscape of Teton National Park

We speculated on what a hiking holiday would be like. Extremely hard work judging by the trail guide which suggested 3-4 days for most of the excursions!

This is ‘Moose Country’ but these odd-looking beasts are enigmatic and hard to spot unless you know where to look. It wasn’t till we arrived at our hotel, the Teton Jackson Lake Lodge, that the moose mystery was solved.

After dinner, we strolled onto the hotel dining room’s balcony – and there was a mummy moose with her calf in the wetlands around the lake.  Next day, we saw another pair of moose outside the hotel by a watering hole. What a thrilling experience.

Moose

Moose on the loose

A lovely half day trip is Jenny Lake, a pretty, idyllic spot where you can enjoy the fragile beauty of this remarkable landscape.

For a complete contrast, take a trip to Jackson Hole, an attractive, if slightly touristy town, with great cake shops and cafes. I was fascinated by the town square with its archway made entirely of elk antlers.

Wyoming’s wild landscapes are a great place to roam and let your imagination run riot. With truly spectacular scenery, this is the American road trip of a lifetime.

Tammy’s Travel Tips – Wyoming

Fly into Jackson or Cheyenne from one of the US’s larger city airports (Salt Lake City, Denver). Alternatively, why not drive over the border from Canada and combine a two-centre holiday in Wyoming and Alberta. To do this, fly into Calgary and then head south over the border into Montana and Wyoming.

Book early if you’re planning on staying in the National Park lodges as they fill up quickly. An alternative to staying in Yellowstone National Park is to overnight in nearby West Yellowstone town which has a wide range of well-priced hotels.

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Another option is to hire a camper van but check sites where you might stay in advance using the US RV Guide.

The Beartooth Scenic Highway can be reached from the north-east exit out of Yellowstone National Park The road travels for 68 miles past the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness and over the Beartooth Plateau at an elevation of 10,970 feet and to Red Lodge, Montana. Buy a decent map so you can make the most of this beautiful route.

Buy a local guide-book with hiking trails and detailed information about the national parks. Both the main parks also have great magazines, maps and free literature too. Look out for warden walks and talks. Check out the Wyoming Tourism website.

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone rock formation

Enjoy reading one of the many books about ‘The Dangers of Yellowstone’ including the hundreds of ways you can die horribly in the wilderness.

Don’t miss a trip over the border into neighbouring Montana, one of the prettiest parts of the USA, with its sparkling rivers and lush meadows.

Umbria, Italy – Tammy’s Travel Shorts

Sunflowers - Umbria

Sunflowers – Umbria

When the temperature plummets and there’s snow on the ground, my thoughts turn to summer holidays.

Umbria is one of my top tips for a holiday destination if you’re looking for a hot location in 2015.

Less crowded than Tuscany, more relaxing than the busy Neapolitan Riviera and cheaper than a city break to Rome, this is a region renowned for its fabulous food, wine and history.

So here are my five top reasons to pick Umbria for your spring or summer holiday this year.

1.  Culture and history

Umbria

Umbria boasts a rich heritage

Umbria’s rich culture is unquestionably one of its biggest attractions with cities and towns bursting with artistic treasures, beautiful architecture and historic palaces.

The historic towns of Spoleto, Todi, Orvieto, Gubbio and Perugia are the best known historic centres but there’s wealth of smaller places too, including Spello, Bevagna and Montefalco.

With Umbrian history dating back to the 6th Century BC, there’s everything from Neolithic remnants and Roman remains to Etruscan treasures, Renaissance art and Baroque masterpieces.

Perugia Duomo - cathedral lion

Perugia Duomo – cathedral lion

Perugia is the biggest cultural hot spot in the region, boasting museums, palaces, city walls and a fortress as well as an interesting Archaeological Museum.

The Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia has a fine collection of art from the 13th-19th centuries including a huge collection of religious art.

It’s not my favourite style of art but you can’t help marvel at the beauty of the altar pieces.

Perugia Umbria

Perugia’s Piazza IV Novembre

2. Beautiful churches

Umbria is a major cradle of Christianity in Italy with important centres of worship including Assisi, Orvieto and Spoleto, each with their beautiful cathedrals and churches.

The pretty town of Spoleto with its glorious hilltop setting has long been a major stop on Italy’s historic Grand Tour.

The gorgeous Piazza Garibaldi on the edge of the town boasts the Romanesque church of San Gregorio Maggiore.

Approached by a sloping ramp is the Piazza del Mercato with the imposing Duomo, Spoleto’s cathedral with its superb Romanesque facade and Baroque interior with fine art works and treasures.

Orvieto Cathedral

Spoleto – spiritual setting for the Duomo

But my favourite place is Assisi in northern Umbria , a stunning city blessed with some of the world’s greatest art and architecture.

It boasts one of Italy’s most beautiful basilicas which attracts visitors and pilgrims from around the globe. You can also lose yourself in its maze of medieval, cobbled streets   

St Francis was born in Assisi around 1181 and his spiritual presence still dominates the city 800 years on.

You can follow in his footsteps along the Franciscan Path of Peace which retraces the saint’s 1206 journey to abbeys, chapels and hillside villages.

The Basilica di San Francesco is one of the wonders of its age with superb decoration and frescoes by the incomparable painter, Giotto.

Assissi

The Basilica in Assisi

It’s a miracle that this building has survived, having weathered several earthquakes including a severe quake in 1997 which badly damaged the church.

Today, it’s been restored to its full glory. It’s a breathtaking  building and its frescoes are amongst the greatest in the world.

Don’t miss a trip to the Tomb of St Francis down in the Crypt. It’s an atmospheric and spiritual experience.

Umbria

Renaissance masterpiece – Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi

Todi is another town with a stunning hillside setting dominated by the towers and domes of its Renaissance and Franciscan churches.

One of the most prominent is San Fortunato, a large and imposing church which is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Go inside and check out its wonderful frescoes and famous crypt.

Orvieto Cathedral

Orvieto Cathedral

Elsewhere in Todi, there are many beautiful smaller churches to explore, but the big blockbuster attraction in Todi is Santa Maria della Consolazione.

This masterpiece of the Renaissance is characterised by its huge dome and boasts great views of the Umbrian countryside.

Even if you’re not a fan of churches, you can’t deny that they are extremely beautiful to look at.

Another highlight is Orvieto with its Duomo or cathedral which dominates the skyline of the town which perches on a rocky tufa outcrop with the remains of ancient volcanoes.

The first thing to notice about the cathedral is its unusual striped design and the gorgeous, golden mosaics which sparkle in the Italian sunshine.

Explore its Romanesque interior which is equally mind-blowing with yet more fabulous frescoes and art treasures.

Umbria is stuffed with beautiful churches, cathedrals and frescoes so if that lights your candle, you’re in for a bumper treat!

Cathedral window

Cathedral window

3. Superb Wines 

You may know about the ‘super Tuscan’ wines but how often have you tasted the so-called ‘super Umbrians’?

I love wine so Umbria is a fabulous place to hang out, drink the local produce and visit a few vineyards.

Umbrian wine isn’t widely drunk in Britain so it’s brilliant to be able to try new grape varieties with weird names like Sagrantino, Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto.

Tammy in Umbria

Tammy tasting local wines in Umbria

Umbria which has a perfect climate for vines with its hot summers, sun-drenched valley slopes and rich limestone-clay soils.

Why not take a trip on the Colli del Trasimeno wine route which has five itineraries for drivers with wine cellars on each route.

Montefalco is one of the most interesting wine areas. This medieval town boasts numerous wine shops and vinotecas stocking an excellent selection of locally produced wines.

On the apartment terrace - Italy

Wine tasting in Umbria

Montefalco is one of the few places in Italy where grapes were grown inside the city walls, a tradition which continues in a small way even today.

Another town worth visiting is Torgiano where there is an excellent wine museum and tasting room run by the internationally renowned Lungarotti family.

The Lungarotti shop next door has free tastings and the staff are very knowledgeable and helpful – they speak English and killed us with kindness.

Read Tammy’s blog post about Umbrian wine tasting and vineyards 

4. Timeless landscapes

Umbria is renowned for its timeless, unspoiled landscapes, beautiful mountains and hillsides spotted with sleepy villages.  It’s almost like time has stood still in this idyllic landscape.

My best memories of Umbria involved sitting with a glass of wine at our holiday cottage, looking out over the olive groves and vineyards as the light turned a coppery orange at the end of a perfect sunny day.

Umbria

Umbria’s olive groves and vineyards

We stayed on a working farm which specialises in olive oil production so it was a treat to experience the slow-paced way of life. The generous owners kept giving us wine, olive oil and eggs from the farm.

What a fantastic antidote to city living, even if the sound of the goats and farm animals did wake me up in the middle of the night!

Umbria’s diverse landscapes range from mountains and hills to plains, lakes, rivers and marshland so a hire car is strongly recommended if you want to make the most of this extensive region.

Umbria

The Umbrian countryside

A trip to Lake Trasimeno is worthwhile for its very different scenery as well as its boating, leisure attractions and ancient history. It was here that Hannibal inflicted a crushing defeat on the Romans in 217 BC.

From the lakeside there are good views of castles, fortified villages and the small islands dotted around the lake.

The islands were once home to monasteries, convents and fishing communities but today you can take a boat trip to see their ruins and enjoy their tranquil scenery.  

Lake Trasimeno

Lake Trasimeno

The Campo del Sole is an interesting art park close to the lake with 27 contemporary sculptures made of local stone set in a lovely park on the lakeshore. 

Further afield, you can lose yourself in the solitude and nature wonders of the mountains of Monti Sibillini and Monte Subasio National Parks. 

Sadly, I didn’t leave enough time to visit the Parco Fluviale del Nera with its famous waterfalls and cascades. But I hear from locals that it’s a spectacular sight.

Sol art park Lake Trasimeno

Campo del Sol – Lake Trasimeno

5. Panoramas, palaces and piazzas 

A stunning view is guaranteed everywhere you travel in Umbria. And then there are its historic palaces and piazzas, another feast for the eyes.

Many of the region’s historic towns and cities are perched on the top of hillsides with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Every vista is a treat so find yourself a good scenic viewpoint to enjoy the scenery and widescreen panoramas.

Umbria

Hillside views

The Umbrian street life is also as laid-back and relaxed as you can find in Italy. There’s not too many speeding scooters and fewer noisy crowds.

One of my favourite cities is Perugia with its historic buildings and the relaxing Piazza IV Novembre.

You can sit and soak up hundreds of years of history, surrounded by the Maggiore Fountain, the ‘pink and white’ marble Duomo and the imposing Palazzo dei Priori.

Perugia

A walk through time – Perugia’s Piazza IV Novembre

Over in Todi, take a stroll around the town’s well-preserved medieval square with its monuments, palaces and splendid historic buildings.

Find a nearby cafe and marvel at centuries of history as you indulge yourself with a glass of the local Umbrian wine.

Many towns have festivals, the biggest being Spoleto’s international art and jazz jamboree which takes place during the summer in its main piazza.

Umbria

Charming piazza in Umbria

Markets are everywhere, if you enjoy soaking up the rich local culture. Most small towns and villages have a weekly market where you can buy Umbrian produce or simply enjoy the atmosphere.

We arrived in Bevagna during historic celebrations with the locals dressed up in medieval period dress.

Umbria is a place for culture, history and food lovers. A perfect late spring and autumn escape.

Don’t expect lots of nightlife and crazy parties. This is a walk back in time – a trip into a quieter age and  a great antidote to busy city life.

Umbria is one of Italy’s great treasure houses so book your trip now!

Umbria

Piazza – Umbrian street life

Tammy’s travel tips – Umbria

Umbria is ideal for cottage and villa holidays. Why not stay on a vineyard, farm or in a country house?

Try the excellent range of Agriturismo property rentals in picturesque locations across Umbria. We found this is a brilliant, cheap alternative to hotel holidays, even for couples.

There’s also some lovely hotels – one of my favourites is the gorgeous La Locanda del Prete in the hilltop village of Saragano, which provides a traditional and authentic experience.

It also boasts a lovely restaurant and bar with gorgeous views over the Umbrian countryside.

Umbria

Farm in Umbria

Why not combine a week in Umbria with a week in Rome?

Fly to Rome and stay in the city, then pick up a hire car and drive for a couple of hours to the Umbrian heartland? En route, visit the Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa.

I was surprised how cheap it is to eat and drink in Umbria compared with more traditional holiday areas of Italy.  You can live on a modest budget if you’re looking for an affordable break.

We stayed at a lovely, moderately priced villa called La Vigna with a pool near Saragano (in the area of Collazzone, between Todi and Foligno).

The property was surrounded by olive groves, vineyards and farmland but was close to shops and local villages.

There are many similar villas in the area close to the heart of the Umbrian countryside but within easy reach of towns and cities,

Umbria

Room with a view – La Vigna, Umbria

Tammy’s Travel Shorts – Arizona, USA

Arizona

Arizona dreaming – Tammy on location

It’s the time of year when we’re looking forward to booking our spring and summer holidays. So what better time to launch a new feature designed to give you some vacation ideas. I’ve called it ‘Tammy’s Travel Shorts’.

Excuse the pun but my focus will be on hot places where shorts and T-shirts are the perfect attire. I’m hoping these short features will lift the winter gloom as we shiver through the cold season.

My first recommendation is super-hot Arizona in the United States.

Not only does the ‘Grand Canyon State’ boast one of the world’s most stunning natural attractions, its hot, arid desert landscape is as far removed as you can get from the cold and unpredictable weather of the UK.

Here are my top five top things to love about Arizona, one of the world’s areas of outstanding natural beauty.

1. Wild west landscapes

Tammy at the Grand Canyon

Tammy at the Grand Canyon

Arizona is all about big landscapes from red-rock canyons and creeks to mountains and deserts.  I love its strange-looking rock formations. ‘Cowboy country’ with its distinctive mesas, butes and spires is one of my favourite landscapes.

The Grand Canyon should be on any self-respecting traveller’s itinerary with its dramatic geology and landscape. Truly, this is one of the seven wonders of the world. You can hike it, bike it, fly over it, ride a mule train down it or take the National Park bus which drops you off at different locations, each with their own spectacular views.

Since I visited, they’ve added the glass Skywalk, a cantilevered walkway jutting out 70 feet over the canyon’s rim.  You’ll need a head for heights!

The Grand Canyon is the perfect place to watch a sunset and enjoy the changing light as it bounces around the sculpted rocks of the gorge and the Colorado River below. Allow plenty of time to explore the park as it covers a huge area.

If you’re on a road trip, why not take a detour over the border into neighbouring Utah where there’s more stunning scenery including Canyonlands, Monument Valley and Arches National Parks. I’m a huge fan of road trips and the South West USA is perfect for a tour.

Canyonlands

Canyonlands

Closer to Phoenix, a trip along the back road of Superstition Mountain isn’t for the faint-hearted with a series of precarious zig-zag hairpin bends and incredible views as you twist and turn on your car journey.

2. Ancient cultures

Arizona is a brilliant place if you’re interested in tracking down the history of America’s ancient peoples and their prehistoric roots.

One of my favourite sites is the idyllic Montezuma Castle National Monument. The visually spectacular remains of cliff dwellings are hewn into the sheer limestone cliff face overlooking Beaver Creek. This was once home to the Sinagua people who inhabited the area many centuries ago.

Montezuma Castle National Park

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Further afield, it’s fun looking for ancient signs or petroglyphs on the rocks of canyon areas once inhabited by native peoples.

Studying them and trying to work out what they mean is a tricky at times as little is known about these strange rock markings.

Their exact meaning has been lost over time but it’s often possible to piece together a story from the images of human figures, animals, birds, insects and symbols, if you use your imagination.

Petroglyph Arizona

Petroglyph – Arizona

The petroglyphs have great cultural significance to the Puebloan people. Look carefully but don’t touch as the pictures are fragile remnants of a past age.

Back in Phoenix go and marvel at ancient treasures in the fantastic Heard Museum with its collection of native South Western American artefacts.

3. Architectural wonders

Taliesin West Arizona

Taliesin West

Arizona has an amazing range of architecture from traditional ranches to colonial and contemporary styles. My favourite modern building is Taliesin West designed by architectural genius, Frank Lloyd Wright as his home and study centre in the late 1930s.

Located in the Sonoran desert, the building demonstrates Wright’s ability to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces. The low-slung buildings mesh totally with the natural landscape of the desert beyond.

Wright felt strongly that Arizona needed its own style of architecture – and this is the apotheosis of his vision. Take one of the many daily tours, sit on the chairs in the lounge, explore the gardens and marvel at the beautifully designed interiors. It’s my dream home!

Arcosanti is another architectural gem in the desert. It’s well worth a detour if you’re a fan of alternative communities. Located in the wonderfully named Paradise Valley, this community of artists and experimental buildings is a great example of green living where you can join a workshop, take a tour or browse the art gallery.

For an even more unusual architectural experience, take a trip to the Biosphere 2 Center near Tucson. This futuristic building was designed to accommodate eight people in a sealed environment for two years as part of an ecological experiment.

Taking the guided tour is a bit like visiting a space station in the desert or playing the virtual game, Second Life. You can wander through simulated tropical rain forest, marsh, ocean and savannah. A truly unique experience!

Biosphere Arizona

The Biosphere

4. Go wild with nature

Arizona is a nature lover’s dream. Not only does it have spectacular landscapes, its arid climate means that there’s a fascinating range of wildlife and plants.

The iconic cacti can be seen everywhere. One of the best places to see them in their full glory is Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden which boasts 200 varieties. It’s tempting to stroke them but don’t get too close to these prickly plants or you may get more than you bargained for!

Cacti Arizona

Prickly plant – the cacti

You might expect a poverty of wildlife in a dry desert landscape but the range of birds, animals, reptiles and plants is unexpectedly diverse in Arizona.

Many plants and creatures have adapted to the extreme heat. Most of them cope by conserving water, hunkering down during the heat of the day or adapting to the extreme climate.

Bird life Arizona
Bird life Arizona

Bird watching in Arizona is surprisingly good especially in the verdant canyons outside Tucson and around the red rocks of Sedona.

One of my favourite birds is the tiny humming-bird which darts around like a hyperactive bee, but with bigger wings and a splash of iridiscent colour.

Another stunner is the Hooded Oriole (pictured above) which strikes a colourful pose amongst the foliage on a boiling hot summer’s day.

5. Cowboy country

Wild west Arizona

Wild west – Tombstone

Arizona is possibly the best place in the Unites States to capture the spirit of the Wild West and cowboy country.

Travel back in time at Tombstone near Tucson where they re-enact gun fights and re-create the shoot-out at the OK Corral, one of the most famous folk tales of the Wild West.

Wannabe cowboys are in for a treat with a choice of ranch ‘dude’ holidays and horse riding excursions. Don’t blame me if you fall off your stallion!

Old mining towns abound. A personal favourite is Jerome, a historic silver mining town, which is now bursting with trendy cafes and art galleries.

Perfect holiday trip

So is Arizona the perfect overseas holiday destination?

In many ways, the answer is ‘yes’. Sun seekers can’t go wrong because hot, sunny weather is pretty much guaranteed year-round with average temperature of 21-35 degrees C.

Hedonists will love Scottsdale on the edge of Phoenix with its fantastic range of hotels and eateries. Spa lovers can get pampered and escape from the heat in one of the specialist resort hotels in Phoenix, Sedona and Tucson.

Arizona

Arizona’s ancient landscape

Wildlife lovers and hiking fans are in for a treat with wild walks and areas of supreme natural beauty. Arizona rocks – and that’s just the landscape with its boulders, rocky canyons and craggy geology.

Arizona is also perfect for golf addicts. I couldn’t help marvelling at the huge number of perfectly manicured golf courses – a weird sight in a desert landscape.

Thrill seekers can bungee, fly, raft, ride or glide above or below the Grand Canyon. Alternatively, why not join a cattle round-up on horseback at a working ranch? Lovers of the open road can drive Route 66, America’s most famous highway.

Arizona is a great all-round destination but one word of advice – avoid the scorching summer months when temperatures hit the high 30s. Spring and autumn are the best seasons to book a vacation.

Go wild and enjoy your trip to America’s Wild South West!

Arizona landscape

Arizona desert landscape

 

Kettle’s Yard – Art Lover’s House

Kettle's Yard

A space for dream living – Kettle’s Yard

Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge is a house I keep on going back to. It boasts a beautiful interior, crammed with stunning art works collected by its original owner, Jim Ede.

If I had to list my top 10 dream homes, this would be one of them. It isn’t grandiose but there’s something about it which oozes informal style and serenity.

It’s the sort of place where I could see myself living, lazing on a comfy sofa with a mug of cappuccino whilst flicking through the gorgeous collection of art books in the library.

Art lover’s dream house

Kettle's Yard

Inside Kettle’s Yard House

Kettle’s Yard is one of Cambridge’s best-kept secrets, hidden at the back of a main road next to a wooded churchyard with little to suggest what lies within its walls.

From the outside it isn’t showy and looks deceptively small.

As you ring the bell and walk through its tiny doorway, it’s hard to imagine the treasures beyond.

Once inside, you’re in for a big surprise. It’s a house which is hard to compare to any other.

This place is truly unique, the brainchild of Jim Ede who restored the derelict shells of four old houses, transforming them into a home for an art lover.

It’s neither a gallery nor a museum yet houses one of the best modern art collections you’ll see anywhere on the planet.

Kettle's Yard

Elegant detail from Kettle’s Yard

The reception rooms are small and unpretensious but the presence of a Miro on one wall gives a hint of what’s to come.

The house welcomes you inside as if you’ve arrived for afternoon tea and cakes with its owner.

Everything is as it was when the Edes left the house in the early 1970s, from their collection of art works and books to bowls of carefully arranged pebbles.

The amazing art works are no doubt the envy of many private collectors and galleries.

Kettle's Yard

Art is around every corner at Kettle’s Yard

Jim Ede was the curator of London’s Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 30s although he preferred to describe himself as a “friend of artists”.

While working at the Tate he developed friendships with promising young painters including Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and David Jones.

Today, it’s the perfect place to glimpse their works which are scattered throughout the house. As you move from room to room, it’s hard not to gasp when you read the inscriptions on the sculptures and paintings.

Was that a Henry Moore I glimpsed in the far corner of the living room?

A small, exquisite Miro painting caught my eye in the sitting room. Jim Ede met the artist in the 1920s and acquired the little painting called ‘Tic Tic’ during a trip to Paris in 1932.

Kettle's Yard

Ben Nicholson – Kettle’s Yard

Over in the bathroom (yes, the bathroom) I noticed a Ben Nicholson painting sitting alongside a French landscape by Christopher Wood. Oh to have such works in your house, never mind the loo!

Next to it is one of many gorgeous sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska whose work Ede had started collecting, amassing one of the largest collections of the artist’s sculptures and drawings in the world.

As you move upstairs, the Gaudier-Brzeskas come thick and fast with works of staggering beauty. They’re some of my favourites in the whole house.

Kettle's Yard

Sideboard sculpture by Gaudier-Brzeska

Ede wrote Gaudier-Brzeska’s biography – The Savage Messiah – which was turned into a film by maverick director Ken Russell in the 1960s.

This artistic genius was killed tragically young in the First World War, but not before producing a series of master works.

Following his death, Jim Ede bought many of Gaudier-Brzeska’s works which are displayed to beautiful effect in the house’s living spaces.

There’s even a special attic gallery dedicated to the artist’s sculptures, sketches and drawings. Who else but Ede could have hidden these awesome pieces up in the attic?

Kettle's Yard

A relief by Gaudier-Brzeska

Everywhere you look in Kettle’s Yard House, there are surprising works by major modern artists, from Brancusi and Naum Gabo to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Ede’s art collection was a labour of love and his eye for artistic talent was sharp as a razor. It’s like walking through the galleries at the Tate, but with an informal setting where you can take in the works at your leisure.

Even when Jim and Helen lived in the house in the 1950 and 60s, they’d open it to the public every weekday afternoon. Today – like then – it is a place where people can feel at home and enjoy art in a relaxed atmosphere.

Kettle's Yard

Art is all around at Kettle’s Yard

Taking the self-guided tour is like being a child in a sweet shop of great artistic objects. The difference from an art gallery is that you can sit on the chairs, some of which are 300-years-old.

There is art everywhere from portraits and landscapes to sculptures and sketches.

Every nook and cranny is another unexpected treat. Look out for a Henry Moore sculpture casually stuffed under the stairs.

Kettle's Yard

Deer sculpture by Gaudier-Brzesks

Living the dream

Kettle’s Yard is a house which couldn’t be more different to a Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright architectural creation.

It has a certain ‘lived in’ look’ without the minimalism and stylish austerity of many great modern houses.

Kettle's Yard

Kettle’s Yard

Jim Ede wanted to create “a living place where works of art would be enjoyed, inherent to a domestic setting, where young people could be at home, unhampered by the great austerity of the museum or public art gallery”.

The Edes donated the house to the University of Cambridge in 1966, leaving it for good in 1973. What a great gift to the public who can now enjoy its treasures.

A house of contrasts

One of the recurring themes at Kettle’s Yard is the relationship between art and natural objects, light and dark, smooth and textured surfaces.

I love the sense of light and space in the house especially in the lower downstairs music room, one of my favourite areas.

On the Steinway piano sits Russian-born sculptor Naum Gabo’s glorious ‘Construction in Space’, a geometric work that reflects the rhythm of music.

Kettle's Yard

Light and space in the Bechstein Room

Another recurring motif in the house is circular shapes, from round tables to intersecting curves of stone carvings to the semi-circles of the window designs.

The Bechstein Room with its piano and interplay between light and dark spaces is a great place to chill out before exploring the rest of the upper floor of the house.

Kettle's Yard

A sitting space at Kettle’s Yard

The library is another of my favourite rooms with its paintings by Alfred Wallis plus more sensational sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska including the ravishing ‘Boy with Uplifted Arms’.

You can browse the books, sit here reading for hours or simply relax and enjoy the art as light streams through the skylights.

And there’s a slightly precariously placed Barbara Hepworth sculpture perched at the top of the stairs on a narrow ledge. Now I understand why you have to leave your bags in the cloakroom when you arrive!

Kettle's Yard

The library and Barbara Hepworth sculpture

Home from home

Kettle's Yard

Peace and order – the perfect house interior

You have to admire Jim Ede’s brilliant vision. He wanted to create a house in which art could be enjoyed as part of everyday life, where visitors could – in his own words – “find a home and a welcome, a refuge of peace and order”.

That vision extended to the interior design and furnishings in the house.

The Edes were also passionate about found and ‘stray’ objects such as stones, shells, pieces of glass and pebbles which they arranged to beautiful effect throughout the house.

Jim Ede once wrote that he would search for hours looking for the perfect pebbles on beaches and by rivers, discarding all but the best specimens.

He would throw away 10,000 pebbles in his search for perfection of shape and form.

Kettle's Yard

Perfect pebbles

I had thought about copying this idea in my own home but it’s harder than you might think.

Finding perfectly shaped pebbles on a beach is time-consuming and a labour of love. For Ede, pebbles were like sculptures with their perfectly rounded forms and their sense of natural order.

Plants and flowers were also important to the Edes so it’s no surprise that they’re also a prominent feature of Kettle’s Yard House.

Kettle's Yard

Flowers, plants and light patterns

Ede was especially interested in variations in the angle and direction of sunlight, throughout the day and different seasons to create ever-changing visual effects.

This can be seen in many of the rooms where there’s an interplay between light, shade and the natural world.

A glass refracting ornament revolves and reflects the plants and flowers in a window area. Watching it change colour and twirl around is mesmerising.

On the walls there are many landscapes which also echo the theme of the natural world whilst the sculptures have flowing, sinuous organic lines too.

Kettle's Yard

Art and nature – Kettle’s Yard

The world was the Ede’s oyster – they travelled extensively and this is obvious from many of the exotic objects in the house which sit side-by-side next to the art works.

There are Buddhas and objets d’art from far-flung place. The Edes were keen to showcase treasures from their trips abroad and their time spent in Morocco, USA, and Europe.

Kettle's Yard

Exotic influences at Kettle’s Yard

Beyond the house

After leaving the house, take a stroll around the churchyard which it overlooks.

Kettle’s Yard House is not very prepossessing from the outside, but its setting is pretty – and reflects Ede’s vision of creating an oasis of peace and escape from the bustling city centre beyond.

Walk across the churchyard and peek into St Peter’s Church which despite its austere interior, has an intriguing history dating back to the 13th Century.

Kettle's Yard Church Cambridge

Kettle’s Yard church yard

Look out for the font, which together with the north doorway, is one of the few surviving features from the original Norman church.

Around the font’s edges there are four carved mermaids with their twisted braids merging to form a border. It has a certain pagan quality.

Kettle's Yard Church Cambridge

Kettle’s Yard House

But it’s the House and Gallery which are the real stars of a trip to Kettle’s Yard. For anyone who has a passion for art and interior design, Kettle’s Yard House is the perfect treat.

It’s just a shame that it’s not my own personal pad – even though it feels like it could be. It’s definitely on my list of top 10 dream homes!

Tammy’s Guide – Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Kettle’s Yard House is located in Cambridge in the east of England. It’s not far from the city centre just off the back of Castle Street.

‘Open house’ is held daily from 12:00 -17:o0 except Mondays.  Admission is free. Simply ring the bell and you’ll be shown inside.

Don’t miss the modern gallery – called Kettle’s Yard Gallery – next to the house which holds temporary exhibitions and boasts a small shop. Look out for seasonal classical music in the grounds.

Kettle's Yard

A home from home – Kettle’s Yard House

Don’t miss picking up the excellent Kettle’s Yard guide books at the gallery shop before visiting the house. The two brochures provide a brilliant introduction to the art works and the house.

Take your camera. You can take photos inside the Kettle’s Yard House but be prepared to leave your bags in the cloak room.

Kettle’s Yard is within easy walking distance of Cambridge city centre and its tourist attractions and historic colleges.

Kettle's Yard

Sculptural gems in the house

Sound of the Wild – Barnacle Geese on the Solway Firth

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

In winter there’s nothing better than the sound of wild geese honking overhead.

Barnacle Geese are incredible flying and honking machines. Every winter they make a 4,000 mile round trip from their home in Svalbard near the Arctic Circle to the Solway Firth.

These long distance travellers are remarkable because they use their own in-built ‘sat navs’ to escape the freezing cold of Spitzbergen to spend four months in Scotland.

Although Scotland’s climate is cold, it’s positively balmy compared with the Arctic Circle and Svalbard’s icy wastes.

This bird migration spectacle is a great winter wildlife experience which I was lucky to see first-hand earlier this week at the Caerlaverock Wildlands and Wetlands Nature Reserve.

Awesome honking sound!

The Solway Firth – and Caerlaverock in particular – are the best places to hear the sound of the Barnacle Geese in Great Britain.

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

Barnacle Geese feeding on the Solway Firth

So what’s the best way to experience the geese? Wild birds can be pretty elusive unless you know where and when to look for them.

Waking up early is a must at Caerlaverock so we stayed overnight on reserve in our camper van. We set our alarms for 6:30, kitted up in outdoor woollies, and walked down to the estuary just before the sun was about to rise.

Timing is crucial so we scheduled our trip to perfection, reaching a good viewing spot overlooking the Solway estuary around 7:15 am.

As the sunrise started to light up the skies around 7:30, the first of the geese started to lift into the sky, flying low over the water.

As the sky grew brighter, they were followed by huge flocks of birds, filling the skies with inky blackness as they flew overhead.

Caerlaverock reserve

Solway sunrise

What a thrill to hear them coming closer and closer, their honking reaching a crescendo.

We could identify individual birds as they circled overhead before landing on the nearby fields for their early breakfast treats.

The birds roost on the other side of the estuary so their arrival in waves is really dramatic as they fly over the water in V-formation to find their daytime feeding grounds.

Play the video to hear the spectacle at its peak.

After the final fly past ended, the skies fell quiet again. The birds were now busy feeding on the reserve and surrounding farms so we headed up the observation tower to get a panoramic view of the geese.

There must have been around 11,000 birds. The only downside to the spectacle was the whirring sound of a distant airplane in the far distance.

So why do the geese honk so loudly when flying in formation? Apparently, honking is designed to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Pity any lagging behind at the head of the flock!

Barnacle Geese are especially attractive with their black and white striped plumage, petite appearance and cute faces. But these wild birds get skittish if you get too near so keep your distance and use a bird hide as your viewing spot.

Later that day, we drove up the Solway Firth to Castle Douglas where we were surprised to see many more Barnacle Geese grazing on the fields near the coast.

But it was the sound of the birds which were the stars of this wildlife show. This is the true sound of winter!

Tammy’s Wild Goose Chase – Top Tips 

The Solway Firth is south-east of Dumfries in Western Scotland, close to Carlisle and the English Borders.

Caerlaverock Wetland Centre is the best place to watch the early morning wild goose spectacle. It’s open every day of the year 10-5 except Christmas Day. Drive nine miles south of Dumfries, following the tourist signs from the A75 west of Annan.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese

Look out for ‘wild goose’ walks throughout the winter months including the first weekend in January 2015 . During the day the Barnacle Geese hang around the fields on the reserve – the Tower, Corner and High Middle Fields are good places to spot them.

Don’t forget your binoculars and a telescope. Wear walking boots or wellies on the wildlife sites around the Solway Firth or Caerlaverock. It’s extremely boggy in places.

Read Tammy’s earlier blog post about Caerlaverock’s wildlife for the bigger picture.

Barnacle Geese – Fact File

* Barnacle Geese spend the summer nesting in the Arctic Circle in Svalbard, Greenland and Russia.

* In winter the geese fly south for food and warmth. The Barnacle Geese from Svalbard fly south to the Solway Firth.

* The journey between Svalbard and the Solway Firth is about 2,000 miles – the geese make this journey every year.

* In the 1940’s there were only 300 Svalbard Barnacle Geese but thanks to WWT Caerlaverock’s conservation work, there are now over 30,000 birds.

London’s Best Winter Art Shows

 

Post Pop at the Saatchi

Post Pop at the Saatchi Gallery

The weather is getting colder but London’s art scene is red-hot with a selection of fantastic shows guaranteed to provide winter cheer.

Here’s my pick of the best exhibitions currently showing in the capital which are destined to warm your senses with 100% visual overload.

1. Post Pop: East meets West – Saatchi Gallery

Fun, fabulous and controversial, Post Pop: East Meets West is a great show whether you’re looking for light relief or artistic stimulation over the holidays. 

This is an exhibition with something for everyone with its ‘over-the-top’ art works providing great talking points.

Where else could you see a cow’s rear end with a video of Lenin playing inside its belly? Gaze inside and marvel!

Saatchi Pop Art

Deep into Russia by Oleg Kulik c/o Saatchi Gallery

Another favourite is a life-sized female tennis player encased in a glass cabinet. On the opposite wall hangs a tribute to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson whilst nearby there’s a colourful styrofoam representation of the Queen of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe.

‘Post Pop: East Meets West’ brings together 250 striking works by artists from China, Russia, Taiwan, the UK and the USA based around six themes. 

The ‘Habitat’ gallery boasts strange interiors, bold ‘pop’ furniture and unfinished spaces. There’s even a bizarre kitchen full of flying pans and implements suspended in mid-air.

The ‘Advertising and Consumerism’ gallery is one of the most entertaining, taking its cue from American Pop Art imagery from the 1960s. Look out for re-imagined everyday objects including Duchamp-style gold urinals and Warholesque cardboard boxes.   

Saatchi Pop Art

Grisha Bruskin’s Soviet icons c/o Saatchi Gallery

The show is hugely playful and teases us with its use of humour and subversive imagery drawn from popular culture.

Post Pop is an unusual show because it’s the first I’ve seen which explores the relationship between western and eastern Pop Art.

It’s fantastic to see this east-west cross-over of Pop Art in the post-Warhol world… so total credit to the Saatchi Gallery for its bold and brash show.

Saatchi - Pop Art

Post Pop Art – striking images from the Saatchi

Upstairs in the ‘Sex and Body’ gallery, the challenging art works aren’t for prudes, but if you’re prepared to look, there’s everything from sex-mad skeletons to decorative genitalia. 

The neighbouring gallery is more conventional, focusing on ‘Celebrity and Mass Media’ with an explosion of images from our status and celebrity-obsessed world.  

Post Pop at the Saatchi

Hero, Leader, God by Kosolapov Saatchi

Mickey Mouse joins Lenin and Jesus in a mind-blowing, scarlet red sculpture by Alexander Kosolapov called ‘Hero, Leader, God’. Other exhibits draw heavily on imagery from commercial advertising and propaganda posters.

The ‘Ideology’ gallery displays provocative works with 
patriotic motifs. There are impressive Russian ‘pop’ pieces which tackle tough themes such as state control, conformity, ceremony, pomp and unanimity.

My favourite is a work of three silver-chrome figures carrying Soviet symbols, created in the kitsch style of American pop artist, Jeff Koons.

Marilyn Monrow in foam - Pop Art at the Saatchi

Marilyn Monrow in foam c/o Saatchi Gallery

Chinese art is too rarely seen in London’s galleries but here’s a chance to discover the country’s contemporary artists. They provide a commentary on the social dislocation created by this new superpower’s fascination with wealth and luxury following a period of austerity.

The western artists are represented by big guns like David Mach, Julian Opie, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whiteread, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and  Jeff Koons whilst the eastern perspective is provided by the likes of Ai Weiwei, the Blue Noses Group, Boris Orlov, Leonid Sokov and Alexander Vinogradov.

Post Pop: East Meets West is fresh and exhilarating and unlike anything else currently showing in London. It’s provocative and mind-blowing. Best of all, admission is free.

Visit the virtual gallery by clicking on the images shown below.

Post Pop @ The Saatchi Gallery runs until 23 February, 2015.  

2. Egon Schiele – Courtauld Gallery

Egon Schiele – The Radical Nude is a show that ‘s well worth a trip if you’re in the vicinity of the Courtauld Gallery on The Strand.

Egon Schiele was one of the most important artists of the early 20th Century. A central figure of Austrian Expressionism, he was renowned for his nudes, and many of his best works are assembled together for the first time in this exhibition.

Not always easy on the eye, Schiele can be an acquired taste with his expressionistic figures but this display of his nudes is unmissable.

His unflinching depictions of the naked figure are laid bare in this exhibition which showcases more than 30 radical works from international collections.

The only downside on my visit was the huge number of school kids blocking every art work as they sketched away. My advice is to go during a quiet spell to make the most of these revealing works. 

Schiele’s The Radical Nude runs until 18 January, 2015 at the Courtauld Gallery. 

3. Allen Jones – Royal Academy

Controversy isn’t far away wherever you look at the Allen Jones retrospective at the Royal Academy. This is a great exhibition if you’re looking to have a festive family feud over feminism!

Hat Stand by Allen Jones

Woman as furniture – Hat Stand by Allen Jones c/o Royal Academy

Allen Jones’ early mannequins – scantily clad women as furniture – greet you as you walk into the show.

These iconic Pop Art works were attacked by feminists hurling acid in the 1960s – and they haven’t lost any of their power to shock today.

They set the scene for what’s to follow in a show which covers 50 years of the artist’s works from the 1960s to the present day.

Allen Jones’ paintings, fibreglass models and erotic installations have one thing in common – the female figure is presented as if feminism never happened.

Although the show oozes creativity and bursts with colour, it’s hard to love because the women featured in the artist’s works are always submissive, subjugated or purely ornamental.

Some would argue that the works are satirical but it’s a claim I find hard to defend. The best pieces are admirable for their vibrant colours and dynamic subjects drawn from advertising and urban life.

In a memorable photograph, Kate Moss becomes the artist’s modern muse, wearing a skin-tight cat suit which looks like it’s been sprayed on with a can of paint. A bit like an old-fashioned Pirelli ‘glamour’ calendar.

Easy on the eye but morally troubling… there’s a big question hovering over this show. Is it boldly inventive or misogynistic? Go along and make up your own mind whether it’s a thriller or chiller.

Kate Moss c/o Allen Jones

Kate Moss c/o Allen Jones @ The Royal Academy

Allen Jones is at the Royal Academy in London until 25 January, 2015. 

4. Rembrandt – National Gallery

‘Rembrandt – The Late Works’ at the National Gallery is a must-see show for anyone who loves the Old Masters.

Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild c/o Rijksmuseum

Stuffed with fabulous paintings, this show packs a ‘wow’ factor for the crowds, focusing on the painter’s later works from the 1650s until his death in 1669.

It’s hard to believe that these works were created in the mid 17th Century because of their daring content and exceptional experimentation.

The paintings burst with the painter’s individuality and passion for people. He chooses mundane and sometimes ugly subjects but gives them a sense of humanity which makes them fascinating. Every picture tells a human story.

The paintings from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are the stars of the show. The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild is one of Rembrandt’s finest with its echoes of The Night Watch.  You can study the characters for hours!

Rembrandt: The Late Works runs at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing until 18 January, 2015. 

Read Tammy’s Rembrandt in London blog post.

5. Late Turner – Tate Britain

Turner is often considered to be the father of modern art. His works were so far ahead of their time that many look Impressionistic, even though the French painters didn’t appear on the art scene for another 30 years.

Turner

Turner’s sensational Light and Colour c/o Tate

This fabulous ‘tour de force’ show celebrates Turner’s creative flowering in his later years when he produced many of his finest pictures.

J.M.W. Turner was a genius at portraying landscapes. The show boasts my favourite Turner  ‘blockbuster’ paintings including Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway and The Fighting Temeraire.

Turner’s use of light is sensational – the way he captures luminosity and weather conditions is pure genius.

Late Turner runs at the Tate Britain until 25, January 2015.  Also check out the main Turner collection in the Clore Gallery.

Read Tammy’s blog post about the Late Turner exhibition.

6. Moroni – Royal Academy

If Renaissance masters and geniuses are your passion, the Moroni exhibition at the Royal Academy could be the tonic you need this winter.

Morini was a leading light of the Lombard School in Italy and one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th Century. Moroni’s naturalistic style was decades, perhaps centuries, ahead of its time, anticipating later painters like Caravaggio and Courbet.

If you’re looking for exquisite portraits, this is the place to come.

Moroni didn’t just paint rich aristocratic folk. His works show a surprisingly diverse cross-section of society. One of my favourite works – The Tailor – was revolutionary in depicting a manual worker as a gentleman, something rarely seen in portraiture of the time.

The Tailor by Moroni c/o The National Gallery London

The Tailor by Moroni c/o The National Gallery London

While his contemporaries were being commissioned by popes, wealthy families and emperors, Moroni was painting the middle and lower classes and lending an individuality to his subjects.

His expressive and characterful works lay largely forgotten for many years so it’s great to see his paintings presented to such good effect in a big gallery show.

Giovanni Battista Moroni is at the Royal Academy until 25 January, 2015. 

Giovanni Battista Moroni

Giovanni Battista Moroni
- A Gentleman in Adoration

7. Taylor Wessing Prize – National Portrait Gallery

If you have a passion for photography, you’ll enjoy a stroll around the outstanding entries in this year’s Taylor Wessing photographic competition.

This is a great opportunity to study 60 new portraits by some of the most exciting contemporary photographers from around the world.

Roger Lloyd Pack by Jon Cartwright

Actor Roger Lloyd-Pack by Jon Cartwright

What I like most about this show is the variety of portraits which range from intimate images of friends and families alongside portraits of famous faces including actors and celebrities.

There’s much to admire in this small but well-curated exhibition.

After seeing the show why not drop into the National Gallery’s Rembrandt exhibition and take a coffee break at the atmospheric cafe next door?

The Taylor Wessing exhibition runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 February, 2015. 

Winning vision - Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow by David Titlow

Winning  photo – Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow by David Titlow

8. Mirrorcity – Southbank

Mirrorcity at the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery is intriguing but frustrating. It’s great to walk through this multi-faceted exhibition but the quality of the works is patchy, ranging from the marvellous to the mediocre.

Digital arts, collage, the written word and performance art are all featured in this show which holds a glass up to London and reflects contemporary images of the capital created by established and emerging artists working in the city.

The big question thrown up is – how do we experience the reality of the city? There’s some challenging art ranging from painting, film and video to sculpture, sound works and performance pieces.

Mirrorcity - photo by Linda Nylind

Mirrorcity – photo by Linda Nylind c/o Hayward Gallery /Southbank

For me, the star exhibit is Lindsay Seers’ ‘Nowhere Less Now’ – a film shown on two screens as you sit inside a weird submarine structure. One screen is flat and round, the other is spherical.

The storytelling and bold visual imagery are complex and compelling, mysterious and mind-boggling.  Hypnotic is the best way to describe this fabulous work.

Nowhere Less Now by Lindsay Seers c/o the artist. Matt's Gallery and Art Angel

Nowhere Less Now by Lindsay Seers c/o the artist. Matt’s Gallery and Art Angel

Other works which stand out are the subversive and satirical graphic posters of London life which made me think about how we represent our cities on posters and the media.

Go inside Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery  - but be quick to arrange a trip as it’s due to end on 4 January, 2015.

Tammy’s top gallery picks

Post Pop

Post Pop Art @ the Saatchi

So what’s my top pick of the London art exhibitions this winter?

For fun and exuberance, it has to be the Saatchi’s ‘Post-Pop’ extravaganza- plus it’s the only major exhibition on my list which is free.

For traditional art, it has to be Rembrandt or Turner, both of which are sensational shows.

Enjoy your festive feast of art. Whatever your artistic tastes, the choice of red-hot art shows this winter couldn’t be better!

North East England’s rich seam of mining heritage

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Mining heritage – Northumberland

The North East of England is a rich seam of mining heritage. So why not walk back in time to explore the history of this industrial age?

Most of the old mines have disappeared and there are no deep pits left in production in North East England.

Mining has become a focus for the heritage industry with museums and attractions celebrating the region’s industrial past

I found myself reflecting on this heritage during a visit to the Miners’ Institute in Newcastle for the launch of ‘pitman artist’ Tom Lamb’s biography.

The book traces his life through 27 years working as a miner at Busty Pit at Craghead Colliery in County Durham.

Tom Lamb painting - c/o Tom Lamb

A miner’s life – Tom Lamb’s biography c/o Tom Lamb

Tom’s life underground is vividly brought to life with over 100 of his paintings and sketches in the book written by Dr Peter Norton.  It set me thinking about how much of this mining heritage you can still see today. 

A coal miner’s life

When Tom Lamb worked in the mines there were around 750,000 people employed in the coal mining industry in Britain. It’s amazing to think that there were 135 pits in the Durham Coalfield alone.

It was a hard life despite the camaraderie amongst the miners. Gas explosions, roof falls, flooding and runaways wagons were just some of the life-threatening hazards for the men working underground.

Tom Lamb started work down the mines in 1942 at the tender age of 14. He worked at the Busty Pit in Craghead not far from Stanley in County Durham where he kept sketchbooks illustrating life below ground.

Tom Lamb painting - c/o Tom Lamb

Sketch of miner shovelling coal – c/o Tom Lamb

Whenever he could, he’d sketch his fellow miners at work. This image of a miner shovelling coal on a longwall face is particularly evocative.

The conditions were brutal in this dark, damp and dangerous environment and it’s astonishing that Tom was able to capture these images with such clarity.

Back in daylight, he would use the sketches as a starting point for his oil paintings.  One of my favourites is a scene of Tom’s first day going underground called ‘Gannin’ Doon the Pit’ which has become an iconic image.

Painted in 1946, all the men featured in the painting are his fellow miners with the new starters on the left and the colliery officials on the right. Look carefully and you’ll see Tom Lamb himself in the centre of the group together with his uncle, Jackey Lamb, one of the officials.

Tom Lamb painting - c/o Tom Lamb

Gannin’ Doon the Pit c/o Tom Lamb

Tom’s reaction to going underground for the first time was that he was “going to a place where the sun never shines”.

He remembers the arrival of the cage to take him below ground and dropping down to the deep shaft. For a teenager, it must’ve been a terrifying experience.

Today, coal mining as a way of life is long gone.  So what’s left of Tom Lamb’s mining in County Durham?

I took a trip on a mining journey of discovery last weekend to find out what traces still remain.

Craghead Colliery closed in 1969 but there are remnants of the mining industry in the village today. The Malley Bell shaft cover can still be glimpsed from the roadside in the grounds of East Villa on Thomas Street in the village.

Tom Lamb painting - c/o Tom Lamb

The Putter moving a tub of coal c/o Tom Lamb

Around the village the landscape has been reclaimed but look hard enough and you’ll see signs of its mining past – the old mining community buildings, the pit houses, allotments and scars on the landscape.

Taking pride of place is a statue to the miners on the village main street as well as the miner’s lamp memorial just before you drive into Craghead.

Craghead

Craghead celebrates its mining heritage

You can also just about make out the route of the incline which was constructed to take the Craghead coal to Pelton Level where the wagons joined the Stanhope and Tyne Railway.  

Life at the coal face

Another place to get a glimpse of life down the pits is the excellent Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington, Northumberland.

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.

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 led 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.

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

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

Many of the mining buildings have been restored so it’s possible to get a glimpse of life in a mining community.

Woodhorn Mine sign

Woodhorn Mine sign

Today the museum hosts the annual Ashington Miners’ Picnic in the summer, a get-together for the community including 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 politicians 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 which takes place every summer.

Heritage tourism

Coal mining has also become a heritage and tourist industry in the North East. Not to be missed is Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham which makes a great day trip for heritage detectives.

This living history museum has a recreation of mining buildings, brought to the site from elsewhere in the region and re-assembled.

For those interested in mining heritage, there’s an actual drift mine, one of many that once thrived in the Beamish area. There’s also a reconstruction of a typical pit village which gives an insight into life in the 1900s in the northern coalfields.

Mine at Beamish

Mine at Beamish

Take a trip underground at the Mahogany Drift Mine and you’ll discover the often grim reality of conditions for pit workers.

It must have been back-breaking work in this claustrophobic environment.

Inside the colliery lamp cabin you can see the rows of miners’ lamps which the men would have used during their shifts.

The Colliery Winding Engine, dating from 1855, is the only survivor of its type, and was once common in the north’s coalfields. Today you can still see its winding gear in action.

Pit pony at Mine at Beamish

Pit pony at Beamish

Over in the ‘pit village’ visitors can go inside the miners’ cottages and see how families lived in the early 1900s.

The colliery houses on Francis Street were moved to Beamish from Hetton-le-Hole on Wearside to preserve the mining heritage. Step into mining families’ homes with their cosy, coal-fired ranges and look at the outside “netties” (toilets) and tin baths hanging in the back yard.

Methodism flourished in the North East’s pit communities. At Beamish you can go inside a Wesleyan Chapel from Pit Hill, an old mining community, which hosts traditional services.

Hetton Silver Band Hall has also been moved to Beamish, brick by brick from Hetton-le-Hole, and you can hear what a brass band would have sounded like in a mining village.

The Pit Pony Stables is a replica of an existing block which served Rickless drift mine in Gateshead. It illustrates the role played by horses in a North East colliery in the years before the First World War.

‘Pitmen Painters’

Miners' banner

Miners’ banner

The North East of England is also famous for its pitmen artists who painted their lives above and below ground.

They were talented but untrained, learning their trade the hard way – working at the pit face and painting in their spare time

The Ashington Group of miners, who got together in the 1930s, were dubbed the “Pitmen Painters”.

After their shifts at the Woodhorn or Ellington pits, the group took art appreciation classes at Ashington YMCA.

The paintings they produced provided a striking record of life in a mining town and at the pit.

I love the raw quality of their paintings – the way they throw you into the heart and soul of the mining community.

Ashington School painting

Ashington School painting

Today, the best place to see the their paintings is at the Woodhorn Museum in a special gallery dedicated to their work.

In County Durham miners Tom Lamb and Norman Cornish developed a passion for painting and, like their Ashington counterparts, drew on their experiences of life. This BBC TV video shows how Tom took inspiration from the coal face in his art.

‘Pitmatic’ – the miners’ language

Mining heritage also seeped into everyday language in North East England and can be heard even today.

Miners spoke a distinctive dialect called ‘Pitmatic’ which they used to communicate with each other when they were down the pit 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 crept into everyday life including clag (to stick), clarts (mud), hacky (dirty) and progley (prickly).

I love the way these words as onomatopoeic! Artist Tom Lamb’s biography has a great selection of these evocative words in its glossary.

Miners' pitmatic language

Miners’ pitmatic language

Durham Miners’ Gala

The Durham Miners’ Gala was traditionally one of the high points of the mining year when the colliery bands made their way to Durham for the ‘Big Meeting’.

The main assembly point was in Durham Market Place from where the bands and miners with their banners would then march to the Racecourse.

One of the main focal points of the Gala was the County Hotel where union leaders, dignitaries and special guests greeted the marchers from the hotel balcony.

Famous names like Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn MP and Prime Minister Harold Wilson were amongst the important speakers during the peak of the mining industry.

Tom Lamb painting - c/o Tom Lamb

Durham Miners’ Gala c/o Tom Lamb

In a splendid painting, Tom Lamb captures the celebratory atmosphere of the Miners’ Gala perfectly. The Craghead Colliery Band are prominent in the foreground with the miners and their families.

They are listening to a speech by the Labour Prime Minister of the time, Harold Wilson.

After the celebrations at the Race Course, the crowds marched to Durham Cathedral for the Miners’ Service.

The annual tradition continues to this day… and a trip to the Miner’s Gala is an experience not-to-be-missed.

From pits to pleasure grounds

Mine at Beamish

Coal Mine at Beamish

The mines have long gone and many former pits have been reclaimed as country parks, industrial estates or wildlife reserves.

In south-east Northumberland several open cast mines have been reclaimed as recreational sites. Hauxley has become a nature reserve where mining has been replaced by bird hides and wild walks.

Northumberlandia in Blagdon has been transformed in a very different way as a massive art installation, although there are still glimpses of open cast mining taking place on land next door.

Northumberlandia

Northumberlandia – mining site turned sculpture

Designed by artist Charles Jencks, this giant female landscape art work has been dubbed ‘Slag Alice’ by locals due to its pit heap origins. I prefer its more flattering nickname of  ‘Goddess of the North’.

It’s strange to think that this is all that remains of the mining landscape in some old mining communities.

Mining memorials 

Elsewhere you can see numerous memorials to mining’s past across North East England.

Mining had many tragedies and disasters – it was dangerous work and there were many terrible accidents which are remembered across the region’s coalfields.

In the suburbs of Newcastle, there’s an open space called The Spinney which commemorates the High Heaton Pit disaster which took place in 1815.  Forty one men and 34 boys were trapped when water from old mine workings burst into the colliery.

Newcastle High Heaton Spinney

High Heaton Pit – The Spinney

The workers took refuge in  a section of the pit which the water did not flood and tried to burrow into an old shaft in a bid to escape.

But the trapped miners failed to escape and are thought to have starved to death.

The youngest victim was just seven-years-old and the oldest was 82. Some families lost three generations of their loved ones.

Trees representing each victim were planted at The Spinney as a memorial. There are also interpretative plaques telling the story of the disaster.

The West Stanley Pit Disaster was another shocking mining tragedy, this time in County Durham.

Craghead

Mining memorial at Craghead

It happened in 1909 when an abundance of methane gas caused a single lamp to explode in the pit. The loss of life was dramatic – 168 men and boys perished in the explosion.

A pit-wheel memorial can be seen at Chester Road in Stanley with the names of everyone who died in that incident,

It’s important we remember the role that mining and its working class heroes played in our industrial past. These communities are part of our history and heritage,

The past may be a foreign country – but we need to revisit it from time to time to see how they did things differently there. So why not go on your own pilgrimage and mining heritage trail?

Tammy’s travel guide – North East mining heritage

Woodhorn Colliery Museum

Woodhorn Colliery Museum – Ashington

Here’s a guide to some of the best places to discover mining heritage in North East England.

Beamish Open Air Museum  is located near Chester-le-Street in County Durham. It’s a brilliant attraction with reconstructions of pit village buildings, railway station and a real drift mine.  Allow a full day. Admission fee. Open daily.

Woodhorn Colliery Museum is in Ashington, Northumberland. Admission is free. Read more on Tammy’s Ashington mining history blog post.

Craghead is a former mining village located four miles west of Chester-le-Street in County Durham.  Take a walk around the village to discover the remnants of the mining industry.

The Durham Miners Gala takes place in Durham every year in mid July.

You can peek inside Newcastle’s historic Mining Institute and its library. It is open to the public from Monday to Friday 10:00 to 17:00.  Look out for special events. It is located on Neville Street near the Central Station. 

Read up on the mining past in an illuminating new book called Tom Lamb – the Biography by Dr Peter J. Norton. It’s published by the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers.

Copyright and credits – Tom Lamb images are copyright of the artists and courtesy of Dr Peter Norton and Tom Lamb.

Rembrandt versus Turner in London

Turner

Looking for Mr Turner c/o Tate Photography

It’s the heavyweight fight of the year in London. Turner at the Tate has been battling it out with Rembrandt at the National Gallery in the big battle of the exhibition season.

It’s a closely fought affair as the two artistic greats compete for the title of most popular Old Master!

Crowds have been flocking to both London shows so I’ve been along to find out which has the upper hand. 

Battle of the titans

Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s Man in Armour c/o Glasgow Life

Turner and Rembrandt are big crowd pleasers. Having visited both shows, I was surprised at the average age of the punters – which was over 65.

It’s not often that I’m the youngest person at an arts exhibition but both shows seem to be attracting ‘the older visitor’.

The two-deep crowds were battling to grab close-up views of the art – with Zimmer frames helping to propel some folk to the front of the queues.

It’s odd because both painters challenged conventions during their own time and were huge innovators – the Damien Hirsts of their age.  So it’s a shame there isn’t a more diverse age group at these two exhibitions.

Perhaps it’s because the shows focus on the ‘late’ works of both artists?

‘Late Turner’ at the Tate and ‘Rembrandt – The Later Works’ at the National Gallery are very much about two masters at the height of their powers.

No longer the young pretenders, they aren’t content with becoming complacent. They’re taking on fresh challenges, experimenting with techniques of light and daring to take painting to new levels. 

Both shows are great, stuffed with fabulous paintings and packing a ‘wow’ factor for the crowds. It’s almost like a battle of the titans. The Ali versus Foreman of the art world – the rumble in the cultural jungle.

Rembrandt’s masterpieces

Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s  The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman c/o Amsterdam Museums

The Rembrandt exhibition focuses on his later works from the 1650s until his death in 1669 aged 63.  It’s hard to believe that these works were created in the mid 17th Century, such is their daring content and experiments in style.

I’ve always been fascinated by Rembrandt’s choice of subject matter – and here it comes into its own. The paintings are bursting with the painter’s individuality and passion for people.

He chooses mundane and sometimes ugly subjects but gives them a sense of humanity which makes them fascinating. Every picture tells a human story, full of psychology and emotional empathy.

Rembrandt

‘The Jewish Bride’ – Rembrandt c/o City of Amsterdam/Rijksmuseum

You can stand in front of these canvases and study the characters’ deepest motivations and emotional states, whether it’s a self-portrait, biblical picture or group scene. 

Unsurprisingly, some of the works from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are the stars of the show.

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild is one of Rembrandt’s finest with its echoes of The Night Watch.  You can study the characters for hours! 

Rembrandt

The Sampling Officials – Rembrandt c/o Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt was also obsessed with painting ‘selfies’. His magnificent self portraits leap out like they were painted yesterday with their luminous light and experimental brush style. A true Dutch master captured by his own artistic hand.

I also love his works depicting everyday life and people in 17th Century Holland – they are timeless and endlessly fascinating. This was truly a Golden Age of Dutch painting. 

Although some of the works in the show are from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, many of the etchings and paintings are drawn from other British, American and Dutch museums. There is something new in the exhibition even for regular gallery-goers.  

Rembrandt

The Conspiracy of the Batavians – Rembrandt c/o Royal Academy of Fine Arts Sweden 

Turner’s trademark landscapes

If Rembrandt was the forerunner of a realistic style of painting, Turner is often considered to be the father of modern art.

His works were far ahead of their time – many of the later paintings look Impressionistic, even though Monet didn’t create his groundbreaking works till 30 years later. 

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842 by Turner c/o Tate Britain

Turner has been the subject of great interest in recent months, largely thanks to actor Timothy Spall’s portrayal of him in the film ‘Mr Turner’.

He’s a very different artist from Rembrandt in his choice of subjects.  Whilst Rembrandt is a master of the portrait, Turner is a genius at portraying landscapes.

It’s the first exhibition devoted to J.M.W. Turner’s work between 1835 and his death in 1851. This fabulous ‘tour de force’ show celebrates Turner’s creative flowering in his later years when he produced many of his finest pictures.

Turner

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway – Turner c/o Tate

During this time he produced some of my favourite ‘blockbuster’ paintings  including Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway and The Fighting Temeraire.

The show also reunites two important Turner ‘classical’ works – ‘Ancient Rome – Agrippa Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus’ and ‘Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino’. They have been seen together rarely since first exhibited in 1839.

Turner

Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino – Turner c/o John Paul Getty Museum

I was delighted to see many unusual works in this show, not just those drawn from the Tate Britain’s fabulous Turner collection. 

A series of unusual square pictures cast fresh light on Turner’s innovative techniques. Little-seen watercolours of a fire at the Tower of London are shown together with Turner’s spectacular painting Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.

I adore Turner’s use of light – the way he captures the luminosity and weather conditions is pure genius. Light and Colour is one of my personal favourites featured in the show with its explosion of colour and vibrant rays of light. 

Turner

Light and Colour – Turner c/o Tate Britain

Turner .v. Rembrandt

So which exhibition should you go and see?

This is a rare instance of it being impossible to separate the two protagonists in the battle of the blockbusters.

Turner

Turner – Burial at Sea c/o Tate Bequest

Turner and Rembrandt were light years ahead of their contemporaries, true innovators who changed art forever.

Self Portrait with two circles, about 1665-69.

Self Portrait with two circles – Rembrandt c/o Kenwood House/Iveagh Bequest

Both London exhibitions are well-curated, epic in scale, and ambitious in their representation of these two great masters.  It’s hard to choose between the two.

My personal taste means that I prefer Rembrandt’s portraits to his religious works, although even those aren’t conventional depictions of biblical scenes.

In the same way, I like Turner’s dramatic landscapes better than his Roman fables and ‘classical’ works, but they are still daring and original.  

Both men are geniuses who were way ahead of their time and even today their work looks fresh and challenging.

Nor were they afraid to wield a palette knife to gouge a line or use their fingers to create the dramatic effects they wanted on canvas.

Turner or Rembrandt? My answer is ‘both’! It’s impossible to judge one over the other. A honourable draw of the big-hitters!  

Don’t miss these blockbuster shows. 

Tammy’s art guide – Turner and Rembrandt 

Rembrandt – The Late Works is on at the National Gallery in London between 15 October 2014 – 18 January 2015 in the Sainsbury Wing. Admission charge. Some late openings. The nearest Tube station is Charing Cross.

Late Turner – Painting Set Free is at the Tate Britain in London from 10 September 201425 January 2015. Ticket charges. The nearest Tube station is Pimlico. 

Turner

Look out for late shows c/o Tate Photography

Turner fans can also visit the Clore Gallery at the Tate Britain, the gallery’s huge permanent collection of Turner paintings.

If you’re a fan of Rembrandt, the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt House in Amsterdam are two must-see attractions, if you’re travelling outside the UK.

Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

Copyright - Turner images are courtesy and copyright of the Tate Britain. The Rembrandt images are courtesy and copyright of the National Gallery London, Kenwood House/Iveagh Bequest, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Museums, Royal Academy of Fine Arts Sweden and Glasgow Life.

Brussels – Art Nouveau masterpieces

Art nouveau Brussels

Art Nouveau

Brussels is one of the world’s best cities for Art Nouveau, one of my favourite styles of architecture and design. I adore its decorative, floral curves and stylish swirls.

For art lovers, an Art Nouveau tour of Brussels is a fabulous experience with hundreds of impressive buildings to discover.

The city was home to two of the superstars of Art Nouveau in the late 19th Century– Victor Horta and Paul Hankar.

It also lays claim to being home to the world’s first Art Nouveau buildings – the Hotel Tassel and Hankar’s House.

Hotel Hannon, Art Nouveau Brussels

Hotel Hannon – Art Nouveau masterpiece c/o Visit Brussels

Travellers are in for a treat if they’re prepared to get away from the hustle and bustle of the main city centre and take a detour down its back streets.

With more than 1,000 Art Nouveau buildings to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start so here are my top tips for discovering Brussels’ treasure trove of architectural gems.

The Horta House

Horta House

The Horta House

The beautiful, flowing style and gorgeous decoration of Art Nouveau is everywhere in the Saint-Gilles district where a walking tour reveals a series of stunning buildings.

The star attraction is the gorgeous Horta House where the famous architect and designer lived with his family and worked in his studio.

This is one of my dream homes with sensational interiors and breathtaking visual style.

Built between 1898 and 1901, the interior decoration represents the very best of Art Nouveau’s golden age.

St Gilles - Brussels

Horta House

Gorgeous mosaics, stained glass, and wall decorations create a harmonious and elegant whole – set off by dazzling golds and sumptuous furnishings.

The devil is in the detail at the Horta House right down to the specially designed door handles designed to complement the architecture!

If you’re a fan of gilded decoration, you’ve come to the right place because the interiors are palatial, without being tasteless and tacky.

It’s a beautiful house which has many surprises and modern touches, far ahead of its time.

This is one house which far surpassed my expectations so don’t miss the self-guided tour.

Horta door handle design Brussels

Even the door handles have Art Nouveau style

Tour of St Gilles

To see more Art Nouveau treasures, leave the Horta House and take a walking tour of the Bailli quarter on a circular route starting on Rue Defacqz.

 Ciamberlani House Brussels

Ciamberlani House

The Ciamberlani House is a good place to begin with its beautiful façade designed by Art Nouveau genius, Paul Hankar.

Don’t forget to raise your eyes to the upper floors with their artistically decorated panels. Look out for the ‘sgraffiti’, striking designs which were created on wet plaster which burst with colour.

This arty house was designed for the Symbolist painter, Albert Ciamberlani, and boasts many typical Art Nouveau features including flowing decoration with echoes of nature, trees and flowers.

 Ciamberlani House Brussels

Ciamberlani House’s ‘sgraffiti’

As you walk on down the street, look out for the home of architect Paul Hankar on Rue Defacqz, another brilliant example of Art Nouveau style.

Not far away is the House of Rene Jansens and two more striking Art Nouveau buildings on Rue Faider (numbers 83 and 85).

Art Nouveau style

Hotel Tassel

Art Nouveau was characterised by its twisted metalwork, sinuous decoration, curvy lines, floral embellishments and stained glass.

Its style is reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.

Some of the buildings in Brussels have seen better times and look slightly down-at-heel but others have been lovingly restored.

One of these is the Hotel Tassel at 6, Rue Paul-Emile Jansonstraat

Designed as a town house by Victor Horta, at first it looks fairly conventional with its brick and natural stone exterior.

But look closely and you’ll see many gorgeous Art Nouveau design features.

Architect Victor Horta designed every last detail from the woodwork and windows to the door handles, floors and furnishings.

If you could go inside, you’d see an impressive steel structure with a glass roof which connects the different parts of the house and bathes it in natural light.

Sadly, the Hotel Tassels’ interior is not accessible to the public – a heritage crime!

It is used as an office by the European Food Information Council but it’s still fun to play heritage detectives as you look at the Art Nouveau features on the outside of the building.

By now, it’s probably time for some lunch so why not enjoy an extended break at La Porteuse d’Eau restaurant on Avenue Jon Volders in St Gilles where you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the Belle Époque whilst admiring the Art Nouveau designs.

Hotel Hannon, Art Nouveau Brussels

La Porteuse d’Eau restaurant c/o Visit Brussels

‘Golden age’ of Art Nouveau

The golden age of Art Nouveau in Brussels lasted from the 1890s to 1920. But by the 1920s this style was on the wane and another rival movement became fashionable – Art Deco.

Stained glass

Stained glass window in Art Nouveau style c/o Visit Brussels

It’s fascinating to to discover what life was like at the height of Art Nouveau’s golden age so why not take a trip to the Fin de Siecle Museum.

It boasts an outstanding collection of paintings, decorative arts and photography from the end of the century.

Art Nouveau paining by Knopff

The Caress by Fernand Khnopff

Well-presented displays shed fresh light on life during this Belle Époque period with photographs, archive images and historical information.

Don’t miss the stunning design exhibition with furniture, glassware and interiors created by well-known Art Nouveau designers.

I love the elaborate Art Nouveau decorative style with its bold colours and flowery lines but my partner, Tony, calls them ‘ugly’ and over-fussy! He’s a man of simpler tastes.

Art Nouveau glassware

Art Nouveau glassware

The Fin de Siecle paintings were more to his taste with works by famous Belgian artists such as Fernand Khnopff and James Ensor.

Old England Brussels

Old England Brussels

When you leave the museum, take a short walk around the corner to look at another ornate Art Nouveau building.

Bizarrely its name was originally “Old England”, and it was designed by another Art Nouveau whizz-kid, Paul Saintenoy, in the 1890s.

This former department store is a complex lattice of glass and steel with twisted metal turrets.

Today it’s home to the Museum of Musical Instruments.

This strikingly beautiful building combines the architectural styles of Neo-Classic and Art Nouveau.

Housed in the museum is a collection of more than 7,000 instruments of varying kinds. But the star attraction is the top floor cafe which provides visitors with a magnificent 360° view of Brussels.

Take a bus to the Cartoon Museum where there’s a great collection of Tintin and Belgian graphic art housed in the former Waucquez Warehouse,  another masterpiece of Art Nouveau.

It’s a great example of how Art Nouveau fused new industrial materials such as cast-iron pillars and stained glass with traditional organic and botanical forms.

Art Nouveau Brussels

Twisty ironwork c/o Visit Brussels

The glass roof makes this like a greenhouse in summer and I almost fainted with the heat, but it was worth this minor discomfort to see the splendid turn-of-the-century architecture.

Brussels Comic Art Museum in Art Nouveau warehouse

The Comic Art Museum is in an Art Nouveau warehouse

Take a trip out of Brussels city centre and check out the Hotel Solvay, an early Horta building, designed for a wealthy Brussels family.

The cast-iron facade and decorative front door are great examples of Art Nouveau at its peak.

If you’re in the area for a few days, take a trip to Antwerp just 25 minutes away which has a great selection of Art Nouveau buildings including many by design genius, Henry van de Velde.

My favourite is the Five Continents House, designed by F. Smet-Verhas, which was commissioned by a ship owner.

Antwerp - Five Continents House

Antwerp – Five Continents House

You can’t miss the surreal wooden ship’s bow which juts out dramatically from the house’s first floor balcony.  

It’s the height of flamboyant Art Nouveau.  Nearby, check out Antwerp’s impressive Art Nouveau mansions which date from the end of the 19th Century.

I love Art Nouveau because it represents everything glamorous and stylish about the belle époque era.

This was a golden age  – so why not discover its treasures and enjoy a remarkable visual feast.

Art Nouveau Brussels

Art Nouveau mansions in Brussels c/o Visit Brussels

Tammy’s top travel tips – Art Nouveau Brussels

Art Nouveau style

Art Nouveau style

There are 1,000 Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels including houses, shops, cafes, schools and hotels. The Visit Brussels website list some of the best places to visit and has a self-guided walk itinerary.

Good districts to see examples of Art Nouveau are Bailli, St Gilles, Chatelain, and Ixelles Ponds. Don’t forget to take a map or website plan of the Art Nouveau walk.

My main criticism is that the self-guided online maps of Art Nouveau in Brussels lack detail and interactivity. They are too small and fiddly to use.

It’s also hard to find printed leaflets of the walking tours, if you can’t access mobile wifi and the online maps.

There’s also a lack of directions when you’re on the main Art Nouveau streets – really poor given the international importance of these buildings.

The Horta House  is the most spectacular of the Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels. It’s located at 25, Rue Américaine in St Gilles
- take a tram number 81, 91, 92 or 97.

The Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 14.00-17.30. Mornings are reserved for pre-booked group visits. Admission charge.

Art Nouveau Brussels

Art Nouveau is everwhere in Brussels c/o Visit Brussels

The Fin de Siecle Museum is part of the main Brussels Museum complex near Place Royale. It is open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-17:00. Entrance fee.

Look out for Art Nouveau coach tours in English organised by Voir et Dire Bruxelles including a three-hour trip exploring the buildings of Victor Horta, the leading Belgian Art Nouveau architect.

Maison Cauchie, Art Nouveau Brussels

Maison Cauchie, Art Nouveau Brussels c/o Visit Brussels

The tour itinerary takes in a luxury townhouse (van Eetvelde house), a primary school (Saint-Ghislain kindergarten) and a former wholesale drapery shop (the Waucquez store).

There are also tours on foot and by bike including a cycle trip around St Gilles.

The Ciamberlani house is a privately owned townhouse but its main rooms can be visited by appointment.

Brussles concert hall Bozar

BOZAR concert hall c/o Visit Brussels

Look inside the Palace of Fine Arts concert hall (BOZAR) where Victor Horta designed the splendid ceiling in the auditorium.

In Antwerp, there are great examples of Art Nouveau mansions in the district of Zurenborg (Berchem) which boasts the “golden triangle” along three streets – Cogels Osylei, Waterloostraat and Transvaalstraat. 

Brussels and Antwerp are a short road trip from the DFDS Ferries route from Newcastle-Amsterdam.

Old England, Art Nouveau Brussels

‘Old England’ Brussels c/o Visit Brussels

Newcastle – UK’s top city travel destination

 

Millennium Bridge Newcastle and Gateshead

Millennium Bridge Newcastle

It’s astonishing news that my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne has been voted top travel city in the UK by readers of The Guardian and Observer newspapers.

Many people were shocked that Newcastle beat better known cities like Edinburgh, London and Bath but it’s no surprise to locals who know that our city is a great destination.

Newcastle’s reputation as a ‘party city’ is well-known with its boisterous stag and hen parties, famous club nights and the Geordie obsession with having fun ‘out on the toon’.

Newcastle Quayside revellers

Fun on the ‘toon’ – Newcastle revellers

The friendliness and humour of the Geordie ‘nation’ also go a long way to explaining why this is one of Britain’s best cities to visit if you’re a stranger.

You’re bound to get a warm welcome as the city parties the night away… and there’s always some amusing and crazy revellers to raise a smile!

Millennium Bridge

Crowd pleaser – the Millennium Bridge

So what’s on offer in Newcastle to justify it topping the city travel charts? Here’s a few of my personal favourite places to explore if you’re on a city break or weekend trip.

Style and fun 

Drinking is one of our big hobbies in the North East of England. But despite its image, Newcastle isn’t all ‘Geordie Shore’ raucous and drunken behaviour. 

There’s plenty of great bars from stylish hang-outs like The Cluny, As You Like It and The Town Wall to cask ale pubs including The Bridge Tavern, The Forth and The Broad Chare off the Quayside.

I also love the historic Crown Posada pub, an old style drinking establishment with striking stained-glass windows, whilst the small but cosy Soho and Ernest bistro bars are quieter, cosy retreats.

Soho Newcastle-style

Soho Newcastle-style

Down on the Quayside there are still plenty of noisy bars for party lovers but I prefer to hop into the Red House or The Bridge Tavern for a more authentic experience.

The Quayside is a great spot for people watching. At weekends don’t be afraid to rub shoulders with the gaggles of young women wearing matching pink T-shirts and cowboy hats, tottering around in vertiginous heels yelping and partying!

Up the hill there’s a couple of older pubs if you’re looking for a more sedate experience – The Bridge (opposite the Castle Keep) and the Bacchus (on High Bridge) are recommended.

Red House bars Newcastle

The Red House – Newcastle Quayside

For a chilled experience, don’t forget to walk along the waterfront to the stunning Millennium Bridge, a good starting point for first time visitors to the city with bars like The Pitcher and Piano overlooking the river.

When I first came to Tyneside, the waterfront was full of old warehouses and there was little access to the river front, but the transformation over the last couple of decades has been staggering.  Today you’re more likely to see performance art and festivals on the river banks than industry and shipping. There’s still a few smaller ships moored along the Quayside too.

Walk along the riverfront to the Ouseburn area and check out the shabby but cool Tyne Bar, Cumberland Arms and Free Trade Inn, alternative pubs for a discerning crowd. The Free Trade’s beer and quiz are legendary with locals.

Culture explosion

Theatre Royal Newcastle

Theatre Royal Newcastle

Despite its distance from London, or perhaps because of it, Newcastle boasts a surprisingly good cultural scene with music, the visual arts and film being high on people’s entertainment hit list.

Music fans are in for a treat at The Cluny, The Sage in Gateshead (on the opposite side of the River Tyne) and The Academy which are great for touring bands and spotting emerging talent. The Jumpin’ Hot Club - which moves between The Cluny and other venues like Live Theatre – is a must for lovers of roots, reggae and alt country.

Those with a passion for art will enjoy a trip over the water to the BALTIC, a gallery housed in a converted flour mill, on the Gateshead side of the River Tyne. In spring you can see the nesting kittiwakes from the gallery’s top floor platform which also has fantastic views down the river.

The BALTIC’s roof top restaurant offers stunning views down the River Tyne during the day and night.

Daniel Buren at The Baltic

Art attack – The Baltic

The Live Theatre is another of Tyneside’s best-kept secrets although word has been getting out of late. Their ‘Pitmen Painters’ play was hailed in London and on Broadway when it toured. It also has a brilliant and civilised bar where you can relax on squishy leather sofas, away from the Quayside’s crowds.

At the Theatre Royal the main focus is on touring shows but highlights include some London transfers and the RSC’s season of Shakespeare ‘up north’. Northern Stage also has a lively programme of theatre including some home-grown productions.

Film heaven

One of my favourite cultural venues in Newcastle is the Tyneside Cinema on Pilgrim Street with its independent attitude and interesting film screenings and cinematic events.

Buy a seat to the Classic Cinema’s circle which boasts giant leather armchairs where you can relax with a bottle of wine whilst enjoying your film.

I love the Tyneside’s wonderful Art Deco interior from the late 1920s which was influenced by Persian palaces. The original golds, greens and purples can still be seen, thanks to a recent restoration project.

The original News Theatre, now the Classic, still shows free newsreels every day.

Tyneside Cinema Newcastle

Tyneside Cinema – Art Deco Classic

Don’t miss the new gallery space which has intriguing art shows and film screenings, free of charge.

The cinema’s street-level cafe and bar is a great pre-show hang-out which also hosts film quizzes, cult movies and DJs.

For something completely different, go along to Steve Drayton’s Record Player – a musical vinyl extravaganza – or drop in on the Good Yarn Knitting Club whilst they crochet whilst watching a movie!

Baltic

Baltic gallery

Food feast

What I love about Newcastle is the recent upsurge in great restaurants. 

Propelled by Terry Laybourne’s growing empire of eateries from the high-end Jesmond Dene House to the bistro- style Caffe Vivo and Number 21, the choice of restaurants has improved dramatically since I arrived in the city 30 years ago.

One of my personal favourites is David Kennedy’s Artisan at the Biscuit Factory in Shieldfield which offers contemporary cuisine using locally sourced ingredients, some from the owner’s excellent Vallum Farm.

Artisan

Artisan

During the day pop into the Biscuit Factory (next door), a stylish contemporary gallery selling paintings, sculpture, ceramics, glassware and jewellery. Shop for art or simply browse.

Over in nearby Jesmond, Peace and Loaf is a top foodies’ choice. Fronted by former Masterchef finalist, Dave Coulson, it’s great value when you consider the quality of the food which is essentially ‘European contemporary meets Northumbrian’.

The ‘deconstructed’ turkey pie is one of the restaurant’s star turns with its gorgeous presentation and yummy fusion of ingredients.

The free amuse bouche and in-between courses are also a great touch, guaranteed to get those taste buds singing!

Peace and Loaf - Newcastle

Food heaven – Peace and Loaf

On the luxury end of the dining spectrum, The House of Tides on Newcastle’s Quayside has a fabulous tasting menu at around £65 per head which includes nine courses of culinary magic.

Owner Kenny Atkinson is aiming for the stars – of the Michelin variety. It’s not cheap but it is a showstopping culinary experience for a special occasion.

My favourite dish is their signature appetizer – line caught mackerel in filo pastry with gooseberries, lemon and mustard. Unusual ingredients but a brilliant blending of flavours.

House of Tides Newcastle

House of Tides – the smell and taste of Lindisfarne

The presentation is also breathtaking. My Lindisfarne oysters with ginger and lime were served in a glass bowl with pebbles and sea shells accompanied by dry ice and a seaside odour, conjuring up the sights and smells of the beach on Holy Island. A shellfish delight in 3-D and smell-o-vision!

Alternatively, take a trip to the fabulous Electric East near the Central Station, a stylish pan-Asian restaurant which does everything from Vietnamese tapas (great value at £12 for three) to posh dinners.

There’s also a lively eating scene along Stowell Street, Newcastle’s very own Chinatown which is the place to be on Chinese New Year.

Heritage hotspots

All Saints Church Newcastle

All Saints Church

Go back in time to Newcastle’s Victorian heyday at the Literary and Philosophical Society and Miners’ Institute, close to the Central Station.

The Lit & Phil is a library where you can also wander in and lounge around in a leather armchair, drinking tea and gazing at the ornate wood interiors.

The Miners’ Insitute (next door) is another hidden gem from the city’s industrial age.  This intriguing building hosts events and open days so check their website if you want to peek inside.

Nearby is the Discovery Museum with relics from Tyneside’s industrial past. Although not my favourite museum in the UK (it could do with modernisation), there’s enough to entertain families with kids. 

The Turbinia boat, the first vessel to be powered by steam turbine, and Joseph Swan’s historic lightbulbs are the star turns.

If you’re looking for medieval history, Newcastle’s Castle Keep is worth a look but it’s not one of the North East’s best. Squashed by Victorian developers between the railway and the High Level Bridge, it’s a slightly underwhelming experience.  But I can strongly recommend the fantastic panoramic views from the top of the tower.

In the evening, head to the Boiler Shop Steamer behind the Central Station, which hosts DJs, food & drink events and festivals. 

Astonishingly, this was the place where Robert Stephenson built his world-famous steam trains including The Rocket. Just being inside the shed is a spine-tingling experience because of its history.

Newcastle castle

Rooftop view – Newcastle’s Castle Keep

For heritage walks, put on your walking shoes and get yourself down to the Quayside which boasts a variety of old buildings from the medieval to the modern.

With its steep banks and chares (stairs) cascading down to the river, there are plenty of hidden places to explore. Don’t miss All Saints Church, an 18th century elliptical church, at the top of Dog Bank stairs. Its graveyard is destined to bring out the Gothic dark side in visitors.

Back in the city centre, head to the Grainger Town with its grand Georgian buildings radiating from Grey Street, dubbed by critics as the finest street in Britain. Look out for small specialist shops along its many side streets including High Bridge.

Grainger Town Newcastle

Grainger Town Newcastle

Pride of place

One of the things that makes Newcastle so special is its strong identity. Although I was born in Liverpool, I’ve become an adopted Geordie and love the city’s unique character.

I haven’t been converted to supporting its football team though. Football is a huge passion in the city so a trip to ‘the toon’ wouldn’t be complete without seeing Newcastle United at St James’ Park.

The roar of the Newcastle crowd is one of the loudest in the Premiership, whether they’re playing well or not. Don’t miss a trip to the Strawberry (opposite the ground) before the game to soak up the pre-match atmosphere.  Here’s my long-suffering partner Tony hoping for a rare Magpies win.

Tony at St James' Park -Newcastle United

The Geordie roar at St James’ Park  – Newcastle United fan Tony van Diesel

So what’s not to like about Newcastle? It’s fun and fabulous – a true party city. It’s also compact and easy to get around if you’re looking for an action-packed weekend break.

And it’s a great base for exploring the beautiful Northumberland coast and countryside with its castles, superb beaches and country houses.

I love living here – and hope you’ll pay a visit soon. Number one city? Why aye man!

Geordie dictionary – Why aye man = Yes, that’s cool!

Tammy’s travel tips – Newcastle upon Tyne

Newcastle upon Tyne is located in North East England, a three-hour train journey from London and two hours from Edinburgh. Newcastle Airport has direct flights to London and key European airports.

Tyne Bridge Newcastle

Tyne Bridge Newcastle

Read the The Guardian article about Newcastle upon Tyne being voted the best city destination in the UK.  For a full range of information about Newcastle and where to stay, check out the Visit Newcastle website

Discover Newcastle’s best pubs and bars in this article. If you’ve looking for something on the non-alcoholic side here are Tammy’s top tips for coffee and tea shops with a bit of character and quality beverages.

Newcastle's best coffee

Newcastle’s best coffee

Here’s Tammy’s guide to some of the best places to go for a night out in Newcastle upon Tyne…

My top tip is to start off near the Monument (you can’t miss Earl Grey on top of his column) and work your way down Grey Street to the Quayside and Ouseburn.

Newcastle's best nights out

Newcastle’s best nights out

Those with a passion for castles should head to the Northumberland coast which boasts Alnwick Castle (home to Harry Potter movies) and Bamburgh (dramatically perched on the beach) as well as Dunstanburgh’s coastal ruins. Pop into Craster for lunchtime kippers or crab sandwiches at the Jolly Fisherman pub or the Smoke House.

Don’t miss a quick trip to Gateshead where Antony Gormley’s impressive Angel of the North, one of my favourite iconic landmarks, dominates the A1 into Newcastle.

Angel of the North

Angel of the North