Regular readers of this blog will know how I’ve made a number of day trips by air to some of Europe’s most captivating cities. Yesterday saw me jet off to Venice, in perhaps my most ambitious trip yet.
You’ll find a full list of the others on my Index page here:
While I’m not suggesting for a minute you’re going to truly get under the skin of your chosen destination in such a short space of time, it is great when you have little or no holiday left but still have that pressing need to travel. Or in my case, a desire to keep two dogs out of kennels and into Daddy Day Care which is always a priority. If you believe those predicting Brexit will put an end to cheap European flights from the UK, time could be running out to snap up a bargain. Here’s the how, where, when and what of Venice in a day.
My local airport is Stansted, the main UK base of Ryanair, and once again it was to the controversial budget carrier that I looked for my cheap fare. Normally, Ryanair flies in to Treviso airport, but while the airport has been closed for essential runway maintenance, flights are being rerouted to Marco Polo instead. Marco Polo also has the advantage of being closer to the city and well connected by both boat and bus. The current closure lasts until 18 October, but it’s worth keeping an eye out as it’s not the first time I’ve read flights have been diverted. My flight departed on time from Stansted at 0620 and touched down ten minutes ahead of schedule at 0910. The return left a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 2230 and taxied to the terminal to unload us at 2355, about 15 minutes late. Total ticket cost this time was £34 return. I should also add, as per usual I didn’t bother with a seat reservation and got a randomly allocated window seat on the outbound flight and an aisle on the return leg.
To reach Venice from Marco Polo it’s possible to catch a bus. An express service takes around 20 minutes to make the journey to Piazzale Roma, near the top end of the Grand Canal and the city’s Santa Lucia station. Return tickets cost 15 euros. But to arrive in style, I figured I needed to arrive by boat, though my budget most certainly doesn’t stretch to water taxis. There are, however, direct transfers from the airport with Alilaguna who offer a reliable service on one of three routes. This is double the price of the bus at 30 euros for a return, but in my mind well worth the cost. However, I should mention you do sit low in the boat, which isn’t great for sightseeing if you aren’t tall.
I opted for the orange route as it takes you via Cannaregio and then down the Grand Canal. Journey time to the Rialto Bridge was just under an hour. From there, the boat continues down to Santa Maria del Giglio, just short of St Mark’s. It was busy, and I had to wait for one boat to leave before getting on the second one, which added about a 30 minute delay to my journey. However, the boats serving the blue route were bigger and there wasn’t a wait. They loop via Murano and Giudecca instead, and calling at San Marco on the way. This is a really convenient option if seeing Murano’s famous glass is on your wishlist. However, it does take about 90 minutes to get to San Marco and it doesn’t transit the Grand Canal. The way I see it is that this transfer is part of your day out rather than just transport, but if time is the priority then the bus is a no-brainer.
Note: From Treviso, an airport bus scheduled to coincide with arrivals takes around 70 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma. Make sure that you’re on the ATVO bus and not the Barzi bus as the latter calls at Mestre station rather than Santa Lucia (requiring a second train journey to get to the city) and also Tronchetto Island which is again inconvenient for Venice’s top attractions.
The links you’ll need (including timetables, fares and maps):
ACTV bus and city boats: http://actv.avmspa.it/en
Ailaguna boat: http://www.alilaguna.it/en
Venice is time-consuming to get around, which is why I refer to this as my most ambitious day trip to date. Because of the lack of roads, you either have to walk or take to the city’s canals. It’s a pleasure to wander on foot, but the downside is that many alleyways are dead ends leading to canals or courtyards. Without a good map (or even with one) you’re likely to get lost. I relied on a combination of paper map, Google map navigation on my phone and a general sense of direction.
Those of you who know me will realise the latter is pretty much non-existent. Narrow streets and a maze of densely packed buildings mean that sometimes Google maps don’t quite have your location right. I also struggled with night mode, as the canals and alleys have almost no contrast – the waterways are such an essential aid to navigation that I switched it back to day mode. Fortunately even with very limited Italian, people were helpful to my pitiful “Scusi, dove Rialto Bridge?” attempts at conversation and pointed me in the right direction with a smile.
There has been a lot in the press about how residents are fed up with the city being overrun by tourists; the historic centre’s residential population numbers only 55,000 now, compared to an estimated 28 million visitors annually. Do the maths: that’s more tourists per day than the number who actually live there. Whether it was because I visited in the quieter shoulder season or whether such irritation has been exaggerated in the press, I didn’t see any indication of frustration with tourists invading locals’ space. But it’s certainly not an issue to brush under the carpet.
Due to the unhappy marriage of being time-poor and totally incompetent at map reading, I decided to splurge on a day pass for the city’s ACTV boats. This cost 20 euros and can be purchased at the many ticket booths near the jetties. (The jetties themselves are easy to spot being a) near the bigger canals and b) on account of their bright yellow livery as in the photo below.) You do have to validate the pass before you step onto a floating jetty, or risk a hefty fine. Look for a white oval terminal as you step off dry land and tap the card against it. I got my money’s worth hopping on and off, but you’ll need to make several journeys to cover your outlay.
Things to do
With so many sights to choose from, whittling down what’s easily a month’s worth of sightseeing into the nine hours I had in central Venice was tricky to say the least. It helped that this was my third trip to Venice, so I’d already seen the main attractions and (fortunately for me) years ago, well before selfie sticks had been invented. I was also keen to test out the new policy of the Venice authorities which is to encourage people to explore off the beaten track. You’ll find a wide choice of suggestions here (when they first pop up, you might think they’re written only in Italian but they’re actually dual language with English too):
I began my day by alighting at the Rialto Bridge boat jetty and crossing the bridge itself to the adjacent market. Originally the market moved to this location in 1097, but a 16th century fire destroyed almost everything in the vicinity. The market was rebuilt and depsite being a stone’s throw from the tourist crap which lines the bridge and its environs, manages to retain more than a little of its charm. There’s plenty to see, including more varieties of mushrooms than you could ever expect to see back home, capsicums done up like posies of flowers plus of course a pungent but vibrant fish market.
There’s a treat tucked around the back of the market in a hard to find alley (even with the address, Sestiere San Polo 429, it was concealed so well it took me a while to find either of its two doors) What I’m referring to is Cantina do Mori, the bacaro which claims to be the oldest in Venice. This tiny bar whose ceiling is hung with dozens of copper pots still retains a customer base who are happy to share their local with tourists like me. It’s been around since 1462 and once counted the infamous lothario Casanova among its clientele. Today, it’s still a popular place to go and have an ombra (Venetian slang for glass of wine) and soak up the alcohol with some cicheti (or in English, cicchetti), the Venetian equivalent to Spanish tapas.
Eventually, I prised myself away from the bar and its surroundings. I decided first to take a stroll in search of Venice’s narrowest street. Calle Varisco is just 53cm at the little end, though mercifully for pedestrian flow, it widens as you walk down. If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed; several properties off the street were having work done and there was a fair bit of rubbish around as a result. Forget what you’ve read: it’s not the narrowest street in the world (that’s a German one) and it’s not even close to being the slimmest in Italy.
Moving on, I headed north and picked up a boat which looped around the Castello district to bring me to the San Zaccaria stop. I was hoping to see if the church’s flooded crypt was underwater, but it closes from 12 noon until 4pm each afternoon so was out of luck. Nearby though, I passed Banco-Lotto No. 10 which sells clothing made by inmates at the women’s penitentiary on Giudecca Island. Sadly, that too was closed, though it shouldn’t have been according to the sign on its doorway. The clothes looked fabulous, even for someone with my limited fashionista skills.
Next up was a bookstore, and one which proves that Amazon can’t provide everything. The Libreria Alta Acqua is a treasure. Books stacked in precarious piles fill every inch of available space. Balanced on shelves, filling redundant gondolas and bath tubs, they represent what a bookstore should be.
This is a place to be savoured, to potter and to forget the time or anything else on your mind. The store owner wandered about, leaving the rather scary looking cat to mind the till while he wheezed and tutted to himself looking for items unspecified but clearly important. I think I could have watched him all day too. Out back was the tinest of courtyards with a sign imploring people to climb up some wobbly stairs made of old books to see the view over the canal.
I couldn’t resist walking south via St Mark’s Square. This might sound odd as I really hate the crowds and the tourist paraphernalia but I think I wanted to see just how bad it was. On the way, in Calle del Mondo Novo, my nose caught the aroma of a cheese and ham store as my eye was drawn to a pig in the pizza shop window opposite. Incidentally, I read that you should never eat pizza in Venice as wood-fired ovens are banned with just a tiny handful of exceptions. The store, Prosciutto e Parmigiano, is known locally as Latteria Senigaglia (that was the name of the original family-run dairy produce store which was set up in 1940).
In St Mark’s Square, I navigated a sea of people who couldn’t have been more synchronised in pointing their mobile phones towards whatever their guide was pointing out had a musical soundtrack been in place. Pausing only to recreate the famous shot of the gondolas lined up facing out across the lagoon, I hopped on another vaporetto. This one was bound for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the top of its belltower, or campanile as they’re called, the views across the city are splendid and of course you look out over the campanile in St Mark’s Square rather than from it. It costs 6 euros to ascend, but for that they provide a lift, and free entertainment when the bells chime the hour, frightening unsuspecting visitors. Best of all – no queues.
It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to explore a little more before I left, so I took a boat a short way up Canale della Giudecca, jumping off at Spirito Santo church to cut back through to the Grand Canal near the Peggy Guggenheim art collection. Another vaporetto took me to Venice Casino from where I could cut through to the district of Cannaregio. This is on the Venice authorities’ recommendations list and is where you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto. It lacked the crowds of St Mark’s and it’s probably very uncharitable of me to hope that the city’s campaign is unsuccessful and it stays that way.
I had planned to have an early dinner in Osteria al Bacco, which is one of the area’s most highly rated restaurants, but got sidetracked by the wonderful Al Timon instead. You do need to book ahead for dinner reservations, though they don’t always serve what they display in the window. Get there right on the dot of six when they open to grab a table for cicheti and a Spritz – for something classically Venetian, swap the fashionable Aperol for Campari.
Time was ticking on so I took a last vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal and then bought a ticket for the boat back to the airport. I’d definitely recommend a visit outside of summer and most importantly, away from the crowd. Venice is never going to be one of my favourite cities, but it’s growing on me.
Sadly, this morning’s headlines that Monarch has collapsed wasn’t shock news. The company had been in trouble for years, with several bailouts brinking it back from the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Once, it cleaned up on routes to Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt, but had been badly hit by the slump in tourist numbers to those destinations in the face of terrorist attacks. Its Greek business was hit by the economic crisis and in response, it turned to the saturated markets of Spain to try to balance the budget.
It’s the largest UK airline ever to fail. That’s no consolation for the estimated 110,000 people stranded or left with their holiday plans in tatters. This collapse affects at least a further 300,000 people who are due to fly, perhaps more.
What to do if you’re on holiday with Monarch right now
Sit tight. For those booked with Monarch Holidays, the CAA are negotiating with hotels so that you can stay. If you are asked to pay a bill, keep receipts. The CAA are saying they will reimburse you, though the end date for this is uncertain as yet. If you are due to fly home, the CAA are putting on flights to get you home.
A webpage has been set up by the CAA to provide information to travellers. Find it here:
On this website there are details of flight rebookings. Click on the airport you are travelling back from and it will open up the flight number and timing of your new flight. At present, just today’s flights are up, so if you’re due to travel in the next few days, you’ll have to check back later.
If you’re in the UK but have a future Monarch flight or package holiday booked
The CAA’s advice is repeated here:
Flights booked directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward
Customers with these bookings are not ATOL protected and are not entitled to make a claim to the CAA. You are advised to contact your card issuer, insurer or PayPal for advice on how to claim a refund.
I add: if you have booked using a credit card and the cost of your flight is £100 or more, you are covered. (If you book a return flight, the cost of the total must be over £100, i.e. each leg can be under £100 so long as when combined they’re over.) The credit card company will reimburse you. If you have booked with a debit card, you might be able to get your money back via something called Chargeback; contact your issuing bank for details. If you have specific cover for airline failure in your travel insurance policy, this is also a route for recovering your money. Note that this isn’t a standard clause on many insurance policies.
Back to the CAA:
Flights booked on or before 14 December 2016 directly with First Aviation Ltd trading as Monarch Airlines
If your flight was booked with Monarch Airlines on or before 14 December 2016 and you received an ATOL Certificate stating that your flight is protected with First Aviation, you are ATOL protected. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made as soon as possible to these UK customers.
We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until advised to do so.
Bookings made directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward are not protected by ATOL.
I add: ATOL protection refers to the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence. Basically it ensures you don’t lose your money or get stranded abroad if the company responsible for getting you home goes bust. You receive an ATOL certificate with your holiday paperwork. What happens is that companies lodge money with the CAA in case the CAA has to step in and get their passengers home. Monarch’s ATOL licence ran out on September 30th and as they couldn’t afford to renew it, they were forced to call in the liquidators.
If the ATOL-bonded company goes bust, you apply directly to ATOL for your refund. The CAA website explains what to do, as reproduced here:
Holidays booked directly with Monarch Holidays
Customers booked directly with Monarch Holidays are ATOL protected and will have received an ATOL Certificate when they made their booking. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made on these bookings as soon as possible, and we aim to complete this by the end of 2017 at the latest. We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until you are advised to do so.
Monarch flights and Monarch Holidays booked through another travel company or travel agent
If you booked a flight or holiday with another travel company or travel agent you should contact them directly about your arrangements.
If you’re affected by Ryanair’s announcement that they are cancelling many hundreds of flights over the next six weeks, you’re going to need to know your rights. This is how the news broke:
If your outbound flight has been cancelled at short notice:
First, see if you can rebook. According to Ryanair’s website, this should be possible online. People are reporting on social media that the Ryanair helplines are overwhelmed and they’re not able to complete a rebooking over the phone. Obviously with so many people chasing so few seats at short notice, many are going to be disappointed. So what then?
If you cannot find a satisfactory rebooking (e.g. your flight is being rebooked but so late into your holiday to make it as good as useless) then you’ll need to apply for a refund. You may also be entitled to compensation. These are your rights under EU law if the destination is within the EU or if it’s an EU carrier like Ryanair:
Flights under 1500km – 250 euros compensation
Flights over 1500km – 400 euros compensation
Note: this only covers you if your cancellation occurs 14 days or less before your flight. If you are due to travel in more than 14 days’ time and your flight is cancelled, this will be treated by the airline as a rebooking or rerouting. You still have the right to cancel with a full refund of what you paid for the flights, but will not be eligible for additional compensation.
Delayed arrival whether with Ryanair or alternative carrier
Flights under 1500km – 2 hours
Flights over 1500km – 3 hours
If you are delayed, you are also entitled to food and accommodation vouchers. Full details here:
Note that it can take many months to secure this compensation, despite EU regulations stating refunds must be paid within a week. Remember you will need to keep all receipts and boarding passes. It’s also a good idea to send letters recorded delivery if you are getting nowhere by email.
If you decide not to travel, have a look at what expenses you’ll incur, such as accommodation that cannot be cancelled at short notice. The airline is not liable for this. It will need to be claimed back from your travel insurance company. Making a claim such as this doesn’t affect your right to EU compensation if applicable.
If you’re abroad and your inbound flight has been cancelled:
The above applies but you’ll also have to factor in whether you need to be back home as a matter of urgency or can afford the time and money (up front at least) to extend your trip. You might find it easier to deal with staff face to face at the airport though this can add to your stress as there will be a lot of other angry passengers there which isn’t going to make you feel better.
You can try to persuade the airline that rebooking you with an alternative carrier e.g. a seat on a rival airline is a better idea. You’ll have more bargaining power if the airline itself is very tight for space and is struggling to get you somewhere, especially if you’re stranded and they’re having to pay for your overnight accommodation. Remember if you pay for your own alternative flights, you’re out of pocket.
It can be very hard to get them to pay, as I found out with CityJet a few years ago. CityJet refunded their own flight (that they cancelled fifteen minutes before departure) but because I didn’t want to wait for an alternative with CityJet or spend another night in Paris even at their expense, I paid for the Eurostar alternative. I eventually funded it out of the compensation I received eight months later. Read the full story here:
If you can get through on a helpline, that is often better, but you will need to be patient. Be as calm, polite and flexible as you can, particularly if you need to get back home in a hurry. Remember the person on the phone isn’t directly to blame and venting your frustration isn’t going to get you anywhere.
If you’ve a flight coming up which is currently unaffected:
This currently is where most Ryanair passengers are, fortunately, and the social media furore should calm down for the most part now that people know where they stand. Nevertheless:
Have a Plan B. Research alternative airlines or other means of transport on the inbound leg. Check your email on a regular basis so that if your flight is next to be affected, you’re amongst the first to know – and fight for the seats that might be available on alternative flights.
Print out or save to your phone a copy of the EU regulations (see link above) so that there can be no dispute with airline staff about your rights – it will be in black and white.
Double check your travel insurance, especially the limits and excesses for flight delays and flight cancellations. Again, keep all receipts and boarding passes as you’ll need them to make a claim. Keep proof of the cancellation.
Ryanair’s lack of consideration for their customers, though not a surprise, is still a concern. They won’t be the first and last airline to do this. I’ve had similar late in the day cancellations from American Airlines (weather related issues leading to a 48 hour delay in New York when I should have been in Nicaragua) and as mentioned, with CityJet (who didn’t even inform us the flight was cancelled, just checked us in as normal and quietly removed our flight from the departures board). But for the record, Ryanair, you need to remember who keeps your staff in a job and your planes in the air.
Update 17 September from the excellent Simon Calder at The Independent:
Update 18 September of full list of cancellations on the Ryanair website:
As Irma finally begins to blow herself out, the US and many Caribbean islands have been left reeling from her effects. Sustained 185mph winds have been recorded during this Category 5 storm, beaten only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which registered winds of 190mph. On top of that, of course, are the floods which result from torrential rain and the even more dangerous storm surges caused when winds slam ocean water back onshore with terrifying force. Even a Category 1 hurricane is not to be taken lightly, as those who live in hurricane-prone regions will testify. For casual holidaymakers unused to such events, it’s even more frightening. So has seeing Irma’s devastation marked the end of your Caribbean holiday plans? Here’s why it shouldn’t and how you can avoid getting caught up in such a disaster.
Choose your island carefully
Statistically, some Caribbean islands are hit by hurricanes far more often than others. According to data compiled by stormcaribe.com for storms between 1944 and 2010, you’re most likely to be affected if you’re in Abaco in the Bahamas, with Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence islands hot on its heels. A couple of islands in the Netherlands Antilles also occur in the top ten, notably Saba and St Eustatius. Making up the numbers are Nevis, Key West, Tortola in the BVI and the Cuban capital Havana.
Conversely, the bottom of the list features some well known names. Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent are much less likely to experience a hurricane. Such severe storms rarely if ever take a southerly track, making the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire the safest bet in the region. For the full list check out this link:
A broader picture (and more up to date, factoring in storms up to 2016) is offered by Hurricane City. Their list factors in storms as well as hurricanes, giving a more rounded and perhaps more accurate appraisal of the risk posed for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the USA. Joining the Bahamas to represent the Caribbean in the top ten are the Cayman Islands. Because this list encompasses storms as well, there are a few northerly locations there too:
Avoid peak hurricane season
If you really want to go to the islands that lie in the path of potential hurricanes then you’ve got to be picky about when you go. Technically, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in June, but rarely do we see really damaging hurricanes before late August. 2005 was a bumper year for big storms – Katrina among them – and was the year when we saw the earliest Category 4 storm (Dennis on July 8th) and Category 5 storm (Emily on July 17th). The storm season officially comes to a close at the end of November though on rare occasions they can continue until December or even January. Yes, you guessed it, that happened in 2005 too. They’d already run through the named hurricanes by October when Wilma hit and eventually needed to borrow six letters of the Greek alphabet. Tropical Storm Zeta finally brought the season to a close when it dissipated on January 6th 2006.
Check the NOAA forecasts
Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast for the upcoming season. They take in a number of factors such as ocean temperatures and, though it’s not an exact science, have a good track record in identifying busy years. So far, 2017 is falling in line with predictions. It kicked off with Tropical Storm Arlene in April – two months ahead of schedule – and with the likes of Harvey and Irma, is set to be another of those unforgettable seasons. If you want to avoid being caught up in a severe hurricane, then if it’s been quiet, you’re much less likely to find yourself in trouble if you want to make a late booking. And if the worst happens, this leaflet is packed with useful advice:
My thoughts are with those who found themselves in the path of recent Atlantic hurricanes. I hope that those affected get back on their feet and that the impacted economies recover as quickly as possible. Once they do, they’re going to need your tourist dollars, so don’t write off this beautiful region just yet.
The USA’s diversity makes it one of my favourite countries and there are many cities I’ve revisited – or hope to do so – over and over again. Here’s my top ten: what are yours?
New Orleans, Louisiana
Sultry New Orleans ticks all the boxes: history, colour, a sense of fun and plenty of quiet, atmospheric corners to retreat to when the buzz gets too buzzy. The mansions of the Garden District stand in haughty contrast to the tackiness of Bourbon Street, but you don’t have to stray far from the notoriously crass party hub to find wrought iron balconies and heart-lifting melodies within the iconic French Quarter.
New York, New York
I’ve been back to New York countless times yet never tire of the place. But now I’ve ticked off the sights, on recent trips my focus has been on some of its most fascinating neighbourhoods and ethnic food joints. It delivers. But then I’d expect nothing less from the self-styled “Capital of the World”. Where else can you enjoy a southern-style Gospel brunch, El Salvadorean pupusas for lunch and the most succulent steaks outside Argentina for dinner?
Savannah’s centre has a split personality. On the one hand, its genteel tree-filled squares host historic mansions, each with its own intriguing tale to tell. Yet barely a stone’s throw away lies River Street, which comes alive each evening with bars and restaurants thronging with customers. This Georgia gem has it all – and some of the best beaches in the State just a short drive away.
Charleston, South Carolina
Elegant Charleston oozes sophistication from every cobble and porch, yet somehow manages to make you feel you’re worthy of a stay here. Beautifully tended gardens force you to stop and stare, even though you know you shouldn’t intrude. Yet in the bay lies Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired – there’s passion and fervour behind that steely façade.
Bar Harbor, Maine
A visit to Maine is a lesson in Geography, as Down East is actually north and residents travelling south to Boston say they’re going up. The map might be a bit squiffy but there’s no mistaking you’re in New England with fresh lobster, seal boat trips and the dark greens of Acadia’s firs and pines set off to perfection against a muted palette of pink granite and yellow sand.
The Liberty Bell draws a crowd who queue patiently to inspect the crack in the iron that signalled the very first reading of the Declaration of Independence. Beyond that historic district is a city that is proud of its heritage and isn’t afraid to work hard to make a living. Best time to visit? New Year’s Day, when Philly lets its hair down for the annual Mummers Parade.
San Antonio, Texas
The city famed for the Alamo delivers, but the surprise is that the Alamo is overshadowed by the city’s other attractions. The River Walk, a flight of steps down from street level, is lined with restaurants and bars where minutes turn into hours without you even noticing that the time’s passed. With plenty of museums, galleries, and a Stetson hat store to rival anything anywhere, this place begs to be revisited.
The iconic skyline with the instantly recognisable Space Needle might be what draws visitors to Seattle (or at least fans of Grey’s Anatomy) but this is another city where the memorable attractions are those which you didn’t know about before you landed. The fascinating story of a city built on lumber and a whole other world of underground storefronts and sidewalks awaits visitors who’ve watched the fish fly at Pike Place Market and sipped their coffee in the Starbucks where it all began.
San Francisco, California
The seaplane pilot wore a grin with a span to rival that of the Golden Gate Bridge. Visibility, he said, was the best he’d seen in thirty years. Luck like that burns memories into your brain so deep they never fade. And under blue skies, sights like Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the artists of Sausalito don’t get any better. Just check those brakes before you drive down the world’s most crooked street…
Green shag pile carpet on a stairwell ceiling? Check. Acid yellow walls framing a bank of chunky televisions? Check. A private jet in the car park bearing the name Lisa Marie? Check. Graceland might not impress in terms of size but its Seventies style will leave you gawping, mouth open wider than the zip on that white jumpsuit. Oh yeah, and there’s music on Beale Street when you’re ready to return to the present.
There you have it; I’m sure Miami, Chicago and Boston will have their fans, as will Vegas, DC and the City of the Angels. What makes your list?
Eighteen months ago, I moved to a village close to Britain’s oldest recorded town. Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD; it was then known as the Roman settlement of Camulodunum. After much time spent doing DIY and decorating the house, I decided it was time to get out and explore the town on my doorstep. Today that took me to the delightful Bourne Mill, a National Trust property just outside Colchester town centre.
If you live in East Anglia, you might be interested to know that Greater Anglia are running a promotion this summer called Let the Adventure Begin. There’s also a competition running until mid-August in which you could win first-class train tickets to any station on their network:
Win that, and you too could be exploring Colchester. Visitors today can see plenty of evidence of the town’s long history, from the Roman Berryfield mosaic at Firstsite to surviving groundworks of the Roman theatre which can be seen in Maidenburgh Street in the town’s Dutch Quarter. The Tourist Information Centre run a superb bi-weekly walking tour which I highly recommend.
Now, look closely at the photo above and in particular, the materials used to build the castle. The structure that you see is Norman. Construction began in 1076, similar to the Tower of London, but all is not what it seems. The foundations stand on what was the Temple of Claudius dating from about 55-60 AD and many of the building materials were recycled from Roman Colchester. In particular, look at the red stones that form the cornerstones – they look almost like roof tiles. These crop up elsewhere too, for example, in the remains of the fortifications that once encircled the town (you can make them out about halfway up the original wall to the left of the picture below):
I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to see the same materials plundered to build Bourne Mill, located about a 20 minute walk away. This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey. A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.
After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it. Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill. The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, this wonderful building was the result.
Well actually, not quite.
What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner. On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory. Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true. This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.
But that story doesn’t end there, of course. Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter. Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.
The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says. They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular. A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth. That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.
Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium. It became a fulling mill, a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable. A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive. Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth. Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead. Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.
After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more. The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton. As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape. By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. It was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed. Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and learn at Bourne Mill, expecting only to see a waterwheel and not a lot more. The team of volunteers work hard to bring the Mill’s history to life and succeed in communicating their enthusiasm. I’d especially like to thank Liz Mullen and Joan Orme for their insights and for not burdening me with more historical detail than I could cope with.
Acknowledgements and practical information
I’d like to say thanks to the National Trust who provided me with a free pass to visit Bourne Mill. If you’d like to do the same, entrance costs £3.75 for adults and £1.90 for children. The place is open from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 10am to 5pm. Dogs are welcome on a lead, though there’s a steep ladder-like staircase to the upper storey which they won’t be able to access. There’s a small cafe too and plenty of picnic tables perfect for sitting and watching the ducks, including Joan’s favourite with the quiff.
There are plenty of things to do with the kids, including free use of the Mill’s pond dipping equipment, making this a good choice now that the school summer holidays are upon us:
The National Trust website also has a guided walk which you can follow to get a better grasp of your surroundings. I shall be back soon to try it out.
If you’d like to begin with the Camulodunum to Colchester walking tour, then this takes place at 11am on Saturdays year-round, with additional walks on Wednesdays at the same time throughout the summer. Walks need to be pre-booked as they do fill up; adults cost £4.30 and children £3.10. Find out more here:
At Bourne Mill, parking is limited on site – Sir Thomas Lucas didn’t plan ahead – but you should be able to find roadside parking nearby. Better still, take the train. Greater Anglia’s nearest station is Colchester Town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the town centre to the Mill, but you can catch a bus to Mersea Road from outside the station if your feet have had enough.
The fastest connections from London Liverpool Street to Colchester’s main station take just 46 minutes and just over an hour to the Colchester Town station right in the centre of town. More details can be found on the Greater Anglia website:
The title’s a bit of an exaggeration – at the very least a work in progress – but I’m in the process of creating an index for my blog posts. Here’s the first instalment. With years of independent travel under my belt there’s a lot of advice I can share about airlines and air travel. From finding business class flights at fares lower than economy to what to do if your flight is cancelled, there’s a blog to help.
Tips for saving money on flights
Cabin baggage charges
What to do if you miss your flight
How to travel business class for the price of economy
Are business class flights really worth the extra?
How to survive a long haul flight
What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
Thoughts on airports
Transport options from Heathrow to London
How to get the best from a Heathrow layover
Getting your money back if your flight is cancelled