Kingston upon Hull

Humber_Bridge_3I had wanted to visit Kingston upon Hull for quite a while and last year I finally managed to mobilise myself for a trip.

Now, people vaguely familiar with the UK might ask why on earth would I want to go to Hull (as it is often called for short). Others may ask why would anyone be surprised at someone wanting to go to Hull. As an explanation for the second group, let’s just say that Hull has a reputation similar to that of Cleveland in the US or, I don’t know, let’s say Radom, in my native Poland. Small to mid-sized cities with a declining industrial base, social problems and not much by way of tourist attractions. So why did I go?

Here I have to admit that my primary reason to head that way was the spectacular Humber Bridge rather than the city of Hull itself. Being a road and infrastructure geek I’m always fascinated by the big bridges and as bridges goes this one is pretty spectacular. At 2200 meters it was the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1981 and is still in the world top 10 (currently at seventh place). But going just to see the bridge would be too weird even for me so with my girlfriend we planned a whole weekend trip.

It started on a glorious sunny day with a drive from London, across the agricultural heartland of East Anglia, to Lincoln, with its spectacular Gothic cathedral. The city was on our way towards the Humber and we couldn’t really skip it as I like big Gothic cathedrals almost as much as I do bridges.Lincoln_6

Located on a hill Lincoln Cathedral is absolutely huge (third largest in Britain in floor space, after St Paul’s and York Minster) and completely dominates the historic centre of Lincoln. For 238 years (1311–1549) it was apparently the tallest building in the world but then its spire collapsed and wasn’t rebuilt. Apart from the size I really liked many of the classic Gothic motifs like grotesque gargoyles on the outside and small sculptures inside, often hidden at the bases of the immense pointed arches or at their tops. Gothic is definitely one of my favourite architectural styles and we really enjoyed wandering around the cathedral. My only regret is that we couldn’t tour the roof or the tower as they were both fully booked for the day. Well, at least we have a reason to come back to this amazing cathedral.Lincoln_1

Lincoln_5From Lincoln we drove straight towards the Humber Bridge. Before crossing it we stopped at its base on the south side of the Humber River. From there I could finally admire the elegant crossing in its full glory. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest as it looked truly spectacular in the low light of the setting sun. Sure, the Humber estuary might not be the Golden Gate but the bridge itself still looks pretty cool. It gives the impression of a light and slim structure. The bridge held the record for the world’s longest single-span suspension bridge for 16 years from its opening in July 1981, until the opening of the Great Belt Bridge in June 1997. It still remains the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world that one can cross on foot or by bicycle. One of the trivia I particularly like is the fact that the towers, although both vertical, are 34 mm (1.3 inches) farther apart at the top than the bottom due to the curvature of the earth. How cool is that!Humber_Bridge_2


Humber_Bridge_5After crossing to the north side of the Humber we stopped in a nearby small B&B which we booked for the night. Before you ask, yes, our bedroom did have a view of the bridge. We then had dinner in the local pub which also offered a great view of the illuminated bridge.

The following morning we went to Kingston upon Hull itself. I have to admit that from my British born friends I heard so many bad opinions and stories about the place that I almost expected something resembling Detroit rather than the quite pleasant city that we found. Admittedly, we only spent a few hours in the centre of the city, but during that time I found it quite a pleasant place, with some interesting buildings.

Hull_Maritime_MuseumThe first one was the Hull Maritime Museum which is located in the rather ususually triangular shaped former Dock Offices building. It is a beautiful Victorian structure with many symbolic maritime features inside and outisde. The displays explained Hull’s fascinating maritime history from the 18th century to the present.

Just a few yards away we spotted the enormous building of Kingston upon Hull Guildhall. It is so big it takes up the entire sizable city block. Built in the beginning of the 20th century it is beatufully decorated with multiple sculptures, many of them maritime or classicaly inspired. We decided to get inside and and check if it is possible to have a look at least at the main entrance hall. Unexpectedly we were welocmed by two councillors (one of them a former mayor) who, after a short conversation, offered us a private tour of the building. We simply couldn’t say no to such a great offer and the lovely elderly pair led us on a tour of the interior which contains acres of marble floors and miles of oak and walnut panelling. They took us to the great banqueting hall, private mayor’s office as well as to the main debating chamber. During the entire tour they provided us with lots of history and trivia. The whole experience reminded me of my tours of quite a few state capitols in the US. The same grandiose interiors, lots of symbolism in paintings and statues, and enthusiastic guides.Hull_Guildhall_2

From the guildhall we walked to nearby St Mary’s Lowgate Church. It is a small but old and beautiful Gothic church. Nobody knows when exactly it was built but most likely some time in the late 14th century.

Lovely as it was St Mary’s pales in comparison with the Holy Trinity Church. Located a few hundreds yards to the south it is the largest parish church in England and it dates back to about 1300. The church was founded by Edward I when he decided to build a city on the strategic Humber Estuary. This remarkable structure is the only building to survive from the original “King’s Town” and has been described as the significant pattern for all subsequent parish church buildings in the Perpendicular Period. What I found the most amazing is how bright and airy the interior was. Tall colums and huge windows provide plenty of light to admire beatifuly carved wooden pews and spectaculary painted colourful ceilings. Pevsner described the building as coming close to an “English late medieval ideal of the glass-house” and I have to say he is spot-on in his description. Holy_Trinity_1

We could have spent more time admiring the interior but we realised that our parking fee was going to expire so it was time to move out of Hull.

Overall I was postively surprised with Kingston upon Hull. Maybe it was due to my relatively low expectations but I actully liked it. There is more interesting historical architecture than I expected, especially the amazing Gothic churches or the spectacular Guildhall. This trip so far offered a good mix of history (churches) and modern engeenering (Humber Bridge) and there was still more to come as we were now heading north to the heart of Yorkshire.

But that’s subject for another story. Humber_Bridge_4

Charles Darwin House

DowneLondon with its long and rich history has so much to offer. There are world class museums (like the Tate, British Museum, Natural History Museum, V&A and many others) as well as historical monuments (the likes of the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral being only a few examples). Then, there is all the buzz of one of the most energetic and attractive cities on earth. Think of Soho, Camden, Piccadilly, Shoreditch, Greenwich and many other tourists’ hotspots. But there is also another, less known and quieter, side of London.

Located just 14 miles south east of Charring Cross, the village of Downe is as different from central London as you can only imagine. But however rural it might feel, being part of the London borough of Bromley (even if only just), it is technically still part of Greater London. Its biggest attraction is of course Down House, home of Charles Darwin.

I was thinking about visiting the place for quite a while and finally, on a glorious July day, we decided to go. We chose to take the train to Hayes, where the line from Charring Cross ends, and then walk to the village.

Hayes is one of the many distant and anonymous suburbs of London, and it could be anywhere in the UK. Sure, it is nice, but also an absolutely uninspiring place (sorry to the good people of Hayes). From Hayes station it is about 4,5 miles to Down House (yes Down house is spelled differently to the village). Initially our route took us along typical suburban streets but soon we entered the area of woodlands and heath called Hayes Common which, covering over 90 hectares, is one of the largest commons in London. There is even a two hectare area of shrub heath which forms a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is all a very pleasant place for walkers.

Next on our route was the village of Keston. This area has been inhabited for thousands of years and in the valley below the village there are ruins of a complex of 3rd century AD Roman tombs and a mausoleum. It might not be very impressive but how often do you see Roman remains?

From Keston we followed the London Loop trail for a while before taking local paths leading towards Downe village itself. By now the landscape had become completely rural with no hints of being close to any city, and especially not to London. There were rolling fields stretching to the horizon with tractors chugging along and cows grazing. The paths were at times quite overgrown and little used which only added to the rural feel. I found it a really interesting experience to actually walk out of London, to pass from the endless suburbs to the fields and countryside. Living in London one can think that this city never ends. After nearly a decade here I sometimes have that feeling myself.London_countryside

After navigating a few more stretches of footpaths and local country lanes (with the big help of a proper OS map) we finally reached our destination, Down House.

Charles Darwin lived in the house for 40 years, from 1842 until his death here in 1882. It was here that Darwin did a lot of his research and writing, including his, now well known but then revolutionary, theory of natural selection and evolution.

Nowadays the place is run by English Heritage and is well worth a visit, especially for anyone interested in the history of science. There are numerous exhibitions showcasing Darwin_journalDarwin’s life and research, including the famous journey on board HMS Beagle. There is even a replica of his cabin on Beagle as well as displays of his journals and notes. One of the journals, running to over 750 handwritten pages, brings together his daily thoughts and the descriptions of the places he visited on his five-year journey. Utterly fascinating.

But the best aspects of the house are the historic rooms preserved pretty much as they were during Darwin’s life. Especially fascinating is his old study. This is the place where history of science was made. The room as it is seen today remains unaltered from Darwin’s time. It was restored to the original 1870s arrangement and decoration in 1929, based on a detailed photograph taken in the 1870s together with information from Darwin’s son Leonard (1850–1943).Darwin_study

Being a science geek myself I found it really exciting to be able to walk around the place where so much ground-breaking scientific research was done. At the end of the day Darwin changed the history of science forever.

The house is surrounded by lovely but also historically significant gardens. A lot of Darwin’s research was based on experiments and observations he made in his gardens and greenhouses. You could say that the gardens were like Darwin’s outdoor study. Today they are preserved as they were in his lifetime and stocked with the same plant specimens that Darwin cultivated for his botanical research projects.Darwin_House

In total we spent a few fascinating hours in Down House and enjoyed every minute there. It is definitely one of the most interesting sites I have visited in Greater London in recent years.

From Darwin House we walked back to the village and planted ourselves outside the Queens Head pub. Located right in the heart of the village this lovely establishment offered an uninterrupted view of the village life. We sat down outside and watched traffic passing while sipping Weston’s cider (Weston is located just a few miles away). It all felt like we were far, far away from London. There were tractors carrying bales of hay, bunged up pick-up trucks with dogs at the back, kids riding quads as well as an old Land Rover driven by a hippy looking guy. On the other hand we also spotted SUVs of the London commuters and even a London bus.Village_life_in_London

Conveniently bus 146 connects Downe village with Bromley via Hayes so if you don’t want to walk all the way you can just jump on it. In fact that was what we did on our way back. All those ciders definitely discouraged us from walking back.

As I already mentioned, being a bit of a geek, I was absolutely fascinated by Down House. But even if you are not a science maniac you should still enjoy your visit to Downe. This lovely village has it all. It feels remote but at the same time it easy to reach by public transport. It feels rural but has a world class historic attraction. In short, it is perfect example of London’s idiosyncrasies.Queens_Head_pub

Forts, ships and industrial wasteland in Tilbury

Tilbury FortThe British weather finally got better so it was time to stretch my legs. But I have to admit I got bored of doing the same walks every year. Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common, river Thames towards Kew, Richmond, Kingston or Hampton, Hampstead Heath, I have walked in those areas so many times. At the same time I didn’t want to venture too far from London and still wanted to see something interesting. So I started browsing the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps covering Greater London as well as using Google maps to find some exciting destination for my next walk. It was then that I spotted a fascinating shape in Tilbury, just east of London. After a quick investigation I found out that it is Tilbury Fort and a couple of more minutes later I was sure that I really wanted to visit it.

Tilbury ferryA few days later we (I mean me and my equally geeky girlfriend) started our little adventure by taking a train from London Bridge to Gravesend in Kent. A quick look at the map of the area revealed that we might have chosen the wrong side of the river to start our walk. But don’t you worry, it was all well planned. We decided to use the passenger ferry linking Gravesend with Tilbury as it is a cheap, quick and fun way of travel. The boat, euphemistically called a “ferry”, was a rather ancient looking vessel called Duchess M and it was built in 1956. Crossing the Thames takes just a few minutes and offers great views of Gravesend and Tilbury as well as of the huge cargo ships frequently passing here.Mighty ship on Thames

After landing in Tilbury we made our way to the fort which is located just a few minutes from the ferry landing. As soon as I saw it I knew it was going to be a great day out and of course I wasn’t wrong.

The only time the fort saw any real action was during the First World War when anti-aircraft guns on the parade ground shot down a Zeppelin airship. However, it still has a long and interesting history, even if it was never really attacked.

The first fort here was a D-shaped blockhouse built in 1539 by Henry VIII. During the Armada campaign the fort was reinforced with earthworks and a palisade and it was in nearby West Tilbury that Elizabeth I rallied her makeshift army as it awaited the Armada in 1588. It was there where she spoke the famous words: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”

Of course the fort was rebuilt, modernised and expanded many times since. In fact its oldest surviving part is the impressive and beautifully decorated Water Gate built around 1682. Despite the name it is not connected to president Nixon but instead it was built during the reign of Charles II (whose name in Latin is inscribed above the doorway). Today’s visitors still enter the fort via this gate.Water Gate

Tilbury Fort is one of the best examples of its type in England, with its circuit of moats, bastioned outworks and a star shaped plan. Visitors can tour the magazine houses used to store vast quantities of gunpowder or enter the bastion magazine passages and feel what it was like for the soldiers who lived here. We really had fun checking all the possible corners, taking plenty of photos and playing with various guns of all shapes and sizes. During the visit we also learned that the English Heritage (which nowadays cares for the fort) lets a few flats in the former officers’ quarters to the public. Inhabitants have their own set of keys for the fort so they can drive in and out after it closes to the public. Imagine how cool it must be to live in a historic fort. It also must be the safest location for miles around, with all the moats and bastions for the protection.Tilbury Fort Officers Quaters

One of the most surreal experiences in the fort are the views from its bastions. On one side there are views of massive modern cargo ships passing right by it, (they are so much bigger than this once mighty fortification), on the other side there is a panorama of the even larger Tilbury B Power Station and associated power lines stretching into the Essex landscape. It is definitely a bizarre mix of old and new.

Drawbridge and Tilbury Power StationPlanning our trip I noted another fort located just 2.3 miles downriver and we decided to walk there. The path along the river, from Tilbury to Coalhouse Fort, must be one of the most surreal trails in the country. It runs along the concrete seawall protecting the sewage treatment works, then passes via an industrial looking covered walk-away over the conveyor belts delivering coal from ships to the power station before passing along partially re-cultivated old waste dump. Only closer to the Coalhouse Fort the terrain becomes more natural. Despite the industrial feel (or maybe because of it) I really enjoyed the walk. One of its best aspects is the chance of watching the mighty ships entering the London harbour. It must be a great location for ship-spotters.

Coalhouse Fort 2The Coalhouse Fort is currently closed to the public, (apart from a few selected dates), but it is located in a nice park and it still looks impressive, even just from the outside. Built only in the nineteenth century it is a much more recent structure than its Tilbury neighbour. It is a large semicircular building partially surrounded by a water filled “wet ditch” and it does look as mean as any proper fort should.

The fort was built on a low lying land in a curve of the river Thames at East Tilbury and was positioned there to form a “triangle of fire” between Coalhouse Fort on the Essex bank of the river and Cliffe Fort and Shornmead Fort on the Kent bank. All the guns are of course silent nowadays but the views are still impressive.Kent countryside

From the Coalhouse we backtracked our way to Tilbury admiring even more mighty ships as well as rural countryside on the opposite (Kent) side of the Thames, before catching the ferry back to Gravesend.

I have to say it was one of my most interesting excursions in the recent years and I can recommend it to anyone with an open mind or an interest in things military and industrial.