Friday, December 28, 2018

A Berlin Christmas

Earlier this month I was in Berlin (above) and it looked pretty Christmassy:

You couldn't go more than 100m without having to fight your way through yet another Christmas market: I really don't get the attraction of these.

But it was rather Insta-friendly...

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Happy Christmas 2018!

Happy Christmas to all!

This is the seasonally decorated Cutty Sark in Greenwich. How great does that look?

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Greenland Glaciers: Melting in London

Earlier this year I saw the damage that global warming is already causing to our planet. The glaciers in Svalbard are retreating so fast that charts can not be updated quick enough and indicated our yacht was stuck in the ice when the reality was we were floating freely.

But not many get a chance to head up to 80N to see that for themselves. So ice blocks were brought from Nuuk, Greenland to the City so that Londoners could see this melting for themselves.

It was an art installation by Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson and there were multiple sites, including one in the City (above & below, which I saw a week ago) and also another outside the Tate Modern.

If you put your ear to the ice, you could hear quiet pops as it melted, and see the blue layer going through it (top).

I'd rather see them in the amazing wildernesses of Greenland but global warming is all too real, too serious and it is time to do something about it.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Boats! Boats! Boats! .... spotted on the Wesminster to Hampton Court route

Its the shortest day, time to remember those long summer days when did the all the scheduled river services challenge.

On the way from Westminster to Hampton Court spotted a wide variety of boat types out on the Thames:

Alas this bike-boat seemed a little neglected:

It seems to be a different one that that used by the bike-boat bloke posted about a few years ago.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Vikings: Their Life

If you want to learn about Viking life, not just the myth, then what's the best way to do it?

I'd argue not to see exhibitions like the one at the British Museum (as described earlier) but rather read this book.

Vinland by George Mackay Brown is a classic and sums up for me what life must have been like in Orkney around the time of the first millennium, of sailing with the Vikings to Iceland, Greenland, Vinland and Norway. Of the transition from fighters to farmers, from Norse gods to Christianity.

And the life story from boyhood to old age of Ranald Sigmundson.

I also got a glimpse of the Viking's beliefs when in Greenland. Surrounded by emptiness we were watched by a raven, and seeing that familiar bird so far from civilisation was rather spooky.

I really could understand how the Vikings could have believed they were sent by the gods, for what other reason could there be for seeing it in such a remote place?

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Vikings: their ships

In the previous post I mentioned a disappointing Viking exhibition at the British Museum. Ok, it might be that Viking navigation is a specialised subject, but their boats really are core to their identity. What did this exhibition do?

Alas, rather than having a real boat - or even a reconstruction - it had the framework of one made out of metal.

I remember seeing the Sea Stallion in Dublin a few years ago. It's a replica Viking boat that really sails, and in fact crossed the North Sea on a voyage around Scotland and down to Dublin.

Seeing a real boat was so much more than the shell in the British Museum, the smell and feel of its wooden planks, and hearing about the valuable experience of actually being out at sea. The sailors learnt it was faster to windward rowing than sailing, and that the steering mechanism could (and did) fail.

It was a story that would be familiar to W. Hodding Carter who wrote about a similar breakage of their steering oar in their reconstruction of the Vikings discovery of America in his book "Viking Voyage".

The physical presence of the boat together with these lessons are much more informative than a metal frame, however large.

But the biggest impression I have ever had from a Viking boat is when I was on-board the smaller Helge Ask which visited London in 2012. The experts showed me round and then shook the boat from side to side to show its flexibility.

It was really remarkable how the timbers flexed, waves travelling down the boat, alive completely unlike a rigid metal frame.

It would be even better actually to go out to sea on one: not sure how to arrange that but I spotted that the Viking Ship Museum in Copenhagen has that option.

One to add to the travel list...

Thursday, December 06, 2018

The Vikings: Navigation

Recently Tillerman posted a comment asking how the Vikings navigated? It was a topic I had meant to address a couple of years ago when there was a British Museum exhibition about Vikings.

However the exhibition had been a major disappointment, and one of the reasons for that was it ignored topics like this one.

So how did the Vikings navigate?

One key tactic was to follow a line of latitude, which means head due east or west - and hence know where south and north are.

On a clear night the Vikings would have been able to see Polaris, but in the summer months that far north there was often no darkness, as we found when we sailed to the Arctic Circle.

During the day they could use the length of the sun's shadow if they had created a sun-dial for that latitude and month, but that didn't help on cloudy days.

So they must have had to rely on natural navigation methods, such as using glimpses of sun to measure the wave direction and use that to keep a constant course.

Other techniques were summed up in the phrase on how to reach Greenland from Norway:

From the west country sail west but keep far enough north of Shetland so that the islands are barely visible in clear weather. Stay far enough south of the Faroe Islands so that the steep, high mountains are just halfway up over the horizon. And stay far enough south of Iceland that you can't see land, but you can just about see coast-bound seabirds.

As we were to find out, that is an incredibly useful navigational instruction.

We too saw the Faroe islands from afar (see photo above) and that could indeed be used as a gauge of latitude.

What's more we spent time observing the birds, counting the numbers at the end of each hour of our watches, and we could determine the distance from the coast simply by the number and types of birds we saw.

It would be have been nice to read something about that in the British Museum exhibition, maybe see the writing quoted above or an example sundial but alas no, nothing....

Sunday, December 02, 2018

North to Svalbard: Tromso

Flights to Svalbard from Oslo go via Tromso and again rather than simply changing planes there, on the way up I spent two nights in this town in the far north of Norway.

One of the best things to do there is head over the bridge and get the cable car up mount Storsteinen which has great views (above and below).

In the town itself there were a number of museums and I went first to the Polar Museum. After the amazing Fram Museum in Oslo I was expecting something similar, smaller, maybe more local, but actually it had a very different vibe. Take this photo:

This was more about hunting than exploring, with the big names the ones that had killed the most animals. There were relics all around the walls:

While not to everyone's taste it must admit if felt an authentic flavour of the old north.

But generally I really liked Tromso and had a happy time wandering the harbour watching the boats and their reflections in the still waters:

I get the feeling that this place is probably better for photography during the long winter nights when the aurora flickers overhead, so maybe worth a return trip sometime.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Oslo: The Kon-Tiki Museum

After lunch at the National Maritime Museum (and a quick look round) it was time for the last of the big three museums on the Bygdøy peninsular, Oslo.

The Kon-Tiki Museum, as you might have guessed, covers the expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl, in particular:

Kon-Tiki (above): from Peru across the Pacific to Raroia, Tuamotus in 1947

Ra II (below): from Morocco across the Atlantic to the Barbados in 1970.

It was interesting to see both of these boats up close - bigger than expected, rafts with sails that could go down wind/current.

Heyerdahl's  idea was that seafarers in ancient times could have crossed these vast distances with the technology of the day.

Before visiting I had the view that though the evidence was that they could have made these voyages, there was little evidence e.g. in the DNA, that they actually had. However it appears that more recent analysis suggested that while the majority of the Easter Islanders did indeed come from the rest of Poynesia, a small minority of 8% was Native American.

While measurement from a small sample, the fact that it was non-zero does suggest some form of contact, which makes these voyages more significant.

At this point was suffering a bit of boat-history-museum-history-heat overload, so decided to call it a day and go for a swim.

The water was very refreshing!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Oslo: The Fram Museum

It was a totally inappropriate day to visit this brilliant museum.

This museum celebrates polar exploration and contains two legendary ships, the Fram (above) and the Gjoa (below):

As well as these two ships, this museum is a treasure trove of all things related to high latitude exploration, of both the Arctic and Antarctic.

To get the full experience it should really be chilled like a freezer, requiring multiple layers of wool to enter. Alas on the baking day I was there it felt more equatorial than polar, the two triangular buildings housing the two ships trapping heat within:

But it was totally worth it as it was probably the best museum of high latitude exploration anywhere in the world, filled with objects and stories of interest.

The two main boats, for those that want a refresher, were indeed historic:

Fram: this was built for Fridtjof Nansen with sufficient strength to allow it to be frozen into the polar ice cap where it then was allowed to drift over the Arctic in 1893. Later it was taken by Amundsen to the south pole, allowing it to claim to have sailed further north and south than any other wooden ship.

Gjoa: this was the first vessel to transmit the Northwest Passage in the Roald Amundsen expedition of 1903- 1904.

There was an impressive surround sound + video installation around the Fram (below and top) that gave the impression it (and hence the visitor too) was exploring stormy seas dotted with icebergs.... somewhat spoiled by the temperature of course:

There was also a useful 12 minute film that gave an introduction to polar exploration.

As someone heading up north to Svalbard the museum was packed with useful information, such as the Norge airship expedition, the mooring pole of which we'd later see at Ny Alesund. Many stories had a similar theme which was: the Brits had a go, made a complete mess of things, then the Norwegians did it right (e.g. NW passage, race to south pole etc).

For me it was the top museum in Oslo and I really can't recommend it highly enough for anyone with an interest in high latitude exploration.

Even so, there came a point where my legs became tired and a break from yet-another-expedition's-story fatigue hit the point where lunch seemed a good idea, so I left and headed for the Norwegian National Maritime Museum which has a good canteen (but to be honest, not a lot else).

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Oslo: The Viking Ship Museum

The first museum went to in Oslo was the Viking Ship Museum. I chose to go here first as was afraid it would be over-run with tourists (or to be honest, other tourists) and indeed it was, with a car park full of big coaches from a visiting cruise-ship.

However it was pretty spectacular, with three Viking ships: Oseberg (above & below, built around 820 AD), Gokstad (built about 900 AD) and Tune (not so well preserved).

The Oseberg and Gokstad were buried as graves and a lot of objects found from those and other graves were on display, including these animal head posts from the Oseberg find:

It was all fascinating and there was also a interactive film of the Vikings life which was fun though it was weird to hear about the raids on Britain from the Norwegian side. We, after all, were remembering those that killed the innocent, burning homes and monasteries, looting and raping their way across the North Sea.

History as seen by the other side - how very topical!

There was also a film about Viking navigation, but it was one of two films and the audio alternated between English and Norwegian which meant would have to wait half an hour to hear it in full so left for the next maritime related museum...

Monday, November 19, 2018

North to Svalbard: Oslo

It's a cold, wet, windy November evening: time to go through the photo album and post some memories of the travels this summer.

To get to Svalbard had to take not one but three flights, the first one was to Oslo and rather than connecting directly on to Tromso decided to spend two nights there. I really liked this city but, as with so many places this summer, it was suffering from heatwave conditions so often wilted a bit and had to recover with something this:

At the heart is the harbour and fort as can be seen in the top photo and the fort was a good place to explore, get good views over the harbour and dehydrate:

It was also a good place to watch the sunset, but this is 2018 so rather than showing a sunset photo (how 2017!), here is a "taking a sunset time-lapse" photo:

Very IG.

Around the harbour you could see lots of boats (like, duh!) but also various sculptures:

All very cool.

You could get this ferry out to see three of the museums, and these were tops, so each requires a separate post:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Wey Navigation: West Byfleet Loop

After a book about canal boats, back to the summer's canal walks and a non-canal canal-walk.

Key facts:

  • Start: West Byfleet train station
  • End: West Byfleet train station
  • Distance: 10.9 km

This walk was amazingly picturesque and only short train journey from Clapham Junction to West Byfleet, the start and end point. While it could have been walked in this case I took the bike to make the getting to/from the Navigation easier.

The Wey Navigation goes all the way back to 1653 when the river was made navigable all the way from the Thames to Guildford. While going through Surrey, a county not know for wilderness, it feels remote and unspoilt and is an absolute gem.

Those that follow the TV series "Great Canal Journeys" in which husband and wife Timothy West and Prunella Scales explore the canal and rivers of Britain and Europe will recognise this parts of this from the Series 3 episode "London's Lost Route to the Sea".

That programme impressed me in its almost iconic representation of rural England, yet started on the Thames within the loop of the M25 - indeed I'd visited that end as part of the Ferries of London project.

And, golly, wasn't it just so pretty:

The segment I was exploring included the ruins of Newark Priory:

Yup, decided it was a good place to practice flying the drone:

What a place to have a boat to potter in, where Ratty and Mole could just messing about all day on the water:

These boaters, like so many I encountered, were heading off for a picnic: there was some sort of wedding going on in Windsor that day....

Friday, November 09, 2018

Book Review: Narrow Dog To Carcassonne by Terry Darlington

Like Estuary (reviewed earlier) I sort of enjoyed this book, but there were significant qualifications.

This book tells how the author, his wife Monica and dog Jim took their narrow boat Phyllis May down the English canal system from Stone to the Thames, across the Channel, through the French, Belgium and then French again canal systems all the way to Carcassonne.

It's described (as can be seen from the cover above) with words like "classic" and "comic" on the lines (I guess) of Three Men in a Boat or Bill Bryson's travel books, and some reviews are 5 star raves.

But I had a few issues. The word "comic" was one as I didn't really find it that funny. Recently I've been re-watching some old episodes of Cheers and each one has a proper laugh-out-loud moment:

Now Cheers is funny, this book less so. All too often it reverts to Daily Mail stereotypes of aren't the French odd, do lets remember the war, bash the EU and complain about not getting beer in pint glasses.

Then there's the writing style: this should be an easy read, yet too often it isn't, with prose like poetry (or poetry like prose), fantasies and at one point switching to the current tense.

Take one story about low flying fighter planes: the first description had them just 6 inches above the Rhone. This sounds like bar-room tall story, exaggeration, but then a second time round it changes to them and their boat being attacked by fighter-bombers - are the tall stories getting taller? - before a fuller description comes out, namely that they were fire-fighting planes picking up water.

Ok, so the author has to create tension but this just makes following what is going on harder.

My recommendation is if you're interested, maybe a canal boat owner, then try out the first couple of paragraphs or maybe even chapters and see how much you enjoy the viewpoint and writing style.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Book Review: Arthur Ransome under sail by Roger Wardale

Arthur Ransome's love of sailing can be read in every line of his Swallows and Amazon's series of books that went on to inspire many sailors.

In real life he spent a lot of his time afloat in a variety of boats, as described in this book. And there were quite a few of them, including Swallow, Racundra, Nancy Blackett, Lottie Blossom, Peter Duck and Selina King.

The voyages on Racundra he wrote up in two books, the first and third cruises of that yacht, which alas I discovered were all too boring.

This book has the advantages that a) it summarises those cruising recollections (i.e. its author, Roger Wardale, read those books so we don't have to) and b) it points out similarities between events in Arthur Ransome's life that might have been re-used in his stories.

For example:
  • The safety in sailing offshore in Racundra was similar to John's predicament in We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea
  • Ransome and Evgenia were helped to sail by Captain Sehmel, who was to become Peter Duck (both had sailed on the Thermopylae)
  • Going ashore on deserted islands in the Baltics was a bit like Titty and Bill going ashore in Peter Duck
  • The great frost of 1895, when Ransome was in the Lake District as a child, was re-imagined in Winter Holiday
  • Ransome also met the Norwegian polar explorer Nansen while in Riga
  • The yacht Goblin from We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea was a faithful copy of Ransome's Nancy Blackett
  • Research for that book included a trip by Ransome over to Holland
  • Sailing friends of Ransome on the East Coast had a yacht called Lapwing...which was included in Secret Water
  • Ransome also explored The Naze aka the secret water when living at Pin Mill (which was the Swallows base for two stories)
  • He also went sailing with friends on the Norfolk Broads, which were used in the stories of the Coots
And that's to say nothing of the countless connections with Ransome's life to the Lake District sailing stories.

I also learnt how Ransome was instrumental in forming the Cruising Association, where I've been for a couple of really interesting talks with good food.

The first half of the book was the best for me, the second had two flaws:
  1. It didn't make so much sense to me to describe retrospective literary connections i.e. when Ransome's sailing reflected his books (rather than his books coming from his experiences)
  2. Ransome kept on commissioning yachts and after a while it becomes yet another boat project
All in all, though, a very good read for anyone with an interest in finding out more about Arthur Ransome, the man behind some of our favourite children's books.

Note that Roger Wardale is a bit of a Ransome expert and there are two other books that might be of interest:
  • In Search of Swallows and Amazons: Arthur Ransome's Lakeland (focusing on the Lake District, as described here)
  • Arthur Ransom on the Broads (as reviewed here)

Updated: Racundra (as per here) or Recundra (as per front page)?