I’ve always had quite a fondness for working ports and harbours, and how the concrete quays and non-descript marinas are transformed for a few days every year when the port hosts a maritime festival, lifeboat gala day, or traditional boat show.
Railings are decked with bunting; boats cram into the harbour, showing their dressed overall flags; stalls demonstrating traditional maritime crafts, or hawking food and drink line the quaysides; and from somewhere, shanty singers assemble. The air is filled with the scent of Stockholm tar and smoked seafood, and the sound of fiddles and accordions.
Every May, the Belgian coastal resort and port of Ostend celebrates the maritime heritage of the North Sea, hosting traditional and classic sailing vessels from around Europe at the Oostende Voor Anker maritime festival (Ostend at Anchor in English).
The festival takes place each year from a Thursday to a Sunday towards the end of May, depending on the tides, with vessels arriving into port in the preceding days. From class A square riggers to the traditional barges that plied the coastal and inland waterways of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, over 150 vessels participate in the festival.
A large part of Oostende Voor Anker celebrates traditional craftsmanship, with a festival village filled with venues to find out more about boat-building and sail making. A variety of stalls also sell local goods and produce, including what every sailor needs, a vast selection of striped Breton shirts. I may even have picked up a souvenir or two as I browsed through.
As well as open ship tours, demonstrations and stalls, the festival also features things like walking theatre performances, musical concerts, food and cookery demonstrations, arts installations, and nautical themed talks.
My festival tips for Oostende Voor Anker
Avoid taking a car if you’re travelling from out of town. Ostend has excellent rail and coach connections to Antwerp, Brussels, and beyond, and the station is close to the festival area. The Belgian Coastal Tram is another travel alternative.
Wear shoes suitable for walking, as it’s likely you’ll do much more than you anticipate! High heels can cause damage to the decking timbers on ships, and you may be asked to remove unsuitable shoes if you take a deck tour.
Pick up a festival guide as soon as you can. It will have an event map and programme of activities to help you plan your day and find your way around.
Bring cash as some vendors won’t accept card payment.
Book your local accommodation early, as the festival is very popular.
For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”). Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.
But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries. Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.
So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.
*Oxford, I meant Oxford.
Punting on the Cam
If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam. These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower) and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed. It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.
The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery. You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers. Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.
If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge-style rather than Oxford-style if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers). Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour. It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online. Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.
If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).
It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges, I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real. Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined). Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.
King’s College Chapel
In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel(£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight. The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows. They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.
Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir. Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space. (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)
The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places. Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter). A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.
Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures. All listed below are free to visit.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute
In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base. The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
If like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home. It gathers together artefacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero). The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.
Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples. Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia. A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula). Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.
But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.
Robert Falcon Scott
**I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences
The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since. Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.
***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?
Museum of Zoology
Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom. These include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares. The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history. Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.
This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day. The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.
Explore by Bike
After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artefacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well require some fresh air. Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills. The council website has maps available to download.
To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations. Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it. Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it. Simple.
For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside. The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there are no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.
Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles. Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses. When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.
Eat and Drink
Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh focaccia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things. Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels. I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church, is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles. Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam Museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s. Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on-site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies. They also do a full brunch menu and very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but you’ll likely have to wait a while for the tablespace.
The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process). A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century. It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.
****Cake Manager #lifegoals
Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
I’m often asked why I feel the need to travel so often, so extensively, and to places that don’t really feature on the radar for many people as they plan their holidays (Hello Mam!). Often I can’t explain exactly why somewhere appeals to me, just that it does, and I can get there. So this is an attempt to draw together my thoughts, and give a bit of justification for developing this blog.
Travelling is the very soul of These Vagabond Shoes (pun totally intended!), and it’s my belief that the opportunities travel provides for new experiences, exposure to new ideas, and feeling that flux state of being on the move is a good thing for everyone.
Meeting other people, particularly people from a different culture or background to yourself, talking with them, listening to their stories, and sharing their food goes a long way to extending our understanding of each other, and diminishing that deep fear of the different and unknown. It also challenges our tightly-held perceptions, provokes questions, and tests our own resilience. It’s the first tentative steps towards changing the world for the better.
My hope, idealistic as it may be, is that you, dear readers of this blog, might start to think of opportunities available to you, to travel widely and openly, and embrace chances to step outside their comfort zone now and again. And for my friends that perhaps face greater barriers than most, the chance to join me vicariously on my way to some places they may be unlikely to ever visit.
So to that end, I’ve compiled an epic list of reasons I think that travel is a winner, inspired by my own experiences and those of other writers, bloggers, and people that I’ve met along the way. I might dip into it now and again, to take a deeper look at an idea, and it’s not a definitive list by any means, so expect it to grow over time too.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or get in touch on social media.
Why should you travel?
Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.
To break out of your comfort zone
To find the time to think
To escape from the everyday routine
To learn how to really relax
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
To break down boundaries
To meet people from a different culture
To improve foreign language skills
To smash the stereotypes in your thinking
Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.
To heal, and rebuild what’s broken
To grow, exponentially, in confidence
To become a more flexible and adaptable person
To do something you’d never normally do, and be proud of that
Travel brings power and love back into your life.
To light a fire of creativity
To inspire new passions
To make the wine taste better (or whatever your poison is)
To sample new food tastes
If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.
Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.
To speak to new people and make new friends
To find the kindness of strangers
To meet face-to-face the things you’ve read about or seen on screen
To collect mementos and images to colour your everyday life
There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.
The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.
To get up close and personal with the natural world
To watch the sun rise, and set, on a different horizon
To be totally and completely awestruck
To follow in someone’s footsteps
To blaze your own trails
The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.
To fill the blank spaces in your geography knowledge
To give global politics a relatable backdrop
To make history live
To share stories about your home and your experience
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
To get more comfortable in your own company
To become more mature
To create stories to tell your children, and grandchildren
To remain young at heart, whatever your age
And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.
To trace your roots, and shake your branches
To be thankful for what you currently have
To remember just how lucky you are
To appreciate what waits for you at home
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
To change the path of your career, or your whole life
To overcome the fear
To be yourself
To live your best life, no regrets
… because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…
It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, the consequence of colonisations and land claims that spanned the globe, connected by the ships of the Royal Navy and merchant fleet. And this sprawling seafaring set-up was controlled from the grand halls of Greenwich.
Influences gathered from the corners of the earth have been woven through the history of Greenwich, London, and the rest of the UK, through discovery and exploration, science and research, shipping and trade. Visiting Maritime Greenwich, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an insight into the factors that shaped the idea of Great Britain, both nationally and internationally.
To navigate around the part of London at the heart of global time and travel, I’ve compiled a rough guide to discovering what makes Maritime Greenwich tick.
The River Thames
The river is essential to Greenwich, and the Thames Clippers river bus from central London is the best way to arrive. It gives you great views of the city’s most famous landmarks, and I’d recommend sailing at least one way in the evening to see the city lights.
Old Royal Naval College
The centrepiece of the UNESCO site is the Old Royal Naval College, a complex of grand and imposing classical buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Originally a hospital and retirement home for sailors of the Royal Navy, it also housed a school and boarding house for the orphans of seafarers. After these institutions closed, it became the Royal Naval College training the officers that commanded the ships of the fleet right up to 1998.
Guided tours take visitors around the halls, including the spectacular Painted Hall, and you might recognise the buildings as sets for many films and TV shows.
The Old Royal Naval College buildings also house the Greenwich Tourist Information, where you can pick up tickets for other attractions and plan the rest of your visit.
National Maritime Museum
I love maritime museums, and would easily spend the best part of my days looking at bits of boats. This free museum is extensive, capturing and presenting the key elements of the UK’s relationship with the sea, from military sea battles to the history of exploration and discovery to colonisation and trade around the British Empire to the stereotypical British seaside holiday. My highlights were the collections of charts and atlases, an exhibition on the battle of Jutland, and artefacts from the Battle of Trafalgar, including the coat worn by Admiral Nelson on that fateful day.
The museum also hosts exhibitions through the year, like the recent Death in the Ice exhibition, telling the story of the doomed Franklin expedition and the recent discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror. (Doomed expeditions in the ice where eating boots becomes essential to survive are one of my favourite things). These events may have a charge and/or advance booking may be required.
Emirates Airline Cable Cars
Head along the river from the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO site towards the O2 Arena (It will always be the Millennium Dome) to find the Emirates Airlines cable cars, which lift you across the Thames into the Docklands. There are great views all round as you cross, especially to the river and boats some 90 metres below.
A standard return crossing is around £9 (adult fare, children are less, and TFL travel passes give a discount). The cable cars close in high wind.
The sky-raking rigging of Cutty Sark looms over you as you walk on the Greenwich riverside. Taking her name and inspiration for the figurehead from the poem Tam O’Shanter (just one of many Scottish connections to the ship), Cutty Sark was one of the fastest of the famed tea clippers, and now sits, fully restored, suspended over her dry-dock and cased in a sea of glass.
The stories of voyages from China to the UK, and then on the wool route to Australia are brought to life by interpreters recreating characters from the ship’s history on lead tours at certain times. I also loved the game where you could try to beat the record for navigating the ship home around Cape Horn, and easily spent a few hours exploring the ship.
A Day Explorer ticket gives discount entry to Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory on the same day.
Climb to the highest point of Greenwich Park, next to the imposing statue of General Wolfe, to look out over the classical buildings of the Old Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum, and the towers of Canary Wharf on the opposite bank of the river. You’ll also be able to look upriver towards central London and pick out many of the landmarks of the city, like the London Eye, the weird gherkin building, and Tower Bridge.
Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian Line
The buildings in the Royal Observatory played a significant role in the history of scientific discovery, including as the home and workplace of notable Astronomers Royal. Exhibits include the timepieces developed by John Harrison to solve the longitude problem, and the great equatorial telescope.
The Prime Meridian line slicing through the Observatory has been the zero point for measuring time around the globe since 1884 (except in France, of course), and in determining navigational position. I was surprised to find out there are several other meridians in the area, including the baseline for Ordnance Survey maps and, at the other side of Greenwich Park, the reference meridian for satellite data.
The Peter Harrison Planetarium is the only planetarium in London, and the shows are an excellent complement to the information displays in the Astronomy Centre and Royal Observatory. Although it’s really challenging to not fall asleep in the dark, in your comfortable seat, to the relaxing voice of the astronomer.
Food and Drink
There’s a great selection of places to eat and drink in the area. I tried:
The Green Cafe, on Greenwich High Road, for brunchy breakfasts and good coffee. It also had a big selection of cakes and plenty of vegetarian and vegan options.
Museum Cafe, in the Maritime Museum, for a coffee and cake refuel between exhibitions. The sun terrace looks out to Greenwich Park and up to the Royal Observatory (and the view is still great if you’re inside because it’s raining stair-rods).
The Old Brewery, by the Old Naval College, for posh pub food and a great selection of craft beers in a historic setting.
Bill’s Restaurant, on the corner of Nelson Road, for a long leisurely lunch with a bloody Mary menu.
Greenwich Market, for world street food from Ethiopian to Korean. I had Argentine empanadas, followed by Brazillian churros with dulce de leche.
The Gypsy Moth, next to Cutty Sark and named for another famous vessel, for real pub grub, big burgers, and a beer or two (actually several).
What would be in your plans for a visit to Greenwich? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments below.