Friday, June 26, 2015

Castell Coch

Castell Coch stands above the village of Tongwylais like a French chateau – its spires rising out of the woods that cover the surrounding hills. It is easily reached by bike from Cardiff following national cycle route 8. Heading past the Millennium Stadium from the station I picked up the route on the path running on the west bank of the River Taff. Bute Park provides a green corridor through the city and the route sticks by the riverside most of the way passing fields and wooded sections. A short stretch along roads takes you to the village and the only strenuous part of the ride up a steep hill to the castle gates.

The castle was originally built in Norman times but the building that stands today is a reconstruction completed by the Third Marquess of Bute in the 19th century. It's an impressive fort from the outside but inside it is more homely with lavishly furnished rooms including the ornate chapel and dining room and fairytale decor of the Lady Bute's bedroom.

The kitchen was fully equipped with bowls set out on the table like the Mary Celeste. To one side there were some windows looking through to the dining room. I saw a man in uniform come striding purposefully towards me. He thrust his head through the window and said: "While you're in there you couldn't do me a sausage and chips?" A moment later he entered, looking around as if something might be missing. Then gave an impromptu talk on the characteristics of medieval kitchens, pointing out that what appeared to be cupboards in the walls were in fact ovens. Apparently one oven wasn't enough in those days. It was a lively alternative to the somewhat unreliable audio guides.

On the whole the place is far to cosy for medieval times, the only exception being a staircase tucked away in one corner leading to the dungeon, a dark, bare cell deep underground.

An hour or two is sufficient to explore the charming but compact castle and when I next go I'll leave time to explore the walking trails in the surrounding woodland.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


From the whiff of sulphur when you turn on the hot tap to the snow covered mountains surrounding Reykjavik Iceland is a destination when nature’s raw power constantly impresses with sights and sensations.  

I left the airport (possibly the most unattractive sight in the country) and was soon travelling through a vast expanse of moss covered lava rock, mountains rising up in the distance. The prospective crew members for the mission to Mars should just go to Iceland instead. The air’s fresher, the landscape’s just as alien and it’s easier to get back home.

My first stop was at one of Iceland’s most touted attractions the Blue Lagoon. The vast thermal baths with sky blue waters were a great place to relax after an early morning flight. I was afraid I would have to dash through sub-zero temperatures before being scaled in boiling hot water but an indoor section of the bath leading outside eliminated this and the air and water temperatures mostly balanced each other out though from time to time a blast of arctic wind would freeze your face or a wave of extra hot water would make your skin start to sizzle.

Sitting in the warm water sipping a beer bought from the poolside bar (your wristband acts as a digital wallet) it was hard to believe less than 12 hours earlier I had been sat at a bus stop in Newport at 3:30am with a girl in short sleeves patting her skimpily clad friend on the back who had taken a bad turn at the end of a heavy night out. I hadn’t even got to the hotel yet and Iceland was looking and feeling awesome.
A few flakes of snow fell while I was at the lagoon which turned into blizzards that night and the following day. I found Reykjavik a pleasant city to stroll around in-between heavy blasts of snow which teams of snow ploughs calmly dealt with meaning none of the panic that such conditions would cause in the UK. It does not feel like a capital city – more like a large, cosmopolitan village which isn’t surprising considering the entire population of the country is less than 330,000.

I glimpsed snowy mountains across a stretch of water down one side street and nipped down to take a closer look. It took a bit more nipping than I had anticipated. One street led to another which ended with a steep slope leading into a housing estate. I walked round via another street, was blocked by an embankment, found my way round, crossed a busy road and waited for another group of tourists to move before I got a clear view, but it was worth it.

The following day I took a tour of the golden circle – a popular group of attractions near Reykjavik, though it was more of a white circle as the snow continued. The incredible views of the rift valley were an early highlight. There was also a beautiful ice encrusted waterfall though it was only a snow globe version of the mighty Gullfoss we encountered later.

The Rift Valley

Geyser was also rewarding with the one regularly active geyser doing its stuff. Having taken a few photos I watched the spectacle without the distractions of a camera. It had gone off twice in five minutes but the third blast took it’s time with the water sloshing about occasionally to tease the gathered crowd. Then without warning the water gathered into a huge blue ball which exploded in a 15 foot jet of steam. We returned to Reykjavik in a heavy blizzard, white clouds slowly erasing the world outside.

The following day I ventured further afield on a road trip to Hofn near Skaftafell National Park in the South East. A network of airports makes planes a good way to get around the country with flights sometimes being both quicker and cheaper than the bus. But if you have time to drive the scenery is worth it.

Green hills, snowy mountains, waterfalls dashing down sheer rock faces, volcanos, vast monochrome plains of lava, rugged coastline beaten by rough seas. We saw them all in an ever-changing landscape as the weather varied between sun, heavy rain and thick blizzards. 

After four hours of jaw dropping scenery we were still blown away when we passed Jökulsárlón, a lagoon full of blue icebergs from a nearby glacier which had us veering off the road to take a closer look. 

We visited the glacier the following day for a tour of an ice cave. Entering this temporary vault was like going inside a huge diamond illuminated by incredible blue light. We passed through the cave to be surrounded by huge cliffs and rising plains of solid blue and grey ice – the grey caused by volcanic ash. The glacier moves and changes at a visible rate. Even in a couple of years the area we visited will be unrecognisable and vast though it seemed it was just one tiny corner of this amazing structure.

On my return to Reykjavik I had hoped to go on a tour to see the northern lights but it was cancelled for the third time that week. Instead I finished the trip as I’d started with a bath - this time at the public baths in Reykjavik. The old baths are not as glamorous as the Blue Lagoon but at 650 krona they are excellent value and offer both a conventional indoor pool at a comfortable temperature and open air hot tubs.

Iceland delivered a tremendous five days of new and unforgettable experiences and is a country I thoroughly recommend visiting.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


When the train arrives in Conwy from Llandudno Junction it almost scrapes against the castle walls before passing through an archway in the city wall just before the platform. The railway cuts a deep groove through the town continuing along the North Wales Coast but there are many reasons to alight at this request stop.

A stroll around the well-preserved battlements offers views over snug rows of slate roof tops and the River Conwy where sails take the place of rooftops. The whole scene is dominated by the castle built by Edward I and still standing proud.

The castle is the most obvious tourist attraction and worth spending 2-3 hours to explore. You can lose yourself amongst the high walls and arched windows. Most of the towers and turrets can still be climbed offering even greater views of the town and surrounding countryside.

There is a friendly community feel to the place where any encounter be it in a park or shop can result in a cheery exchange. On one of the last really warm days of summer I ate lunch in a shady spot in the churchyard. “You won't get a sun tan sitting there,” remarked a passerby.
“I won’t get sunburn either,” I retorted. 

Berry Street offers a nostalgic shopping experience. We were regular customers at the baker’s with a blue and white shop front where we bought huge, generously filled baps. Next door there was a sweet shop with its walls lined with shelves of jars and a window displaying everything from pop rocks to liquorice. A couple of doors down a greengrocer offered an inviting display of wares and the shopkeeper kept up a steady stream of conversation with each customer. Berry Street offers all the provisions needed for a famous five style adventure along the coastal path or Bodlondeb Woods.

I went to both on my first morning. It was bright and clear as I set off along the sturdy path running along the riverside towards the coast. After passing a small harbour I felt the sea air and the path turned to grass and sand as I walked alongside sandy and stony beaches. I spent an hour or two sat in a quiet spot reading, before turning back and entering the northern corner of the woods. I followed a steep winding path, glimpsing the river through the trees until I suddenly emerged in a well-kept park with mown lawns and flower beds and what appeared to be a stately home in the centre. I had in fact passed an entrance to it earlier but the gate house suggested it was private property. It was Bodlondeb Park and I wasn’t the only member of the public enjoying it. A voice hailed me from behind and I looked round to see a man with a wild beard on a nearby bench clutching a copy of the Mirror. “It’s lovely day,” he declared in case I hadn’t notice. “I’ve found a sun trap and I’m reading the paper,” he explained. I bid him good day and found a spot to enjoy the weather and another chapter of the novel I was reading. 

The river front was the perfect spot to enjoy the final days of summer. The residents of a row of houses can enjoy the tranquil views right from their doorsteps, though the last on the row is now a tourist attraction as the smallest house in Great Britain. With a floor area of 3.05 by 1.8 metres and a height of 3.1 metres it seems built for a tiny resident though the last person to live there was a 6ft 3 fisherman in 1900. 
By Marcus Millett

An ice cream stall offers a variety of flavours including salted caramel and sea buckthorn. On my first evening I ate fish and chips from another bygone era shop on Berry Street while a large seagull eyed me intently. 

It takes about half an hour to explore Conwy’s attractions but the town’s allure lasts longer. With so many areas of interest to see nearby it is just as well the town doesn’t swallow you whole but waits patiently for your return, its solid wall extending round the narrow streets in a warm embrace. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Cambridge E-Luminate Festival

Cambridge's first E-luminate festival saw buildings across the city lit up using lo-carbon technology. I braved heavy winds on the opening night to photograph illuminations on Kings College, the Senate House and Guildhall. That was after the opening ceremony during which illusionist Alexis Arts made an amazing prediction. During the festival he also made a successful Guinness World Records attempt for the largest card reveal.

Alexis Arts at The Grand Arcade

Os and Xs on the Guildhall

There were concerts and workshops throughout the two weeks including twilight opening of many of the city's museums. I visited the Botanic Gardens Glass Houses and St Peter's Church.

The Botanic Gardens

St Peter's Church

I was pleased to be shortlisted in the festival photography competition for this photo of the Senate House Railings which got me into the closing ceremony at the Hilton.

The festival is set to become an annual event and beneath the artwork and entertainment the project is doing serious work in promoting low carbon lighting. The technology that has illuminated the city could one day illuminate our homes and work places providing the light we need without it costing the Earth.

Look out for details of the festival in future years. It is sure to be yet another attraction in this world famous city. Here are a couple of the animated projections from the festival:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Brighton Museum and Art Gallery: Spectators and Performers Exhibition

Fat Boy Slim’s slipmats sit next to a hurdy-gurdy and a laughing cloud greets you at the entrance to this upstairs room of the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

It is home to props and costumes from celebrations around the world like Bamana in Mali where bright puppets dance and battle through the night. The long-necked yellow goat on display looks like it’s about to pick a fight with the figure dressed in a gold swordfish helmet brandishing a pair of swords from the Niger Delta, home of the Kalibari Tribe.
Elsewhere a sequin-clad monkey marionette from Burma leaps through the air wielding a club and the costume of a mysterious Nigerian Egungun dancer draws much curiosity. Videos show some exhibits in action like the graceful Vietnamese water puppets.

Concise information labels tell stories like how eight year-old African boys encounter the terrifying masked Bedu dancers before joining their ritual celebration.

There is a lack of interactive features here when museums are full of buttons, touchable exhibits and computers. The fully functional Punch and Judy theatre is a superb attraction, but a bit big for young puppeteers to operate comfortably.

Not that anyone will be bored, the exhibition can be viewed in minutes but captivates the imagination for far longer. From the enormous shadow puppets that act out Indian folk tales to the jewel encrusted Burmese dancer’s suit, this is the costume department from that grandest of theatre productions: life!

Spectators and Performers
1st Floor, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens
Open: Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm

Admission Free