25 Jul 2016 UK/Europe
I left home on June 24 and returned on July 25, spending an ideal four weeks on the other side of the world. My hope for a happy landing in London was shattered during my stop-over in Singapore, when I learned that the UK had voted to leave the EU in the previous day’s referendum, casting the nation’s public and political life into shock and turmoil. The vote dominated conversation with family, friends and strangers. To me it was an own goal. Mercifully, before I flew to Germany, Theresa May had filled what seemed an agonisingly protracted governmental void by becoming Prime Minister. But all the while life around me continued as usual.
The focus of my journey was to be with family and friends, fitting in sightseeing, the subject of this post, between engagements in London and combining sightseeing and staying with Clive in Somerset and with Peter and Gaby (my cousin Leila’s younger son and his wife) in Germany. I had the unique pleasure of spending time with Jaap and his partner Elisabeth in Holland, (his country of birth which he only left when he was in his forties) where I also met his elder sister Ellen.
The favourable weather forecast caused me to schedule a visit to Kew Gardens on the Monday after my arrival in the UK, the Tuesday being designated for a day with Leila. Given its ease of access by bus and train from the apartment I have rented for my last three stays in London, let alone all the years I lived there, I cannot explain why I had never been to Kew before. A familiar, all-consuming attention kicked in as I began to explore the grounds. This blissful state of heightened awareness, of being at one with a place, is only complete when I explore alone.
On my way to the Marianne North Gallery from the Victoria Gate, I absorbed the disposition of trees, areas of wild meadow, a tightly shut pale blue door in the boundary wall, numerous tiny fungi growing in the grass, a puff ball emerging from mulch beneath a spreading conifer whose lowest branches brushed the ground. The sound of birdsong was shattered by the near constant roar of jet aircraft low overhead on their final approach to Heathrow. The gallery is a distinguished oddity. It was endowed by the artist and curated by her. Six rows of her marvellous paintings of the flora of every continent accessible to the adventurous 19th century traveller, adorn the walls of its two rooms from dado to cornice. The famous ten storey pagoda designed by Sir William Chambers is a short walk from the gallery. Built in 1762, an impressive 163 feet high, it is undergoing a much needed rennovation. The pagoda is due to reopen next year, complete with 80 brightly coloured wooden dragons for the first time in 230 years, the originals having been removed in 1784 to allow roof repairs. It is a beguiling structure.
I did not count how many of Kew’s 14,000 trees and shrubs I saw, superb specimens all. I traversed much of the park on my way to Decimus Burton’s famous Palm House, a rare survivor of a large building from the pioneering age of iron and glass construction. The original planting scheme, with species grouped according to parts of the world where they are endemic, has been retained for nearly 170 years. Burton’s later and grander Temperate House was closed for restoration. I concluded my visit in the way I began it, looking at paintings – in the world’s first gallery dedicated to exhibiting botanical art, which opened in 2008. The current exhibition is centred on Margaret Mee’s work in Brazil complimented by that of some superb Brazilian botanical artists whom she mentored.
I am fortunate to have been to a number of places that I simply had to visit the moment I saw a photograph of them maybe decades previously without ever thinking I would actually have the good fortune to do so, most notably the Taj Mahal, Hagia Sophia, Angkor Wat, the Buddhist monuments of Bagan and Victoria Falls. So it proved for reasons other than remoteness, with the 13th century barns of Cressing Temple located deep in the Essex countryside. I was captivated by a black and white photo of them in a newly published book of farm buildings I bought in 1981. The barns were built by The Knights Templar on an estate that was among their earliest and largest in England. They have been owned by Essex County Council since 1987 and are the main visitor attraction of an educational centre which includes later farm buildings, a garden with a partly 16th century wall and lengths of moat lined with reeds, providing cover for moorhens and ducks.
Of all the items from a bygone era on display in the farm buildings, none pleased me more than the Essex wagon, as depicted in Constable’s famous 1821 painting ‘The Hay Wain’. It was virtually the sole occupant of a large machinery shed and I was the only person viewing it. A sign with the words ‘Hall Court’ was placed above the half open door to the chaff room on the ground floor of the early 17th century half-timbered granary. The chamber was sparse yet substantial, animated by a class of primary school children facing the far wall, experiencing a living history lesson on late mediaeval justice. A teacher in costume, who was in the role of magistrate or Justice of the Peace, aided by boys and girls playing felons and court officials, addressed the class, among whom were plaintiffs and citizens called on to help the needy. As I entered the room a plaintiff was being berated for his greed before being awarded redress. The boys (men) were called ‘master’ and the girls (women) ‘mistress’. The magistrate threatened an indigent woman with being expelled from the parish by the Constable unless she accepted employment. One of the conditions stipulated by the magistrate to a prospective employer other then food and clothing, was ‘a safe place to sleep’. It was fascinating and moving to witness such an imaginative approach to education.
Withdrawing from the ‘Hall Court’, I resumed my walk to the barns only to be drawn into watching a class being taught bowmanship on the lawn next to the granary. The culmination of the lesson was all the children releasing their arrows, tipped with a rubber pad, in unison to recreate a deadly field of fire by the English longbowmen of yore. These being primary school children, their re-enactment, though enthusiastic, betrayed a tenuous understanding of the term ‘in unison’, but it may not have been that easy for them to keep the arrow in position while waiting for the order to let fly.
One of the information panels about the barns described them as being vast roofs which needed supporting, a point well made whether viewing them externally or from within. Their crowning glory, literally, is their roofs. On the outside the tens of thousands of clay tiles which cover them and on the inside the sturdy timber posts and the trusses and rafters which carry the vertiginous rows of purlins. The timber had to be selected with the utmost care, the trees the right size to form the posts and beams. The Barley Barn dates from 1200 and is said to be the oldest standing timber framed-barn in the world. The Wheat Barn dates from 1250.
The walled garden was a delight, parts of the wall far older than its typical country house kitchen garden equivalent. The brick walls of these old gardens with their patina of moss and lichen and rich hues of ageing fired clay, enchant me as much as the displays of flowers, fruit and vegetables. All the planting was of flora that would have been grown before 1600 and was arranged according to function, whether for eating, scent, decoration or medicine. Some species appeared in more than one part of the garden. A medlar tree which had been blown flat in a gale a few years back, was still bearing fruit.
The following day I rounded off a week of gardens by visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden, also for the first time. It is slightly out of the way, which probably explains why I hadn’t been there before. It is reached after a brisk walk from Sloane Square past Wren’s superb Royal Hospital in its ample grounds. The Garden, was founded in 1673 on a leased site by the ‘Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ to train apprentices in the identification and use of medicinal plants. It occupied 4 acres, but lost ½ an acre of land lapped by the Thames, to the construction of the Chelsea Embankment in 1874.
The best of the week’s weather was on the day I visited Kew. Thereafter it was cool and showery. The worst of the weather was at the Physic Garden. I joined a guided tour of about ten, mostly older people assembled in front of the statue of Sir Hans Sloane. He bought the property in 1713, leasing it in perpetuity to the Apothecaries for an annual rent of £5 in exchange for providing the Royal Society with 50 good herbarium samples a year. ‘In perpetuity’ lasted until the Garden became a charity in 1983 and opened to the public for the first time.
The guide was a vivacious volunteer whose flow of information was disrupted by Heathrow-bound planes, not quite as numerous or as low-flying as at Kew, but still deafening. We also had to contend with the distraction of frequent short showers and the repeated opening and folding of umbrellas. The Garden is laid out according to the utilitarian properties of the plants whether medicinal, edible, a source of clothing, or pleasing to the senses. As at Cressing the same plant may appear in more than one bed. A point of interest mentioned by the guide was the ancient bell still in place high up on the wall next to the Garden’s original (and still the main) entrance. I checked it out. It was partly hidden by vegetation.
The Garden also has a creative educational programme with a classroom for visiting school children where they can see the Shelf Life project of plants growing in their corresponding product packaging. It was dreamed up by the education officer in response to the reaction of urban children to seeing very ordinary things like onions growing in the ground. Plants are presented in supermarket style, for instance potato plants in a crisp packet or an onion growing in a pickled onion jar.
A week after my visit to Kew Gardens I took the train to Ilkley to have afternoon tea at Bettys Tea Rooms. The weather was improving. At a family gathering the day before, we sat in the garden in bright sunlight for several hours. I love train travel in Europe because it mixes speed, comfort and a grandstand view of the passing scene. I buy rails passes in Australia for England and selected countries on the continent, this time for Germany and Holland. Bettys was a favourite from the ‘50s. I had to change at Leeds. The Ilkley train called at stations whose names I knew from my schooldays but had barely seen or heard since.
Ilkley is in lower Wharfedale. The famous moor rises to the west of the town. The tearooms are a short walk along the main street from the station. Bettys is a byword for elegance and refinement. Strictly speaking it was still lunchtime when I arrived. No matter, although I could have enjoyed much of the food on the menu, it was afternoon tea that I wanted so I ordered two toasted tea cakes with raspberry jam and a pot of English Breakfast tea. The teacakes, oozing butter, were served on a stand. The raspberry jam was delicious. The pot yielded five cups of tea. The grand finale was a glass dessert dish containing crushed meringues, raspberries and whipped cream. The bill was under £14.
I did not linger in Ilkley and after a short wait at the station, caught the train to Leeds and thence promptly the train to London. I always thrill at seeing the towers of Lincoln cathedral on their far away ridge between Newark and Grantham. Including changing trains I spent over five hours travelling and less than two hours at my destination. A perfect rail day out.
A Guardian article about two Gerrit Dou paintings of music-making, which had not been shown together since 1665, prompted me to visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was designed by Sir John Soane as the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery and opened in 1817. The rooms are evenly lit from the ceiling by skylights, freeing the walls for hanging paintings. Radical as the building was when it opened, it shows its age as a gallery, many of the works displayed one above the other in the fashion of the time, which weakened the impact of the collection. There were some welcome surprises, such as a pair of Canalettos, paintings by Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael and an early 18th century flower painting by Jan van Huysum, continuing the tradition of the great Dutch Golden Age exponents of the genre whose best works meet the requirement for accuracy of botanical art but are irrefutably paintings. As it happened, the Dous were almost lost in the crowd. One is in the Dulwich collection. Both are small works. Unlike Vermeer’s music-making paintings, the Dous failed to scintillate. I am glad I made the journey but feel no desire to return.
I love London pigeons largely because they are free and behave as if nobody owns them (to my knowledge no-one does) and because they generally seem to share the city so affably with its human inhabitants. I made a point of confirming their presence on above ground platforms of the underground, happy to observe their habitual skill in strutting between commuters in search of food. A pigeon was in the carriage of a Circle Line train I boarded at Paddington. It did not seem distressed and fortunately the passengers did not panic. The bird flew skywards out of an open door at the next station. I have long been struck by how many pigeons have club feet or only one foot and how they carry on undaunted by deformity, looking as well nourished as their able-bodied fellows, which endears them to me all the more. A one-legged pigeon was resting on the abutment of the Millenium Bridge as a throng of people passed it.
The Tate Modern extension opened before I left Australia. I was more interested to see the building – the scale and flow of its rooms, the vista from its roof terrace and how it relates to the original gallery, than to look at the art on show. I approached the new building from London Bridge Station which gave me a direct view of it on arrival. This would have been impossible had I crossed from the opposite side of the river. Its appearance is pleasing enough and its irregular, part pyramidal shape and interesting use of bricks integrates well with the former Bankside power station. I was dismayed by the immense hard surface in front of the main entrance, particularly as there was a strip of lawn planted with trees at the back of the Turbine Hall beyond the new work.
The open roof terrace surrounds the 10th floor. I counted the construction cranes I could see as I made my 360° circuit. This was something I started in 2012 from Parliament Hill just before the olympics, the panorama exceeding 180°. Then I tallied about 60 cranes, a host of them to the east at the olympic park. Two years ago from a similar vantage point the total was 68. Now there were 80 or more. The gallery spaces started on the 4th floor. The design of the building seemed to permit considerable flexibility in their size and how they can be arranged. One work stood out – ‘The Passing Winter 2005’ a mirrored cube with circular openings to interior mirrors at or near eye level, by the major Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama who was in her mid seventies when she created the piece.
I was able to spend time with everyone I wanted to see during my two weeks in London and be nourished by them, whether family, family friends or my friends, most of whom I have known for decades.
I made a grumpy arrival at Taunton station, struggling to open the carriage door from the outside, bemoaning the fact it was not automated. Clive was on the platform to meet me. He is a meticulous host and an avid sightseer. In the afternoon we drove to Watchet where I made up for the indifferent coffee and walnut cake I could not finish in the café of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with the real deal at a tea room on the main street. The town appeared to be prospering. An unsightly shed in the harbour had been demolished since my last visit two years ago. The tide was out, the sea placid. A cargo ship on the Welsh coast swung at anchor.
Next day we drove to Forde Abbey which is just over the Somerset border in Dorset. The house and estate are in private hands. The last abbot created lavish accomodation for himself within the fabric including a Great Hall. In the mid 17th century the abbey was bought by Oliver Cromwell’s Attorney General who rescued it from a century of decline after the dissolution. He transformed the abbey into a palatial home converting some monastic chambers into fashionable baroque apartments, retaining others in their original form, though putting them to different uses. The church no longer exists, but the Chapter House is now the chapel, one side of the cloisters has been incorporated into the dwelling’s frontage and to the rear, the monks’ dormitory and its undercroft are little changed since the 13th century. Exploring the house and its contents is richly rewarding.
Clive loves his gardens. On previous vists to Forde he hadn’t bothered seeing the house, but he enjoyed the tour. The gardens are the abbey’s chief attraction and one of their chief attractions is a 50 year old lawn mower, a venerable pony who eats the grass in the park and who likes being the centre of attention when not ‘mowing’. The planting on either side of the long herbaceous borders and in the extensive kitchen garden is unerring in its precison, variety and beauty. Merely looking at the Great Pond one would not have guessed that it was over 800 years old, having been dug by the monks. Originally its water was used to power a corn mill, then in the early 18th century to create three lower ponds via a sequence of cascades. The eye-catching Redwood at Forde looked much bigger than Kew’s. Standing at the Ha Ha we thought we were viewing the Lime Avenue, which harmoniously led the eye to a distant prospect. But we had unwittingly driven through the one named in the plan which lined the drive from the main entrance.
On my previous visit we had a memorable, seaside fish and chip lunch, complete with slices of bread and butter and a pot of tea at The Driftwood Café, then celebrating its 80th anniversary. It is a beautifully maintained timber building in Blue Anchor near Minehead. I was ready for an encore. I like the way the architecture of certain resort towns, whether inland or on the coast, blends the fanciful with an apparent impermanence. The café, located on a slight rise next to the road bounded by the sea wall, overlooks the Bristol Channel. It has a roofed but otherwise open verandah, with sweeping views from the picture windows which extend along the building on either side of the front door. For eighty two years it has withstood wind, rain and sun in its exposed position. The lunch surpassed my expectations because golden syrup sponge pudding and custard, for which I had been hankering on my three previous trips to the UK, was on the menu. It was beyond compare, the best I have ever tasted. We rounded off the day at Porlock Weir, a beautiful place in a beautiful setting.
We spent much of Tuesday in Devon. Clive wanted to check out the facilities at Buckfast Abbey for his Chi Gung courses. On the way we wandered the picturesque streets of Ashburton on the southern edge of Dartmoor and had a good lunch in Buckfastleigh, another quaint town. The Abbey was refounded in 1902 by Benedictine monks. The present church was built on the site of the original between 1907 and 1938. Little remains of the mediaeval buildings. Our return journey took us over the moor on B and C roads. I marvel at the way Clive negotiates the narrow lanes of Somerset and Devon, hemmed in by earth and stone banks, often surmounted by hedges. The lanes atop the Yorkshire moors usually have grass verges making it far easier to deal with oncoming traffic. A highlight of the day was stopping at Newbridge, an imposing early 15th century three arch structure spanning the River Dart. Unusually, it has cutwaters on both sides of its single lane. We had good views of several of Dartmoor’s famous Tors, low granite outcrops, often on high points, which dot the landscape. The traverse of the open moor was over all too soon. We drove through Moretonhampstead, passing its famous, 15th century solid granite almshouses with their strange arcade, before reaching the M5 and not long after, Somerset and home.
Clive wanted to show me Abbotsbury Gardens close to the Dorset coast. The neighbouring village, full of mediaeval buildings, is known for its Swannery and a part ruinous, partly roofed stone tithe barn built in the 1390s. The roof, originally covered with stone slabs, is now covered with thatch. In contrast to the Cressing Temple barns, the walls are more dominant than the roof. The Gardens benefit from a micro-climate which allows subtropical species to be grown. Before starting the circuit, we had lunch in a building with a covered timber terrace, reminiscent of a tin-roofed, high-ceilinged Queensland bungalow. The sound of a Kookaburra strengthening the antipodean allusion. I asked Clive if we were hearing a soundtrack only to be told we were listening to a caged bird, which upset me. The Gardens are magnificent. They were established as a kitchen garden in 1765. Many of the plants on show were introduced by globe-trotting descendants of the founder.
A detour via a broad avenue of camelias, leads uphill to a vantage point with immense seashore views, comprising Portland and beyond to the east, the full extent of Chesil beach, Lyme Regis in the middle distance, and the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast stretching westwards in a huge arc deep into Devon. About a mile north east, on a bare hill stands St Catherine’s Chapel, built in the 14th century. I found it utterly alluring and would have loved to inspect it. A year or two before I left England for Australia I visited Abbotsbury while holidaying in Lyme Regis. I recall the barn but inexplicably not the chapel, although it is the most visible building in that part of the world.
An ingenious system of springs, rills, streams and ponds irrigates the Gardens. The tree ferns interested me. The best specimens were only visible from the Burma Rope Bridge, a magnet for children because it wobbles and sways, but I enjoyed the challenge of walking across it. We drove from the Gardens to the village. It was too late to see the Swannery or enter the barn. Some of the monastic buildings were incorporated in later dwellings. The corn mill stood in isolation on the far side of the mill pond, its windows blocked in. We dined in Dorchester. What we saw of the town in our search for a restaurant looked unexpectedly run down, given Dorset’s implied prosperity based on its high property values. As usual, being with Clive was enriching and full of good times.
Because I was flying to Frankfurt from Heathrow and needed to get to Heathrow from Taunton by train, I had to book a mid afternoon flight which arrived just before 6 pm local time. I then endured a train journey from hell between the airport and Malsch, the village where Peter and Gaby live with Jasmin, their eldest daughter, arriving at 9.03 pm and inflicting a late meal on the family, which nonetheless restored my sense of well-being.
We all set off for Bruchsal and its Baroque Palace, less than an hour’s drive away. The mid 18th century palace has been completely and spectacularly rebuilt following its destruction at the end of the war. We opted for a tour of the state rooms which are located on the first floor. It was conducted by an eloquent guide who demonstrated a complete command of the architecture, the salient features of the ubiquitous trompe l’oeil paintings and the social and political history of the building’s heyday. The staircase was designed by the great Balthasar Neumann. Enough of it escaped destruction so that it survives as the ‘crown jewel’ of baroque staircases. But for their very high ceilings, the rooms, regardless of their sumptuous appearance, would have seemed rather small. The palace’s reconstruction was meticulous in its accuracy and attention to detail. Among the most amazing achievements is the way mid 20th century artists have replicated the virtuoso effects of their baroque precursors.
The palace also houses the Baden-Wurtenburg collection of mechanical music. We signed up for a second tour which took us from the basement to the garret to view and hear a variety of pianolas, music boxes, fairground organs, automata and juke boxes and their antecedents. The collection is one of the largest in existence. The oldest exhibit, a music box, was nearly 400 years old. On our way to and from the palace we passed the most forbidding gaol I have ever seen, built on the panopticon principle in 1848. Fittingly it is a high security prison housing convicted terrorists and violent criminals. We had an excellent dinner in the garden of a classy hotel which Peter remembered from a business meeting. One would never have suspected its spacious presence in a cramped residential quarter of Rauenberg not far from Malsch.
The weather had been improving since my arrival in Germany and conditions at last allowed me to wear shorts. I get great pleasure out of attending events which are enjoyed by large numbers of well-behaved people having a good time, such as the air show organised by the Malsch aero club at their grass airstrip. The club owns a fine old hangar. The show featured displays of model aircraft, including a jet, gliders, skydiving and helicopter flights. Peter and Gaby are helping to resettle refugees who have been allocated to the village. We bumped into a few of them at the air show. Malsch has its population of storks. Those in the field next door seemed unperturbed by the model planes swooping close to the ground. Jasmin works from home and did not join us.
Our next stop was the Carl Benz Museum in the original Benz factory in Ladenberg. The museum has a fascinating collection, starting with the first Benz prototype and the first car to be driven on the open road. This happened in August 1888. The driver was Mrs Benz. The passengers were her two teenage sons. The journey required a refuelling stop at a premises which became the world’s first petrol station, though it was and still is a chemist’s shop. The collection includes commercial and public transport vehicles. One of the grandest items is a 1930s Maybach coupé.
Britain has nothing like the German baroque palaces in the centre of towns as in Bruchsal and Schwetzingen, the day’s principle destination. The palace faces a broad, tree-lined street, culminating in a square enlivened by restaurants and cafés, at one of which we ate a late lunch. Unlike Bruchsal, the palace is set in generous grounds and it was these which we had come to see. The palace’s garden front overlooks the formal, French-inspired parterres, avenues, water courses, ponds and fountains. On either side are more naturalisitic areas influenced by the English style of landscape garden. The most remarkable feature of the entire complex is a huge mosque with two lofty minarets, built by a French architect bewteen 1779 and 1791. It served no religious purpose but as a tranquil yet inspiring place, celebrated the values of the enlightenment. The first mosque of its kind in Europe, which drove the fashion, such as it was, no longer exists. It was built by Chambers at Kew in 1761 on a far more modest scale. We squeezed in coffee and cake just before the café in one of the wings closed, having watched a Grey Heron pose and strut on the grass in front of the orangery.
Notionally, Malsch is within easy reach of the whole of south west Germany by autobahn. But the network is showing its age and is blighted by frequent traffic jams due to roadworks. What could have been a swift run to the Black Forest, turned into an at times lengthy crawl. Fortunately a road tunnel provides an easy means of clearing the centre of Baden Baden and accessing the Schwarzwalde Hochstrasse. The drive is exhilerating, the road winding up the range, now between tall conifers, now skirting the escarpment with views westwards to the Vosges mountains and south towards the heart of the Black Forest. We stopped for lunch at Mummelsee, a cirque lake formed by glaciation which marked the highest point of the road. We found a table on the hotel terrace overlooking the water and enjoyed a hearty German meal. Thereafter we strolled around the lake, returned to the car and after a few kilometres travelling downhill turned left and continued our descent. Eventually we entered the Murg valley, following the course of the river from village to village, the Black Forest mountains all around us. In the upper valley we pulled up at an inviting hotel and, sitting in the sun, had coffee and Schwarzwälde Kirschtorte, Black Forest gâteau, an experience as significant as eating Yorkshire Pudding in Yorkshire. The valley road, which offered an alternative route to Baden Baden, was blocked. We were diverted back to the Schwarzwalde Hochstrasse, passing a large resrvoir serving a hydro electric power station and returned to Malsch the way we came, but without any hold-ups.
Alas this was not the case when we undertook our longest jaunt on my last full day in Germany. I wanted to revisit Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a magical mediaeval walled town which I had first seen in my teens with my parents. It is in upper Bavaria, due east of Malsch and best reached by autobahn. After over an hour stuck in traffic we abandoned the A 6 and struck out in brilliant sunlight across country, on rural, less travelled and exceedingly picturesque roads. We parked in a shady space next to the wall, entered the town through the tower at the Schrannenplatz and eagerly began our perambulation. It became evident that Rothenburg belongs to the A list of European tourism. The place was packed. There were numerous Asian visitors, but it was not obvious where most of the rest came from, other than that there were large numbers of Germans. Wherever I looked I was rewarded with pleasing views of half-timbered houses, orange tiled roofs, glimpses of the walls and one or other of the forty two towers. The buildings appear to have been sympathetically restored or rebuilt (some 300 were flattened by bombs in 1944) and maintained.
We soon entered the market square, one side of which was occupied by the town hall, (its rear portion dating from the 13th century, the front part from the late 16th century) and the opposite side by patrician houses. These now serve as restaurants. We found a vacant table outside one of them and ate an adequate lunch. The house was built of stone, as I discovered when I went inside to pay and was entranced by its gothic vaulting. The main thoroughfares in parts consisted of wall to wall souvenir shops which in such profusion I found tacky. I saw no true bookshop and none of the few antique shops stood out. Just about every shop was geared to attracting the mass market. The beautifullly preserved, brightly painted buildings began to look as if they had been photoshopped. There was something almost too good to be true about the place.
Having walked across town we took to walking along the walls. Some sections offered marvellous views of roofs and spires and the lush countryside of the Tauber valley, one, a more intimate view of back yards and a sizeable garden with mature trees hidden behind its own high wall. We found another gothic house turned into a café, in a broad street round the corner from the town hall and relaxed in the sun over coffee, cake and cream. We were surprised that none of the streets had been designated a pedestrian precinct. It was annoying to have to avoid cars in passage ways just wide enough to accommodate them. There were no traffic jams on the A6 in the late afternoon, so that we returned home in about half the time that the outward journey had taken us. Rothenburg had worked its magic, a nigh perfect mediaeval walled town.
Peter, Gaby and Jasmin could not have made me more welcome in their spacious and comfortable house in Malsch. We farewelled oneanother; Peter and Gaby (who took the opportunity of my visit to go sightseeing) and I, expressing the hope that we would do it all again, god willing, in 2018.
The main reason I decided to end my trip in Holland was to visit the incomparable Mauritshuis after its 2012-2014 refurbishment. The fact that Jaap and Elisabeth would be in Holland at the time was a pure bonus.
I ostensibly bought my five day Germany/Benelux rail pass to travel from Frankfurt to Amsterdam and back. However, I also used it to get from the airport to Malsch on my arrival in Germany and for two days of travel in Holland. I joined the Frankfurt-Amsterdam train in Mannheim. It fairly whizzed through the 173 km to Cologne, needing nearly three times as long to cover the 214 km from Cologne to Amsterdam. There was plenty of time for me to indulge in one of rail travel’s greatest pleasures, an agreeable lunch in the restaurant car.
I had given Jaap my mobile phone number in England and had a false start or two receiving calls from him. Once I was ensconced in my hotel room, I arranged to join him, Elisabeth and Ellen at a bar a short tram ride from Amsterdam’s central station. It was novel being with Jaap and Elisabeth elsewhere than on Tamborine Mountain and its environs. Elisabeth, much travelled around the world but a first time visitor to Holland, had been won over by its charms. I took an instant liking to Jaap’s sister Ellen, whom I found warm, easy going and lively. Guided by Jaap we set off in search of a restaurant and after a short stroll in a street offering the cuisines of half the world, discovered an establishment that served a seeming rarity in Amsterdam, authentic, everyday, Dutch food. On previous visits I hadn’t been able to fathom the local cuisine, but aided by Jaap’s and Ellen’s knowledge I made an excellent choice. After dinner we strolled through the crowded streets soothed by the balmy mid-summer night air, arriving at Centraal Station where my companions caught the train to Utrecht and whence I walked the short distance to my hotel.
Jaap, Elisabeth and I had arranged to meet at the central station in the Hague to visit the Mauritshuis which I had not seen since 2008. Ellen had to work, but Elisabeth cried off because she needed a break from sight-seeing and an aching knee made walking painful. Jaap had never been to the Mauritshuis. He was in for a treat. Not only was the original, classical mid 17th century mansion with its beautifully proportioned rooms redecorated (and the collection re-lit and re-hung) it was given a spacious underground entrance, housing the ticket desk, cloakroom and shop, and connected by tunnel to a second building which contains additional exhibition space, a library and a restaurant. I know of no gallery which displays a collection of such consistently high quality including masterpieces by Piero di Cosimo, Rogier van der Weyden, Holbein the Younger, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Reubens, Van Dyck, and artists of the Dutch Golden Age such as van Honthorst, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Paulus Potter, van Ruisdael, Hobbema, Aelbert Cuyp and a stunning selection of flower paintings. The list does not exhaust the Mauritshuis’ collection of masterpieces. There are so many excellent 17th century well known and lesser known Dutch painters represented here. What I adore about the period is that the artists depict the world around them, much of which remains recognisable today. They are not fixated on classical or religious themes, like the Italian renaissance painters, portraiture excepted.
For me six of the paintings are supreme: ‘Portrait of a Woman from Southern Germany’, formerly attributed to Holbein the Younger and worthy of him, the miraculous ‘Vase of Flowers’ by Jan Davidsz De Heem, Rembrandt’s last self-portrait painted in 1669, the year he died, Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earing’ (which leaves the Mona Lisa for dead) and his ‘View of Delft’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’, painted in 1632 when he was twenty four. The last two are my favourites. Jaap’s was the flemish painter Willem van Haecht’s ‘Apelles Painting Campaspe’.
We had a late lunch outdoors, made our way to the station where Jaap caught a train to Utrecht and I to Amsterdam. The journey lasts forty minutes during which time the train calls at Leiden and Haarlem, both superb, historic cities. I got off at Haarlem and spent a delicious two hours there, retracing my steps from previous visits, admiring the grandeur of the canals, a hofje (characteristic almshouses built around a courtyard), the late gothic Grote Kerk, the market square and the town hall, before treading new ground by crossing the river Spaarne to look at a 15th century gate house, the De Adriaan windmill and the gaol completed in 1901. Its huge dome must have made it a contender for the largest in existence at the time. That evening, for a mesmerising couple of hours before sunset, I was ensconced in an arm chair in front of a floor to ceiling window in my hotel’s sky lounge, having supper while looking down on the Ij with its ferries and barge traffic, the railway tracks serving Centraal Station immediately below.
In Australia, Jaap had promised Elisabeth and me a tour of his devising following our day at the Mauritshuis. We were to meet at Almere station. Jaap wanted to show us the polder land near Lelystad where he and Ellen grew up. She had taken the day off work. Before we left Almere in her car, Jaap set the scene for our day by drawing a diagram showing how the polders were made. Polders are land reclaimed from what originally was the sea. A pre-war dyke 32 km long, 90 m wide and over 7 m above sea level between the coast of North Holland and Friesland, has resulted in a vast freshwater lake, the Ijsselmeer. From it two polders were created before and after the second world war. The first polder adjoined land, resulting in unforeseen complications. It was decided that the second polder had to be entirely surrounded by water, a narrow channel separating it from existing land. A third, planned polder may never be built. The road to Lelystad runs along the polder dyke. The land next to it is below sea level and unsuitable for agriculture or housing but makes an ideal wetlands nature reserve.
Locks allow boats to enter the waterway system from the Ijsselmeer. We stopped at one to watch pleasure craft and a barge in transit. The lock was some 30 m long, 5 or 6 m wide and the difference in water level was about 4 m. I could only see one not overly large inflow pipe, but the lock was filled in a matter of minutes. The pleasure craft had to be secured against one side of the lock. The barge, because of its size and because it was fully laden, did not. The lock took less time to empty than to fill and the barge was soon under way.
Lelystad had not been built when Jaap’s parents set up home on the polder. We stopped to see how much of the early settlement survived. Some buildings had gone, but the school, an inn and one of the family’s houses still exist. We had lunch at the local sailing club, I benefiting from Jaap and Ellen’s local knowledge with my choice of dish. We were making our way to the dyke across the Ijsselmeer between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, a delightful old port which I had seen on a previous visit. The dyke saves a long detour around the shore of the Ijsselmeer. It is some 20 km long. At one point the road dipped under a far larger lock than the one we had studied in the morning. A little further ahead we saw hundreds of swans on the water. Soon thereafter we reached the outskirts of Enkhuizen. We strolled along the bustling quays of the harbour. The sailing boats stirred wistful memories for Ellen, who loves being on the water. We crossed a bridge over a tree-lined canal and walked the quiet residential streets full of pretty houses. I reacquainted myself with the 16th century town gate dramatically located at the entrance to the inner harbour, the beautiful 15th century, brick-built hall church of St Pancras, and a classical merchant’s house, constructed in stone, whose scale and sophisticated architecture looked out of place among the unassuming buildings around it. We found a pub where we had dinner. We parted company at the station, I to catch the train to Amsterdam and pack, ahead of my departure next day for Australia, they to continue the polder drive which meant so much to Jaap. With its lack of hills, Holland appears to be an ideal country for building railways. The land is crisscrossed by them and it seems that every small town or large village has its own station, making sightseeing by public transport easier than anywhere else.
It was good to return to Holland after a four year gap. My visits are invariably uplifting. It saddens me to report that German Rail failed to provide a meal service on the train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt Airport. A lapse which was made up, after a gruelling flight, by a superlative dinner in the Chinese restaurant of Changi Airport’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, where I spent the night. The flight to Brisbane was uneventful. Hugh met me at Coomera station and drove me home where I found everything in good order. Once again my trip comprised one highlight after another, not least among them avidly absorbing the distinctive cultures of England, Germany, Holland and Canton through my enthusiastic and accommodating stomach.