So this is Christmas and what have you done

Another year over and a new one just begun*

As 2016 ends I’ve been looking back on what I’ve done since returning to the UK in December 2014, after 15 years living overseas, in New Zealand, Rarotonga (in the Cook Islands) and New York City (December 2010-14). Settling back in the UK has been difficult.

2015 was particularly stressful because I spent a tiring and, at times, demoralising 12 months applying for jobs (a process I’d already spent 6-months on back in the US). It wasn’t until November 2015 that I got a Living Wage job in a sector (social care) I would never have considered until it became obvious I would not get a job specific to my qualifications, skills, and experience as a science adviser and researcher.

During this time my New Zealand wife went through a costly, drawn out and stressful process, including a return to Auckland, to obtain the right to live in the UK.

The major plus was that I’d bought a flat in London in the 1990s when if you were on a reasonable wage you’d be offered a mortgage that allowed you to buy a decent property in a reasonable part of London. I bought a basic 2-bedroom flat with French windows opening onto the Lea Navigation Canal below Tottenham Lock. Now mortgage-free, we can sit and watch canal life as people go boating, cycling, dog walking, fishing, running, sculling, walking by. If we’re feeling more energetic there’s 28-miles of towpath to explore between the tidal river Thames at Limehouse Basin to the northern terminus at Hertford.

Looking upstream to Tottenham Lock from our lounge

A major reason for moving back to London was to be near family and friends, but working shift work and weekends in low paid work supporting people with learning disabilities left little energy, time or money to socialise.

However, 2016 ended on a high when in mid-December I started working at a local college where I am supporting young people with autism. I am no longer working shift or weekend work, and am working in an environment which promises to be more personally rewarding.

There have also been more travel and leisure experiences during the past year. In July we stayed in an old country villa in Corsica with friends from New Zealand. This lazy 5-day trip was a much-needed break from my job. In contrast, my previous trip to Corsica with my brother in 1988, focused on walking the Grande Randonnée (GR) 20, a rugged 180km (112.5 mile) trail considered one of Europe’s most beautiful mountain trails.

One of the spectacular views around the Corsican town of Corte

In September we took a six-day road trip with my wife’s mum and sister who visited from New Zealand. We took in Canterbury and Dover Castle in Kent; Eastbourne, the Brighton Pavilion and Chichester Cathedral in Sussex; Stonehenge, Avebury and Castle Combe in Wiltshire; Dorchester, Cerne Abbas, Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis in Dorset; Exeter, Castle Drogo, and Dartmoor, including the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound and the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in Devon; and Wells in Somerset, with its fantastic cathedral.

Looking toward tors on Dartmoor from the graveyard of the Church of St Pancras, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon

When I left New York City I vowed to keep up with my birdwatching in the UK after all the pleasure I had from being involved in it in the US. Getting out on birdwatching trips with a local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) branch and the local Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group has become a mainstay of my social life.

When I want a walk or to go birdwatching alone I’m only a few minutes’ walk from the Walthamstow Reservoirs (which will feature in future posts). They’ve become a regular bolt-hole for me over the past year. They were particularly atmospheric and eerily quiet in the foggy weather of a few days ago.

Reservoir No. 5 Walthamstow Reservoirs, in the fog (30 December 2016)

With weekends and summer evenings now free, I’ll be spending more time birdwatching and getting involved in local conservation efforts. I’ll also be visiting different parts of the UK (both old favourites and new destinations) and will have an eye open for flight/accommodation bargains that make overseas travel possible.

However, my main New Year’s resolution is to spend more time on independent and art house cinema, an interest developed during my years in 1990s London. I had good options to pursue this during my years living in Wellington, NZ, and in Astoria in NYC, . where the excellent Museum of the Moving Image was only a 15-minute walk from home.

We have joined the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, where my wife and I recently enjoyed the 1939 Howard Hawks comedy His Girl Friday. Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, it is one of the fastest-talking films ever: the dialogue has been estimated at 250 words per minute against an industry average of 100-150 words. It was the first movie we had seen in a year. It’s time to put that right!

*Click for full lyrics of John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas”

Six miles from home and 450 years back in time

Recently I visited Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge in Chingford, north-east London. The Lodge is an unique three-storey, timber-framed hunting grandstand. It is still surrounded by its medieval royal hunting forest, Epping Forest, an area of ancient woodland managed by the City of London Corporation.

The Lodge played an important part in my childhood with regular family visits. In the 1960s I submitted a painting of the Lodge for a competition run by the popular children’s TV show Blue Peter (still going strong in 2016). Alas my hopes of winning a coveted Blue Peter badge (of any colour) weren’t realised.

I have fond memories of a birthday in the early 1970s when my dad drove me and some mates out to Chingford Plain from where we orienteered in the forest, played football and visited the Lodge. We rounded the day off with an epic rotten apple fight in my back garden.  I couldn’t have asked for more!

Back then the Lodge’s timbers were black because the Victorians used oils to blacken the timbers and make them stand out. While most people today consider this is what a traditional timber-frame house should look like, black timbers would have been uncommon in Tudor times. In 1993 extensive renovation work replaced or repaired rotted timbers and restored the exterior to what scholars today believe to be closer to its original appearance.

The restored Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge

The building was commissioned by Henry VIII in 1543 as an open-sided timber-framed hunting grandstand, known as the Great Standing, from which guests could view the hunt at Chingford and shoot deer from the upper floors. Both King Henry and Queen Elizabeth I may have hunted in the forest, though no documentary evidence survives to prove it.

The building was renovated in 1589 for Queen Elizabeth. Constructed from massive oak timbers and using innovative joints, the superior finish to the timbers indicates a building of high status. After 1604 the Lodge ceased to be used in connection with hunting at all and windows were installed after the reign of Charles I.

The Lodge has been open to the general public since 1895. When it first opened to the public it was used as a museum of natural history and archaeology; this was still its incarnation when I was visiting in the 1960s and 70s. Today it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade II* listed building (refer to National Heritage List for England (NHLE)), still open to the public but simply as a monument to itself and the Tudor era. With three floors it’s unique in England as the only Standing with more than two floors.

Today the Lodge has exhibitions on Tudor food and fashion with a themed display on each of its three floors. Through a Tudor dinner table display on the ground floor you can discover the sights and sounds of the Royal Kitchen and learn about class and cuisine.

The kitchen on the ground floor

On the first floor there is a range of Tudor outfits for trying on and guides to Tudor heraldry. The windows on the second floor, the King’s Shooting Gallery, provide extensive views of the forest. I  found the architecture interesting and thought the intricate Tudor timber roof construction  was really impressive – note the antler shapes in the photo below.

The amazing ceiling construction
The top floor showing the elaborate ceiling construction

I vividly remembered from my childhood the stairs leading up from the ground floor,  up which,  legend says, Queen Elizabeth rode her horse.

Did Queen Elizabeth ride up this staircase?
Did Queen Elizabeth really ride up this staircase?
Cutaway showing building construction
Cutaway showing building construction

One thing that surprised me on my latest visit was how disappointed I was that the exhibits of mounted butterflies and moths, stuffed deer, reptiles in jars, etc., which I had enjoyed in the 1960s and 70s were no longer on display. Even during childhood visits some were already moth-eaten (no pun intended) and others compellingly grotesque, but they played a large part in developing my passion for the natural world. It was no great surprise that they were long gone, but it made me very nostalgic.

I’d  recommend a visit taking in the Lodge and The View next door, a building nestled between the Lodge and the Royal Forest pub.  Entry is free and there’s parking available with eating and watering places such as the Royal Forest pub/restaurant and the Butler’s Retreat café within easy walking distance.

The Lodge with the Royal Forest pub/restaurant in background

The View is a modern Epping Forest interpretation centre, the central orientation point for the whole forest and designed to appeal to all ages.  It has a well-stocked gift shop  and knowledgeable staff will admit you to the Lodge, provide useful information and run tours of the Lodge. Chatting to a staff member I learned that some of the collections I remembered may well have been archived offsite by Epping Forest District Council.

The View’s displays and exhibits showcase some of the main themes, stories and habitats of the forest, preparing visitors to experience them in the forest itself. It holds frequent events, and a range of art collections and historical interpretation related to the forest.  The View is fully accessible via a lift and there are extensive views of the forest from an outdoor rear balcony. Two way-marked trails start at its back door. Information on opening hours can be found here.

Address: 8 Ranger’s Rd, London E4 7QH

Phone:      020 7332

Location:  Google Maps


For Those in Peril on the Sea

In April 2015 I took my first birding trip outside London since returning to the UK; a coach trip from London to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in East Sussex1. While I spotted species I hadn’t seen for many years what left the most lasting impression was coming across the historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House, and learning of the disaster that had befallen the village of Rye House in 1928.

The sea has always been of huge importance to the UK as an island nation; for commerce, defence and recreation. Its coastline is broken making it longer than those of other similar-sized countries and lifeboat services have an important role to play in  reducing the loss of life at sea.

There are at least  70 independent lifeboat services in Britain and Ireland but the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the largest charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, owns and operates the majority of lifeboat stations. Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck it has saved 140,000 lives with more than 600 lives lost in service. In 2015 lifeboat crews, which consist of mostly unpaid volunteers, rescued on average 22 people a day.

Growing up in the UK I was aware from an early age of the RNLI’s importance. One of my favourite programmes in the 1960s was Blue Peter (today, the longest-running children’s TV show in the world). Since it first aired in 1958 it has supported the RNLI through four fundraising appeals, which have funded 28 lifeboats at stations around the UK.

Until my trip to Rye Harbour the only major lifeboat disaster I knew of was that in the close-knit West Cornish fishing community of Mousehole (pronounced ‘Mowzel’), where the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne was stationed. On the 19th of December 1981 the boat set out, with eight of Mousehole’s men, to aid the stricken cargo-carrying coaster MV Union Star. In the rescue attempt both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died. The loss of eight local men from the small community hit Mousehole very hard. Even the £3 million raised locally for the families of those lost at sea could not fill the gap left by the disaster. Every year, on the anniversary of the tragedy the famous Mousehole Christmas Lights are switched off for an hour in remembrance of those lost.

Walking along the top of the beach at Rye Harbour I saw a weather-beaten shed with red wreaths in the distance.

Historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House with beach and sea in background

Wondering what they commemorated I wandered over and found a weathered Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board from which I learnt about the RNLB Mary Stanford lifeboat tragedy for the first time. According to a Wikipedia list of lifeboat disasters in Britain and Ireland the loss of 17 crew members is the most associated with any lifeboat disaster in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board: The Mary Stanford tragedy
Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board: The Mary Stanford tragedy

The disaster was particularly tragic because of the circumstances surrounding the attempt to rescue the crew of the small Latvian steamer Alice of Riga, which had collided with the larger German Vessel Smyrna.

Wreath and Poems on Shed Doors
Wreath and Poems on Shed Doors

Though the maroons2 were fired just after 5 am, the wind speeds were so high that it was difficult to even stand up and the crew members had to cover 1 ½ miles into the face of the wind and rain to get to the Boathouse on the shore. By the time they arrived it was practically low tide and three attempts were needed to get the boat away at 6.45 am, as daylight began to break. Only five minutes later Rye Coastguard received a message originally received by Ramsgate Coastguard Station at 6.12 am, saying the Smyrna had rescued the crew of the Alice of Riga. Because it was not a ‘life saving message’ it was not considered a high priority for transmission, a situation worsened by a further delay in sending the recall to Rye Coastguard due to an unsuccessful attempt to call Dungeness via Lydd.

Frantic efforts by the Signalman to recall the Lifeboat were fruitless. There was no boat-to-shore radio and the blinding spray and driving rain meant the recall flares weren’t seen by the lifeboat. At around 9.00 am the lifeboat was seen upright 3 miles (approx. 5 km) WSW from Dungeness. It was later reported that a sighting from Camber at 10.30 am suggested the lifeboat had capsized; by 12 noon this was confirmed when the lifeboat was seen upside-down floating towards the shore.

Within ten minutes Rye Harbour Coastguard was informed and maroons were fired to assemble the launchers. It is said that over 100 men were rushed to the shore where the upturned lifeboat lay, and extensive efforts were made to revive the bodies washed ashore. 15 bodies of the crew were washed up over the next two hours; Henry Cutting’s body was washed ashore at Eastbourne three months later; John Head’s was never found.

According to the Friday 16 November 1928 edition of the Western Times, the disaster wiped out practically the whole male population of Rye harbour. Three members (father and two sons) of the Head family and three members of the Cutting family were on board.

As I tried to imagine how a small coastal community copes in a situation like that I recalled an experience from my youth. Growing up, many of my family holidays were spent on different parts of the UK coast, exploring cliffs and rock pools. When I was 11 we visited my aunt and uncle in the small fishing village of Port Seton, outside Edinburgh, where my uncle was a fisherman for many years.

An abiding memory is of a Sunday evening service at a local church, the roof and supporting rafters resembling an upturned timber boat, and the singing of the hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save (I’d always assumed it was entitled For Those in Peril on the Sea!3). I’ve never experienced a congregation sing a hymn with such feeling – not surprising when loved ones were at the mercy of the elements each time they went out in their small boats.

The Falconer of Central Park

Living in London I still miss Central Park, my regular stomping ground while living in NYC. Jumping on the N  train at the elevated 30 Ave subway station in Astoria, Queens I could be at 5 Av/59 St on the SE corner of the Park, six stops and 15 – 20 minutes later.

I’ve yet to experience a city park like this green oasis anywhere else. Its artful design provides great landscapes and leisure opportunities while spectacular natural rock outcrops provide great viewing spots.

The Park lies on major north-south bird migration routes, and over 280 bird species have been recorded since 1857 (approximately 230 species are recorded annually); and with racoons, squirrels, chipmunks, turtles, fantastic trees, great landscaping and sports facilities there’s something for the people watcher, artist, nature lover, and keep-fit enthusiastic alike.

While living in NYC the city, including the Subway and the Park, generally felt very safe. However, the 1970s and 1980s were a very different time, with approximately 1,000 crimes being committed annually in the Park in the early 1980s. The widespread violence and crime on the Subway system saw the founding of the Guardian Angels, a non-profit volunteer organisation of unarmed crime-prevention patrollers, in NYC on 13 February 1979. In 1979, I remember seeing The Warriors, a cult action-thriller, focusing on a New York City gang returning to their home turf in Coney Island via the Subway. Turns out the film was released in the US only 4 days before the founding of the Angels.

Today safety measures hold the number of crimes in the Park to fewer than one hundred per year but on one of the small-group guided walking tours I ran in the Park through 2014 I had the chance to chat to a couple of my customers about the Park in the 1980s. They admitted to being “laddish” teenagers at the time but even in daylight wouldn’t venture more than about 50 yards into the Park!

The Park was originally intended not to have any statuary but over the years has come to be home to a wide range of statues. One of those that I was fond of was The Falconer*. Try as I might I never got a decent image; it was always backlit when I was in its vicinity. Still this image reminds me of how much I enjoyed the Park’s statuary and the company of the friends I made among the birding community.

P1020042 - Falconer Resized
Statue of The Falconer, Central Park

In NYC I read an interesting book titled The Falconer of Central Park, by Donald Knowler, a British journalist who lived in the City during 1982, and spent much of the year birdwatching in the Park.

The book is an easy to read record of his experiences in the Park in a much more dangerous time. It records the number of birds of different species he saw, allowing comparisons with today’s distributions. From a social perspective he references the murders and other major incidents that took place in the Park over the year, emphasising how much safer New York is today. I’d recommend it for both birders and non-birders alike for a well-written, accessible record of the Park at a time when New York was a very different city.

* The Falconer is installed on a cylindrical granite pedestal perched on a natural rock outcropping south of the 72nd Street transverse road, and east of the park’s West Drive. It’s creator, the British sculptor George Blackall Simonds (1844-1929), was an avid falconer and the statue, dedicated on May 31, 1875 depicts a human figure, clad in Elizabethan dress, poised to release a falcon, representing the union and communion between a bird of prey and man. The sculpture was removed from Central Park in 1957 after being vandalised and the falcon stolen. In 1982, a missing arm and the falcon were recast and the damage to the surface repaired. In 1995, the bronze crew of the Central Park Conservancy gave the bronze a complete replacement of the pattern on the statue, cleaned it and applied a protective coating. (Source: NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation)

Slowly settling back into life in the UK

Since moving back to the UK at the end of 2014 after 15 years away I’ve been settling back in London in a flat I bought back in 1994. Thank goodness I kept hold of it; given the earning potential of jobs  now available to me I wouldn’t have a chance of purchasing a property of any sort in London these days. I can only imagine how hard it is for youngsters trying to get onto the property ladder these days!

It’s great being close to friends and family again, along with  opportunities to revisit favourite places and explore the UK more. However, its proving difficult to adapt to changes that have occurred while I’ve been away. Limited job opportunities, a changing political landscape, growing inequality across society, government red tape etc. are all proving obstacles to feeling settled.

The part of London I grew up in allowed easy access to parts of the Metropolitan Green Belt, formally proposed in 1935, “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space”. There’s still plenty Green Belt of accessible from where I live, but unfortunately it may be vulnerable  with research showing that politicians are allowing much-loved and well-used land to come under threat from development. Alternative brownfield sites are available but I guess prospective developers don’t see themselves making as much profit with such sites!

While overseas I managed to get back home to visit family and friends every few years. In the last few visits the large number of flats being built across London has been very obvious; in the immediate vicinity of my flat there’s been a lot of recent development including blocks of student accommodation.

Hale End Village
Commercial and residential development at Hale End Village
van and flats
Residential development on opposite side of canal to proposed development

Most of the development is limited to around 8 – 10 storeys but there is a current proposal that has been submitted that will see  the demolishing of existing structures over the road from the estate I live on and alongside the canal running past my flat.  In their place blocks of primarily residential accommodation, ranging from 4 to 21 storeys and providing up to 502 dwellings, would be built.

Existing restaurant and function centre. It will be demolished to make way for the new development.

The 10 storey buildings are already quite imposing in the context of the surrounding areas and skyline. 21 storey towers will take this to a new level creating more shadows and obstructions of views, while the extra residences and accompanying parking and roading will put additional strain on infrastructure that is already creaking under the weight of road and tube/rail users.

The area to the right of the canal will be redeveloped

The existing area may not be paradise but despite the completely rosy picture the developers try to paint regarding impacts there are bound to be impacts on the local ecosystems. With the huge number of flats and supporting infrastructure being constructed in London the sentiments expressed in Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi lyrics come to mind.

To try and give myself a better work-life balance I’m getting to meet new people and travel further afield by pursuing my interest in birdwatching, rekindled in New York (2010 – 14), and wider interests in the natural environment. Local groups such as the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group (Wren website) and the North East London and Havering Local Groups of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) offer trips that allow me to build up my natural history knowledge and meet people with similar interests while visiting locations that are often new to me. The trips are also throwing up some unexpected surprises unrelated to birdwatching, which I’ll be posting on in the future.

A Park is born – a community is swept away

The vision and resolution of those pushing for the creation of a centrally-located People’s Park in New York in the mid-1800s were instrumental in laying the foundations of Central Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s and Calvert Vaux’s 1856 Greensward Plan of the Park envisaged a scenic work of art, combining natural appearance and touches of the picturesque to create surroundings that people of all backgrounds could enjoy.

As well as their ongoing input the implementation of their vision depended on the skills and commitment of individuals such as: Jacob Wrey Mould (architect, who designed many of the park’s notable landmarks, including Belvedere Castle, a number of bridges, and the amazing carvings on Bethesda Terrace);  and Ignaz Anton Pilat (master gardener) whose knowledge and use of a wide variety of plants created the Park’s much admired landscaped vistas.

However, there’s a little-known dark side to the Park’s early development, which I discovered through the wonderful Secret New York – An Unusual Guide (JonGlez Guides), my bible for exploring New York. During the Park’s  construction (1857 – 73) what was possibly Manhattan’s first prominent and stable community of African American property owners was destroyed.

In 1855 the region above 59th Street was only sporadically developed and was semi-rural or rural in character. However,  the established middle-class, and predominantly African American community of Seneca Village, located between 81st and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues (an area now occupied by Central Park), numbered 264 residents.

Map of Seneca Village

African Americans owned more than half the village households, a high percentage of property ownership for any New York community, while there were also many Irish and German immigrant families. By then the village had three churches, with several affiliated large cemeteries, and Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City.

In 1853, the state legislature authorised the use of “eminent domain,” the taking of private property for public purposes; and in 1856 public acquisition of private land to create Central Park began. Owners of property within the proposed Park boundaries were compensated for their property, though many owners filed protests in the State Supreme Court, to contest the amount of settlement.

In total 1,600 people who owned, lived, or worked on the acquired land had to move with the Park’s creation. Many were squatters living in shantytowns but Seneca, in contrast, was a cohesive community with proper housing.

The Seneca site has been the subject of various archeological studies over the years, including soil borings and remote sensing using ground-penetrating radar tests, which located traces of the Village. Digs were held in 2004, 2005 and 2011, revealing stone foundation walls and artifacts, including an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle, fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper.

Locating the Seneca site wasn’t totally straightforward for me.  There’s a plaque located in the Park just south and east of the Abraham and Joseph Spector Playground, which is located on the Park’s west side at West 86th Street. According to some particularly poignant text on the plaque recent research indicates that “residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not re-establish their community in another location”.  Today no one knows where its residents resettled; nor, to date, have any living descendants of Seneca Villagers been found.

Plaque presenting background information about Seneca Village
Landmarks in vicinity of the exposed Seneca foundations

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe remaining visible foundations are actually in a grassy area a little to the south and west of the plaque.  I tracked them down by asking for directions from a maintenance worker hosing down the Spector Playground. He gave me spot on directions in a very familiar accent – though he’d lived in NYC for many years he’d grown up about 6 miles from where I did in London.

The foundations are pretty well hidden in the surrounding grass and easy to dismiss as a few natural stones set in the ground but if you wander slightly off the path they’re obvious.  Depending on  different sources the stones may be part of a foundation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church or the foundation of a later structure built on top of the church.

Exposed foundations of Seneca Village structure

Having located the site of the village, I incorporated in the walking tours I led. Out of all my customers, many of who were New Yorkers and regular visitors to the Park, only one was aware of Seneca’s existence. She’d requested I incorporated a visit to the site having read about in Linda Fairstein’s 2014 novel Death Angel!


New York – London via wintry Reykjavik

In December 2014 after four years in New York my wife and I were returning to my  native London. Taking an Icelandair flight with a generous luggage allowance let us shift enough possessions to get us through an English winter, and stop over in Reykjavik with a chance of seeing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). Technically we saw them but……

Extreme weather had delayed our flight for several hours and all aurora viewing cruises were cancelled.  As an alternative we took a coach trip, which took us beyond the outskirts of Reykjavik to a small church. The next couple of hours saw us hanging around, alternatively sitting on the coach to stave off hypothermia and venturing outside peering at the sky for the aurora. During that time the best light show was provided by the crosses in the churchyard!As the coach started heading homewards  some wispy cloud appeared in the sky.  There were no visible colours but we piled off the coach for a closer look as our guide snapped it with a fancy camera. Et voilà, her image showed the wisp glowing green. So we had seen the aurora but the overall memory was of a cold and underwhelming experience. That’s the luck of the draw when trying to experience natural phenomena.

Despite the disappointing light show our stay in Reykjavik worked out really well.  Our hotel choice, the Icelandair Hotel, Reykjavik Marina, was excellent. It’s a renovated landmark building  with well-designed rooms, bright common areas bedecked with colorful wallpaper, antiques and fanciful odds and ends, including some very quirky sculptures. It was several steps up from the accommodation (a bivvy bag, village halls, and university halls of residence) I used backpacking in Iceland in 1990, when I mostly subsisted on hotdogs and hot chocolate!

One of the interesting characters you’ll find hanging around the hotel

The hotel’s location by a slipway in the old downtown harbour district  offers  great views across the bay and is an easy walk away from the capital’s attractions. There’s a number of restaurants and market in the area and a short walk takes you to Old Harbour Village where you can book Whalewatching Tours and visit Cinema No. 2. (

The  self-styled Cinema of Fire, Ice and  Northern Lights, is housed in a loft that used to be a work and dwelling place for fishermen. It’s a cozy space with assorted furniture, a relaxed informal atmosphere, a rock collection and books to browse.

We visited it to prepare for our aurora watching. The films included one on watching and photographing the aurora – much, much more spectacular than our  live display – and a film on the then-active Bárdarbunga-Holuhraun eruption. We also grabbed some  refreshments and chatted with the friendly staff.

Walking around the city was interesting.  We visited Tjörnin (The Pond), a small lake in the centre of the city where we saw a young Whooper Swan essentially run right across the Pond’s surface to get to some bread thrown by a family from the shore; bird feeding on its shore is so popular that  the Pond is referred to as ‘the biggest bread soup in the world’.  For any birders out there I also saw  Black Guillemots and Eider Duck close-up in the harbour near the hotel.

Whooper Swans on the Pond
A big Top going up on the shore of the Pond

Another highlight was the amazing reflections of the city and the surrounding landscape in the glass façades of the Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.

The Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.

We also visited Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavík’s main landmark. Its prominent tower can be seen from most parts of the city.  The church’s facade mirrors the shapes formed as lava cools into basalt rock, which can be found around the country. The image below is adapted from the website. Check it out.

 In 1990 I had visited the top of the 73 metre ­high tower for great views over Reykjavik. This time round the lifts (elevators) to the top had closed for the day; probably a blessing since the wind was so strong we could hardly get the heavy front door open to exit.


The most notable feature of the church’s interior is a large pipe organ standing 15m and weighing 25 tons. We were lucky enough to get to listen to the organist rehearsing and experience the organ’s power and range of tones.

Interior of Hallgrímskirkja church showing the Pipe Organ.

The main memory I took from the trip was how friendly the locals were. I had the same experience when backpacking, when I took advantage of kind offers of lifts. Of course for those, like myself, with limited foreign language skills things are made easier because many Icelanders speak fantastic English. I’ll be looking out for cheap London-Reykjavik travel deals so that I can have another go at tracking down those elusive aurora.





Transitions – a last jaunt in Central Park

The last months have been hectic with me leaving New York and  settling back in my hometown of London in early December 2014.

Life in the UK has been and continues to be a major transition –  hence no posts for months! Getting back to the Blog I’m expanding its scope to cover my experiences in the UK and beyond in addition to those in New York and the US. Since, while in New York, I spent a lot of time in Central Park it seems appropriate to mark this transition with a look back at my last visit on a glorious late-November morning.

I entered at Central Park South and meandered north to Belvedere Castle in mid-Park via Bethesda Fountain and the winding paths of the wooded Ramble. Aptly, there were signs of the Fall-to-Winter transition with trees in late-Fall colours, the popular south end Wollman ice rink up and running, the Bethesda Fountain drained in preparation for  winter temperatures, and an obvious lack of foot traffic at popular attractions, such as Belvedere Castle.

Central park South - Ice Rink
Looking down from rock outcrop to the Wollman Rink and beyond to Central Park South

The view of the skyline along Central Park South and beyond is one of my favourites in New York, taking in iconic buildings such as the Essex House (officially the JW Marriott Essex House) hotel and, further west near Columbus Circle, the Hearst Tower. The rock outcrops in the Park’s south end provide fantastic vantage points – I’m a great believer in getting up as high as possible to access different perspectives.

More extensive view showing One57, Essex House and, at far right, the Hearst Tower.

While I’ve got issues with the construction of the One57 skyscraper on West 57th Street (more of that in later posts) on a bright day its walls of glass certainly generate some amazing visual effects.

Closeup of One57 showing light effects on glass walls

Bethesda Terrace and the Angel of the Waters Fountain,  a favourite spot for wedding parties, tourists and buskers, is usually bustling with activity. It was strange to find it so deserted, even allowing for the boat hire season being over and it being mid-week.

Angel of the Waters Fountain at Bethesda Terrace – the fountain’s turned off and the pool drained ready for Winter

Looking north from Bethesda Terrace you can see the Loeb Boathouse, a short walk away up the eastern shore of the Lake.

The Boathouse
Looking north from Bethesda Terrace toward the Boathouse, amidst late- Fall colours

In my first winter in New York the Boathouse was a real focus to my Central Park trips when I joined birdwatching walks run by “Birding Bob” DeCandido and Deb Allen. These started at the Boathouse and at the end of the walk we’d retire to its Express Cafe to warm up next to the open fire, sup hot beverages, and recharge on modestly-priced hot food (See post A burst of colour in the gloom).

From the Boathouse I continued north through the Ramble, in the words of Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, a 36-acre “wild garden”. Its artfully-designed to create a tranquil spot where visitors can stroll through woodland along meandering paths. The network of paths creates the illusion of a much larger area, allowing the visitor to escape the city and get lost in nature.

Emerging from the northern end of the Ramble I arrived at Belvedere Castle, my final destination. Belvedere translates to “beautiful view” in Italian and there are great views from the various terraces. The view below is from the third level of the whimsical building, accessed by a quaint internal spiral staircase.

Belvedere Castle – looking from the top-level west toward the Beresford apartment building on Central Park West between 81st and 82nd Streets

At this point it was time to get back to the humdrum business of packing up our worldly possessions ready for shipping to the UK.  For now I’ll bid the Park, the best I’ve visited by a country mile,  “au revoir” – I hope to get back there sometime.

Made it, Ma! Top of the world

Sorry, couldn’t resist Jimmy Cagney’s immortal line at the end of White Heat.

Actually, if Everest’s peak is at 29,029* feet (8,848m) I still had 28,887 feet to go when I was recently standing on top of Summit Rock, the highest natural elevation in Central Park, at a giddying 141.8 feet*.  After 4 years in the States I still find the mixing of imperial and decimal measurement formats strange but there you go!

Summit Rock Location
Map showing location of Summit Rock on the west side of the Park between 81st and 85th Streets

You don’t need oxygen to ascend the rock but take care in wintry conditions especially on the steps on the winding path to the south. The steps were carved into the bedrock when the Park was built.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’ve found the Summit Rock area a good place to visit, sit and relax. The area had a makeover in 1997, when a broken 1950s pavement crowning the Rock was removed, and a new lawn added. Today there’s a rustic stone amphitheatre and two curving banks of benches, arranged back-to-back, giving views toward and away from the rock.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESOn one of the benches (towards the south end of the row facing away from the summit) there is a plaque dedicated to Elizabeth Barlow Rogers who was a Founder of the Central Park Conservancy and its first President from 1980 to 1996.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe Conservancy’s establishment has been paramount in the transformation of the Park from a state of decay into today’s magnificent urban oasis; the Conservancy currently raises between 75% and 85% of the Park’s annual expense budget and has responsibility for its day-to-day maintenance and operations.

The overall effect is a meditative and relaxed atmosphere.  On different occasions I’ve come across folk meditating on top of the rock or lolling in the shade with a beloved canine companion. Once there was a (rehearsal for?) theatrical drama taking place — that wasn’t quite as peaceful but it was easy to find a quiet spot nearby — artistes performing throughout the Park contribute to its rich tapestry.

Being so close to Central Park West the Summit Rock area also gives some great views through the trees to some high-end residences. The Art Deco building at No. 421 is a personal favourite as it peeps above and through the trees.

Looking toward Summit Rock and Central Park West (CPW) – the building above the tree tops is the Art Deco building at 241 CPW

If you leave the Park at 85th Street you’ll come across a couple of beautiful Victorian mansions at 427 and 429, while if you continue a little further north in the Park you will find the only visible remains of Seneca Village.

Numbers 427and 429 (the “turretted castle” on the corner) Central Park West. Find out more about these great-looking Victorian-era mansions at: 247 and 249.

Seneca Village was possibly Manhattan’s first prominent community of African American property owners. It was razed to make way for the construction of the Park, which took place from 1857 – 1873. The author Linda Fairstein  works the history of Seneca into the plot of her fifteenth novel Death Angel.

I’ll be writing more about the Village in future.

*Official Central Park website

Central Park – a marriage proposal

An unplanned jaunt back to the UK and  a focus on promoting my New York City small-group guided walking tours has seen over two months slip by since my last post.

With a Groupon “2 for 1” deal on my Central Park walks up and running and orders coming in it’s time for me to get back on the horse. Check out the Groupon deal here.

So far, the most memorable of my Groupon guests are Patrick and Kathryn, from Suffolk County, Long Island, who I took through the Park on Sunday 25th May. Unbeknown to Kathryn, Patrick was planning to propose to her in the Park, before going on to lunch and a Broadway musical.

After much discussion with Patrick, my mission was to come up with an itinerary and specific locations suitable for a proposal; iconic Central Park but not too crowded so Patrick could easily go down on one knee and I could capture the moment through video and stills.

We started from the Grand Army Plaza entrance at the south-east corner of the Park so as to take in some iconic sights. Early on we visited the top of a prominent rock outcrop overlooking the Pond in the south-east corner of the Park for some great views. The viewpoint is accessible via a steepish grassy slope to the east of the Pond; or via a shorter path leading off the East Drive. I’d only recently visited it a few weeks ago and was blown away by the perspective it offers of the Pond, Gapstow Bridge and the south end of the Park. It’s a little rugged on the top but, if you’re reasonably fit and sure-footed, well worth the effort.

20140525_112117-resized75pcPatrick and Kathryn on the outcrop; Gapstow Bridge in the background

From here we  headed north visiting well-known locations including the Carousel, the Chess and Checkers House, the Dairy, Sheep Meadow, the beautiful tree-lined Mall, the Bethesda Terrace Arcade and Fountain, Bow Bridge and the Ramble.

Though the Park has potentially many great spots for proposing, actually choosing an appropriate one presented a conundrum. Particularly iconic spots, such as Bow Bridge, are popular and can be crowded, especially in good weather. Secluded spots offer more privacy, but may not have the “romantic” Central Park background a proposal requires.

In the end Patrick proposed at the famous fountain and Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Terrace, the heart of Central Park. It turned out to be a great decision. There was a gentle buzz of people around as we arrived at the Fountain but plenty of room for Patrick to propose, my videoing duties, and for them both to savour the moment once Kathryn had said “YES”.

IMG-20140526-WA0045She said yes!

After Patrick and Kathryn had properly taken in the moment we continued with the walk, crossing Bow Bridge into the Ramble. The narrow Bridge was busy with constant foot traffic and visitors lining both sides so it was good that Patrick had not waited to propose here (an early proposal location contender).

The leafy and peaceful Ramble is a 38-acre “wild garden” of meandering paths and woodland areas running between 73rd to 79th Streets in mid-Park. A favourite with birders, it offers a variety of secluded spots and panoramas and was an ideal area for wandering away from the crowds and winding down a little from the earlier emotion.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESBow Bridge from the Point (the Ramble);  Majestic (twin-towered) and Dakota cooperative apartment buildings in background

20140525_123921Looking south-west from Ramble to Hernshead and the Ladies Pavilion

Leaving the Ramble over Oak/Bank Rock Bridge it was a short walk to the 81 St – Museum of Natural History subway stop on Central Park West where we parted company.

Retrospectively, the walk’s timing (11a.m – 1p.m) worked out brilliantly. Later the areas south of the Ramble were very crowded through a combination of fantastic weather, the Memorial Day weekend, and the opening of the Victorian Gardens amusement park in the Wollman Rink.

It was a great day, and I enjoyed being part of the preparations and special occasion for a lovely young couple. Patrick and Kathryn I wish you the very best for your future together and hope that Central Park will always have a special place in your hearts. Thanks for letting me share your story.