Hiking in the Lower Swiss Alps

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We are now in eastern Switzerland. From Lake Constance and Bregenz we drove due south west for about 90 minutes to the Toggenburg – a steep sided valley some 30 kms east of Zurich. This is the mid-level Alps; peaks around us are about 2500m, and although much lower than the core Alpine areas, still offer intrinsically the same walking experience.
Through Guest2Guest we have use of an old farmhouse for a couple of weeks, situated above the valley floor at 750m. It took some finding; it’s off a rough track and then down a steep grassy slope – 4X4 vehicles only. The house is completely constructed from wood over 200 years ago and has been sympathetically modernized inside with all mod cons, but in a highly environmentally friendly manner. It’s quiet, no WiFi, no TV. About 10 minute’s drive from the nearest town in the valley floor.
But the walking is right on the doorstep! Yesterday we did an exploratory walk, picking up a Wanderweg just metres from our door and following to a restaurant at about 1000m. We walked around a nature reserve close by then descending by the same route. An easy walk, overall time 3 hours, approx. height gain 300m.
Today we followed the same wanderweg to 1000m and then picked up a circuit (rundweg) which provided access to a higher ridge, which we took to 1575m part of a longer distance path. A more difficult walk, overall time 5.5 hours, approx. height gain 900m, distance 17kms.
It’s a while since we did alpine walking. The first thing we remember is the incredible steepness of the hills. The “in your face” and “never ending” effort required, particularly in the typical Alpine summer temperatures. And crucially the great care needed to descend safely. But the benefits of Alpine walking haven’t changed. Wherever you walk, the routes are incredibly well organized and signed. The maps are excellent and available both as ordinance survey quality (1km = 3cm) as well as tourist information level leaflets that provide guidance on timing, difficulty etc which are very helpful in route planning. And the hills and mountains are literally covered in walks, together with huts, restaurants and cafés. And there are no expensive information boards or similar. There are three types of walk defined in the OS maps and shown with different legends. The Wanderweg is a hiking route. Intended for all walkers they do not place particular requirements on users. The Mountain Hiking Trail is intended for experienced users who are sure footed, unafraid of heights, physically fit and experienced mountain hikers. The Alpine Hiking Trail in addition to the Mountain Trail category requires users to be physically very fit, Alpine experienced with adequate gear.
On a practical level the signage approach hasn’t changed in years. Colour coding which seems to be a European wide standard, is implemented as sign posting and repeater flashes along the route. Like the UK the paths give access across farmland; however, it’s noticeable that there’s great cooperation in place. There are almost no stiles – we have only seen one so far. Instead farmers use an insulated handle with a hooked end to allow the walker to open and close electric fences. No maintenance, dead easy for all parties. Also, we note farmers are good at communicating risks – one sign we saw today said (in German), Beware, Mother Cows Suckling – keep your distance because mothers will protect their calves.
But in the end the Alpine experience is the majesty of the towering mountains which provide the backdrop for the extraordinary neatness of the high-level meadows and the profusion of flora and fauna. The meadows are a profusion of classic Alpine flowers which bring so much colour to the hills. And the birds of prey are amazing in their ordinariness. They are everywhere. Buzzards and I think Red Kites glide, climb and dive everywhere. To either side of the old house we have two rows of high trees, some very old pines and deciduous species. We see the great birds sitting in the tree tops, then flopping in and out of the trees with such regularity that suggests they have nests there. And from time to time there are several of the birds in the air together, swooping low above and around us. The garden surrounding the house has been left in a natural state, just long grasses with a few shrubs, and the butterflies are prolific.
It’s noticeable the hills at least around here are not very busy. Whilst there’s lots of people around the heads of the ski lifts and restaurants, as you head out onto the paths it’s very quiet. And yet July is the peak summer tourist season. And from our previous experience in the French, Italian and German Alps, we know that the real tourist season is in winter and the higher level Ski Lifts are closed in summer. Walking is clearly important, but very much second priority to the winter tourist business. What’s not to like? As walkers we get privileged access to amazing walking routes that are not over crowded, at no charge.
Having established a basic understanding of the available walking in the Toggenburg we plan to walk a good few routes over the next week and will report in due course.

Advertisements
Posted in Travel, Walking | Leave a comment

Beautiful Bregenz in Festival Mood

 

We arrived in Bregenz last night. Found the SeeCamping site right on the shore of Lake Constance/Bodensee and pitched. It’s a great site, huge but not crowded. The facilities are brilliant, typical Austrian/German. Visitors are as usual a mix of German, Austrian, Dutch, Czech, French and Belgian. No Brits in evidence. We walked into Bregenz this morning and for once did the tourist thing – visiting churches, exploring the town, planning a boat trip, arranging bike hire. But the overriding thing in Bregenz right now is the Festival. Pity is it starts on the 18th – we will miss it by 2 days. However there’s still lots to see. The last time we were in Bregenz we were amazed at the shore side set of the then Tosca performance. That was ten years ago? This year the opera is Carmen and, while the same fantastic shore side idea is being used, the set is very different comprising huge playing cards, not surprising given the plot. As we walked past the set in brilliant sunshine we saw what appeared to be climbers on the cards high up above the set, using very obviously technical mountaineering rope techniques to scale, traverse and swing from card to card. Of course the cards simulate the wild spots on the mountains and provide the backdrop for smugglers and soldiers, presumably stuntmen, suitably expert in mountaineering, who mime parts as they climb around the simulated mountainside. What we saw, and kept us interested for quite a while was part of the rehearsal, complete with music. Great fun. Of course we will miss the performance but this was just as interesting.

I note opera buffs are a bit dismissive of all this, suggesting the Bregenz production is just an “opera for everyman”. But why not?

We then wandered back to the campsite via the Kloster Mehrerau – a large, relatively newly built Cistercian Abbey with a history going back to the 11C. Now it must be said we realized the proximity of the Abbey at about 3am this morning. It’s really only one field away from the camp site, and of course as an active abbey the monks are called to early morning prayer with the bells. And in addition the bells are rung every quarter and on the hour. Strangely this is only through the night. During the day the bells are silent! Anyway it’s not all bad news – the Abbey with the lake as a backdrop is a very impressive building including a school and also provides a Klosterkeller – an open air restaurant in a large courtyard with an excellent, very reasonable menu. We sampled the beer and wine and made a plan to return tomorrow evening.

Posted in Travel | Leave a comment

Can Boris Johnson Learn From History?

Churchill

Today we visited the exceptional Historical Museum in Strasbourg. But it is more than just yet another museum; it is based at the heart of Europe, in the Capitol of Europe, and in a place that provides so many historical lessons for us all. What many will not remember is that Winston Churchill himself had a major hand in establishing this Capitol of Europe, and we wonder if  Boris Johnson ever reflects on this?

The Strasbourg Historical Museum provides an excellent overview of the city history from medieval to modern times. The exhibits and displays combined with location sensitive audio presentation give great understanding of how the city evolved. I’m not going to even attempt a summary but it’s worthwhile remembering that Strasbourg has been a major crossroads in Europe since prehistoric times. That for centuries Strasbourg was a free city as part of the Holy Roman Empire with an independent constitution and many aspects of democracy such as councils, corporations, clear areas of power and responsibility and practices to ensure no group or individual abused their power. The city was the centre of development of printing the technological revolution of its time that spread with lightning speed. The city was free, then German, then French, then German and then again French. Similarly with religion. While the city avoided serious physical damage during the great wars of the 19th and 20th century there were periods of harsh Germanization, followed by Frenchification and then the brutal period under Nazi rule and then the subsequent purge of all that was German after 1945.

On September 19, 1946, Sir Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech in Zurich calling for the creation of “a United States of Europe”. Britain’s wartime leader was highly regarded across the continent for his role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. His call for reconciliation between France and Germany, and “the re-creation of the European family”, struck a chord for both the victors and the vanquished emerging from the destruction caused by two world wars. He was a major inspiration for the European movement that led to the creation of the Common Market, and, ultimately, to today’s European Union. “Churchill was called the father of ‘Europe’, and he said much to justify that label,” the British journalist and political commentator Hugo Young wrote in his history of Britain and Europe.

In 1949 Churchill gave a major speech in Place Kléber, Strasbourg. Later he spoke at the first meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Churchill delivered his speech in French, and said, ‘We are reunited here, in this new Assembly, not as representatives of our several countries or various political parties, but as Europeans forging ahead, hand in hand, and if necessary elbow to elbow, to restore the former glories of Europe. There is no reason for us not to succeed in achieving our goal and laying the foundation of a United Europe. A Europe whose moral design will win the respect and acknowledgement of all humanity, and whose physical strength will be such that no person will dare to disturb it as it marches peacefully towards the future.’ And, if anyone should suggest that Churchill was deliberately excluding the UK from Europe, just re-read the text; he was being all inclusive.

Today in Strasbourg Winston Churchill is remembered with the Winston Churchill Building at the European Parliament – which provides meeting rooms, common departments, and services (restaurants, nursery, libraries, etc.) for the MEPs. Also with a Tram Stop in the city centre.

european_parliament_-_winston_churchill_building
It just so happens that this week the Brexit process enters a new critical phase in which Teresa May moves to define a softer Brexit, and that the British Foreign Secretary, the blundering Boris Johnson along with other ministers resigned in protest. Many will be aware that Johnson would like us to see him as a modern-day Churchill. He has consistently invited us to compare him with that historical giant. Perhaps we should remind Johnson of a comment made by Churchill in 1948, in a speech to the House of Commons. He said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It seems incredible for someone who has clearly studied and written about Churchill, that he should fail to learn the lesson that a united Europe is essential to ensure a peaceful future.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

EU Parliament Delivering Government for Grownups by Grownups.

Strasbourg Hemisphere

Thursday 5th July 2018: As the midday voting session approached, the parliamentary chamber – known as the hemisphere, rapidly filled up. First up was the voting for the third reading of the controversial report on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. In case you haven’t heard, it can be summarized as legislation to update copyright for the internet age. To force the giant internet platforms like Facebook and Google to pay news organizations, musicians and others before linking to their stories or materials and require all uploaded content to be checked for copyright infringement. There has been considerable debate on the proposals over the last two years; some would say Google et al have been stirring up social media. Campaigners have denounced the provisions as unworkable and run a petition called “Save Your Internet” which garnered 700,000 signatures. But supporters of the report say the changes will protect and allow copyright owners to win back money from internet firms that profit unfairly from their work. It might be an EU bill, but it clearly has worldwide consequences!
There were very short speeches, they are all timed and strictly enforced, by the committee chair and the primary opponent – German Green MEP Julia Reda. With electronic voting the close result was known immediately – 278 in favour, 318 against and 31 abstentions. There was jubilation from those against because it is quite unusual for votes to go against committee proposals, not least because there are excellent committee systems that ensure the often highly complex and diverse Europe wide stakeholder interests are well understood. We understand subsequent to the vote that there is an expectation that there will be open debate that it is hoped will lead to compromise, giving copyright holders more power without destroying the open principles upon which the internet was founded. This is democracy in action.
We were very fortunate to be present for this highly unusual event. We had taken the tram to the parliament building the day before, but because the Polish prime minister was speaking, we were unable to get access. So yesterday we arrived early and had no difficulty gaining entry. In fact, the visitor gallery was very quiet all morning apart from the constant stream of tour parties who would be ushered into the visitor gallery and stay for perhaps 15 minutes and then leave. We were there for almost the entire five-hour session and remained captivated throughout. However, we suspect many tour group visitors would leave with a very skewed view of the proceedings. At any one time there were rarely more than a couple of dozen MEPs in the chamber. And the contributions were all very short. Passing visitors might leave with a reinforced view that the EU Parliament is powerless and a complete waste of time.
The first item on the day’s agenda was a debate on participation of persons with disabilities in the EU election process. Many MEPs spoke including several obviously disabled individuals and while there was a lot of overlap, many introduced interesting ideas. Others made telling comments that the overall participation in EU elections is disappointingly low and that any efforts to increase disabled involvement should be part of the wider effort to encourage general interest. We were however disappointed that our very own disabled MEP Brian Crowley was once again not at the session. The Commissioner for Justice, Věra Jourová wrapped up the debate and responded to many of the speakers. There is clearly a very healthy and ongoing engagement between commissioners and MEPs.
There were then three sessions on foreign affairs. A very lively and at times emotional debate about the overturning of recent mayoral elections in Moldova highlighted the extraordinary capture of power in the country by oligarchs loyal to Russia, with widespread corruption, banking fraud and misuse of the justice system. The point was made that Moldova was on a path to EU membership, supported by a big majority of the population and that this situation is further evidence of the tensions between Russia and Europe already demonstrated in the Ukraine. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Frederica Maria Mogherini outlined the deep engagement of the EU in this area and specifically actions that the EU expects to ensure reforms in the areas of judicial independence, electoral practices, media independence. She emphasized that this is the EU supporting Modolvan citizens, representatives of which were at the parliament yesterday, and that continued EU funding is contingent on reform activity.
There were then debates on Somalia and Burundi. MEPs and Mogherini made the point that these countries are among the most troubled nations in the world and as a result are primary sources of largescale migration to the EU. At times it seems the plight of the deeply troubled African nations is insoluble. Mogherini summarized the actions the EU is taking in the areas of humanitarian support including shelter, water, health care as well as security situations and emphasized the transfer of responsibility to local actors as being the only long-term solution. In her wrap up Mogherini stressed the continued humanitarian support through local partners, but announced the suspension of direct financial support to the administration of Burundi, the only country to have withdrawn from the international criminal court together with a deterioration of the situation in the country. Political freedoms are disregarded, arbitrary arrests and extra judicial executions have now become commonplace. One is left with the impression this is an area that the EU is struggling to get to grips with at a time that migration is becoming a major issue.
Throughout the day it was clear MEPs were constantly entering and speaking and then leaving the chamber. So at any time, apart from the voting, it would appear to the casual observer that few MEPs are actively engaged. But of course, many are following the debates on live feeds as well as continuing meetings with stakeholders, committees etc and this was demonstrated by how rapidly the entire chamber filled for the midday voting session.
We were left with the overriding impression that this is a highly professional organization. Superbly chaired, managed to the minute with procedures and practices that facilitate engagement of MEPs as well as interaction with the commission and executive with a great deal of informed, constructive debate. Inevitably we compared this demonstrated professionalism with the obvious incompetence in recent times of UK and US administrations. We suspect MEPs will be happy to see the back of showmen like Nigel Farage whose only contribution to the EU parliament has been entirely negative. In contrast the EU parliament gives all the signs of delivering government for grownups by grownups.

Posted in Brexit, Travel | 1 Comment

Strictly Strasbourg

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Like all cities Strasbourg has a unique identity formed by its geography and history. In this case, the geography is a major factor – with the River Rhine alongside sometimes providing the boundary between France and Germany and sometimes not, and along with the evolved Roman roads setting Strasbourg at the heart of European trade routes. The historic city, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is on the Grand-Ile – an island bounded by the River Ile which has the great 15C Gothic cathedral at the centre and large numbers of medieval timber framed houses in amazingly good state of repair. The best examples of the vernacular architecture are to be seen in Petite France – a smaller area on the south and west of the Grand Ile where the Ile River is separated into several branches with covered bridges that allowed the installation of water mills. In medieval times the mills attracted tanners who consumed large quantities of water. Their houses typically have open galleries and roofs where the hides were dried.
We are staying in the historic Petite France area. Our apartment is on the ground floor of a four-story timber framed house. Just like our old house in West Cork the walls are massive and the damp courses only to be wondered about. The apartment fronts onto one of the branches of the river and we have a terrace some 10 feet above river level that gives amazing views of the barrage (covered bridge). We are very fortunate to be here for a reasonable time that allows us to get to know the city and its surroundings.
In our first week we quickly gained the context of the city, the wonderful tram system (just like Dublin but with much more comprehensive coverage of the city) and the maze of small streets with a profusion of boulangeries, charcuteries, restaurants, bars, speciality shops and more. The city is obviously a very popular tourist attraction. However, it is quite different to say Prague or Bruges in that the sheer numbers of tourists is not so overwhelming, and we detect there is not the same thirst for consuming excessive quantities of alcohol. Certainly, we are staying right in the heart of the historic district and we are not disturbed by overnight noise, nor by parties of revellers. In fact the city feels lived in, and obviously indigenous inhabitants are strongly in evidence.
Chatting to one group of tourists we learned they were on a cruise ship on the Rhine, and it seems likely this would account for quieter evenings on the city streets. The visitors are strongly French, German, Japanese and American. Not many Brits in evidence here in the heart of Europe! Of course Americans will be themselves and we chuckled to ourselves as we heard the comment from a lady looking at a tanners house saying, “It’s so cute, I feel like we are at Disneyland”.

Also in our first week we visited the European parliament [see separate blog entry] and the lovely Botanical Gardens in the university area. These are a little way outside the Grand Ile easily reached by tram in twenty minutes and allow us to explore a little around the Neustadt – the German influenced areas of the city, which BTW were also granted UNESCO heritage status in 2017. The area is evidently typical of a Germanic architecture that has been lost to bombing in Germany and the Neustadt area is teeming with a diversity of architectural styles which make this historical district very attractive. A place with wide tree lined avenues where Art Nouveau and neoclassical buildings sit contentedly side by side.

Having lived in West Cork for years we are having great fun learning to be city dwellers again. We even have a bit of a routine of clearing the terrace every morning, watering the tomato, pepper and lettuce plants in their raised beds, going out to the boulangerie to purchase wonderful croissants and baguettes. Sometimes we treat ourselves and go to a boulangerie for breakfast and just inhale the ambiance. And looking after the cat! Yes we are minding a tiny 8 month old beautifully marked kitten, and she’s minding us. Several mornings I have been woken to the sounds of battle in the kitchen. And, being cat owners down the years we know exactly what’s going on. First time it was a mouse; easily dealt with. Second time was a small bird. And you know what happens the cat will play with the bird (or whatever) until it loses interest when it no longer moves. When I took it from her she disappeared off and very shortly came back with a pigeon! Fortunately the bird was too big for her to bring in through the cat flap, so I was easily able to deal with it. This morning it was a mouse – alive this time, and she promptly lost it. So I had to encourage her to go under the book case and retrieve it so I could deal with it. She promptly went off in a huff and I’m expecting a rat shortly, at the very least!

We are also loving not using the car, it’s sitting in a garage. We’re walking and taking the tram everywhere; shopping on a day by day basis; dropping into a bar or café or restaurant by chance and always getting wonderful food and service. We have been to three concerts so far. A chamber orchestra from Zagreb playing Mozart, Grieg, Sorkocevic and Britten. The Britten Simple Symphony was incredible and overall it was an outstanding performance played with energy and confidence that reminded us of Katherine Hunka and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. A piano recital by young man Samuel Aznar, playing Debussy and Chopin, and demonstrating a huge talent for jazz. An unusual orchestral performance by OrchestraUnlimited – a very large orchestra with minimal strings but significant brass, wind and percussion, playing classical and popular pieces in a modern mode, including some Star Wars pieces that we ourselves have a more than passing acquaintance with. It was interesting that at all three concerts we felt like we were in West Cork – because the audience were very clearly predominantly local, meeting and greeting as you do. The orchestral concert was also very obviously a university crowd of hugely enthusiastic youngsters.

Finally there is dancing in Strasbourg – it appears there’s an Alsatian equivalent of Morris dancing happening on many of the city squares most evenings. We haven’t joined joined in!

Posted in Travel | Leave a comment

2018 Roadtrip Gets Real

I was in the UK (well England) for five weeks (M for 4 plus her week on the Camino). It was the hottest summer almost anyone could remember, and at the time to writing seems to be set to continue. In many ways hot is a good adjective with English football looking brighter than at any time since 1966; with Brexit politics looking set to end in fireworks as the cabinet engage in open warfare and as British business start to put the boot in. We walked a good bit locally and were yet again reminded of just how good the UK footpath system is.
Saturday 30th June we left Essex in the early hours to catch a mid-morning shuttle from Folkstone to Calais. It is nearly 25 years since we did this route and it remains busy, efficient and impressive. We wonder what will happen following a hard Brexit after March 19. On the road south, we take the A26 autoroute. It’s quiet. The tolls are just as expensive as ever, but the route is fast. We reach Reims by mid-afternoon covering some 300 Kms. Northern France remains little changed apart from the even bigger fields of golden corn, barley, oil seed rape and the omnipresent wind turbines. I had prebooked a campsite outside Chalons en Champagne, purely and simply for its proximity to our halfway point on the autoroute. The site is municipal and as expected does just what it says on the tin. We are early and can choose a good pitch. They are all a good size but good tree cover is important and also optimal proximity to the facilities. Not too near, not too far. The facilities are nothing short of excellent. Not quite German standard but clean and well maintained. There are a few British registered vehicles, but the majority are French, Belgian and Dutch. This is North Eastern France.
We haven’t had the tent out of its bag for some 10 years! But it’s perfect. Goes up in 10 minutes and fully pitched and organized in under an hour without any arguments. We have a supper at the camp café with the added bonus of the French – Argentina match on TV. And as you can imagine being France there is a small crowd and they are wild with delight. Normally my allergies cause me real agro when eating out, but this night we both have burger and frites (chips to you). Of course, this is France and, notwithstanding this is a very small establishment on a campsite, I know full well that the burger is a going to be a suitably shaped piece of pure meat. Not horse either! And just to take my life in my hands, I have a couple of beers because they are local blonde beer with just three ingredients – barley, hops and water. If I didn’t have to become fluent in the language I would move to France in a heartbeat and my life would be much simpler.

Chalons en Chanpagne
When we tell folk we are camping as we travel between our major stops the usual reaction is, “What, with a tent? You poor dears!” But what they really mean is, “Are you out of your heads?” But we are committed campers; it’s true we haven’t camped a lot since we have been in West Cork, but we have nothing but good experiences to report. Of course you need to work it right. First, we always try to choose 3 or 4 star sites. Preferably municipal. The 4 to 5 star sites are always much more crowded, full of children very noisy and expensive. The 3 star sites are cheap as chips and you normally get what it says on the tin. At busy times we pre-book. Other times or when we can arrive quite early in the day we will arrive on spec; particularly if there’s one or more alternatives. Then the mid-range sites are full of people like ourselves; older, couples, experienced, quiet. Always willing to share experiences. In Chalons en Champagne we had some great neighbours; Scots, Brits, Belgians, Dutch and French. And I picked up a few good tips on places in mid Austria, which I am still researching for later stops on this trip.
Relaxed start on the Sunday. We need to be in Strasbourg early evening so we leave mid-morning and resolve to take backroads, at least for the first part of the journey. The weather is extremely hot again and we take it slow across the vast corn fields. We stop at Bar-le-Duc. But the advertised Ville Haute is less gripping that expected. Continuing on we stop at Donnmartin-mes-Toul. As usual we find everywhere shut. It’s Sunday and the French rightly do their own thing and ignore any demands for Sunday opening. In the end we find a perfectly decent fast food restaurant that once again confounds expectations by providing the highest quality of good food at very ordinary prices. Vive la France!
Being Sunday the traffic flows are not heavy and we make good time. We are excited to see the mountains on the near horizon and a quick shufty at the map confirms it’s Germany and the Black Forest. It’s an area we are pretty familiar with, so we won’t be going there on this trip. We eventually park up in Strasbourg late afternoon. Total trip 800 Kms. Don’t ask about the city navigation. The GPS lost its way and we had to reboot. Not an easy city to navigate around by car. However on foot, bicycle or on the tram is a different matter; we will be here for 12 days and while it is a recognized tourist destination we envisage we will have time to live as city dwellers.

Posted in Travel | Leave a comment

Glimpses of Glastonbury

Glastonbury is the first real stop on our summer long road trip. Our younger son moved into a new old house at the start of the year and we are helping with decoration and renovation duties. It’s an interesting stay because it’s a working visit with time to do exploring, walking and get to know the area better than if we were regular tourists.

I guess everyone has heard of the Glastonbury festival. Evidently its the biggest greenfield festival in the world with nearly 200,000 visitors nearly every year. The back story is that the first festival was held in 1970 and that the hippies and counterculture people came and many stayed. Today the town is a magnet for alternative culture.

The first thing you notice about Glastonbury is the Tor – a 531 foot high hill that stands alone above the town and the Somerset levels, with a 15th century church tower that’s all that remains of two earlier churches. It’s a limestone hill with a sandstone cap which means the softer base has eroded to create very steeps sides, while the harder sandstone cap has remained intact. Its really steep slopes make for a good climb, and I walk/run around up and down first thing almost every day. I vary the routes but keep the time under 60 minutes. There is absolutely no truth in the rumor that I can make the top in under 16 minutes. But the Tor is an amazing landmark. And I meet many interesting people on the hill – dog walkers, American, German and Japanese tourists of course, but mostly locals and visitors that climb the Tor as a spiritual place to reflect in their own ways.

Consider that until the last few hundred years the levels were frequently flooded and that the Tor was an island. Which of course gives grist to the mill that the Tor was the island of Avalon, the legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 pseudo-historical account as the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged and later where Arthur was taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann.

glastonbury-tor9

After the Tor, the town. The high street is radically different to any other in the UK. By my own observation, a significant majority of people are dressed in counter culture – women in long dresses, kaftans, beads, head dresses and more. The men similarly showing a disregard for orthodoxy, with beards, pony tails, bare feet, dresses, beads and more.  Some will be local people, some visitors. And there is an energy in the high street and an obvious friendliness. To add to the uniqueness, none of the usual UK high street names are here. Don’t bother looking for McDonalds, Pizza Express, Next, Starbucks, Costa, WH Smiths or Nandos. The only one here is Boots which is perhaps a necessity. All the other premises are individualistic, counter culture and the people running the shops are full of enthusiasm for their alternative artwork, crystals, fairy dust as well as organic, whole food, vegan and vegetarian foods. And of course I loved the music store with guitars hung outside the shop marked for street players. Similarly the cafes and vegan restaurants with creative meals beautifully prepared. In fairness one of the restaurants we visited did have have fish and meat on the menu, but we could see the primary demand was for the vegan offerings. And the prices! We were amazed at the reasonable prices being charged in shops and restaurants.

On a good day the streets are crowded with hippies. Gathering in the churchyard among the gravestones, or on the open spaces outside the coffee shops sitting on the ground, singing, playing the guitar, doing pavement art, chanting over a chocolate cake (sic).  Glastonbury is without doubt a place apart. It’s even quite difficult to get to. There’s no train station. A bus to Bristol takes an hour and 40 minutes. There are no major highways nearby.  At this time of year when the weather is quite good there are lots of people sleeping rough. In the orchards, fields, beside the road. Some in tents. Some in vans. They are not all young; far from it. Many of the hippies are as old as I am!

My favorite memories . . coming down from the Tor shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, and seeing a scantily clad chap with beard standing outside his tent in the middle of an otherwise empty field playing his saxophone. Or rounding a bend in the country lane at a similarly early hour, and coming across a well dressed little chap sitting on a seat beside the road, combing a huge head and beard of very grey hair. “Good morning, what a grand morning it is!” I said. He replied, “Tis a grand morning indeed, and I am grand and grey!” I think I had just met my very first leprechaun.

Posted in Travel, Walking | Tagged | Leave a comment