Einstein on the Heath

It’s been a long time since my last post. The main reason for this is that I have been busy working on Slow Norfolk, a new guide for Bradt that is scheduled for publication early next year. Rather than a new edition of Slow Norfolk & Suffolk, that guide will become two separate books in the future: Slow Norfolk and Slow Suffolk. Naturally, there will be a degree of cut and paste involved but, as well as a fresh look and a new emphasis – less in the way of listings, more in the way of a personal take on the county — there will be lots of new material that celebrates that which is strange, quirky and particular about the county. For a taster of the sort of thing that Slow Norfolk will contain, here’s a snippet about a certain German physicist’s brief sojourn in north Norfolk.

Einstein on the Heath


A couple of miles southeast of Felbrigg Hall is the village of Roughton on the Norwich to Cromer road. Although the village is unremarkable, Roughton Heath just to the north was the unlikely residence of Albert Einstein for a few weeks in 1933. The celebrated German physicist was brought here under tight security to live in a small hut on the heath after fleeing Nazi Germany. Whilst living in his modest hut Einstein continued with important work that would later be put to use developing the world’s first atomic bomb. The scientist also found time to pose for a sculpture by Jacob Epstein. It was this brief episode by the Norfolk coast that provided inspiration for Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. A blue plaque commemorating Einstein’s short-lived residence on the heath adorns the wall of the New Inn in Roughton village. The whereabouts of the hut itself is not known.

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Serbia 4


The new edition of my Serbia guide is published today. It’s fully updated, of course, with revised text and lots of new listings, especially for Belgrade, a city that despite considerable setbacks seems to drive itself forever onwards and upwards. Here’s a snippet from the new edition that describes a possible future development for the Serbian capital. It looks quite remarkable (although probably hugely expensive too).


A large plot of land between Kalemegdan Fortress and the Dorćol riverfront is currently awaiting development. Originally owned by Beko, a company that went bankrupt, the land has been bought by Lamda development, a Greek company that is part of a holding company with EFG Bank and EKI Petrol. The Greek company approached the studio of Zaha Hadid to come up with a project for the land and the Iraqi-British architect has come up with a stunning plan for the development: a sweeping modernist design that connects with the surrounding landscape and incorporates essential public spaces and public transition between the fortress and the riverfront. At the time of writing, the proposed project was still awaiting public review (www.beobuild.rs). The design can be seen on line at: http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/beko-masterplan.

Belgrade’s not a stranger to developments that never quite get off the ground. Here’s another snippet from the Belgrade chapter of Serbia 4:


At the edge of Ćirila i Metodija Park in the city centre, under the whiskery gaze of Vuk Karadžić whose statue graces the western corner, are several entrances that lead down to what appears to be an underpass. But there is more to this than you might imagine: this is the location for the only station on Belgrade’s metro. The station, known simply as Vukov Spomenik (‘Vuk’s Statue’) was to be part of an underground system that never came to fruition, and which, as things turned out, ended up being one of the city’s biggest white elephants. It was built during the Milošević period in 1995 as the first component of what would be a comprehensive underground network but the turn of events in Serbia in the late 1990s resulted in the country having far more pressing needs than that of a highly expensive underground railway. The part that was completed is well worth seeing, even if it is a bit surreal. A number of entrances lead down to a stylish atrium in brushed steel from where escalators plummet down further to the platform. The station has since found use as a stop on the Beovoz line that plies between Zemun and Pančevo and a few shops have opened for business in the atrium.



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Of Saints and Shipwrecks


Beneath the spectacular white and red chalk cliffs of Old Hunstanton in northwest Norfolk lie the sorry remains of what was once a working boat, the Steam Trawler Sheraton. Although she started life in 1907 as a Grimsby fishing trawer, and would later serve a a patrol boat and mine sweeper during World War II,  the Sheraton suffered the ignominy of serving as a target practice vessel for the RAF in 1946. In 1947, a gale caused the boat to break free of her mooring on the Lincolnshire side of the Wash and the Sheraton eventually washed up on Old Hunstanton beach.  Much of her bulk and fixtures were salvaged and now only the bottom of her hull remains, reduced to just a barnacle-covered skeleton of ribs and braces after more than half a century’s scourging by the tide.IMG_8366

The coast at this spot is known as St Edmund’s Point, a name that references the arrival of St Edmund who is said to have been shipwrecked here in AD855. The 14-year-old boy, who would be crowned King of East Anglia the following year, would go on to become a religious cult hero and England’s first patron saint after his matrydom at the hands of Danes in 870. Later, in the 13th century, the monks of Bury St Edmunds would build a chapel on the cliffs above the spot where Edmund was reputed to have landed in gratitude for his safe deliverence. The ruins of the chapel lie close to a white early 19th-century lighthouse, now a private residence, whose light was extinguished at the outbreak of World War I never to be rekindled.


The beach at Hunstanton is one of the few places in Britain where the foreshore is privately owned. The Le Strange family, who have been lords of the manor here since shortly after the Norman Conquest, have in their possession a charter that states that as well as the beach itself they own ‘everything in the sea as far as a man riding a horse can throw a javelin from the low-tide mark’. The hereditary title of Lord High Admiral of the Wash is also retained by the family. So, the skeletal remains of the Sheraton wreck belong, technically at least, to the Le Strange estate, as do the picturesque seaweed-covered rocks that set off any decent photograph of the cliffs. If St Edmund had pitched up here a couple of centuries later than he did perhaps he would have become the property of the Le Strange estate too?


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Norwich Gorillas


Over the past few days a large number of gorillas have taken over Norwich city centre. No leaf-munching friends of David Attenborough these, the Norwich gorillas are fibreglass but compensate for their inanimate nature by coming dressed in a wide range of outlandish outfits. The splendid beast above – ‘Chromilla’ – can be found in front of the library in The Forum.

IMG_2802IMG_2861 With over 50 gorillas scattered around the city there is considerable variety and plenty of local flavour. There’s even an ‘Ivan the Iconic  Norwich Gorilla’ outside The Forum who bears the canary logo of Norwich City FC in addition to a representation of the city’s Norman castle and Stephen Fry’s clever avuncular visage. There is also a ‘Mr Carrow’ gorilla dressed in the yellow and green strip of Norwich’s Premier League heroes. I could probably live without Freddie Mercury reincarnated in gorilla form, and sadly there is no sign of local antihero Alan Partridge aping about, but you cannot have everything.

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For some reason there is always something rather cheering about gorillas. Perhaps it is their power and intelligence, their ‘gentle giant’ demeanour? Maybe it is simply because they remind me of the first Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band album released way back in the late 60s – Gorilla - which was ‘Dedicated to Kong because he must have been a great bloke’.

For more information go go go to Gogogorillas.

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 IMG_1467Small town Spain at the end of Whitsun. In Alhama de Granada, a hill town midway between Malaga and Granada in Andalucía, the celebration of Corpus Christi on the first Sunday in June takes the form of a religious procession through the streets of the old Arab town. The event is announced by a stirring peal of bells from the huge earthquake-scarred tower of the Church of La Encarnación. Temporary flower-decked altars have already been set up strategic points along the processional route, the course of which is marked by a wide swathe of horsetail gathered from the nearby gorge.

IMG_1531Musicians carrying trombones and drums saunter across Plaza de la Constitución to assemble outside the main door of the Iglesia del Carmen that overlooks the gorge. Eventually, the congregation files out of church and after a fanfare of deafening fircrackers the procession leaves to make its way around the town’s narrow streets. Leading the entourage along with the priest are girls in white dresses carrying baskets and boys in sailor suits, then comes the heavy wooden float carried on the shoulders of a rota of 28 men followed by the band and what seems like most of Alhama’s population dressed in their Sunday best.

IMG_1567IMG_1585It takes an hour or two to make the circuit, stopping for blessings a long the way, and then, after returning to the starting point, the crowd slowly disperses. Already, municipal workers in high-visibility jackets have swept up the horsetail and rose petals and Alhama is returned to tranquil whitewashed normality. Now, it’s just like any other another sleepy Sunday afternoon – muy tranquilo: a stroll and chat in the square, an unhurried meal, a drink, a sun-drugged siesta.




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Bunhill Fields

IMG_0156Three weeks ago I happened to be in London. As things turned out, on that very same day  the city was somewhat preoccupied with a very high-profile event at London’s most iconic church. Given the circumstances, I felt the need to escape the gravity of St Pauls and mark my all-too-rare visit in a more personal way. So on the morning of April 17 I headed to Bunhill Fields in the Borough of Islington. Here, at a quiet Nonconformist graveyard tucked away from the thrum of city traffic, are buried some of England’s less showy heroes.

IMG_0145Here you’ll find John Bunyan, radical preacher of Pilgrim’s Progress fame, whose stone form lies prone atop a hefty tomb. Nearby stands an obelisk that commemorates Daniel Defoe, a man who in addition to writing Robinson Crusoe was also a great traveller and author of an opinionated account of the  nation in the early years of the 18th century. Next to the Defoe obelisk, and far more humble, is a plain stone that marks the life of another great Londoner– William Blake. So unpretentious is this tomb marker that it does not even stand on the exact spot where Blake are buried – the actual grave is unmarked and the poet’s bones lie elsewhere nearby, although the exact spot is uncertain.

It was a cold grey day, and workmen were working industriously clearing the ground in another part of the graveyard. Otherwise, there were no other visitors to Blake’s – or anyone else’s – grave on that particular morning. Meanwhile, just a mile or so to the south, the traffic had been stopped and bells silenced – no ding-donging permitted on this day. Assorted armed forces lined the street in a gung-ho revival of Falklands fever as a sorry procession of politicians, prison novelists, low-rent celebrities, arms dealers, blubbing chancellors and sundry Spitting Image characters entered the cathedral to take their seats beneath the lofty Wren dome.

As history was rewritten for the umpteenth time in a matter of days, Blake’s bones lay sleeping unperturbed in Bunhill Fields – definitely not for turning. A bone fide Londoner who wrote of higher places, William Blake was a man whose words could reach out to everyman – to Londoners of every stripe certainly, but also to those in Scotland, County Durham, Liverpool…South Wales…South Yorkshire…

Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction

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Crossing the Yare

IMG_0074It is the second Sunday in April, the warmest day of the year so far. Shirtsleeves weather at last despite much of the landscape still looking bleached and lifeless thanks to a long winter that has only just finished. Look closely though and leaves are unfurling and buds are loosening, finally awakened by longer days and soft southern breezes. The object today is to complete another stretch of Norfolk’s Wherryman’s Way. The section between Great Yarmouth and Berney Arms, and Berney Arms and Reedham, has been walked over the previous two weekends so today’s journey begins by taking the Wherry Line train from Norwich to Reedham.


It’s a short walk from Reedham station down to the River Yare and then a further kilometre or so along the bank to reach Reedham Ferry, a combined riverside pub and a chain ferry operation. The ferry, which can deal with three cars and a handful of pedestrians at a time, is super efficient and moments later we are standing on the river’s south bank. Just 50p (cars £4) for a three-minute trip that avoids the necessity of anything up to a 30-mile detour seems like a real bargain. The curious thing is how the River Yare manages to be so completely devoid of places to cross. Between Norwich and Great Yarmouth there are no bridges whatsoever and because of this villages that stand opposite one another on either bank are forever strangers, rarely, if ever, visited by neighbours from across the water.


Once across, the route follows minor roads away from the Yare as we are obliged to detour around the tributary of the River Chet. A meander of the river that veers close to the road seems the perfect place to stop for lunch. As we eat, a small solitary bird swoops in an oddly familiar way above the reeds opposite, then two more do the same: swallows – the first seen this year. It is hard not to view such an unheralded yet welcome sight as a favourable omen. One swallow may not a summer make, but three certainly do.

Further on, passing through woods close to the hamlet of Nogdam End, a buzzard circles and vocalises with incongruous high-pitched screams, not at all the gruff pugilistic tone you might expect from such a tough-looking raptor. Meanwhile, chiff-chaffs chiff-chaff (or, to my ears, chaff-chiff) in the upper branches of trees while, down on the grass verge, primroses and violets bloom in bright clusters. In the hedgerow above, blackthorn – frothy white blooms guarded by cruel spikes – is starting to blossom, more than a month late. It must be official – spring is finally here.


We leave the road to take a look at Heckingham’s St Gregory’s Church, a small thatched structure atop a grave-littered mound: round-towered – as so many churches in Norfolk are – with a semi-circular apse and a Norman doorway of Caen stone soft enough to be carved with the initials of Victorian graffitists. Although still consecrated, the church is rarely used these days. Nevertheless, it seems prepared to receive any impromptu congregation: a hefty bible sits ready on the pulpit, open on the Book of Job, and a tattered exercise book next to the organ asserts that the instrument it is tuned and fit for use. Black ledger stones in the floor unsentimentally brandish skulls and details of the late 17th-century demise of various members of the Crowe (or Crow) family, an appropriate name now that we have reached the part of the Yare Valley that is undeniably Crow Country.

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Leaving the church, we cross bare fields towards Loddon, the strong southerly wind blasting through hedgerow gaps to lift the light soil to dustbowl effect. In Loddon, there is just enough time to wash the dust away with a pint of Humpty Dumpty before catching the bus back to Norwich.


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Berney Arms

IMG_5981Good Friday, Breydon Water, Norfolk. A feature in last Saturday’s Guardian reminded me of a Norfolk long-distance walk I had been contemplating for some time - the Wherryman’s Way that roughly follows the course of the River Yare between Great Yarmouth and Norwich. A glance at the Wherryman’s Way website made it clear that the section between Great Yarmouth and Berney Arms would be closed for flood alleviation work between April 1 and the end of September. It seemed like a good idea to walk this stretch before the month was out, so on a cold Good Friday morning Jackie and I took the train to Great Yarmouth before setting off west along the north shore of Breydon Water.

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The route starts inauspiciously around the back of the Asda superstore next to the railway station. Passing under the rumbling road bridge, the estuary that is Breydon Water suddenly opens up ahead – muddy grey water, a Turneresque sky, a raised bank snaking east. Over the fence to our right the shunting tracks of the railway have been colonised by large clumps of pampas grass that, curiously, seem to thrive here. Perhaps this austere flat landscape is a microcosm of the southern Argentine pampas? This may be the edge of the estuary, a vast wild area where three rivers come together before flowing to the sea, but it is also an edgeland par excellence, a periphery where urban bleeds into rural, human and physical geography overlay one another and nature finds a foothold in unlikely places. But the whole of Breydon Water is an edgeland of sorts: wild, raw and lonely it may be, it is also a place that has long witnessed the taming hand of man.

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The course of the bank is traced by a tideline composed of weed, fragments of reed and plastic bottles. Here and there the jetsam reveals other treasures: a plastic safety helmet, a golf-bag (no clubs), several odd shoes (never a pair), a mouldering grey seal carcass with ribs revealed like an ivory toast-rack. Passing through a gate, a tattered prayer book lies open by the path bearing the reading for February 14 - ‘Love Is The Power Charge’. A gentler cipher for our walk than the graffito on the bird hide we had just passed in which the scribe claimed intimate knowledge of the mother of someone called Dan.


February 14, the random day displayed by the book’s wind-fluttered pages, seems about right: Easter may have come early this year but it still feels like winter. And it looks like it too – grey-yellow grass, very few green buds, icy white flecks falling from the sky; red-beaked redshanks and dapper shelducks the only bright points in a near sepia landscape. A kestrel perched on a post ahead of us flies off grumpily as we approach. The bird, a female, seems larger than normal, as does the heron that rises sluggushly from a reed-bed. Perspective plays tricks in this flat, treeless landscape – far objects look close, near objects appear supernaturally large, distant hares might easily be mistaken for deer.

IMG_5930After an hour, we arrive at a large capped windpump that has been looming ahead all the way from Yarmouth – the four-storey Lockgate Drainage Mill. The door is open and we find the mill’s iron gear wheels rusted yet still intact inside. The floor is covered by furry owl pellets jettisoned by the occupant of the wooden box installed in the beams above. Next door to the mill, a pile of brick rubble indicates where Lockgate Farm once stood. The railway line runs right past, on the other side of a gate.


Another hour along the water’s edge and we arrive at the Berney Arms, a remote riverside pub famous for only being accessible on foot or by water. The pub always was seasonal, operating through spring and summer only to serve passing walkers and boaters. But it seems that its previous tenants, a no-nonsense Birmingham couple, have left and currently there is no-one to open up for business this year. Like so many other struggling Norfolk pubs, this is an all-too-common story.


There’s another lofty black mill just a little further on, and it is here that we turn inland to head to the Berney Arms railway stop. It is a strange sensation to walk across fields towards an isolated platform that consists of little more than a station sign, an information board and incongruous ‘Exit’ signs – a stop for which the expression ‘the middle of nowhere’ seems wholly appropriate. Thankfully, the  two-carriage train arrives right on time. We flag it down (Berney Arms is a request stop) and climb aboard to speed across the marshes through Reedham, Cantley and Brundall back to Norwich.


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Galata Bridge, Istanbul

IMG_1910I’ve been thinking about Istanbul lately – it is one place that has been a constant in decades of travel. I first went there over 35 years ago and must have revisited the city at least eight, maybe ten, times since. When I think of Istanbul, I immediately think of Galata Bridge, as somehow this more than anywhere represents all that is great and cosmopolitan about the city. More than a mere link between the two sides of the Golden Horn – Eminönö and Kariköy – the bridge is a place for fishing and socialising, for eating and drinking; a place for lovers’ trysts, for poets to watch the sunset, for tourists to plan their next day in this great city at the very edge of Europe.IMG_1903While other bridges are merely functional – a dull concrete conduit for traffic over water like this one in Suffolk, or a human footbridge as sumptuous and organic as this one in Meghalaya, India, Galata Bridge is much more. Galata Bridge may not be beautiful of its own accord but it provides a platform from which to enjoy the iconic Istanbul skyline – the Venetian Galata Tower in one direction, the sky-piercing minarets of Sultanahmet’s mosques in the other. More than a mere bridge, it is a location in its own right that, in the Istanbullu psyche, has long been elevated above the role of merely conveying traffic .IMG_2639IMG_3158IMG_2655


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Yugoslav Hotels


They are a dying breed, Yugoslav hotels. And I use the word ‘Yugoslav’ advisedly as, although the buildings shown here are in what is now Serbia, all were erected during the period when that country was still part of Yugoslavia. At worst, these hotels, largely built in the 1960s and ’70s,  are concrete monoliths: multi-storey overnight people-parks, the sort of structures that might make Prince Charles go bug-eyed with apoplectic rage. Indeed, some are so brutally concrete and cubic that they bring to mind Rachel Whiteread’s House – a three-dimensional concrete representation of the internal space of an earlier dwelling.
IMG_1094At best though, they are imaginative, ironic, faux-futurist; canny enough to display an architectural sense of humour (although never quite as precocious as the Titanic Hotel in Nagorno-Karabakh). I’m thinking here of the skyrocket-like edifice that casts its long shadow over  Partisan Square in Užice, western Serbia. I have stayed here a couple of times and all I can say is that what the hotel lacks in working light bulbs and reliable lifts it makes up with excellent views over the city from its upper floor windows.


If the Hotel Zlatibor in Užice is a skyrocket then the Hotel Vrbak in Novi Pazar is a space station, albeit a very 1970s space station with neo-Oriental touches. And a semi-deserted, slightly disturbing space station too: on both occasions that I stayed here I was one of less than half a dozen guests. Perhaps it should be renamed Solaris?

While some of these government-owned hotels manage to keep going, most of their trade coming from large wedding parties and occasional school-trip groups, many have closed for business and languish unloved in provincial town centres awaiting investors that never come. They remain as ghostly real estate of the recent Yugoslav past, an embarrassment of concrete and glass that is too big and decrepit to profitably invest in, and too massive to easily demolish.
IMG_1527The hotels shown here are in Novi Pazar, Užice, Niš, Pančevo, Pirot, Knjaževac and Belgrade. The first three are still working; the remainder are not.


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