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Annecy – The city by the lake

For many visitors, Annecy is not so much a destination as a stopping off place – or a detour – on the way to somewhere else. Signs on the autoroute point the way to Geneva and Turin, and no expense has been spared in building the road. When it doesn’t go straight through the mountain ……

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……… it clings to the edge in a series of viaducts and tiered flyovers.

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The big attraction of Annecy is its lake. Despite the mid June heat, it was too cold for a swim, although that didn’t deter a few brave characters.

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You can also hire a boat …………….

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………… or a bike. A flat cycle path hugs the west bank of the lake and, apart from a few Chris Froome wannabees, most cyclists take the path at a leisurely pace.

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Cycling around the lake affords an ever changing view of the surrounding  mountains.

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For historical sites, you need to visit the old town. Named the Venice of the Alps by over-imaginative travel writers, Annecy boasts a short length of tree lined canal.

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The River Thiou, one of the shortest in Europe (at 3.5km), winds past rows of historic buildings and is a magnet for tourists.

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Wedged into the middle of the river is the old prison, the Palais de l’lle. Apparently it is one of the most photographed sites in France but, when we visited, its best side was covered in scaffolding, so you’ll have to make do with a view of its rather drab rear.

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Hidden down an unassuming looking street is an even more modest looking cathedral.

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Perhaps of greater interest is the church of St Maurice. At the east end is a curiosity, a most realistic trompe l’oeil painting of the tomb of Philiberte de Monthouz. Just why it was decided to create a memorial of him in a painting rather than an actual tomb remains unclear.

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When visiting Annecy, it’s worth taking a trip into the mountains. Thones is just a short drive from the lake.

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Even on a hot day in mid summer, snow can be seen on the mountain tops behind the church.

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Annecy is worth more than a stop over. There is plenty to see and do and, while the city may be small, the location is truly beautiful.

A day in Turin

Turin may not be your idea of a tourist destination, but it took me by surprise. For a start, there’s the river. Seen from the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele on a sunny day, it looks quite beguiling.

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Cross the road from the river to reach the vast Piazza Vittorio Veneto, with its trams and scuttling traffic.

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Then follow the road – the Via Po – to the grim faced Palazzo Madama.

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Now we’re approaching real tourist territory. Cross yet another piazza – the Piazza Castello …………

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……………… to approach the Palazzo Reale. Within this sprawling complex, one glittering and gaudy room leads to another.

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The Throne Room, with its swags and chandeliers may be the brightest ………

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……… but the armoury is the room that draws the crowds, with armour plated knights sitting astride their stuffed mounts.

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When you’ve had enough of all this bling, cross the courtyard to the Galleria Sabauda.

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This art gallery has its fair share of rather forgettable hangings, but there are some real gems. I particularly liked Rogier van de Weyden’s panels, A Donor praying and The Visitation.

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In contrast, a couple of fifteenth century angels, by Giovanni da Fiesole, float through the air fluttering their golden wings.

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Meanwhile, down in the basement, the archaeological museum is crammed with the broken remains of Turin’s Roman past.

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Around the corner from the museum complex is the Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

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For a cathedral it is quite modest in terms of size, in stark contrast to its international reputation as home of the Turin Shroud. A replica of the shroud draws the curious crowds, but I preferred a modest and uncontroversial fresco above a doorway.

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Whatever the weather, getting around in Turin is made easy by the miles of covered walkways.

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There’s a lot more to see in this bustling city, but that is quite enough for one day.

The cathedral that crowned kings

Reims Cathedral is where for centuries the kings of France were crowned. More exactly, most were crowned there. Among the exceptions was Louis VI who chose Orleans fearing that his half-brother Philip would stop him from entering Reims. When the Archbishop of Reims objected, claiming his right to perform the coronation, he was overruled by Louis who said that as king he could decide the matter for himself.

In any event, Reims – rather than Paris – may seem an unlikely place for a coronation, but when the archbishop of Reims baptised Clovis around 496 A.D. he set a powerful precedent. Today, the rather squat looking cathedral is hidden amongst the city’s shops and offices. Approaching it from the river, the west front suddenly comes into view for the first time as you turn into Rue Libergier.

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The partially cleaned west front is a mixture of pinks and greys. A smiling angel looks particularly pleased about something.

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A finely traced king and queen, surrounded by angels with outsize wings, perch beneath the west window.

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Inside the cathedral, the great and the good, strike important looking poses in their stone niches.

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Above them, coloured glass makes the most of whatever sun there is on a chilly Spring afternoon.

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In the nave, a suspended chandelier serves to accentuate the sheer height of the cathedral.

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Along the aisle, information boards record the cathedral’s history, but I struggle with the French and lose much of their meaning.

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The cathedral itself is bare of treasures, but at the adjacent Palace of Tau the treasury is on display. On the Reliquary of the Resurrection, a couple of dozy guards are oblivious of Christ who is stretching his arms in triumph.

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A crowded galleon, with finely traced rigging – The Reliquary of St Ursula – competes for attention with a bejewelled chalice and goblet.

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Most people heading south east down route A26 don’t give Reims a second glance. They don’t know what they are missing.

Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey is a confusing name. It is neither in the Welsh island of Anglesey (but on the outskirts of Cambridge in England) and there is not much trace of the medieval abbey. The site of the priory, which was dissolved in the sixteenth century, is now occupied by a rather grand National Trust house which retains just a few features of the original building.

When we visited in February, the house was shut for the season, but no one really visits Anglesey Abbey just to see the house. The grounds are extensive, and on a cold overcast day the Winter Garden formed a winding corridor of colour. The reds and yellows of dogwoods contrasted with bare branch deciduous skeletons.

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Pink petal blossom lit a curving corner.

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Splashes of snowdrops lined the path.

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Sheltered by a mass of evergreen, colours competed for attention – pinks, oranges and bright yellow forsythia.

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At times, the path became a blur of colours and shapes.

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Anglesey Abbey is famous for its snowdrops. In open ground they formed a carpet albeit one that was rather threadbare in places.

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More imposing were a crowd of silver birches jostling for attention.

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Beyond the Winter Garden, the manicured river bank leads to a mill house, the doors of which had been shut well before the official closing time.

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Much of the Abbey’s gardens will not become alive until Spring gets under way, but that’s a visit for another day.

Ellesmere Port

Tucked away in an unfashionable corner of Cheshire, in North West England, a network of waterways forms a fragment of the country’s industrial heritage. Adjacent to the now sleepy town of Ellesmere Port, the Manchester Ship Canal begins its stately progress from the Mersey Estuary to Manchester. Today, a solitary freighter is a reminder of busier days.

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Along the canal, squat cooling towers and pinnacle chimneys belching streamers of smoke present an unpromising scene in greys and blues.

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Closer to hand, a sculpture of anchors surmounts the pavement. But, out of view, a section of brick pavement has been summarily dug up and removed by opportunist thieves.

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Approaching the Irish Sea, a ferry chugs across the River Mersey from the Liverpool dockside to Birkenhead.

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At the Albert Dock, the shuttered doors of the Great Western Railway terminal building are overseen by glass fronted offices and the stately dome of the Port of Liverpool Building.

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Meanwhile, back at Ellesmere Port, you will find the Ellesmere Canal. It was planned to link the Rivers Mersey and Severn, connecting the port of Liverpool with the manufacturing centres of the West Midlands. Rising costs and a lack of traffic scuppered the plans, and those sections that were built lost their identity as they became incorporated into other canals. But today you can take a leisurely walk around the dock basin.

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On open days, heritage is brought to life at the National Waterways Museum, where steam powered working boats are manhandled by high visibility enthusiasts….

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… and manoeuvred through the narrowest of locks.

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Stepping aboard the tiny living quarters of Ferret No. 58, where a whole family would have lived in the closest of proximity, you glimpse the unromantic realities of life on a working boat.

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Even on the coldest of days, this is a corner of England that is well worth a visit.

The lions of Modena

 

There’s no escaping the lions when you visit Modena Duomo. Entering the Piazza Grande, past the massive Ghirlandina bell tower, you approach the south door of the cathedral. Guarding the entrance are two vigilant lions, supporting on their backs the piers of the portico.

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What many visitors fail to notice is that, if you stand back and view the portico from a distance, you will see another lion surveying the city from the roof. Look even more carefully and you’ll see that he is holding a cross.

 

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Walk around to the west door and two more lions, with long shaggy manes, are stretching their legs in the sun. By their looks, they appear to be brothers of the lion on the roof.

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Inside the Duomo, it comes as no surprise to find that the columns of the parapet are supported by four restless looking lions. There is nothing sentimental about them. All four are holding tight to their captured prey.

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Meanwhile, outside on the south wall, comic strip carvings recount the stories of Genesis. A shame faced Adam and Eve try to hide their embarrassment after picking the fruit from the tree of knowledge.

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On the next panel, Cain cudgels his brother Abel senseless.

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There’s a lot going on at the Duomo if you take the time to look carefully.

 

 

 

 

 

A contrast of styles

Tours and Angouleme in France are separated by just over 200 kilometres, but in terms of architectural styles their cathedrals are centuries apart. The Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême is twelth century Romanesque and, although it has been knocked about over the centuries, its facade remains very much early medieval. (Ignore the rather absurd conical tops on the towers, like inverted ice cream cones, which are a nineteenth century addition).

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The façade is a reminder to all and sundry of the need for a godly life, with statues of the damned suffering their uncomfortable fate while the pious contemplate the prospect of eternal bliss.

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If that’s a bit too serious for you, take a look at St George in his coat of mail riding a charger to slay the fallen dragon. A reclining princess holds up her hands in grateful thanks.

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The façade of Saint Gatien’s Cathedral in Tours could hardly be more different. Construction of the cathedral was slow, even by medieval standards, and the building is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, but the west front flourishes with fine flamboyant carving. Passers by are confronted not with a parade of the good, bad and ugly, but rather a display of intricate carving and tracery.

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Inside the cathedral, slim gothic piers are interspersed by the rows of windows, with the east end lit by a wall of stained glass.

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Stained glass also adorns the transepts and west end of the cathedral.

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The interior of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême is, by comparison, rather squat and stubby, with rounded Norman arches and a low ceiling. Although much refurbished in the nineteenth century, for better or for worse, there is no escaping its early medieval appearance.

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What Angouleme lacks is wall paintings. Tours, on the other hand, has an intriguingly faded fresco of a sword swinging villain about to decapitate a damsel in distress. On a nearby pillar, a lance wielding warrior sallies forth to fight the good fight.

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When we visited Tours and Angouleme, both cathedrals were largely empty, perhaps because their cities are too small to attract the tourist hoards. But both cathedrals, in their different ways, merit a visit.

Getting around in Porto

Travelling from the airport to the centre of Porto is the easy bit. A couple of euros buys a ticket on the ultra modern metro that delivers you to the centre in less than thirty minutes.

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Porto is built on a hill. It’s all down hill to the river, and you can take a short cut down a seemingly endless flight of steps.

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But returning from the river involves a strenuous walk uphill or, even more strenuously, a long slow climb up the steps. But, if you’re not up to it, you can cut out the steepest part by taking the funicular.

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The River Douro is dominated by a double decker metal arched bridge, Dom Luis.

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For maintenance, the two levels are connected by a stomach churning spiral ladder.

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Today, the lower level takes road traffic, while the upper deck is shared by pedestrians and the metro. The approach of a train is heralded by rumbling as the bridge vibrates in protest.

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For a bird’s eye view of the Douro, there is no better place that Dom Luis.

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No self respecting tourist can resist a boat trip. We took the Six Bridges trip. Within the space of fifty minutes I counted five bridges, so somewhere along the line I must have lost concentration.

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Some people turn their noses up at a short trip, but you get to see a lot more than five or six bridges. The boat took us nearly to the mouth of the Douro, passing many of Porto’s main attractions.

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I won’t bore you with a list, but I particularly liked the riverside church of Corpo Santo de Massarelus. At this point, the road can no longer cope with modern traffic, so the river bank has simply been bypassed by a bridge.

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If you want to reach the seaside, your best bet is the historic tram that rattles its way from Infante, on the river front, to Passeio Alegre. The tram is a big tourist attraction, and gets packed at busy times, but we took one of the first trams of the day and it was largely empty.

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At Passeio Alegre, we walked along the sea wall and watched a group of men in wet suits prising mussels from spray drenched rocks.

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Porto is famous for its decorative tiles. The entrance to the main railway station, Estacao Sao Bento, is lined with battle scenes from Portugal’s obscure past and – in contrast – scenes of everyday life. It’s worth visiting the station even if you have no intention of catching a train.

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Getting around in Porto requires a good pair of shoes, a map and a willingness to embrace the tourist experience. It’s well worth the effort.

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The Bernina Express

The Bernini Express is a train that runs from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy, crossing the Alps through a spectacular series of viaducts and tunnels. It is heavily marketed as a tourist train with panoramic windows, for which you pay a premium, but you can save money by travelling in one of the ordinary coaches that is attached to the train. We opted for the panoramic coaches though, in reality, the view is much the same however you travel.

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Chur is an unassuming town, worth a quick visit, but not a place to hang around in for too long.

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‘Bernina Express’ is a bit of a misnomer, as the train travels slowly. The name is meaningful only in that you don’t have to change trains, whereas other trains from Chur to Tirano involve a couple of changes. Nonetheless, we were soon passing through steep sided hills covered in conifer forests, and green fields bisected by snaking minor roads.

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Crossing the River Albula, the railway intertwined with the road in a giant switchback.

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The 138 foot viaduct was a prelude to engineering marvels that were ahead of us.

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Suddenly the scenery became even more spectacular as we approached the 466 foot long Landwasser Viaduct with its 328 foot arches, leading to a massive vertical wall of rock. The line plunges into a tunnel to emerge onto another viaduct.

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Climbing higher into the Alps, the hills were wreathed in wisps of cloud.

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Approaching the tree line, forests were replaced by bare rock, dusted with snow and intersected by precipitous streams.

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In the high Alps, the train skirted turquoise pools, the colours deepened by semi melted ice.

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Clouds billowed ominously above jagged peaks, while glaciated valleys were bare of soil.

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At Alp Grum, the train stopped for 15 minutes. We walked around the trackside.

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Photographing the glaciated valley, and distant Italian Alps, was much easier than from within a moving train.

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From then onwards, it was all downhill – but only literally – as we approached the valley floor.

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Approaching Tirano, the railway corkscrewed down hill by the shortest possible route, effecting a 360 degree curve via the Brusio circular viaduct.

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We arrived at Tirano in time for lunch where, in the local cafes, the prices could not have contrasted more sharply than those in Switzerland.

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Most passengers chose to continue through Italy to Milan, but there was more in Switzerland that we wanted to see, so we boarded the Bernini Express again, and set off again across the Alps to Chur.

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A morning in Rotterdam

No one in their right mind visits the Netherlands for the weather. But at least you know what to expect – rain, wind and maybe hailstones. Well that was our experience when we visited Rotterdam for a couple of days. But, dodging the worst of the weather, we found that the city is much more than just an enormous port for container ships.

Much of Rotterdam was flattened by German bombing in the second world war, but Delfshaven remained largely intact. It is approached by a road bridge which lifts to accommodate river traffic.

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Down a narrow lane, and half way up a wall, are engravings that celebrate the town’s fishing heritage. A chubby looking whale, green with age, spouts purposefully. A substantial herring bears the inscription 1607. A cooking grill suggests where the herring is likely to end up.

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Beyond the No Entry sign, on the left, is the Old Church, famed in tradition as the spot where the Pilgrim Fathers set off in the ‘Speedwell’ (which turned out to be more like the Leak Well) in search of religious freedom in the American colonies. For a tour of the church, you have to return at the weekend.

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We crossed a traditional lifting bridge where an orange coated surveyor was taking meticulous readings.

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To right and left, the harbour was lined with sailing barges.

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One bank of the river was lined with deserted looking motor cruisers.

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In the distance, the sails of a windmill – and ominous grey clouds – were reflected in the water.

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Builders were erecting scaffolding along buildings by the water side. A bull’s head surveyed the scene from the apex of the roof.

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We retraced our steps, and surveyed the post war buildings fronting onto the relaxed sounding Coolhaven. Then we made our way back to the hotel in Mathenesserlaan, and only then did it start to rain.

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