Portmeirion – You’re not a Number, but you are a Tourist

Bathed in sunshine, this could be the coast of Italy – but its actually North West Wales.

Portmeirion is a tourist resort best known is certain circles for the cult TV show ‘The Prisoner’. Its otherworldly vibe was perfect for the mind bending show where a man was trapped, numbered and pursued by a giant balloon.

Built by Sir Clough William-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, Portmeirion is still a popular place for people to visit and stay. And while I can see the attraction, after a while it starts to feel like you’re on the Truman Show. But it’s certainly one of kind and worth a visit.

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Walking in Middle Earth – Puzzlewood

Have you ever wanted to roam around Lothlorien looking for the elves? Or test your courage in Mirkwood against the foul things that dwell there? Well pop into Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean and you can.


You’ll need a smidge of imagination, but not much to understand why this place is said to have inspired JRR Tolkien’s visions of Middle Earth.



Puzzlewood is an ancient woodland, where ore was mined from Roman times and possibly earlier. It’s caves have eroded away leaving moss covered rock formations, hidden caves and lush green tangles of trees and bushes




When you first arrive it doesn’t look like much, a car park leading to some huts, a cafe and a playground. But move beyond that, down a small path and through the gate and you find yourself in a place that doesn’t seem to exist.


Steps were added in the 19th Century to make it easier to walk around but be warned, it’s uneven and slippery underfoot. Those who have mobility problems may find it tricky to get around.

It’s no surprise this magical place has been the filming location for ‘Merlin’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ and most recently ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. This is a place of other worlds, when a break in reality has allowed us to catch a glimpse of a hidden fairytale kingdom.

I don’t think I could possibly find words to describe it. I took a lot of pictures, but I’ve tried not to put too many on here, they can only give a flavour of the wonder.

We went at half term so it was fairly noisy and child-filled, but you could find quieter spots in the 14 acres. Be careful around the place though, it’s slippery.

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Abandoned Buildings in the Azores – Part 2

Photo of Monte Palace Hotel, Azores interior

The Monte Hotel is a rather different to Gerna Manor, the derelict building I wrote about in part 1. It’s a lot bigger, far more accessible and has an interesting story behind its rise and fall.

Photo of Monte Palace Hotel, Azores

Perched high above the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, you can understand the attraction of building a hotel here. It’s stunning views are a tourist attraction even today, and the Monte was a luxurious place. It had 88 rooms, two restaurants, a bank, a hairdresser – even a nightclub.

But high end tourism can’t be sustained by views alone. In the end, its location worked against it. It’s difficult to get to along winding narrow roads and the beautiful lake is often shrouded in fog. In addition, the Monte was built in the late eighties, years before the Azores had any kind of major tourism. So the hotel closed its doors only two years after it opened.

Photo of Monte Palace Hotel, Azores staircasePhoto of Monte Palace Hotel, Azores entrance

But it wasn’t re-purposed or pulled down. The story goes that for nine years or so it was guarded and fenced off. Then the guards stopped being paid so they stopped well, guarding. The fences disappeared and nature returned.

You can now wander freely about the majority of the vast building, stripped of any internal decor except some sodden carpets. The concrete shell is decorated by graffiti and mould, but the level to which you can explore is disconcerting. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to doing some real urban exploring.

Photo of Monte Palace Hotel, Azores interior

Its balconies and rooftop make an excellent places to get an unspoiled view of the lake. With parking for a viewpoint opposite, it’s also easy to access if you can find a parking space.

I’ll admit I had a very eerie feeling walking about the place, not just because of my natural feeling that i was trespassing. Because of it’s recent age, it’s almost post-apocalyptic – as if I’d stumbled into part of the ‘Fallout’ series of video games. You can just about visualise the guests and staff sleeping, eating and living in luxury (there are some ‘before’ photos online which are fascinating and very eighties).

Photo of Monte Palace Hotel, Azores interior rooms

It provided some serious brain food and I have a nice short story (or possibly even film script) brewing about the place.

If you’re going anywhere around the lakes and have an interest in such things, I’d advise a careful visit even if you just stand outside and look. Has anyone else explored the Monte hotel? Or somewhere similar?

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Abandoned Buildings in the Azores – Part 1

Interior of Gerna Manor - Azores

The Azores are a stunning set of islands in the Atlantic, formed by volcanos and colonised by the Portuguese in the 15th-century. They’re perfect for walkers with lush, mountainous trails dotted with fascinating points of interest – including an abandoned building or two.

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This is what’s left of Grena Manor, built next to Lake Furnas by the English Consul-General in the 1855.

Abandoned buildings are fascinating to me, but in the UK they’re invariably stuck behind fences and warnings of CCTV and guard dogs. So finding one you’re able to (carefully) get up close and personal to is a treat.

The potential story behind a derelict building is what appeals of course. Bricks and mortar they may be but they were also part of someone’s life. So you start to wonder – what happened to them? Why were they left to rot? What happened? And if you’re a writer, you inevitably end up making up a narrative.

It’s hard to imagine this building in its heyday, lost among tangled vegetation, dripping with rain and covered in lichen. But with a little thought, you can still picture it in its glory days, walls white and gleaming on a summers day as it’s inhabitants look down onto the magnificent lake below.

After passing through various hands, the Government bought the property and land around it – and promptly forgot about it. You can’t go inside as it’s way to broken down and dangerous for that, but you can get some good pics and it’s an interesting sight to come across on a walk.

It’s not the only abandoned building we stumbled on whilst exploring the Azores. But I’ll get to that in Abandoned Buildings in the Azores – part 2.

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Find yourself at Star Wars: Identities

Hands up all Star Wars fans? Those of you with hands down, this post won’t be for you. The rest, come join me on a tour around the Star Wars Identities exhibition currently on at the O2 in London. It was a fun (if somewhat pricey at £20 per ticket) attraction for the average Stare Wars fan. On arrival you’re given an earpiece connected to a device that goes around your neck. And you get a wristband that let’s you build your identity.

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The exhibition is a novel mix of the usual props and costumes you get at these type of exhibitions, alongside interactive screens and some interesting ‘sciencey’ stuff about how our own.’identities’ are built. Liberally illustrated with a bunch of clips from the movies.

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I was mostly going for the film memorabilia, but it was also quite fun to build my Star Wars character. Anyway, I’m not going to blather on about my love for Star Wars. Much better to just share some pictures from the experience with you.

Boba Fett

Spaceship models ‘in flight’

An early version of Yoda

And the one we know and love

But ‘did you get a notebook?’ I pretend to hear you cry. Of course I did!

Anyone else been to the exhibition?  What did you think?

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Symbolism and Status – An Enlightening Tour of Highgate Cemetery West

Highgate Cemetery stands on Highgate hill, with a commanding a view over London. Because of that, it became the place to be buried in Victorian times.

Image of Highgate Cemetery WestHighgate is one of seven cemeteries opened in the 1800s to relieve pressure on the horrendously overcrowded inner city church graveyards. They’d been overwhelmed by new inhabitants brought into the capital by the industrial revolution. But the Victorians weren’t high on Government interference. So the new cemeteries were all run by private companies and needed to make a profit.

Grave monument in Highgate Cemetery West

A couple of years ago I visited Highgates’ East Cemetery, so it was only a matter of time before I also made my way to the West. I love a good cemetery. It sounds morbid and part of the appeal is the Gothic nature of them. But I also like history and of course, the hidden story behind each resident. If you’re a writer, they’re good places to find inspiration.

Unlike the Highgate East, where you can wander as you wish, visits to the West are by tour only.

The £12.50 cost is reasonable, especially as the money goes towards the upkeep of the site. It does mean you can’t track down the graves of people you might be interested in, but you do get a boatload of intriguing information from an enthusiastic guide.

The main thing I learnt about is the amount of symbolism in Victorian graves. Urns represent the soul, wreaths mean victory over death, Pelicans are a symbol of piety – nothing on a Victorian burial monument is there just to look pretty. It all means something.

George Wombwell's Lion
George Wombwell’s lion

Our guide also introduced us to some of the cemeteries more interesting inhabitants.

Tomb of Tom Sayers, Highgate Cemetery
Bare-knuckle boxer Tom Sayers and dog, Lion

George Wombwell, a successful menagerist and his sleepy lion, and Tom Sayers, a successful bare-knuckle boxer and his faithful dog, Lion.

And as far as writers go, we did get a glimpse of the tomb of Radclyffe Hall, author of early lesbian novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’.

Radclyffe Hall's Tomb, Highgate
Radclyffe Hall’s tomb

The West side of the cemetery was always the poshest , positioned right at the top of the hill. There were places for the poorest yes, but these were simply a pit you shared with many others and had no gravestone. At the other end of the scale is the most expensive tomb in the place built by Julius Beer for his daughter Ada, at a cost of thousands.

Image of Ada Beer's Tomb

The cemetery still has cache to it. When we visited, there was much ado about where George Micheal would be buried (his mother is interred in a private location in the cemetery). But there’s no mistaking that years of neglect have taken their toll.

Image of Highgate cemetery West

Image of Circle of Lebanon, Highgate Cemetery West
The Circle of Lebanon

Highgate has been restored in parts but it’s still very overgrown. One of the titbits given by our guide was that the graves are leased not owned. Technically it’s the responsibility of the deceaseds relatives to maintain them. If this isn’t done, the grave would be forfit. But this isn’t enforced at the moment and , as you can imagine, many have been forgotten. It does make you wonder if one of your own relatives might be nestled around there somewhere!

Image of the Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery, West
The Egyptian Avenue

For me and many others though, the decrepit nature of the place just adds to the atmosphere. If you’re into Victorian history, graveyards, architecture, London or just after a fascinating tour this could be for you. Quick tip – if you go at the weekends, you don’t have to book but the tours are popular. We went on a cold Sunday morning in February and the tour filled up quickly.

Have you ever visited Highgate? Or another cemetery that’s captured your imagination?

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The Princess who Loved Words: Farewell Carrie Fisher

When Terry Pratchett died, it affected me because he shaped the person I am today. The same is true of Carrie Fisher, albeit in a different way.

To women of a certain age, especially those in love with fantasy, she was an icon. There weren’t a great deal of notable female characters in the genre at the time, so Princess Leia in Star Wars was a revelation. She was determined, brave, funny and caring. An excellent shot, a true friend and a rebel leader even after her entire family and planet were destroyed(. And she got Han Solo. No question, I wanted to be Leia. Many of the first stories I wrote included Princess Leia type heroines, fighting and shooting with the best of them.

When I got older, I began to appreciate her for the woman she was too. A brilliant writer and script doctor, she was outspoken and bitingly funny. She discussed her addictions and mental illness without shame. Ultimately, she loved words – and that’s my kind of Princess.

I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know. It was something I always did.

Carrie Fisher

A Visit to Stonehenge

Even though it’s not far from neck of the woods, I’ve only just got round to visiting Stonehenge.

It helps that we’ve joined English Heritage as it’s not cheap to visit the stones. Understandable I suppose, given that it is one of the most famous sites on the planet and they have got a rather good visitors centre. Inside is a 360 display of the stones, plus an exhibition on their history and artefacts found at the site.

There’s been many a story inspired by these great, ancient stones and the burial mound covered landscape that surrounds them. I shall let the pictures speak for themselves.

Who else has been to this magnificent place? What were your thoughts?

 

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Visiting Virginia Woolf – A Trip to Monk’s House

Monk’s House was once the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Today it’s owned by the National Trust and the unassuming 18th century cottage with a beautiful big garden and orchard is a world away from the grand buildings it’s known for.

Virginia’s writing shed can be found in the orchard, and she resides here too, as her ashes were scattered amongst the trees.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf owned this place as a retreat from London. In it they made welcome several notable members of the ‘Bluestockings’ literary and artistic set in the 1930s.

There’s a real sense of simplicity about the place. It’s a home first and foremost – but that’s not to say it isn’t interesting. It’s full of books, colourful rugs, painted furniture and vases of flowers. There’s colour and light and inspiration in every corner. Yet it’s also homely and peaceful. I can definitely see why Virginia loved this place as a place to calm her mind and feed her soul.

If you’re a member of the National Trust and you’re into your authors, it’s definitely worth a look.

The garden is beautiful, full of flowers and ponds and nooks and cranies to escape into. Many visitors were enjoying a picnic on the summer afternoon we visited.

I think you either love Virginia’s work or tend to admire it. I’d say I fall into the latter category. I’ve read a number of her works (my favourite is “The Years”) and I’ve been fascinated by her themes and her use of words – but I’m not as passionate about her writing as some are. Her influence on the literary world and development of Feminism cannot be underestimated. Monks House offers a mere glimpse into a complicated mind – but an interesting glimpse nonetheless.

Anyone else been to Monks House?

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