Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

On the last day of the unseasonal, if welcome, warm weather in March, I was headed South and took the chance to stop at Bolsover Castle, which is very close to the M1. It’s an English Heritage site, free to members, £12.60/11.30/7.60. There’s a free car park in front, which is also very convenient for the Wetherspoons pub. The latter may explain why on a quiet day the car park was full, but at any rate there is an overflow car park by the side of the castle, just continue along the road past the castle entrance and take a sharp right.

Panoramic view with battlements at the front and rolling green fields disappearing down the hill.
View from the castle over the model village.

The castle as we see it, dominating the skyline as you approach, was built by the Cavendish family in the 17th century on the site of an older medieval fortress. It had plenty of bedrooms, but was meant more for entertaining than as a place to live, with the administration of the estate (essentially all the eye can see, and the Cavendish family owned several of the other ‘great houses’ in the area) carried out from elsewhere. Most famously, William Cavendish spent £14,000 (his entire yearly income) to entertain the King and Queen when they visited in 1630.

There is plenty to see. The views over the valley are spectacular in themselves, the old long buildings are fascinating, the gardens kept simple but smelling lovely and the Little Castle with partial reconstructions of the ornate insides. There’s also an exhibition and second-hand bookshop in the first buildings you find, which contain the parade ground. William Cavendish is known as the English father of dressage, believing strongly that there was no need to brutalise a horse to make it behave, and proving so. Apparently his manuals of horsemanship are still relevant, which is quite something.

The Little Castle was holds rooms for entertaining and Cavendish’s bedroom, with upper floors closed for renovation. More entertaining happened in the long building to the side of the Little Castle, but the cost of maintaining such a large site meant a later owner took the roof off it and let it fester. As a result it looks older though it actually isn’t. The paintings above the wood panels, seen above, are described as closer to fine art than just decoration. There are plenty of staircases and small rooms off to one side (originally privies, but now clean and tidy!) to check out, but the art is the highlight, and so the video below is recommended to give you an insight.

A QR code inside the entrance to the Little Castle links to a YouTube video, Bolsover Castle: A Journey in Art (6:44).

You’re never far from a great view of the countryside. The model village down the hill (not a small one, a real one laid out in a ‘model’ of good living) is clear because of the square layout – it was known as New Bolsover, which is now the name of the road on which it sits.

Looking through a 'v' shaped archway  to a wall, stairs and then countryside behind
View through an archway.
Looking at a tall tree in the castle grounds, with a wall and the Little Castle behind. Mole hills dot the grass close to the camera.
Little Castle stands on the right, the abandoned long building to the left.
View of the Little Castle from the courtyard.
Venus statue in the courtyard, a rare working fountain from the 17th century.

I wandered round Bolsover, a nice enough town, with a pretty church and footpaths heading off down the hill if you want to explore. If you fancy a pint I’d recommend The Blue Bell, on High Street, based purely on the views – it has a beer garden perched right on the edge of the hill, so you can sit and enjoy the view. With a long drive ahead, I managed to resist temptation, though it was strong, and instead found an all-day breakfast for a fiver at a cafe in town which also did excellent cakes.

Game On Exposition, Forum, Groningen

This exhibition aims to take you through 50 years of video games with some emphasis on Dutch game makers, though not to the exclusion of classics such as Space War, Pong, Pacman and so on.

It’s on the 5th and 6th floor of the Forum (entry on 6th), in the middle of Groningen, and you’ll need a mask and covid pass with proof of identity to get in. It started on 2nd October 2021, and is currently bookable through to the end of February, which I’m presuming is the close. Tickets are €12.50 (€7.50 for students), though you can add entry to Storyworld on the same day for just an extra €2.50 (for a total of €15) to make it all bargainacious. I had to buy my ticket on the day, as going via the web is tilted to Dutch bank cards and accounts, but that was no problem. It also meant I wasn’t tied to a time slot I’d picked in advance, so on this quiet weekday (I saw no one but staff till the end, where four of us were on different machines) I just could roll up and head in.

As it’s in the Forum, there’s free wifi throughout, you just need to be able to head to forum.nl/wifi to get a code – it’s for 24 hours, so you could do that in advance if you don’t have mobile access. There are free lockers inside the exhibition so you don’t have to carry anything with you – just read the instructions more carefully than I did, or it will take you a couple of goes to set a code.

Neon lighting marks the entrance to the exhibition, with retro video games visible in cabinets behind.
The entrance.
A large info board in red with white grid lines, above give display cabinets showing items from the 70s, including converse trainers, a telephone and an etch-a-sketch.
Introductory panel and paraphernalia from the 70s.

There are some explanatory panels giving context, and some basic info about the consoles and games on show, but really this is all about playing. I think even if you came here to learn, you’d probably pick up more by actually trying out the games, but I doubt many people come in without some interest in playing games. I headed straight for Asteroids, paused briefly by Pong and then tried Sentinel for the first time.

Two cabinets hold an Atari Jaguar and Nintendo 64 console for play. Mario Kart and Sentinel are loaded and ready. Above are a Gamecube and older Atari on display only.
Atari and Nintendo.
Two cabinets hold old consoles with controllers attached for play. Sony Playstation and Sega Dreamcast, with older consoles above, display only.
Sega and Sony.

Some of the older exhibits are only for display, or are playable but fallible. I found the Puck Monster console, below, hugely exciting to get my hands on, as I had one a long time ago, but the joystick only sporadically moving left meant that playing it was not as much fun as looking at it. I wonder how many of these older exhibits were in full working order at the beginning of the exhibition, and how many stopped being fully operational a long time ago. At any rate, it’s a full-time job for someone, going round and re-connecting controllers and so on, particularly on the more temperamental of the modern pieces of kit; there was a Wii-U simulation that is used to give surgeons experience of laparoscopy, which is amazing, but the controllers are fragile. Fine if you’re showing surgeons how to be careful, maybe less so with others wandering around and trying it for fun.

Puck Monster hand held console from the 80s (?) - it's big, but can be held in two hands. A version of pac man, powered by batteries or a DC adaptor, with two game modes.
Puck Monster – Pac Man? Never heard of him.
More portable game consoles and units, for play, mostly retro, but including a Nintendo DS with a recent Pokemon.
Portable games for play.

A little knowledge is useful as you wander round, particularly at quiet times. Obviously if you’ve played a game before then you might know what you’re doing, but it’s also handy to know that if an Xbox says it’s lost contact with the controller, then you press and hold the round X button to reconnect, or on a Wii, press a button.

Three games next to one another, playable by single players. Splatoon, Super Monkeyball and Vib Ribbon.
Splatoon (2015), Super Monkeyball (2001), Vib Ribbon (2000)

I tried all sorts of games, but had the most fun with the ones I didn’t know well but that were easy to pick up. A modern “stroll about and solve puzzles” game held me for the longest, as what I should do wasn’t clear, but revealed itself with just a few moments exploration. Other games, particularly fighting games, have never been my strongpoint, and even when I realised that there was a list of which buttons did what (often at waist height – or small child height, perhaps) I didn’t get much further.

Portable Games section divided by a screen. Playable Rockband is on a console to one side.
Portable Games section.

The two floors are split into 16 sections, though they flow into each other naturally. The first floor – head downstairs once in the front door – starts with the old and heads through classics into multiplayer, while upstairs shows the portable systems, simulation and independent games but still ends with older arcade cabinets. They’ve done a good, and smart, job in making multiplayer games available periodically, not all in one place, and the same is true of most other things – you don’t go past the entrance and then run out of original classics, for instance, and I ended my visit with games of Track and Field and Pac-Man. So much is possible with emulation now that some of these games may not be running on original hardware – I couldn’t work out whether the fact that the bottom lines of Track and Field’s display had slipped out of view were because of a screen positioned wrongly, or an emulator with different aspect ration. But it didn’t matter to me – the fun is in the playing, and for me, in rediscovering old favourite controllers. There were a few ‘clicky’ microswitched joysticks to use with the Commodore 64, a variety of fighting sticks (which were my favourite for everything, but designed particularly for fighting games) and a simple joy in bashing buttons to get my athlete running faster in Track and Field.

Large red display board about connected gamers, with items from that era in display cabinets below, such as a Furby, mobile phones and trading cards.
2001 Connected Gamers

It’s a great and well-designed exhibition. It misses out all sorts of things – I’d have liked to see an Amiga and Spectrum, for instance – but that’s to be expected and besides, the joy is in the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, rather than in seeing a whole load of things that you already know all about. Highly recommended, and even better if you can take a friend to enjoy the multiplayer games. My one recommendation is that you allow time to eat beforehand, as several hours in the exhibition on one banana left me pretty tired when I left.

I expect you’ll see that quote on a poster some time soon.

Skara Brae Neolithic Settlement, Orkney

Orkney countryside.

After a weekend of windy weather, Monday was sunny and relatively still. The ideal day for a walk through the island.

A bunker by the roadside on a quiet road.
Skara Brae is just the other side of this loch – the visible building is Skaill House.
A highland cow looking monolithic in greeting.

Orkneys buses cover much of the island, but for places that aren’t ferry ports, are only intermittent. It’s possible to get a bus to Skara Brae, but direct ones from Stromness go rarely enough that it seemed easier to walk – it’s 7 or 8 miles, depending where in Stromness you start from. I booked my ticket ahead of time to make sure the fairly tight capacity limits weren’t reached by the time I got there, though on an October Monday that wasn’t really an issue. It’s £9 for adults, or £4.50 if, like me, you are in the first year of an English Heritage membership (if you’re a renewed member, it’s free).

Orkney has plenty of Neolithic sites, and Skara Brae may be the highlight; a settlement of ten houses. It was discovered by chance in 1850, when a severe storm took the earth from a large knoll, to show the outline of the village. It was partly excavated, then abandoned before it was returned to in order to protect it from the sea and people raiding for artefacts. Now, there’s a museum, the site itself (and a display room next to it, currently closed) and Skaill House.

The museum is in the visitor centre, and just has a few rooms to introduce the site. The artefacts found, at least those of whalebone, are in incredible condition, given the settlement was occupied between approx 3200 and 2200BC.

Just outside the centre is a re-creation of the best-preserved house, to give an idea of how each would have looked when intact. They were all built to the same template, so if you’ve seen this one, you’ve seen them all.

Re-created house at Skara Brae. By the wall is a dresser on the right, box bed in the middle.

From there it’s a short walk to the site. Beside it are dated blocks to give you an idea of just how far back in time you are going – beyond the Romans, past the construction of the pyramids, to this collection of houses.

It’s a place to wonder at, rather than spend ages. It isn’t a large site, but on a good day it’s astonishing enough to just stand and stare, imagining a bustling community living here.

Undulating Skara Brae.
Houses linked by passageways.
A house, with dresser and remains of bed and fireplace.

From the site itself, another short walk takes you to Skaill House, for a chance to see how rich people lived not very long ago.

Skaill House.

The house has been there, gradually expanded, since 1620. It strikes a slightly discordant note with the ancient marvel that is the settlement, but it’s presented nicely and, I suppose, does the job of returning you to more recent times. There is some personal history of the owners, which I found mostly uninteresting – great for them, of course, but not for me – other than that of the last person to live there full-time, who retreated to mostly live in one room as the house grew mouldy around her. She died in 1991 and left it to Malcolm Macrae, who had it restored so as to be on display, host weddings and hold a couple of rental flats for holiday-makers.

I was lucky enough to be just behind a charming double-act, who entered each room with “nice room”, and then gave the call-back “lovely room!” As we finished and headed for the gift shop, he agreed that yes, he would like ice-cream. “Vanilla?” “Yes, of course”. Quite. I had the chocolate, which was excellent.

Display on the discovery of Skara Brae in Skaill House.

Visible from the site, and a short walk down the road (or through a metal gate on the left of the site – I snuck back in this way, ticket to hand in case I was challenged) is a great beach. On a sunny day like today, it is a great place for lunch, and not itself a long walk even if you walk the whole length.

Just above the wall, a rabbit – standing still and hoping I’ll go away.
Panoramic view of the Bay of Skaill.

The way back was harder than the way there – purely because I got more tired, and walking along the side of the road needed a little bit of attention, which was ebbing. I also chose not to take the slightly shorter route, down Hillside Road, as it was slippery and uphill on the way there, and I didn’t fancy sliding down it on the way back. That left me on the main road: the roads aren’t busy, the walk is fine, but after a couple of hours of checking behind me every time a car came towards me, in case a car coming the other way meant I needed to move off the road, I was tired. If you can get the bus one way, I would recommend it.

The only rain of the day came in horizontally for a brief period, being replaced by more sunshine and a rainbow, which topped off a glorious day.

Rainbow under changing skies.
The route undulates to reveal different views. Here, the Loch of Stenness.
Curious cows, suggesting they don’t get many visitors.

Orkney Wireless Museum

Next to the ferry terminals, on Junction Road, is a small museum of radio and its use in the war. When I went, it was offering free entry, though they seemed uncertain whether that would continue – some summers, the entry fee provides enough income to cover the insurance on what is low-cost volunteer effort.

Radios and valves.

The space is crammed with radios and related paraphernalia. Components, posters, even an empty old display unit for batteries. They must have done a roaring trade back in the day.

Cinema advertising.

There’s an obvious route through, past the radio section and into the war one, though you get a quick view of everything from the door – it’s that diddy. Captions are plentiful and I thought the whole thing charming, though the attendant was quick to add that many people found it chaotic. Charming and chaotic, perhaps.

Valve porn
Old radios

I know next to nothing about radios, am not especially interested and entered in slight trepidation that I might be assumed to be a ham-nut and subjected to more detail than I could cope with. But that was not the tone at all – enter and enjoy it in whatever capacity you can. For me, those old radios, with intricate wooden cases, were a highlight, as was the spy radio from the war (though you’d think I’d have taken a photo of the latter, and I did not).

WW2 mobile radio.
WW2 radio stuff

It’s a lovely museum, a short walk from the centre of Kirkwall and cheap to boot.

Belsay Hall (with Castle and Gardens) and Prudhoe Castle

Based in Whitley Bay for a night, before returning to Hadrian’s Wall (which for location purposes means the relatively well-preserved section in the middle of the country), I visited a couple of local-ish English Heritage sites.

Belsay Hall, from the front – the Greek effect is deliberate, and continuous.

Covid restrictions mean that some of the inside areas are out of bounds, though this is a site in flux in any case. The covenant that passed the property to English Heritage stipulated no attempt to recreate rooms, but just allow the space to tell the story. It’s an approach that fits with English Heritage’s approach – there is quite a difference in feel between the well preserved but rather static Roman sites at Corbridge and Chesters and the still-excavated Vindolanda – and leaves the Hall stark, but beautiful. Also, in 2020 they are in year 2 of a 5-year project to restore the gardens and add more explanatory text to rooms, so there are several reasons for the place being light on text: you aren’t allowed everywhere, not all rooms are finished, and the place is being actively restored.

That still leaves dramatic buildings, and beautiful gardens. There are sculpted gardens near the house, being restored on a long-term plan, and slightly wilder, big on trees and rocks (think small cliffs, rather than a rock garden – this is the ‘quarry garden’), areas further on. There is a one-way system in place which works well. One family ahead of me came the wrong way, to a loud, questioning “I didn’t think that was the exit?” from the young girl who was part of the group, going the right way, ahead of me. They stopped to satisfy her curiosity, and therefore got to see whatever amusing lapse of judgement caused the crash of metal poles by the infringing family.

But little real harm done. With the current one-way system, you can see the house at the beginning or end of your visit, and I went straight in. It doesn’t take long, unless you’re really using your imagination, to wander through the ground floor and cellars. It is some house, with a view over the estate, with sheep still nibbling in fields that are out of bounds.

After your first walk through the gardens, you come to the 14th-century castle. It was a castle for a while, then converted to a grand house from 1614, before that, too, was not enough for Charles Monck, who had the large Hall built between 1810 and 1817. The castle is grand but for now is an easy visit, with more interpretation to be added, and only the ground floor open.

Most people, it seems, come to this popular site for the gardens, and you are taken back into them by the route once you leave the castle. There is room for kids to explore, and gnomes tucked away for them to find, if they need extra distraction.

I was in sight (through a gateway) of returning to the hall when I wandered down a side-path out of curiosity. I was glad I had, as it takes visitors to Crag Wood walk. Don’t be put off by the sign by the lake that warns that the full walk may take up to two hours – it certainly could, but only if you move gently, and stop at every bench. Treating it as a slightly more rigorous bit of exercise than wandering in the gardens, and not stopping, I did the ‘long walk’ (there’s a cut-off to the short one, half the distance at most) in about 15 minutes. It is under a mile, and even the warning that it is strenuous refers only to a long gentle climb and descent, rather than any dramatic scrambling. The view of the house from the path that takes you to the walk is its most-photographed, through lush and beautiful rhododendrons. Or so I read – it being October, it was a grand view, but shorn of flowers.

From there I headed South to Prudhoe Castle, in a dominant position to guard a crossing over the River Tyne. Getting to the castle is straightforward, but you have the chance to cross the Ovingham bridge, which is single-carriageway. It’s worth a look at the photo here on geographic.org.uk. There are some wider sections, though I wouldn’t have fancied pulling over and waiting for someone to do the same, so was glad to read on wikipedia that that isn’t generally the way it is done – people wait at either end, using “unwritten rules that usually function well”. It could never work in the South, where attempting to dominate is ingrained in people’s sense of entitlement.

There’s just a small car park for the castle, suggesting visitor numbers are fairly low, even without the booking and limited numbers required by a pandemic. There is an exhibition in the house inside the walls, though currently only the ground floor is open. That is enough to give context: most significantly, though it defied most invaders, this is the only Northumberland castle to resist the Scots. It has long been ruined (reported as such in 1776), but in a scenic, admired, fashion, rather than a sad one.

A marathon race. Most appear to be cheating.

The explanatory panels talk you through the history, from the Norman motte and bailey castle of the 12th century, through fighting for the crown and then, thanks to Henry Percy, against it in 1403. You can see evidence of the curtain wall sagging where it was built over the wooden fort (which then rotted under the ground) and of different buildings in the courtyard. For a while there were lavish gardens, later excavated such that they now show the medieval foundations. The exhibition has some great photos from the non-war residential years – a conservatory looks scenic, if odd, sticking out from a castle.

There is also a nice circular walk around the outside of the castle, which allows you to clamber down to the ruined mill house if you fancy. And I did. In fact, I did the circular walk twice. Although the entrance is very clearly up the cobbled path through the gatehouse, I spotted a “way in” sign on the door to my left as I walked up, and thought it might be some interesting route for one-way purposes. As indeed it is, but only so that the walk is one-way, not as a way into the castle. I realised my mistake as I wandered round the back of the castle, now several metres above me, but it wasn’t all that far to walk round. And no one saw, so it didn’t really happen.

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht

Bonnefantenmuseum, a brick edifice
Bonnefantenmuseum.

The Bonnefantenmuseum is on Avenue Ceramique, near the John F Kennedybrug (bridge). They have a permanent collection of Old Masters, with modern exhibits changing periodically. For me, these comprised The Absence of Mark Manders, Jan Hendrix: Terra Firme and a couple of pieces by Grayson Perry in the main entrance (though these may be more permanent). One gallery – to show Scenes from the Anthropocene, very soon – was closed, though I still easily passed a couple of hours there.

Entry is 14 Euros for adults, or 16 if you offer to pay the suggested extra donation. There are two, large, floors to look round, and a smaller third. I headed straight for The Old Masters on the first floor, in that that’s where I found myself after walking up stairs.

Denijs Van Afsloot, Winter Landscape with Skaters
Denijs Van Afsloot, Winter Landscape with Skaters, 1615-1620.

It was initially a surprise, given that it is now 2020, to spot the plaques under several artworks, to the effect that they were stolen during the Second World War, and haven’t yet been reunited with owners, or their heirs.

Plaque under some pictures: After the Second World War, this art object has been reclaimed from Germany and is currently under the governance of the State of the Netherlands, and is pending for restitution to the rightful owners of their heirs.
Reclaimed from Germany.

The paintings are varied and beautiful. Some of the faces seemed a little odd to me, though.

I headed up the stairs to check that Mark Manders was not there, and found it as advertised. His work is designed as a self-portrait, in building form. I’m not well enough educated to have followed it, but I found it interesting, as it spread from large to small exhibits, with the repeating motif of a head with a block vertically shoved in it.

The museum encourage new artists, as evidenced by this installation, also on the second floor. It isn’t as effective without the noises.

Jan Hendrix is, like Mark Manders, a Dutch Artist. He has lived in Mexico since 1978, with his work shown here, focussing on the country’s fauna. The large tapestries were rich and it was tricky to resist the temptation to touch them (though I managed it).

Black and white tapestry, of plants growing
Jan Hendrix, Tapestry.

Artwork on the walls and in display cabinets
One room of the Hendrix exhibition. It includes some of his collaboration with Seamus Heaney.

Hendrix is friends with Seamus Heaney, and they have collaborated on some lavish-looking books, with the artwork supporting poetry and displayed here.

Finally in the museum, I wandered into Stanley Donwood’s The Optical Glade, and happily took advantage of the beanbags on the floor, which gave me a view of the roof. A group of children changed the atmosphere, from quiet and reflective to boisterous and lively, as they came in and did the same. The blurb informs you that the soundtrack was created by Thom Yorke, from sounds recorded in a forest. It’s very peaceful, and slightly trippy.

Black and white lines meet in the ceiling
Ceiling of The Optical Glade.

I enjoyed my visit, and recommend the museum thoroughly. If all the galleries are open, it might take another hour, but it isn’t totally exhausting to walk through it all, though I’m sure it would reward repeated visits.

On a sunny day, the river looked beautiful, and the streets of Maastricht were winding and welcoming.

Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Christchurch

Near my accomodation in Christchurch, albeit 8km from the centre of Christchurch itself, is the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. As at April 2018, it is a work in progress, expanding, but there is still plenty to see. The history is interesting, and the numbers of pilots and others from New Zealand involved in the World Wars is salutary – giving the lie to the idea of plucky Britain standing alone. The museum does a great job in livening things with the stories of individuals, though there are facts and figures as well. Those from combat operations are poignant in themselves, and also because those squadrons are now retired; most with the end of WW2, but some more recently, when New Zealand removed its combat capability.

A gallery of some of the sights to see is below.

Snowy DC

Snowy DC
Washington, District of Columbia

Washington, District of Columbia

We opened the curtains and could see very little. Snow. Light snow, but plenty of it, if that makes sense – it was never going to form huge drifts, but fell consistently till mid afternoon, chopping any vantage point’s view to four blocks, as I discovered when I went up the old post office tower. I felt lucky that I’d wandered the mall the previous day – it was cold both days, but the day before had bright sunshine.

Capitol in the snow
Capitol in the snow.

I still covered some of the same ground; the mall is stunning in more or less any weather conditions. I was making my way to the museums when I spotted the Old Post Office, a rare bit of architectural variety in D.C. It was due to be knocked down, since it wasn’t in common with the new wave of buildings going up in the neoclassical style, but popular pressure saved it, and now tours are offered a few times a day-you can go up the tower yourself any time. I found an entrance and followed confusing directions from security-quick scan of the bag by three underworked guards-to get through the complex. It is a huge place, with only the tower, at one corner, open. Signs announce that the shops and restaurants are closed, which is a little disingenuous, these places haven’t seen action in a while. At some point they’ve tried to turn the ground floor into a destination, with the tower a bonus, but it hasn’t worked. The layout probably doesn’t help, with only the ground floor covering the whole surface area, all the other floors look out over that area from balconies, a huge void in the middle. Whatever has passed, this place may need saving again, particularly as guards for the various entrances outnumbered those actually going up the tower. The exhibits on the history are a little tired, but then there’s no money coming in from free tours. The view would be grand on a good day; I could see four blocks or so, ducking the icy snow blasts on two sides where the tower is open before deciding enough was enough.

Old post office building
Old post office building.

I headed to the museums, covering ground in the American (full) and Natural history (likewise) museums before trying the American Indian. I liked the transportation exhibits in the first, the rocks and gems in the second and the building of the third. The latter has a lot of empty space – the exhibition rooms are varying sizes, and I’m not sure there are any permanent exhibits, just a moveable feast, perhaps because other cities have American Indian museums with the artefact angle covered, but it does make for a huge foyer area that is just a meeting place.

Old statues
Old statues.

After the museums I got out of the cold, though not before spotting a police/FBI car. Is that not just a car with an identity crisis? It was movie night at the hostel, and though that seemed to involve just watching the comedy channel it passed the time. As people disappeared from the too-small living room, I gradually upgraded from hard chair through edge of sofa to proper seat. Good for my sense of progress.

The Rugby Museum

The Rugby Museum
Palmerston North, New Zealand

Palmerston North, New Zealand

John Cleese thought so little of Palmerston North that he suggested in 2005 “If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick.”. The theatre was apparently also a “nasty shape” – looked like one of his ex wives, presumably. The city responded by naming a rubbish dump after him.

Tall statue, made of wood, in the museum
Maori exhibit.

I think on balance I’m on Cleese’s side. The place seemed bright enough in the sun that lasted long enough for me to walk from the bus to the hostel on Sunday, and long enough to convince me the weather was better here, 2 hours North of Wellington, than it had been in the drizzly capital. But the drizzle caught up with me, and without sunshine there isn’t much going on. Plenty of artsy places, cafes and educational establishments, but also plenty of concrete blocks, empty lots and unlovely gaps in between them that make it hard to find where the life is after hours. I suspect it just isn’t there.

A black & white NZ team photo
Rugby Museum.

That said, there is plenty of great scenery in the vicinity. Massey University is a long walk out of town, over the river, and set it glorious grounds which seemed to befit an agricultural university. Though agriculture is about growing and rearing things rather than fabulous parks but, you know, poetic licence. On Sunday evening I walked down Fitzherbert Street, passing motel after motel, so many that it seemed the town would never be short of a room to stay in even if every occupant had a guest to put up. Over the river and a hill loomed in front of me; from the map, the university was either up there or behind it, but I was cut off from it by a main road and fencing. To the right, cows of several varieties looked curiously as I passed – part of the university dairy. After another kilometre or so, though, a path to a park opened up on the left, and suddenly the view was all rainforest rather than roads and potential green pathways. Pausing to allow the two girls walking up ahead to get out of the ‘I’m stalking you’ box I had virtually lit up ahead of me, I realised I was on the Te Araroa route, not for the first time. Known as ‘The Long Pathway’, it stretches all the way from Cape Reinga on the Northern tip of the North Island to Bluff in the South.

Comparison of old and new All Black kits.
1905 vs modern All Black.

At least I’ve walked parts of it. I stumbled upon the university and found it deserted. Exploring the centre, with its institutional buildings and tiny lake, I didn’t see another living soul, and only found anyone around when I passed the sports centre on the outskirts. No one was using the rugby pitches, but inside they were playing table tennis. Convinced that I might like to work here, dealing with students who had chosen between this or England’s Canterbury as the most boring places for 18 year olds, I wandered past the equestrian centre – curious horses, no people – to the Manawatu community athletics track. It was deserted, but with decent facilities, space for javelin, hammer, discus, shot and some sign that those areas were used, if only for the varying events covered in three Pentathlon events the Harriers club runs. Changing rooms are round the back of a large structure, which has large garage doors opening on to the track. Room for an awful lot of equipment in there.

I decided not to retrace my steps as I was now much nearer the South exit than the North where I had come in, and headed towards the main road. A little time walking on the verge was rewarded by finding the Turitea walkway, beautifully maintained even if a stretching-then-driving-off jogger was the only sign of it being used on a quiet Sunday. The path skirting the university is undulating and picturesque, particularly on this day at sunset, with dramatic colours appearing over the trees. Fantastic. I turned back onto the main road when the sun had died off enough to make it a bit dark in a part of the walkway with tree cover and was back in town too late to use the hostel kitchen, stopping instead at the Burger King I had really wanted all day.

The hostel owner had recommended a walk along the river, so I had that saved for the Monday. In the event the day was drizzly, so I passed the morning in the library. It’s an interesting building, built into an old department store, and with creative use of the space; a large open area right at the bottom holds chairs and a piano, upstairs has reception, the internet cafe and newspapers and then books are upstairs on a pleasingly crowded room, while the central area is left open above escalators and stairs, reminding me of the void in the middle of the Edward Boyle at Leeds, if less rectangular. I had thought it brightened up, but I emerged to rain and hit the Rugby museum, which is one of several museum sections within the Te Manawa museum complex. The rugby part is just a large room, really, but the guide was incredibly welcoming (“Nice to see you”, as if I were an old friend) and the exhibits laid out with love and care, if not always perfect English. All Black successes are venerated, the world cups they didn’t win not given quite so much importance, though one cabinet does have in black and white that they played like champions after their first Cup win (1991) …until the next World Cup.

Worth a visit if you’re a fan. With drizzle continuing, I opted to run out West of the city, gradually working my way towards the river, through the suburbs. I figured I was lost at one point but then came across the racecourse, which is a few miles out. Looping it, I found no river access until I’d come back towards the city, but the start of the Manawatu river navigation is almost in line with the city-side edge of the racecourse so I hadn’t missed anything and ended up with nearly 22km run. Perfect to ensure my calf was tight and painful for a physio appointment the next day.

Reading: Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down

Wellington whistlestop

Wellington whistlestop
Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand

Mark turned his weekend upside down to show me Wellington. He had already put me up in a luxurious suite – they often have home stay students so are used to having people to stay, and have space, but normally they pay their way – and now I rode along on Saturday afternoon on a family journey to the New Zealand Museum, known as Te Papa.

Me, posing in front of much larger troll (fibreglass)
Weta caves. A treasure trove of memorabilia.

But on the way Mark realised that I wouldn’t have made it to the Weta Caves, which is where they do the special effects, model making and CGI for Lord of the Rings, among others. New Zealand’s Pixar, perhaps. We went there first. There are three huge models of Cave Trolls outside, and inside is a treasure trove of suits of armour, props from District 9, an Uruk Hai and weapons, the latter festooning the ceiling. We watched the 25 minute video, the secret diary of the founder aged 13 3/4 to now – he’s lucky being a geek is cool enough that he’s allowed that much air time, though it is his film. It’s actually a behind the scenes look at what Weta do, part celebration, part puff piece, but what they do is so entertaining that that’s worth watching.

Weta Caves, with a large Uruk Hai model
Scary, close up.

One of the final pieces shown in the video is a huge Gollum statue. Mark realised as we drove away that I wasn’t flying out from Wellington airport – and that’s where the statue is. So he took us there. I’m learning about how to be a good host as I go, here. The kids were very keen to tell me about the recent earthquake. There are two eagles suspended from the roof of the airport, as is Gollum. There is now only one, and both that and Gollum have some ugly blue suspension cables as well as cables of a different colour, suggesting the blue have been added since the quake. Very cool to see them-the statues. We probably have our own suspension cables in the UK, and I wouldn’t travel specially.

Gollum's head hangs from the ceiling at Wellington Airport
Wellington Airport.

Finally, I and the younger kids made it to Te Papa. It’s a huge museum, spread over four floors, and best seen in smallish doses so as to take more in. With little ones running round, and more limited time thanks to the tourist trail, we headed straight for the Waitangi treaty exhibit. “Woah! Why are these stakes here?” said Michael, 7. “To keep people like you, out!” joked the tour guide we had just passed. There is a new design of a Maori meeting hut which is stunning, with seats arranged outside – it looked like a wedding venue, though that may be sacrilegious. We lost the kids, accidentally I think, and sat in a New Zealand Glory Years video, which I loved – I’m much more interested in the recent past (1950s onwards) of a new country than the slightly older troubled colonial founding, or the native genesis stories. From there we headed to the ground floor, and the earthquake house. They’d all been through “quite a big shake” recently, but I hadn’t – Jessie (10) helpfully guided me to the screen that was active as the mock up house shook and the news reports played. Michael (7) was worried that I’d find it scary, but I coped – still, it was a bit more dramatic than the ‘someone is messing about on the bunk beneath me!’ feeling I had had when experiencing an earthquake in Japan.

Te Papa Museum
Te Papa Museum.

Later that evening we had family night. This is a Sunday night date, but had been moved to Saturday – as I say, turned life upside down. So both sets of in laws were there, along with Mark’s brother and one sister. I’d met the other the night before at a barbecue – they all live near enough to just pop in; the house is a lovely bustle of activity. Marks’ brother had just completed his sixth different New Zealand parkrun, so becoming the second person to get there before me – I’ve met them both. Now I’m only two from the full set myself, I’ll be looking next week to see who else gets there before me, and who might join me on six in two Saturdays time.

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