The Pacific coast of Alaska, from the Canadian border to the
Aleutian Islands, is served by the boats of the Alaska Marine Highway, a state-owned
ferry company. We took two journeys on the
AMH. The first was from Prince Rupert to
Juneau, the Alaskan capital, on a journey that lasted, for us, from a Friday to
Sunday. The second was a one day trip
from Juneau northwards to Skagway and the start of the Yukon Trail.
At the Prince Rupert ferry terminal most of the passengers had cars and RVs. They had their
own boarding facilities. For the small
handful of foot passengers, there was a separate boarding hall with its own
immigration/customs room. All would have
been easy except that a bus load of pensioners from the Mid-West arrived
complete with walking frames and infirmities.
Our peaceful haven became a noisy and chaotic scene. For the most part, they were cheerful but loud and a significant number looked as though they really weren’t enjoying
themselves. And once I discovered that
they were travelling by coach and boat from Minneapolis in the US Mid-West to
Fairbanks in the far north of Alaska and then turning round to get back to
Minneapolis by an inland route, their pain was understandable. I love travel
but that sounded too much like a route march to be much fun.
The ferry was the M/V Matanuska, a boat built in Seattle and now registered in
Haines, Alaska. She is more than 50 years old having been
launched in 1963. In 1978 she was
acquired by the Government of Alaska to serve the route from Seattle to Juneau but now dedicated to the routes north from Prince Rupert. All in all, she is wearing very well. There are plenty of lounges spread over two
decks and a cafeteria with a full range of meals and snacks. The only thing missing is a bar. By a fairly recent order of the State
government, this is now a dry ship. By a
lucky premonition (or good forward planning) we had bought a couple of bottles
of wine in Prince Rupert for our cabin.
Speaking to one of the crew he said that the ship used to have a bar –
and there are signs that would indicate this – but the Government in their
wisdom decided to remove them. I wonder
it dates from the days when Sarah Palin was Governor. She had some very strange ideas.
Once we had calmed down a little from the “dry ship”
revelation, we joined the queue for dinner in the cafeteria. It seemed as though most of our fellow passengers
had the same idea. The line was very
good humoured and gradually we got to the point where the choices could be
identified. And there was plenty of
choice. We both chose ham hock and beans
with corn bread washed down with “vintage” water.
The portion sizes were generous with almost too much ham.
For the first hour or so of the journey there was nothing
much to see. To one side was the
mainland of Canada in the distance and to the other the wide Pacific Ocean and
a few small islands. It was not long
before an announcement over the ship’s tannoy told us we were about to cross
the Canada/US border in Chatham Sound.
With the wonders of GPS and modern technology, our phone and PC clocks
changed to Alaska time, one hour behind BC, so we gained that hour.
After dinner, we went back to our cabin to break open the
wine. Glug glug. The cabin is a generous size for a ship with
enough room to swing the proverbial cat.
There was a big square window giving a good view and three single beds
with two bunk-style and the other free-standing. There was also an en suite bathroom with
sink, toilet and shower. The final touch
was a desk with power-points. What more
could you want? Apart from a well-stocked bar.
Then it was time to get back on deck and enjoy the
sunset. By now we were sailing into a
gradually narrowing sea channel. To the
west were relatively low islands with small hills that helped to enhance the
colour effects of the setting sun. Once
the sun was gone, it got dark quite quickly.
We decided to go to bed, it had been a tiring day with packing, hefting
bags and coping with the Mid-West bus party who managed to be everywhere on the
boat bringing their noise with them.
Some time after midnight, I was woken by some noises which
turned out to be the sound of the boat docking at the town of Ketchican. This is a big town with an interesting
history. It has constantly re-invented
itself as different groups of immigrants have moved in and the local industries
have changed. One of the bigger changes
happened in the 1880’s with the arrival of Norwegian fishermen. They increased the intensity of fishing which
then needed many seasonal workers to process and can the fish. These workers came from the Far East, especially
from the Philippines and Japan. The
Norwegians also brought missionaries who proceeded to start schools for their
own people and for the First Nations native peoples. This lead to all kinds of tensions and the inevitable gradual westernisation of the indigenous people. Over the years industry has changed as the
fishing stocks were over exploited leading to shortages. At the same time, the processing of
timber moved to other parts of the region and to other countries. Today Ketchican has adopted more specialised
trades, especially wood carving. It has also learnt to exploit the opportunities of tourism and is thriving again.
I tell all this story as, although very little of the
current town could be seen in the semi-dark, it is indicative of the
development of South East Alaska. The
towns we would stop at on this ferry voyage all have similar histories. They were also important towns during the
Klondike Gold Rush. They provided
resting places during the long voyages and also helped with the provision of
Around six in the morning I woke again and looking out the
window saw the sister ship of the Matanuska passing about one mile away,
heading south. Then around 8am the boat
arrived at the township of Wrangell.
Apart from the setting down and loading of passengers and vehicles, the
stop had another important function.
About twenty passengers were seen walking up the ramp with their
dogs. It was time for walkies.
Shortly after setting sail again, the boat turned into the
Wrangell Narrows. For an hour or more
the boat was confined to a narrow channel well marked with green and red
buoys. A watchman stood in the bow
throughout this stretch. The shore line
was close on both sides with many holiday homes. Only a few were obviously occupied but next
month being the peak holiday month could see many more in use.
At the head of the narrows is the town of Petersburg, an
old Norwegian settlement. This seemed to
be a prosperous community with many fishing boats and a fishing support
infrastructure. There were more cars and
trucks than we had seen for a while indicating that this island, Mitkof Island, must have a
reasonable road network.
During the day, we noticed an increasing number of
passengers walking circuits round the main deck. When you are going to be on a boat for the
best part of 48 hours, exercise is important.
We joined in and continued to do five or ten circuits at intervals
throughout the day. Very
The day had been overcast with occasional
showers. It had also been a bit windy
and cold on deck. Sunset effectively
didn’t happen, just some yellowness to the clouds to the northwest around
10pm. Before turning in for the night we
did a final couple of turns round the deck.
I decided to try the GPS mapping function on my phone. It worked and we could see exactly where the
boat was and its course for the next few hours. We were travelling the length
of the winding Peril Strait. Not exactly
the stuff of sweet dreams.
Around 2am we were woken by the noises of the boat arriving
at Sitka. Sitka was the capital city of
Alaska from 1884 until 1906. As mentioned earlier, it sits on the outer edge of the coastal island chain facing out to the wide Pacific Ocean and is described as a very attractive town with beautiful countryside. But, in the
early hours of the morning, there was not a lot to be seen. In the boom times of the late 1800’s when
gold was discovered on the mainland of Alaska and in the Yukon, the city of
Juneau was established and became the commercial centre. In 1906 the US Senate decreed that the capital
be moved there. And it has remained that
way ever since.
By morning the boat had left Sitka and had sailed back along
the Peril Strait. When we got back on
deck the boat was almost at exactly the same point that it had been when we
went to bed but travelling in the opposite direction. To reach Sitka had entailed a long
diversion. When asked about the route followed by the ferry,
the purser explained that it depended on the tides. The timetable was just a best guess and could
not be relied upon.
The weather was a bit miserable with squally showers and
grey skies. We passed a lot of fishing
boats taking advantage of the dullness.
The channel we passed through for almost all the morning was the Chatham
Strait. It was rather wide, maybe 5
miles across, so we didn’t see much detail of the shorelines. The mountains, when they emerged from the
clouds, were heavily covered with snow above about 2,000 feet. It was strange
to think that they had seldom if ever been climbed.
And then the boat started to make a wide sweep to starboard
– the right (we were getting very used to the nautical language after so much
time on the ferry system). Although we
couldn’t see Juneau yet, we were clearly getting close. Wow, wow, wow. One after the other, gigantic humpbacks
appeared above the waves, then rose further out of the water and with a flip of
the tail disappeared into the depths. As
we watched from our grandstand seats on the Matanuska, tourist whale watching
boats came racing across the waves hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. A man on the boat told us the local name for
this bit of water was humpback alley. It
lived up to its name today. Weren’t we
The last few miles into
the Auke Bay terminal were a bit tame after all that excitement. Not
having done enough research, it quickly became obvious that Auke Bay was not a
suburb of the City of Juneau in any practical sense. It was nearly 20
miles from Downtown. There was no bus service so it would have to be a
taxi. It was at this point that we met Helen, an English girl who had been on the same ferry and was in
the same predicament. After about 15 minutes a free taxi appeared and we
shared the $35 ride into town.
After a few nights in Juneau spending a day at the Mendenhall
Glacier and another on Mount Roberts, it was time to catch our next ferry
northwards. This was to take us to Skagway and the start of the Yukon
Trail. Juneau is a small place and we bumped into Helen several
times. She was catching the same ferry so we arranged to share a taxi
once again to Auke Bay. When we arrived at the terminal, there
waiting for us, was the Matanuska, having made a direct return sailing back to
The route to Skagway followed a long, ever narrowing water
channel. In Norway this would be called a fjord. At its widest, not long
after we left Auke Bay, the boat entered Stephens Passage which is maybe 10
miles wide. As the two shorelines grow ever nearer, It narrows down to 5 or 6 miles and becomes the 90
mile stretch known as the Lynn Canal where the water is over 2000 feet
deep. It is the deepest fjord in North America and ranks amongst the
longest and deepest in the world. It is followed to the north by Chilkoot Inlet which
leads to the port of Haines and finally it becomes the Taiya Inlet by which
time it is only a few hundred yards wide. The whole journey, including a
stop at Haines, took about 8 hours.
Whilst in Juneau we had visited the City Museum. One section was
devoted to a tragic shipwreck of 1918 in the Lynn Canal. The SS Princess
Sofia, a steel-built passenger liner in the coastal service fleet of
the Canadian Pacific Railway, went aground on the Vanderbilt Reef in a snow
storm. The reef is actually the summit of an underwater mountain. Despite some desperate efforts to rescue the 343 passengers and
crew, the weather made all attempts impossible. Nor could the Princess
Sofia launch her own lifeboats as the wind and the reef would have destroyed
them when they entered the water. After some 40 hours enduring the
atrocious weather, the boat eventually was blown off the reef and sank.
It was the worst maritime disaster in British Columbia and Alaska. We
counted ourselves lucky that today the visibility was good despite the rain and
we sailed north without incident.
Some distance to the west lies the Glacier Bay National Park with over
5,000 square miles of glaciers and high mountains reaching up to 15,000
feet. It was too far away for us to see. But we were not
disappointed as there were high mountains to both sides of the fjord and some had
there own glaciers within clear view of the Matanuska. Very
dramatic. These are places that must be rarely visited as they have no
road system, we could see no landing places for boats and little level ground
for light aircraft.
This was not a day for wildlife although we did see several groups
of the high-speed Dalls Porpoise. They are about 6 feet in length and
have distinctive black and white colouring. They move at such speed that
they produce highly visible white spray. We didn’t see any other marine
life but there were plenty of sea birds. Apart from recognising gulls and
terns my ornithological knowledge does not extend to specific species
What I did recognise on the boat, were two Jehovah’s
Witnesses. They do get everywhere. Even in this remote part of the world
with very small populations, they are still intent on their role as
missionaries. As you would see in more conventional suburban environment,
the two men were dressed in suits with white shirts whereas everyone else was
dressed in much more appropriate clothing for the weather. I wondered if
they only go about their work for a short period in the summer when the
temperatures are better for their type of clothing.
At Haines, the only stop on the journey, there was another strange incident. The first two vehicles to disembark were a government 4×4 vehicle and a large blue van of the Alaska Correctional Industries Laundry. Were there prisoners on-board? The two vehicles parked together on the pier and re-boarded the boat then it was ready to leave. I read later that the prison laundry services has the Alaska Marine Highway System as one of its largest customers.
As we approached Skagway, a gold rush town from Klondike days, we could see today’s “gold rush” in the unsightly form of three very large cruise ships. The presence of these ships is regulated in an attempt to keep under control the number of passengers descending on a small town or national park at any one time. The controls are only partially successful. Our dislike of these hordes was only slightly tempered when the conductor on our “heritage” train the next day on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad explained that the railway only existed today because of the cruise dollar. Before the cruise ships came the railway, such an important supply run of the Yukon Gold Rush days, had fallen into disrepair and disuse. The cruise ship companies provided serious money that enabled a band of enthusiastic railway buffs to rebuild the track and refurbish/replace the rolling stock.
And so our experience of coastal ferries on the Pacific came to an end. These ferries are the only way to see the stunning scenery and wildlife of this fascinating region. There are very few roads and, in any case, they do not connect to other roads. Small planes, especially those fitted with floats, can take you to see many things, some inaccessible in any other practical way, but they are expensive and a flight can be over before it has really begun. The ferries are affordable, comfortable and pass very slowly through the amazing landscapes. They also make regular stops in isolated places allowing a savvy traveller to see many parts of this great country and its ocean. You can travel at your own pace and spend as little or as much time at one place as you like. We booked most of our travel in advance but next time we go we’ll take pot luck. It will work, I’m sure.
The Pacific Coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska
is well served with ferries. It needs
to be. As well as the many island communities,
even places on the mainland have no road links with the rest of continental
North America. As a taxi driver in
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, said to us “There are three ways arrive in Juneau. By plane. By ferry. By birth canal.” In theory, you could also walk but that would
involve miles and miles of trekking over very high mountains – many over 10,000
feet (3,000 metres) – across vast glaciers and through bear country.
For the independent traveller, the ferries provide a
relatively low budget means of transport to amazing scenery. We booked most of our journeys directly with
the ferry companies through the internet from the comfort of our home. It was straightforward and proved to be trouble
free. In reality, June is not actually peak
season so we could have just turned up and would have been able to travel where
and when we wanted without pre-booked tickets.
There used to be a ferry service that ran from Washington
State in the US right up the coast serving British Columbia in Canada and
Alaska in the United States. Today, with
all the issues of security and cross-border travel, the service is totally
fragmented. We chose to fly from Seattle
to Vancouver though you can also do this journey by train, coach or ferry.
The coastal route followed by the ferries is known as the
Inside Passage. Essentially the route
takes advantage of the shelter proved by sailing between the coast and the
chain of off-shore islands. Of course,
not all of the route is protected from the Pacific. There are exposed gaps between the
islands. On one occasion, the ferry stopped
at Sitka, the former capital of Alaska and situated on the Pacific facing shore
of Baranof Island. To get there the
route left the shelter of the Inside Passage through the ominously named Peril
Strait and into the open Pacific.
In Canada, the ferries were operated by BC Ferries. They seem to have a monopoly of routes except
in the busiest area for services which is between Vancouver City and Victoria
on Vancouver Island. Our first ferry journey was from Horseshoe Bay, half an
hour’s drive northwest of Vancouver.
We took advantage of the connecting bus service from the magnificent art deco Union Station in Vancouver to the ferry terminal. The combination of the bus and the ferry should have given us a very scenic journey but it was a typical British Columbia day of rain, rain and more rain. The Queen of Cowichan was to take us to Departure Bay, Nanaimo roughly half way up
the 400 mile long Vancouver Island. The
route crosses the Strait of Georgia and takes a little under 2 hours. The boat, although 40 years old, was comfortable and had plenty of seating. It was not a day to spend much time on deck so once on the ferry, it being lunchtime, a
visit to the cafeteria seemed the best plan.
The food was excellent and the cooked-to-order sockeye salmon burgers
were generously portioned and delicious.
The ferry terminal at Departure Bay is a modern building. There was a large inside area to wait for
connecting buses. This worked well for
locals as they could watch for their bus arriving and make a dash through the,
by now, heavy rain. For us strangers it
was a little different. The buses didn’t
have signs to say where they were going so we had to dash out to each bus as it
arrived and check with the driver if it was going to Campbell River, our
destination for the night. Sods law, our
bus was the last to arrive by which time we were drenched.
We spent six nights on Vancouver Island, using buses and a
rental car to slowly make our way up to the northern end at Port Hardy, for our
next ferry journey. This time we were
going up the Inside Passage on a more modern boat, less than 10 years in service, the BC Ferries Northern Explorer. The journey took eighteen
hours to sail to Prince Rupert at the most north westerly corner of mainland
British Columbia. We boarded the ferry
just after 6am. A modest fare supplement
gave us reserved seats in the luxury of the forward observation lounge and included all
This must rank as one of the world’s most scenic scheduled
sea journeys. It was a day of mixed
weather but that didn’t detract from the beauty and magnificence of the
mountains, cliffs and islands.
The boat made one stop at the port of Bella Bella on
Campbell Island. A lot of vehicles
disembarked including cars, lorries and the ubiquitous RV’s. A few disappeared over the hill out of the
terminal, others joined queues waiting for smaller connecting ferry services
but the majority turned around and lined up ready to re-board. It looked as though not a lot of thought had
been given to boarding at Port Hardy.
This added about an hour to the journey but it did afford us with a most
magnificent experience with loads of wow factor. Suddenly, with the ferry still tied up in the harbour,
two massive humpback whales surfaced right at the front of the boat. They were just yards away but appeared
without warning so cameras were not at the ready. After breaching, with their bodies almost
completely out of the water and a final flourish of the tail, they dipped back
below the surface. They then slowly swam
out of the bay showing their route by blowing large spouts of water and
occasional flips of their tails. To see
such massive creatures at such close quarters more than made our day.
By this point on our trip, we were getting used to seeing sea
life, especially seals and porpoises, but it didn’t stop a buzz of excitement
whenever some came into view. The seals
were mostly near to the coastline. As we
moved further north, the Inside Passage narrowed to two or three hundred metres
wide, sometimes even narrower, so we saw more seals. The Dall’s Porpoises, relatives of the whale
family, regularly passed the ferry in schools of six to eight. They move very quickly, up to 40 knots, and
leave a wake behind as they race across the ocean.
Our first sighting of a bald eagle had been on an island off the east coast of Vancouver Island. It had been
fishing and was now perched near the top of a tree with its wings outspread to
dry. We were amazed to see the
emblematic bird of the United States at such close quarters. Weren’t we in luck. Actually, no.
Over the course of our time along the Pacific coast, we saw hundreds of
them. In numbers, they vied with the
big, black, noisy ravens that were everywhere in the forests. The ravens made their presence known but emitting
loud squawking noises. It’s no
co-incidence that these two large birds have such a prominent place in the art
of the First Nations people especially on totem poles.
One advantage of being in these northern latitudes in June
is the long days. Although it was nearly
midnight by the time the ferry docked in Prince Rupert, we had good views of
the mainland and the passing islands until the last hour when the sky became
heavily overcast and the rain started to fall.
After a whole day seeing only scattered, sparsely populated coastal communities,
the street lights of the city looked rather incongruous. Prince Rupert only has a population of some
12,000 but to us it seemed like a real metropolis.
It would be our home for the next three nights whilst we waited for next
ferry to take us north to Alaska.
(note : There will be one more posts in this short series covering the two ferry journeys that took us to the northern extremity of the Inside Passage. It will be published very soon.)
In mid June we made our first flight on a Boeing 787 – the Dreamliner as it is called. That name was so appropriate for the trip we were embarking upon, a “trip of a lifetime”. For us, a perfect journey includes mountainous country, dramatic seascapes and an element of remoteness. So where better
to go than to the northern Pacific coast of North America, where the mountains and glaciers meet the ocean and where Canada and Alaska are intertwined.
We’ve now been back for nearly a month and there has been time to gather together notes and start to make a coherent tale of our adventures. The whole trip had been organised from my desk at home with a little help from Flight Centre who got us a good deal on Premium flights to cross the Atlantic and for internal flights in Canada and the United States. Amazingly, everything worked to plan and we received great welcomes everywhere. One reason for this turned out to be that we were travelling independently and, as the people we met said, we had chosen to visit their countries, cities, communities and to stay at a particular B&B or use a particular bit of transport. This was in contrast to the relatively large numbers travelling in organised groups or on cruise ships who are largely insulated from the local people.
As I started to write some notes on the plane flying from London to Vancouver via Seattle, my train of thought was suddenly interrupted. Since take-off from Heathrow the flight had been entirely above a heavy cloud base. Now about 4 hours into the flight the clouds parted and Wow!!!! The mountains and glaciers of Greenland appeared, literally out of the blue. Fantastic. The sea was still completely frozen. Near to us were black, rocky mountains marking the eastern edge of the landmass. To the north was one
vast snow and ice field stretching as far as the eye could see. Somewhere up there was the North Pole. I was mesmerized by the spectacle until, a while later, we had crossed the western seaboard of this remote and almost uninhabited country and the plane moved back into the clouds.
Back to the trip. True to the title of this blog, there would be elements of trains and boats and planes.
In addition, there would be bus journeys and a few days with a rental car. The latter was to get us around an area of Vancouver Island with few buses otherwise everything was by schedules
transport. And, of course, we would be walking as much as possible although, disappointingly, we didn’t do as much as we had hoped.
Vancouver was our first stop. We were only there for two nights giving us a chance to get a feel for the city, see some of the main sights, sample the cuisine and walk the Pacific sea wall trail of Stanley Park but not to explore the place in depth. Next stop was across the Strait of Georgia by one of the regular ferry services, provided by BC Ferries, joining Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia. The island is about 350 miles from top to bottom and 60 miles across. The length is about the same distance as it is from southernmost point of the Scottish mainland near Stranraer to its most northerly point at John O’Groats. A big island. On landing in Nanaimo, a bus took us in pouring rain up the east coast of the island to the town of Campbell River. Whilst on the island took a sea trip to see whales and other sea mammals. It was way beyond our dreams with everything from Humpbacks to Bald Eagles to Black Bears.
After six nights, we boarded a ferry at Port Hardy near the north end of the island. This took us
northwards up the Inside Passage, a sea route that weaves between the coast of British Columbia and the off-shore Pacific islands. It was a long day of sailing – 17 hours – to the city of Prince Rupert in northwest British Columbia. After a couple of days there, yet another ferry took us up the coast of south east Alaska with a number of stops for two nights and three days to the capital city Juneau. It was there that we encountered glaciers at close quarters. There had been some warnings that global warming has resulted in a less spectacular display than there was just a few years ago. Despite that the wow factor was high.
If any of you, my dear readers, have watched the recent BBC TV programme Wild Alaska Live, the base for that production, in the Tongass National Forest and the Mendenhall Glacier, featured heavily in each episode, and was where we spent a stunning day.
After three nights, we took a final ferry journey from Juneau to the town of Skagway near the northern end of this part of Alaska. In its day, Skagway was the entry point to the Klondike in the days of gold mining. The main attraction today is the heritage train that took us nearly 100 miles over the mountains to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. There was dramatic mountain and river spectacles and time spent in high tundra with empty country and stunted trees.
Throughout the trip, we saw an amazing array of wildlife. Our knowledge of the animal kingdom is fairly
rudimentary so there were lots of other oooh’s and aaah’s, without necessarily a lot of specific species identification. We couldn’t help but recognise the magnificent humpback whales and a variety of seals and porpoises. In the sky there were seagulls, terns, bald eagles and ravens. And on land we saw black bears, red squirrels, porcupines and various deer. And, of course, we saw literally millions of trees, the most common being the Sitka Spruce which typically is 50 to 60 metres high (nearly 200 feet). We were
there in their Spring, so there were plenty of flowers and tree blossom. One of the most common plants was the blue lupin.
Setting a target
Laziness can be a
bit of a curse. You put off things for
trivial reasons. Even things that you
really enjoy get left to one side. So,
having reached the age of 75 at the end of 2016, to ensure that laziness would
not take over, it was time to set a walking goal for 2017. Walking is my favourite pastime.
A number of years
ago we had walked a stretch of the North Downs Way – about 50 miles from
Guildford in Surrey to Wrotham in Kent – that follows the high ground to the
south of London. It was a great walk taking five separate days over
a period of three months. In the course of the walks, we climbed Box
Hill, looked down on Winston Churchill’s long-time home at Chartwell and had
great views northwards over London and southward over Surrey and Sussex to the
South Downs. Key to the success of the walk was the public transport that
got us to the start of each section and brought us home from the end.
A bit of exploration
of maps and guidebooks soon identified an excellent candidate for the 2017
project. A bit more detailed study and the London LOOP, or to give it its
full name the London Outer Orbital Path, became the target. The walk
covers about 150 miles and circumnavigates London from Erith on the south bank
of the Thames in Kent, to Purfleet on the opposite north bank in Essex.
It is entirely within the other orbital route, the London Orbital Motorway,
otherwise known as the M25, and seeks to use greenbelt wherever
possible. Also, and very importantly, the route has been adopted by TfL
(Transport for London) who have produced a series of twenty-four guides
describing the route in detail and showing the transport links to get to and
from every part of the LOOP. An added bonus would be provided
by our London Freedom Passes that would give us free
transport throughout our adventures.
A mid-term report
It is now nearly four months into the project and it’s
really going very well. That is except
for a period near the beginning when Margaret had fallen victim to the ills of
winter and I had to do a few sections by myself. We have passed the halfway point and
completed the whole of the route north of the River Thames. So, it’s 95 miles down and 55 miles to go.
In real terms, the journey has been substantially
longer. To get to the start of a section
and back from the end involves buses, trains and the underground and a fair
amount of extra walking. That extra
walking has probably added another twenty-five miles to the total so far. By the time we have finished, we’ll have
walked nearer to 200 miles!!
So, for the past few months, we’ve been walking the trail
round the outskirts of London to the north of the River Thames. It’s been a fascinating amble. When you live in a big city you don’t realise
how much green land there is and how much of it is accessible. We’ve walked through a Royal Park, followed a
tributary of the Thames as it meanders through urban woodland and skirts around
Heathrow airport, passed numerous stately homes (some now just a memory) and
walked along the banks of the stream where Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly laid
down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to cross the water.
To get to the start of a section or to get back from the end
of it, we have been to places that were just names before, but that now take on
a totally different perspective. Cockfosters
has always been a distant station at the end of the Piccadilly Line underground
route. I had no real idea where it was
as those iconic London Underground maps are perfect for route finding but give
no real idea of where a place actually is.
Now, I know that Cockfosters is a fairly swanky suburb in north London
with the London Loop trail passing the station entrance. Similarly, with Hainault, a mysterious place
on a strange loop at the eastern end of the Central Line which we passed
through on the train back from Chigwell.
Harefield Hospital is a hospital of world renown in the field of Heart
and Lung surgery, to the west of London.
Little did I know that the bus linking the end of section 12 on the
towpath of the Grand Union Canal to Uxbridge underground station, passes right
through the hospital grounds. And as for
Chigwell, of “Birds of a Feather” fame, you could see Sharon and Tracey behind
every set of net curtains and Dorien flitting from one pillared house to the next. This was at the end of section 19.
We’ve been impressed by the level of maintenance of the
trail, mostly excellent but very occasionally a disappointment. One example was where the trail was using a
designated public footpath across farm fields in a part of Hertfordshire. The fields are attached to horses’ stables
and the horses had been allowed to congregate close to a crucial style. It was still winter and the London clay was
very claggy. The horses had turned the
area around the style into a no-go area.
It only needed a small area to be fenced off and it would have been ok
to cross. Instead the only alternative
was across another field and through the actual stable yard. The farmer was, to say the least, unwelcoming.
On another day, in the Borough of Havering, what should have
been a very picturesque stream in a wooded valley between areas of housing, had
been allowed to become a rubbish dump and a drinking den, judging by the number
of discarded beer cans. The squalor was
only off-set by the presence of a beautiful white egret. There must have been a few small fish or
frogs in the stream.
Following the trail is generally straightforward but from
time to time we have had to retrace our steps or, as on a couple of occasions,
realised we had taken a different route and re-joined the official trail a
little further along. This has been
caused by missing signs or, in one place, where the sign has been knocked over
and it was impossible to work out which route to take.
Throughout we have used both the Transport for London
internet based guides (https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/loop-walk)
and the National Trails Guidebook for the London LOOP. These are invaluable for keeping the walker
on track – more or less – and also for highlighting the points of interest
along the way. They are not
infallible. In a big city things are
changing all the time. At one point, one
guide said to cross a field to a small hut, the other said to cross a field to
small barn. In fact, the hut/barn, we’ll
never know which, has been demolished. A
constant problem for writers of guides.
Along the way, we have had to cross many major arterial
roads such as the M1, M11, M4, M40 and A1, all by tunnels or bridges. Much more scary, was the A12 Colchester dual
carriageway where the official trail crosses a very busy section. Only the traffic lights, ¼ mile or so away in
both direction, caused welcome short breaks in the continuous traffic
flow. The A30 proved to be a real
barrier and could only be crossed by making a 1mile diversion via a distant
junction with a pedestrian crossing. But
apart from those few encounters with the road system of the capital, the route
was well separated from through traffic.
Walking the LOOP
On the 17th January, the project started at the
bus stop opposite our flat in Richmond from where we travelled the five or so
miles to Kingston-upon-Thames. This is
the closest the LOOP gets to home. The
route is almost a complete circle broken only by the River Thames estuary to
the east of the city. The official
starting point is on the south bank of the river at Erith and the finish is on
the north shore at Purfleet. Our route
would take us first along the longer, north-of-the-Thames part of the LOOP. Later on, we would tackle the southern
Our starting point was at Kingston Bridge where the route
crosses the Thames to the west of London.
Section 9 (out of the total of 24), runs from Kingston Bridge to Hatton
Cross, on the south-eastern perimeter of Heathrow Airport. It’s about 8 ½ miles in length, rather more
than we wanted to do in one afternoon. We
knew we would be able to break off at a number of points along the way where
the LOOP crosses a bus route or suburban rail route, so we set out knowing that
if time or inclination faded, an escape route would be nearby.
And so, section after section, we have progressed towards
our goal of conquering the London LOOP.
In January, the weather was fine but February and March were wet. Long sections of the walk were through claggy
London clay. Boot cleaning was a serious
activity at the end of each day.
Here’s a random selection of some of the most interesting
bits of the walk.
Early on in the project, two days were spent
skirting Heathrow Airport and weaving through industrial estates that are an
integral part of the Heathrow infrastructure.
Much of this was along the banks of the River Crane. To the north of the airport, and dwarfed by
junction 3 of the M4 motorway, the LOOP passes St Dunstan’s. There has been a church here since Saxon
times. The current church dates back to
the 15th century. This was,
and still is, the family church of the Berkeleys, an English aristocratic
family of very long pedigree. It’s
constructed of an interesting combination of flint and brick. There is a memorial plaque to the late, great
English comedian Tony Hancock and to his mother Lucie Lilian Sennett, who is
buried in the churchyard. Such a
fascinating corner in the midst of 20th/21st century hustle and bustle.
A little further north, the LOOP follows, for
the most part, the banks of the Grand Union Canal through Hayes, West Drayton
and Uxbridge, then onto Harefield. It
makes for flat walking but underfoot can be very muddy. It was along this stretch, at Uxbridge, that
we came upon the General Eliott pub.
This was an excellent, unpretentious, canal-side pub with a good
selection of beers and superb home-cooked food.
A lady, maybe the landlady, gave us a small piece of paper with a
hand-written menu. We both chose the
spaghetti carbonara. It was the best we
have ever tasted.
Grimsdyke House was built for WS Gilbert, of
Gilbert and Sullivan fame, in fine woodland on the edge of Harrow Weald
Common. The trail meanders through the
rhododendrons and beside the ponds, in the extensive grounds. WS Gilbert loved the place so much that he is
recorded as having declared that he would like to die there on a summer’s day. Poignantly that is what happened. He drowned in one of the ponds whilst
rescuing a young female house-guest.
Beyond High Barnet are the picturesque villages
of Hadley Green and Monken Hadley. It
was here in 1471 that the English Civil War Battle of Barnet took place. This was a decisive battle as it was here
that Warwick, the kingmaker, was slain.
Just past the church, there stands the Sir Roger Wilbraham’s Almshouses
built, as it says, for “six decayed housekeepers”. Interesting how the meaning of words changes
On the stretch between Cockfosters and Enfield
Lock, the LOOP follows, for a time, Turkey Brook. This is named after the hamlet, now a suburb,
of Turkey Street. The “Turkey” is
nothing to do with the bird or the country.
The name derives from the name of the landed family Toke who built some
houses known as Tokestreete, now Turkey Street.
Anyway, I digress. Maidens
Bridge, over Turkey Brook, is reputed to be the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh
spread his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth could cross without
getting her feet wet. However
questionable this story may be, it is known that the Queen loved to stay at
Elsynge Palace (long since demolished) which was across the brook on the far
side of the big ponds that the LOOP skirts.
After crossing Enfield Lock the LOOP briefly
follows the River Lea down the Lea Valley.
Here you can see the workers’ cottages of the Royal Small Arms Factory,
the home of the famous Lee Enfield rifles used by the British Army in the Boer
War and in the two World Wars. Ahead there
is a high embankment. This is part of
the enclosure of the massive King George’s Reservoir, nearly two miles long and
named after King George V. The
reservoir, along with its neighbouring William Girling Reservoir, supply over
one quarter of London’s fresh water.
To the east of the reservoirs, the LOOP passes Gilwell
Park, home of the scouting movement. As
a comment on modern day obsessions, some well-founded, with security and
unsavoury intruders, the campsites are now enclosed by high wire fences. Gone are the days of camping in semi-wild
fringes of Epping Forest.
After leaving Chingford and crossing part of the
Chingford Plain, the path comes to three large buildings. The first one is the Royal Forest Hotel. The last one is the weather-boarded Butlers
Retreat, now a tearoom of which we took advantage. In the middle is the 16th century
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. Now a
museum, it is where the queen would come to view hunting parties in Epping
Forest. The upper floors now have
windows but in Elizabeth’s day they were open balconies.
Shortly before reaching Chigwell, in the middle
of sports fields and parkland, lies a substantial lake with no name. It was created in the 1970’s when gravel was
extracted for the construction of the nearby M11 motorway. Today it is an attractive expanse of water in
the Roding Valley Meadows Nature Reserve.
And so to Chigwell. Earlier in the walk, the LOOP passes through
the Moor Park Private Estate, built by Lord Leverhulme and Lever Brothers in
the 1920s, 1930s and, with a break for World War II, in the 1950s. The houses are all built on individual plots
with ornamental hedges forming the boundaries between one plot and the
next. As the original sales brochure
stated “One may enjoy quietude and seclusion (without isolation} in an old
English park”. Today the large houses
sell for in excess of £2m. The cars in
the driveways are usually top-of-the-range Mercedes and, to a lesser extent,
BMWs. There are classy SUVs but not as
many as you would see in other posh London suburbs. Most houses have two or three cars. All very refined and expensive.
In contrast, Chigwell sets out to be posh but misses the
mark. For a start, the houses are mostly
very close together with solid walls or fences between them. There is excessive use of over-elaborate decorative
effects. Typical are large colonnades in
front of standard, fairly large estate brick-built houses. Mock-Tudor is much in evidence. As for the cars, SUVs dominate along with
flashy versions of Mercedes and BMWs.
Showing off wealth, or access to money, is obviously important
here. “Quietude and seclusion” it is
You can’t go far in England without finding a
connection to King Henry VIII. To the east
of Havering-atte-Bower there had been a royal palace occupied originally by
Edward the Confessor and much later by Henry VIII. The latter had a house built for his two
daughters Mary and Elizabeth. PIrgo (now spelt Pyrgo) has long since been
demolished and all that remains are a pair of elaborate iron gate posts. The LOOP passes through this gateway
And finally, to the Concrete Barges on the shore
of the Thames Estuary near Rainham.
These barges were built during WWII for Mulberry Harbour in France to
support the D-Day Landings. They were
then brought back to the Thames to add to the defences of London. However, they never found a proper function
and have lain on the banks of the Thames estuary ever since. Despite being there for over seventy years
they show no sign of disintegrating.
So, it is now the middle of May and we’ve reached the Thames
again. Roughly two thirds of the LOOP
completed and the summer ahead of us. Must find out how to get to Erith for the next
Friday dawned a much better day, blue sky and very cold. After breakfast in one of the local café bars, we walked along a few local streets lined with small shops. If you are looking for expensive shoes, clothes, gourmet food and chocolates, then this is the area to explore. Our goal was the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’s best open spaces and home to the Senate, the upper house of the government of France. On previous visits, there have been lots of people taking part in semi-formal exercise classes. Today the cold had kept them all at home. There were a number of school children in groups of three or four with clipboards. They seemed to be looking for specific monuments, statues, etc and ticking boxes on charts. A bit like a version of I-Spy.
The Senate is housed in a grand square building, the Palais du Luxembourg. Commissioned by Marie de Médicis, it is a fine example of French classical architecture from the 17th century. In the 19th century it was remodelled with a garden façade added. There are discrete, armed guards stationed around the building, mostly in glass-sided sentry boxes. At least the soldiers had some protection from the cold. In front of the Palais is a round boating pond maybe 100 metres across. Normally the pond is home to a hobbyists dream of model boats. Today the surface was undisturbed, another victim of the cold.
From the Luxembourg Gardens we headed into the avenues of the Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) and, in a series of left and right turns arrived on the banks of the Seine just in time for the rain to return. A couple of the famous Bateaux Mouches pleasure boats passed by but they had very few passengers. I have often wondered why these pleasure boats were so named. It turns out they were originally built in a boatyard in the Mouche district of Lyon. You live and learn.
Our plan was to lunch around 2pm when we knew our favourite lunch spot would be starting to calm down after a hectic lunchtime. The rain and the cold wind called for an adjustment of the plan and, although only 1.30 we headed forC Le Martignac in Rue de Grenelle just a couple of streets back from the river and the National Assembly, the home of the lower house of government. To extract some words from the post of our last visit :-
This is a small bistrot in an area heavily populated by French Government departments including the headquarters of the army and the navy. We found it by chance on a previous visit and were keen to find it again. We hadn’t remembered the name or the address but I knew it was somewhere between the Quai d’Orsay art gallery on the banks of the Seine and Les Invalides with the Tomb of Napoleon. I could remember how we had found it, more or less, from Les Invalides but this time we were approaching from Quai d’Orsay. With the aid of a map and memory we found it with only one wrong turn. Great.
It was lunchtime and Le Martignac, which is very small, is popular with the civil servants from nearby offices. Stepping in through the narrow door we could see that every seat was occupied as were the bar stools. The wife of the husband/wife combo who run the place, called out from behind the bar. We said we wanted a meal. She called to her husband and immediately, by some miracle, he was directing us to a small table near the end of the bar.
The menu, which of course changes every day, was scribbled in virtually uninterpretable words on a board. The patron explained that, in simple terms, the choice was chicken, ham or kalamari. We ordered one ham and one kalamari and within seconds our plates were on the table along with a bottle of water, two glasses of wine and a basket of bread. And whilst he was serving us he was handling several more tables and finding seats for new arrivals. A human dynamo in a beret.
His only help was a young man – his son? – who cleared the tables and an unseen person in the kitchen cooking and plating up the meals. Combined with the patron’s wife who handled the drinks, served snacks to people at the bar and took the money, this must be the most efficient restaurant in Paris or even the world.
Today the experience was very similar except that we had Tagliatelle Carbonara and a little more wine. When we arrived the place was packed but a very small table was found for us near the door. Luckily it started to thin out a bit and the patron offered us a four-seater table which suited us fine. There was no sign of the young man but the wife was still running the bar, producing coffees and taking the money. After a while, once most of the office workers had gone back to their desks, some ladies appeared and took what were obviously their usual seats at the bar. The wife then started a well-practised tirade of abuse, largely uncomplimentary to the patron, and the ladies became like Sybil Fawlty with a chorus of “I know, I know”. This was the signal for the patron to disappear down to the cellar and do whatever he did down there. The last we heard of him was a voice from the depths.
From Le Martignac our next stop was to be the Pompidou Centre where there were two current exhibitions, Cy Twombly and René Magritte. Cy Twombly was an American artist who lived much of his adult life in Italy. To quote from his Wikipedia entry “His paintings are predominantly large-scale, freely-scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works on solid fields of mostly gray, tan, or off-white colors.” I know he has many fans but his creations did very little for me. Magritte was a totally different kettle of fish.
Magritte did not like the label “Surrealist”. He avoided the world of the subconscious and believed in neither dreams nor psychoanalysis but rather considered the mind and logic to be superior. As an illustration, one work that really makes you think and follow the logic of the situation, depicts an artist sitting in front of a canvas, paintbrush in hand. On the table beside him is an egg which he is studying. On the canvas he has painted a bird, the logical outcome of the egg. He calls the work, very appropriately, “Clairvoyance”. It’s a work that has the viewer thinking.
Perhaps his most famous painting is entitled “La Trahison des images” (The Treachery of Images). The painting is of a smoker’s pipe. Under the pipe are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe). As Magritte said “It’s quite simple, who would dare pretend that the REPRESENTATION of a pipe IS a pipe? Who could possibly smoke the pipe in my painting. No one. Therefore IT IS NOT A PIPE”.
This was a most excellent exhibition, very well curated and with sufficient explanation to guide the viewer into the thinking of the artist.
Having had a very good lunch, dinner was a long way from our minds, so we went back to the hotel and relaxed. About 8.30 we decided to head out and find a place where we could get a snack. I remembered a café called Odessa close to an hotel we had stayed in on a previous visit. It was a short walk from where we were this time. The Odessa was busy but a waiter soon found us a window table and we settled down. Looking at the menu we fancied starting with the most famous French soup. Soupe a l’Onion is a type of soup based on meat stock and onions, and was served gratinéed with croutons and cheese on top. It was a meal in itself. I’d explained to the waiter that the soup was just for starters and we would be ordering something else later. Well we did order something later, more wine and even more wine. By the time we walked out into the night we were ready for bed.
Saturday was our last day and the train was due to leave just after 5pm, so we had a full half day to explore a bit further. For breakfast we went to yet another of the nearby café bars. Café de la Rotonde has a famous history. It was renowned as an intellectual gathering place for notable artists and writers, especially during the interwar period. Amongst its artist clientele were Pablo Picasso and Modigliani. Today, it definitely is a class above some of its neighbours. Breakfast was well up to standard and no more pricey than at the nearby competitors.
We set out in the vague direction of the River Seine and the Eifel Tower. As we approached Les Invalides, which started life in the 17th century as a hospital and retirement home for wounded soldiers, the rain returned. The Les Invalides site is dominated by the large golden dome over the tomb of Napoleon built in 1840. We bought tickets to see the tomb and to visit a number of exhibitions around the site.
The tomb itself is amazing. It takes the form of a sarcophagus made of red quartzite and resting on a green granite base. The whole thing stands maybe 5 metres high. As you enter the building you are on a high level so that the first view is over a parapet to the tomb below. Stairs take the visitor down to the lower level and you get a feel for the size of this edifice. Also in the building are memorials to other great French military figures.
From here we moved out into the great courtyard and climbed up a grand stone staircase to the museum that records French military history, especially through the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m no scholar of history so my analysis may be well adrift from the reality, but it seemed that France was constantly at war, often in its own territory and frequently on the losing side. However, it was interesting to see their portrayal of the two World Wars from the French point of view. Sufficient to say that liberation of Paris towards the end of World War II, concentrates on the arrival of General de Gaulle as though, somehow, he had led the forces of the allies to a great victory and saved the capital. On a more positive note, the whole museum is very well curated and was well worth the visit.
Time was beginning to run away with us, so, after a short walk through the grounds, we went to the nearest Metro station and with one change returned to Vavin. We decided to have a quick lunch before heading for the station, so called in to one of the café bars. Two Croque’s Monsieur, a beer and some coffee and we were ready for the journey back to London. We collected our bags from the Hotel Chaplain and took Ligne 4 to the Gare du Nord. There was the usual crush of school parties, mostly English returning home, but the formalities were minimal and soon we were on the train, this time in Standard Class.
It must be said that apart from the fact that there are two seats on either side of the central aisle, as opposed to one and two in business class, the seats were equally comfortable and with plenty of legroom. The only downside was that there is no table service. We had to go to the café which was three coaches along from where we were sitting.
Our short break was over but, despite the cold and the rain, we had a great time. For me, the Magritte exhibition was the highlight followed closely by the impressionists in the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Once again La Coupole did not disappoint nor did Chez Bebert and Le Martignac. There may have been a lot of “déjà vu” but we loved it and will be back for more.