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Camping comes in many different shapes and sizes - from the manicured plot at a busy holiday park to a lumpy patch of ground in the middle of the mountains. Side Farm Campsite is targeted more at those used to the latter. It is a bumpy little patch of Lakeland landscape, with the lake at your feet and the sky on your shoulders. For a certain group of people, this is a campsite made in heaven.
What and where is Side Farm?
Side Farm Campsite is a relatively small campsite, situated in fields attached to the farm of the same name on the gorgeous southern shore of Ullswater, in the Lake District National Park. You reach the campsite by driving along the lake shore road through the villages of Patterdale and Glenridding, before taking a smaller road to the left up to the farm house. Having checked in, it's then on to a bumpy track between the drystone wall and the mountain side, going through two gates before reaching the campsite itself.
Before assessing the facilities, I should stress that Side Farm is NOT a holiday park. It is a pretty basic sort of wild country campsite aimed at outdoor loving folks, rather than a sort of organised activities Butlins type thing. Therefore you will not find a swimming pool, games room or any such luxurious trappings. However, the most important facilities (toilets and showers) were well laid out and clean, even sporting a couple of swallow's nest in the eaves. There were drinking water taps and litter disposal points. Supplemented by visits to the shops in Glenridding (about ten minutes walk away), this was quite enough for a happy week.
Where the facilities do fall down a little is the ground itself - not something that can really be helped! You have to pick your spot carefully to make sure it has any relation to flatness, otherwise you will spend the night either squashing your tentmate or being squashed by them. This bumpy terrain, combined with the rough access track, means that Side Farm is only suitable for tents and motorhomes, not towed caravans.
The price for adults is £6.00 per person per night, and for children £3.00. Cars are charged at £2.00 and motorbikes at between £1.00 and £2.00. There is no advance booking - everything is done on a first come first basis, unless it is for large groups arranged in advance.
A real plus point of Side Farm is their sensible attitude to groups of young people. Many campsites now reject groups of young people on principle, because a minority have given us all a bad name, so myself and four friends had all sorts of issues even when we just wanted to go on a hiking holiday. Instead of writing us off, Side Farm asked for a quiet deposit (I think this was between £10 and £15 per person) returnable on leaving dependent on our good behaviour. We owe Side Farm a big thanks for dealing with the problem more sensibly.
Things to do in the area
Obviously the main attraction of the Lake District is the outdoors, and all of the activities you can do there. There is plenty of hiking, both for experienced walkers and families, straight out of Side Farm, or you can hire a boat and get yourself out on to the lake. For those of a less energetic bent there are plenty of attractions in the Lakeland area - stately homes, Wordsworth's old house, or just a nice picnic on the lake shore (weather dependent, of course!). With a bit of research and imagination, you definitely won't get bored.
One of the major good points of Side Farm is the isolation - it is beautifully quiet and peaceful, as long as your fellow campers are considerate. You have the Lake District literally on your doorstep, the view from the tent flap is utterly stunning and the facilities, although perhaps limited, are better than the average.
For many people, isolation will be ranked under the bad points. You do have a little trip, although only a tiny one, to the shops and pubs that you will need, and the track can be a bit of a bone rattler. You also probably wouldn't want to take a new car along that track. Then there is the lumpy ground, which can make sleep a challenge. The final glitch for some will be the exclusion of caravans. Still, these are comparatively small bad points when judged with the whole Side Farm experience.
I would recommend Side Farm as a place to visit, dependent on the type of holiday maker that you are. If you don't mind a relatively basic site, open to all the wind and weather, and where you have to provide all of your own entertainment, then you will adore this site. There are not many places where you can flip the tent flap open in the morning, here blackbirds rather than traffic noise and take a long look out at the morning mountains. Therefore, bearing in mind the site's limitations, I would give Side Farm Campsite four lovely Dooyoo stars.
A few odds and ends
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The seabird colonies of the UK are famous attractions for birdwatchers and nature lovers. In a previous review I wrote about a visit to Bempton Cliffs, one of the largest onshore sites: however, something I have always wanted to see is one of the island colonies. I finally managed to do this a couple of weeks ago when we visited RSPB Coquet Island.
What is Coquet Island?
Coquet Island is a tiny notch of rock in the North Sea, which would have been entirely unremarkable but for a mildly interesting religious history and a massive colony of seabirds. Technically it is the property of the Duke of Northumberland - however, the RSPB have managed the area for several years and even the Duke has to ask permission to step ashore. The importance of the site means that only the wardens are allowed to actually walk on the island, but members of the public can take boats which move around the shoreline of the island and moor on the jetty to allow a good view of the birds.
How to get to Coquet Island?
Coquet Island is reached from Amble, a small town which lies to the South East of Alnwick on the rocky Northumberland coast. Visitors can park here and chose from several different boat companies - however, we decided to go for the hour long RSPB trip that runs from the Northumberland Seabird Centre.
The attractions of Coquet Island
Unlike many RSPB reserves which offer other attractions, Coquet Island is all about the birds. The primary attraction for the hardcore birdwatchers is the roseate terns, beautiful, delicate seabirds of which about 90% of the UK population live on Coquet Island. Given that the other major colony is in Northern Island, for many people Coquet Island is the only opportunity to see these birds.
But this is by no means a single species island. There are three other tern species - sandwich, arctic and common, all of them equally elegant and equally stunning. Black headed gulls are pretty much everywhere, which makes the whole thing a rather noisier experience, and there's the occasional fulmar peeping from the cliff through its pretty black eyes. Another key species is the Eider Ducks. Coquet Island is the most southerly breeding point for Eiders, and its great fun to see these big, quirky birds bobbing through the water with their flotillas of offspring.
And then, of course, there are the irresistible puffins. I thought I was lucky to have seen four puffins last time I was at Bempton. Coquet Island has several thousand - floating on the waves, perched on the cliffs, spinning dizzily over our heads flapping their wings like mad to keep airborne. For anyone who wants to introduce kids to birding, puffins must be one of the best ways in. But you should bear in mind when planning your trip that puffin season only lasts until mid July, so most of the birds will be gone by the school Summer holidays.
An added bonus for us was the heads of a couple of seals (species unknown, I'm afraid) that popped up occasionally around the shoreline. You didn't get the best of views, as they kept their distance from the boats, but still - a seal!
Pricing and facilities
The pricing of the trip was very reasonable indeed - the hour's trip cost only £5.50 per person (£6 for non-members of the RSPB) and would have been £3 for children. There are other longer boat trips, some specifically tailored to see Roseates and others exploring larger parts of the coast. Plug 'Northumberland Seabird Centre' into google and you can find out all the options.
The Seabird Centre itself is quite basic, although there is information about Coquet Island and a cafe area offering drinks and light refreshments. There are also volunteers on hand to answer any questions. The only criticism of the centre is that space considerations mean there are no toilets on site, but there is a public toilet block about five minutes walk along Amble marina.
Accessibility is, however, a limiting factor in who can go on the boat trips. The trip we took involved climbing down a steep flight of steps to get to the boat, which would obviously present an problem to those with mobility issues. I would recommend contacting Northumberland Seabird Centre and seeing if there was any other way on board.
Coquet Island is absolutely brilliant. Of course there are flaws - the accessibility side is a thorny one, as is the lack of toilets at the visitor centre. Nor is it a destination for those without sea legs. But for steady stomached birdwatchers, this was an experience that will be very hard to beat. The sheer volume of birds was absolutely staggering, as was their proximity. This is a place that reminds you of how fantastic the natural world can be.
I love history, and since junior school one of my favourite historical characters has to be Henry the VIII. He's always seemed an enthralling (if slight mad) character, and one who massively changed the course of English history. So I was quite excited to be able to visit the London home of this most extraordinary of Kings - the famous Hampton Court Palace.
A Little History
The layout of Hampton Court Palace can be divided into two primary styles. The older part of the palace is the Tudor section, completed in 1525 for the then archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was a great favourite of King Henry the VIII, explaining how he was able to build such a magnificent and decadent house: but as we all know, Henry VIII was not the most temporally consistent of gentlemen in terms of mood, and when Wolsey later fell from grace Hampton Court fell into the hands of the King. The subsequent Tudor monarchs, but particularly Henry VIII, engaged in a process of expansion so that the palace was able to accommodate the whole of court, with additions including the Great Hall and the impressive kitchen network. The Palace then acted as background to some important events of the Tudor period - the birth of Henry VIII only son Edward and the following death of his wife Jane Seymour, the arrest of Henry's fifth wife Catherine Howard for adultery, and the honeymoon of Mary I after her politically motivated marriage to Philip II of Spain.
Sadly Mary's union was not fated to result in any children, and with her sister Elizabeth remaining unmarried and childless Hampton Court Palace fell into the hands of the Stuart monarchy. The palace was used James I for meeting with religious leaders, and was a luxurious prison for Charles I prior to his execution: but the second heyday of Hampton Court came in the period of the joint reign of Mary II and William of Orange. Although still a sprawling giant of mansion, by this time Hampton Court Palace was seen as being old fashioned, and so a massive building project was begun with the help of architects such as Christopher Wren and with the palace of Versailles as an inspiration. Sadly at this time a large part of the Tudor palace was lost. The extension may have been even more dramatic, had it not been for Queen Mary's death from smallpox in 1694. At this point, a distraught William lost interest in grand plans, although smaller scale redecorations continued during the residence of Queen Anne and Kings George I and George II. George II was the final British monarch to live at Hampton Court. From the point where he and his wife vacated the palace, the structure has remained largely unchanged up to the present day.
Inside the House
We came to Hampton Court with six hours to spare, knowing this to be normally more than enough to explore a stately home. This shows how little we understood of this extraordinary construction. To examine everything properly would probably need a good couple of days. With this in mind, I just give a brief description of the areas we visited - Henry VIII's quarters, Queen Mary II's state rooms, William II's state rooms and the Tudor kitchens. We were unable to see the Triumphs of Caesar, painted by Magneta, or the exhibitions on Thomas Wolsey or the childhood of Henry VIII.
The first area we visited was the apartments of Henry VIII, which is a pretty show stopping beginning. From the stairs you walk straight into the Great Hall, which is where meals would have been served to several hundred Tudor courtiers and where large events where held. You then walk into the Great Watching Chamber and through into Henry VIII's own apartments, including a walking gallery and the old council room. This is an impressive and intriguing section of the house, with intricately carved ceilings and walls covered in ancient, faded tapestries. It is decadent, but you can still feel the age. There are also some impressive interactive features, such as providing replica musical instruments in the watching chamber that you can have a go at and a film of four men in the council chamber acting out debates that may have occurred there. There are also reconstructions staged in the house - a little surreal, really, as every now and then Henry VIII or Catherine Parr wanders past you.
The darker apartments of Henry VIII are in stark contrast to those of William and Mary, where everything seems to be about light and large windows - although this may simply be because the fittings are newer and less faded. There is a lot of really interesting art work on the walls in this part of the house, especially the paintings on the walls of the one of the major staircases. Another brilliant room is the Guardroom, which has been decorated using over 1000 items of weaponry from the Stuart era and makes a very impressive display.
The final indoor section we visited was the Tudor kitchens, which is one of the largest if not the largest set of Tudor kitchens anywhere. It is the scale that makes them so impressive - the facilities of these kitchens would have served a household over a thousand strong, so there are stew pans you could lie down in, huge furnaces, spits to roast whole pigs and so on. Hampton Court also hosts a cookery research project to look at how the kitchens would have functioned when fully working. Luckily for us, one of the volunteers was on hand and told us some really interesting stories about the food that would have been cooked there and who would have cooked it.
Visitors have two ways of getting information about what they are seeing, either by reading the displays or by getting one of the audio guides included in the ticket price. We chose to stick to reading, but a friend who opted for the audio guide informs me that it does the job equally well.
Outside the House
I should confess at this point that we did not attempt Hampton Court's famous maze, on the reasoning that given my sense of direction we might well never get out again! Still, the gardens have plenty to offer even if you don't fancy getting hopefully lost! Particular mention should go to the Great Vine, the world's largest single vine which was planted in the 1700s and now covers an entire greenhouse. Although the roses were largely over, you could see how beautiful the garden would be when in full bloom: and the sunken gardens planted where the ponds used to be are absolutely stunning. There are plenty of nice easy walks that visitors can undertake, either through the 'wilderness' area with its many scattered, ancient trees, or through the carefully laid out formal gardens. As far as I could see pathways were generally accessible to wheelchair users and those with prams.
While in the garden visitors should track down the real tennis court. This completely incomprehensible game is the forbear of modern lawn tennis and looks on the surface like a mixture of tennis and squash. You can either use the notice boards to try and translate the rules (you may be there a while) or just watch the members of the Real Tennis Association who still use the court.
There are toilet facilities dotted all over the site, although they can sometimes be a challenge to find and the maps aren't entirely helpful. However, facilities were at least clean and tidy and there were enough that the hundreds of visitors didn't end up queuing.
In terms of food, the main cafe is the Tiltyard Cafe, which is where we chose buy lunch. The food here was of decent quality, but the pricing was classic London (a fiver for a sandwich and so on) and the layout very confusing, so you ended up with people carrying trays and confusedly wandering in all directions trying to work out how to queue for the till. There is also a small coffee shop near to the Tudor kitchens, and in good weather there are ice cream tarts towed around by exhausted looking cyclists (who, although looking very cute, sometimes have trouble when cornering).
An adult ticket for Hampton Court will set you back a relatively reasonable £14.00, while concessions (including students) cost £11.50 and children are £7. You can save money by buying online or as a group, or families can buy a £38.00 family ticket.
How to get there
Driving in central London is obviously not the world's most enticing prospect, but for those willing to brave the traffic there are good parking facilities both at the palace itself and five minutes walk away across part of the old Hampton Court grounds. Alternatively, you can grab yourself a tube map and get to Hampton Court tube station, which I'm told is about five minutes from the house itself.
Hampton Court is, undoubtedly, amazing. The architecture, the history, the presentation and information provided, all are absolutely brilliant. You could waste multiple days here just wandering in the grounds or exploring the fabulous apartments, and you could not fail to be impressed.
The only reason why I can't give Hampton Court five stars is that this is very much stately home as museum. Those who've visited a lot of stately homes will understand what I mean when I say that in many of them you can almost feel that the home is still lived in - that the Lord or Lady of the manor might wander by at any moment, or that someone really is in the middle of the library book that has been left on the table. But at Hampton Court many of the rooms were unfurnished, or used to show historical artefacts which were certainly interesting but which would have looked very different when William, for example, were still in residence. Perhaps it's a personal preference thing - although I love learning history, I also like a historical house to fire my imagination. In this respect Hampton Court just didn't measure up to places like Cragside or Alnwick Castle. For that reason, I give Hampton Court Palace four very impressed Dooyoo stars.
Thanks for reading :)
Written only for Dooyoo
As a long time nature lover and someone with a genuine enthusiasm for birdwatching, there is very little that I enjoy more than a day out on a nature reserve. But even in my slightly puzzling view of 'fun', sitting solo in a hide on a freezing cold day with only a thermos flask for company isn't the ultimate in winter entertainment, and I am therefore doing my very best to infect all of my housemates with my birding addiction. However, birdwatching is an activity that to your average student ranks somewhere between lawn bowls and doing the times crossword: so to try and keep everyone happy, we all piled into my friend's little green Fiat Panta and beetled off along the motorway for a combined day of birding and beach. Being close to such resorts as Filey, Whitby and Scarborough, our chosen reserve was RSPB Bempton Cliffs.
Bempton Cliffs is located on the 10km stretch of chalk cliffs that run from Flamborough Head to Filey in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The size of these cliffs is utterly staggering - they can reach over 100m at points, and looking over them down at the shivering sea will give even the steadiest stomached person butterflies. But geological grandeur is secondary on the priorities list of the RSPB. The reason behind the founding of the bird reserve is that during Spring and Summer Bempton Cliffs plays host to more than 200,000 breeding sea birds.
We had taken a look at the gloomy skies over Sheffield earlier that morning and optimistically predicted that the weather would clear towards the coast - and to a certain extent it did. However, just at the edge of the country where the farmland rapidly dropped into the North Sea, a thick sea mist had rolled in and blanketed the Bempton site. Not ideal for a birdwatcher, you might say, as the whole watching business is slightly impeded by an impenetrable curtain of white. But that discounts the ethereal, incredible feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff with mist swirling all around, being able to hear and (unfortunately!) smell the seabird colony below but only occasionally glimpsing a white shape gliding out of the fog. It was like standing at the very edge of the world, and beyond? Who could say.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This seems a good place to describe the practicalities of Bempton Cliffs. The easiest way to get to the reserve is definitely by car (for directions see the RSPB website) and there is a good car park, although I can imagine that it would get packed on sunny days at it was almost full when we were there. Those restricted to public transport can take the train as far as the village of Bempton and then face a 40 minute walk along country lanes to reach the reserve itself. It is not an easy trip - but then, I would argue that its position of splendid isolation is part of the appeal of Bempton Cliffs.
There is no actual entrance charge to the reserve, only the £3.50 per car parking ticket for non-members of the RSPB, which I would argue is a very reasonable price given all that the reserve has to offer. Members can leave a membership card on the dashboard and will not be charged. You then walk through the small visitor centre which has information about the site as well as a very friendly set of reception staff who will be happy to direct you, and out on to the main reserve. The visitor centre stocks souvenirs and is also where you will find the toilets (the only down point of the reserve - slightly limited in number and not the world's cleanest, but that's a small quibble) and a kiosk where you can get drinks and ice cream.
From the visitor centre you can take either the left or right fork in the path. We were sadly limited in time, having to be back in Sheffield by six o'clock, and so only had time to fully explore the left hand route, but we were told that the other direction had a similar layout of a path along the cliff's edge (fenced, obviously) with frequent view points where it was possible to see down to birds. These paths were a little lumpy, but would probably be just about accessible to those in wheelchairs or with pushchairs.
Practicalities done, it is time to talk about the birds. And dear lord, they were flipping brilliant.
My birdwatching experience is pretty good when it comes to inland, and I've seen birds in spectacular numbers before - overwintering waterfowl and waders at RSPB Arne is a sight in itself. But I had never seen a colony of seabirds before. It is something that no one should miss.
The first things were saw were the kittiwakes, which are one of the many birds often condemned as 'just a gull'. But when you take a closer look they are truly beautiful. They have a slightly cool, sardonic expression to their faces, almost as though irritated by the people staring at them through scopes and binoculars, but then they take flight and glide overhead flashing their black wingtips and giving their extraordinary mewing calls, and you know you'll never say anything is just a gull ever again. Then there are the huge, swooping gannets, which have heads of a gorgeous pale apricot colour and blue eyes thickly ringed in black like a burlesque dancer. Among all of these white birds you find comical black-and-white guillemots, which drop from the cliff and fly by flapping madly in an attempt to stay airborne, and brilliant razorbills, which have a call like running your finger along a comb. Interspersed between the adult birds are the babies, tiny speckled kittiwake chicks and giant white young gannets, screeching and flopping about like a understuffed cuddly toy. And of course, the poster species and the one that everyone comes looking for: the puffins, tiny, bright beaked and bright eyed birds which epitomise the idea of (I'm sorry, there's no other word) cute.
It was such a mess of sounds and smells and ornithological chaos: birds flying everywhere against the backdrop of precipitous cliffs and the open sea.
You may get the feeling that I enjoyed myself - and I have to say, the two hours I had to spend at Bempton Cliffs were two of my favourite hours of birding ever. The birds obviously made it, with such a staggering display a treat not just for dedicated birdwatchers but for all the families and day trippers who were sharing the cliffs with us. If you want to get children interested in wildlife, but you don't fancy a day at the zoo, then Bempton is a brilliant place to start. If our experience is anything to go by, you will also find both the staff and the other birdwatchers very friendly and always willing to give you a hand with what you are looking at.
And did I manage to convert my friends? To be fair to my two biology student housemates, they didn't take much persuasion - the sight of a cliff peppered with gannets is pretty hard to resist. My chemistry studying housemate was only vaguely curious to start with, but even a chemist cannot resist the charismatic little face of a puffin peeping at them around the edge of a cliff. Whether the interest will persist when the rain is pouring down or the temperature hits minus two - well, I suppose we'll wait and see. But a big 'thank you!' is owed to RSPB Bempton Cliffs, for a lovely few hours, a beautiful setting and some wonderfully spooky weather. The facilities are perhaps a little basic compared to some of the larger RSPB reserves, but for a pure wildlife experience I can't award Bempton Cliffs anything other than five big green Dooyoo stars.
As the biggest conservation charity in Europe, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a well known name to anyone with an interest with wildlife. An important aspect of their work in this country is to own and manage a series of reserves up and down the UK, protecting a huge range of habitats and animals. One of these reserves is RSPB Arne.
What and where?
Recently featured on the BBC series Springwatch, RSPB Arne is located near the Purbeck region of Dorset, just on the edge of Poole harbour, and for a small area is staggeringly diverse in species. This diversity is attributable to the fact that the reserve covers a set of vastly different habitats - broadleaf woodland, heathland and coastal systems.
Compared to some of the larger and more accessible RSPB reserves such as Titchwell or Old Moor, Arne is not over endowed with facilities. But there are toilets near the car park, and 2009 saw the opening of a new visitor centre with hot drinks and information about the reserve. I'm afraid I can't comment on the visitor centre as I've somehow managed to avoid its opening hours in recent visits, but I'll be going back this summer and will amend the review then. There are also two nature trails, Coombes and Shipstal, which can be used to explore the reserve and lead to hides and viewpoints. The RSPB also runs a range of events such as Wildflower Walks or Heathland Ambles, details of which can be found on the RSPB website.
For those with a pre-existing interest in birdwatching, Arne is a minor slice of heaven. Summer on the heath land is heat hazed and flickering with tiny birds, star among which is the charismatic Dartford Warbler. But my preferred season is the winter, when the marshy fringes of Poole Harbour are taken over by waders, ducks and geese such as Brent Geese. My favourite winter resident has to be the slightly ridiculous Spoonbills, which are what you might christen Ronseal birds as they live entirely up to their names.
Although the original remit of the RSPB may have been bird-based, this is far from all the reserve at Arne has to offer. For one thing it is bursting with other wild and semi-wild animals. It is easy to get a view of the herds of Sika Deer that roam the area, or of the 22 beautiful dragonfly species that dart over the heath. Harder to see but hugely interesting are the reptiles, including all three of the UK's snake species.
Even if you couldn't care less about anything that jumps, flies, squawks or swims, that doesn't stop Arne being a lovely place to be. You can bring a picnic and bask on the heath in the summer sun, or come out walking in winter and stare out over the frosty grey expanse of Poole Harbour. It is a really beautiful reserve.
Access and accessibility
Arne is not one of the easiest reserves in the world in terms of access. Unless you are willing to walk a good three miles then public transport is a no, although it is possible to cycle and Purbeck Cycle Hire in Wareham offers a 10% discount to RSPB members. The trip by road is quite straightforward (see RSPB website for instructions as I'm next to useless) but I would warn that it does involve a few skinny little country roads, so take a little bit of care.
Because of the nature of the site, accessibility is also not at its best. The paths are often bumpy and sandy and many are probably unsuitable for wheelchairs.
Arne does not actually charge entry fees, although there is a £2 charge for parking rising to £4 after two hours. RSPB members can leave the card in the front of the car and so won't be charged. In a nice touch, when we visited over the Christmas/New Year period all car parking charges were suspended, which was a good dose of Christmas spirit!
RSPB Arne is a place absolutely bursting with good points. Firstly there is the actual landscape - I love the feel of summer on the heath, bursting with bees and butterflies and everything gorgeous deep purple. It's also a joy to wander along the strip of beach, looking out to the islands in Poole Harbour, or to linger in the woods looking for the deer that hide between the trees. It also has some of the best birding I've ever seen, but also manages to be a great place to introduce kids to wildlife and offers a range of events to suit.
As an impoverished student who goes everywhere by public transport, getting to Arne is the primary problem. Otherwise, I have very few criticisms to make!
I would definitely recommend that you visit Arne. It isn't a big commercial attraction like many places on the South Coast - it's more the sort of place where you can dawdle away a few sunny hours, do a bit of birdwatching and take a walk in a lovely patch of countryside. Even with the proximity of Bournemouth and other tourist havens, it remains remarkably quiet. So if you are in Dorset and have a few hours to spare, or you fancy a wander after your Sunday lunch, then I can give RSPB Arne five big fat Dooyoo stars.
*Film only review*
Some films are love stories - boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy gets together with girl (after a range of mild ups and downs). Some films are war stories, some are adventure stories, some recount great stories from history. But there is the occasional, special film that comes along that does not seem to have any story at all. It sounds like a bad thing: but when done beautifully, and delicately, and carefully, it can result in the creation of such a wonderful alternative world that you do not care at all about the lack of plot. Welcome to the world of the Darjeeling Limited.
The Darjeeling Limited is a 2007 film from famously quirky director Wes Anderson, and is in essence a character study of three brothers on a journey of self discovery through India on the train of the title. These brothers cover pretty much the whole spectrum of dysfunctionality: Peter (Adrien Brody) is a pill popping hypochondriac terrified by his wife's recently discovered pregnancy; Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is a struggling author mooning after his ex-girlfriend; and Francis (Owen Wilson, playing entirely against type) is a dappy control freak who appears swathed in bandages after a motorcycle accident. The root to the problems of all three lies in the death of their father a year previously, and in their abandonment by their mother throughout their lives. All three are loaded down with a huge amount of baggage, both literally and metaphorically.
From the point where the three brothers meet on the train, there is some sort of vague plot progression. The brothers go to temples seeking enlightenment, they argue with the steward of the train, they buy a pet snake and then lose it, they go looking for something important in a convent. But this is not really what the film is about. It is about how three troubled brothers meet, and travel, and change, and come to a new understanding of each other, all set against the vibrant backdrop of India. And there are many reasons why, despite the lack of plot, this is a film that really deserves to be watched.
Firstly, there is the characterisation and the accompanying performances. This is a film with, in essence, three isolated characters, with only occasional intrusions from the rest of the world. If these characters were poorly written then the film would be a nightmare, but instead each of the brothers is an absolute masterpiece, complicated and flawed and filled with tics and quirks. These characters have then been placed in the hands of three incredibly talented actors and brought to glorious, realistic life. It makes such a refreshing change to sit and watch a film and to support characters who feel so real, even if exaggerated, rather than the two dimensional stereotypes that we so often receive. As well as good performances in the three lead roles, there are notable performances from Amara Karan as the stewardess Rita and Waris Aluwhalia as the Chief Steward, and a little spice is added by famous faces Bill Murray and Angelica Huston in small roles. But the focus on just three lead characters means that you get to know these characters very well indeed.
Secondly there is the cinematography, with the central relationships of the film set against the vibrant backdrop of India. This is an aspect of the film which has received criticism from some quarters: however, as someone who knows very little about India I found the bright colours and scenes absolutely captivating. Perhaps what people need to remember is that the world of this film isn't supposed to be entirely accurate - it is reality as seen through Wes Anderson's crazy eyes, and so although not always a precise, considered comment on modern India, this does not stop the film being fascinating and often incredibly beautiful.
A third part of the film which deserves to be mentioned is the soundtrack - a wacky mixture of Indian and Indian-inspired music, English/American pop and a few random French songs. At first this strikes you as slightly peculiar, but despite the lack of continuity in the soundtrack each song matches so perfectly the situation involved that you can't help embracing the weirdness.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, there is the mood of the film. It was billed on release as a comedy, and in a way it is, but not in the obvious, crude slapstick style of such recent films as Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The humour is wry and very subtle, with much of it only picked up on a second viewing. But this humour is a healthy antidote to the darker elements of the film, the examinations of how people can grow apart and the mess that we can so easily make of our lives. The combination of laughter, quirky behaviour and serious comment means that you come away from the film smiling, but also very thoughtful.
I wouldn't recommend the Darjeeling Limited to everyone, as I think it is a film that suits certain personalities and moods better than others. Over the 91 minutes there is very little that actually happens, and many will find the pace too slow for their tastes. But if you can get past expecting this to be like any other film, you will realise that in a quiet, dry way the Darjeeling Limited has an awful lot to say for itself. You will laugh a few times, and quite possibly go slightly dewy eyed at times. It may be a slow ride: but it is an engaging, beautifully acted and wonderful one all the same.
Darjeeling Limited (2007
Director: Wes Anderson
Actors including: Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson
Duration: 91 minutes
Thank you for reading :)
When you talk to people, there are always places that they remember from childhood - Sunday afternoon places, peaceful, laughing places, where some of the most precious memories are made. For me, one of these places is a small clearing in the New Forest, where my family and I used to meet our grandparents and cousins from Bournemouth for picnics and cricket during the Summer. These afternoons were the beginning of an inescapable love affair with the New Forest. In this review, I hope to introduce you to one of the UK's most underrated National Parks, and to explain why this stunning region should be at the top of everyone's to-do list.
What and where?
Becoming a National Park in 2006, the New Forest seen from the road seems only a tiny pocket of mixed woodland and heath tucked into southern Hampshire. But at 571km2 it clocks in at two thirds the size of the Lake District, and is a region of much greater complexity and potential than a brief observer would realize.
A little history
The New Forest is the proud owner of a very interesting history. Designated a hunting area by William the Conqueror in 1079, the landscapes and the systems used to manage it have remained largely the same for almost a millennium. Two of William's sons, Richard and King William II (Rufus) were later killed in the forest, with the site of William II's death marked by the Rufus stone. Since its first founding the forest has moved from being a hunting site to an important source of timber, first for the royal navy and later for the First and Second World Wars.
The New Forest is also interesting in that it is covered by Commoners Rights, which preceded the adoption of the forest by William I but were later reinforced by acts of parliament. These acts related to the right of local people to graze sheep and cattle on the land and to collect peat and bracken. The grazing of livestock has become an important part of the maintenance of heathland in the area, and every year local farmers still run pigs through the broadleaf forests to eat the acorns. The law and history of the Forest are intriguing - but it does give you a bit of a shock when your picnic is disturbed by a huge sow and a bunch of squealing piglets!
The lay of the land
The region of the New Forest contains habitats with widely differing personalities. The most famous of these is the broadleaf woodland that gives the area its name, a gorgeous mixture of ancient trees such as oaks and beeches, where stony tracks and tiny streams track across sun dappled floors and into secret clearings. Then there are the plantations, mostly managed by the forestry commission, patches of intensely dark conifers that block all light and hide a host of birds. The final, and often forgotten, part of the forest is actually the part that contains no trees at all, the heath land - a highly endangered and important habitat. This landscape is often found on the higher areas of the national park, and so has a feeling of air and space which is not found in the closed forest. In Summer the heath is glowing, heat hazed and buzzing with insects: in Winter it becomes coated with frost, pale and shining and barren and beautiful.
The mixture of habitats, as well as the national rarity of these habitats, is the main reason behind the huge diversity of wildlife to be found in the New Forest. For birders the heath supports raptors like Hobbies, Honey Buzzards and this year a breeding pair of Goshawks, as well as lower occupants of the food chain like Dartford Warblers and Nightjars. The poster mammals are the gorgeous little New Forest ponies and species of deer including Roe, Red, Fallow, Sika and Muntjac, many of which can often be seen peeking at you through the trees. But one of the real gems of the forest lies in its reptile life. It is one of the few regions of the country to contain all three native UK snake species, although you have to get a seriously lucky break to see the rare smooth snake.
Things to do
As with many of the National Parks, the primary strength of the New Forest lies in its natural beauty and the opportunities that offers. There are many miles of walking, off road biking and horse riding trails, most of which have the added benefit of being easy to follow and so are open to pretty much anyone (although the easy landscape does not mean walkers should go out unprepared). These trails are also very good for families with younger children.
For those who prefer to enjoy the countryside without expending quite so much energy, the forest is peppered with pretty towns like Brockenhurst and Lyndhurst, as well as visitor attractions like the Otter and Owl Sanctuary or the New Forest Reptile Centre. Lyndhurst also hosts the New Forest Centre, an information centre and museum which is very useful for those unfamiliar with the National Park.
Of course, for many a day out in the countryside is not complete without a drink in a country pub, and here the New Forest comes into its own. The Alice Lyle and Red Shoot pubs are both good quality and family friendly pubs, but my particular favourite is the High Corner Inn, situated down a dirt track in the heart of the high forest. Although more commercialised than my Dad remembers it being when he was younger, it is still a wonderfully cosy little pub and one that we can't help returning to over and over again after a long walk.
Places to stay
Finding accommodation in the New Forest is actually spectacularly easy - searching for New Forest campsite turns up a whole heap of results, and for those who prefer a comfier bed there are rooms available in pubs, bed and breakfasts and hotels all over the region. Finding cheap places to stay is a little more difficult, especially during the Summer season, but the plus side is that the whole area is very family friendly and many campsites offer good facilities for children.
How to get there and around
The New Forest is one of the most accessible national parks, crossed by multiple decent roads and with lots of car parking space, although those aiming for some of the smaller car parks should aim to leave early. I'm afraid my normally rubbishness at giving directions will return here, but I can say with confidence that it's not difficult! It is also accessible by public transport, situated as it is on the train line between London Waterloo and Southampton and with frequent trains stopping at Sway, Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst. You can step onto the train in London and be strolling through the forest about an hour and a half later.
The good points
Where to start with the good points? Beautiful, unusual landscapes, hard to find in any other part of the country, open space near to some of the country's busiest towns, accessible, family friendly, and absolutely stuffed with things to do.
The bad points
The only major bad point of the forest is that, because it is so well connected and accessible, it is sometimes hard to escape the crowds on Summer weekends. Biking on the roads can be a challenge when traffic levels are high, and those used to the quieter confines of Dartmoor or Snowdonia might find the business of the area a little off putting.
Perhaps I am a little biased in favour of the New Forest. For many, it will pale when compared to the majestic grandeur of the Lake District or Snowdonia, because it doesn't have high mountains or huge lakes or anything like that. But it is a landscape of gorgeous subtleties, picnics under trees twenty times your age, long lazy Summer afternoons and chaotically colourful Autumns. I do, and always will, love the Forest to pieces for the memories that it contains for me. And I highly recommend that you go and make some memories of your own there.
Thank you very much for reading and have a lovely Summer :)
* Film only review *
Unless you are a Troglodyte living in some obscure out of the way cave, you will probably have heard of the teen fic juggernaut that is the Twilight saga. Stephanie Meyer's quartet of books about the romance between handsome vampire Edward Cullen and hapless human Bella Swann have sold millions of copies since their first publication in 2005, and have become ubiquitous among teen and adult readers with very impressive speed. Obviously (for few could resist such an obvious cash cow) film adaptations were bound to follow. New Moon, first released in 2009, is the film adaptation of the second instalment of the series.
The tone of the first paragraph may already have given some indication of what the conclusion of this review is going to be. Because I cannot be gushingly positive, I feel the need to get my defence in early. I absolutely loved the Twilight books. I started the first one on a Monday and finished the fourth on a Friday, communicating with everyone around me in grunts from behind the black hardbacks. Although not as good as the first, I thought the second book was still pretty decent. This just makes me all the sadder that it could have been turned into such a chronic film.
The plot of New Moon picks up a short while after the end of the first of the Twilight books. Vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) has successfully rescued true love Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) from evil vampire Victoria, and all are back in their soggy hometown of Forks, Washington. But the peace is short lived: for it is Bella's 18th birthday, a day she has been dreading because it makes her technically older than her undead boyfriend. And her fears are justified, if a little misplaced. After a disastrous birthday party with Edward's vampire family, Edward decides that he and Bella are never going to work as a couple, and ends their relationship with immediate effect.
So you have a peculiar situation where one of the keystone characters disappears some fifteen minutes into the film, leaving Bella heartbroken and lonely. The film tracks her misery and loneliness, her efforts to get closer to Edward and her growing friendship with local Native American boy Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Do they get back together? Does she end up with Jacob? What big secret does Jacob have? For those few people who don't already know the plot, I think I'd best not say any more.
In terms of story, New Moon is not at all bad - perhaps because this is the aspect in which it sticks closest to the book. It is hardly some wildly intricate masterpiece, and you will most likely see any plot twists coming several hundred miles away, but as books containing vampires and werewolves go it is all surprisingly plausible and appealing. Sadly, the plot is weighed down under a pretty leaden script. Bella, Edward and Jacob are forced to grapple with lines that are hopelessly clichéd or horribly unrealistic. There are a few good lines among the supporting cast, but these are only memorable because of their rarity.
Then there is the acting. The kindest thing that can really be said here is that the film seems to be a case of good actors have a bad day. In the books, Bella Swann is beautiful and much loved, but is saved from being unbearable by a healthy dose of gawkiness and awkwardness. But in the hands of Kristen Stewart and the scriptwriters, she has become monosyllabic, grumpy and prone to doing incomprehensibly stupid things (which made sense in the books, but not in the film - an example is the ride with the unknown biker). Then there is poor Robert Pattinson, who was inoffensive when playing Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter, but pretty shocking as Edward Cullen. Given that the character he is playing is supposed to be perfect, the task was always going to be a challenge: but throughout the film he musters little more expression than a dopey half smile and issues every line in the exact same tone. Not the boy's finest hour, I would say.
The leads aside, the supporting cast are actually not so bad. Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black fulfils the role of teen heartthrob pretty efficiently, although this is more due to physiological advantages than a particularly good performance. Still, the memory of the collective sigh when he ripped off his shirt (in response to Bella cutting her head...wouldn't we all do the same?) will make me giggle for a far while to come. Among the others, the problem isn't obvious bad acting (as in Robert Pattinson's case) but ham acting (Michael Sheen as an evil vampire) or two dimensional characters (most of the werewolves and vampires, who are infinitely more interesting in the book). However, exception has to be made for three performances. Michael Welch, the highschooler Mike with a hopeless crush on Bella, is appealing hapless; Anna Kendrick as Bella's 'friend' Jessica puts in a brief but brilliantly bitchy contribution: and Ashley Greene as Edward's sister Alice, when she finally reappears late in the film, gives the whole production an instant shot in the arm. But all in all, the acting is nothing to write home about.
After story and acting, there are also the more technical considerations of the film. The imagery is quite self consciously arty - dim colours, weather reflecting everyone's moods etc etc - which in general suits vampires quite well. But the nature of the story in the book is so much quicker, so much more vivid, that the toned down feel of the film doesn't really add anything too it. It just saps the whole thing of energy. The scenery around Forks is used to good effect, the wild country of Washington State with its woods, hills and oceans and there is a decent soundtrack to distract you from the lack of onscreen action.
Before concluding, I'll just sum up the key good and bad points of this film. And there are good points - no film is entirely irredeemable. In places it's very pretty, Ashley Greene and Anna Kendrick are good for the short time they are on screen and the soundtrack and main plot aren't so bad. If you don't take it seriously, it is also quite entertaining, for the all the wrong reasons! But these good points are so heavily outweighed by the bad points. Forget the clunky script, the two dimensional characters, the periods of time where nothing seems to be happening except Bella staring into space (apparently wearing the same clothes for three months...curious...). The thing that really kills the whole film is that through a combination of bad acting and bad scripting, you just can't care about the central romance. It's a killer blow - because after a while, you don't really care if Edward never comes back and Bella has a boring life. No romance can survive when the lovers are so unprepossessing.
All of the above demonstrates why I'm not sure I can recommend that you spend any money on seeing Twilight: New Moon. If it's on TV, then why not - you'll probably find yourself chortling at the corniness of much of it. But the fact is that the film makers were presented with a great series of books, a decent cast and fabulous settings and somehow this shocker of a film is all that's come out. Sorry, twilight fans. But this is just not the film that your devotion deserves.
New Moon, 2009
Director: Chris Weitz
Cast includes Kristen Stewart (Bella Swann), Robert Pattinson (Edward Cullen), Taylor Lautner (Jacob Black), Billy Burke (Charlie Swann - Bella's Dad), Ashley Greene (Alice Cullen) - see IMDB for full list.
Running time: 130 minutes
*Film only review*
The fantasy film is a slightly hit and miss sort of creation. For every Lord of the Rings or Princess Bride, you have a slew of generic sword-and-sorcery epics which are instantly forgettable. Looking at the write up for Stardust, you might suspect more of the same - pretty as a picture hero navigates limp plot and poor script in effort to rescue marginally interesting heroine. You would expect that, until you saw the name Neil Gaiman. Then you would know you were in for a rather different ride.
Neil Gaiman is a novelist, graphic novelist and screenwriter, famous for brilliant and off the wall fantasy novels such as Coraline and Neverwhere. He specialises in vividly original stories, fiercely imaginative, where a relatively simple story is told using fantastic characters and dark humour. He wrote Stardust in 1998, with the film following in 2007: and, though I have never read that particular book, I would guess that the voice of the author has translated quite well into this magic little film.
The story begins in the small English village of Wall, a place unremarkable except for the fact that nearby there runs a drystone wall in which lies a portal to another world, the Land of Stormhold. The hero of the story is Tristan (Charlie Cox), native of the village, who out of love for a girl called Victoria (Sienna Miller) crosses the wall in order to seek out a falling star that they saw tracking across the sky. What they do not know to start with is that the star is actually a girl, played by Claire Danes, and that she is also being chased by an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wishes to cut out her heart in order to achieve eternal life.
At the same time as Tristan is trying to bring back the star to please his love, the old King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) is dying. His four remaining sons each want to be the next King, but to become heir to the throne they must quest and find a magical necklace which has been thrown across the Kingdom. Unbeknownst to them, the flying necklace is actually what knocked the Star out of the sky, and is around her neck - and so the plot threads meet.
The following plot is brilliant, containing flying pirate ships, waltzing stars, magical inns and people being turned into goats, birds and all sorts. But I hate to read spoilers myself, and so if you want to know any more about the plot, I'm afraid you'll just have to watch the film!
The basic plot of Stardust contains nothing entirely new - a boy going on a quest, discovering himself, becoming a man, fighting an evil witch. But the way in which it is decorated and executed is absolutely beautiful. You have a star made human, which glows when it is happy: a ship, but one that flies through the clouds and harvests lightning: a witch who eats stars to stay looking young, and ages with every bit of magic she uses. Additionally, the story moves at decent speed - it did not feel like we had been sitting in front of the telly for nearly two hours (with advert breaks).
Like the plot, the characters are also a cut above the ordinary fantasy sketches. Firstly, the main character, Tristan. For much of the film he is a clumsy boy, with a bad hair cut and scruffy clothing - far from the heroic action man often beloved by fantasy writers. More than that, he is absolutely real. The bit that made the character for me was when he was about to be involved in a fight, and there was a brief shot of his hand shaking where it grasped the sword. Fear is not something that heroes seem to experience often. Of the fenale leads, the apparent heroine is self obsessed, childish and shallow, while the star, despite being an ethereal being of incredible beauty, also has frequent tantrums when being told what to do. And the evil witch? She is just deliciously nasty.
As well as the well drawn main characters, the supporting characters also lend a healthy three dimensional feel to the imaginary world of Stormhold. I can't write too much about the characters of the seven Stormhold Princes without giving too much away, but enough to say that they are very irritating and very funny. The many witches that are met on route and their accompanying servants also provide some dark humour and make your skin crawl very efficiently. And special mention goes to Robert De Niro, playing rather against type as a frills and feathers loving cross dressing pirate captain who is trying to protect his image.
From the characters to the actors who inhabit them - and overall, the actors do a good job. Charlie Cox was an unknown when the film was made, but is charmingly believable in the role of Tristan. Clare Danes is glowingly lovely as the star - beautiful, but with enough spark and flaws that the audience can engage with her. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer stay (just about) on the right side of ham and seem to be having a lot of fun. Peter O'Toole acts everyone off the screen while lying down (literally). And the Princes play their pompous, self obsessed parts very well. I know a review should be critical, but it's impossible when I can remember no glaring missteps that I would want to criticise.
There are also many other brilliant aspects of the film which deserve mentioning. Firstly there is the imagery of the land of Stormhold. This is not always realistic in the kind of 'could be a photo' way pioneered in Lord of the Rings - you can tell easily what is drawn or computer animated and what is real. But when something is drawn beautifully, why on earth should that matter? So artistically, Stardust takes the biscuit. I also loved the music, as it adds enough tempo and mood to the film without ever becoming too overpowering.
There is a temptation with a film like Stardust to glance at the TV Guide, see the word fantasy and say: ' Oh, it's not for me.' Please don't. You will miss an absolute treat. Because what the breakdown above can't get across is that Stardust has energy, and heart, and drags you into a beautiful imaginary world that genuinely takes you away from your problems for a precious two hours. It expertly balances darkness with sweetness, humour with sincerity, magic and realism. I absolutely adored it. And I think that all those involved in its creation should be very, very proud.
Thanks for reading :)
Duration: 127 minutes
Direction: Matthew Vaughn
Anyone who's been kind enough to read the rest of my reviews will have noticed that I've been reviewing mainly mountains and national parks. I've been putting off this review because I knew it would be a big one - the Lake District is such a huge area, and with so much to write about! But this is the place that I learnt to love the outdoors, and so I knew I had to write this in the end, if only in the hope that it might persuade a few people to try this amazing place for themselves.
I apologise that this is a bit of monster, and also that it probably needs for detail - I hope to have got the main points across, and I'll tackle the places mentioned more completely later on. I hope this review is helpful to you!
- What and where?
The Lakeland National Park is located in Cumbria and at 885 square miles is the largest as well as the most celebrated of England's National Parks. Founded in 1951, it is a magical, glacier formed landscape consisting of lofty fells, narrow ridges and the many deep lakes that gave the region its name.
The landscape of the Lake District supports a specific group of animals, those that can cope with the hard conditions and can make a life on the high peaks and rushing rivers. In terms of large mammals, walkers can often see herds of red deer on the mountain sides in the quieter areas such as the Dalemain Deer Park on the Knab in the far eastern fells. Another treat in the same area is the small population of fell ponies, which occasionally appear on the ridges of such road less valleys as Fusedale, made safe from the walkers below by steep slopes of scree. The fells and lakes are also rich in bird life. The poster species are the osprey, seen from the RSPB viewing point above Lake Bassenthwaite during the Summer, and the golden eagle which often frequents the Haweswater reservoir. But if you are just out walking, you have a good chance of seeing other raptors like buzzards and kestrels, or the smaller species of finches and tits in the conifer plantations and crows spinning dizzily on the wind. And of course, for the lucky few, there is the glimpse of a red squirrel bouncing along the drystone walls.
It would also be churlish to talk about the Lakes without mentioning sheep, as you would be hard pushed to go five minutes without seeing one! I challenge anyone to go to the Lake District and not adore the Herdwick sheep!
- Notable towns
The largest towns in the region are actually outside the National Park boundaries, specifically Penrith and Kendall. Within the park itself, Keswick is probably the largest town, and a very attractive honeypot, although at the moment still recovering from the recent floods. Ambleside is another large settlement, and is near to the National Park Visitor Centre and Brockhole for those looking for information about the Lake District. Otherwise, most Lakeland settlements are quite small, like Buttermere and Pooley Bridge, with small shops, pubs and the odd bed and breakfast.
Obviously the main factor that draws tourists to the Lake District is the opportunity to walk in such a beautiful environment. There are countless well marked trails, both high level and low level, and walks can be tailored to all abilities. The area of the park means that you can spend a long time without covering the same ground more than once, although most walks bear repeating several times - I have been walking in the lakes since I was four years old, and there are still many hills that I'm yet to climb. The size of the park also has the other advantage that it is relatively easy to lose people. You can park at the low level, strike out into the hills and not see more than ten people in a day outside of the summer season.
- Key Summits
The 'big four' Lakeland hills are those over three thousand feet, in order of height Scafell Pike (England's highest mountain), Scafell, Helvellyn and Skiddaw. How fun these mountains are to climb depends on the route taken. Scafell Pike has a trudging up and down route which is both exhausting and dull, and only to be approached by the most determined peak bagger. Experienced walkers would be better to take the corridor route, which although more challenging is also a lot more fun! Helvellyn is a fabulous mountain, which can be climbed either on the easier route from Thirlmere or along its steep ridges (not for rookies!). All of these hills take a significant amount of effort, although they should not be out of reach for anyone with a good level of fitness and a bit of mountain sense.
As well as these four, there are several mountains which miss the three thousand metre cut by only a few hundred metres. One of these is Blencathra and her accompanying seven ridges, which mean you can climb the same mountain several times without walking in your own footsteps, while another is Great Gable, possibly my favourite mountain. Like Scafell Pike, the joy you get out of climbing Gable depends on the root taken. There is one walk you can do out of the Borrowdale valley which involves scrambling up a waterfall, walking across Green Gable and Brown Crag, before going through the evocatively named Windy Gap and scrambling up the side of Great Gable. We started this walk in sunshine, but by the time we reached Great Gable the clouds had descended and visibility was only a few metres. We ended up tracking across the rocky summit in a completely white world, with only the occasional gap in the mist revealing the valleys miles beneath us.
Of course, walking isn't just about peak bagging, or who would go walking in England?! There are many wonderful smaller hills commanding fabulous views, such as Hallin Fell and Catbells, or you can chose to shun the high fells in favour of a relaxing wander around the lake paths of Buttermere or Ullswater. The lake paths are brilliant because, being low level, they can be used as an introduction to walking for younger children, for an easy day's wander with a picnic, or as an alternative for days when bad weather makes the higher peaks off limits.
- Just a warning
At the risk of sounding preachy, I'm going to add this note to all of my walking reviews. Mountain weather and mountain ground are both unpredictable: however easy your planned walk, do not go out without a good map and compass, tough shoes and serviceable waterproofs. Walking and the outdoors are incredible, but they are also very powerful - make sure you treat them with respect!
- Other activities
For those who aren't into walking, or who fancy a little more variety, there are also plenty of other activities on offer. For a start, you can try something on the water - there are steamers on Ullswater, Coniston, Windermere and Derwentwater, and possibly others, or you can take out a sailing boat, motorboat, rowing boat or kayak. The region offers climbing for those who come equipped (and climbing courses for those who would like to learn), or there are plenty of easier places for those who just prefer a bit of easy scrambling or rock hopping. I've also seen plenty of people fell running, which is impressive if a little crazy, pony trekking and hang gliding. For those of a less energetic frame of mind, you can just for a drive and soak up the view. Be warned, though - the problem with mountains is that they specialise in steep gradients and sharp corners. Particularly 'interesting' roads are the one at Honister pass and the monster climb up to Kirkstone. Most cars will be fine with it, but it takes concentration!
- Notable attractions
If you have a rainy day the Lakes has a healthy dose of history. The Lake Poets are well known, and a visit to Dove Cottage near Grasmere is a lot of fun. There is also Beatrix Potter's house, or you can spend a day on one of the big estates such as Dalemain, which is a beautiful old pink stately home the estate of which still covers a large chunk of the Far Eastern fells. Just outside the National Park is Rheged discovery centre, which has an IMAX cinema and hosts exhibitions, usually with an outdoor theme. You can also try the Aquarium of the Lakes, which is unusual in being an entirely freshwater themed aquarium. For those who fancy something different, you can visit the Honistor slate mines, or have a go at their Via Ferrata. This is effectively like rock climbing, but with fixed cables and ladders which you can clip into, so making it suitable for beginners. All trips on the Via Ferrata are guided should be booked in advance.
The Lakes has become such a tourist area that you are spoilt for choice with accommodation. You could try camping, which is undoubtedly the cheapest option, and there are good campsites all over the national park. Alternatively for the money minded traveller, there are 23 youth hostels in and around the National Park, including the famous Black Sail, which is only accessible on foot. For those looking for a little more luxury, there are countless cottages, bed and breakfasts and hotels available, but I'm afraid I can't comment on these - we've stayed in the same cottage, the Fold at Hallin Bank in Martindale, every year and love it far too much to try anywhere else!
To sum up - bad points and good points
So after all that, the good points of the Lake District: stunning scenery, a huge range of walking, great wildlife, friendly people, well developed trails, plenty of accommodation and things to do on a rainy day. On the flip side of the coin, the beauty of this park does make it busy. Attractions can be packed in the summer season, and if you are after one of the big fells, you may need to arrive early to get into the car parks. But these are just little things which can generally be planned around.
I could never recommend anything other than that you should visit the Lake District. It is an inspirational place of unbelievable beauty, and one which I don't think I could ever fall out of love with. I've tried to give useful information in this review, but the fact is that you don't really get it until you've been there: like Dartmoor, and the Peak District, and other pieces of wild country, it just gets into your blood. You only need to stand on a high peak once, the wind the only noise around you, mountains and lakes and sun and sky bursting away in every direction, and you'll be hooked. So give the Lakes a go. You won't be disappointed.
- Further Information
The undoubted king of Lakeland writing is the late Alfred Wainwright - his books give a mountain by mountain break down of the whole Lakeland region, with practical information, great drawings and some very wry comments that will raise a grin. If you need a good map, the Ordnance Survey has a collection of detailed English Lakes maps which cover specific areas and can be bought from their website.
Thank you very much for reading :)
A woman in her 60s is pregnant with her own grandchild through a process of IVF, conveniently ignoring the relapsing/remitting MS that threatened to confine her to the house two months previous and unaware that her adopted son, who works in a radio station, has just been locked in a cupboard by his girlfriend's psychopathic angel faced stalker. A few doors down the road an orphaned teenager looking after her younger brother and sister agonises about a bullying girl who is hindering her efforts to organise a debutante's ball and a widowed boy struggles to look after his infant daughter. Simultaneously, another teenage girl runs away from home after being told she is not allowed to work for a major fashion designer and a relationship is on the rocks because the couple cannot afford a new house because one of them is still funding a former partner.
Such is life in the sunlit world of Neighbours - a television programme so disconnected from reality that it makes Wallace and Gromit look like cutting edge social commentary. First broadcast in Australia in 1985, it tells the stories of the residents of Ramsay Street, located in a fictional suburb of Melbourne called Erinsborough. The longest running drama ever broadcast on Australian television, it is a show that attracts equal parts affections and derision. So why can I just not help absolutely loving it?
The opening paragraph of this review is a snapshot of current neighbours storylines, and the hectic happenings are no exception to normal practice. Ramsay Street has seen it all - plane crashes, bush fires, jiltings, characters dying and sometimes coming back from the dead, affairs, marriages and the occasional attempted murder. To give the scriptwriters some credit, the occasional believable storyline does rear its head, but these storylines quickly become boring when compared to the surrounding chaos. At any one moment the Neighbours cast of characters will probably contain at least one current or past criminal, several heartrending/terminal illnesses and a few troubled teenagers. The bad point of this is that Neighbours is tends to veer towards the ridiculous: the plus point is that it is pretty much never boring.
In a soap such as Neighbours which is broadcast every weeknight, there is quite a high turnover of characters and so within a month of writing this review they will probably have changed entirely again. There are of course a few stalwarts, as with all soaps. There is Harold, the old storekeeper who disappeared at sea, was rediscovered while playing with a Salvation Army band and still periodically makes little cameos into the series. Then there is Lou, Harold's staunch friend and former love rival, who is still working in the same old general story. There are Karl and Susan Kennedy, now husband and wife again after being on and off for years and testing out between them much of the rest of the neighbours cast. And there is Paul Robinson, who sunk to the depths of being completely evil, then had a brain tumour removed and attained the heights of being only mildly repulsive. Oh, and Toady - got to love Toady!
Around these fixed points orbit a whole galaxy of other characters, all of the inevitably beautiful (unless they're unspeakably horrible, in which case they're allowed a few blemishes) and utterly two dimensional. I'm sure that somewhere there is a neighbours character design checklist: great hair? Check. Dark history? Check. Potential for romantic engagement with multiple other characters (not normally simultaneously)? Check. Find a suitable attractive actor and off we go again.
That's not to say that Neighbours hasn't conjured up some fabulous characters. I still remember the lovely Connor, and was horrified when I thought they had killed him off but it turns out he's just gone travelling around East Asia (for the past six years or so). There was also Stingray, who I absolutely adored and was heartbroken when he died of a brain aneurism. Somehow, Neighbours manages to make you identify with characters who are often entirely without character.
So yes - in technical terms I can't say that Neighbours characters are particularly good. But you spend half an hour of your day with them every week day and you just can't help but love them.
* The Song *
Special mention has to be made of the famous Neighbours song, often revamped to try and match up with the modern age, but still unfailingly cheesy. This song is rather like the Neighbours show itself - you know that it is absolutely terrible, but because of the associations it conjures up (weekday teatime, all gathered in the living room of our student house) you really don't mind at all.
* So why is Neighbours so good?*
When I tell people that I'm an avid Neighbours fan, I tend to get one of two responses. There is either the nod, smile and enthusiastic launch into chatter that marks another Neighbours acolyte, or there is the smirk and snide comment of one of the uninitiated. When I come across one of these people, I find it hard to explain why I love the programme. I know the characters are poorly written. I know the plotlines are outrageous. I know the song is the worst kind of tacky. And I know that the acting is often wooden to the point of comedy. But the thing is that when you get home from a day in lectures or in labs, you don't want to engage the weary brain again and watch some hardcore, heartrending, mind stretching programme. You want to make a cup of tea, grab a packet of biscuits, sit down with your housemates and find something brainless.
In Erinsborough, the sun always seems to be shining, except when a character is miserable and the weather kindly agrees to reflect them. People die, but nobody ever mourns for more than a couple of episodes, people argue and make up, people are endlessly falling in love. You get so familiar with the characters and all their quirks and bad acting and silly storylines, and you can jump in and completely immerse yourself in a world totally separate to your own. It's escapism, pure and simple, and sometimes that's exactly what you need.
At the moment Neighbours is in its Christmas break, and I miss the characters the same way I miss my neighbours from university. They're a key part of my day - when I'm having a bad time, I look forward to seeing them in the evening. And even though they're rubbish and I know it, I'm certainly not going to stop watching in a hurry! So it's four Dooyoo stars (just for the sake of fairness to properly decent drama!) and long may it continue.
Thank you for reading.
(Written exclusively for Dooyoo).
*Film only review*
Once upon a time there was a film called Pirates of the Caribbean, an appealing and fun adventure romp with a trippy turn from Johnny Depp as a mad pirate captain, undead skeleton pirates, parrots, monkeys and anaemic but inoffensive performances from Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom as the romantic leads. To the Disney executive's delight, these unlikely ingredients went down an absolute storm with the viewing public, and so in true cash-cow tradition they decided to make a couple more. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is the third in the trilogy, and despite being overlong, overblown and not a patch on the original, it is still a decent fun film for a family evening.
For a family film POTC 3 suffers from the curse of the ridiculously complex storyline, which I would need a whiteboard, marker pens and about two hours to properly explain. Basically, at the end of the first film we were left in the following position: nasty posh Englishman Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) is attempting to wipe all pirates off the face of the seas. In order to do this he has part allied himself with and part blackmailed Davy Jones, guardian of those souls lost at sea and played by Bill Nighy who wears a curious Scottish accent and an awful lot of CGI (he is part human and part squid). In order to ensure Jones' allegiance, Beckett has stolen his heart, which Jones cut out many years before after being abandoned by his lover.
So stand the baddies, and arranged against them are the characters of previous films. Firstly there is Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), whose father Bootstrap Bill Turner is part of Davy Jones' crew and so who has an ulterior motive for wanting to bring down the tentacle faced Captain. Then there is Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who seems to have now fully joined the pirates and whose father is also being threatened by the Beckett-Jones consortium. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) also reappears, now on the side of comparative good as all pirates are threatened. Captain Jack Sparrow, for many the main reason for watching this film, begins the story trapped in Davy Jones locker and has to be rescued.
There are also many minor characters, such as the pair of bungling pirates Pintel and Ragetti, the first mate Mr Gibbs and the Caribbean soothsayer Tia Dalma. The monkey (Jack) and the parrot also deserve a special mention (would it be cruel to say they sometimes outacted the romantic leads?). The first step of the film is to rescue Jack from Davy Jones locker, and there is then a complex series of double crossings as different characters try to achieve the aims of rescuing parents, defeating Beckett and Jones or obtaining eternal life. I'll leave the plot description at that - congratulations if you've made it this far!
A film this successful obviously has to have its good points, and I will willingly concede that it was an awful lot of fun to watch. There are some lovely lines in there, some fantastic silly moments, and as always Johnny Depp is very good value for money. His Jack Sparrow (sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow) is an eye rolling, hand waving, rope swinging tour de force, despite being more a crazy caricature than a proper actor. Depp fans ill be glad to hear there is often more than one of him on screen at a time - watch and find out! The appearance of Keith Richards as Captain Teague, Sparrow's father, is also an amusing moment, and comedy characters such as Pintel and Ragetti are good for a giggle.
A second plus point, and this applies to all the Pirate's films, is the soundtrack. Many modern films favour a soundtrack composed of popular songs, but composer Hans Zimmer (also of Gladiator, The Dark Knight etc) has instead opted for a grand, sweeping score performed by a full orchestra, with a mixture of big tunes and sea shanty type melodies played by cellos or violins. Pirate films take place on the sea, which is such a huge canvas: Zimmer's score is what brings many of the scenes to life.
A final good point is the special effects - which seem to have had a lot more time spent on their conception than was 'wasted' on the plot. The CGI of Davy Jones' crew, intended to make them look like a cross between ships, fish and people, is extremely impressive and almost believable, and the fight at the end benefits from the inclusion of a giant and terrifying looking whirl pool. Although you can tell a lot of this is obvious special effects, it is still done with thrilling panache.
But despite being a good piece of fun with wonderful music, POTC 3 suffers from a lot of problems. Firstly, there is that plot - oh dear lord, that plot. How they managed to turn a film based on a theme park ride into such chaos is beyond me. Everyone double crosses everybody else at least once, people swap sides purely for kicks, there are sub plots and pointless sequences coming out of the poor film's ears, and all of this contributes to a crazy run time of 169 minutes. Given that the original film has the perfectly serviceable plot of 'damsel kidnapped by evil pirates, pursued and rescued', I'm not sure how we ended up here!
Then there is the acting, which ranges from the great to the (frankly) amusing. I should state here that I have nothing against Keira Knightley - she is a target of unnecessary dislike from a lot of people, and that's unfair - but the idea of her as a pirate captain is a little beyond me. The problem is similar with Orlando Bloom. He is a nice looking individual, and made a very good elf, but the fact is that when he shouts to fire the cannons, no real person would hear his poor squeaky voice! Beyond these two, Geoffrey Rush and his ridiculous accent do a great job as Captain Barbossa, and Bill Nighy deals with the CGI quite well, but there is very little memorable acting beyond these two.
Overall, I would suggest that if this is on telly (or on BBC iplayer, as it was at the time of writing), it is worth a watch if you have a spare three hours or so. It is impressive at the time, good fun, a few pieces of nice eye candy for both genders and some very good laughs. But it is also eminently forgettable - there is no message that will stick with you once you have finished. So I'm going to go with a generous four Dooyoo stars, suggest you don't deliberately buy this, and hope against hope that the planned fourth film will go back to the swashbuckling, world conquering ways of the first. Otherwise this cow will not be getting any more cash from me.
Thanks for reading, and have a happy New Year.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (200&)
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Run Time: 169 minutes
Lead Actors: Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Tom Hollander, Geoffrey Rush
(Written exclusively for Dooyoo).
Despite being a twenty year old girl, and so belonging very much to the stereotypical 'target audience', a romcom is not what I was describe as my first choice of film. Similarly, the number of absolutely terrible trite Christmas films I've endured over the years mean that I often approach these with suspicion. So every time I watch Love Actually I'm taken by surprise by how good an experience it inevitably turns out to be.
Released in 2003, Love Actually is directed by Richard Curtis and so bears many of the hallmarks in dialogue and plot of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Unlike these two films, however, it does not chose to follow a single romantic plot but instead interweaves the stories of a variety of characters as they grapple with their relationships with the people around them. These characters are embodied by an impressive cast list: such stalwarts of British Cinema as Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, and Emma Thompson rub shoulders with international stars like Laura Linney.
Plot - or plots!
Given the number of different narrative threads contained in this film, it seems sensible to track them one at a time, although I will try to do so without giving too much away!
Firstly, there is a wonderful turn from Bill Nighy as an aging rock star looking for a come back with tacky Christmas song 'Christmas is All Around', a variation on the Troggs/Wet Wet Wet song of a similar name. Nighy is absolutely fantastic, behaving outrageously on radio and chat shows, but always just far enough the right side of disgusting to remain endearing. His relationship with the manager who has been his only constant companion is studied to good effect.
Secondly there is the storyline of Hugh Grant, the Prime Minister who falls for his mouthy East End tea lady Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). One of the more traditional romcom storylines, this plot is as flimsy as the paper on which it was once written, but both protagonists play their parts well and the scene where Hugh Grant destroys the American President during a press conference will resonate with anyone frustrated by Tony Blair's 'pandering' during the George Bush years.
There is also the story of Colin Firth, cheated on by his girlfriend and finding solace in a rural house in France where he meets Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia, and of a Mark (Andrew Lincoln), a man in love with his best friend's wife (Keira Knightley). There is Liam Neeson, whose wife has died of cancer and who is helping his stepson Sam capture the girl of his dreams by learning the drums, and lesser storylines such as a Colin (Kris Marshall) who, frustrated by his lack of success with women, decides to move to America. There is also a gorgeous little storyline about two shy body doubles (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page), who even though they are willing to take their clothes of on set have all sorts of problems asking each other out.
The final pair of storylines is possibly the best, or at least the most affecting - the heartbreaking story of Laura Linney, madly in love with a man at work but constrained from asking him out by shyness and the tie of a sick brother, and the plotline of Emma Thompson, the faithful, contented ife and mother whose husband (Alan Rickman) is tempted by a younger woman.
Although each storyline could stand alone, there are varying degrees of acquaintance and relationship between characters and these associations are revealed as the film progresses.
The Good Points
As I've already implied, there are an awful lot of good points to Love Actually. Firstly, the many stranded nature of the plot means you simply do not have time to get bored, although it is never so complex that you find yourself struggling to keep up. Although you will probably have favourite storylines, it is unlikely that you will actively dislike any of them. You also cannot help but marvel at how intelligently they are mixed together, and the range of storylines leads to a wonderful section at the end where all of them are concluding simultaneously, which leads to a frenetic and heart warming final half hour.
The second good point is the characters themselves. Generally speaking each of these is well drawn, if not particularly complex, and there are no obvious clunking performances (this sounds like damning with faint praise, but should be seen as a compliment when compared with others in the genre!). Hugh Grant and Colin Firth do their usual thing, Bill Nighy takes the comedic prize, Thomas Sangster (who plays eleven year old Sam in love for the first time) is sweet but not too saccharine, and Kris Marshall is delightfully horrible. The best performance in the film is probably given by Emma Thompson - there is one scene where, after discovering a shocking secret, she is crying in her bedroom, and the raw grief she portrays, as well as the efforts to hide her tears before she goes back to the family, are so realistic and understated that they are instantly recognisable to any viewer.
A third plus point has to lie in Love Actually's soundtrack. Some films are made by a complimentary soundtrack - given that Love Actually has so many little snapshots of different people's lives, it does lend itself to using songs to more quickly create a mood, and to do so it uses songs by everyone from Joni Mitchell to the Beach Boys, Eva Cassidy to the Beatles. These songs are well chosen, often easy to sing along to, and always match the feeling of the scene to which the belong. As well as the adapted songs, there is also an original soundtrack by Craig Thompson which features some beautiful, wistful, evocative piano solos as well as more cheerful tunes. I'm sure I wasn't the only person who went looking for the soundtrack after seeing this film.
Finally, a mention has to be made of some of some of the great quips boasted by Love Actually. Many of these belong to Bill Nighy - neat little touches such as referring to Ant and Dec as 'Ant or Dec' - but other characters also get their fair share, such as Hugh Grant referring to Margaret Thatcher as a saucy minx. There are also some fun physical comedy moments, like Hugh Grant dancing around 10 Downing Street to the strains of Jump For My Love by the Pointer Sisters.
The Bad Points
My main complaint with Love Actually is that - perhaps inevitably - the range of storylines means that you end up with a few distinctly 2D characters, particularly in the storyline that features Keira Knightley. Nothing against Knightley - she seems to receive a lot of venom that she doesn't truly deserve - it's just a case of the characters and storyline not being given as much time as they need to develop. Still, this only happens rarely and as the undeveloped characters get very little screen time, it doesn't cause a major problem.
There are also a few off moments - in terms of dialogue and tone. There is a distinct Richard Curtis type of dialogue, which is generally pretty realistic but occasional jars, such as when two characters have a conversation about a stag night which feels very contrived. Those who hate the sentimental should also approach with caution - most of the film has a healthy covering of humour or cynicism, but given the nature of the film you are bound to find at least some 'cutesy' moments!
The final problem is the time scale - given that this is a Christmas film, everything must happen in a five week period from the end of November onwards. It seems a little implausible that some of the film's events would happen in this period - especially those storylines where characters go from single to engaged! But this is a relatively minor problem once again, and one that you can ignore if you do not take the film too seriously.
The last statement in the paragraph above is probably how I would sum up this film: do not take it too seriously. If you are looking to be offended, or bored, or cynical, then yes, you will probably succeed. You will find the characters shallow, acting poor, storylines trite and structure bemusing. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a cosy, heartwarming Christmas film with a few gritty moments, a killer soundtrack and sweet message (love is all you need), then this is a film that you will really enjoy. It has become one of my family's staple Christmas films over the last few years, and I am sure we will be watching it again next year.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you all had a very good Christmas and have a happy New Year :)
(Written exclusively for Dooyoo)
Have you ever wondered where it is we come from? Who were our predecessors - Neanderthals? Homo erectus? Why do humans use computers as tools when chimps - genetically only 2% away from us - use twigs? What determines who we find attractive, and what makes us age? All these are among questions answered in Jared Diamond's 1991 book 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee.'
- About the Author -
Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology at the University of California, but also a keen student of bird ecology and anthropology, with a keen interest in the pacific island state of Papua New Guinea. Third Chimpanzee was the first of three major popular science works: the collection also contains 'Guns, Germs and Steel' and 'Collapse'.
- What is the book about? -
Diamond begins Third Chimpanzee with a series of questions - what is the evolutionary history of humans? What is strange about our life cycles? What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom? He uses each of these questions as a springboard to a separate section of the book. Having answered all of these, and in light of the environmental havoc we are currently reeking, he also poses a more speculative question: where might we be going next?
The first section of the book, regarding the evolutionary history, is the most narrative chapter of the book, tracking as it does the evidence of different hominid civilisations. This is a short, succinct section, but it sets up a nice background to the rest of the book and is also a good introduction to the other primates that Diamond uses as comparative measures - chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and often gibbons.
Having set his scene, Diamond plunges into an enthusiastic examination of the human life cycle, looking at such aspects as mating systems and childcare. Looking at our day to day lives under scientific light yields some interesting and often entertaining results - for example, the idea that we select partners who resemble our parents and so resemble us, and so Diamond married his own wife because both were brown haired academics with glasses. He then looks at those aspects of humanity which are commonly believed to distinguish us from 'other' animals, such as language, art and agriculture, and also at controversial ideas such as drug addiction and the tricky subject of genocide. Each of these ideas is weighed up in the human context - almost all are found to have animal predecessors.
The final section of the book looks at a factor which really is unique to humans, the ability we have to effectively wipe ourselves off the face of the earth at a single stroke. This is looked at in terms of our nuclear potential, and our environmental destruction - and despite the general pessimism of this section, Diamond eventually comes up with the answer that maybe what really distinguishes us from animals is that we may be able to chose to change our instinctive course.
- Good points -
There are many good points to Third Chimpanzee. The first is the variety: given that Diamond had free run over the whole of past, present and future, it is not surprising that a huge range of ideas are covered. Despite the quantity of material studied, Diamond is admirably never tempted to preach to the reader. Ideas are discussed clearly and methodically from all their angles before he eventually argues his own opinion.
The tone of the book is also very well judged. This is a work of popular science, and as such has no need for the flood of obscure scientific language often found in scientific literature. Complex ideas are made coherent by logical and often comical analogies and examples - sexual selection is explained in a mock fairy tale of a knight and a damsel in distress. A comprehensive reading list is provided at the back of the book for those to whom the lack of detail might seem disadvantageous. At no point does Diamond forget he is writing a popular science book, and he tailors his work accordingly.
A third good point is that Diamond cleverly blends pure science with a mixture of personal experience and fun anecdotes. His own experiences in Papua New Guinea are heavily referenced, while dry passages are enlivened by tales of chimps painting great artworks or first contacts with unknown Amazonian tribes. This writing style ties the abstract pure science to the real world.
But the final major factor that lifts Third Chimpanzee among many works of the same genre is in its treatment of controversial material. At various points in the book, Diamond has to look at such things as drug addiction, genocide and environmental destruction, and in doing so he scorns the politically correct approach necessary in normal media. He treats each problem with the same pragmatism as any other scientific concept, looking at it from all sides, making no concession to the reader and asking any question he believes necessary to help understanding. This leads to reading which is gripping and painful in equal measure.
- Bad points -
The only bad point that I could find in Third Chimpanzee is in its structure. The story of human evolution does not always keep to a linear timeline, and it is sometimes hard to keep the thread of an argument when you are trying to work out which century BC you are currently in. It can also tend towards the self referential, which is fine when you have already covered the concept in question but infuriating when you find a reference to a concept in chapter 18 needed to understand chapter 12!
Given that I study zoology, it comes with the territory to read a lot of scientific books, and I would say that Third Chimpanzee ranks as one of the best I've read so far. The massive amount of ground covered, combined with the entertaining and pragmatic style in which the material is treated, make this a very easy and rewarding read.
However, there are some people who probably would not enjoy this book. It is not one to read when you are tired, or when you need something easy and relaxing. It is also not one for the easily offended - although all of Diamond's points are valid, they could easily be misconstrued by a sensitive reader. It is a book that asks challenging questions, exposes the weaknesses and vanities of the human race in glaring detail, and makes you look very carefully at your own view of the world. I could not recommend it more highly to anyone interested in biology.
Thanks for reading :-)
When you think of a British national park, there are a few key places that spring to mind. The Lake District is probably on the tip of most people's tongues: the Peak would be another popular one, or the airy heights of Snowdonia. There are only a very few people whose first thought would be of Dartmoor. Hopefully, this review will help explain why this underrated piece of country should get the recognition it deserves.
(I apologise for the length - I didn't want to miss anything!)
What and where is Dartmoor?
The Dartmoor National Park is found at the centre of the county of Devon, and has an overall area of 954 square kilometres.
A Little History
Dartmoor is rich in history, stretching back to a time before the open moorland when the area was still covered in trees. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages the region was comparatively densely populated by farmers and herders, who were partly responsible for the creation of the high moor by clearing the woodland. The suitability of the climate and landscape of the moor have led to the modern national park containing more Bronze Age remnants than any other part of the UK - the traced remains of ancient reaves (fields), standing stones and eerie stone circles.
But (as any Dartmoor walker will testify) the modern Dartmoor weather is not as kind as it once was - about 3000 years ago the climate began to cool, and the settlers were forced to move on. It was not until Medieval times that the moor was resettled, and even now (despite the presence of a few major towns) houses are only sparsely scattered on the landscape. Thanks to the earlier inhabitants, there are also few trees. This has led to a vast expanse of moor that is high, lonely and often devoid of people.
Geology and Landscape
In terms of geology, Dartmoor is all about the granite. This is the predominant rock type, and although often hidden among swathes of thick, peaty bogs, it does make its presence known in the lofty hilltop outcrops known as tors.
But a rock type doesn't tell you much about the landscape: it doesn't tell you how grey and grand those tors are when they loom above you, or about the long brown bogs spiky fringed with marsh grass. It doesn't tell you about the conifers hugging the rushing streams, or the twisted woodland of ancient, moss covered oak. This is what makes Dartmoor special. It is a place of mists, ghosts, meres and marshes. It is a place as creepy as it is inspiring.
Walking on Dartmoor
For any ardent walker, Dartmoor should by rights be the Mecca of Southern England. For one thing, it boasts the highest elevation of any point South of Ingleborough in Yorkshire - 621m at High Wilhayes. For another, it offers a great range of terrain, with walks covering such varied environments as woods, reservoir, riverside and the high moor.
But just because walking here is fun, that's not to say that the moor makes it easy. The first thing to contend with is the MOD firing ranges - these are marked on the map, and are generally signed when open, but still keep your eyes open for red flags when approaching. Then there're the navigational problems. The sphagnum bogs of Dartmoor will swallow pretty much anything that comes towards them, including most paths, and so you will often end up either dead reckoning or tussock jumping where the map says the path should be. Even should you find a wide, easy to follow path, you should never underestimate the changeability of the weather. I remember a walk when I was ten which began in blazing sunshine, rained, went into a deep fog, and finished with an enthusiastic snow storm. It definitely keeps you on your toes - so don't go walking on the high moor unless you are very confident in your hillcraft.
There are enough options on Dartmoor for you to plan a walk that suits your own inclination - my only advice would be that when route planning it is great fun to string together a group of tors. These are great fun if you have kids (or if your inner child is still fond of rock hopping), and should the weather set in, they act as good wind or rain breaks and so are good to aim for.
Other Dartmoor Activities
There are a host of activities on Dartmoor beyond the walking. I'm told that there is some great climbing on higher tors such as Hay Tor (even though Dartmoor is in the - whisper it - South), or you can try your hand at kayaking. It is also a key destination for all those who love horses, with plenty of opportunities to go pony trekking and places catering for all abilities.
For the less actively inclined, Dartmoor offers plenty of roads suitable for a casual drive and with car parks where you can stop to sample the view. There are also hosts of pretty villages with attached friendly pubs - although please be considerate of the residents if you are just out for a drive (I'm sure you will be), and mind the sheep on the hill roads! There are also historical attractions such as Castle Drogo, or you can visit natural wonders like Lydford Gorge and its fierce rapids.
For a National Park Dartmoor is surprisingly untouched by major settlements. A few that there are include:
Princeton - one of the larger settlements, and famous mainly for its maximum security prison!
Postbridge - this is the home of the Dartmoor visitor centre, and so a great place to base a day out. You can get plenty of information and find out if the firing ranges are open for walkers, or just go for a picnic along the River Dart. Postbridge boasts a beautiful example of a Clapper Bridge (an old stone bridge - those who've seen a certain Robin Hood film will remember a staff fight on this sort of bridge!) and possibly the best ice cream shop in Dartmoor, which also sells pasties for cold days.
Two Bridges - this is a very small town along the road from Postbridge, with a pub but most importantly with a car park in an old quarry. From here you can easily access the higher moor.
There are several other small villages, and outside the National Park are larger places such as Tavistock, Newton Abbot and Okehampton.
The poster animal of the Dartmoor National Park is of course the Dartmoor Pony, and you can see why. They are a small, robust pony species, very pretty and quite placid, often standing only a few feet from you. I've quite often stroked these when they've come towards me, but please (and once again I'm sure you all know this already), don't force attention on them, don't feed them unsuitable food, and try and keep dogs under control when you are around them.
Other than the ponies, Dartmoor has most of the UKs normal species - foxes, badgers, crows etc - and a few extra species on the high moor. These include little darting birds called Wheatear, and summer visitors such as Hobby and Merlin. You can't really go out expecting to see any particular species - it's a case of going for a ramble and seeing what turns up.
No story of Dartmoor would be complete without mentioning the mythology that is an intrinsic part of the moor. With its rolling fogs and sometimes bleak character, it is not surprising that the Moor is the birthplace of some very eerie tales - everything from the ghosts of prisoners from Princeton prison who force motorists off the road, to Arthur Conan Doyles Hound of the Baskervilles. This last tale was inspired by an older Dartmoor legend, which is my creepy favourite - that of the Wisthounds.
Outside Two Bridges there lies an ancient oak woodland, one of the last original upland forests in this country. Years of wind and weathering have twisted the trees into all sorts of mad shapes, the floor is covered in granite scree and moss, and the air thick with brambles and holly. A party tried to traverse this woods a few years ago, and had to turn back after a day having covered less than a mile. The legend is that in this wood live spectral black dogs known as Wisthounds, which act as the bringers of death, and that if you see one then you will die before the year's through. It's hardly a cheerful tale - it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up - but the point is that when you stand at the edge of Wistman's wood with this story in your ears, then you almost can't help but believe it's true. Something about Dartmoor seems to blur the line between reality and fantasy.
For those with cars, Dartmoor has well kept roads and a reasonable amount of parking, although you will need to leave early if you are aiming for honeypots like Two Bridges. The area is less impressive for public transport. Although larger towns do have stations, to access the inner moor you are reliant on a less than comprehensive bus service. It is a case of if you really want to get to a place, you will: but you will have to put sweat, blood, tears and a lot of walking into reaching your destination!
There are plenty of different types of accommodation, the best of which is far as I am concerned is probably the youth hostels. For a relatively small national park, Dartmoor is over-endowed, with hostels in Okehampton, Bellever and several other places. Should you not be the hostel type, there are also numerous campsites or you can find Bed and Breakfasts in many of the little villages. Some of the pubs on the High Moor also offer accommodation.
The main up of Dartmoor has to be the mood of the place. It has its own quiet, wild beauty, a feeling of freedom and sky and nature uncontained. This is only increased by the changing weather and the invisible paths. When you have walked on the Moor a while, it has a habit of getting into your blood, and you miss it like mad whenever you are away. I haven't visited Dartmoor in two years now, and I know that somewhen this Summer it will call me back.
Speaking more practically, Dartmoor also offers a great range of attractions and varied wildlife. It is suitable for all visitors, from families with young children to enthusiastic hikers to those who like a cup of tea and a nice view. It is also a region filled with historical information and importance.
For me, accessibility has to rank as the main drawback, but that's because I'm no driver. It can also be very frustrating when you lose a path: and, though I hesitate to describe this as a disadvantage because it is so much a part of the Moor, you do always have to bear in mind that the weather can turn on a sixpence.
Of course I would recommend that you go to Dartmoor. For me, despite not being a hair raising, bombastic thriller, it has an energy and feeling that have made it one of my favourite places in the entire world. You may not feel it at once: but, once you have spent a day on the moor, you will find that you cannot help wanting to return again.
Thank you for reading :)