Poás Volcano in Costa Rica.

Smartphone photography in Central America

Volcanic landscapes, Caribbean beaches and rainforests teeming with wildlife—including colourful tree frogs and birdlife—were just three aspects that excited me ahead of a visit Central America recently.

As an avid traveller I looked forward to the prospect of experiencing destinations around both Costa Rica and El Salvador.

In addition to visiting coffee estates and taking a look inside of the crater of a volcano, the journey provided an opportunity to learn more about the region’s history plus chances to try out white water rafting and zip-lining. Adventure travel is growing in Central America.

Historic sites in Central America

Joya de Cerén, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador, has been compared to Pompeii in Italy. Both settlements were rapidly covered by ash in volcanic eruptions, providing archaeologists with detailed insights into everyday life. Thanks to finds at Joya de Cerén much has been learned about Mayan life prior to the arrival of Europeans.

At Chalchuapa, I would have a chance to peek inside of the church of Santiago, just a couple of minutes’ drive from Tazumal, a strategically important site whose history dates back eight centuries before Jesus Christ walked upon the Earth.

Tazumal is a stepped pyramid and the tallest in El Salvador. Yet, after falling out of use, it remained undiscovered until the first half of the 20th century.

The Mayan pyramid at Tazumal.

The Mayan pyramid at Tazumal.

The cuisine of El Salvador and Costa Rica

Over the centuries, migration to Central America has added European and Caribbean influences to the regional cuisine. Cooks make use of fruit and vegetables rarely found elsewhere.

For foodies that makes Central America a rewarding place to explore. Lime-infused cerviché, made with fresh fish, and pupusas, filled flat bread reminiscent of enclosed pizzas, count among the delicacies served in restaurants.

I look forward to reporting about my experiences in Costa Rica and El Salvador on this website over the months ahead.

A view of Lake Coatepeque

A view of Lake Coatepeque

Photography in Central America

As an experienced professional travel and food photographer I knew there would be much to photograph in Central America. In order to capture a selection of quality images I travelled to the region with a Canon Mark III digital SLR and Canon lenses.

However, after being out on the road, selecting and editing the best of my images can prove a time-consuming process.

So that I could capture images and quickly upload them to Instagram and Twitter, I also travelled with a Cubot X17 smartphone.

Uva Beach by the Caribbean Sea in Costa Rica.

Uva Beach by the Caribbean Sea in Costa Rica.

The Cubot X17 smartphone

The sleek phone captures photos on a 16 megapixel sensor using a lens with an aperture of f2.2 and a dual LED flash. The front-facing camera, meanwhile, has eight megapixels.

Gesture control technology triggers the camera’s shutter when a V-for-victory sign is detected.

The X17 runs an Android operating system. It has 3GB of RAM and 16GB of ROM. The CPU runs on a 1.3GHz, 64-bit quad-core processor.

The phone is capable of filming at 1080 by 1920 pixels. That represents full HD quality.

The Cubot X17’s camera has a number of photo modes. They include a panorama setting, beauty mode for portraits, motion tracking, a multi-angle view, an option with an inset image, plus a live photo mode.

After arriving at my hotel each evening I was able to quickly log onto the internet via Wi-Fi and distribute images via social media.

The results were pleasing. If you enjoy photography but don’t want to travel with a bag full of camera gear there’s certainly a strong argument for using just a smartphone and developing your mobile photography skills.

Further information

Find out more about the region by taking a look at the Central America Tourism Agency’s website. Known by the acronym CATA, the agency promotes seven of Central America’s nations. Take a look at www.visitcentroamerica.com to find out more about Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

The Visit Costa Rica and El Salvador Travel are also useful sources of information.

All of the photos illustrating this post were captured on a budget Cubot X17 smartphone.

A volcanic peak in Cerro Verde National Park.

A volcanic peak in Cerro Verde National Park.

 

Luke Waterson, the author of the historic novel Roebuck.

An interview Roebuck author Luke Waterson

Brazil, Peru and Tierra del Fuego are among the locations featured in Roebuck: Tales of an Admirable Adventurer, Luke Waterson’s debut novel. But, like Waterson himself, the story of Roebuck begins in the south-west of England.

Roebuck is based on a true story, and is the story of its main character, Anthony Knivet. Knivet is the bastard son of a West Country landowner whose only chance of “making something of himself” is to attempt to attain his fortune by going to sea. He secures a place within the fleet of the explorer Sir Thomas Cavendish who is attempting a second circumnavigation of the world,” explains the 34 year old author from Somerset.

“When the fleet reaches the coast of South America, things start to go badly wrong. Disease sets in, famine sets in, some of the worst weather ever to wrack those shores sets in. Knivet is abandoned by his crew on an inhospitable stretch of the Brazilian coastline. And it is here, after various misadventures with the Portuguese and the cannibalistic tribes that inhabit Brazil’s interior, that Knivet finds his true calling: to unite Brazil’s indigenous tribes and lead them in battle in an event set to alter the course of Brazil’s history forever,” adds Waterson about his story, which is set during the 1590s.

Becoming a published author

“I have always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little ‘un…I guess it was because of the stories my mum read to me back then, which inspired me to start writing my own. When you realise there is one thing in life that you love above all others, and for me that is writing, then “getting into it” is something you never stop unblinkingly focusing on,” says Waterson, who currently lives in north-west Scotland and has experience of writing travel guides.

“It’s a very special feeling seeing your novel on a bookshop shelf. It’s a physical, three-dimensional product that has a longevity beyond an article or even a guidebook. Particularly when you think “every idea inside that cover came from my imagination” or “my imagination is actually marketable to some extent.” Such thoughts, more than anything, give you the motivation to continue. It’s a very important thing as a novelist to feel that you work is respected within the industry – because you are putting your heart on the line out there a lot of the time,” he says with candour.

The challenge of writing historic fiction

Researching and writing Roebuck was a process that took three years.

“Staying focused over such a lengthy time period, sustaining the drive of the plot and keeping all of your characters “in character” – which can be equated to having thirty-odd different voices in your head, all talking at once – and trying to make sense of each and weave them into a meaningful narrative,” says Waterson of the challenges he faced in creating Roebuck.

”Writing historic fiction is like a re-education. You have to learn how to think and speak and act within the time period you have chosen before you can even begin to do anything else,” he adds.

Fiction based on fact

“The story of Anthony Knivet, as previously mentioned, is a true one. Concrete documentation for it is scant but it does exist. I suppose, as with the majority of historical fiction, writing about events that really did take place gives you a definite framework. A particular focus, if you like,” says Waterson.

“History has always fascinated me. And I really relish the research element, it’s far more time consuming than when you are writing other types of fiction. There is far more to get right. And to get wrong. But for me the research is an integral part of the overall enjoyment,” he explains.

Life as a published author

Waterson’s life has not yet changed significantly since the publication of Roebuck.

“I continue with my travel writing – because it is only for a very few people that a debut work of fiction immediately alters their lives. There are a few more interviews to do, a few more people seeking out my expertise on Elizabethan history and the early history of South America. But I would never want to relinquish my work as a travel writer – not completely. That work will always be there – a gleaming horizon for a rainy day. After all, it was my time in South America as a travel writer that partly provided the inspiration for this book. That time coloured in and fleshed out the 16th century Amazonian world I create in Roebuck. The truth is that not so much has changed in the jungle in 425 years as you might expect,” says the man who will be appearing at the Ilminster Literary Festival on 2 June.

Waterson is currently working on his second novel, set in ancient Wales. “If Roebuck was sometimes bloodthirsty, my new book is plain barbaric on occasion.”

Further information

Find out more about Luke Waterson via his website, Luke and his Words.

Roebuck: Tales of an Admirable Adventurer is published by Urbane Publications and has a recommended retail price of £8.99.

The view of Gateshead Millennium Bridge during Dine on the Tyne.

Dine by the Tyne over Newcastle & Gateshead

I’m securely strapped into a high-backed seat and my heart is pumping with increasing rapidity as we’re winched ever higher. Yet this isn’t a ride at a theme park, I’m at a lunch sitting of Dine by the Tyne next to the Sage Gateshead.

Twenty-two of us sit around a table that will eventually come to a halt 100 feet above the ground. Most of my fellow guests are laughing and chatting together. I wish I could relax too. This shouldn’t be a white knuckle ride but I notice the skin over my knuckles is taut as I grip the edge of the table.

Dine by the Tyne held by the Sage Gateshead.

Dine by the Tyne held by the Sage Gateshead.

A view of the Sage Gateshead

I’ve been placed on a corner seat. When I peek to my left have a stunning view over the arched roof of the performing arts centre designed by Foster and Partners, the architecture bureau of the Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster. I’ve photographed the curvaceous building many times since it opened, back in 2005, but this is the first time I’ve viewed it from above.

The reflective panelling of the Sage Gateshead is gleaming in the spring sunshine but it’s surprisingly nippy, due to a wind that feels markedly more robust 100 feet above the ground. Beneath my feet a seagull glides elegantly inland from the River Tyne.

Dine by the Tyne being hoisted upwards.

Dine by the Tyne being hoisted upwards.

A gust picks up a serviette and whips it across the table. Our host, from the Hawthorns restaurant (Hawthorns at the Crowne Plaza Newcastle; tel. 0191 5623333), reacts like a ninja and grabs it before it flutters away. Two of the team from the Hawthorns’ kitchen will be preparing Executive Chef’s Chris Wood’s creations. Over the next 45 minutes a three course meal will be served.

A lunch sitting at Dine by the Tyne.

A lunch sitting at Dine by the Tyne.

Chefs from top Newcastle restaurants

Until today I hadn’t realised that chefs from a number of Tyneside’s leading restaurants were participating in Dine by the Tyne. Bob Arora from Sachins, my favourite Indian restaurant in Newcastle, and Dave Coulson, from the Peace and Loaf modern British restaurant in Jesmond, are among those participating. The team from Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar and Grill will be serving Champagne high tea later this afternoon.

A chef preparing food during Dine by the Tyne.

A chef preparing food during Dine by the Tyne.

Illogically, I fear that my seat will fall to the ground if I sit back into it. I’d hoped that my fear of heights wouldn’t kick in; after all I know that I’m safe. Nonetheless, my tummy muscles are aching and tight. Nervously, I take a sip of sparkling San Pellegrino mineral water and, simultaneously, grip the white table with my left hand.

Our host and the two chefs from Hawthorns stand in the centre of the platform and are connected by safety harnesses. Along with 21 other guests I’m sitting under a canopy looking into the area where they work.

A calming glass of red wine, Sir?

A calming glass of red wine, Sir?

Despite the blustery wind there’s surprisingly little movement. The table remained remarkably stable even while we were being hoisted upwards – so I have no idea why I’m feeling so nervous.

Dressed in high fashion

The ticket mentioned that the Dine by the Tyne dress code was smart casual. I’m wearing a chic, flower-patterned shirt but, unfortunately, nobody can see it.

During the safety briefing ahead of our flight a member of the Events in the Sky team told us we should wear our coats. Geordies might be renowned for nights out wearing revealingly little, even in deepest midwinter, but everyone here today is wrapped up like they’re southern softies.

Dining by the Tyne.

Dining by the Tyne.

Wine from Newcastle’s Bonbar

Our host offers me a choice of South African white wine or a French red. Normally I make meticulous notes when I dine but, frankly, I’m shaking too much to contemplate jotting down details about the vineyards or vintages. If I did reach into my pocket there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able to hold onto my pen and an innocent onlooker, 100 feet below, might be speared by the tip of the ballpoint.

Given the circumstances I take a deep gulp, rather than a delicate sip, from the red wine that I’ve chosen. Two or three mouthfuls later I begin to relax into the flight. Maybe it’s that I’m becoming accustomed to the experience and starting to enjoy the view? It could also be Dutch courage kicking in.

Carpaccio of roe deer.

Carpaccio of roe deer.

This must be high cuisine?

Our host announces the starter is ready. A gin and juniper carpaccio of Northumberland roe deer with tiny sliced gooseberries, horseradish meringues and hazelnuts is served on a slate platter. Despite the adrenalin that’s coursing through me I appreciate the tenderness of the venison and the delicate flavours.

Between courses we spin around. The sun is shining onto Newcastle. We have views over the Tyne Bridge and Quayside that, normally, only seabirds can enjoy. Feeling ever more comfortable looking around, I swivel on my seat to capture a handful of cityscapes with the camera that’s strung around my neck.

The main course is served.

The main course is served.

Spring lamb is served for the main course, alongside wild garlic, fresh peas and heritage potato. As soon as I’ve eaten I turn to photograph the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

We’re lowered to be served dessert, featuring rhubarb with aniseed, meringue and a creamy dollop of vanilla custard. As I tuck in we’re again hoisted upwards for the final ten minutes of the flight.

Despite my fear of heights causing my early apprehension about this experience, I have enjoyed Dine by the Tyne. The food and wine have been good and the views truly spectacular.

Dessert during Dine by the Tyne.

Dessert during Dine by the Tyne.

Further information

Dine by the Tyne 2016 was held from 12 to 15 May 2016. It was organised by Events in the Sky (Rex House, 4-12 Regent Street, London; tel. 020 33562843).

Champagne served prior to Dine by the Tyne and the wine served during the flight was from Bonbar (The Assembly Rooms, Fenkle Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; tel. 0191 2328695).

A vegetarian dish served during lunch overlooking the River Tyne.

A vegetarian dish served during lunch overlooking the River Tyne.

The Grand Place at night in Brussels, Belgium.

Brussels after the bombings of 22 March 2016

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a part of 21st century life. On 22 March 2016 three suicide bombs were detonated in Brussels, killing 32 victims and injuring more than 300 people.

At the time of the explosions I was making my way from London to the Belgian capital on the Eurostar. The train I was travelling on was halted at Lille, in France, and all passengers asked to step down onto the platform.

After a few minutes, passengers were given the option of re-boarding the train and returning to the United Kingdom. Belgium’s border was closed, so travelling to my intended destination was no longer possible.

Needless to say, the mood on the train was flat as we journeyed back towards London.

The Atomium, one of the best known landmarks in Brussels.

The Atomium, one of the best known landmarks in Brussels.

Cultural heritage in Brussels  

I was planning an art-related visit to Brussels and intended to view a number of the galleries and museums. Due to the threat of terrorism, cultural institutions such as the Musée Magritte Museum and the Bozar, the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, remained closed for several days.

While travelling on 22 March we had little information about the scale of the loss of life or extent of the damage in Brussels. It was, though, apparent that the city’s airport had been badly damaged and Maalbeek Metro station had been attacked.

A Metro station in Brussels.

A Metro station in Brussels.

Prior to choosing to travel by Eurostar I’d looked into the possibility of flying into Brussels Airport on the morning of 22 March. Inevitably, there was an element of “what if?” in my thoughts. Would I be writing this now if I’d chosen to fly that day?

By impacting my travel plans, terrorism has had a direct and negative impact on my life. It has hit my ability to earn a living and also denied an opportunity to experience Europe’s cultural heritage. Thankfully though, I haven’t been maimed by the shrapnel that was packed into the bombs detonated by members of ISIL in Brussels and nobody is grieving for me.

The bombs have not put me off travelling to Belgium. I hope to travel to Brussels at some point in the not-too-distant future to belatedly undertake the trip that was planned.

Buildings on the Grand Place in the heart of the Belgian capital.

Buildings on the Grand Place in the heart of the Belgian capital.

A Belgian response to the Brussels bombs

In the aftermath of the Brussels bombings I contacted Françoise Scheepers, the director of the Belgian Tourist Office in the United Kingdom, to ask how members of the British public responded.

We received many calls on the day of the attack, and we know that several groups cancelled or postponed their trip to a later date, particularly in the school and youth sector. Also the number of information requests has dropped compared to what we normally deal with. However we received many messages of sympathy and support by email, as well as via social media. We found great comfort in this sense of solidarity and compassion,” said Mrs Scheepers.

Steamed mussels - a renowned Belgian delicacy.

Steamed mussels – a renowned Belgian delicacy.

“People were at first completely stunned and saddened by the events, but have now started to get back to their regular lifestyle and their love of all the good things in life, although there is still a need for grieving,” she said three weeks after the attacks.

Unfortunately, tourism to Brussels has been detrimentally impacted by the bombings.

“Hotel bookings and visitor numbers are down. Some restaurants in the city centre have suffered a decrease in turnover as well, although in their case many blame this on the new pedestrianised area, which has considerably reduced the ease of access to their establishment,” commented Mrs Scheepers.

Tourists capturing a photo in Brussels.

Tourists capturing a photo in Brussels.

Nowhere in the world is safe

I asked what she would like to say to people who have cancelled their plans to travel to Belgium due to safety concerns.

“We do understand that, however the federal and local authorities are doing their best to secure the place. Unfortunately nowhere on earth is entirely 100% safe anymore, nowadays. Does this mean we have to be scared of living, of travelling? We think it is still possible to experience our destination, by exploring the less obvious and the less notoriously crowded places, and we are here to help discover such different types of experiences,” responded Mrs Scheepers.

A waffle, one of Belgium's best-loved snacks.

A waffle, one of Belgium’s best-loved snacks.

The director has a number of insider tips for anyone travelling to Brussels over the months ahead: “The brand new MIMA museum, together with the existing ones, like the Magritte Museum, the Bozar. As well as the different districts or “villages of Brussels” as I like to call them, such as Le Chatelain, Saint Boniface-Matongé, Sablons and the Marolles, Flagey and its ponds and farm. They each have their own distinct character and points of interest. Small, tailored visits with an organisation like ARAU are a perfect way to enjoy the city in all its best aspects, and on a very human scale.”

“Belgians will not be any different to the British after the London 2005 attacks: we shall keep calm and carry on,” she added defiantly.

Historic façades in the Brussels, Belgium.

Historic façades in the Brussels, Belgium.

Further information

Discover more reasons to travel to Brussels on the Belgian Tourist Office website.

Find out more about the city on the Visit Brussels website.

See the Eurostar site to plan rail journeys to Brussels.

Dusk on the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.

Dusk on the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.

Julian McDonnell wearing a top hat in London.

An interview with filmmaker Julian McDonnell

Julian McDonnell is the filmmaker behind the JoolzGuides series of videos about London. His work Take Me To Pitcairn has won three awards at tourism film festivals and is screened on Air Tahiti flights. With media commentators emphasising the importance of videos and filmmaking, I interviewed Julian to find out how he got into the business and to gain tips for up-and-coming filmmakers.

“I always wanted to be a TV presenter but struggled to find a way in. People kept telling me I should make a showreel but I thought people would ignore it if it was badly made. I had always enjoyed doing “selfie” films on my travels and used to do silly, ironic pieces to camera just to put on YouTube,” he explains. An inexpensive camcorder and a laptop with video editing software proved his way into the business.

The JoolzGuides London series

“At the moment I’m making a lot of mini videos about London. The aim is to show people that there’s more to London than the snazzy stuff in the guide books. It’s supposed to show you nice places that are right there but you might not necessarily know their significance. They have an element of charm and humour and they are intended to give people a feeling of what experiences are actually like, who you will encounter, how people behave – at the same time as giving a quick history lesson and some trivia which might be useful if you’re ever showing anyone around yourself,” says Julian.

“Someone once said that they are like an old friend or uncle showing you his home town. I genuinely love showing people around London so that should come across in the films. I’m hoping someone will pick up on them and feature them on their site or platform,” he adds.

Take Me To Pitcairn

“I always maintained that if I went to a genuinely mysterious place that people would respond. Not only is the subject irresistible but it is still a very difficult place to reach. More people visited the South Pole in the last year than Pitcairn. The island really is shrouded in mystery and controversy – from the day the first settlers arrived, in 1790 – after the mutiny on the Bounty,” says Julian about the destination of his most successful film.

“It’s hard to make films about places off the beaten track which aren’t overrun with tourists but Pitcairn is really remote. Just 47 people live there now and its history is fascinating: mutiny, adventure, steamy tales of passion and seduction, violence and longing, palm trees, tall ships, sunshine and huge shirts……what’s not to like?”

“Take Me To Pitcairn shows how hard it is to reach Pitcairn even 200 years on and depicts the genuine anguish and gamut of emotions which an unlikely bunch of travellers have to go through to follow their dreams. What is more, it has a strong message of hope and shows how friendships can be made in the oddest of circumstances and how you can do anything you put your mind to. It was a huge undertaking for one person who wasn’t even a film maker at that stage. I’m extremely proud of it,” says Julian about his work.

Julian at work editing a video.

Julian at work editing a video.

Equipment for making travel films

“It seems that every time you get a new piece of equipment it goes out of date and is superseded by something else,” says Julian, half-joking, when I ask him about the kit he uses.

“These days a Canon XA-20 with rode mic and also a Sennheiser Lavalier wireless mic. I edit on my MacBook Pro with Final Cut Pro. It’s useful to have a smaller snaps camera for unexpected events. I have a Canon quick shot G12. If I need more cinematic shots I use a Canon DSLR, but it’s not so good for running around and reporter-style filming, which is what I do a lot of,” he explains.

Advice for aspiring filmmakers

So what key advice does Julian offer newcomers to film making?

“The same advice that I heard Quentin Tarantino offer. The best way of learning how to make a film is to go and make a film. You can be taught a lot of things but there is nothing like the experience of running into certain obstacles. The amount of mistakes I made were of extreme value to me,” he says with frankness.

“Always keep the sound running and the video too if possible. It’s always when you switch off the camera that something amazing happens. It’s not a massive disaster if you don’t capture the video. You can always cheat it as long as you have the audio. I would also recommend, where possible, getting release forms ready to sign, just in case it gets picked up by the BBC and you need to have the right documentation,” he suggests.

“If anyone would like to be involved in making a film with me I’m always up for helpers. If there’s a part of London you particularly like and want to do a film with me about that or anywhere really, let me know,” says Julian.

Further information

View Julian’s London videos via www.JoolzGuides.com or YouTube and keep abreast of news via the JoolzGuides Facebook page. Additionally, his corporate videos can be viewed under www.Joolz.tv.

Watch Take Me To Pitcairn on the film’s website or via YouTube.

Illustrating images supplied courtesy of JoolzGuides,

Julian McDonnell filming on Pitcairn Island.

Julian McDonnell filming on Pitcairn Island.

Sticky toffee pudding served with vanilla ice cream.

The Parcel Yard at King’s Cross station, London

Next time you’re waiting for a train heading north out of London, or for a place to meet with mates after stepping off the train, check out The Parcel Yard in King’s Cross railway station.

It is the biggest station pub in the country and occupies the site once used as the Great Northern Railway’s parcel office. The airy mail rooms opened for business in 1852 as part of Lewis Cubitt’s station design. The location was developed into a pub during recent renovations of King’s Cross, utilising wood and other features from the original building.

Revamping King’s Cross station

Just a few years ago, waiting for a train at King’s Cross was significantly less pleasant than it is today. A handful of fast food outlets and shops opened onto a coldly lit concourse with insufficient seating. Every now and again druggies and drunks would circulate between travellers asking for spare change.

King’s Cross station has long had a pub but the current incarnation is a far more pleasant place to sit and sup a pint than its predecessor. Also, being in The Parcel Yard means waiting away from the draft that can chillily sweep along the concourse, beneath the elegant arch of the criss-cross roof designed by John McAslan.

Thankfully, spending time in the pub also means being well away from the projection of a smiling woman in a collared blue shirt a few paces away from the concourse seating. She stands between a photo booth and escalator running up towards the station’s first floor restaurants.

“Please do not take luggage onto the escalator. Please use the elevators available,” she says between waving, nodding and smiling. She can be irritatingly cheery after you hear her hollow request for the 53rd time; something that takes a mere matter of minutes. Why use a simple, silent sign for that message when you can make things gratingly complex?

Venison pie served with mashed potatoe and vegetables.

Venison pie served with mashed potatoe and vegetables.

Inside The Parcel Yard

The Parcel Yard, meanwhile, has a laid-back vibe. Varnished wood floorboards have a deliberately scuffed appearance, adding to the character of the rooms. Natural light once flooded through the parcel yard’s glass ceiling so that workers below could sort packages. The two upper floors were suspended so that horse-drawn carts could pass through on the ground level unimpeded by columns.

Today the pub has white walls and framed window panes, meaning natural light can still flow into the corridors and rooms. Old-fashioned leather suitcases and travel trunks are a reminder that The Parcel Yard stands in one of the country’s great travel hubs. Look out for framed tickets on the walls, sorting boxes and old railway signage.

Meeting rooms in the pub

The pub is divided into several rooms. They include the Games Room, whose decoration includes a typewriter. Board games and a pinball machine provide ways to while away time prior to a departure.

The Board Room, which is a boardroom style meeting room, has a grand, polished wood table and framed photos capturing moments from lifetimes decades ago. The pictures include an elephant being shoved into a railway carriage.

The Station Master’s Office is a Grade I listed room overlooking platforms 0 to 8 with railway-related artefacts.

Beneath the wooden shelves of the Loft Bar, on the upper level, you can sit at one of the comfy leather sofas. Wood benches run along chunky tables that sometimes see use as informal meeting spaces.

A pub with table service

Waiters take orders and serve food and drink. For single travellers this is a god-send. In so many British pubs bagging a seat at a numbered table is a necessary precursor to placing a food order. Without a companion to watch over baggage while you nip to the bar, you run the risk of losing your table or your belongings. The table service alleviates that concern.

The most expensive dish on the food menu is the eight ounce rib-eye steak served with roasted mushrooms, watercress, chips and a peppercorn sauce (£24.95).

Anyone returning to the United Kingdom after a long trip abroad might be tempted by the fish and chips. The cod is served in batter made with London Pride ale alongside mushy peas and tartare sauce. For people departing the country by train from St Pancras International, this is the last chance to tuck into Britain’s most telling contribution to the world’s fast food culture.

Chocolate brownie served with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate brownie served with vanilla ice cream.

Quality British pub grub

The venison pie (£13.95) is served with rich gravy, chunks of roasted swede, mashed potato and Savoy cabbage. It’s tasty and there’s plenty of meat within the pastry.

The desserts include sticky toffee pudding served with vanilla ice cream (£5.95). The popular British pud is made with vintage ale and deliciously moist. Pleasingly, The Parcel Yard’s take on sticky toffee pudding steers clear of being overly sweet.

The pub’s pear, apple and cinnamon crumble (£5.95) is also worth dipping your spoon in if you enjoy a sweet finish to your meal. It’s served in an antique-style, flat-bottomed iron pan and comes with a jug of custard on the side.

Normally a cup of tea or coffee would be the ideal end to a British meal. The Parcel Yard has both. But with a decent selection of lagers, hand-pulled ales and draft ciders, it takes willpower as robust as the iron pan in which the crumble is served to resist ordering a pint to finish.

Further information

The Parcel Yard (Tel. 020 7713 7258; ) is within London’s King’s Cross Station. It is located beyond the Harry Potter Shop at Platform 9¾.

Crumble served with a pot of custard.

Crumble served with a pot of custard.

Hieronymus Bosch statue

The Netherlands celebrates Hieronymus Bosch

Grotesque demons and visions of paradise feature in artworks by Hieronymus Bosch. Throughout 2016 a series of events is being held in the Netherlands to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death in 1516.

Many of the events in the multi-faceted Jheronimus Bosch 500 programme will take place in the province of North Brabant. Bosch was born in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the provincial capital, in the middle of the fifteen century.

A city with two names

The surname by which we know him is drawn from the city in the south of the country; Dutch people refer to the place informally as Den Bosch. The artist, a member of an established family of painters, spent most of his life in the city, working in a studio on the market square. Even today, an age of malls, the square fills with stalls and bustles with shoppers every Saturday.

Within the Groot Tuighuis, the free-to-visit city archive. It holds exhibits focusing on ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s archaeology and urban history. You can see the City of Bosch exhibition, recreating how the conurbation looked during the artist’s lifetime.

It takes a little over an hour to travel by train from the railway station at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. People in this part of the Netherlands pride themselves on their outgoing manner and passion for good food and drink. They term themselves gezellig, a word that defies precise translation but implies being sociable and warm.

Nights out in Den Bosch tend to have those qualities. The city centre is peppered with restaurants and café-bars that remain open long after midnight. For the duration of 2016 there’s another reason to experience an evening out; the free-to-view Bosch by Night light and sound show.

The 12-minute display features colourful, high-definition images and conveys Hieronymus Bosch’s oeuvre, work that encompasses grotesque imaginary creatures and innocent faced nudes. The images will be projected onto the facades of buildings on the market square.

The Groot Tuighuis in 's-Hertogenbosch.

The Groot Tuighuis in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius

You can view the original works within Het Noordbrabants Museum, where the exhibition Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius runs until 8 May. It’s being viewed as a major national event. The Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander opened the exhibition on 12 February. Nineteen of Bosch’s 20 drawings are being shown and 20 of his paintings are on display, including masterpieces loaned from galleries in Berlin and Vienna, plus the Adoration of the Magi from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is the largest ever exhibition of Bosch’s works.

Notably, The Haywain has returned to the Netherlands for the first time since 1570, when Spain’s King Phillip II acquired it for his art collection. Normally it can be seen in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Like several other Bosch works, The Haywain is a triptych, a three-part altarpiece. Such works were designed to be folded in on themselves, for ease of transport in an era when royals and nobles often had several houses but limited furnishings and fresh food was tricky to move efficiently; they transported their belongings between properties.

Bosch was a respected citizen of Den Bosch and a member of an influential confraternity, the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. His funeral mass was held on 9 August 1516  within city’s St John’s Cathedral, a building that was under construction for the duration of the artist’s life. As part of the Jheronimus Bosch 500 programme the rooftop will be open for visits throughout this year.

The marketplace at 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

The marketplace at ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

Interpreting Hieronymus Bosch’s art

A number of scholars assume his paintings depict the fears and hopes of people of his time. Some suggest he was being critical of society and the priesthood.

Paintings, in the era of mass illiteracy more than half a millennium ago, were deciphered and ‘read’ to unveil moralising stories, often drawing upon widely recognised Biblical themes. Bosch’s paintings also have scurrilous elements that would have engaged and entertained onlookers. As a precursor of artists such as Rembrandt painting themselves into great works such as The Night Watch, Bosch recorded his own thin face in the bottom corner of Saint John on Patmos, which he painted for his confraternity.

Vincent van Gogh, a much later Dutch artist, left a vast body of letters that help us understand his creative thought process and tortured mind. Other than the words Jheronimus Bosch which Bosch signed on just seven of his paintings, nothing penned by Bosch survives. Inevitably, this has led experts to question the provenance of a number of the works attributed to him and to ask whether some were merely painted in his style, by other artists working within in his workshop.

To coincide with the 500th anniversary of his death, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project was established. State-of-the-art analysis has been undertaken on his paintings, including ultra-high resolution digital macrophotography, digital X-radiography and infrared reflectography.

Triptych based on The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Heironymus Bosch by the River Binnendieze in 's-Hertogenbosch.

Triptych based on The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Heironymus Bosch by the River Binnendieze in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

An important discovery

Earlier this year there was a remarkable discovery. Research resulted in the Temptation of Saint Anthony – from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri – being attributed as a work by Bosch himself. It’s also revealed concealed aspects within his works, resulting in a greater understanding of the artist’s techniques.

Bosch was described as the “inventor of monsters and chimeras” in 1560 by Felipe de Guevara in his book on art, Comments on Painting. Several of the grotesque creatures that Bosch painted take on a 3D form by the banks of the city’s Binnendieze river, which you can tour in an open-topped boat. More can be viewed on foot following The Garden of Earthly Delights sculpture trail, named and inspired by one of Bosch’s most influential triptychs.

Copies of all of those works plus a recreation of the artist’s studio are displayed within the former church that’s now the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center. The tower provides fine views over the city and a place to pause and reflect on Bosch’s creations.

Further information

See the Holland website for travel information.

Figure inspired by the work of artist Heironymus Bosch.

Figure inspired by the work of artist Heironymus Bosch.

Horse racing.

The Grand National – a pillar of Britain’s sporting calendar

The horse race we now know as the Crabbie’s Grand National has been a feature of Britain’s sporting calendar since February 1839. The 2016 edition of the race takes place at Aintree Racecourse, on the north-east fringe of Liverpool, on 9 April.

Now run over a course with a length of four miles, three-and-a-half furlongs – that’s around 7.14 kilometres if you think in metric terms – the race is renowned as being something of a lottery. Any of the runners, even rank outsiders, stand a chance of winning.

Lottery, coincidentally, was the name of the first horse to win the event, when the race was still known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.

A race over 30 fences

The jockeys have to ride their mounts over 30 fences in order to complete Aintree’s testing course. Over the 168 editions of the race held prior to 2016 many favourites have been unseated during their quest to reach the finishing post.

In 1928 only two of the 42 runners finished the race with Tipperary Tim, a 100-1 shot, romping home first. Perhaps to compensate for that attrition, a year later 66 horses started the race – the biggest field ever to run in the Grand National.

In contrast to 1928, a record 23 horses and riders completed the race of 1984, with Hello Dandy, ridden by Neale Doughty, winning the race.

Of course, the tickets of many sweepstake participants have been crumpled and tossed aside after horses have tumbled at Aintree’s famous obstacles.

The Chair is the tallest of the fences on the Aintree course, standing five feet two inches high. Becher’s Brook, named after jockey Captain Martin Becher, and Canal Turn are among the other fences, which are made from spruce grown in the Lake District.

A jockey riding a horse to the finish post.

A jockey riding a horse to the finish post.

Europe’s richest jumps race

The 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National has a purse of £1 million, making it Europe’s most valuable horse race over jumps. Aintree’s Grand National meeting and the Cheltenham Festival are traditionally regarded the high points of the National Hunt season.

It’s a handicap race and since 2009 the heaviest weight that can be carried is 11 stone 10 pounds (74.4kg). As part of efforts to improve the safety of the race, the minimum age for participating horses was raised to seven years old in 2011.

Horses galloping during a race.

Horses galloping during a race.

Grand National success stories

Only one horse has ever won the race three times. Red Rum ran to glory in the races of 1973, 1974 and 1977, becoming an equine national celebrity in the process. Three other horses have won back to back nationals.

George Stevens, meanwhile, is the most successful jockey in the history of the Grand National. Stevens won the race five times between 1856 and 1870. The latter mount was on The Colonel, one of the four horses to have won consecutive races.

Back in 1990 the suitably named Mr Frisk covered the course in a record eight minutes 47.8 seconds, more than six minutes quicker than Lottery, the winner of the inaugural race.

Perhaps new names will be written into the history books when the race is run. The 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National is scheduled to start at 5.15pm.

A symbol of Liverpool - The Liver Bird on top of the Liver Building.

A symbol of Liverpool – The Liver Bird on top of the Liver Building.

Getting to Aintree Racecourse

Trains run between the Liverpool Central and Aintree, whose station stands opposite the racecourse. Liverpool Central is a five-minute walk from Liverpool Lime Street station (where you can see a statue of Liverpudlian entertainer Ken Dodd on the concourse).

Further information

The 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National Festival runs from Thursday 7 April until Saturday 9 April. Around 150,000 people attend Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse over the three days of the festival, which this year has a total prize fund of £2.9 million.

See the Visit Liverpool website for inspiration about things to do and see in the city.

For information on attractions in the surrounding countryside see the Visit Lancashire website.

Liverpool's waterfront - the Liver Building stands on Pier Head.

Liverpool’s waterfront – the Liver Building stands on Pier Head.

Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Exploring Britain by rail: Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is a great place to explore over a weekend. Attractions such as the castle, Scottish National Gallery and Arthur’s Seat make it a destination that warrants returning to time and again. If sightseeing sounds too strenuous, the city’s numerous bars and restaurants mean you can simply unwind and graze your way around the Scottish capital.

All aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia is permanently moored at Edinburgh’s Leith Docks, a 15-minute bus ride from Princes Street. The ship sailed more than a million miles while in service, from 1953 to 1997, yet the engine room’s fittings gleam like it was recently launched.

Boarding the well-maintained vessel gives you a chance to view the royal bedrooms, the formal dining room plus the offices where Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip worked. The audio guide provides insights into royal life on the Britannia.

The informative tour also conveys what being a member of the crew entailed, giving you a chance to see the rooms where the officers and crew worked, slept and relaxed.

The Royal Yacht Britannia.

The Royal Yacht Britannia.

Panda watching at Edinburgh Zoo

Red deer, red squirrels and golden eagles are among the wild animals that draw people to rural Scotland. At Edinburgh Zoo (134 Corstorphine Road; tel. 0131 3349171) it’s the pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, that pull the crowds. To save time at the entrance, pre-book tickets and a time slot for viewing the pandas. The chimpanzees, at the Budongo Trail attraction, are another reason to visit.

Of course, many people question the ethics of keeping animals in enclosures but the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland undertakes important research and educational activities and visiting Edinburgh Zoo helps support that work.

Yang Guang, the male panda, at Edinburgh Zoo.

Yang Guang, the male panda, at Edinburgh Zoo.

The Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Scotland is all about whisky, right? Not any more. The resurgence of gin drinking has resulted in the establishment of the Edinburgh Gin Distillery (1a Rutland Place; tel. 0131 6562810) where two stills, Flora and Caledonia, can often be seen at work.

The distillery’s Gin Connoisseur Tour entails a potted history of the production of gin, a look at the stills plus an opportunity to sample a generous cross-section of the company’s products.

Get your weekend off to a flyer by visiting Heads and Tales bar, also on the premises. The dapper mixologists serve a selection of potent gin-based cocktails.

Ideas and recommendations

Time to eat

Tuck into Scottish cuisine at the Printing Press Bar and Kitchen (21-25 George Street; tel. 0131 2407177), part of the George Hotel. The high-ceilinged dining room has a refined look, thanks to leather-backed seats and dark wood panelling. The menu changes according to the season. Dishes such as fish and chips plus mince and tatties feature as mains. If you get a chance, try the side dish of wilted greens with garlic – it’s delicious.

Take something home

If you enjoy shopping don’t miss the opportunity to explore Jenners (48 Princes Street) while you’re in Edinburgh. The department store was founded in 1838 and sells a wide range of items, including perfumes and clothing plus high-quality Scottish food and drink. Pick up a haggis, a tin of shortcake or jar or marmalade infused with whisky to take home from your visit to the Scottish capital.

Jenners department store on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Jenners department store on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Quirky but interesting

The Georgian buildings of the Royal Mile are built on top of far older dwellings. Ravaged by plague and poor sanitation, the tenements and narrow lanes of Old Town were abandoned in the 1600s. Rather than demolishing the buildings, the streets were simply walled up and built over. In part, this accounts for the slope and steep sides of the Royal Mile.

Remarkably, a number of well-preserved buildings can still be seen beneath the Royal Mile. You can stroll along streets that have not been warmed by sunshine for centuries during hour-long tours of the Real Mary King’s Close (2 Warriston’s Close; tel. 0131 2250672). Costume-wearing guides, playing roles of characters who knew the streets centuries ago, lead visitors into several of the long-abandoned homes and convey how life was in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Time for a coffee

Take your pick from Edinburgh’s many tea rooms and cafes. There’s a good number to choose from around the Grassmarket, including Café Jacques (10 Grassmarket; 0131 2205358). Sit by the window for a spot of people watching while sipping a cup of rich-tasting roast coffee. If your legs are heavy after hours of sightseeing boost your energy levels with a slice of home-style cake. The carrot cake is deliciously moist and well presented.

Coffee & a slice of carrot cake.

Coffee & a slice of carrot cake.

It’s beer o’clock

Enjoy a pint in the chic surroundings of The Dome (14 George Street; tel: 0131 6248624). It’s hard not to be impressed by the glass cupola, ornate plasterwork and veined marble columns of this elegant bar-restaurant.

The building, once the headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, dates from the 1840s and has an elegant feel. Look out for the floor mosaics with Latin mottos. The serving staff wear bow ties and it’s easy to imagine you’ve been swept back to the 1920s while supping here.

If you’re keen to impress someone special, consider reserving a table in the Georgian Tea Room for Champagne Afternoon Tea (served from 11am to 5pm).

Getting to Edinburgh

Virgin Trains East Coast provides rail connections between Edinburgh and other British cities. Journeys to and from Newcastle-upon-Tyne take around 90 minutes. Trips to or from London take from four hours 21 minutes.

Where to stay in Edinburgh

Enjoy design hotels but don’t want to spend a fortune? Book to stay in the Hub by Premier Inn – Royal Mile hotel (37 East Market Street; tel. 0333 3213104).

The official opening of the hotel was in March 2016. The reception staff are friendly and very helpful. The hotel has a hip, modern look and feel. It makes good use of technology and there’s a downloadable app via which you can control the lighting, air-conditioning and television settings. The TV has a selection of movies on demand, for which there’s no extra charge.

Impressively, the Edinburgh map on the wall above beds can be read by the app, revealing attractions plus places to eat and drink.

Unlike many British hotels, the guestrooms don’t have kettles. Instead, coffee and tea are available, free-of-charge, from the deli, where a selection of snacks and alcoholic drinks are also available.

Further information

Find out more about the Scottish capital on the This is Edinburgh and Visit Scotland websites.

Edinburgh at sunset.

Edinburgh at sunset.